Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Czar Cullen: Police Commissioner John Cullen and Coercive State Action in Early 20th Century NZ

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posted on 2021-11-05, 01:07 authored by Derby, Mark

Given the central and inherently contested role of policing in the modern state, it is striking to note the generally limited historical interest in the place of policing as a factor in the development of New Zealand's civil society. To some extent this can be attributed to the imbalance, noted by British police historian Samuel Palmer, in favour of studies of those challenging authority compared with those enforcing it.1 In this country it may also reflect an historical view of the police, at least since the early 20th century, as generally trustworthy civil servants whose actions are constrained and overseen by the executive arm of government. It is my contending view that certain well known, and lesser known yet still significant, events in our recent history may owe more to the unilateral decisions and actions of the senior police officers in charge than historians have tended to acknowledge. The following study examines the background and career of one of New Zealand's most notable police officers, the first to rise from the lowest rank to the highest position in the national force. John Cullen's career also happened to coincide with the growth of the modern, post-Armed Constabulary, police and it encompassed many of the most significant events of his time, events in which his role was often central and at times decisive. Most importantly for the purposes of the present study, Cullen's style of policing, noticeable throughout his long career but especially marked once he achieved senior rank, ran counter to the overall development of the force in which he served, a development away from overt coercion towards more consensual policing. A longitudinal study of Cullen's career therefore serves to examine that wider development through its darker mirror-image, as the revealing exception to the more accepted rule. The move towards consensual policing, the most important trend within the force from the late 19th century until the mid-1930s, was measurable both in terms of internal discipline and external tactics. By both measures Cullen represented an anomaly, a return to an earlier form of para-military policing marked by rigid and even intimidatory internal discipline, and forceful coercion of targeted social groups in which extreme, even occasionally fatal, violence was considered an acceptable consequence. One question explored by this study is the extent to which Cullen can be held directly responsible for the reactionary trend towards greater police coercion, given that his term as Police Commissioner coincided with such overwhelmingly disruptive and exceptional historical moments as the outbreak of World War One. The most characteristic features of John Cullen's style of policing- an emphasis on physical force, rigid discipline both on and off duty, constant close surveillance of targeted groups and recourse to the use of arms and military or para-military personnel and tactics- were standard practice in the 19th century Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), in which he was trained and whose officers and attitudes he favoured throughout his career. This study therefore examines in some detail Cullen's early years as an RIC trainee and young Irish constable, for the understanding this period provides of many of his later, at times otherwise startling, policing decisions. The study then deals briefly with Cullen's early years in this country, and in more detail with the most significant episodes in his later career. Some of those latter episodes are among the most prominent in our early-20th century history and have been the subject of various popular and scholarly studies. In those cases I have endeavoured, to a layman's extent, to treat those events from a policing perspective, in the hope of providing a fresh and historically rewarding slant on relatively familiar events.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

New Zealand Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

Stout Research Centre


Hill, Richard