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Alexander (Alec) Riley (1884–1970)

by Geoffrey Gray

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Alexander Riley (1884-1970), Aboriginal tracker, was born on 26 May 1884 at Nymagee, New South Wales, son of John Riley, labourer, and his wife Mary, née Calligan. Alec worked as a stationhand before joining the New South Wales Police Force as a tracker on 11 June 1911. He was based at Dubbo. His tracking skills helped to break a cattle-thieving ring in 1913. He also assisted in the recapture of two escapees from the Dubbo gaol. Although he resigned from the police force on 31 August 1914, he was reappointed on 1 January 1918.

On Christmas Eve that year, after following her footprints across rough and barren terrain, Riley found a barefooted 6-year-old girl who had been lost for twenty-four hours in the mountains near Stuart Town. He helped to apprehend George Earsman in 1921; Earsman was later sentenced to death for the murder of Alexander Matheson. In the early 1920s Riley was credited with the capture of the 'last of the bushrangers', Roy Governor, a younger brother of the notorious Jimmy Governor. Roy, an expert bushman, had evaded thirty policemen and 'blacktrackers' for three months until Riley discovered that he tied pieces of sheepskin—wool-side down—to his feet to disguise his tracks.

At the Presbyterian manse, Wellington, on 14 June 1924 Riley married 26-year-old Ethel Taylor. He was a well-known horseman in the Dubbo district, appearing at many country shows and with the travelling rodeo of the Police Boys' Clubs.

In 1939 Riley helped in the arrest of Andrew Moss, who had reputedly killed thirteen people over twenty years. It had taken him more than twelve months of 'painstaking investigation to run this man to earth'. Moss was charged with three murders, convicted and sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. That year Riley was officially commended for 'his excellent tracking work which led to the recovery of property to the value of approximately £80, stolen from a store at Trangie, and also for the arrest of the offenders responsible for the robbery'. In 1940 he was able to demonstrate that the death of a child, whose remains were found in a gorge near Bugaldie, was the result of an accident rather than foul play.

When he was promoted sergeant on 5 August 1941 Riley was the first Aboriginal person to gain that rank in the New South Wales Police Force. Again officially commended for finding a missing man in April 1942, he was awarded the King's Police and Fire Services Medal for Distinguished Service in January 1943. He lived all his working life at the Talbragar Aboriginal Reserve, by the Macquarie River, near Dubbo, and was permitted to remain there with his wife after his retirement from the police force on 13 July 1950. Survived by his five sons and three daughters, he died on 29 October 1970 at Dubbo and was buried with Anglican rites in the local cemetery. In 1996 Michael Riley made a short documentary film, Blacktracker, about his grandfather and his 'legendary skills and deep humanity'. It was screened by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in September 1997.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Riley, Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve (Dubbo, NSW, 1999)
  • South West Pacific, no 22, 1949, p 46
  • New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board, Dawn, 6, nos 6, 7, 8, 1957, 11, no 11, 1962, 16, no 1, 1967
  • New Dawn, Jan 1971
  • Canberra Times, 1 Sept 1997
  • Riley's police service record (State Records New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Geoffrey Gray, 'Riley, Alexander (Alec) (1884–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alexander Riley, 1966

Alexander Riley, 1966

State Library of New South Wales, 32870

Life Summary [details]


26 May, 1884
Nymagee, New South Wales, Australia


29 October, 1970 (aged 86)
Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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