Mal Grant turns the clock back more than a century to trace the introduction of the motorcycle to the Victorian Police Force.
The story of Victoria’s police involvement with motorcycles can only begin with an explanation of what was legally defined as a motor cycle in Victoria. “Motorcycle means a motor car which has only two wheels and is not capable of carrying more than one person except by means of a trailer or carrier connected with such motorcycle.”
In fact this decription appeared around 1910, when the Motor Car Act was enabled, and as we all know there were motor cycles (and motor cars) perambulating the highways and by-ways of the State well before this. It was early 1897 when the populace of Victoria were initially introduced to motorized vehicles: exhibited at the Cycle Show by the manufacturers, the Australian Horseless Carriage Syndicate of Collins Street Melbourne. It was not really a motorcycle but at least the Australian Cyclist was the reporting medium. No doubt police were in attendance when the Horseless Carriage was displayed to the Governor of Victoria, Lord Brassey, and indeed when the Vice-Regal personage actually rode in same.
Whilst the local press were engaged in reporting the “arrival” of motor cars there was one person who was actually importing what we can describe today as a motor cycle. It was a three-wheeled conveyance, often referred to as a motor tricycle in later reporting. Arthur Ernest Sutton, quite often reported in somewhat derogatory terms as a “Music Seller”, was not only awaiting the arrival of his motor tricycle but was also building a motor car of his own.
In the June 10, 1897 issue of The Australian Cyclist, the reporter waxed lyrically about “Harry Sutton’s Invention”.
“The gliding through district after district without the accompanying rattle and roar of the railway train; without the efforts of whip or spur, or wincing or panting breath of the tired untrained cyclist – these are some of the joys in store for the motor cyclist. Messrs Sutton Bros. Of Bourke Street having successfully established their very large cycle business, early recognised the advantages of the motor car industry…In addition, they instituted an exhaustive series of practical experiments with a motor, the invention of Mr. Henry Sutton, A.I.E.E. very remarkable practical results are being obtained with this motor, and a motor is to be fitted to a tandem for pacing purposes. This tandem is designed to travel at the rate of a mile in a minute and a half. The motor will eb a two-horsepower and weight forty pounds.”
Thus the motorcycle was about to be launched in a fashion never thought to be possible. An imported Besston Auto-Tricycle was the first to arrive for the new venture, and by September 1897 a sensational trip was planned; from Melbourne to Ballarat. The British-built Beeston, manufactured under the de Dion patent, developed one horsepower at 1,400 rpm, and could “carry the rider with one charge of (fuel) oil a distance of from forty-five to sixty miles.” Arthur Sutton, the Music Seller, created history in his ride from Melbourne to Ballarat, departing the GPO at 8am, “the first occasion in Australia on which a motor-driven cycle has attempted a journey of any distance in this country.” The road conditions were described in The Australian Cyclist as “ resembling a cow paddock, alternate mud, rock and crabhole, not negotiable even for a cycle.” Sutton’s progress was keenly scrutinised, with a flurry of telegrams from the various outlying stations, and he averaged nine miles per hour all the way to Bacchus Marsh. He reached Ballarat at 9.30 pm, encountering “a dense mass of eager, anxious mean and women, who as the motor advanced, pushed and fought each other for positions of vantage…At the establishment of Sutton Bros., the engineer got himself inside, away from the thousands of cheering people. The police requested Messrs. Sutton Bros. To bring the motor outside and let the people see it or they would, in spite of a strong posse, wreck the premises. This was promptly acceded to, and the motor once more puffed merrily through the crowd, who jumped and skipped out of its path in a truly marvellous manner”
Thus, for the first (reported) time, we learn of police involvement in the ‘traffic’ or crowd control’ area. As the popularity of motorised transport increased, so did the rate of mishaps and misadventures. Motor vehicle accident reports were to become the bane of many a policeman’s life. However the idea of travelling around the countryside by ‘motors’ had certainly come of age. By 1901 there was talk of forming a club for motorists and before long that too eventuated. Motorcycling, per se, had become well established by 1904. The James Flood Book of Motorcycling in Australia 1899-1980*, contains an historical photograph of an unknown constable who rode his push bike to supervise a gathering of motorcycles and motor cars at Mordialloc in December 1904 – the first organised outing of the newly-formed Automobile Club of Victoria.
The Police versus Charles Mayman
Born in Mayborough, Victoria in 1880, Charles Mayman rode himself into the history books by winning the Motor Cycle Class at the first-ever race meeting in Victoria, held at Sandown park in March 1904. However Mayman the racer already had a long history of strife with the police force, stretching back to 1902 when he was apprehended by Contable Robert Ashe and Sergeant Patrick Quinlan and charged with “Furiously riding a motor bicycle through a public place; to wit Chapel Street South Yarra.” Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of his brushes with the law as a ummons issued in 1904 had written across the outside “Criminal motorist”, presumably done in his own handwriting. Charles had decided the police and himself were on opposite ends of the spectrum, so he decided to “play it cool” for a while and entered as a competitor in the Sydney to Melbourne Reliability Trial. It was in fact amongst his personal papers that the written reference was made to being a “criminal motorist” when he sketched out personal details inclding his occupation on his Entry Form. On Boxing day 1904, Mayman entered in the Eaglehawk Charity Motorcycle Races, near Bendigo. Mayman and his friend, the Music Seller Arthur Sutton, took their machines to Bendigo on a train and prepared them for racing. Unfortunately Mayman lost control of his machine, collided with a fence and was pronounced dead. It as a sad ending for a young man but it also became one of Victoria’s first motorcycle fatalities, which of course the police had to attend. The police were in fact beginning a task which was to become further entrenched in the annals of history.
When the Victorian Motor Car Act became fact in 1910, the task of enforcing the law fell to the police. There were no police in 1910 who were actually assigned to motorcycle or motor car duty. The horse still reigned supreme, just slightly ahead of push bikes. With the increasingly escalating number of motorists and motorcyclist appearing before local courts on charges of speeding and dangerous driving, the police clearly needed some more fleety means of nabbing offenders. Senior Constable Carter James Peverell and Constable James Mooney were the Force’s Traffic Branch, conducting their duties on foot or on push bikes to enforce motoring laws. Thus, in 1914, the Victoria Police purchased a motor cycle. Peverell was authorised to obtain a single-cylinder NSU. The bike was not for general traffic or patrol use though, it was for the exclusive use of two Mounted Constables: Archibald Valentine Comrie and George William Doherty. These two men were the ‘Governor’s Orderlies’, stationed at Government House to perform such duties as “carrying despatches, accompanying the Governor’s car, attending at the Private Secretary’s Office for delivery of English mail, etc.” The Force finally had a motorcycle but not for general police work!
It was not until 1921 when authorization was finally given for the purchase of Indian Powerplus motocycles (sic). In fact the Indian purchase was precipitated by the actions in 1915 of the formidable Constable Hercules Brown 5085 of Rosedale in Gippsland, who wrote to the Chief Commissioner in a very forthright way, informing him that he was personally prepared to purchase an Indian Motocycle if the Police Department would pay him £16 per annum for maintenance. He explained that the savings would be great and the Police Department would gain by not having to supply forage for the horse troop. Chief Commissioner Sainsbury countered with an offer of £10, a figure rejected by Brown, who was then ordered to relocate to the Mounted Depot in Melbourne. The Indian Agency also requested the return of their loaned motocycle which Brown had been testing. Eventually Brown’s transfer was reversed, C.C.P. Sainsbury retired, the Indian Agency got their bike back and a new Chief Commissioner was installed. The saga reached its conclusion in 1921 when four new Indian Powerplus machines were purchased – the official beginnings of today’s Traffic Management Unit.
The roaring twenties
With the introduction of Indian Powerplus machines in to the Victorian Police Force there also came a certain amount of personal division amongst the general public and the police in general. Gone were the times of a ‘friendly ploceman’ assisting horse-drawn vehicles at busy intersections. There was now a feeling of ‘them and us’ amongst motorists of all types and indeed in many ways amongst the police themselves. The mounted constables were becoming fewer and fewer, and the motor cyclists were being harassed by men of their own type – though now wearing uniforms. The days of the individual motor cyclist having a ‘open road’ to test his machine were now numbered.
The Victoria Police had a squad of Indian-mounted riders, known as the Motor Cycle Patrol, which consisted of eight sidecar outfits and sixteen men, patrolling day and night. As replacement motorcycles were needed the authorities decided to purchase a newer machine, the Coventry Eagle. All were fitted with sidecars and the days of the solo police motorcycle were still some way into the future. Between 1928 and 1932 Coventry Eagle combinations were the Force’s preferred machines. Others were tested, such as the V-twin O.E.C. seen in the accompanying photograph. Official records and photographs are scarce to the point of non-existence and the writer acknowledges the Victoria Police Museum for this particular photograph.
As in the first global conflict, the time of World War II was one of severe fiscal restraint for the Victoria Police Force, apart from the fact that no new motorcycles, except those for use with military forces, were being imported into Australia. The Army used a number of W.L.A. Harley-Davidsons as as soon as hostilities were over there was a scramble to obtain usable motorcycles by all manner of organisations, the Victoria Police included. In 1946 the police were able to purchase around 20 W.L.A. Harley-Davidsons and these solo machines became the basis for the Motor Cycle Patrol. Around 1952, Ariels were introduced and the Harleys phased out. Equipped with the red single-cylinder Ariels and the blue Square Fours, the fleet became the backbone of what is now known as the Mobile Traffic Section.
Story complied and edited by Malcolm Grant. • All photographs supplied by Malcolm Grant