Cairns began without a police force, apart from the customs officers whose powers were limited to customs duties. However the authorities knew that law and order would be arriving soon. In October, as the town was being surveyed, the Police Magistrate of Cooktown set aside three acres as a reserve for what eventually became the first court house and police station in Cairns.
Early crimes usually were stealing, fighting, drunkenness and stealing livestock. The European officers in charge of Native Police could not deal with it as their job was to 'disperse' aborigines from areas of European settlement. [link to Aborigines] However they became very concerned with the crime rate. Policemen in Cooktown and Cardwell also heard rumours of crimes committed in Cairns and pressured the government to create a police force in Cairns.
Thanks to their complaints, there was a police station in Cairns in 1876 as well as one at Smithfield later in the year. This first station had one Senior Sergeant and five Constables. The arrival of this force was sorely needed, as crimes in Cairns were getting more violent and frequent.
One of the crimes committed after the arrival of this new police force was particularly gruesome and occurred when a dead Austrian packer named Frank was found floating in the Barron River around 3.2 kilometres from its second crossing on the 8th of September 1877. When a post mortem was performed on 27 August 1877, the cause of death was found to be a revolver bullet to the right temple, the revolver being found near the scene of the crime. Although a man was later arrested for this crime on the basis of suspicion, he was eventually released due to lack of evidence.
By the end of 1877 the size of the Cairns police force had grown to 1 Second Class Inspector, 1 First Class Sub-Inspector, 2 Second Class Inspectors, 1 Senior Sergeant, 2 Sergeants, 2 Senior Constables and 20 Constables.
In 1911 Cairns got an attractive new timber police station on the Esplanade. It served the city until 1976 when a new masonry building replaced it. This was on the corner of Shields St and the Esplanade. This only lasted until 1992, when the police moved to the new Police Station and Law Court precinct in Sheridan St.
The first court house was a tent on the Esplanade. It was within a metre of the high tide mark and was described as "uncommonly dirty". The Court of Petty Sessions officer was James Pevers. Courts of Petty Sessions looked after civil cases and minor matters, like being drunk and disorderly or trying to recover bad debts. Pevers was soon joined by a Police Magistrate, Edmund Morey, who could hold trials for more serious crimes. Port Douglas took the shine out of Cairns for a while so it took until 1884 to get a proper court house. A new timber court house was built in Abbott St, in the same block as the Customs Office. It was opened by W.R.O. Hill, then the Police Magistrate. It was renovated in 1908 and given new gas lighting but the local residents weren't happy. They wanted a new one. It was described as the "worst court house in the North", which was certainly an exaggeration. In 1919 a new concrete court house was built, in the dignified Classical style of grand public buildings. It served the city until the 1990s when it was replaced by the new building on Sheridan St. The old court house, once the pride of Cairns, is now a bar.
Every police station had a cell or two as a lockup. Official jails (or gaols) were only found in larger towns. In 1897, the jail at Herberton closed because the town was declining, and the Government decided to replace it with a new jail at Cairns. It was behind the old Court House and it was run by police officers. It held prisoners who were locals serving short sentences, no more than 6 months, or awaiting trial at the Court House, or waiting to be transported to Stewart Creek jail in Townsville. The prisoners going to Townsville were those sentenced to longer prison terms for serious offences.
The stockade was fenced in by an iron fence about 6 metres high. There was cell space for 50 men. The only female prisoners were those in the lock-up, which was separate. The lock-up was for people awaiting trial for very short periods of time. Prisoners were kept busy with hard labour, mostly splitting logs for firewood, which was sold as fuel for wood-burning stoves. Prisoners with special skills would do other work eg. Chinese market gardeners grew vegetables.
The jail closed on 28 February 1925 and the remaining prisoners were transferred to Townsville.
Dawn May, "Cairns Building Boom 1907-1914", Cairns Historical Society Occasional Paper No. 9.
W.R.O Hill, Forty Five Years Experience in North Queensland, 1861-1905.
Catherine Doherty, "Cairns Prison and other memories of 60 years ago". Cairns Historical Society Bulletin 157 November 1972.