Cecil Smith was born at Boonah, Queensland on 30th October 1915. He grew up in the Fassifern district and married Pearl Rew in 1938. In 1934, aged 18, he joined the Police Force through a cadetship and began his career in the Fingerprint Bureau where he stayed till 1959. He retired from Townsville in 1975. This is his story:
“I’d just finished school. I’d done Senior. It was the Depression years and jobs were hard. I had had a couple of part-time jobs and there was a new police commissioner appointed who was trying to modernise the Queensland Police Force and one of the systems he introduced was the cadet system. So I applied to become a cadet and was accepted. 25 were called up for interviews and 14 were accepted.
“I had to report to the Commissioner’s office and was handed over to the Inspector who took another lad and myself back to the CI Branch and handed us over to his clerk, Mr Warwick Smith. His clerk talked to us and told us about security and secrecy then he said, “Oh well, you stay with me” pointing to me. The other fellow was to go to the Fingerprint Section. And after all that he said, “What’s your name”. I said “Smith”. He said “No good having two Smiths in the one office, you go to the Fingerprint Section.” So that’s how I got to Fingerprints.
“There were only two other people in the fingerprint section at that stage. It was 1934, the Fingerprint Section had been established about 1909, I think in Queensland. It was established by a fellow named Fowler, who was the brother of a fellow of the same name who had gone, from Sydney to Scotland Yard to learn fingerprints. On his return he established the NSW Fingerprint Section. When he came back here, his brother, Duncan, went to Sydney to learn the art and when he returned to Brisbane founded the Queensland Police Fingerprint Section. There was him and after him, Warwick Smith, became a fingerprint expert and he was followed by Bruce Pascoe who was in charge when I went there and a man named George Marsh was 2IC. George Marsh was an ex-serviceman who’d served in the First World War. He’d been injured there and he had a limp from his war injuries but it didn’t affect his work as a fingerprint man. Promotion was very slow and he had many years of service before he got promoted to Acting Sergeant. In those days, it was Constable, Acting Sergeant, Sergeant, Senior Sergeant and then Inspector. He had 20 odd years service before he became acting sergeant. Very slow movement.
“It didn’t take me long to work out that eyesight was a good requirement and that I was probably better at identifying fingerprints more quickly than either of the two experienced men that were there because their eyesight wasn’t quite so good. So when I got into a place of authority, I made sure that all the identification jobs went to the younger men. They could see better. There wasn’t a five-year apprenticeship in those days. All the expert evidence was given by the OC until I got in charge of Fingerprints when I allowed fellows who were doing the job to give the expert evidence after they had five years service.
“Training involved reading a book written by a fellow named Henry from Scotland Yard. That was the book that told you about the normal classification of fingerprints. Later on there was another fellow from Scotland Yard named Battley who had developed a system of identifying single prints instead of having the whole 10. So that was firstly the Henry book and then the Battley book.
“I was identifying fingerprints quite early in the piece. There’s no real time of identifying fingerprints. You’d throw them over to one the senior fellows to check to make sure you were right, but that was all. When taking fingerprints, you’d have a metal slab and some printer’s ink and a rubber roller and you’d put spots of ink on the slab, roll the ink out on the slab and get a thin film of ink on the slab and then you’d put the fingers on the slab, get the ink on them and put them on the form.
“For crime scene fingerprints, we used mercury and chalk when I first went there. We used light powder, lico podium that you threw on the print and blew the thing off and that left the outline of the print and then you carefully brushed that off and put some mercury and chalk on to make it more permanent. But that had a greater risk of damaging the print when you were wiping the lico podium off and so we gave the use of the lico podium away altogether and went straight to brushing on mercury and chalk.
“During the 1940s there were not very many scenes of crimes identifications. That was a kind of a red letter day if you identified one at a scene of crime because all we had was a print at the scene of crime on your desk and you’d try to memorise it as you were searching fingerprints and hope that your memory was good. You’d be lucky to do more than a score of identifications in a year. So we needed good eyes and a good memory.
“The Fingerprint Section didn’t grow very quickly after I came there. Within about 12 months after that another cadet was appointed and we had the two police and the two cadets in the office. Later on another cadet turned up but the staff didn’t increase in the fingerprint section very much at all. It remained static for years.”
During World War II the Fingerprint Section was moved out to Camp Hill to protect the fingerprint forms which numbered about 100,000.
“That was a place which was alleged to be haunted so that was very convenient, someone to look after the things when you weren’t there too. It wasn’t only the Fingerprint Section that moved out. The modus operandi section moved out as well. And then, somebody from fingerprints used to go to CI Branch in the morning and go around and check all the external jobs and at the scenes of crime, and then came out, back to the centre where we working. We only stayed there about 12 months and then moved back into the City.” In 1941 the NSW Fingerprint Bureau became the central bureau which meant sending an extra set of prints to them for storage.
In 1949 when Cec Smith was in charge of the Fingerprint Section, his evidence was vital in securing a conviction in a murder case at Ocean Island.
“That was a case in which the fact that we went to Ocean Island was an accident to start with. Ocean Island was a phosphate island where there were a number of Chinese labourers employed as well as some islanders, under European supervisors. One night, one of the European overseers and his wife were murdered in their house and the local policeman was away. They tried to get a policeman in New Zealand. There was no ship handy to bring back and there happened to be a ship off the Australian coast so they diverted it to come to Moreton Bay and we hopped into a police launch and went to Moreton Bay where we climbed on board the ship in the bay and headed out to Ocean Island. At that stage, there were three of us who went – the two detectives and myself. And so we got to Ocean Island. When we got to the island the trail was warm, a fortnight old at that stage but the local native police had kept guard on the house the whole time. We found one blood stained print out a window where the fellow had gone out and a palm print on a window sill of the bedroom. The bedroom although it was inside the house, had a large window and he’d put his hand down on the sill and vaulted into the room and his palm print was there. “Eventually we fingerprinted everybody on the island and as a result of fingerprinting – there weren’t too many to fingerprint, about 1200 altogether – we identified the palm print as belonging to one of the Chinese labourers. That was the main evidence that was used at Suva to convict him. He was convicted and we then had to go to Fiji, Suva for the trial and he was executed at Suva. At the time of his execution, he named one of the European supervisors, as being involved in the murder. But I didn’t know anything about that until after I happened to accidentally run into the Administrator of the Island walking down Pitt Street in Sydney and he tells me this story. If they told us that we might have wanted to have a few words with him, because when we first went there, just for the sake of starting with someone, we started with supervisors and the one fellow we interviewed was the most nervous person I’ve ever had anything to do with interviewing. If it hadn’t been for his wife keeping him quiet, he might’ve confessed on the spot, I think. But anyhow that passed over and the fellow who was executed, allegedly claimed that this European was involved but whether that was so or not, I don’t know. I only picked that up by talking to the Administrator.”
Cec was involved in another murder but this time did not have a successful outcome.
“I was involved in the Betty Shanks murder but nobody was arrested for it. Betty Shanks’ body was found in a yard one morning but no one was ever convicted for the murder. I had a palm print on the fence but it was a very poor palm print and it was never identified.”
Cec Smith was the first cadet to rise to commissioned rank.
“I happened to have a hobby of speaking and writing. I was a member of Rostrum. On one occasion the Commissioner was asked to address some group about something to do with the Police Force and he sent the file over to CI Branch and it ended up on my table. So instead of giving them the information, I wrote out a speech and sent it back and the Inspector saw it on the way through and thought it was suitable. He liked publicity and thought – this is all right. So at any time he was asked to make speeches, he grabbed me. He couldn’t get me on to the staff right away but eventually he made me manager of the pipe band and I was on staff. I wrote more speeches for him and eventually became a member of the staff as the manager of the pipe band and established a public relations section after that. All that the public relations section looked after was the Police Youth Clubs. But I was also interested in training and somewhere along the line I became responsible for recruiting and training and consequently I made sure that the fellows were trained as I thought they should be trained. Along the line then I became responsible for the uniform of the whole jolly force. At that stage I was responsible for designing the first policewomen’s uniform but really, I grabbed my wife and the wife of one of the other officers to work on this. It was a very formal type of uniform they designed but nevertheless. It went for a few years before it was changed. “In 1975 I retired from Townsville where I was in charge of North Queensland. After I left the police force, I was employed by the police force to, as a kind of a housemaster for a few years working the evenings at the Academy with the cadets who were in training.
“I enjoyed my police career. The high point was relieving Deputy Commissioner. I enjoyed the Fingerprints at the time but I was quite happy in every area that I worked.”
(Cec Smith was interviewed in July 2004).
Cecil Smith died in May 2007.