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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Salisbury, Harold Hubert (1915–1991)

by John Summers

This article was published online in 2014

Harold Salisbury, n.d.

Harold Salisbury, n.d.

Harold Hubert Salisbury (1915-1991), police commissioner, was born on 30 March 1915 at Little Comberton, Worcestershire, England, elder of two sons of Hubert Salisbury (d. 1920), carpenter, and his wife Ethel Annie, née Steed. Harold was educated at Newland Choir, Malvern, and Worcester Royal Grammar schools. In 1933 he obtained a junior position in the London Metropolitan Police Force and in 1938 entered the Metropolitan Police College, Hendon, after which he was promoted to junior station inspector. In World War II Salisbury joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and rose to the rank of lieutenant (1943). A pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, he flew Seafire fighters and served in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Pacific, and Home fleets. On 21 November 1942, at the parish church, Gerards Cross, Buckinghamshire, he married Joan Mary Macdonald Nash. Following the war he returned to the London Metropolitan Police and advanced rapidly. He became assistant chief constable (1953) of the North Riding of Yorkshire police and chief constable (1968) of an amalgamated Yorkshire police service. In 1970 he was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for distinguished service.

Salisbury was appointed commissioner of South Australian Police in July 1972 by the Australian Labor Party premier, Don Dunstan. To many it seemed a strange appointment for a progressive, reformist premier to have made. Holding conservative social values, Salisbury deplored permissive policies and social changes that he believed undermined valuable conventions and respect for authority. He publicly supported capital punishment, tough sentencing for law breakers, and corporal punishment in schools, and he opposed the liberalisation of drug laws. Privately, he rejected any religious belief. In contrast to his public image as an old-fashioned, hard-working police commissioner, some close associates regarded ‘Holiday Harold’ as a figurehead who delegated excessively.

On 17 January 1978 Dunstan dismissed Salisbury for ‘giving inaccurate information . . . to the Government’ and ‘having so misled the Government that wrong information was given to Parliament and the public’ (Advertiser, 18 January 1978, 1). This action followed an inquiry into the nature of files held by the police special branch. The inquiry concluded that many of the files related to matters, organisations, and persons that were not security risks, but to ‘political, trade union and other sensitive matters’; and that, despite the premier’s enquiries, the commissioner had not adequately informed him about the existence of these files (White 1977, 6, 67). Salisbury conceded that his answers to the government had been incomplete but argued that the police commissioner, though responsible to the government, was not subordinate to it but was responsible directly to the Queen or her representative in Australia.

A public rally in Adelaide calling for a ‘fair go’ for Salisbury attracted eight thousand people. Protests appeared to become a rallying point for those who had been uneasy with Dunstan’s policies. A royal commission found that Salisbury had misled the government and that there were grounds for his removal from office. It rejected his view of the police commissioner’s place, stating that he failed to understand the constitutional systems of South Australia and Britain. Salisbury returned to England in May 1979.

Notwithstanding these findings, a number of ministers felt that the sacking of Salisbury was a political mistake that seriously damaged the government’s standing. The incoming Liberal government, however, took no steps to re-employ him after it regained office in September 1979 despite its sustained criticism of Dunstan’s actions. Survived by his wife and two daughters, Salisbury died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 6 May 1991 at Pershore, Worcester, and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘Why He Was Sacked–Dunstan.’ 18 January 1978, 1
  • ‘Thousands Rally to Salisbury.’ 26 January 1978, 1
  • Cockburn, Stewart. The Salisbury Affair. Melbourne: Sun Books, 1979
  • Dunstan, Don. Felicia: The Political Memoirs of Don Dunstan. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1981
  • Grabosky, P. N. Wayward Governance. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989
  • Kelton, Greg. ‘Govt. Not Entitled to Secret Dossiers.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 January 1978, 1
  • Kelton, Greg and John Templeton. ‘S. A. Police Chief Dismissed.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 18 January 1978, 1
  • Mitchell, Roma (Royal Commissioner). Royal Commission 1978 Report on the Dismissal of Harold Hubert Salisbury. Adelaide: Government Printer, 1978
  • Summers, John. ‘The Salisbury Affair.’ In The Flinders History of South Australia: Political History, edited by Dean Jaensch, 339-50. Netley, SA: Wakefield Press, 1986
  • White, J. M. Special Branch Security Record Initial Report. Adelaide: Government Printer, 1977.

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Citation details

John Summers, 'Salisbury, Harold Hubert (1915–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 8 August 2020.

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