I — The Life of Paul Foelsche, 1831-1914
Paul Foelsche was one of many nineteenth-century German immigrants to South Australia who made lasting contributions to Australian culture. His skill as a photographer defines him today, but he spent his working life as a police officer on the Australian frontier.
From Hamburg to Adelaide
Paul Foelsche was born on 30 March 1831 in the village of Moorburg on the south bank of the River Elbe, close to the city of Hamburg. He was christened in the village's ancient Lutheran church, receiving the family names of Paul Hinrich Matthias Fölsche.
Paul's mother died when he was very young, but his father remarried at the end of 1832. This second marriage produced six younger brothers and sisters for Paul.
Paul's father and grandfather were rope-makers for ships at the nearby port of Hamburg. This also may have been Paul's destined profession, but little is known of his education or early working life. In 1848, as a 17 year old, he joined the Prussian Hussar cavalry fighting the Danish over the disputed Schleswig-Holstein principalities, north of the River Elbe. During the next few years he acquired practical skills as a horseman, gunsmith and, it seems, as a dentist.
In mid-1854 Paul Foelsche joined a great exodus of emigrants from Germany. Some were victims of religious or political persecution. Others, like Foelsche himself, sought better economic opportunities. By the mid-1850s the Australian colonies had become an attractive destination.
Paul Foelsche booked a single passage for Adelaide, embarking from Hamburg aboard the 'Reiherstieg' on 22 June 1854. After a voyage of 127 days he and 149 other German passengers landed at Port Adelaide on 26 October. He was 23 years old. Like many other emigrants, it seems that his first destination was the Victorian goldfields.
Trooper Foelsche at Strathalbyn
Paul and Charlotte Foelsche's daughters Rosie Emma and Mary Jane. Photographed by Paul Foelsche in Darwin, 1874.
In November 1856, after trying his luck on the Victorian goldfields, Paul Foelsche enlisted in the South Australian Mounted Police. A few months later he was posted to the country town of Strathalbyn, 60 kilometres south-east of Adelaide, where he helped to establish its first police station.
Trooper Foelsche developed a reputation for efficiency. Selected for detective work in several cases of robbery and murder, he soon rose through the ranks. He was promoted to Corporal in 1867.
Despite opposition from his superiors, who preferred Mounted Police troopers to remain single, Foelsche married in January 1860.
His bride was Charlotte Smith, 20 year-old daughter of a Strathalbyn carpenter. With this marriage Foelsche left the Lutheranism of his upbringing and joined Charlotte's Wesleyan Methodist church. Daughters Rosie Emma and Mary Jane were born in 1860 and 1863.
Foelsche's police duties brought him into contact with the Aboriginal people of the Strathalbyn district and nearby Lake Alexandrina. Not all these encounters were official. Foelsche learnt to throw the reed spear and the returning boomerang. He wrote: 'I could never make it describe a circle in the air and return to me, in which art my principal tutor Jacky Hooper … was an adept'.
By 1869 Foelsche was 38 years old, a pillar of Strathalbyn society. His gunsmith and dentistry skills were in demand from locals, and he had begun experimenting with photography. Although his life seemed settled, he had become the ideal candidate for South Australia's
Inspector Foelsche in Darwin
In late November 1869, Foelsche was informed of his promotion to Sub-Inspector and his immediate posting to the fledgling settlement of Port Darwin. He sailed aboard the 'Kohinoor' just three weeks later, on 15 December. His wife and two daughters joined him a year later.
Initially, Foelsche commanded five police troopers. Their immediate mission was to protect the South Australian settlers as they built the new town of Palmerston on land surveyed by George Goyder. During May 1869 a survey draftsman had been speared in revenge for the shooting of two Aboriginal men. Further violence was anticipated, and when it came Foelsche was accused, more than once, of a heavy-handed response.
With the discovery of gold in the early 1870s, the work of the Northern Territory police became more complex, as Chinese miners, labourers and merchants began to outnumber the European population. Foelsche was promoted to Inspector, with authority over an expanding police force and a network of towns and settlements.
After 47 years of service Foelsche retired from the police force in 1904. Charlotte Foelsche had died in 1899, but their two daughters had married and had young families. Foelsche's last photographs were of these family gatherings and of his own back garden, where he maintained a small plant nursery.
In 1911 control over the Northern Territory passed to the Commonwealth, and Palmerston was renamed Darwin. Paul Foelsche died three years later in January 1914, a few months before war was declared between Britain and the country of his birth.