In April 1929 there was a devastating flood in the small tin mining town of Derby, in north-eastern Tasmania. A dam burst after a period of unprecedented rain.
Fourteen people lost their lives and many others their homes and livelihoods. The death toll would have been much higher but for the actions of the local police constable, William Richard Taylor. He had worked as a logger for a timber mill before joining the police force in 1915
Eight miners at the Briseis tin mine found themselves marooned on two mounds of tailings as debris laden water raged around them. Constable Taylor managed to get hold of a tiny, leaky dinghy described as no more than a coracle. One by one he brought all eight to safety, at great risk to his own life. He was awarded the King’s Medal for bravery and the Humane Society’s Clarke Medal.
Three years earlier Constable Taylor had given evidence at a coronial inquest after my great uncle James Allen and fellow worker John Bastick died in dreadful circumstances following a slip of slurry at the mine. Taylor was one of those required to view the bodies at the scene, which must have haunted him for years.
Just months after the 1929 flood he was farewelled from the town with enormous regret, not only for his heroism, but for his kindness and fairness as a police officer. Oh, yes….and for his cricketing skill! But Derby’s loss was to be Ulverstone’s gain, and in sad way my own family would benefit more than most.
COMPASSION FOR AN ANZAC
Following WWI my Grandmother’s brother Arthur Singleton suffered from shellshock. He was at the Gallipoli londing and fought at Lone Pine and in France before being discharged with an injured shoulder. He was constantly in and out of the New Norfolk mental hospital. At the time Sergeant Taylor arrived in Ulverstone Arthur was very ill, and experiencing episodes of complete paranoia. The family, including my grandmother, did their best to care for him, but he had become dangerously violent. On one occasion he thought his father was a Turkish solder, and tried to kill him. Treatment of mental illness was then very basic and Arthur would be released from hospital without the benefit of stabilizing medication.
By 1930 the family were overwhelmed by shame, grief, and hopelessness. Arthur was living in a make-shift shack at Lobster Creek, not far from his father’s farm. He was totally unable to cope and it was Taylor, now a sergeant, who took action. He arranged a medical assessment and in a report accompanying yet another admittance to the asylum he wrote;
When we visited the place Singleton was sitting in the centre of the floor with not a stitch of clothing on, the place was turned upside down and things broken and torn up in all directions – it was with difficulty that we found sufficient clothes to put on him to bring him away. As we could not find a blue suit which he usually wore his sister Mrs Allen & brother-in-law returned to the place in the afternoon and after searching for some time found parts of the suit all over paddock. Sleeves were worn out of the coat and the trousers were torn and not fit for use.
The sister mentioned by Sergeant Taylor was my grandmother. Arthur continued to be released only to relapse, posing an ever increasing risk to himself and others. In 1935 Sgt. Taylor compiled another report for the Superintendent at the asylum, urging them to re-admit him. He had gone to great lengths to acquaint himself with Arthur’s circumstances and that of the family;
I have to report that A.W. Singleton is a married man with two children, his wife and children left him some years ago. He resides in an old camp on Cameron’s property near Lobster Creek. He has no property beyond his few personal effects.
He explained that on one occasion when arrested, Arthur had drawn a loaded gun and had to be overpowered. Another time he had thrust a crowbar through the window of a neighbor’s car, narrowly missing the occupant. During his most recent arrest he had armed himself with a large, freshly sharpened knife;
This man is very powerfully built and the ordinary person has no hope of handling him should he make an attack. I feel that if steps are not taken to have him retained in some suitable place he will ultimately do some grave injury.
Arthur went back to the New Norfolk asylum, where he died in 1965. It was a heartbreaking solution, but at least he was cared for, and everyone was safe.
A GRATEFUL COMMUNITY
The following year Sergeant Taylor fell seriously ill and had to be treated in Melbourne. Regret was expressed at a municipal dinner in Ulverstone;
Councillor Phil. Kelly, M.H.R, said he sincerely regretted that illness had prevented Sergeant Taylor being present. He was a tactful and painstaking officer and he hoped his trip to the mainland would result in a speedy and permanent cure.
The Warden added his regrets, and commented that it would be impossible to find a public officer who was more tactful than Sergeant Taylor. I’ve never heard the word tactful used to describe a police officer before, but judging from his dealings with Arthur Singleton it was most appropriate. This man did everything he could to resolve a dreadful situation. Ulverstone was a small community and the Sergeant’s discretion and empathy meant a great deal to my relatives and those facing similar crises.
After Taylor retired in 1952 as an Inspector at Longford, he returned to Ulverstone. He and his wife lived in Victoria Street. Strangely enough my Grandmother Allen lived in the house next door. Mrs Taylor was Grandma’s friend …. and landlady. By the late 1950s and early 60s, when I was a child, Mrs Taylor was widowed. I grew up with no awareness of what had happened in the past. The Derby tragedies and poor uncle Arthur (still in the asylum) were never mentioned. Oddly enough Arthur’s nephew Harold Singleton served as a police constable in Ulverstone in the 1950s, I hope he was as caring and ‘tactful’ as Sergeant William Taylor.
In 2012 the two bravery medals were donated to the Tasmanian Police History Group by William’s great grand-daughter, Phoebe Coates.