Page 1: Biography
Cummings, Denis Joseph
Policeman, police commissioner
Policeman, police commissioner
This biography, written by Graeme Dunstall, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
James and Denis Joseph Cummings, together with their sister Catherine and brother Timothy, were members of the New Zealand Police Force during the first half of the twentieth century. They were four of the twelve children of Mary Crowley and her husband, Patrick Cummings, a miner then farmer near Lawrence, Central Otago. Denis and James were born at Tuapeka Flat, on 12 July 1878 and 16 May 1885 respectively.
They went to the Lawrence Catholic primary school, with Denis going on to Lawrence District High School. About 1896 James left home to work on a neighbouring farm. Denis spent about seven years as a seasonal labourer on farms near Lawrence before joining the New Zealand Police Force; he was appointed constable on 1 July 1899.
In 1901 Denis became an assistant clerk in the Wellington district office. With better pay and prospects, he married Catherine Quigley, on 26 April 1905 at Wellington. On 1 February 1904 his brother Tim was appointed a constable at Auckland. Soon afterwards Denis persuaded James to enter the Permanent Artillery at Wellington, from which he joined the police force at Mount Cook station, Wellington, on 1 September 1906. Having brothers as policemen led Catherine to join, after the death of her husband, Horton Ledger. She was appointed assistant police matron in 1917, in charge of women and children taken into custody at Wellington, and was the longest-serving matron in the force on her death in March 1938.
Meanwhile the brothers’ careers diverged. Tim Cummings was too old to hope for promotion and looked for the perquisites of a country or small-town station. Transferred to Waihī in 1906, he was injured and sent in March 1911 to recover at Whakatāne, a sole-charge station. He remained there until his retirement in 1940, developing a reputation as an archetypal country constable.
Denis Cummings served as district clerk at Invercargill and Napier. His promotion to sergeant in charge of the Napier station on 1 July 1909, the youngest sergeant since 1885, aroused considerable jealousy and allegations of favouritism. In April 1915 he took charge of the Rotorua station and its extensive sub-district of the eastern Bay of Plenty. The following February he sought to arrest Rua Kēnana, the Tūhoe prophet who had been convicted of illicitly supplying liquor. Denis’s account of Rua’s defiance became the basis for a charge of sedition, leading to an armed police expedition in which Tim took part. Subsequently, a jury found Rua guilty only of ‘morally’ resisting arrest.
Promoted senior sergeant in April 1917, Denis took charge of the Masterton sub-district in July 1921. He showed greater zeal in prosecuting sly-grogging in this no-licence area than did his successors. His reputation for knowledge of the law and skill as a prosecutor was enhanced by his court work as sub-inspector at Wellington from October 1922. Promoted inspector in April 1924, he took charge of the Napier district two years later.
His leadership in responding to the devastating Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 3 February 1931 was widely acknowledged. Cummings led the small number of local police and men from three naval ships in rescuing the injured, organising the recovery and burial of bodies, and mounting guards and patrols. He also helped establish committees to organise relief.
Promoted superintendent in charge of the Christchurch district in April 1932, Denis Cummings faced another crisis of public order when the city's tramway workers struck in May. Astute deployment of regular police and hundreds of special police prevented effective picketing and serious violence, though Cummings was subsequently accused by some Labour MPs of making partisan comments. At Christchurch, and later as commissioner, Cummings encouraged police social activities, especially sport. Transferred to control the Wellington district in December 1935, he became commissioner of police on 1 July 1936.
Cummings faced pressure for changes from the New Zealand Police Association (formed in October 1936). Supported by the minister in charge of police, Peter Fraser, he conceded increased pay and allowances, and a six-day, 48-hour working week in 1937; but not retirement at 60. He planned a programme to renovate and rebuild dilapidated police stations and dwellings, but relatively little was achieved before preparations for war took priority in public works. Cummings’s initiatives to improve police efficiency brought, by 1939, small gains in in-service training and police transport in the main centres, the first experiments with wireless communication, and up-to-date equipment for crime detection. A decision by Fraser in 1938 to appoint women police was not implemented by Cummings until the exigencies of wartime in 1941. He was a cautious administrator, seeking to build on long-standing practices rather than to innovate.
With the outbreak of war Cummings faced greatly increased responsibilities with a shortage of staff. Perceived as a wise administrator during an emergency, Denis (like his brother James, who succeeded him) gave ‘honest and frank’ advice to Peter Fraser, now prime minister, who felt thereby ‘a great sense of security’. Cummings had his term extended by 15 months, retiring on 31 October 1944, and was awarded a CBE in 1946. His wife had died in 1943. Denis died in Auckland on 31 March 1956, survived by two daughters and a son.
James Cummings shared Denis’s affability, but with his stocky frame, brisk manner and plain speaking had a more dominating personality. Behind James’s bluff exterior, however, some subordinates discerned a generous, kindly nature. After five years’ patrolling the rough neighbourhood of Mount Cook and Te Aro, James was transferred to Auckland as an acting detective in December 1911. He had married Mary Druisilla Dixon, a machinist, at Wellington on 14 June 1909. Ambitious and conscientious, eschewing tobacco and alcohol but fond of horse-racing, James now seemed to live entirely for the job. Assiduous study overcame a lack of formal education; police examinations were passed with credit. He was appointed a detective in July 1915 and detective sergeant in March 1920.
During 1920, the separate convictions at Auckland of Dennis Gunn and Samuel John Thorne for murder established James Cummings’s reputation. Justice F. R. Chapman singled him out for his ‘diligence and intelligence’ in leading the investigations and preparing the prosecutions, as well as his ‘conspicuous’ fairness towards the accused. His ‘ability, intelligence, and zeal’ led to accelerated promotion to senior detective on 1 December 1921, then to chief detective at Auckland in September 1923. He took a leading part in many major inquiries, and was perceived by subordinates as a hard taskmaster.
In January 1928 James was moved to the uniform branch in Auckland as senior sergeant, to broaden his experience before being promoted to sub-inspector at Dunedin and becoming a member of the police examination board a year later. He was promoted inspector in April 1930. In January 1932 he was brought to headquarters in Wellington to oversee investigative work, including political surveillance. For services as officer in charge during the visit of the duke of Gloucester, he received the Royal Victorian Medal in 1935. In February 1936 Cummings was sent to control the Palmerston North district. Three years later he took charge of Auckland district when promoted superintendent.
In September 1941 Denis Cummings brought James to headquarters to assist with wartime administration, including the control of aliens and detection of subversion. With a few detectives, he quickly discredited rumours of sabotage and invasion, alleged by a convicted confidence trickster and accepted early in 1942 by the recently established Security Intelligence Bureau, composed of army personnel. On 19 February 1943 he became director of the SIB; it was disbanded after he became commissioner on 1 November 1944, and the police again assumed sole responsibility for security work.
As commissioner he worked tirelessly, attending closely to the minutiae of administration and forgoing leave to be on call, especially as industrial tensions mounted after the war. In 1947 he was awarded a King’s Police and Fire Services Medal for his work as director of security. James followed Denis’s initiative in holding annual conferences of officers and in attending conferences of Australian police commissioners. He visited London twice: in 1944 regarding security issues, and in 1948 to prepare for a projected royal visit. A new Police Force Act was passed in 1947, and updated regulations issued. From 1946 he secured improvements in police communications with the advent of teleprinters and radio-controlled police cars in the main centres. Yet a continuing loss of staff and inadequate police facilities were signs that the force was not keeping up with the times when Cummings retired on 15 April 1950; he was awarded a CBE.
James Cummings enjoyed a long and active retirement at Highland Park, Wellington, notably as a member of the Wilton Bowling Club. Mary died in 1971 and James on 24 September 1976, survived by a son and a daughter. A tribute paid to his sister Catherine applied equally well to him: he was ‘a person of remarkable vitality, ability and memory’.