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Story: Branigan, St John

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Branigan, St John


Police commissioner

This biography, written by Richard S. Hill, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

St John Branigan was born probably in 1823 or 1824 into a humble Catholic family in King's County, Ireland. He joined the 45th (1st Nottinghamshire) Regiment, which was sent to Cape Colony in 1845. Anticipating more rapid advancement, he entered the Cape police and saw active service during frontier warfare. He was wounded and decorated for gallantry. Though at 5 feet 8 inches he was shorter than most policemen, his efficiency ensured a rapid rise to the commissioned rank of inspector. On 24 April 1851 he married 20-year-old Margaret Elizabeth Hudd in the Cathedral Church, Cape Town.

On hearing in 1853 that goods were in short supply on the Victorian goldfields, he spent all his savings and sailed to Melbourne, Australia, with a schooner full of merchandise. The venture failed and he joined the Victorian police in November 1854. To cope with the social turbulence generated by the goldrushes, the colony's police had been centralised and reorganised to combine the paramilitary policing modes of the London Metropolitan Police Force and the Irish Constabulary. In 1856 Branigan had attained commissioned officer rank in this renowned police force.

Fearing local gold discoveries would lead to social unrest, in April 1861 the Otago provincial executive, persuaded by Superintendent J. L. C. Richardson, decided to adopt Victorian methods of policing. William Fenwick, a provincial councillor, negotiated for the transfer of a senior Victorian policeman to transform Chief Constable John Shepherd's small force into an armed and disciplined constabulary. Thanks to recent retrenchment in the Victorian force, Sub-Inspector Branigan was at the bottom of the seniority list of commissioned officers and had no secure future. Chief Commissioner Frederick Standish was willing to release him and thereby rid himself of a man of such forceful personality, while acknowledging that Branigan was 'one of our best and most efficient officers'. With the opening of the Tuapeka goldfields in July 1861 a firm offer was made by the Otago provincial government and Branigan accepted the position in charge of its police.

Branigan, his family, and several other Victorian policemen arrived in Dunedin on the Oscar late in August 1861. The influx of diggers had increased so alarmingly that Richardson had been given discretionary powers for the maintenance of social order. While awaiting the arrival of reinforcements from Melbourne, Branigan swept aside Shepherd's emergency provisions, determined to replicate the essential features of the Victorian urban and rural patrol police. The Otago provincial government gave Branigan so much latitude that soon up to half the provincial expenditure was being put into the establishment of the new policing regime.

With the aid of increased numbers of constables from Victoria, Branigan established a London-style beat surveillance system in urban areas, and mobile patrols in the rural districts. Often mounted, the latter were similar to those of the Irish and Victorian constabularies. Imposing escort parties brought the gold to the provincial capital. Despite disquiet among the province's 'old identities' about both the challenge of the goldfields and the state's coercive response, the provincial government considered Branigan indispensable. As early as 9 September his salary was raised from £300 to £400 and his rank elevated to that of commissioner, both backdated to 20 August, the day he had left Melbourne.

Specialist aspects of policing were soon incorporated into Branigan's preventive patrol network: detection, part-time employment of 'female searchers' at lock-ups, a water police, and the publication of the colony's first Police Gazette. Strict internal discipline prevailed, and all important information gathered by the police in the course of their surveillance of the populace reached the commissioner. Branigan frequently made spot checks on police stations to examine their degree of efficiency, embarked on strenuous tours of inspection, haunted the docks for recruits among new immigrants, and reported daily to his political masters.

By April 1862 the commissioner had permission to increase his force to over 100, making it the largest in the colony. Sophisticated control mechanisms were in place before the Dunstan and Lake Wakatipu goldrushes occurred in the second half of 1862; Branigan was allowed to double his constabulary. With the magnitude of the new diggings assuring him of a firm future as head of police in Otago, he resigned from the Victorian force on 29 August 1862 at the end of his unpaid leave.

Within a year Branigan's fame had become legendary; his force, popularly known as 'Branigan's Troopers', was 'universally admitted to be one of the best, not only in these Colonies, but in the world'. It was often said that the 'orderly state' of the Otago region compared to goldfields and their hinterlands in other countries, was largely due to his 'able superintendence' of the force which he had brought to such a 'pitch of excellence'. A key town on the gold escort route to the Wakatipu fields was named St John's (later renamed Kingston) after him.

The high profile of his smartly uniformed and heavily armed men manifested the coercive power of the state, and a flamboyant style heightened the renown of the man at their head. After a small dog had persistently disrupted the dignity of the treasury wagon's entrance to Dunedin by frightening the troopers' horses, Branigan took direct action by joining the procession. On the dog's approach he calmly unsheathed his sword, lopped off its head, and continued majestically on his way as the decapitated body ran on into a fence.

In such turbulent times failures and scandals among the police were inevitable. Branigan's role in the case of the miner Job Johnson demonstrated his ruthless single-mindedness. Johnson was arrested for murder early in 1863, and in spite of witnesses providing a watertight alibi for him at the lower court hearings, the police pressed ahead with a trial, refusing, despite repeated requests from newspapers and delegations, to investigate his claim that he had been a hundred miles away at the time of the crime. Only when Queenstown's resident magistrate, John Nugent Wood, testified that Johnson had been serving on his coroner's jury when the murder occurred, was the accused, bankrupted and broken in health by his incarceration, set free. The commissioner's attitude, Wood recalled, was that 'his prey had been taken away from him', and Branigan never spoke to the magistrate again.

After the initial 'emergency' was over, the imposition of financial constraints upon policing meant that the ambitious and abrasive Branigan was soon at odds with the province's politicians. His stratagems included political plotting and the deliberate exaggeration of the number of hard-core criminals arriving from Australia. When gold output declined and further retrenchment was imposed in 1864, the struggle intensified. Branigan sought to minimise and delay the impact of spending cuts on his force. Despite an initial reduction to fewer than 100 men, numbers had not fallen below 80 by the end of 1867. It was still the most formidable provincial force in New Zealand.

Branigan had become one of the most powerful and influential figures in Otago. A man of 'gentlemanly conduct and urbanity', he served on a host of committees, including the commission established to investigate the administration of the province's goldfields. To prevent the social reproduction of crime, he worked to remove vagrant, destitute and orphaned children from the streets and from 'utterly profligate and degraded parents'. In 1866 he recommended the establishment of a residential industrial school and reformatory for the 'education and training of vagrant and neglected children'; the Otago Industrial School, the first in the colony, was established at Lookout Point at Caversham the following year. Branigan framed its regulations, superintended it as inspector, and visited it almost daily, 'labouring earnestly and unremittingly on its behalf'. During his period in Dunedin two of his own children died.

In 1867 the general government established the Armed Constabulary, its own police force, to occupy North Island regions where insurrectionist Māori had been defeated in recent warfare. In 1868 it had quickly evolved into a military force but by the time William Fox's ministry came into office in June 1869 the backbone of the 'new rebellions' was believed to have been broken. Branigan was brought to Wellington to advise on how to 'demilitarise' the constabulary and his plan so impressed Fox and Defence Minister Donald McLean that he was given the task of implementing it. Although he remained notionally commissioner of Otago Police until 18 October, by then he was well ensconced as commissioner in charge of the Armed Constabulary. This appointment, with its enormous salary of £700 plus expenses, was backdated to 28 August.

The 'great demilitariser' threw his boundless energy into converting the army of 'ragged and war-worn soldiers' into a 'small but highly trained Force' of disciplined police. He toured the North Island inspecting units and weeding out 'worthless' men, and as acting under secretary of defence he reorganised New Zealand's internal defence system. The commissioner set up a training depot at Mount Cook in Wellington, and men of 'good education and good position' were soon replacing the many hundreds discharged. As in Otago, promotion was on merit with no direct entry to the higher ranks although southern colleagues acquired key positions in the new organisation. J. B. Thomson, who had been his chief detective in Otago, set up a North Island detection service, which concentrated on the illegal arms trade with Māori.

Turning soldiers into 'demilitariseds' was a controversial decision. Opponents, including the Armed Constabulary's deposed leader, Lieutenant Colonel G. S. Whitmore, ridiculed the process. What good were 'clean boots, brushed jackets and neat uniform clothing' against recalcitrant Māori in the North Island bush? How would they capture Te Kooti, who still eluded all pursuers? There was some truth in such criticism. When Branigan turned up at Whakatane, which Te Kooti was quite likely to attack, he objected to the way the armed constables kept 'rust from the rifles by a liberal use of grease and oil'. They were living in damp tents and building a fort in swampy terrain and wet weather, and in fact were acting with military efficiency. But they did not look like Otago policemen.

Premier William Fox's demilitarisation programme proposed that the reorganised constabulary would gradually take over policing in the provinces. This was negotiated for Auckland province in 1870, but in a way which – Branigan felt – allowed the provincial politicians too many powers over police matters. The arrangement gave the commissioner and his Auckland inspector, Thomas Broham, many a headache. So too did the calibre of constables inherited from the provincial police, and a campaign of vituperation pursued by leading Aucklanders (including the deposed head of police) who opposed the loss of full regional control of the means of coercion.

The strenuous task of halving the Armed Constabulary to 1,000 men by the end of 1869, a continuing opposition to demilitarisation from within the force, adverse publicity, and the physical hardship of travel to remote outposts, all greatly affected Branigan's mental health. His irritable, quarrelsome and autocratic nature, and 'peculiarities' of temperament, had been noted in his Otago days: those characteristics now intensified. On 12 January 1871 Auckland provincial councillors began a determined struggle to regain policing autonomy which placed even greater strain upon the commissioner.

Later that month Branigan rode out to Onehunga to meet a group of recruits for the constabulary. He fell ill with what was said to be 'severe sunstroke'. After the spread of rumours, the government admitted that Branigan's 'mind was completely overthrown' and, being prone to attack people viciously, he was locked up in the Auckland Lunatic Asylum. As he was seen to have fallen 'a victim to his zeal in the public service' he was given a year's leave of absence on full pay from the day of his 'sad breakdown'. A transfer to Wellington did not effect a recovery; on the contrary, he was reportedly 'as mad as a hatter', and so in May he was committed to the Dunedin aslyum under the Lunacy Act, and his successor as commissioner confirmed in office.

On the initiative of Julius Vogel, a friend from Otago days, a Branigan Allowance Act was passed in 1871. £1,200 was invested by the trustees, providing a modest income for his wife, 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old twin sons. Branigan continued to deteriorate mentally and physically, and from April 1872 was under constant and severe restraint. Eventually he was permanently bedridden and 'had to be attended to as a child'. He died on 11 September 1873 from, in the words of coroner T. M. Hocken, 'softening of the brain'.

Inmates from the industrial school attended his funeral, and all Dunedin's shops and businesses closed for the paramilitary ceremony. Otago and Armed Constabulary police collected funds for a 24-foot-high monument, on which police accoutrements, including an unsheathed sword, were carved. His wife died on 29 April 1876 and was buried beside him in the Southern Cemetery.

Branigan was the most influential policing official in nineteenth century New Zealand, providing in less than 10 years precisely the type of police organisation needed in the colony. His fame and his system transcended his ignominious end.

How to cite this page:

Richard S. Hill. 'Branigan, St John', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1b29/branigan-st-john (accessed 22 July 2024)