Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

James Coulter (1832–1907)

by Stefan Petrow

This article was published:

James Coulter (1832-1907), municipal police superintendent, was born on 6 September 1832 at Kincon, and baptized in the Church of Ireland parish of Ballysakeery, County Mayo, Ireland, son of Robert Coulter, police officer, and his wife Elizabeth. After 'a good, useful, practical education', James joined the Royal Irish Constabulary on 12 July 1852 and was described as 5 ft 8¼ ins (173 cm) in height. He served in County Cork as correspondent and finance clerk until October 1857 when he resigned, with testimonials praising his intelligence, sobriety, diligence and trustworthiness, and left for Victoria. Soon he moved to Launceston, Tasmania, where he became sub-inspector of police in March 1858. In 1861 he was appointed bench clerk, gaining an intimate knowledge of the criminal laws. He was also first lieutenant of the Volunteer Rifle Corps, distinguishing himself by his thorough knowledge of military drill and 'firm, quiet and gentlemanly demeanour'.

Praised for his exemplary conduct, in June 1866 Coulter became superintendent of the Launceston Municipal Police. He assumed an independent stand, brooking no interference in his legal duty and proceeding against aldermen if necessary. In 1874 he enforced payment of an unpopular railway rate levied by the central government. On 4 and 5 February crowds protested and vandalized property. Although seriously injured, Coulter ordered his men to enforce the law 'without favour or affection, and to the best of their ability, skill, and knowledge'. Sensitive to community opinion on moral issues, he generally resisted heavy-handed law enforcement against publicans and prostitutes. Before the 1886 select committee on police centralization, he staunchly defended municipal policemen, asserting that they were superior to the territorial police controlled by the colonial government.

Although a disciplinarian, Coulter safeguarded his men's interests by drafting a police superannuation scheme in 1877. He became special auditor under the Launceston Police Provident Fund Act (1878), which entitled policemen with fifteen years of service to retire at 60 on an annuity for life. Provision was made for mental and physical infirmity and for families if a policeman died. Deductions were made from the pay of each man and increased according to his age. In 1895 he persuaded the council to extend superannuation to all employees. He resigned in 1896 with an annual allowance of £304; aldermen commended his zeal, integrity and fidelity. In June Coulter was appointed a justice of the peace, his knowledge of court procedure making him one of Launceston's most capable.

On 5 July 1867 he had married with Church of Scotland forms Christina Dean at her father's house in Launceston. There were seven children of the marriage. Coulter helped to set up the Equitable Building Society in 1870. Its first actuary, he framed the actuarial tables and served ten years as unpaid director. He was a founder and director of the Mutual Fire Insurance Co.

Coulter helped to form the Launceston Bowling Club and for forty years was a member of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute's board of management (vice-president, 1900, and secretary, 1901-06). A respected member of the Episcopal Church, he made an outstanding contribution to the municipal, legal, financial, religious and social life of Launceston. Coulter died on 6 April 1907 at his home and, escorted by a large and representative cortège, was buried in the Anglican cemetery, Elphin. His wife, two sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Petrow, Going to the Mechanics (Launc, Tas, 1998)
  • Police Committee: Progress Report and Evidence, Journal & Parliamentary Papers (Tasmania), 1880, vol 39
  • Report of the Select Committee on the Centralisation of the Police, Journal & Parliamentary Papers (Tasmania), 1886, vol 9
  • S. Petrow, ‘Tolerant Town, Model Force: the Launceston Municipal Police, 1858-1898’, University of Tasmania Law Review, 16, no 2, 1997, p 235
  • S. Petrow, ‘Turbulent Tasmanians: Anti-railway Rate and Sectarian Riots and Police Reform in the 1870s’, Australian Journal of Legal History, 3, no 1, 1997, p 73
  • Examiner (Launceston), 11 Feb 1896, p 7, 8 Apr 1907, p 6
  • Daily Telegraph (Launceston), 8 Apr 1907, p 5
  • Tasmanian Mail, 13 Apr 1907, pp 13, 19
  • Coulter papers (State Library of Tasmania).

Citation details

Stefan Petrow, 'Coulter, James (1832–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 September, 1832
Kincon, Ireland


6 April, 1907 (aged 74)
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.