The impressive Gunnedah Court House was built in 1879 to service the needs of the growing community, with tenders called on November 23, 1877 – just two decades after Gunnedah had been officially declared a township.

A correspondent for the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River Advertiser reported on December 22, 1868, that the people of the Gunnedah district had taken the matter of a new courthouse into their own hands, with a “numerously signed requisition sent to the honourable gentleman who represents Liverpool Plains in the August Assembly, and it is to be hoped he will at length bestir himself and do something for the people who returned him. The requisition hopes he will urge upon the Government the necessity which exists for a better building than the rookery called a courthouse, which we have at present”.

The colonial architect James Barnett designed the building and the contract was awarded to JB Jones on January 7, 1878, for a total cost of 2177 pounds and 18 shillings – not including the furnishings, which amounted to 328 pounds, eight shillings and fivepence.

Gunnedah Courthouse and gaol with picket fence in 1905.

At the time the court room had a relatively low ceiling and because of the climatic conditions, a decision was made to raise the height of the court room and provide a range of windows above the adjoining verandah roof to improve ventilation – this gave the building its two-storey appearance. These alterations were completed in 1884 at a cost of 1976 pounds, five shillings and seven pence, with A. Cross winning the tender.

The first resident Police Magistrate, Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, gave outstanding service to the welfare of the community. He was the father of Charles Abbott, who served as Federal Member for Gwydir (1925-1929) and the brother of Sir Joseph Abbott, who was the Member for Gunnedah (1880-1887).

Over the years the Court House has undergone various internal improvements but the exterior has remained relatively untouched and is now classified by the Heritage Council.

Although early details of police history in Gunnedah are sketchy, it is believed there was a presence as early as the 1850s, with records showing that police stations had been formed at Gunnedah, Wee Waa, Bingara, Barraba and Nundle by 1855.

A police hut of slab walls and bark roof had been erected on the banks of the Namoi River, on the north-west side of Chandos Street, when Gunnedah was proclaimed a town in 1856.

In 1861 the police officers stationed at Gunnedah were Chief Constable Hugh Murray and Constables George Davidson (lock-up keeper), Chas Norris, Ronald McDonald and John Meere.

Henry Keightley was appointed the first resident Clerk of Petty Sessions at Gunnedah in 1858 and the town was proclaimed a place for holding courts of petty sessions.

The court sittings were held in the police hut but the site was not really suitable due to frequent flooding of the Namoi River.

In 1864 the building was so badly flood-damaged it was unstable and history records that a Mr Webber constructed a stone building on the south-eastern corner of Maitland and Elgin Streets, with this site shown as reserved for the courthouse in the 1860 town plan.

In 1874, James Barnett, the Colonial Architect, called tenders for new police buildings, with C. Grace the successful tenderer. Work was started in 1875 but not completed until 1877 at a cost of 1581 pounds and sixpence.

The new police station stood in Poe Street, later called Abbott Street, after Member for Gunnedah Sir Joseph Abbott (1880-1887). The brick police station had stables and a two-room tracker’s hut facing Elgin Street. A five-cell lock-up, charge-room and quarters for the keeper were located at the rear of the police station.

Children playing in a dray with the old Gunnedah gaol watchtower behind. Built in 1881, the gaol was demolished when the new police station was built in the 1960s.

When Gunnedah was declared and notified as Public Gaols, Prisons and Houses of Correction with the provision of district court facilities, additions and alterations were required and completed in 1881 by J. Conlan. They included two exercise yards, with enclosing brick walls, a women’s cell, and gaoler’s kitchen, with washhouse and bathroom.

The land on the corner of Elgin and Bloomfield Streets was set aside for “police purposes” on March 15, 1890, and was used for holding the police horses. The area became known as the Police Horse Paddock with stables for the horses and living quarters attached for use of the groomsman. History shows that the groomsman was usually the police “backtracker”. One of the early “backtrackers” in the 1890s was known as Bundaar as recorded in Sgt JP Ewing’s notes, which were given to local historian Russell McDonagh who then passed them on to author Ion Idriess, author of the book The Red Chief. In February 1864, the local CPS officer L. Forster had sworn in a special constable named Charles Bullock who may also have been an Aboriginal tracker. For many years Charles Moodie was the Aboriginal tracker who lived at the police stables with his family. He joined the police force in 1905 and came to Gunnedah in 1910 but left the service in the war years, re-joining the force in 1928, retiring in April 1951.

Meals for prisoners were provided by the lock-up keeper’s wife but if prisoners received a sentence of more than a month they were transferred to Narrabri or Maitland.

In 1895 Senior Sergeant William Borthistle was transferred from Coonabarabran and was in charge of three constables. He served the town from 1895 to 1914 when he retired to his farm Glen Rock adjoining the Oxley Highway – now known as Borthistle’s Hill. The popular Sergeant had earlier served at Coonabarabran for 11 years and Tambar Springs for two years and prior to that at Adelong in the Gold Rush era.

By 1945 there were eight policemen attached to Gunnedah police station, rising to two sergeants, one senior constable and one tracker by 1950.

The new police station was constructed in 1962-63 and officially opened by the Minister for Justice, Hon. NJ Mannix MLA, on August 16, 1963, when Alderman Frank O’Keefe MLA was mayor of Gunnedah and Sgt TL Platt was officer in charge of Gunnedah Police. Sgt Platt received a promotion to Inspector the same day. The gaol and watchtower and old police station were demolished soon after.

The new premises contained offices, a charge room, five cells, two exercise yards and a motor registry office, with brick residences for the lock-up keeper and officer in charge in Little Conadilly Street. The registry office was transferred to the corner of Conadilly and Wentworth Streets in 1988.

In the Gunnedah Sesquicentenary year of 2006, 15 police officers were attached to Gunnedah Police Station – one inspector, three sergeants, seven senior constables and four constables, with an extra two senior constables at Gunnedah Police and Community Youth Club.

After years of agitation, a modern state-of-the-art police station was opened in December 2018, with the $8.2 million dollar facility hailed as “a turning point” for policing in Gunnedah.

Construction was held up during demolition of the old building with the discovery of asbestos and hand-cut sandstone blocks which were part of the foundations of the old Gunnedah gaol.

The blocks were excavated and used in landscaping at the front of the new police station.

The new police station was officially opened in front of police staff, retired police officers, community members and special guests, who included Oxley LAC Superintendent Fred Trench, Deputy Police Commissioner Gary Worboys, police minister Troy Grant, Member for Tamworth Kevin Anderson and Kamilaroi man Mitchum Neave.

The new facility includes an administration building and a holding facility – a far cry from the primitive police facilities back when Gunnedah was a fledgling town.

A newspaper article at the official opening of the new Gunnedah Police Station in 2018. Pictured left, Kevin Anderson MP, former police minister Troy Grant, Gary Worboys, Fred Trench, Geoff McKechnie and Michael Wurth.

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