Thursday, April 4, 2013

Was Your Ancestor in the Durban Water Police?

The first South African Water Police HQ was established at the Point, Durban, in 1854.
Initially a small Force, it grew in strength until by the end of the century it comprised over 50 men.

Twentieth Century Impressions of Natal reports in 1906:
‘The Water Police are a body of men specially enlisted to patrol the harbour in boats or launches. The Docks are in charge of the Water Police, whose duty also consists in preventing contraband goods being passed through. They are closely connected with the Customs Department. They also assist in case of emergency with the lifeboat and life-saving apparatus. Its strength is about 53 constables and 4 officers and non-commissioned officers. The pay the men receive is on the same scale as the Railway Police, a constable receiving seven shillings a day. The whole charge of the wharves is left to them, the Borough Police of Durban (which, like the Pietermaritzburg Borough Police, is an entirely separate body) having no jurisdiction at the Port.’ 
In the early 1890s Captain George Edward Tatum was Superintendent of the Water Police, under the Natal Harbour Board. In 1894 the Natal Mounted Police, the Water Police and the Railway Police were amalgamated into one Force - the Natal Police.

Two members of the Water Police: the
man on the right is probably J McCarthy
Jeffray McCarthy, a Sub-Inspector of the Natal Police, joined the Water Police in March 1892, and by 1906 had risen to the position of Assistant Superintendent of the latter Force. Born in Islington in 1868, he was the eldest son of James J McCarthy of London, and was educated in that city. In 1893 he married Amy, the daughter of F Head of Johannesburg; they had three children. During the Anglo-Boer War McCarthy supervised a massive task: the landing of all troops at the port of Durban prior to the Siege of Ladysmith. A committed Freemason, he was Worshipful Master of the District Grand Lodge, Natal. He died in 1961.

According to the Natal Almanac & Yearly Directory, the Water Police had jurisdiction over:

all the waters and islands of the Port and Harbour
all vessels on these waters or on the foreshores
all wharves of the Harbour Department
the portion of the Bluff under control of the Harbour Department
all criminals, offenders or suspected persons within the jurisdiction of the Water Police, ‘or in flight therefrom’
all property suspected to be stolen or smuggled

The duties of the Water Police were thus described:
the maintenance of peace, dignity and order
the prevention of crime
the prevention of smuggling and of contraventions and evasions of the Customs Laws
the enforcement of the Port and Harbour Regulations
the protection of public and private property
the arrest of criminals, offenders and suspected persons
the prevention and repression of mutiny and insubordination on board vessels
the seizure of property reasonably supposed to have been smuggled or stolen

There are over 200 references on NAAIRS* to the Water Police. Some reveal names of various people applying for the post of Superintendent of the Water Police in the 1870s. Inspector D Irwin Nolan was reported by the Collector of Customs in 1878 for ‘insulting behaviour', mentioning ‘rumours to his discredit’. Despite this, Nolan was Superintendent of the Water Police by 1883.

The start of the Anglo-Boer War and the Immigration Restriction Act at about the same time meant additional duties for the Force. There was a huge increase in the volume of shipping passing through the harbour at the turn of the century. Apprehending prohibited immigrants, stowaways and seamen who deserted their ships - these were all in the day’s work for Durban’s Water Police.      

Also see: The Mounted Police of Natal by H P Holt (pub John Murray London 1913) Chapter XXVIII, The Water Police, pp 342-367

*   [go to NAB database i.e. Natal)


Hennie Heymans said...


I have more photos of Capt McCarthy - please contact me on

Hennie Heymans

Mole said...

thanks - Mole is on sabbatical at present;back in due course.

Mole said...

Hello Hennie: Do tell me more about your photos of Capt McCarthy. Apologies about the delay in responding but I have been away from the blog for a while. If you have further interesting or 'new' info on the Durban Borough Police you might like to write a guest post for this blog, including an appropriate photo or two. Please contact me for guidelines if you wish to subjit a guest post. Thanks, Mole