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Cahill, William Geoffrey (1854–1931)

by Paul D. Wilson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William Geoffrey Cahill (1854-1931), public servant and police commissioner, was born on 7 November 1854 at Strokestown, Roscommon, Ireland, son of John Cahill, of Ennis, and his wife. Educated at the Strokestown National School, he served in the Royal Irish Constabulary, then migrated to Australia with his wife Lavinia, née Bernie. They arrived at Maryborough, Queensland, in the Highflyer on 2 December 1878.

Cahill joined the Queensland Public Service on 1 August 1879 as second clerk in the registry of the Supreme Court in Brisbane. He became first clerk during 1880, deputy curator of intestate estates from 1 January 1885, registrar of the Southern District Court on 1 June 1887, and secretary to the crown law officers on 19 March 1889; the position was retitled under-secretary for justice on 14 May 1890. On 1 April 1905 he was appointed commissioner of police, and on 7 September protector of Aborigines. Following the Police Act Amendment Act of 1912, which limited the commissioner's term to five years, he was reappointed on 19 December until 1917.

Cahill served in the militia, being promoted lieutenant from sergeant in the Brisbane Volunteer Rifle Corps (Queensland Volunteer Rifles) in 1885, captain in 1887 and major in 1891. He relieved Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Thynne as commander of the volunteer infantry in the southern military district while Thynne was overseas in 1894-95. Transferred to the unattached officers list on 18 June 1896, Cahill resigned his commission on 6 April 1897 (probably in protest at the appointment of a non-volunteer commanding officer), but was reappointed major on 9 December. He resigned in 1905 when appointed commissioner of police.

Cahill was a capable administrator in the justice department, supervising a period of expansion and introducing reforms to the Queensland police force, including free uniforms and better pensions. He made every effort to have police relieved of extraneous government duties in rural areas—without notable success. He pressed for better arms and ammunition, and set up a police horse-breeding establishment at Woodford which was moved later to Rewan, south of Springsure. 'Somewhat inclined to be a martinet', he tightened discipline, following the practice of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and in 1913 issued a Policeman's Manual, adapted from the Irish version for Queensland conditions. He tried to improve training conditions and to modernize the criminal investigation branch. His responsibilities as commissioner included increasing control of urban traffic, closer supervision of liquor licensing and gambling, and enforcement of infant life protection legislation.

The Brisbane general strike of 1912 was the critical point of Cahill's career. Charged with preservation of law and order by the D. F. Denham government, he had to resist the demands for rigorous suppression made by extreme anti-unionists, maintain control of the irregular force of special constables sworn in to assist the regular force, and deal with a potentially serious civil disturbance. After days of increasing tension and some street incidents, the strike leaders ignored his instruction not to assemble on Friday, 2 February. Confronting the demonstrators in Albert Street, Cahill led a baton charge to disperse the crowd and was thrown from his horse in the mêlée. The police prevailed without serious injury to either side and incidents thereafter gradually decreased. Cahill was threatened that a future Labor administration would give him four minutes to resign, but he was complimented by the government and its supporters.

On the election of the T. J. Ryan Labor ministry in 1915, Cahill retained office, with his erstwhile opponent David Bowman, one of the 1912 strike leaders, as his ministerial head. After quarrelling with senior officers of the Home Secretary's Office on police policy and control, he clashed with John Huxham, who succeeded Bowman as home secretary on 23 March 1916, over the formation of a police union which, to Cahill, constituted a breach of good order and discipline. In December he applied for and was granted early retirement on medical grounds, with a pension of £450 a year.

Cahill was described as 'outwardly stern' and 'reserved', but 'tall, lithe, well set up and strikingly handsome'. He was awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration in 1911 and was appointed C.M.G. in December 1912. He was honorary aide-de-camp to two governors in 1912-16. Predeceased by his wife and childless, Cahill died of cirrhosis of the liver at his home at Newmarket, Brisbane, on 25 April 1931; he was buried in the Catholic section of Nudgee cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Police Department, A Centenary History of the Queensland Police Force, 1864-1963 (Brisb, 1964)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Prelude to Power (Brisb, 1970)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1897, 2, 207, 1903, 2, 319
  • Queenslander, 30 Apr 1931
  • H. M. Draper, Origin and History of the Queensland Police Force to 1900 (State Library of Queensland)
  • Executive Council, Minutes Dec 1916, A4495 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Home Secretary, in-letters 1916/10424, HOM/J215 (Queensland State Archives)
  • immigration register, IMM/116 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Paul D. Wilson, 'Cahill, William Geoffrey (1854–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cahill-william-geoffrey-5462/text9279, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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