Page 1: Biography
Police commissioner, private detective, land board chairman
This biography, written by Richard S. Hill, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Walter Dinnie was born in Aboyne, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, probably on 26 December 1850, the son of Celia Hay and her husband, Robert Dinnie, a wealthy contractor, who was also a local historian and poet. Educated at Aberdeen Grammar School, Dinnie excelled at athletics. In 1871 he began work as a bank clerk in Aberdeen, but joined the clerical staff of the West Riding of Yorkshire Constabulary in 1873. On 27 March 1876 he joined the London Metropolitan Police. After six further years of increasingly senior clerical positions, including promotion to sergeant in 1880, he was appointed to detective work at his own request. He was promoted within the Criminal Investigation Branch to inspector in 1889 and chief inspector in 1895. Dinnie specialised in frauds and forgeries, achieving international fame for several of his successes. In 1901 he was instrumental in setting up a new system of registering and identifying criminals based on fingerprinting.
In 1903 the New Zealand government hired Dinnie as commissioner of police to replace the reforming J. B. Tunbridge. Dinnie retired from New Scotland Yard amidst accolades – and on a large pension – on 5 April 1903. He had married Frederica Matilda Kemp at Croydon, Surrey, on 18 October 1883, and their five sons accompanied them on the Ruapehu when they left London on 23 April 1903. Dinnie arrived in Wellington on 8 June, and Tunbridge took him on an inspection tour before returning to England. When Dinnie publicly maintained neutrality in the fierce debate about liquor laws, Premier R. J. Seddon pronounced him 'the right man in the right place'.
Policing success was, in Dinnie's eyes, ultimately based on fear of detection. He implemented with zeal further reforms in the New Zealand Police Force, particularly the utilisation of new scientific and technological advances to aid in the identification of offenders. Dinnie took over from the prisons branch, and reorganised the new fingerprint identification system. He placed his son, Edmund (Ted), who had been trained in these techniques, in the Finger-print Branch from 6 July 1903. In 1904 Ted Dinnie became head of the branch. He established the police museum, mostly as a detection training aid, in 1908. The Dinnies were soon being acclaimed for their successes with forensic identification techniques. Ted transferred to sworn staff as senior sergeant in charge of the Criminal Registration Branch from 1915, remaining there until his retirement in 1947.
Walter Dinnie, however, soon came under sustained public attack as the result of revelations of inefficiencies and scandals in the force. When Dunedin constables were found in 1905 to be involved in the burgling of premises they were supposedly protecting, a resulting royal commission exposed weaknesses in police discipline. By 1907 there was a vociferous campaign for a new commission of inquiry into policing. This was spearheaded by New Zealand Truth, which had earlier led the opposition to the importation of the 'outsider' to the top New Zealand police job. By 1909 Truth's campaign against the 'curse of Dinnieism' had peaked, with almost every issue attacking the 'dunderhead' commissioner. Discipline problems in the Gisborne police and bungled murder investigations in the South Island led to a further decline of confidence in Dinnie.
In June 1909 the MP James Arnold launched a withering attack on the Police Force, which was said to be in a 'deplorable state'. Although the prime minister leapt to his defence, Dinnie sought a public inquiry to vindicate his name. The government, desperate for a resolution to the troubled policing question, obliged by appointing Stipendiary Magistrate H. W. Bishop as a royal commissioner. Dinnie clashed with Bishop soon after the commission commenced, and with senior policemen during the hearings. The report pronounced New Zealand policing to be 'thoroughly efficient' and non-corrupt. However, Dinnie was depicted as incompetent, particularly in his recruiting of unsuitable men. In effect, the report concluded that Dinnie must go. Even commentators who agreed that Bishop had been unfair to Dinnie stated that it was impossible for him to remain in office.
Dinnie hit back publicly with a pamphlet containing a blunt, comprehensive, and in some areas convincing rebuttal of the report. Bishop, he said, had entered upon his task with preconceived opinions, and had distorted and suppressed information accordingly. But he could not puncture some of the allegations of inefficiency. It was now only a matter of time before his commissionership was terminated, given that he had cast doubt on the integrity of a senior judicial officer.
Dinnie's resignation was announced by the prime minister on 22 December 1909. The under-secretary for justice, Frank Waldegrave, assumed Dinnie's responsibilities. Dinnie believed that Waldegrave had engineered his downfall, and vigorously protested that he had not resigned. From 1 January 1910 he was forced to take up six months' paid retirement leave, after which he was found a position as president of the Tokerau District Māori Land Board. He moved to Auckland to take this up from 1 July 1910, amidst much political and public criticism about his lack of background in Māori and land matters: the government had allegedly found him a 'cosy job' at the very time that Elsdon Best, the 'noted and respected' scholar of Māori lore, had been retrenched.
After new legislation made Native Land Court judges presidents of the corresponding land boards, Dinnie's job ceased to exist from 31 March 1914. On being turned down for a number of official positions he set up as a private detective and resettled in Wellington. Truth sneered that he had found his 'proper level'. Although much of his private detection work was tedious or sordid, he stood on his dignity, refusing a 1916 offer to be assistant commissioner of police in Samoa on the grounds that a former senior London Metropolitan Police officer could not serve under a commissioner 'entirely ignorant of police control or administration'.
In 1915 Dinnie sued the Crown for £501 damages for wrongful dismissal and denial of his full superannuation rights. He was said to have 'a string of grievances as long as your arm'. The chief justice, Sir Robert Stout, decided that he had no jurisdiction to inquire into whether Dinnie had been 'treated harshly', and on the superannuation question ruled him non-suited.
Walter Dinnie died at Wellington on 7 May 1923, survived by Frederica and their sons. The archetypal gentleman detective, he consolidated Tunbridge's policing reforms and introduced new techniques of criminal investigation, but he had been embroiled in controversy for most of his official career in New Zealand. Circumstances and egotism had led to a once internationally renowned detective ending his years in obscurity and bitterness.