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Story: Broham, Thomas

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Broham, Thomas


Police officer

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

Thomas Broham is said to have been born on 20 July 1840 into a Roman Catholic family in County Limerick, Ireland, the son of Bridget Corney and her husband, William Broham, a farmer. After a good education he emigrated to Victoria, Australia, where in March 1859 he joined the renowned police force of Victoria. Although he was not considered to be very zealous, the red-haired constable's duties on the goldfields were to help launch his police career in New Zealand.

In February 1863 Broham moved across the Tasman to chance his luck on the Otago diggings. On 20 August he joined the Canterbury Province Armed Police Force. Under Commissioner R. C. Shearman this force was adopting the coercive modes of policing which had been borrowed and adapted by the Victorian police from the Irish Constabulary. One of the few Canterbury men of Victorian experience, Broham rose rapidly and became a third class sergeant in April 1864.

'Victorianisation' of Canterbury's police had been implemented in expectation of the discovery of gold in the province. As the Otago experience had shown, the social turbulence of the diggings demanded strong coercive regulation by the state. When gold was discovered in the west coast region of Canterbury, Broham was promoted to second class sergeant and placed in charge of the inaugural police expedition to the West Coast. His task was to assess the potential of the diggings and to report on every subject, as well as to police the new goldfields with the aid of a single constable. They left Christchurch on 10 August 1864, with a tent and revolver apiece.

In the execution of his duties Broham came into conflict with the provincial government agent on the West Coast, W. H. Revell, a former police officer driven from the force by Shearman. Broham chose to obey the commissioner's orders, as required by the Victorian hierarchical system, rather than Revell's. He was reprimanded by the government, but the incident endeared him the more to Shearman. Late in 1864, when it was clear that the goldfields were large enough to rival Otago's, the intelligence Broham had displayed in his difficult job was rewarded by his promotion to first class sergeant. He helped Revell to lay out the administrative centre of the goldfields at Hokitika, and established a police camp there, as headquarters for the West Canterbury District Police.

Broham's three-man detachment was joined by sizeable reinforcements early in 1865, as thousands of young, rootless diggers surged into the West Coast. On 1 March Broham was promoted to third class inspector, and on 5 March the region was designated an official goldfield. The goldfields commissioner, George 'King' Sale, and his goldfields wardens were often embroiled in demarcation disputes with Broham and his men. Despite strong backing from Shearman, Broham was able to win only a few concessions, and a frustrating regime of dual control of policing existed. But even with resources which he considered inadequate, Broham succeeded in maintaining a reasonable degree of order and regularity, and in keeping serious crime to a minimum, among thousands of men whose main form of relaxation was to drink and brawl. He was quickly rewarded by elevation to first class inspector. The secret of his success lay in his rigid application of the paramilitary mode of policing. With the help of his non-commissioned officers, the best of whom were rewarded with rapid promotion, Broham exercised tight discipline over his constables. In turn, the West Canterbury police used patrols and other surveillance techniques over the populace, to maintain a degree of control which was heavy by goldfields standards.

Like the miners, the West Coast police suffered exceedingly difficult and unpleasant living and working conditions. Subjected to infestations of insects, heavy and prolonged rain, primitive transport and communications, and scarcity of supplies, Broham was still living in a tent well over a year after his arrival. He would be first on the spot at the frequent new rushes, enduring great privation, and encountered health problems which were to remain with him in later life.

Late in 1865 Broham gained a commissioned officer, Inspector W. H. James, to relieve him of some of his duties. In 1866 the goldfields were home to 30,000 people, and Broham was hard pressed to cope. Although his force grew to 54, it was difficult to get the quality he required. Moreover, the criminals Richard Burgess and Thomas Kelly had at least one accomplice inside Hokitika's police detachment, enabling them to burgle even the police camp with impunity.

On 1 January 1868 West Canterbury separated from its parent province to become the County of Westland, and Inspector Broham headed its police force. After a decline in the goldfields economy, the West Canterbury police had been subjected to expenditure cuts, and Broham had now to implement further retrenchment measures. A number of staff complained to the county politicians about Broham's harsh regimen. A series of grievances marked his tenure as head of the Westland force, and sometimes the submissions were found to have substance.

In 1868 the threat of civil disruption in Westland, resulting from tension between Irish Fenians and their opponents, heightened following the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs in England. A commemorative funeral procession in Hokitika threatened to lead to a disturbance, and Broham's police force was augmented by special constables and an Armed Constabulary detachment from the North Island, but mass disorder did not eventuate.

In 1870, when the police force of Auckland province was absorbed by the Armed Constabulary, its commissioner, St John Branigan, selected Broham to head the Auckland district and whip the constables and non-commissioned officers inherited from the provincial force into paramilitary shape. Broham entered the Armed Constabulary on 16 April and waited in Wellington while the Auckland police commissioner, James Naughton, was manoeuvred aside. Taking control in June, Inspector Broham began to ease out inefficient men carried over from provincial days. His actions, and Naughton's removal, caused considerable resentment, and a campaign for a return to an autonomous provincial force plagued his incumbency.

In early 1872 an arsonist was operating in Auckland. When haystacks were spotted burning near Onehunga, police converged on the scene. The culprit was Cyrus Haley, who was returning from attempting to murder Thomas Russell, Auckland businessman and former politician. By chance it was Broham who intercepted the fleeing arsonist and subdued him with his riding whip. The inspector was handsomely rewarded, and fêted far and wide. Opposition to him personally, if not to his force, faded.

While in Auckland Broham publicly expressed his opinions on a variety of topics concerning criminality and policing. He became a significant public figure and in 1875 made a serious but unsuccessful bid to become commissioner of the Armed Constabulary on the abolition of the provinces. When the constabulary absorbed the remaining provincial forces in 1877, Broham was sent to take charge of the Canterbury district of the police branch of the New Zealand Constabulary Force. The title of superintendent was added to that of inspector. In 1880 economic depression led to retrenchment in the police branch. Half the colony's officers were discharged or reduced in rank, but Broham lost only some salary and his superintendent's status in 1881. He became increasingly outspoken in his criticism of deteriorating policing standards and political interference.

On 7 February 1881 at St Mary's Church, New Plymouth, Broham married Helen Romaine Govett, the daughter of Archdeacon Henry Govett. In October 1882 he was transferred to South Canterbury, an implicit downgrading of his status. His outspokenness had cost him dear. However, in March 1888 he was transferred back to an enlarged Auckland district, and in 1890 he became the most senior career policeman in New Zealand. The New Zealand Police Force had been established in 1886, and Broham was not in empathy with the new, more benign, modes of police discipline and policing procedures which accompanied this development. He insisted that 'too much consideration has been shown to the Constables here' and attempted to rearm sections of his membership. Broham was accused of 'tyrannical and most unjust actions', and revealed himself to be biased against the organised labour movement.

In early 1893 Broham was transferred back to Christchurch where he took charge of the Canterbury–North Otago district. He increasingly showed himself to be out of tune with the times. Staff resented his violent temper and rigid application of petty regulations, and his harsh regime proved to be counter-productive. In 1898 the Royal Commission on the Police Force criticised his effectiveness and recommended that Broham's attention be called to 'the necessity for more personal energy in the supervision of the men under his charge'. Broham felt compelled to submit his resignation, but withdrew it after public agitation to retain him. Commissioner J. B. Tunbridge assessed him as 'mentally and bodily vigorous…equal to several years more service', and cabinet agreed to keep him on.

But in reality he was a broken man, and soon requested to retire as medically unfit. He left the police force on 28 February 1900, and set off for a recuperative overseas trip. While visiting Rome he died of pneumonia, on either 20 or 29 December 1900. The last few years had been an ignominious end to the career of one of the most famous and important New Zealand policemen of the nineteenth century.

How to cite this page:

Richard S. Hill. 'Broham, Thomas', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1b34/broham-thomas (accessed 26 June 2024)