Story: Farrell, James

Page 1: Biography

Farrell, James

1829/1830?–?

Policeman

This biography, written by David Green, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

James Farrell was born in Ireland, probably in 1829 or 1830. Nothing is known of his parentage, schooling or early life. After serving 12 years in the Irish Constabulary, he emigrated to Australia where he spent three years in the Victorian police. Here, characteristically, although 'a steady and active constable…a want of proper discretion…occasionally got him into difficulties.'

In March 1863 Farrell followed many of his colleagues into St John Branigan's provincial police force in Otago, New Zealand. On 25 June at Dunedin he married Bridget (Delia) Megley. By November 1864 he had risen to first class detective, equivalent in rank to first class sergeant. Farrell conducted surveillance over goldminers and other workers throughout the turbulent 1860s, and during his 12 years in the force received 13 mentions for meritorious conduct and five entries on his defaulters' sheet. In 1867, found guilty of wrongful arrest, he escaped with a severe reprimand only because of his 'former excellent conduct'. In 1871 he headed Dunedin police who memorialised against a pay reduction caused by declining provincial revenue. When the pay cuts went ahead anyway, a threat to resign en masse proved hollow because little alternative work was available.

In 1870 Farrell discovered that his wife was having an affair with his friend and colleague Sergeant Thomas Ryan, whom he warned off. Ryan was subsequently transferred, but returned to Dunedin after his discharge from the force in mid 1872. On the night of 4 January 1873 Farrell was shot several times near his home by a man he recognised as Ryan. Amid enormous publicity Ryan was tried twice for attempted murder. Farrell owned property, and had received a good salary and both official and unofficial perquisites during his detective career: Bridget Farrell would have been a well-off widow. After Ryan's eventual acquittal – he was later dubiously acquitted of a murder on the West Coast – the unhinged Farrell sought revenge by arresting his rival on a firearms charge for which there was little evidence.

In July 1873 Otago's police superintendent, T. K. Weldon, attempted to dismiss Farrell for 'stupidity or indiscretion', which 'so characterises [his] general conduct that it…almost assumes the nature of a vice'. Juries were becoming reluctant to believe his evidence; he was now a 'non-success as a Detective'. The provincial government, fearing a backlash of public sympathy, would permit only his exile to Lawrence as a uniform sergeant. By early 1875, suffering from 'nervous debility', Farrell was an embarrassment to the force, having committed the offences, among others, of 'gambling in the presence of constables, picking on subordinates, withholding information on larcenies, and…allowing himself while in uniform to be beaten by an old woman with a decayed fowl'. At last required to resign, he nevertheless received the normal retirement allowance.

Within six months Farrell had been appointed the first full-time specialist detective in the Wellington provincial police. This was despite the fact that Inspector Frederick Atchison knew that he had 'gone crooked'; he was considered mentally unbalanced by the Otago authorities, and had been rejected by the Canterbury police. He was employed for his toughness and ability to get results, and was soon a detective sergeant. At the time he became Wellington's second most senior policeman he was in trouble for a wrongful arrest and for the 'absolute fraud and trickery' which had caused a libel case to be thrown out of court. Farrell was accused of having 'acted on behalf of one party to entrap the other, as if he were a private detective'.

By 1878 Farrell had fallen out with Atchison, who accused him before the Gaols Committee of the House of Representatives of acting as a go-between for a thief and his victim, accepting private reward money, and leaking information about police malpractice which had precipitated an inquiry. Never one to be outdone, Farrell in turn accused the inspector of taking bribes, lying, pocketing reward money he was not entitled to, and of belonging – in flagrant violation of police regulations – to the 'Pier Hotel gang', a gambling and drinking school of local luminaries.

It was no surprise when Farrell was transferred and became a detective at the tough goldmining centre of Thames. In June 1882 he was forced to resign from the New Zealand Constabulary Force after being convicted of a 'most serious assault' on a bushman, to whom he had administered an 'unmerciful beating'. Even then, Parliament's Public Petitions Committee favoured his reinstatement or alternative employment in the civil service, but the minister for defence, John Bryce, was scandalised by his conduct and no form of compensation was forthcoming. Farrell did have the satisfaction of seeing his latest bête noire, Sergeant Thomas O'Grady, transferred to Greymouth after Farrell had preferred 21 charges against him, the most serious of which was attempted rape. Farrell himself was last heard of as a member of Fiji's police force in 1883.

How to cite this page:

David Green. 'Farrell, James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2f2/farrell-james (accessed 18 September 2021)