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Story: Tunbridge, John Bennett

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Tunbridge, John Bennett


Police commissioner

This biography, written by Richard S. Hill, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993. It was updated in June, 2017.

John Bennett Tunbridge was born in New Romney, Kent, England, on 17 November 1850, the illegitimate son of Mary Tunbridge, who married William Bennett Apps in 1857. On the occasion of his marriage, Tunbridge named his father as Benjamin Tunbridge, a servant. He joined the London Metropolitan Police in 1867, resigned in 1868, and rejoined in 1869. He was promoted sergeant in the uniformed police in 1873 and inspector in 1878. From 1881 he served in the detective police, working in the commissioner's office from 1887. After moving through the ranks of the inspectorate in the Criminal Investigation Department, he was promoted chief inspector in 1894. He retired from New Scotland Yard in September 1895 with an 'exemplary' certificate and a large annual pension, and went to live in Hythe, Kent. Tunbridge had married Ellen Maria Hatch on 17 November 1877 at Roxeth, Middlesex.

By the time of Tunbridge's retirement from the Metropolitan Police, there were widespread allegations of corruption, inefficiency and political intervention in the New Zealand Police Force. This prompted the New Zealand government in 1897 to seek out a senior overseas policeman who was experienced in all facets of policing and who would be able to reform the force. While in London for Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee celebrations, Premier Richard Seddon asked the advice of Sir Edward Bradford, chief commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police. The latter, in consultation with the Criminal Investigation Department chief, advised him to select Tunbridge, who was not only a 'famous London detective' but had also travelled widely in the colonies on police business. Tunbridge agreed to the proposition and quickly sailed for New Zealand with his wife, Ellen, and daughter. Many New Zealand police welcomed the appointment in October 1897 of the first professional policeman to head the force.

The government stated that it would give him a 'free hand' to reform the force, and he began improvements at once, focusing on the crucial role of non-commissioned officers – the 'backbone' of the organisation. In 1898 he accompanied around New Zealand a royal commission inquiring into the police, learning about the work and quality of his subordinates and contributing ideas on reform. After the commission reported, along lines which accorded with his own views, he had a mandate for sweeping changes. Among these were the establishment of a training depot in Wellington, the creation of the first pensions scheme for policemen (which facilitated the introduction of a compulsory retiring age), merit-based promotions and increased pay.

These and other reforms made the New Zealand Police Force far more efficient; too efficient for some critics, who alleged that the increased surveillance over society amounted to a 'reign of terror'. However, his defence of the quality of most New Zealand policemen during the royal commission and afterwards caused many critics – especially prohibitionists – to accuse him of being lax in the disciplining of both police and society. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that his regime marked the beginning of the modernising of the New Zealand Police Force.

By 1902 the commissioner's autonomy from political interference, and therefore the esprit de corps in the force which resulted from his reforms, was under threat. The situation came to a climax that April when cabinet overturned his lenient treatment of Nelson police who had been accused of inefficiency, immorality and corruption. Tunbridge believed their offences to be minor, but the government apparently made its decision on the basis of information provided privately. What should have been, according to the regulations, an internal police matter, had led to what was in effect a public political censure of the commissioner. There was enormous public criticism of the government for violating its promises to resist interference in internal police matters. Eventually, one of two sacked policemen was reinstated, thus partially vindicating Tunbridge's stance.

By now Tunbridge was disillusioned and suffered from ill health. In January 1903 he gave notice of intent to retire. When he left the country his services to New Zealand policing were widely publicised and the government's interventions in his commissionership were condemned. He retired to Hythe once again, where he was involved in local body politics until his death on 6 October 1928. It is not known when Ellen Tunbridge died.

On looking back at his commissionership Tunbridge noted privately that 'if nothing else, I shall always feel proud to have been associated' with the police pension fund. It was too modest an assessment.

How to cite this page:

Richard S. Hill. 'Tunbridge, John Bennett', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993, updated June, 2017. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2t52/tunbridge-john-bennett (accessed 25 April 2024)