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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brooks, William Thomas (1889–1943)

by Robert Haldane

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

William Thomas Brooks (1889-1943), policeman, was born on 28 April 1889 in Port Melbourne, second of seven surviving children of John Thomas Brooks, an English-born gas-stoker, and his native-born wife Catherine, née Postlethwaite. After working as a gas-stoker with the Metropolitan Gas Co., West Melbourne, William joined the Victoria Police on 28 September 1911 and soon after transferred to Dimboola for duty as a mounted constable, where he served for one year, resigning on 28 February 1913. Nine months later he re-joined as a foot constable and was stationed for relatively short periods at Russell Street, Melbourne, and at Seymour and Prahran, before being appointed on 3 March 1916 to South Yarra. Here he was employed mainly on liquor licensing duty. Commended twice, he was described by his superintendent as 'efficient, energetic and well conducted'. On 11 December 1915 at St Thomas's Church of England, Essendon, he had married Mary Ethel Booth, a farmer's daughter from Hay, New South Wales. They were to have seven children.

In October 1921 Brooks transferred to the licensing branch where he was commended for his part in 846 licensing prosecutions and sly-grog cases. Despite this, he was one of seventeen licensing police ordered back to beat duty in a purge by the chief commissioner Alexander Nicholson in February 1923. Aggrieved, Brooks circulated a petition headed 'Comrades and Fellow Workers' among metropolitan police. Signed by almost 700 men, its bold tone established him as unofficial leader of those police agitating for improved work conditions. Nicholson responded by transferring him away from his Prahran home to Geelong 'for special work' and thence, even more remotely, to Colac for licensing duty—which he refused to perform. Suspended and charged for this refusal of duty, he called Nicholson to give evidence at a much-publicized discipline hearing held in the Melbourne City Court during May 1923. The charge was dismissed and on reinstatement to the force an embittered Brooks promised to 'cause a lot more trouble'. And he did.

On the night of 31 October 1923 Brooks led twenty-eight other constables at Russell Street station out on strike, refusing to parade for night-shift beat duty until a covert system of special supervisors (who spied on police) was discontinued. In the days that followed Brooks toured suburban police stations rallying men to strike. The absence of patrolling police unleashed a wave of violence across Melbourne. Mobs of looters rampaged through city shops and 636 police were discharged for refusing duty. Brooks was dismissed from the force on 1 November 1923 for organizing and leading Australia's only police strike. He was not called to give evidence at the subsequent royal commission appointed to inquire into its causes.

After the strike he moved to Hay, where he worked as a water-boring contractor, then for many years as a night watchman. In July 1943 he became caretaker at St Patrick's College, Ballarat, Victoria. Brooks died of myocardial infarction on 15 November 1943 in hospital at Ballarat and was buried with Catholic rites in the local cemetery. His wife and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Haldane, The People’s Force (Melb 1986)
  • G. Brown and R. Haldane, Days of Violence (Melb, 1998)
  • Report of the Royal Commission on the Victorian Police Force, Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1925, vol 2, p 853
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 May 1923, p 7
  • personal file, nos 5697 and 5944 (Victoria Police archives, Melbourne)
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Robert Haldane, 'Brooks, William Thomas (1889–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 13 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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