Eric Henry Compton was born at Hastings on 14 March 1902, the son of Harriett Morgon and her husband, William Henry Compton, a cook. Educated at Hastings District High School, he became a rifle marksman and left to become a clerk in a solicitors’ office in October 1918. A year later he took charge of his father’s small farm and worked for other farmers at Ngatarawa, near Hastings. Frugal, hard-working, and paying no board, Compton kept his savings in a wooden trunk with his belongings. (He continued to keep his savings at home until he opened his first bank account in 1943.)
In November 1922 Compton applied to join the New Zealand Police Force. After training in Wellington he was appointed constable at Palmerston North on 1 August 1923. There he married Nona Audrey Muriel Cole, daughter of a local constable, at the Cuba Street Methodist Church, on 1 January 1925. A Baptist on joining the police, Compton became a member of an Open Brethren assembly which was no longer averse to involvement in the public service. He alternated between beat duties and relieving at country stations, and also made small profits buying and selling at the local auction mart. Over six feet tall, he was selected to be a member of police escorts during the tours of the duke and duchess of York in 1927 and the duke of Gloucester in 1935.
In April 1932 he was transferred to the detective office, and six years later was appointed detective. He secured the convictions of arsonists and opium smokers, and received a record of merit in 1935 for arresting an armed man attempting to rob a bank. Completing his promotion examinations for sub-inspector in 1936, Compton was promoted to detective sergeant on 1 September 1939 and transferred to the Wellington detective office. There, from 1943, he paid particular attention to detecting bookmakers, and prosecutions quadrupled in two years. He played a prominent role in investigating a number of murders and was made chief detective at Wellington in July 1946. Active in his church, he became chairman of the Wellington branch of the British Sailors’ Society and a committee member of the Christian Businessmen’s Association.
When J. B. Young became commissioner in April 1950, the minister in charge of police, W. H. Fortune, announced the need for an assistant commissioner and promotion by merit. A prominent Brethren, Fortune already knew Compton and in May Young transferred him to police headquarters. Compton was promoted to sub-inspector in June 1952, and then to the newly created post of assistant commissioner on 22 December. This was over the heads of 35 senior officers and the opposition of Young, who was ailing and died the following week. With the long-standing convention of promotion by seniority thus broken, Compton became commissioner on 11 March 1953.
Though energetic, engaging and determined to meet his minister’s expectations of a shake-up, Compton had acquired little expertise in administration, and was ambivalent towards the New Zealand Police Association. Seemingly ill-judged or insensitive actions compounded a sense of resentment among police. In particular, the promotion of three sergeants to the rank of inspector, subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court, led to a general loss of police confidence in him.
Compton’s authority was further eroded by allegations of improper conduct published by NZ Truth from 30 September 1953, which led to a commission of inquiry conducted by Sir Robert Kennedy. Kennedy reported that Compton had admitted to having tapped telephones twice while investigating bookmaking before his methods were made illegal in 1948. He was also found to have improperly had private work done at his house by police, although his explanation that the radio masts erected were to monitor patrol-car communications at home was accepted.
There was a hiatus in Kennedy’s inquiry during the royal tour of Queen Elizabeth II and the duke of Edinburgh between 23 December 1953 and 30 January 1954. For his services during the tour, commissioner Compton was made a CVO. However, during 1954 his financial affairs were investigated (along with those of other detectives) for evidence of any hush money received from bookmakers. No evidence was found by Kennedy, who determined that Compton’s cash fund, though uncommon, could be accounted for by the general pattern of saving and living disclosed.
On 22 December 1954 the government vested control of the police in a three-man commission chaired by Compton. This proved unworkable, especially when a conference of senior officers passed a motion of no confidence in him. On 18 April 1955 Compton retired voluntarily, receiving compensation of £6,000 for loss of office, £1,443. 15s. for leave due to him, and superannuation of £812 a year. His rapid promotion to commissioner had caused an unprecedented crisis in the New Zealand Police Force which was resolved by the appointment of the secretary for justice, S. T. Barnett, as controller general.
Eric Compton became a farmer near Palmerston North and later retired there. He died in the Memorial Hospital, Hastings, on 2 April 1982, survived by his wife, five sons and a daughter.