William Henry Willshire

William Henry Willshire (NT)

William Henry Willshire, the son of James Doughty Willshire and Emily Elizabeth, nee Schlenkrich, was born on 5 March 1852. He joined the South Australian police force on 1 January 1878. His first posting was to Mount Barker in the Adelaide Hills. Like many of the young recruits of that time he liked a posting in the country, somewhere up north where there was more action. During 1881 he did get a posting to Melrose in the Flinders Ranges and on 18 October was at Willowie assisting with the inquest into the death of Wilhelm Frederick Richt.

In August 1882 his wish came true with a posting to Alice Springs. While in Alice Springs he visited Chambers Pillar and carved his name on it. After some settling in at the station and regular mundane jobs he got his first major punitive expedition against Aboriginal cattle stealers and killers in August and September of 1884. This action resulted in four Aborigines being killed. During this time he also became aware of plans to form a Native Police force and he lost no time in telling his superiors that he was the ideal man for the job. On 12 November 1884 Willshire was informed that his application had been successful and that he was appointed Officer in Charge of the Native Police.

For some time he was assisted by Mounted Constable Erwein Wurmbrand. When both constables had to leave the station, MC Dear from Charlotte Waters was called in to replace them and man the post in Alice Springs. Willshire and his Native Police, or black trackers, operated ruthlessly against the Aborigines and before the end of the year more than a dozen had been killed. To be even more effective Willshire and Wurmbrand moved their camp to Heavitree Gap in early 1886.

The missionaries of the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission were not impressed with the behaviour of the Native Police and its Officer in Charge, William Willshire. Reverend Kempe complained many times about the police who often killed Aborigines when they tried to escape and not even bothered to bury them. Needless to say that Willshire had a great dislike of missionaries, equalled by his dislike for half-castes. He believed strongly in 'dispersing the native' which according to Inspector Foelsche meant, shooting them.

After some of the problems had raised enough concern in Adelaide the Native Police was reorganised and became known as the Interior Police Patrol. On 1 January 1889 Willshire was again appointed Officer in Charge and decided to move his camp to Boggy Waterhole, about 120 km west of Alice Springs.

Although Willshire was not a very good 'report writer' to inform his superiors, or anyone else who needed information, he managed to write, and publish his first book in 1888. It was called, The Aborigines of Central Australia. In its appendix he offered a detailed account of the 1874 attack on Barrow Creek, compiled from information supplied by Samuel Gason. It created enough interest for him to republish it in 1891.

Willshire saw himself as a Native Australian and was a member of the Australian Native Association. His second book, A Thrilling Tale of Real Life in the Wilds of Australia was published in 1895. By now it was clear to most people that he had a dislike of missionaries as they complained too often about his work. Actually, there was a strong dislike on both sides. Their allegations against each other even made the headlines in England.

By 1890 there was once again enough concern about Willshire's methods, and his treatment of Aborigines, that a Commission of Inquiry was appointed to investigate the whole matter and all allegations. Its report, The Finke River Mission Inquiry, was presented to parliament in September 1890. Having considered it carefully, it was decided that Willshire should be arrested and face trial. He was arrested by MC William Garnett South, taken to Port Augusta Gaol and on 14 May charged with the murder of 2 Aboriginal men.

The papers had a field day. They printed articles and letters about the whole affair with most of them supporting Willshire and about 2.000 was raised for his defence. He was defended by Sir John Downer, who had entered politics in 1878, become Attorney-General in 1881 and had been Premier of South Australia from 1885-1887. Willshire's trial started on 23 July 1891 and finished that same day. After a 15 minute deliberation by the jury Willshire was declared NOT GUILTY.

Willshire was reinstated immediately, but not to his old position. This time he was posted to Innamincka, followed a year later by transfers to Port Augusta and Port Pirie. As there was very little action associated with his duties he tried very hard to get back to the Northern Territory. Early in 1893 he was successful with a posting to Elsie River.

In May 1894 he was transferred to Gordon Creek, about 30 km from VRD where for the next 18 months he kept himself busy with tracking and apprehending cattle stealers and killers. During this time he was particularly impressed with the physical appearance of the local natives, which were the healthiest he had ever seen. They were free from all diseases, had no running sores but were clean and had glossy and smooth skins.

At another time though he wrote 'the carbines at this critical moment were talking English... and that was largely how justice was handled in the 1890'. Early in 1895 he approached Inspector Foelsche in Darwin for a transfer down south. This was granted and sometime later he was posted to Port Augusta, which he found rather disappointing as he had hoped that it would be Adelaide. By December of 1895 he was transferred to Port Lincoln. Here, at the age of 44, he married Ellen Sarah Howell and they had eventually 3 children. Their first daughter was named Victoria River.

During all this moving from one station to another he had still managed to complete his third book, The Land of the Dawning, Facts Gleaned from Cannibals in the Australian Stone Age. It was published in 1896. In 1904 Willshire was promoted to Senior Constable and transferred to Marree where he served from 22 April 1905 until 27 July 1906.

While stationed at Warooka on Yorke Peninsula in 1907 Willshire applied for the position of Protector of Aborigines. When he was unsuccessful he resigned from the force and moved to Adelaide. He now gained a private job as nightwatchman at the Abattoirs where he worked for several years. He died on 30 August 1925 at the age of 73. He was buried at St Mary's Anglican Church Cemetery on South Road.

Streets in Canberra, Darwin and Alice Springs have been named after him.

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