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John Joseph Walsh (1862–1926)

by Mollie Bentley

This article was published:

John Joseph Walsh (1862-1926), detective, was born on 14 February 1862 at Kilfinnane, County Limerick, Ireland, son of James Walsh, farmer, and his wife Ellen, née Bourke. John attended school in Ardpatrick and in 1879-81 studied medicine at Queen's College, Royal University of Ireland, Cork. He migrated to Sydney and joined the police force on 24 November 1881. Three years later he arrived in Queensland where he served as a constable at Townsville and Bowen, then transferred to the north-western district of New South Wales in 1887. At Perth in 1891 he joined the Western Australian police force and spent six years at country stations, including the goldfields. Assigned to the detective branch in 1897, he worked at Fremantle and Kalgoorlie before becoming detective-sergeant in charge of the Fremantle office in 1905. On 18 April 1900 at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Perth, he had married Mary Jane Newell, a niece of Bishop Gibney.

Theft was endemic on the eastern goldfields where stolen ore was treated in illicit furnaces hidden in thick bush. Although such practices were widely accepted, the losses suffered by mine-owners led to a royal commission in 1906 and to the establishment next year of a gold-stealing detection staff, based at Kalgoorlie but operating independently of local police. Transferred there in 1908, Walsh took charge of both the detective branch and the gold-stealing staff. He was 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm) tall, dark and trim, with hazel eyes and a bushy moustache; he had a reputation for absolute integrity, excelled in boxing, running and weight-lifting, and was an experienced bushman. Among his staff was Detective-Sergeant Alexander Pitman.

From 1912 Walsh was a sub-inspector at Perth, heading the criminal investigation branch; promoted inspector in 1916, he returned to Kalgoorlie in 1920 in charge of the gold-stealing detection staff. Four years later the squad was reduced by four, leaving only Walsh and Pitman to police the entire area. Threats were made against them; their wives returned to Perth. On 28 April 1926 the two men set out for an unknown destination. Because of the need for secrecy, they did not inform the Kalgoorlie station of their proposed movements.

On 12 May their charred and dismembered bodies were found in a disused shaft, some six miles (9.6 km) south-west of Kalgoorlie. A week later their bicycles were found in the bush 17 miles (27 km) to the south-east. A gold-treatment plant was nearby and evidence indicated that the murders had occurred there. Perth detectives joined the search for the killers. On 6 June three local men—Evan Clarke, Phillip Treffene and William Coulter—were arrested. Clarke turned King's evidence, swearing that he had only assisted in disposing of the corpses. Treffene and Coulter were found guilty of murder and hanged.

Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, Walsh was buried in Karrakatta cemetery; his estate was sworn for probate at £52. A monument commemorating Walsh and Pitman was erected outside Perth's police headquarters in 1929 and rededicated at Adelaide Terrace in 1988.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • H. E. Graves, Who Rides (Lond, 1937)
  • J. Coulter, With Malice Aforethought (Perth, 1982)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1906, 2 (14), p 5
  • Western Argus, 2 May 1905
  • West Australian, 13 May 1926
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13, 14 May, 26 Oct 1926
  • Western Australian Police Department, Community Affairs branch files (State Library of Western Australia)
  • police occurrence books, gold stealing detection staff, 1907-10 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • New South Wales police register (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Queensland Police Dept, Community Relations branch (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Mollie Bentley, 'Walsh, John Joseph (1862–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 13 June 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]


14 February, 1862
Kilfinnane, Limerick, Ireland


1926 (aged ~ 63)
Western Australia, Australia

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