Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, Matthew Skinner (1836–1887)

by Peter Conole

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

Matthew Skinner Smith (1836-1887), commissioner of police, was born on 30 August 1836 in England, one of at least two sons of Matthew Smith, an army officer who eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant general. Young Matthew was commissioned as an ensign in the 44th Regiment of Foot on 7 June 1854. After serving with distinction in the Crimean War (1854-56) and the China expedition of 1860, he was promoted lieutenant and captain by merit, rather than by purchase, and held two responsible administrative positions during the 1860s. In 1867 he left the army and married Elizabeth Nolan on 4 July in the parish church, River, Kent. Next year he moved to Western Australia in the expectation of becoming private secretary to Colonel John Bruce, who hoped to be appointed governor. Bruce was not selected, however, and Smith was employed as a bank clerk.

On the retirement of Gustavus Hare, Smith (recommended by Bruce) was appointed chief of police with the rank of superintendent on 9 May 1871. Finding the police force disorganized and held in low regard, Smith coped with public criticism and financial cuts, and fended off attempts to exert greater political control. A methodical and hard-working administrator with a reserved manner, he treated its members with tact and consideration and reformed the force from the ground up.

Smith's major achievements included founding the criminal investigation (1873) and mounted (1875) sections, reorganizing police districts, introducing probationary constables and 'favourable record' systems, and amalgamating the Imperial Water Police into the force. In 1876 he approved the publication of the first Police Gazette, which was to become one of the oldest continuing official publications in Western Australia. The escape from Fremantle of six Fenian convicts in April that year in the American whaler Catalpa did not reflect on his efficiency; Governor (Sir) William Robinson commended his 'energy and discretion' in the matter.

Beginning a tradition of using the police annual reports to comment on social and judicial issues of the day, Smith analysed alcohol abuse, which he identified as a health—rather than a law enforcement—problem and recommended the founding of an 'inebriates asylum'. He discounted capital punishment as a fair method of dealing with tribal killings and took steps to prevent the exploitation of Aborigines in the pearling industry. As well, he warned the government of the likely impact of mineral discoveries and of a consequent need to establish a police presence in mining centres. By the early 1880s the public image of the police force had improved dramatically and Smith was one of the most respected public officials in the colony. He had connexions with the colonial elite and was a founder and vice-president of the Weld Club. In 1880 he obtained the additional post of commandant of the enrolled pensioner guard.

Smith took leave of absence to become acting colonial secretary in 1885 and was appointed to the Legislative Council next year. The office of commissioner of police was re-established for his benefit and he returned to duty in the police force on 13 January 1887. Smith died of gastric bleeding on 18 April that year, while visiting Albany, where he was buried. His wife survived him; the marriage was childless.

Select Bibliography

  • R. M. Lawrence, Police Review 1829-1979 (Perth, 1979)
  • K. Amos, The Fenians in Australia 1865-1880 (Syd, 1988)
  • M. Bentley, Grandfather was a Policeman (Perth, 1993)
  • P. Conole, Protect & Serve (Perth, 2002).

Citation details

Peter Conole, 'Smith, Matthew Skinner (1836–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-matthew-skinner-13200/text23899, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 September 2014.

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

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