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William Henry Willshire (1852–1925)

by D. J. Mulvaney

This article was published:

William Henry Willshire (1852-1925), police officer, was born on 10 March 1852 in Adelaide, son of James Doughty Willshire, schoolmaster, and his wife Emily Elizabeth, née Schlenkrich. He joined the South Australian Police Force in 1878 and was posted to Alice Springs in 1882, gaining rapid promotion to first-class mounted constable in 1883.

Following the wounding of two Europeans by Aborigines in 1884, Willshire used his bushcraft and physical endurance to set a pattern of relentless 'dispersal'. Late in 1884 he took command of a native-police detachment of six armed men. Ostensibly appointed to protect settlers, they made reprisals for cattle spearing their standard duty. Willshire was transferred temporarily to the Daly River where his troop 'pacified' that region. Returning to Alice Springs, in 1886 he established the police station at Heavitree Gap, building an outpost at Boggy Hole on the Finke River downstream from Hermannsburg. Complaints by missionaries led to its abandonment after three chained 'escaping' prisoners were shot in the back by police. Disliking paperwork, Willshire often failed to report his activities; by 1890 Aboriginal deaths associated with his actions certainly exceeded the official number of thirteen.

In 1891 Willshire's men attacked sleeping Aborigines camped at Tempe Downs station. Two men died and their bodies were cremated. F. J. Gillen, Alice Springs sub-protector of Aborigines, investigated the reported episode and committed Willshire to Port Augusta for trial for murder. As he was the first policeman to be so charged, and colonists felt their rights challenged, emotions ran high: public subscriptions provided Willshire's £2000 bail and retained Sir John Downer for his defence. Aboriginal witnesses attended, but problems over accepting their evidence resulted in Willshire's popular acquittal. Having prudently stationed him at southern centres, his superiors transferred him in 1893 to the Victoria River district where he was able 'to commit mayhem at will'. Sensing further notoriety, in 1895 the government posted him permanently in the south. Willshire resigned in 1908, after audaciously applying for appointment as State protector of Aborigines. Although that post was inappropriate, his credentials were unquestionable for his subsequent twelve years as nightwatchman at the Gawler Road abattoir, Adelaide.

Contemporaries praised Willshire as an authority on Aboriginal society because he published four short accounts between 1888 and 1896. Sometimes vivid, they reflected the settlers' ethos: containing some reasonable anecdotal ethnology and word lists, they are distinguished more for their sexual overtones, boastful sadism and racial triumphalism. 'It's no use mincing matters', he rhapsodized in The Land of the Dawning (Adelaide, 1896), 'the Martini-Henry carbines at the critical moment were talking English in the silent majesty of these eternal rocks'.

Willshire portrayed himself as a heroic frontiersman, rendering the land safe for civilization. Settlers praised his 'daring and efficient devotion to duty', but his terrorism survives in Aboriginal oral tradition. He was contemptuous of Aboriginal lives and culture, and condoned female exploitation—'perhaps the Almighty meant them for use as He has placed them wherever the pioneers go'. J. J. Healy aptly described Willshire's A Thrilling Tale of Real Life in the Wilds of Australia (Adelaide, 1895) as 'grotesque, almost schizophrenic, fictions'; it was largely autobiographical.

Willshire died in Adelaide on 22 August 1925. He had married Ellen Sarah Howell on 13 September 1896 at Port Lincoln. His wife, a son and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Clyne, Colonial Blue (Adel, 1987)
  • D. J. Mulvaney, Encounters in Place (Brisb, 1989)
  • Australian Literary Studies, 8, no 3, May 1978
  • Observer (Adelaide), 16 Oct 1897, 19 July 1924, 5 Sept 1925
  • Quiz, 30 Apr 1896.

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'Willshire, William Henry (1852–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 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

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