Page 1: Biography
Wohlmann, Ward George
Policeman, police commissioner
This biography, written by Graeme Dunstall, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Ward George Wohlmann was born on 4 August 1872 in a cottage at the Invercargill police station. His parents were Rebecca McDonald and her husband, George Alfred Wohlman, a police constable and later a farmer. Little is known of Ward's education. After working as a farm labourer and then serving for 12 months in the Permanent Militia, he was appointed a third-class constable at Dunedin on 14 November 1895.
His ability was soon recognised, and, though the junior man, he was deputed by constables of Dunedin district to voice their grievances to the Royal Commission on the Police Force of New Zealand in April 1898. After about four years on the beat and relieving at country stations, Wohlmann was given clerical work in the district office. On 6 October 1902 he was transferred to Invercargill to become clerk of the newly constituted Southland police district. Increased pay and regular hours encouraged Wohlmann to marry Jane Cuthill Aitchison, a constable's daughter, on 2 February 1904 at Dunedin.
Seeing clerical training as a necessary qualification for higher ranks, Commissioner Walter Dinnie gave able district clerks like Wohlmann rapid promotion. He became a sergeant in April 1906, the youngest appointed since 1887. Eleven months later he became district clerk at Auckland. Appointed a delegate of Auckland sergeants to the Royal Commission on the Police Force in 1909, Wohlmann argued effectively for recruitment and promotion policies then seen as progressive.
In the shake-up following the 1909 commission, Wohlmann was transferred in August 1911 to be sergeant in charge of the Waihi station. His low-key, ostensibly impartial role during the first three months of the Waihi goldminers' strike in 1912 was superseded by the direct intervention of Commissioner John Cullen and moves to open the mine with strike-breakers. This brought an escalation of tension and disorder during which Wohlmann's attitude towards the strikers and their leaders hardened. Later, as commissioner, he declared there was no such thing as peaceful picketing.
Wohlmann was promoted to senior sergeant in January 1914. He remained at Waihi until February 1917, when he was sent to Christchurch. Eleven months later he was promoted to sub-inspector and transferred to Auckland. When a civil administration took over from military authorities in Western Samoa, which was governed under a League of Nations mandate, he was seconded on 1 November 1920 to be its commissioner of police and reorganise the local force. His seniority preserved, Wohlmann was promoted to inspector on 1 January 1921 and returned to take charge of the Hamilton district on 5 March 1922. Four years later he became superintendent of the Auckland district. In July 1928 his wife, Jane, died.
After the early retirement of Commissioner W. B. McIlveney on 30 June 1930, Wohlmann applied for the position, noting he was the youngest but most senior of the superintendents. He became commissioner on 1 August 1930, at a time of growing economic depression, government retrenchment and social unrest.
Wohlmann reversed McIlveney's reorganisation of districts and unpopular changes to the police uniform. He was less harsh in disciplining police defaulters, and more flexible in granting rewards. Like his predecessors, however, he opposed any suggestion of a police union. Pressed for economies, he closed the training depot, cut expenditure on buildings, and eschewed any innovations, such as patrol cars equipped with radio. An image of a stagnating and inefficient department developed, especially when several murders remained unsolved. However, Wohlmann prevented substantial retrenchment by pointing to social unrest. Police numbers increased and the need to maintain police morale meant that the force escaped the second salary reduction imposed on public servants in 1932.
Wohlmann played a key role in organising the local response to the Hawke's Bay earthquake on 3 February 1931, initially chairing the Napier citizens' control committee. During 1931 his mounting concern at demonstrations by the unemployed, and the activities of the small Communist Party of New Zealand, led to heightened police surveillance and prosecutions for inciting violence or distributing seditious literature. Wohlmann prepared a Public Safety Conservation Bill which was rapidly enacted after the Auckland riots in April 1932. Concern about potential disorder continued until 1934, when he established a small but controversial auxiliary police force. That year he was appointed an ISO and in 1935, following the visit of the duke of Gloucester, an MVO.
On 2 December 1935 Wohlmann married Christine Laura Stone at Auckland. Four days later, Peter Fraser became minister in charge of police in the new Labour government. Remarriage, and Wohlmann's antipathy towards former Red Feds such as Fraser (who had criticised police methods and leadership), precipitated a decision to retire on 30 June 1936, 13 months before the end of his term. He returned to Auckland, where he died on 2 July 1956, survived by his wife, Christine, and the only child of his first marriage.
Wohlmann was a keen sportsman and joined a variety of societies and clubs throughout his career. Subordinates perceived him to be quiet and unassuming by contrast with his flamboyant predecessor, McIlveney. Critics saw him as too soft in pressing for adequate facilities. A cautious administrator befitting the times, he made do with the resources available, acting in line with the conservative governments he served.