Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Colin John Delaney (1897–1969)

by Garry C. Wotherspoon

This article was published:

Colin John Delaney (1897-1969), by unknown photographer, c1947-50

Colin John Delaney (1897-1969), by unknown photographer, c1947-50

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24040427 [detail]

Colin John Delaney (1897-1969), police commissioner, was born on 28 February 1897 at Pyramid Hill, Victoria, seventh child of Cornelius Delaney, a farmer from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Bridget Vera, née Irwin. After schooling at Bendigo, Colin worked as a stationary engine driver. He was a buttermaker when he married Gladys Viola Thirza Frances Meyers (d.1966) on 19 September 1918 at the Congregational parsonage, Richmond. Moving to Sydney, he found employment as a tram conductor and remarried his wife at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral on 23 January 1919.

On 29 April that year Delaney joined the New South Wales Police Force. Appointed constable in 1920, he carried out his duties in the inner city; in 1922 he was transferred to criminal investigation and based at the Regent Street station. In 1927 he moved to police headquarters. Promoted detective constable (1928) and detective sergeant (1933), he 'proved an acute and skilful investigator', but, at his own request, was returned to the uniformed branch in 1939. Delaney worked in the licensing and traffic sections, helped to establish the State's police-cadet system and served on the Police Appeal Board, becoming inspector (February 1943) and superintendent (September 1946). While at Tamworth in 1947-50, he was in charge of the northern police district. In the course of his career Delaney took several exchanges with interstate police, and probably had some involvement with security and intelligence work during World War II. His progress was enhanced by a close association, at critical stages, with Commissioner William MacKay. Deputy-commissioner from May 1952, Delaney was appointed commissioner of police on 14 October that year, the first Catholic to hold the position. Relations between the police and the public were at a low ebb, with allegations of bribery and of assaults by police.

Initiating major and essential reforms, Delaney modernized his force by increasing the number of police stations in Sydney (from 53 in 1952 to 92 in 1962) and the number of four-wheel police vehicles in the State (from 272 to 773), by encouraging the use of new technologies and by decentralizing decision-making. For all that, his attempts to introduce promotion by merit rather than by seniority met with rebuffs from the Crown Employees' Appeal Board and he never really solved the problem of institutionalized corruption within the force. Several royal commissions and investigations indicated police involvement in this area, and later revelations concerning Delaney's successors Norman Allan and Frederick Hanson suggest that corruption had existed at the highest levels of the force for a considerable time.

Regarding homosexuals as Australia's 'greatest menace', Delaney made their surveillance and prosecution a major priority. On his recommendation, legislation was introduced in the 1950s which promulgated new homosexual crimes. Police methods of entrapment (using 'good-looking young C.I.D. officers') were ethically dubious. Because of his obsession, scarce police resources were diverted from areas where they might have been more usefully deployed.

Delaney's nine commendations, several medals and appointments to C.V.O. (1954) and C.B.E. (1962) attested to his bravery, drive and ability. He had greying, wavy hair and a bulky frame, wore double-breasted suits when out of uniform, supported the Federation of New South Wales Police-Citizens Boys' Clubs and belonged to the City Bowling Club. After retiring in February 1962, he visited Britain and Europe with his wife. Survived by his son, Delaney died on 5 July 1969 at his Wahroonga home and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at $73,409.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Cain, The Origins of Political Surveillance in Australia (Syd, 1983)
  • A. Moore, The Secret Army and the Premier (Syd, 1989)
  • People (Sydney), 14 July 1954, p 11
  • New South Wales Police News, Aug 1990, p 17
  • Bulletin, 22 Oct 1952
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Feb 1954, 11 June 1958, 2, 28 Feb 1962, 6, 9 July 1969, 7 Nov 1981, 11 Nov 1991
  • Australian, 26 Aug 1969.

Citation details

Garry C. Wotherspoon, 'Delaney, Colin John (1897–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Colin John Delaney (1897-1969), by unknown photographer, c1947-50

Colin John Delaney (1897-1969), by unknown photographer, c1947-50

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24040427 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


28 February, 1897
Pyramid Hill, Victoria, Australia


5 July, 1969 (aged 72)
Wahroonga, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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