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.

Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche (1831–1914)

by R. J. Noye

This article was published:

Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche (1831-1914), by unknown photographer, 1870

Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche (1831-1914), by unknown photographer, 1870

John Blakeman Collection, Northern Territory Library, PH0057/0107

Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche (1831-1914), police inspector, was born on 30 March 1831 at Moorburg, near Hamburg, Germany, son of Matthias Foelsche. At 18 he enlisted in a German Hussar Regiment and at 25 migrated to South Australia. In November 1856 he was appointed trooper third class in the Mounted Police. He was transferred to Strathalbyn where on 5 January 1860 he married Charlotte Georgina Smith. He devoted much time to firearms and as an expert in colouring stocks and barrels his services were in great demand by local volunteer corps. While at Strathalbyn he was appointed sub-inspector in charge of the newly-formed Northern Territory Mounted Police. In January 1870 he arrived in the Northern Territory where he spent his remaining years apart from brief visits to Adelaide in 1884 and China in 1897.

After establishing a modest home in Palmerston (Darwin) Foelsche sent for his wife and two daughters. He adapted well to the difficult environment and set an example to the settlers. He remained cheerful and optimistic when others were complaining of hardship and sacrifice. As 'the very best man that could have been selected for the position at that time' he became a great force in the community. He was an excellent conversationalist, speaking and understanding English as well as his German and was very popular. He became 'a perfect encyclopedia on Northern Territory affairs and people'. He also won repute as a dentist and had a large collection of the best dental instruments.

As a policeman Foelsche was a 'veritable sleuthhound of the law', with a natural detective instinct and mental powers that made him dreaded by criminals. His knowledge of the law was such that he was said to be the best lawyer outside the South Australian Bar. He had a keen intellect, studious habits and a retentive memory. When stationed at Strathalbyn he was often selected for special duty where exceptional tact and discretion were required. Police Commissioner George Hamilton (1812-1883) considered him one of the most capable men in the police force, and Lord Kintore, governor of South Australia, described him as intelligent and efficient. In pursuit of his police duties Foelsche was unrelenting and displayed exceptional energy and courage when he led the search for native murderers. His cunning stratagems invariably led to the apprehension of suspects. Soon after he arrived in the Northern Territory he realized the difficulty in administering justice to the natives and made a systematic study of Aboriginal customs and language. On 2 August 1881 his authoritative paper, 'Notes on the Aborigines of North Australia', was read to the Royal Society of South Australia.

About 1873 Foelsche succeeded Captain Samuel White Sweet as leading photographer of the Northern Territory where his work became the main pictorial record of natives, scenery and industries for the next twenty years. At his own expense he distributed thousands of his photographs to prominent persons and societies at home and abroad, spreading his belief in the potential of the northern colony. Anthropological studies sent to Germany earned him the gratitude of the Kaiser, who presented him with a gold hunting watch and signed portrait. As late as 1920 copies of Foelsche's Aboriginal studies were being sent to universities overseas. Many of his original prints survive in Australian archives, and many negatives are in the Noye collection (PLSA) and in the South Australian Museum.

Foelsche was a useful botanical collector and correspondent for Ferdinand Mueller, who named in his honour Euc. Foelscheana, a well-known Northern Territory tree. In the territory a mountain, river, headland and street in Darwin bear his name. A notable Freemason, he helped to found the Port Darwin Lodge which was named after him. He retired from the police force in January 1904, and was awarded the Imperial Service Order. In his last two years he was confined to his chair and suffered much pain before he died on 31 January 1914.

Select Bibliography

  • S. F. Downer, Patrol Indefinite: The Northern Territory Police Force (Adel, 1963)
  • P. Foelsche, 'Notes on the Aborigines of North Australia', Transactions and Proceedings and Report of the Royal Society of South Australia, vol 5, 1881-82, pp 1-18
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 5 Feb 1914
  • Northern Territory Times and Gazette, 7 Feb 1914
  • Observer (Adelaide), 7 Feb 1914
  • Australasian-Photo Review, Nov 1955.

Citation details

R. J. Noye, 'Foelsche, Paul Heinrich Matthias (1831–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche (1831-1914), by unknown photographer, 1870

Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche (1831-1914), by unknown photographer, 1870

John Blakeman Collection, Northern Territory Library, PH0057/0107

Life Summary [details]


30 March, 1831
Moorburg, Hanover, Germany


31 January, 1914 (aged 82)
Darwin, Northern Territory, 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.