Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Haden Daniel Spyer (1872–1967)

by John Knott

This article was published:

Haden Daniel Spyer (1872-1967), policeman, was born on 2 August 1872 at Acton, London, third child of James Spyer, forwarding agent, and his wife Georgiana Rachel, née Nathan. He grew up in London where he learned watchmaking. Influenced by his reading to migrate, he reached Sydney in 1893, penniless and unable to find work. He tried prospecting for gold, but survived by repairing clocks and watches at farmhouses in exchange for food.

Returning to Sydney, Spyer joined the New South Wales police on 21 September 1893, after attesting that he could swim and ride a bicycle. Physically and temperamentally he was suited for police work: 6 ft 2½ ins (189 cm) tall and weighing 15 st. 9 lb. (99 kg), he had strong features and an imposing black moustache; his friendly disposition had to it an air of calm authority and in later life baldness only seemed to add to his presence. He began by pounding the beat around Darlinghurst, usually at night.

Following the outbreak of the South African War, Spyer was granted leave to enlist in the New South Wales Army Medical Corps and sailed in the troop-ship Moravian on 17 January 1900. The diary he kept in the Transvaal detailed his growing disillusion with the war and his struggles against hunger, the elements and mindless military discipline. His letters to friends were occasionally published in the Sydney Evening News. In October he contracted malaria and was invalided home. While visiting his parents in London, he met and married Ada Louise Ebbutt, daughter of a registrar of marriages, at Christ Church, Croydon, on 13 July 1901. Together they came to New South Wales.

In 1903 Spyer received his stripe as constable 1st class. Apart from regular duties, he played the piccolo in the police band. An advocate of lifesaving and resuscitation techniques, he was chief instructor for the Royal Life Saving Society in 1909-10 and at Bondi Surf Bathers' Life Saving Club (1911-15) where he coached championship teams and was later club secretary.

Promoted senior constable and placed in charge of prosecutions at the Water Police Court in 1910, Spyer found his niche. He was elevated to sergeant in 1915 and inspector 1st class in 1921. Transferred to the Central Police Court, he rose to be senior police prosecutor. With his unflappable manner, 'Smiling Sergeant Spyer' was one of the characters of the court, frequently clashing with the solicitor, 'little Ernie' Abigail, yet showing forbearance to the madam, 'Tilly' Devine; in cross-examination he employed 'a rapier-like method of tearing a witness to pieces, while applying the balm of good humour'.

Given higher duties at police headquarters, Spyer served from 1924 on the new Police Appeal Board, but offended some members of the Police Association. In 1927 he was promoted superintendent 3rd class. As the trusted lieutenant of Police Commissioner James Mitchell, he handled several confidential inquiries and oversaw the establishment of a wireless room at headquarters. Despite Mitchell's recommendation, opposition from the Police Association prevented Spyer from succeeding him as commissioner. In 1929 he was suddenly moved to Bathurst as superintendent 1st class with charge of the Western Police District and unsuccessfully appealed against the transfer. Spyer retired on a full pension on 2 August 1932.

He spent his retirement tending the garden at his Bronte home, playing bowls at Waverley and continuing as an active Freemason (initiated 1895). Predeceased by his wife, he died in Coogee hospital on 26 July 1967 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. He was survived by two sons.

Select Bibliography

  • New South Wales Police News, 1 Sept 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Jan 1965
  • H. D. Spyer, Transvaal War diary, and scrapbook (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Knott, 'Spyer, Haden Daniel (1872–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 August, 1872
London, Middlesex, England


26 July, 1967 (aged 94)
Coogee, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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