Search billions of records on

Biographies & voyages

John McKenna

1852 - 1933 Perth, Western Australia

Former Chief Inspector of Police, Western Australia


John was baptised on 18 July 1852 at St Mary's Catholic Church, Perth.  He was the son of James McKENNA and Catherine Bridget nee STANTON.  His grand-father John STANTON arrived in Western Australia in 1829 with the 63rd Regiment of Foot aboard HMS Sulphur.

He was educated at the State School for Boys in St George's Terrace, Perth (which later became the "Perth Technical College).  At the time of his marriage in 1873 he was employed as a butcher. 

John joined the Police Force in July of 1874 as a mounted policeman at Fremantle.  He was transferred to Toodyay in 1875, to Williams and Bannister in 1879 and returned to Fremantle as 1st Class Constable in 1881.  He was promoted to Detective in 1884, prior to being transferred to Derby in 1887, then returned to Perth in 1888.  He was once again at Toodyay in 1889 and he was in Coolgardie during the "Roaring 90's" of the Gold Rush.  By 1914 he was 1st Inspector.  He retired as Chief Inspector in 1916 after more than fifty years of continuous service.

On 5th July 1873 he married Ellen Windsor SMITH, the daughter of Isaac and Ellen SMITH nee CREED.  Ellen's father arrived in Western Australia, permanently, in April of 1864 as a "Chelsea Pensioner".  He had earlier served in WA as a Private with the 12th Regiment of Foot - his daughter Ellen was born at sea just off the coast of Albany aboard HMS Windsor in January of 1856.

John and Ellen had thirteen children.  Because Ellen usually joined John, the places of birth of their children often reflect his various postings with the Police Force:

Maud Ellen McKENNA (Born 6 April 1874 in Fremantle - died 21 May 1946)
Known as "Tottie" (because of her small stature) married Francis Edward RUTHERFORD, and had four children.
Walter John McKENNA (Born 11 July 1875 Fremantle - died 16 March 1939)
Walter married Ellen Louisa COCKRAM. They had one child, a son George, who died in childhood.
Dolphin Harriett McKENNA (Born 5 August 1877 Fremantle - died 19 November 1952)
"Dolly" married Arthur Hay "Cook" SHERWOOD and had nine children.
John Stanton McKENNA (Born 9 June 1879 Bannister - died 4 April 1956)
"Jack" married Ethel SHARPE. (No children)
Philomena McKENNA (Born 6 June 1881 "31 Mile Peg Albany Road" - died 11 July 1970)
"Mena" married Daniel Turnbull WILKIE, they had six children.
Cicely Viotti McKENNA (Born 31 January 1883 Beverley - died 3 November 1919)
"Viotti" married Robert Hardy HOLMES.  They had one child, a son Robert.
Ezekiel Benoni McKENNA (Born 6 November 1884  Perth - died 21 October 1952)
"Zeke" married Jessie Grace TOWNSEND.  They had one child, a daughter Joan.
Derby Patrick McKENNA (Born 14 September 1886 Derby - died May 1888)
Clarence Derby McKENNA (Born 21 August 1888 West Perth - died 18 May 1975)
"Derby" married, firstly, Mabel BAKER (8 children) and, secondly Joan Eileen RYAN (three children).
Veronica Richenda McKENNA (Born 21 September 1890 Toodyay - died 7 July 1962)
"Paddy" married Francis William MARTIN, they had three children.
Gerald Patrick O'Connell McKENNA (Born 13 December 1892 Geraldton  - died 26 January 1964)
"Gerry" married Edith Lillian Rose HINGLEY whom he met in London during WWI. (No children.)
Henry Calvert McKENNA (Born 19 November 1894 Fremantle - died about 1933)
"Carl" was in the Merchant Navy.  He married Helen BARTUL in Shanghai China. (No known children.)
Monica Magdalene McKENNA (Born 7 April 1897 Fremantle - died 4 July 1932)
"Monnie" married Alfred George REYNOLDS, they had six children.

John's position in the Police Force made him very much a public figure. "Truthful Thomas",  a well known social commentator of the time, published the following  in a book of caricatures of gentlemen of note in the community, entitled "Through the Spy-glass" (1905).

"If you want to get the right side of Inspector McKenna tell him you admire - his feet. He is inordinately proud of them, and every three or four minutes has a look to see if they are still there. He cannot buy boots small enough to fit him, so duplicates his eldest daughter's order. He was once transferred to the Goldfields, but he pined so for his old home at the Port that the authorities had to let him go back. Is a fairly good administrator, of undoubted personal courage, and has had a long and varied experience in nearly every part of the State, including the Nor' West. 'Nuggety' in build, with a full face and trim brown beard, with a symptom of the snow of years, is a credit to the 'foorce', and enjoys a well earned reputation."

There is a great deal on record concerning John's long and illustrious career with the Police Force. But it should be remembered that as a husband, father and grandfather, he was greatly loved and respected as the head of his family.

Joan Heenan, John's grand-daughter remembered her Grandfather as a man of short stature who always wore a moustache and had a habit of carrying silk handkerchiefs.  In the latter part of his career his daily routine became more of a ritual.  He would leave for work at the same time each day in uniform.  His daughters Monica and Paddy would stand at the door with his jacket and a clothes brush ready to send him off.  At midday he would return home and change into civilian clothes to eat his main meal of the day and then return to work.  In the evening, while the rest of the family (which often included grand-children) sat up to table for dinner.  John would sit in an armchair in the corner and smoke a large cigar. There he would remain quite sedately amongst the chatter and activity of the evening until he retired promptly at 9.30pm.

John had many dangerous and interesting experiences during his career and sometimes, inevitably, his police training impacted on other members of his family.   As a policeman it was not uncommon for him to be the subject of threats and he was constantly aware of the danger those threats presented to his family.  One evening whilst the family was living at 51 Swanbourne Street in Fremantle, John heard noises in the hallway downstairs and, convinced there was an intruder in the house, proceeded quietly down the stairs armed with his revolver.  He by-passed the hallway and entered the dining room. The noises persisted and John crept silently into the hallway and bailed up a figure behind a red velvet curtain with his revolver.  Pushing the weapon sharply into the ribs of the intruder, he ordered them to surrender or be shot. At which his daughter Monica fainted at his feet.

John's grand-daughter Joan once said that the family, and in particular her grandmother Ellen, felt that it was their duty to protect people from their "dear brave" father and husband.  On one occasion there was a trespasser on the front veranda of their home in Swanbourne Street, Fremantle.  John, barefoot and dressed only in his pyjamas, tackled the man after approaching him from the bedroom. A scuffle ensued, the man fell from the veranda, picked himself up and took flight across the road and through a paddock opposite the house - with John in hot pursuit. Realising that he was at a disadvantage in his bare feet and on rough ground, John is said to have picked up a large rock and, taking aim, connected with the man's head, bringing him to the ground.  By this time, John's wife Ellen was an interested spectator on the veranda.  She is said to have shouted to the culprit "For God's sake man, run or he'll kill you!".   John caught up with his victim after picking his way through stones and "double-gees".  He then stood in the square of the man's back to protect his own feet and called to Ellen to "fetch his slippers".

Incidents of unwelcome visitors sometimes had a more serious outcome.  In July of 1882, while John was stationed at the 36 Mile Police Station and their family consisted of three young children, Ellen had been left alone with the children while John travelled to Perth, where he was to stay overnight.  Edward McComish, a neighbour and an ex-policeman who had been dismissed from the force, blamed John for his dismissal and had made threats.  In John's absence McComish came to the house and spoke to Ellen in such a manner as to make her uneasy. Ellen locked up the house and sat the children in the fireplace, soon after which McComish, who had positioned himself outside the house with a rifle, began firing shots at the house.  Ellen armed herself with a rifle, opened one of the windows an inch or so, poked the rifle through the gap and prepared to sit through the night.

Fortunately, John had not been able to see his way clear to remain in Perth overnight with McComish's threats in mind.  He decided instead to ride through the night in order to return home.    As he arrived, he noticed McComish at the rear of the house by the stables and questioned his presence there.  McComish claimed he meant no harm, but as John warned him off McComish allegedly pulled a knife.  John struck him on the forearm with his riding whip forcing him to drop the knife and then tackled McComish, eventually securing him. That knife is said to have hung for some time in a silver case on the wall of the McKENNA family living room as a grim reminder.

McComish was charged with shooting with intent to murder Ellen McKenna and with a number of minor counts. He appeared in the Supreme Court of WA on 4 October 1882, Ellen appeared as a witness.  The jury, after an hour's deliberation, found McComish guilty on the minor count of shooting with intent to do grievous bodily harm. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour.  It is interesting to note that there is no mention of the knife in the court proceedings as reported in the West Australian newspaper.

On the several occasions I met with John's grand-daughter Joan HEENAN, her pride in and respect for her grandfather was evident.  She recalled the occasion when she was about ten years old when the Prince of Wales, afterwards the Duke of Windsor, visited Perth and, during a parade through the city streets, the royal car had a mounted police escort. John was then Chief Inspector of Police.  The mounted police were before and behind the Prince's motor car, but John was on a large black horse right by the side of the car with his sword at attention and wearing a peaked helmet with black plumes and a silver band.  For the ten year old Joan, her grandfather outshone the Duke. When the entourage arrived at Government House, the Duke inspected the Guard of Honour and is said to have remarked to John, "I would give anything to be able to sit a horse like you".

John was not a tall man, but Joan recalled that he was a great horseman, rode a "great big black horse", and was always very "mettlesome".  On State occasions when he was required to be on a horse, the police would bring the horse to his Mount Lawley home.  He had a mounting block that stood about three feet high, which he used to mount the horse while somebody held the horse's head.

The impression I have of my great-grandfather John, is that he was a man of obvious courage, but not one to consider his actions as being anything other than in the course of his duty as a policeman. John's love of the "Force" was illustrated when he declined the office of Commissioner of Police to accept that of Chief Inspector, to avoid early retirement. He eventually retired at the age of 70 after having  achieved the respect of many and a reputation shared by few. 

He will also be remembered as a loving husband, father and grandfather.


John McKenna & sons Derby & Carl circa 1918 Ellen McKenna nee Smith & grandson George circa 1907  
  John McKenna & sons circa 1904 Police Escort 1920