Tolmer's Reminiscences


Mr. Alexander Tolmer's long-promised story of his life, here and in the old world,has at fast made its appearance in two handsomely-bound volumes, full of interesting accounts of the author's experiences from his boyhood up to the present time.

An autobiography is commonly a somewhat hazardous experiment, as the writer may fall into the error of exaggerating the importance of his own achievements, and taking it for granted that to the public the scenes through which he has passed will be as interesting as they were to himself. The questions anyone undertaking to launch such a work upon the reading world should first endeavor to have satisfactorily answered are whether the incidents of his life are of an exceptionally sensational and interesting character, or whether they will deservedly attract special attention on account of their connection with public events, or because they are inter woven with historical associations. In Mr. Tolmer's case these questions could all undoubtedly be answered in the affirmative, before he resolved upon offering to the public his " Reminiscences of an Adventurous and Chequered Career at Home and at the Antipodes." The work is published by Messrs. Sampson Low, Maraton, Searle, and Rivington, of Fleet-street, London, and is issued to the subscribers whose names were obtained beforehand at 10s. 6d., but we understand it has been discovered that the price was fixed too low, and that the workwill not be obtainable by the general public so cheaply.

Mr. Tolmer has properly described his career as an adventurous one, and his character and tastes were in his youth just those of one who was tolerably certain to find his sphere in the army, the navy, or some young colony where there was plenty of excitement and hard healthful work. To him fresh air and active exertion were necessary to make existence endurable ; danger and hard knocks came as matters of course and gave zest to life. Australia, and this colony certainly, in days gone by owed much to men of this temperament who were real pioneers when there were many hardships to endureand many perils to be faced.

Mr. Tolmer has no English blood in his veins. His father was a Frenchman, of German extraction on the male side, and was one of the great Napoleon's veterans, who, however, grew tired of the Empire when the little corporal was sent to Elba, and consequently on Bonaparte's return had to take refuge in England with his wife, a Frenchwoman, who died on British soil two months after the birth of the author, who was her only child. Mr. Alexander Tolmer was educated in France and England, and obtained a mastery of the languages of both countries, but seems to have been less attached to severe studies than to the "light fantastic toe," to music, in which divine art he became accomplished, and to muscular Christianity. It is not surprising that his father, who had embraced the profession of a teacher of languages, found it impossible to persuade him to follow the same walk in life.

To cure the boy of a propensity to go to sea, Mr. Tolmer, sen., sent him for a voyage or two, during which he got more kicks than halfpence, and afterwards he enlisted in the volunteer force that went to Portugal in 1833 to fight the battles of Donna Maria against Don Miguel. The force was under the command of Colonel Bacon, whose wife, the late Lady Charlotte Bacon, so well-known in this colony, accompanied him to Portugal, and remained in the country till the close of the war. Having a good seat in the saddle to begin with, Mr. Tolmer joined the Lancers, and became a perfect horseman. skilled in the use of flic lance, and an accomplished swordsman.

His account of his service in Portugal is not only full of exciting and entertaining anecdote, but gives an instructive sketch of the dynastic struggle then going on in that country, and describes to a considerable extent the habits of the people. To the mind's eye of the reader are brought vivid representations of the dare-devil British and the brave Caladores, beleaguered fortresses, fierce conflicts in streets, in cornfields, on bridges and on vine-cladhillsides; the retreat, the rally, the splendid cavalry charge and glorious victory, with its harvest of blood and death and suffering. Mr. Tolmer had his share of ''moving accidents by flood and field," and of "hair breadth 'scapes." He was wounded several times—once seriously in the breast—and in a besieged town was, with his comrades and the civilians, reduced by starvation to eat dogs and cats and other choice viands, such as the Parisians were obliged to devour a dozen years ago, when the victorious Germans surrounded their beautiful city.

The war over, Mr. Tolmer was offered a commission in General De Lacy Evans's army about to take the field on behalf of the Queen of Spain, but declined, having had enough of campaigning for a time. He returned to England and then went to France to study, but finally resolving not to become a teacher of languages, as his father wished, he again want back to England, joined the 16th Lancers, was appointed riding-master and drill instructor, made a clandestine marriage, and finally being disappointed in obtaining a commission was advised to come to South Australia. Old colonists had a great dread of ship yarns. with which, when ocean voyages were not so common as they are now, they used to be dreadfully bored, each new comer forgetting that there is, generally speaking, a consider able sameness about experiences at sea. In describing the voyage of the Brankanmore, however, Mr. Tolmer is never tedious. It was long and varied in incidents, and his gift of narrative is pleasantly exercised. At St. Jago, through the misconduct of a fellow-passenger, he got into a row with the Portuguese; on board ship he thrashed the first mate, knocked the carpenter down, and kicked the second mate in the abdomen —and served them right.

Arriving in Adelaide in February, 1840, Mr. Tolmer presented to the Governor, Colonel Gawler, a letter of introduction from Colonel Brotherton, His Excellency's companion-in-arms at Waterloo, and was at once appointed sub-inspector of police. Afterwards he became successively inspector, superintendent, commissioner, and police magistrate. Then he established the gold escort from the Victorian diggings to Adelaide, and here his fame and culminated. Afterwards he disagreed with some of his subordinates, and called for aboard of enquiry,which resulted in his being removed from his position as commissioner and replaced in that of inspector, Major Warburton succeeding him in the higher office. Afterwards Mr. Tolmer was made superintendent, but he had a trying time of it from the period of Major Warbarton's appearance on the scene.

To the general reader the long account of the disagreements in the force from this time, December, 1853, till Mr. Tolmer's connection with the force ceased, between two and three years later, with all the voluminous correspondence relating to these unhappy disputes, will be somewhat wearisome ; but Mr. Tolmer felt it his duty to vindicate himself from the charges brought against him, and to demonstrate that throughout he had been most unjustly treated. How far he has succeeded in these objects is a question on which we need not pronounce a decided opinion. According to his own showing there were faults on both sides. There was evident justification for Major Warbarton's charges against Mr. Tolmer of want of tact and temper in dealing with other officers, and want of fair consideration for their feelings; but these very faults the Major exhibited in his conduct towards the officer he rebuked and complained of. But whatever errors Mr. Tolmer committed, he paid a heavy penalty. Having by his eminent services, in critical periods of the colony's history, laid the community under a deep and lasting debt of obligation, he was superseded by a gentleman who had no claims upon the public, and who never afterwards by success in the management of the police force justified his appointment. The force, however, is highly efficient now, and we need not dwell on that unsatisfactory portion of to history.

During Mr. Tolmer's connection with the police their duties were of the most arduous character, calling for qualities of no common order on the part of officers and men. Our small population was invaded by convicts, many of them of the worst possible character from the older colonies. They came by land and sea; along the banks of the Murray or by way of the Coorong—singly or in companies; each overland party with sheep or cattle contributed a few burglars or a murderer or two from the parent colony; while felons of all kinds and degrees sailed from Van Diemen's Land for these shores. Nearly all the prisoners at each gaol delivery were men who had left their country for their country's good. Had our police been insufficient then the consequences to the scattered population of South Australia would have been most appalling, and it was truly providential that there were such men as Tolmer and Alford, and others who served with them, to grapple with the evil. They took pride and pleasure in their work, and the greater the toil and danger involved in their pursuit of criminals, the more they seemed to enjoy it. The ordinary "detective's album" becomes nauseating, but in the accounts of the pursuit of brigands among the mountain ranges, across plain and river and through the scrub and forest of a new wild country, there is a romance and exhilirating excitement not to be found in the vulgar pages of the Newgate Calendar.

In those days the police of this colony were renowned throughout Australia. A gang of bushrangers and murderers, on whose heads heavy prices were set by the Government of Van Diemen's Land, and who had baffled for three years all the efforts of the constabulary of that island to capture them, were taken by Mr. Tolmer and his men on Yorke's Peninsula a few weeks after the miscreants had landed there, and soon afterwards ended their career on the gallows at Hobart Town. Other runaways from beyond our borders who took to bushranging in this colony graced the scaffold in Adelaide, and many scores were sent back either to Sydney or VanDiemen's Land. Kangaroo Island was a refuge for some of the offscourings of the earth, but Inspector Tolmer routed the vermin out of this haunt, and returned them to the places from which they had fled. The natives also had to be dealt with in those days, and it was no easy matter to capture the wily savage in the scrub about and beyond Port Lincoln. The old story of the massacre of the crew and passengers of the Maria by the Coorong blacks, and the punishment of the ringleaders in that crime, is well told by Mr. Tolmer.

Who among us of middle age does not well remember Tolmer's escort, without which the Bullion Act would to a great extent have failed of its effect. This escort was proposed, organised, and managed by Mr. Tolmer. It enabled South Australian diggers, who were of all classes of our society,to send their gold from Bendigo or Forest Creek to Adelaide and sell it at £3 11 s., the price fixed by the Bullion Act, at a time when the price obtainable in Victoria was under £3. The danger to the escort party from bushrangers was by no means thrilling, and the perils from flood in the winter time were of no common order. On one trip the spring-cart was washed away after the gold had been taken out, and Mr. Tolmer had to swim about a creek, down which the waters were coming in full flood, in order to save some of the horses, and then he dived and recovered successively six bags of the precious metal that were lying on the bottom of the stream.

After leaving the police Mr. Tolmer made an attempt to forestall the late Mr. Stuart, the renowned explorer, in crossing the continent, but was driven back by drought. Afterwards he tried sheepfarming in the Long Desert, but twenty years ago he received the appointment of inspector-ranger, which he kept till after the liberalisation of our land system, he was appointed inspector of credit selections, which office he now holds. It says much for Mr. Tolmer's energy and for his fine constitution that has outlasted so much work, worry, exposure, and bodily injury, that he is able to perform the laborious duties neces sarily attached to his position.

The "Reminiscences" embrace many subjects and many incidents of a social, convivial, sporting, and humorous kind. One chapter is devoted to his thoroughbred mare Norah, probably the greatest trotter that was ever bred in this hemisphere. There is nothing in Mr. Tolmer's Portuguese experiences more wonderful than some of the events recorded as having occurred in South Australia, and which are in the memory of many old colonists. The book before us brings back scenes in which some "pioneers" who have long passed away were prominent figures ; in fact it is saddening to think how the muster roll has thinned of the writer's contemporaries. This of itself, however, makes the book more valuable, for it is an excellent addition to our records of the early days of the colony. Though making no pretensions to literary skill, Mr. Tolmer has an easy but vigorous style, and considerable power of graphic description. Of his sanguine temperament some of the passages in this work afford amusing illustrations. He takes a real interest in what is going on around him, enjoys life, appreciates scenery, loves a good horse, and possesses in a high degree the faculty of fighting his battles o'er again, of realising and reproducing bygone scenes in which he has played a part. We can confidently recommend this book as one that will well repay the reader, and as being worthy of a place in every library.

-MR. TOLMER'S REMINISCENCES. (1883, February 12). The South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1858 - 1889), p. 6.


" Reminiscences of an Adventurous and Chequered Career at Home and at the Antipodes" online at



The death of Captain Alexander Tolmer removes an old colonist who was intimately connected with many of the stirring incidents of the early days of South Australia. His career was of a most varied character, both before and after his arrival here, and while occupying different positions in the colonial service he was instrumental in capturing some of the notorious bushrangers of the early times. A little time ago he took a trip home to recruit his health, from which he returned in the latter part of last year. The illness to which he succumbed— inflammation of the brain —was only of about a week's duration, and although after the first few days he appeared to be getting better a relapse set in, and he died at his residence, Mitcham, on Friday, March 7. At the time of his death he was 75 years of age, and he leaves a widow and family.

Captain Tolmer was the son of a French officer, of German extraction, who migrated to England after the return of Bonaparte from Elba in 1815. After leaving school he had for a while some experiences at sea, and then enlisted in the expedition that was fitted out in England in 1832 to aid Donna Maria against Don Miguel in Portugal. As a lancer in the British Legion he served under General Bacon through a portion of the campaign in Portugal. Declining a commission under Sir DeLacy Evans, he returned to England, and shortly afterwards enlisted in the 16th Lancers. After serving for some time he retired from the army and emigrated to Australia in the ship Brankanmore, arriving in Adelaide towards the end of 1839.

In February, 1840, he was appointed by Governor Gawler sub inspector of mounted police, Mr. Inman being at that time superintendent. A few months later the Board of Police Commissioners was dissolved, and Major O'Halloran was appointed Commissioner of Police. Sub-Inspector Tolmer being created inspector of mounted and rural police. The same year a corps of Volunteer Militia was formed, and Mr. Tolmer was appointed adjutant of cavalry with the rank of captain.

In his position in the police he carried out many of the expeditions against the bushrangers and natives in the early days, being prominently connected with that against the murderers of the passengers and crew of the brig Maria, which was wrecked at Encounter Bay in August, 1840.

In 18144 he distinguished himself by the capture of a gang of bushrangers on Kangaroo Island ; in 1848 by the capture of another gang on Yorke's Peninsula. In the following year he went in pursuit of the natives who murdered Captain Beever in the Port Lincoln district, and was successful in his quest.

In August, 1819, when Mr. G. F. Dashwood, at that time commissioner of police, accepted the appointment of stipendiary magistrate at Port Adelaide, Mr. Tolmer was temporarily appointed commissioner of police and police magistrate, the clerk at the Police Court at that time being Mr. S. Beddome, the present magistrate. Fifteen months later Mr. Dashwood resumed the office, but in January, 1852, when Mr. Dashwood was placed at the head of the Customs Department, Mr. Tolmer was permanently appointed to those positions.

A year or so later the rush to the Victorian diggings took place, and when the difficulty arose of obtaining money in Adelaide for the gold brought back by successful diggers, the Bullion Act was passed empowering the Government to establish an assay office and convert the gold into stamped ingots to be exchanged with the banks for their notes. Mr. Tolmer then proposed the establishment of a mounted police escort to bring the gold across to Adelaide. The suggestion was adopted and Mr. Tolmer took charge of the first escort, bringing back gold dust and money to the amount of £21,000 on this experimental trip. He reached Adelaide with the escort on March 21, 1862, and received an ovation on the successful issue of his mission, He took three trips in all that year, and conveyed £188,146 worth of gold from the Bendigo diggings.

In the following year a difference occurred between the commissioner and Inspector Stuart, regarding which a board of enquiry was held. In November Mr. Tolmer was relieved of the office of commissioner and appointed superintendent, Major P. E. Warburton being placed at the head of the force. The duties of this office he discharged till March 1, 1856, when the Government dispensed with his services on account of reductions in the force.

He then proceeded to organise an expedition to cross the continent, but he was unable to get further than Arkaba Creek owing to the want of horses and the unfavorable season. Mr. Tolmer was unsuccessful in forming a second expedition, and having met with bad fortune in an attempt at sheep-farming— he some time afterwards re-entered the Government service as inspector of credit selections, but shortly afterwards he retired from active service.

He recently received the Royal permission to wear the Portuguese Order of the Tower and Sword. In 1882 he published a couple of volumes, ' Early Reminiscences,' giving an account of many of the exciting episodes in his career.

The funeral of the deceased gentleman took place on Sunday afternoon, March 9, About 4 o'clock a gun-carriage bearing the coffin containing the remains of the deceased gentleman, left his residence, Belle View, Mitcham, for St. Michael's Church, where the service for the dead peculiar to the Church of England was read by the Rev. F. W Samwell the incumbent of the church. A procession was then formed in the following order :— The Police Band, the Military Band, the body, the deceased's family, members of the S.A. Police Force, both foot and mounted ; members of the S.A. Militia, infantry, artillery, lancers; General Downes and staff, and the general public .The funeral cortege slowly wended its way to the picturesque cemetery situated on the heights of Mitcham, both bands alternately playing the Dead March from 'Saul.' On arrival the coffin was borne on the shoulders of several members of the Military Force, and the burial service having been read by Mr. Sam well the body was lowered into the grave, a firing party composed of members of the Permanent Force under Lieutenant Hawker discharged three volleys, and the Military Band played 'Go bury thy sorrow,' which terminated the mournful ceremony.

Around the grave, in addition to the members of the deceased gentleman's family, we noticed the Commandant of the Military Forces (Major General Downes), Brigade - Major Lovett, Lieutenant- Colonel Madley, Major Ferguson, Major Rowell, Major Plummer, Captain Dean, Captain Rowell, Captain Taylor, Captain Foster, Veterinary Surgeon Bickford, Lieu tenants Bickford, Cate, Downes, Clucas, Smith, Hughes, and Morley, Commissioner Peterswald, Inspector Hunt and Sullivan, Sub Inspector Shaw, and Messrs. W. S. Neill (Commissioner of Railways), W. D. Scott (Master of Supreme Court), Morgan, Hawkes, G. Mallen. E. H. Hallaok. W. Giddings, R, Brown, T. F. Duffield, W. Gooch, M. H. Davis, August Davies. Jno. Clark, W. Dean, N. Kildael, J. Oreswell, J. Dowie, P. Ormiston, O. Levi, J. Bartlett, A. J. Batt. J. S. Duff, A. King, T. Moyle. J. Sadler, G. Ball, A, M. Pettinger, J. Whitehouse. S. Heaeltine, R. Patterson; H, J. Morris, I. Powell. E. Barrett, E. Reed, A. Foster, J. Chapman, C. Hamilton, and W. Packer. Apologies for non attendance were received from Lieutenant Colonel Makin, Major Peterswald, Messrs. J, N. Perry, C. W. Davies, W. M. Green, J. Moorhouse, A. Peterswald, and A. M. Woods.

DEATH OF CAPTAIN TOLMER. (1890, March 15). South Australian Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1889 - 1895), p. 8.