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Christie, John Mitchell (1845–1927)

by Hugh Anderson

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

John Mitchell Christie (1845-1927), detective and sportsman, was born on 30 December 1845 at Clackmannan, Scotland, son of Captain James Christie and his wife Martha, née Reoch. He attended a school at St Andrews, entering Taylor's College, Woolwich, in 1862 with the intention of following a military career. His grandfather was an army officer in Canada, while his father had served in India. A brother, also Captain James Christie, took part in the siege of Lucknow and was later governor of Edinburgh Gaol, and another brother, Alexander, was a manager of the Bank of Australasia in Melbourne.

Christie, described as a clerk, was 17 when he left Liverpool in the Commodore Perry in August 1863 to work for his uncle, Hugh Reoch, a partner in Kilmany Park station, Gippsland, Victoria. Reoch was drowned in the Tarra River in August 1864 and Christie lived and worked with A. C. and W. Pearson at Kilmany Park and at Lemuel Bolden's Strathfieldsaye station on the banks of Lake Wellington.

In June 1866 Christie joined the Melbourne detective force which was then said to consist of well-educated men of standing. Later described as a 'well-groomed, refined-looking, walking embodiment of good taste', he was also seen in a less favourable light as one who grew rich on his share of fines.

A good athlete, Christie became well known in boxing and rowing circles throughout Australia. After a sparring and 'scientific boxing' exhibition with Abe Hicken in August 1871 he was awarded a silver cup, and in the same month won the Victorian amateur championship from Jack Thompson (brother of Joseph). In November 1875 he resigned from the detective force to devote more time to sport and in December won a sculling match from James Cazaly. He won the Australasian Cup for sculling next April but gave up rowing after a defeat by the much younger C. A. Messenger in July 1878. He ran an athletic hall in Little Collins Street and later Swanston Street where he taught boxing. He trained W. Miller for his fight with Larry Foley and boxed with Jem Mace.

Christie was also deeply involved in charitable works for various disaster funds, including the Police Fund, and is credited with raising over £30,000. He spent some years as a hotelkeeper until November 1884, when he joined the Customs Department. His promotion to revenue detective dated from 1 July 1887 and he was thereafter known as 'Inspector' Christie.

During his years as a detective, Christie's famous cases included forgery and counterfeiting, several money swindles, and the theft of William Lyster's jewels. In the Customs Department his activities ranged from tracking down smugglers of opium and tobacco, breaking up illicit stills in Richmond and on the western coast, holding border smugglers at Wodonga, and catching George Robertson importing prohibited books, to confiscating bubonic bacilli at Macarthur. Adept at disguises, Christie was variously a travelling tinker, a street-sweeper, a clergyman, but most often a 'gentleman'. The highlights of his career, however, were when he 'shadowed' visiting royalty; in 1867 he travelled throughout Australia and New Zealand with the Duke of Edinburgh; in 1881 he accompanied Princes Albert and George, and in 1901 acted as bodyguard to the Duke of York.

At the time of his retirement in December 1910, due mainly to impaired hearing after being assaulted, Christie was described as 'the idol of the Victorian public' because of his 'astounding feats' of athletics, his many hair-breadth escapes, extraordinary ruses and tricks, and his ingenuity and resourcefulness. His successes were well publicized, but unlike the fictional detectives with whom he was compared, Christie was real and his achievements were genuine.

On 5 December 1877 he had married Emilie Ada Taylor Baker, daughter of a bookseller, at the Presbyterian Manse, West Melbourne; she predeceased him. He died at his home Kilmany, Armadale, on 11 January 1927, survived by his only son. His estate was valued for probate at £10,069.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. Castieau, The Reminiscences of Detective Inspector Christie (Melb, nd)
  • Notes and Queries for Readers (Lond), 5 (1863)
  • Morwell Historical Society News, 10 Feb 1966
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 12 Aug 1871, 20-27 Nov, 25 Dec 1875, 15 Apr, 21 Oct 1876, 15 Dec 1877, 13 July 1878
  • Punch (Melbourn), 29 Dec 1910
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Jan 1927
  • shipping lists (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Hugh Anderson, 'Christie, John Mitchell (1845–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/christie-john-mitchell-5589/text9541, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 10 December 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 7

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