Australian Biography

Ray Whitrod - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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When you got to the detective division and they hung on to you, were you pleased about that?

Oh very much so. It was a status job and the pay was slightly better in that you got an out-of-pocket allowance, three and six a day, with which you were supposed to buy drinks for information from other criminals or some criminals down the street, and that rarely happened, so you kept the three and six for yourself, and that was a guinea a week extra so ... and when you're only getting three pounds a week, another guinea was a great, a great boost and ... and so we ... we ... we all looked forward, and we wore plain clothes and for some reason, men don't like wearing uniforms. I had big trouble in Queensland, as soon as my uniformed men became inspectors, they discarded their uniform and put plain clothes on, and I had big trouble with them. It was so in the SA police force. A plains clothes man was obviously a much more attractive a sort of a person than being in police uniform, and of course you weren't asked awkward questions and if you were seen going into a pub after hours in plain clothes, that would be normal but if you're going in there in uniform it would have raised a few eyebrows.

The funny part is that the suits they choose all look like a uniform to me. [Laughs]

Well, that ... when I went there that's what surprised me because they all ... I told you I was one of the short ones, but they were all about six foot, five foot ten, six foot. They all wore two piece suits, sometimes with a waistcoat as well, stiff collar and tie, not soft, and a bowler hat, and that had been a legacy from a few years earlier when bowler hats were the sign of ... of the ... the detective force both in London and in Melbourne and so forth and were sort of a hat of honour that you wore, but when I got there they was changing over to sort of more of an akubra style hat. But we always worked in pairs, sometimes in three, but always in pairs, and so when you were looking for some sort of wanted person and you'd walk into a pub where he might be, the two would walk in, stay at the door and stare around at everybody, with not a belligerent look on your face, but 'who the hell are you', look around. Immediately they'd know that you were a policeman and so forth. There was never any question that you would ... you would adopt some sort of clothing, which would blend into the landscape so you had short hair, back and front and sides, and a suit and ... and mostly the detectives wore very good suits. It impressed me. I, coming from my background with poor suits and so forth ... and I found I really had to ... if I wanted to get on, I would have to dress like them, which meant that Mavis and I had to scrape a little bit in order to ... to get a suit to wear and luckily I'd done a good turn with a ... good police work, at a place called Ingerson's in King William Street, who had a very good cutter there called Sheehan, a nice Irish name, Sheehan, but we got on very well and he used to about every six months, if I was going by, he'd whistle me in and say, 'They've got some cheap material in Ray, would you like a suit?' And he would make me up a very nicely well-cut suit and that's how I sort of fitted into the background of the rest of the staff that ... that I was well dressed and ... and, you know, approved of by the other well dressed men. Now where they got their money from I never knew but later on I ... I ... I'd a fair idea where the detectives in Sydney and Melbourne got theirs from and I wondered if perhaps some of ours might also have got a bit of that here, but I doubt it because there wasn't any large crime in Adelaide. Adelaide was a small city. You need a certain size for a criminal underworld to develop, a violent criminal underworld to develop. Melbourne and Sydney have always had it. Melbourne particularly, Melbourne more than Sydney has had criminal gangs there and so ...

Without criminal gangs there's no one to bribe policemen?

Well, yes and no. The criminal gangs I'm talking of were hold up men, [and those involved in other] violent crimes but in more recent times the money for bribing policemen has come from people who run brothels, who run SP bookmaking, who run the white collar crimes. The drug ... the drug scene has produced so much money available. I mean I'm not sure now that if I'd been offered some of the money that has gone about, [say] a quarter of a million to overlook something, you know, I might well have fallen by the ... by the wayside. The most I was offered was two thousand pounds, and that was just after the war. A warehouse had burnt down on North Terrace and a clothing factory, and we couldn't find out who ... who had burnt it down and I'd stopped a likely young lad in the street who I thought might have some knowledge and talked to him and then he ... he blurted out that he could tell me who it was in exchange for some other favours and so forth. And he told me the name. It was the owner of this factory because he got a lot of wartime contracts. Made a lot of money out of wartime contracts, making airforce uniforms and after the war the contracts had disappeared and so he was in trouble and burnt this house down for ... for insurance money. So I went round and interrogated this bloke and only got sort of half a ... half an admission from him and I didn't have enough to arrest him, and he disappeared, went to Sydney and we got a general search out for him, found him in Sydney. I went over to Sydney to further question him and bring him back and when I was in Sydney he said to me, 'Ray, he said, 'Look this is a very bad blot on my industrial record. I can give you two thousand to look the other way'. Two thousand, at the time when you're getting four pounds a week, is a lot of money and I said, 'You know', I said ... sorry, I won't tell you his name ... 'I'm not in that business', and so I ... I didn't take it. But thinking back, because I know one of ... one of my mates, who I thought was trustworthy, who fell for two hundred thousand dollars and, you know, I ... I ... I ... I've got two minds about that. I probably wouldn't do it but I could see how it would attract somebody who ... who needed the money, two hundred thousand without questions asked.

But you could have done with the two thousand. That was a lot of money.

Oh yes, because we'd ... we'd bought a house.

How much did the house cost you?

Oh it cost us about 980 pounds and we started off, in our married life, in this house, Robin, because my very good wife had saved 100 pounds from her school teacher's salary and we used a hundred pounds as a deposit on this house and down there in Pleasant Avenue, South Plympton. A nice house, a brick house, free stone front and three bedrooms and a sleep out, and we were paying this off for, you know, out of my three pounds something a week. A pound a week was going there and the rest was ... By that time we'd had two children born before the war and Ruthie after the war, so we were pretty, pretty thin with money and two thousands pounds would have paid off ... easily paid off the house and bought us a ... more house. We had no furniture in the house at all: a few beds and a table.

When you were a young detective and you came into that area, were you aware of any corruption or bribery going on among your seniors?

You mean Adelaide?


No, I never knew of any, and I don't think there was much on offer. There'd been a ... In South Australia, there had been a ... a Royal Commission into the police force in 1928 and some SP bookmakers had been found to be paying money to police for not arresting them. But about my time they introduced betting shops here in South Australia and that took away a lot of the custom from SP bookmakers, at least in the city, so there was no income from them. There were very few brothels in Adelaide. The only source of possible money was from abortionists and I wondered, once or twice, if one or two of the senior staff might have been receiving a little money from the back room abortionists to avoid inquiries into their activities because, at that time, of course, abortion was quite illegal and, and people were unaware of contraceptions very much. Single girls, if they became pregnant, it was a very social disgrace to have a child and so these back ... back room abortionists, who often were sort of midwifes, who had some elementary knowledge, often used a knitting needle to push up into the vagina and so on. There would be air embolism when the air came in and there'd be bad deaths and young girls would die, and they would be quickly taken away and left somewhere. We would have to try and find which of the abortionists had done the job and so forth. And most of them we managed to sheet home, but there'd been two or three over the years that I ... I thought maybe, maybe we might of pushed it a bit harder but ... but that's all suspicion on my part and I've got no proof. In fact I thought the SA police force was very ... was and still is a very corrupt-free police force. We've had a couple of bad, bad deviants in the force: the head of the drug squad and a few others, but we have been very, very fortunate in South Australia, so that when I went to the Commonwealth first, of course, and then later on when I had liaison with New South Wales, I was amazed at the amount of corruption that was going on. Amazed.

What about the style of detective work? What were you taught about detective skills? How did you learn, for example, to interrogate and do all of those sorts of things?

Yes. Well, it was, there was no textbook, there was no training schools. It was a sort of an apprenticeship on the job and if your senior man didn't take a liking to you, or if you didn't run around and do his little odd jobs, you ... you didn't get taught anything. It was purely a question of observation and ... and doing things yourself and ... and working out what was going on. Luckily I ... I ... because I could write good shorthand, I was attached to the, the best homicide team we had in Adelaide so I ... I had good models to follow in regard to interrogations and ... and searches and that sort of thing. And so really I ... I emerged as the most promising of the new crop of young men coming up, which the old Commissioner had seen as possible being the leaders of the force later on. But it was a new movement of younger men, which to some extent was ... was resented by the old group, naturally enough, and so you had to be very, very diplomatic how you went about your business, otherwise you got shut ... shut out. But we battled on and ... and I was appointed a detective when I was overseas, which was nice of the police force.

What did you think was the most important thing that you had to learn at the beginning, or the most important natural ability that you need as a detective to be a good one?

Robin, you make me think. I think two things: observation and memory. And ... you'll be interested in this because in the scouts we had a ... a game which I used to organise into scout meetings called Kim's Game, and it was based on ... on Kipling's Kim where ... where Kim was taught how to be as a British intelligence officer in ... in India and he had been sent to an old intelligence hand to learn and this ... this old hand would spread out on the table a collection of rubies and pearls and gold and so forth, and let young Kim look at it for two minutes and cover it over. And then he would say to Kim, 'Kim, tell me what was in that', and Kim would initially would sort of say, 'One gold ring, one opal necklace, one ... one, one brooch, one emerald brooch, one ruby'. Then later on he got to say, 'Ah, one gold ring about 16 carat, and man's size and the brooch ...' and he would nominate the pattern and so forth. We used to play this endlessly as one of the observation games. It's a very good game, and we used to play it in the scout troop and one of the things we did there was to ... I used to organise a raid on ... on ... on a German harbour and we would have crackers going off and smoke going up and the lads would be up in the loft and they would ... they'd be navigators in one of my aircraft and they would have to make an observation of what was in the harbour below through all the smoke and so forth. You know it was a bit ... bit of fun and so forth. But then going back to what your question was, we ... observation and memory. You needed both those very much and I was ... I had reasonable memory and ... and reasonable observation and I think that's what helped me. Later on you learnt about deduction and so forth, but initially when you went into a room, you looked around the room, when you got to the door, you looked around the room to see what it felt like, what it looked like, who do you think lived there, and why were these things there, and what had happened? You sort of imagined them all in your mind and then you ... you actually went out and checked: checked how much candle was in the candlestick and so forth and so on. Then you memorised these things and later on when you had to give evidence, you could recall with ... with reasonable accuracy because you would be very ... in heavy cases, you'd be under cross-examination by very skilled barristers and if you weren't particularly accurate they could soon trip you up and your evidence would be reduced to shambles by saying, 'Oh, five minutes ago he said that watch was on the mantlepiece, now he says it's on the chair'. So you had to be consistent and you had to have a good memory. They were the two sort of ... what's the word I want to use? ... sort of inherited genes if you like, developed a bit by training, but they were the two things, plus some general intelligence I guess.

Do you remember any particular early case that's stuck with you that you were involved in solving?

Yes. Well, one I remember after the war. I'd been given a new mate, Ted Calder to work with. He was then a few years younger than me, [and] hadn't been able to go to the war and I was given my own little team to work with because I'd been made a detective while I was overseas in the airforce. And we hadn't been back in Adelaide very, very long when the inspector called me in. That was a senior man in the CIB in those days. He was an inspector. [The position] is now [called] a superintendent, but he was an inspector, Inspector William Owen Ignatius Sheridan, very staunch Catholic and there was a little, I suppose, Irish influence but it never, never affected me. Bill Sheridan never ... He always treated me very, very fairly so I don't know if it was ever true. And he was there with one of Adelaide's leading barristers, a fellow called Jack Alderman and the inspector said to me, 'Ray, I want you and Ted to listen to Mr. Alderman's story and I'd like you to take over the investigation'. And Jack Alderman was a fairly prominent racehorse owner at this time and he had a horse running in the Adelaide Cup at the end of the week called Chief Watchman and Chief Watchman was the favourite, he was top rate. He was the favourite and very short odds on ... on ... on the SP bookmakers or later on at the ... at the betting shop. And Alderman said to us that his trainer ... his head trainer had come to him and said that he'd been approached by a man he called an 'investor', who wanted him to nobble that horse for Saturday's race and he ... he would invest, I think, something like 200 pounds on the next favourite in the trainer's favourite, and the next favourite of course would be at much longer odds, and the investor would win much more money by investing at longer odds if the favourite didn't win. So Jack Alderman said, 'I'd like you to look at this race because I don't want my horse to be involved in any scandal'.

And I ... I was ... I was pleased at this because it was a fairly difficult sort of case and [of] fairly public importance because this was the Adelaide Cup and there'd been a lot of writing in the paper about Chief Watchman's form and so forth, and I'd ... I'd thought that the inspector would have given it to a detective sergeant or a senior detective to me, but he asked Ted and I to come in, and I think it was because he ... he felt that he could rely on us. So we ... we planned a little campaign and we got the head trainer to ring up this investor from the police station at Glenelg. We didn't actually tap the telephone because Glenelg switchboard had ... Glenelg police had a switchboard, so we merely pushed down three keys instead of one and we had the ... the trainer talk to the investor about techniques about nobbling the horse and I took it all down in shorthand. We got enough evidence to charge him, so we rushed around, got a search warrant, went around and searched his house. He was a fairly wealthy influential man at Glenelg and we got some supporting evidence and charged him. He ... he briefed the best barrister he could in ... in Adelaide a fairly aggressive sort of ... and we were in court for the best part of a week and just before the Cup on the Saturday and I think on the Friday, before the Cup, the jury came back and said he was guilty, and that was a fairly famous victory on our part. Partly because we'd done a good job and partly because we'd been asked to do that. Any rate it was, I think, interesting because, later on, I think that helped me, or influenced some people to ask me to do some further work elsewhere.

Were you ever involved in a big murder case or other sort of ... because Adelaide's had a few startling ...

Oh yes, unsolved murders, true, true. My first one, when I was on night shift, the young ... the young detectives were put on night shift so the old ones could sleep at home at night. You went on at 11 o'clock at night till seven in the morning and I'd been to ... I'd been best man at one of my mate's weddings, Johnny Covoso [?] and we'd been to reception and I'd gone straight from reception, at 11 o'clock, to the detective office. I hadn't been there very long and the phone rang and, and a woman said, 'Please come, my husband's dead'. So we only had one car at the time at the police station, and I went out in the car with the driver and there'd been a row and he'd come late that night and she'd cooked him a meal and ... and ... only eggs and bacon or something and he'd complained very bitterly about this. He'd been drinking and she got upset and ... and quite irritated and in the end she picked up the carving knife and plunged it into his heart. And she said, 'He's dead. I killed him'. And she could have easily given all that evidence to me but because it was homicide and I was young detective, I wasn't sure. I wanted to make sure that I'd covered all my ground. So I rang up my detective sergeant, George Wallace, and he came over and he said, 'You know, good work, Ray, you've covered all the spots', but that was my sort of first introduction. And in the main, Robin, that tended to be the pattern of homicides and such like. They were domestic violence cases, and ... and the offender and the victim were often related in some way: the father, daughter, not father, but father-son, husband-wife and you didn't have to look very far because we didn't have that underworld we talked about before, where murders were done as ... as requested, but I'm not sure about some very violent cases. We had a couple: a young lad had shot his employer on a farm with a rifle. That was a difficult one to prove because the young lad's age was fourteen and we had to prove intent to kill and so forth. You'll be interested: one of the first nursing home murders we got proved here right in ... in Norwood, where we are now, on Rundle Street and I went out with my detective sergeant as the shorthand writer and one of the elderly ladies ... this was 1939, and one of the elderly ladies in a nursing home had died purely from malnutrition. Had never been fed. She was a pure skeleton, and ... and there was an old crone in charge and so forth, so we charged her with murder. Hadn't happened before. Anyway the crown prosecutor broke it down to man slaughter and we got her convicted of manslaughter, and I think that was the first time in South Australia where a nursing home proprietor had been convicted of negligence of one of her patients.

The year that you turned twenty-one ...

That I?

The year that you turned twenty-one ...


... Was a terrifically significant year for you, wasn't it?


What happened in that year?

Well, at twenty-one I left the police depot at the port I was telling you about and was posted up to the CIB as a trainee, a plainclothes man, and so my wife had been going fairly steady for a couple of years before that time, and I ...

What did going steady mean in those days?

Oh [laughs], well it's a long time ago, Robin, and you might sneer at this, but 'going steady' meant you didn't have the sort of sexual intimacies that you would these days and 'going steady' meant we went out dancing, mainly the scout dances and came home at night and I would give her a goodnight kiss outside the front door and that was the end of any physical contact [laughs]. And we were going steady for two years like that. At the pictures, [I would] put my arm around her on the back seat but that was ... that was all and I would see her sometimes if I knocked off early from work. I'd walk home from school with her and so forth, and we spent most of the weekends, when I wasn't working, with her at dances or on church on Sundays. So we, I suppose ... we ... we'd be 'an item', what they would call these days 'an item'. We'd been going out for two years and then, so I said to my wife, you know, 'What about getting married? Now that I'm sworn in', and ... and you had to wait three years after ... as a single man, after you turned twenty-one before you could get married as a policeman. They needed single men to live in barracks as a reserve force. If they were caught out from barracks, they were read the riots act, so you had to be there. So she said, 'You'll have to ask my father', and so I went home and asked my prospective father-in law if I could marry his daughter and he was a conservative, friendly, kindly old bloke. By that time they got used to us, I think, being together, although initially there'd been some reluctancy. He said, 'Oh yes, you can marry my daughter', so we became engaged, so we had a twenty-first birthday party and an announcement of our engagement and then I started out to make sure that ... when I was a young trainee at the ... at the detective office, that I was good enough to stay there. So I really worked hard at ... at being a plainclothes man.

And did you have to wait three years to be married?

Yes, well, we waited two years and about six months, and I was fed up. I'd got permission to live home and Mavis was living home and I got fed up. I wanted to get married, have a home and have children and so forth, and be with my wife all the time instead of a spasmodic thing and I was having a lot of meals at my in-laws' place and so forth. So I applied for permission for early ... for early consent to get married, and they looked at my record and said, 'Well, he's a confirmed member of the CIB. He's never going to be a single man available in barracks, he can get married'. So I started a ... a little wave because a couple of my mates, soon afterwards, did the same thing and so we got married and we bought the house they told you about, and got it built, and a couple of my mates then started doing the same thing. So down at South Plympton there's a little collection of policemen's houses built [in] 1938, '39, because it was easy to on a Glenelg tram and come up to Victoria Square and go into the detective office because we used to have to report at nine o'clock in the morning, at two o'clock in the afternoon, and seven o'clock at night. And we could go home for lunch at 12 o'clock so as long as we were back by two. We could go home at five, we had to be back by seven, and this was a very ... when you're newly married, this was ... You left your wife home night after night and I ... When I came back from the airforce I was a bit of a rebel in a way. I thought we'd fought for better conditions than this and so I became involved in trying to push for better conditions. But the other members of the ... the old members of the detective branch liked the idea of nine, two and seven, because their kids had grown up and left and their wives had their bridge parties and so forth, and when they come to town they could go down and play billiards at the billiard hall, or go to the pictures free of charge, or go and meet their mates, have a few drinks. It was, it was a duty night out for them, whereas us younger blokes wanted to get home to our families. So I met a wee bit of resistance there and, and my inspector, Bill Sheridan, called me in and said, 'Ray, look, you better be careful. You're getting known to be a bit of a troublemaker here. Not as far as I'm concerned but some of the older men are resenting you wanting better conditions'. He said, 'I understand how you feel but go carefully'.

So I thought, well, what do you do, how do you do this? So I got myself elected to the executive of the police union as the CIB representative, and I could speak through the union as a union rep and I would say, 'The union wants this', not Whitrod and his mates, 'The union wants this'. So fairly soon after that we were able to break down some of this fairly long, interminable hours because, Robin, they were legacies of the bad old days. For instance, seven o'clock on wholesale market mornings - that's the East End Market - at seven o'clock the market on Wednesdays ... Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they had to have a detective down there because it was thought that this was a place where stolen goods were exchanged, and when I checked back apparently ten years earlier some Italian fruit grower had sold a few items of stolen ... and so the Fruit Growers' Association had asked for a detective to be stationed there. So we went down there, we got there at seven o'clock and walked around the aisles in clothes that obviously said you were ... you were a copper because they were all in fruit growers' clothes and I never saw one single bit of illegality on in all the years I went there. So ... and then on other mornings you went down to meet the Melbourne Express because Melbourne criminals were thought to come across and do jobs in Adelaide and go back, and of course they would come by train. And so you went down and met the Melbourne Express. Well, what happened was that we did find a few Victorian, New South Wales criminals here from time to time but they got off at Mount Lofty, the station up the road and come in on the suburban train. It was so stupid, you know. So it was a lot of ... Nobody questioned the procedures that we had. There was no examination of our evidence when we lost a case in court. It was never lost because of bad police work, it was lost because of the juries weren't reliable. There must have been a woman on the jury. No, you couldn't have been one in those days. There was an unreliable man on the jury and so that's why he got off, not because you didn't have a good enough case. There was never feedback. The Crown never gave us any feedback, so there was no sort of systematic training at all.

And no knowledge really whether you'd succeeded or failed.

Well, you knew when you had succeeded because you got a conviction. Now whether that was a satisfactory test or not, I don't know, but ... because sometimes you would know who the criminal was and you couldn't get enough evidence and you ... sometimes you were even able to get the goods back but you couldn't charge him. So in a sense that was a success but you never really tie it up because the offender never got convicted.

Now you got married and hoped to start a family. Did you?

Yes. We ... Andrew our ... our eldest son was born about a year later after we got married. We were then at the new house at ...

What year was he born?

He was born in 1938. We got married ... no, we got married '38. He was born in 1939, just before the war and he used to toddle around the place and I ... We were very happy and there were a number of little similar families. South Plympton was not ... not a rich suburb by any means. It was a working class suburb and so there were other younger people there and we ... so Andrew had a number of little mates and he went to kindergarten. And then the war broke out and I wasn't very concerned the early part of the war in 1939, and it wasn't until June 1940, when Dunkirk came along, and it seemed that the Brits were going to be left on their own and they'd already were suffering a big loss from Dunkirk and it seemed to me that, you know, all of us who felt we ought to support our ... our British families back home and so forth, ought to go along and enlist. So I joined the RAAF reserve in June '40, Dunkirk, but I wasn't called up until February the next year, and so in the meantime we thought we ought to have another child just in case something happened to me and so Ian was born in 1941, when I was in training at Mount Gambier.

Did you go home for the birth?

No, I was training at Mount Gambier and wartime, you weren't allowed to go home for things like births and things like that, so I never saw Ian being born. And I didn't see much of him because when I ... when we finished our course we ... we embarked and went overseas immediately to Europe, so I never had much time in Australia. I saw much of ... of the boys.

As a young man there, you know, with, probably with all the stuff that you'd read, all those books you'd read when you were ... when you were walking backwards and forwards to do it, you ... they were very full of God, King and Country, weren't they?

Oh yes, especially the scout movement. The scout movement - BP started in England and it was basically a ... a movement in which you took a promise to do your duty to God, to God and the King, to help other people at times and to obey the scout law. So for all my life I, sort of, had this slogan or something, motto, that's what you did and ... and I think that that's one of the reasons why I enlisted was this ... this scouting reinforcement of loyalty to a king. We ... we ... Robin, in those days, in Murrays Lane we were all Brits. I mean, some were born in Australia and some were born in England - in London and Scotland and Wales and Ireland - but we were all Brits. England was part of us. We were part ... we were obviously part of ... of that ... that part, and so that's how I grew up with that feeling.

An outpost of empire.

Oh clearly, and that's what the scout ... the scout magazine that came out once a fortnight and Boy's Own paper and, and we had these stories by ... of the Kipling mould and so forth and that was all ... that was a sort of a steady theme that you ... We never thought about being patriotic or loyal, it was just an integral part of us.

When you joined up and volunteered like that and went into the RAAF, did you think at all about what it would mean to be away from Mavis and the boys as they were growing up? Did it cross your mind?

Yes, it did. It did but [laughs] we were all very optimistic. We thought that with our aid the ... the Brits would soon win this war.

[end of tape]

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