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William Leonard (Bill) Espie (1935–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

Bill Espie, n.d.

Bill Espie, n.d.

photo provided by his family

Bill [William Leonard] Espie, one of several talented Aboriginal men born in the Northern Territory in the mid to late 1930s who went on to make, each in his own way, a mark on Australia and to contribute to the progress of his people, has died in hospital, aged 76.

Espie was the first of these men destined for an exemplary career: he became the highest-ranking police officer of Aboriginal descent in all the Australian police forces.

He was followed by Charlie Perkins, who became a famous activist and then public service bureaucrat; Professor Gordon Briscoe, an academic and activist for his people; the artist John Moriarty; Vince Copley, chairman of Indigenous Cricket; and Brian Butler, in Aboriginal aged care.

Espie was born in Alice Springs, one of seven children to a mixed-race Arunta woman, Edith Espie, and Victor Cook, a European who had moved from South Australia to work in Alice Springs as a labourer.

His sister Ellen said the family lived in a good house in ''the Alice'' and their parents did their best for them. Like Perkins and Briscoe and several others, Espie came under the benign influence of an Anglican priest, Father Percy Smith, who arranged for the boys to go to St Francis House at Semaphore in Adelaide, an indigenous boys' home.

Espie, known then as Buckshot by the boys, was educated at Le Fevre High School, where he was a good sportsman, playing soccer, football and excelling at tennis, playing against state champions. He was even used in practice hit-ups against world champions such as Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall.

He completed his intermediate certificate, then trained as a maintenance fitter. In 1955, he joined the Australian Army, became a sapper in the engineers and worked as a field engineer. He served at Maralinga during the atomic tests. Along the way, he married Irene Zachary, and served in the army until 1961.

At age 26, Espie decided to go to Sydney. He entered the New South Wales Police Force as a recruit and did his training at the Redfern academy, where he was noted as ''a good all-rounder''. He became a probationary constable on September 18, 1961.

Assigned for 12 months to Darlinghurst, he experienced a profound culture shock – the place could have not been more different from Alice Springs – but he managed the situation and was later transferred to Liverpool. During the following 16 years, he was to serve there, at Merrylands and Cabramatta.

Espie quickly came to notice for his discipline and attitude to his work. Former police commissioner Ken Moroney said: ''It was in these early formative days of his career that Bill deservedly earned the respect not only of his senior officers and peers but, as important, of the community in which he worked. Long before the words 'community-based policing' became the fashion of the day, Bill Espie's life skills and worldly experiences had seen him well versed in the importance of effectively communicating with people at all levels. What you saw was what you got and there were no in-betweens. You knew exactly that he meant what he said and he said what he meant.''

What Espie did in practical terms did not escape official notice, either. In March 1965, he went to the scene of a collision and found both vehicles burning fiercely. Without hesitation, he went in and rescued a trapped man from each of the burning cars – earning a Commissioner's Commendation and the Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct.

Commissioner Norman Allen also awarded him the Peter Mitchell Award, a perpetual trophy, to recognise his selfless and brave conduct, and he received the George Lewis Trophy ''for the most courageous act by a member of the NSW Police Force in 1965''.

In 1971, he received another Commissioner's Commendation for pursuing and arresting an armed prison escapee.

A further Commissioner's Commendation came in 1977 when he received a report of a man leaving a crime scene after a fatal shooting in Cabramatta. He was able to secure the crime scene and pursue the man, whom he arrested. The man was charged with murder and prosecuted.

In December 1980, Espie was awarded the National Medal for service and was later awarded the First Clasp of the National Medal.

Transferred to Central Police Station in Sydney, he became a sergeant second class in 1984, and sergeant first class in 1986. Arranging a transfer back to Fairfield, he continued performing well and, in February 1989, became a chief inspector. He served as patrol commander at Cabramatta until he retired in April 1991.

Espie is survived by his long-term partner, Maureen Ola, children Marita, William jnr, Bettina and John, 11 grandchildren, a great-granddaughter, his brothers Robert and Linton, sisters Ellen and Peg, and nephews and nieces.

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Espie, William Leonard (Bill) (1935–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Bill Espie, n.d.

Bill Espie, n.d.

photo provided by his family

Life Summary [details]


25 June, 1935
Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia


22 September, 2011 (aged 76)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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