On April 27, 1926 two policemen from the special Gold Stealing Detection Unit boarded their bicycles and pedalled off to carry out surveillance on an illicit gold plant in the goldfield area of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. They were Detective-Inspector John Walsh and Detective-Sgt. Alexander Henry Pitman. On a recent trip to Australia, I happened on their graves in the Catholic section of Karrakatta Cemetery, outside Perth, Western Australia.
Grave of Detective-Insp John Joseph Walsh murdered April 1926
Grave of Detective. Sgt. Alexander Henry Pitman murdered April 1926
The monuments on these two graves are high and imposing, but as they lie very close to, and face a very high boundary hedge, it was not possible to take clear photographs of the front of the graves.
Pitman’s Grave partly concealed by foliage
These two graves are marked as part of an Historic Trail , with Walsh listed as Irish-born on the adjacent plaque. I was therefore compelled to discover more.
Alexander Henry Pitman – Image from the Karrakatta Heritage Trail Plaque
John Joseph Walsh – Image from the Karrakatta Heritage Trail Plaque
The plaque referred to a monument to the men that was originally in Perth City,at the front of the Police Headquarters building in East Perth, but had been relocated to the Police Academy at Joondalup, just minutes from my sister’s workplace on the adjacent Edith Cowan University Campus. I set about finding it, and wanted to check if I could get access to it, so I wrote to the Western Australia Police Department asking for permission to photograph the monument at the Police Academy campus,and I was thrilled to bits when permission was granted to visit and take photographs. And so, on my last full day in Australia, between torrential thundery showers, I walked across the huge parade ground towards the statue commemorating the two policemen.
The flagpoles on the Parade Ground frame the memorial to Walsh and Pitman on the far side of the water
Crossing the water feature at the Police Academy was almost surreal as I felt I was coming to a very special place.
The Memorial to Pitman and Walsh dominates this area which is dedicated to all WA Police Officers who have died in the line of duty.
The Memorial was made in Italy with funds raised from policemen all over Australia. It is of the goddess Themis, familiar to many as the ‘scales of justice statue’ usually blindfolded,holding scales aloft in one hand a sword in the other. In this case however, the ‘Justice’ figure has eyes downcast and holds the sword downwards, bearing a wreath. There is a Swan emblem on the shield,representing the black swans of Perth.
On either side of the base are beautifully worked images of Pitman and Walsh
Immediately behind the Memorial is a Remembrance Garden in memory of all Western Australian policemen who have lost their lives while on duty.
The contrast between the classically styled Pitman/Walsh memorial and the ultra modern design of the Memorial garden is quite stark, but adds to the sense of sombreness and certainly adds to the story that law enforcement people have been losing their lives across decades and generations.
The list makes sobering reading and I was struck by the high number who have died in road traffic accidents
On returning home to Ireland, I began researching the story of Walsh and Pitman, to put with the photographs I had taken in Western Australia. I was quite horrified to discover the horrible details of their deaths. Having been missing for some time, a search was mounted and following reports of a terrible stench and many flies near a mineshaft, their decapitated, dismembered and partly burned bodies were discovered 60 feet below ground. Three local men were arrested. One turned King’s Evidence and the other two, William Coulter and Philip Treffene were hanged for the double murder of Detective-Inspector John Walsh and Detective-Sgt Alexander Henry Pitman.
I was then very surprised to find that John Walsh was a native of County Limerick, Ireland, not far from where I live. He was born in Kilfinane, to Ellen nee Bourke and James Walsh on 14 February 1862. He attended Ardpatrick National School, studied medicine in University College Cork for a couple of years, but by 1881 he was in Sydney Australia where he joined the police force. He eventually arrived in Western Australia, after serving in Queensland and the north-western part of New South Wales.
This streetscape of Kilfinane may well have been familiar to the young John Walsh.
Ardpatrick is a small village just minutes from Kilfinane. Until 1861 they were in the same parish. The church in Ardpatrick dates from 1835 and is adjacent to the school. There are many original features still remaining in the school, which is now used as a community centre.
Ardpatrick National School next to the Church
The fine church bell dates from 1856, and the young John Walsh probably heard it peal on many an occasion.
Original window on Ardpatrick school
Ardpatrick schoolhouse is a protected two storey building. The boys classroom was on the upper floor, with access via stairs on the church side of the building nearest the bell.
I stood looking at this for a long time. I couldn’t help but contrast the image of a small boy who climbed these stairs to learn and who ran down them to play, passing that beautiful small window and perhaps glancing at the church bell, with the image of the gruesome, horrible way in which his life would end, thousands of miles away in Kalgoorlie.
My grateful thanks to Beth Naylor, Public Affairs Officer at Police HQ, Perth, Western Australia, for her help, courtesy and kindness in facilitating access to the Walsh-Pitman Memorial at the Police Academy Campus at Joondalup, WA
I am also indebted to the Ardpatrick Community worker (whose name I do not have) who was watering flowers,and allowed me access the school building.
*When making this post that I noticed the shamrock embellishment on Pitman’s headstone, indicating some link with Ireland. I have been unable to prove a direct connection, but it is possible that his wife’s family was Irish. His mother -in-law, Margaret Shepherd Fitzgerald who sadly died on May 18th, 1926, only one day after her son-in -law’s funeral, was buried in the same grave. Perhaps the headstone reflects her direct link to Ireland. More research required.
Australian Dictionary of Biography
Newspaper report of Inquests
Newspaper report May 16, 1926
Gruesome details of the discovery and retrieval of the bodies
Western Australia Police Historical Society