Royal Commission report day 3 page 16

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The Royal Commission evidence for 25/3/1881

(full text transcription)

(see also introduction to day 3 )

Assistant Commissioner Nicholson giving evidence

905 Neither black nor white?- No, not one, during the last time I was up there.

906 In the course of your examination you stated you were displeased with the conduct of one officer?- One exception.

907 Who you think did not act correctly in that search, and whom you instructed not to undertake any search parties again; I mean Mr. Smith?- That was not the officer I alluded to.

908 The question I ask is this: in the course of your evidence you state there was one search party under the control of an officer, Mr. Smith?- Yes.

909 And that he acted indiscreetly in returning when he ought not to?- Yes.

910 Was he continued in the district, and was he in the district when you resumed control, in August of the following year?- Yes.

911 Excepting that instance, did you find it your duty to find fault with the discretion, want of pluck, or courage of any officer or constable under you?- No, I did not.

912 Would it be untrue to say, in your opinion, the men showed want of courage and dash, which constables should possess?- It would be incorrect, in my experience, to say that.

913 And that the constables under you have constantly discharged their duty as they were bound to in the public service?- Yes, during the whole time I was there, I can say that. I do not pretend to say I was a brother to the men, but I was always their comrade.

914 It could not be to you that the inference could apply, in Captain Standish's evidence, as to having treated the men like dogs I-Not truly, for I never had occasion to reprimand or admonish a man up there, from the time I relieved Captain Standish till I was superseded.

915 You have no idea whom Captain Standish referred to?- No, but I take it to myself. There is just one letter I was going to hand in-this is the letter of remonstrance I sent to Captain Standish, dated 19th May 1880-during the month I was given a month more to work. I found, from the disturbance during that month, that it was quite impossible for me to carry on.

-[The witness handed in the following paper]:-

[Copy.] V498 Police Department,

MEMO. Superintendent's Office, Benalla, l9th May 1880.

With reference to my recent interview with the Honorable the Chief Secretary, in the presence of the Chief Commissioner of Police, upon the subject of the search for the Kelly gang and a proposed change in the conduct of the proceedings, I now submit the following remarks, with the request that they may be laid before the Honorable the Chief Secretary

For the first six weeks after the murders, giving the Kellys credit for more boldness than they are now shown to possess, I pursued them with search parties in the hope that they would not be at such pains to avoid the police. At the end of that period, on the 10th December 1878, they committed the Euroa bank robbery, and our pursuit of them failed through want of efficient trackers, even although the tracks were recent.

On the 13th December 1878, in consequence of injury to my eyesight, I returned to Melbourne, after which the force throughout the North Eastern district was further increased by extra officers, a considerable number of mounted and foot police, a body of the permanent artillery corps, besides three detectives-Eason, Berril, and Brown-all acting under the special directions of the Chief Commissioner of Police and Superintendent Hare and the system continued for nearly seven months more, about ten months altogether, without obtaining any traces whatever of the offenders. In that interval there occurred the bank robbery at Jerilderie, N.S.W., in February 1879, when the Victorian police in this district used every effort to intercept the outlaws on their return, but, as at Euroa, in the absence of efficient native trackers, without effect. Although reports did come in of the re-appearance of individual members of the gang at different places, it was found impossible to follow up the traces.

Immediately after the Chief Commissioner's return to Melbourne in July last, I was sent back to the North Eastern district, and placed in charge of the work. Superintendents Hare, Furnell, and ultimately Sub-Inspector Toohey were withdrawn, also over forty of the police, and the main portion of the permanent military detachment (the remainder, about twenty two soldiers, were subsequently withdrawn from Shepparton, Violettown, and Euroa, but ultimately I obtained (7) seven constables in their places).

My own experience of active search in the ranges here, without something like precise information of the whereabouts of the gang, is that it is worse than useless, and I am supported in this opinion by the experience of every officer whom I have spoken to on the subject. It is most costly and most harassing to men and horses, and, owing to the bush skill and wariness of the outlaws, and to the security afforded them by the nature of the country, and by the character of a large number of the inhabitants, it is the most unlikely mode to be attended with success.

I believe it may be positively asserted of all the numerous search parties that were sent out at so much trouble and cost, no one connected with them went out or returned with a correct notion of in what point of the compass the Kellys were secreted, or, in fact, whether they were in Victoria at all. Knowing this, it would have been folly on my part to have continued such a system.

With the reduced means at my disposal, my first object was to re-arrange and secure to those townships where there was treasure protection against a raid; to maintain a few extra mounted men at Wodonga, Wangaratta, Bright, and Mansfield, ready to act in case of emergency, at any of the distant points. The only complete search party has been retained at Benalla, the head quarters of the district.

Previously there had been search parties at each of the above named places. With the assistance of the district superintendent, Mr. Sadleir, which I have received throughout, economy was enforced in every direction. Not one special railway train has been used; and in view of the search being protracted, every effort has been made compatible with efficiency to bring down the working expenses to the cost of an ordinary district employing the same number of men.

A further important reduction was effected by the Chief Commissioner's orders-Y1676, 5/10/79, and Y1933 18/12/79-abolishing special travelling allowances to the police engaged in the North Eastern district.

I may here state that, even when the outlaws are finally disposed of, this district will not bear much reduction in the present number of police for one or two years to come-until not only the criminal, but the large lawless, portion of the population are put down, and confidence in the police protection is restored among the honest and industrious.

Keeping the police on the alert, but quiet and undemonstrative even to conveying the impression that their keenness had become dulled and the pursuit relaxed, I endeavored to discover and cultivate as many sources of information as possible.

It can be easily understood that much difficulty exists in finding suitable agents to assist the police in this matter; moreover, economical considerations rather restrict me in this direction.

A few respectable farmers, selectors, and others are, I believe, willing, and promise to furnish the police promptly with information; but when the opportunity occurs they shrink from the duty until too late, lest their complicity with the police should be discovered, and not without reason, for the friends and sympathizers of the outlaws are very watchful. As an illustration of their danger: The search of the police would commence at a certain point. That fact, unless precaution is used by the police, is frequently sufficient to indicate to the criminal class the source of the information, and in this Kelly case would probably entail serious consequence. upon the informant.

To induce persons of the same class as the outlaws, and possessing the necessary knowledge and ability to become useful agents, is a matter of time and circumstances.

However, after working as secretly as possible, positive tidings of the presence of the outlaws in the district, and of the localities visited by them, was obtained, although too late to employ the police to pursue them. Since then, gradually, but steadily, more accurate and closer information of them and their movements have been received, until I have had strong reasons to expect their steady arrest, and that, by continuing to pursue the course I adopted, their ultimate capture is, I feel, a positive certainty.

They have never shown themselves openly, as at Euroa and Jerilderie, since the arrival of the Queensland native trackers here. The presence of the latter, and the precautions taken against a successful raid, have baffled the outlaws. Their funds are almost exhausted, their prestige has faded considerably, and, consequently, the number of their admirers has deceased.

They are depressed and very distrustful. They have almost ceased to use their horses, or to carry their rifles, excepting when shifting from one neigborhood to another.

They conceal themselves during the day, and move out at night on foot, and visit or meet their few friends at irregular periods, and generally unexpectedly. These friends are confined to their blood relations and a few chosen young men of the criminal class, who have known them from childhood, none of whom, up to this date, can be induced to betray them, even for £8,000.

They are accompanied by one or two scouts, who search the ground before them for ambuscades, and they use all their craft against leaving any trail for the trackers. When they do visit any hut or place, they watch it for several hours previously, and, after satisfying themselves that no strangers are within, one of then enters, and, if all is well, the others follow, leaving one or two of their scouts outside.

The length of time occupied in their capture must depend much upon the opportunities given by the outlaws, the skill of the police, and the disposition of the people to aid the police.

I have already related how wary the gang are. Nevertheless, their exhausted means compels them to expose themselves more and more to danger of betrayal and (or) capture, and this h already observable to a marked degree, and their friends are decreasing, while the police are increasing in knowledge and experience, and in the number of those diposed to help them; rendering the capture of the gang certain, unless some unfortunate change takes place, and the outlaws, by a successful raid or by some other means, refill their purses again; in which event, to ensure their capture, the work of the police will have to be done over again.

The system that has had to be adopted in this extraordinary case requires the exercise of patience among all concerned. A premature and fruitless attempt to capture the gang would be madness. It would awaken all their fear of capture, and perhaps cause them to separate and steal out of the colony, and leave them masters of the situation, to return when least expected, and surprise us by another successful raid.

While acknowledging the consideration of the Government in proposing a change in the management of the Kelly business, thereby relieving me from the very trying duty upon which I have been continually engaged for the past ten months, nevertheless, my sense of duty impels me to point out, respectfully, the inadvisability of such a change. It will be seen by this report the system which I have pursued a system which appears to be the proper one, under the circumstances.

It does not seem well to remove the officer who has collected and holds in his hands all the threads of a long and tedious enquiry just at the crisis.

Again, I submit that the change is impolitic, as this case is one in which keen public interest has been taken. The proposed change will probably be considered as an admission of failure on the part of the police; and, especially if my successor happens to be unsuccessful, a clamour will probably be raised that the organization of the force is wrong. This may lead to breaking up the constabulary, and to weakening the power to maintain law and order in the colony; whereas the real truth h there is no failure at present; on the contrary, by the exercise of patience and fortitude, success is a certainty. (Signed) C. El. NICOLSON, Assistant -Commissioner of Police.

To the Chief Commissioner of Police, Melbourne.

The witness withdrew Adjourned to Tuesday next at half past Eleven o'clock.

[See report of Proceedings 25/3/81] . ...

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