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.

Alexander Tolmer (1815–1890)

by J. Mayo

This article was published:

Alexander Tolmer (1815-1890), by unknown photographer

Alexander Tolmer (1815-1890), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 449

Alexander Tolmer (1815-1890), police officer, was born in England of French refugee parents, but spent his early childhood in France. At 8 he rejoined his widowed father, who had remarried and was a language teacher at Plymouth, England; Tolmer went to schools there and in Rouen, Maidstone and Hawkhurst, from which he ran away to sea, but did not enjoy the experience. He entered Rev. H. Boyce's school at Edgware to train as a language teacher, but enlisted in the British legion raised in 1826 to support Donna Maria's cause in Portugal. He saw much action with Colonel Bacon's lancers, being three times wounded, most seriously outside Lisbon in October 1833. He became a corporal and claimed to have obtained the Order of the Tower and Sword. He resumed his studies in France but soon entered the 16th Lancers at Maidstone, Kent. He was a good cavalryman and by 21 he was acting adjutant and drill supervisor.

Failing to get the vacant adjutancy Tolmer decided to migrate to South Australia. In 1836 at Rochester near Maidstone he was married clandestinely to Mary Carter. They arrived in Adelaide with their infant son in the Branken Moor on 8 February 1840 and, having a letter of introduction to Governor George Gawler, he became sub-inspector of police on 19 February. Gawler wanted him to organize the mounted branch, a task for which his cavalry background well prepared him. Promoted inspector almost immediately, he was also appointed captain and adjutant of cavalry in the Volunteer Militia. His years as inspector of mounted police were active and successful. Soon after his arrival he accompanied Thomas O'Halloran's force, which after a drumhead court martial executed two Aboriginals who had allegedly killed the survivors of the Maria. Tolmer led many expeditions to prevent trouble between settlers and Aboriginals, and he spent much time in the bush pursuing cattle thieves, murderers, smugglers and seeking illicit stills. His duties also took him to Tasmania and Victoria.

Tolmer succeeded George Dashwood as commissioner of police on 3 January 1852; he had been acting commissioner and police magistrate in 1849-50 when he had proposed a superannuation scheme. He now decentralized the force, instituted water and native police and the detective force. As soon as the bullion Act of January 1852 was passed Tolmer suggested an overland gold escort service from Victoria to South Australia, designed to reverse the drain of currency from the colony during the gold rush. He left with the first escort on 10 February and returned a month later with gold worth £21,000. The service lasted until December 1853, a month after his supersession as commissioner.

Tolmer's dismissal arose partly from the disorganization of the police force as a result of his long absences on escort duty and partly from his character. A good leader, capable of inspiring great devotion, he was also hasty tempered, petty and suspicious, especially under criticism. He regarded any disagreement as a personal attack and became involved in demeaning disputes with his subordinates. Following the report of a board of inquiry in November 1853 he was demoted, but remained in the force as inspector and then as superintendent until the position was abolished in 1856. In 1859 he rejoined the force for nine months.

Tolmer's remaining years were active but he felt himself degraded. A trading venture on Lake Alexandrina failed, as did an attempt to cross Australia from south to north in 1859 and a grazing enterprise on Emu Springs and Reedy Well runs in the south-east. In 1862 he was appointed crown lands ranger, in 1863 inspecting ranger; in 1877 he was transferred as sub-inspector of credit lands at a salary of £330. He retired in 1885 with a gratuity of £1000 which he invested in Broken Hill mining shares. In 1882 he had published in London his Reminiscences of an Adventurous and Chequered Career at Home and at the Antipodes, an engaging and egotistical work in two volumes mainly devoted to his service in Portugal and with the police. In 1889 he visited England.

Tolmer's first wife had died in 1867, leaving him three children. On 14 October 1869 he married Jane Douglas at Mount Schank station; they had four daughters and two sons. He died of uraemia at Mitcham on 7 March 1890 survived by his wife and large family, and was buried in Mitcham cemetery after an Anglican service. His estate was sworn for probate at £8350.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. Bull, Early Experiences of Life in South Australia and an Extended Colonial History (Lond, 1884)
  • E. Hodder, The History of South Australia (Lond, 1893)
  • L. J. Blake, Gold Escort (Melb, 1971)
  • G. H. Pitt, ‘The bullion Act and the gold escort’, PRGSSA, 28 (1926-27)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 8, 15 Mar 1890
  • Police records (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

J. Mayo, 'Tolmer, Alexander (1815–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alexander Tolmer (1815-1890), by unknown photographer

Alexander Tolmer (1815-1890), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 449

Life Summary [details]




7 March, 1890 (aged ~ 75)
Mitcham, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

kidney disease

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.

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.

Passenger Ship