Story: Young, John Bruce

Page 1 - Biography

Young, John Bruce

1888–1952

Baker, policeman, unionist, police commissioner

This biography was written by Graeme Dunstall and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

John Bruce Young was born at Kaiapoi, Canterbury, on 25 August 1888, the son of Mary Ann Brundell and her husband, Charles James Young, a farmer. Educated at Kaiapoi Borough School, Bruce Young passed the standard six examination in July 1902 and left to drive a Woodend storekeeper’s cart. Looking for a ‘better billet’, he became an apprentice baker at Kaiapoi in 1905, leaving two years later to work for a Waikari baker. When one of his brothers became ill, he returned to assist on the family farm in September 1909 and six months later applied to join the New Zealand Police Force.

After training at Wellington, Young was appointed constable at Auckland on 1 August 1910. He began his career patrolling inner city and later Ponsonby beats. Smaller than the average constable, he was conscientious and soon received rewards for initiative in catching bookmakers and ship deserters. On 11 January 1912, in Auckland, he married Olive Blanche Grimwood. Two years later he was transferred to the Auckland detective office and in December 1918 was appointed detective. Through ambition and assiduous study he passed the promotion examinations for sub-inspector in 1919, the youngest candidate in his year.

Young’s reputation as a detective was enhanced in May 1920 when he assisted Detective Sergeant James Cummings in securing the conviction of Dennis Gunn, the first New Zealand murderer to be hanged mostly on fingerprint evidence. In August that year Young became the sole detective at Greymouth, where his routine investigative work was initially overshadowed by heightened official concern to monitor industrial militancy, political meetings and the possibility of sedition. Olive Young died in April 1921, leaving four children, aged between eight years and two months. At Feilding, on 9 October 1923, Young married Olive’s widowed cousin, Ella Johnanna Bradshaw (née Grimwood), a postmistress with two children. He and Ella would also have two children.

In May 1924 Young was promoted detective sergeant and the following year was sent to Christchurch. Lacking formal training as a detective, he began a systematic and extensive collection of newspaper clippings, photographs and notes of cases useful for his work. Ever methodical, he also indexed law reports. For ‘exceptional zeal and ability’ in prosecuting bookmakers – notably Alfred Whitta, who had some 3,000 clients – Young received an accelerated increment in pay in 1927. His abilities were further acknowledged when he was placed in charge of the Dunedin detective office in May 1932 and promoted senior detective in December 1935. He initiated regular lectures to his staff, copies of his digest of law reports were circulated from November 1937, and his comprehensive ‘Notes on criminal investigation’ were serialised twice in the New Zealand Police Journal .

From early in his career Young supported the principle of police unionism. He was a member of the first, short-lived New Zealand Police Association, launched in Auckland in April 1913, and later served as Auckland secretary of the police branch of the New Zealand Public Service Association. In 1920 he represented all West Coast PSA members at the association’s national conference. As part of a new initiative in August 1936, he chaired the first conference of delegates which secured the approval of Peter Fraser, minister in charge of police, for the second New Zealand Police Association. Two years later Young became chief detective in Wellington and the association’s second president. He supported the increasingly vigorous advocacy by the association’s general secretary, Jack Meltzer, while containing growing rank-and-file restlessness at the few concessions made by Commissioner Denis Cummings and Fraser, who gave priority to the exigencies of wartime administration.

As commissioned officers could not be members of the Police Association, Young resigned as president when promoted sub-inspector in charge of detectives at Christchurch in April 1943. He took charge of the Invercargill district as inspector in December 1944, returning to Wellington to supervise the detectives two years later. In January 1949 he was promoted superintendent and placed in control of the Christchurch district – a position he held until he became commissioner of police on 4 April 1950.

Commissioner Young inherited many difficulties, including a continuing loss of staff, inadequate facilities, and working conditions that were falling behind those prevailing in the community. With a minister, W. H. Fortune, who promised reforms but lacked clout in the new National government, Young was unable to secure better pay and conditions, although a recruiting campaign had some success. Several small improvements he initiated, notably the introduction of an open-necked tunic for constables, were appreciated by the rank and file. He also had a more cordial relationship with Jack Meltzer than did other commissioners.

In February 1951 Young faced a major crisis of public order, lasting 151 days, when the government declared a state of emergency to deal with a country-wide waterfront dispute. Under his leadership, the police approach was much more low-key than during the confrontations of 1913 and 1932: special constables were not used, and there was relatively little violence.

During 1952 Bruce Young’s health deteriorated, and after an extended period of sick leave he died in Wellington on 28 December 1952, survived by his second wife, five children and two stepchildren. The significance of Young’s commissionership lay not in his modest achievements, but in his inability to resolve the problems he inherited. These produced a crisis in police administration after his death, and marked the end of an era in the leadership and development of the New Zealand Police Force.