Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas O'Callaghan (1845–1931)

by Robert Haldane

This article was published:

Thomas O'Callaghan (1845-1931), policeman, was born on 11 April 1845 near Windsor on the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales, eldest son of Jeremiah Callaghan, servant and later grazier, and his wife Margaret, née Quinn. He was educated at Todd's Academy, Sydney, and as a child he travelled extensively with his parents throughout Britain and North America. On return to Australia they first settled on a farm on the Mornington Peninsula, then in 1860 moved to Melbourne. After an unsuccessful stint of gold-prospecting at Woods Point and in New Zealand, on 16 November 1867 O'Callaghan joined the detective branch of the Victoria Police Force as a detective, third class.

It was a wise choice of work; O'Callaghan soon earned a widespread reputation as an astute thief-taker. He was commended many times and his exploits featured in newspapers. Yet there was another side to the enigmatic O'Callaghan. In 1871 he was charged and reduced in rank for supplying liquor to a prisoner and on four other occasions he was reprimanded for breaches of discipline. In 1882 he was again reprimanded and suspended from duty for 'disrespectful demeanour towards the Royal Commission on Police'. Next year, only three years before being promoted to officer, the Longmore royal commission labelled him as 'not trustworthy', his retention in the force 'not likely to be attended with credit or advantage to the public service'.

Nevertheless, O'Callaghan was not dismissed but was promoted inspector in 1892, superintendent in 1895 and finally chief commissioner on 1 July 1902. He was a capable police leader, who experimented with fingerprint identification, anthrometrics and formal police training, and personally wrote the Victorian Police Code (Melbourne, 1906). He was, however, a fractious autocrat and during his commissionership there was considerable dissension in the force: Victorian police first took steps to unionize. For his part in the police crusade against the Collingwood totalizator known as 'Wren's Tote', O'Callaghan was immortalized in Frank Hardy's novel Power Without Glory (Melbourne, 1950), as the conceited and corrupt chief commissioner Thomas Callinan. O'Callaghan, like Hardy's Callinan, was 'a big man, six feet [183 cm] tall and inclined to be fat. He was fashionably dressed; a top hat covered his white, thinning hair, and he flourished a walking cane'.

The Cameron royal commission which inquired into the police force during 1905 found that O'Callaghan's administration had 'many blemishes', that, among other things, he fomented dissent by postponing his retirement and that, contrary to the Police Regulation Act, he had an improper interest in licensed premises at Carlton. Nevertheless, successive governments kept him in office until he retired on 31 March 1913.

Although best-known for his work as a policeman, O'Callaghan was active in the Australian Natives' Association, which he joined in 1876 and served as foundation chief president in 1877-78. He helped to frame the original set of rules, and in 1885 edited the first issue of its journal, the National Australian. O'Callaghan was also a pedantic amateur historian, serving as a councillor with the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria from 1912 and as president in 1925-27. He read before the society several papers which were subsequently published and also produced a List of Chief Constables, District Constables, Police Cadets and Police Officers (Melbourne, 1907). However, his most important work was lost when in 1921 he failed to publish his illustrated manuscript, 'Police and other people'.

A Catholic, O'Callaghan married Mary McDonald (d.1914), a Melbourne-born schoolteacher, on 20 June 1882, at St Francis' Church, Melbourne. They had seven sons and five daughters, including three sets of twins. He died on 1 September 1931 at his home in North Carlton. Predeceased by his wife and two of his children, he was buried in Melbourne general cemetery; his estate was valued for probate at £3073.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. Menadue, A Centenary History of the Australian Natives' Association (Melb, 1971)
  • R. Haldane, The People's Force (Melb, 1986)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1883, 2 (21), 1906, 3 (10)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 25 Apr 1903
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 Sept 1931.

Citation details

Robert Haldane, 'O'Callaghan, Thomas (1845–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 April, 1845
Windsor, New South Wales, Australia


1 September, 1931 (aged 86)
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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.