Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Connell, Robert (1867–1956)

by T. J. McArthur

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Robert Connell (1867-1956), police commissioner, was born on 19 December 1867 at Waterville, County Kerry, Ireland, youngest son of Lot Connell, coastguard, and his wife Anne, née Burliegh. After two years at sea, Robert came to Western Australia in September 1886 and almost immediately joined the police force. In February 1887 he was transferred to the criminal investigation department as a detective and served at Albany, Coolgardie, Fremantle and in Perth. At St George's Anglican Cathedral, Perth, on 3 June 1889 he married Alice Maud Dobbie. Rapidly promoted, Connell became a sub-inspector in September 1899. He was 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm) tall, with an aquiline nose, a prominent chin and a military bearing. That month he was sent to deal with unrest among miners at Kalgoorlie. Transferred to Albany, he took charge of the Plantagenet district and carried out surveillance on political activists during the turbulence that led to Federation.

Next year Connell was appointed officer-in-charge, Central Police Station, Perth. He dealt with problems associated with gambling, liquor and prostitution. In 1902 he sailed for England. There he studied the methods of the police in London; on his return, he successfully advocated the adoption of the fingerprint system of identification. In February 1904 he became chief of the criminal investigation department and was promoted to inspector in August. Elevated to chief inspector in July 1911, he supported the formation of a non-political police association. In January 1912 he won King George V's police medal for 'special skills displayed in the execution of duty'. He was made acting-commissioner of police on 1 April, an appointment which created antagonism among some of his fellow officers. In putting forward his own candidacy for the commissionership, Connell pointed to his long service, his experience, and his plan to effect economy and efficiency in the force's hierarchy. Appointed commissioner of police on 1 April 1913, he was to hold the post for twenty years.

A man of strong convictions and considerable energy, Connell used his annual reports to convey his misgivings about government inaction in responding to such social issues as child abuse, the plight of deserted mothers and illegal street-betting. He opened the police force to women in 1917, introduced car radios for police patrols in the remote North West in 1931 and recommended the installation of traffic lights operated by detection pads in the capital. His concern for his officers' welfare was evident in his push for a superannuation scheme to replace the gratuity system. He raised standards of recruitment and training, and advocated promotion by merit (based partly on successive examinations) rather than by seniority.

Connell argued strongly that the C.I.D. should provide a self-contained promotion and career structure, and succeeded in separating that branch from the uniformed police. In supporting the unpredictable detective Stephen Condon at the expense of the ill-fated J. J. Walsh to head the C.I.D. in August 1920, Connell aroused the curiosity of the press. No revealing evidence about the affair has survived, nor do any retired policemen recall that carefully guarded web of intrigue.

On the whole, Connell presided effectively over a period marked by change and tumult. In the Depression the police were used to suppress political extremists and to control demonstrations by strikers, but in these actions they had considerable public support. Connell retired on 31 March 1933 and lived at Albany where he served as a special constable in World War II. Predeceased by his wife and survived by their son, he died on 11 June 1956 in Perth and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £17,621.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • R. M. Lawrence, Police Review 1829-1979 Since the Days of Stirling (Perth, 1979)
  • Police Dept, Annual Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1913-33
  • Police Review (Perth), Oct 1913, Oct 1917
  • Police News (Perth), 31 July, 31 Oct 1930, 18 Mar 1934
  • Kalgoorlie Miner, 21-27 Nov, 1 Dec 1899
  • Western Mail (Perth), 6 Apr 1912
  • West Australian, 12 June 1956
  • Police Department (Western Australia), personnel files: S. Condon, R. Connell, and D. Hunter (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

T. J. McArthur, 'Connell, Robert (1867–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/connell-robert-9808/text17339, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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