Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter IX page 3

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir


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There had been serious disturbances in the Ovens district some time before, and when news of the Buckland trouble reached Beechworth the principal magistrate, Matthew Price, a very excitable man and exceedingly overbearing, was for proceeding against all the Europeans on the field - a thousand or more. He issued sheaves of warrants for the arrest of persons neither named nor described. Burke, who understood the situation better, stood out vigorously against this proceeding, and somewhat of a feud arose between the two officers. Burke kept the warrants in his pocket, and had only those men arrested who had shown violence towards the Chinese. It happened that I knew one, Yankee Bill, whom I found sitting in front of Wallace’s Hotel in Ford Street . Bill was big enough to eat me up, but when I put my hand on his shoulder and told him he was wanted he followed me to the police camp like a lamb. It is certain that Burke’s conduct in the affair prevented a serious conflict between the authorities and the miners. Mr W H Gaunt, later a County Court Judge, then a goldfields commissioner at Woolshed Creek, was sent to take up his residence at the Buckland, and, under his firm and judicious rule, order was soon established. Mr Gaunt not only restored order, but insisted on the Chinese, or as many of them as could be collected, being allowed to resume their claims in peace. A proclamation issued by him wound up with the words - 'obey and tremble!' Other difficult cases might be quoted in which Burke showed similar capacity and sound judgment. Some time after his difficulty with the police magistrate he had an opportunity of revenging himself on the latter, who continued to be unfriendly, if he had so desired. It came to his knowledge that the magistrate had peculiar financial relations with one of the district pound-keepers. The evidence was not quite clear enough for a prosecution, and Burke, instead of making the matter public, gave intimation to the magistrate that the improper practices should cease. The magistrate took fright and cleared out of Victoria .

The story of Buckland riots cannot properly be told without some reference to Constable Duffy, who had to stand alone between the rioters and their Chinese victims. With many hundreds of determined men opposed to him, and without any hope of help, a solitary constable might well have been excused had he left the rioters to themselves. Duffy, however, kept facing them through the two or three miles of gorge, exhorting, beseeching, threatening by turns, as long as the pursuit lasted; and through his evidence alone was it possible to bring any of the offenders to justice. In the subsequent trial, he underwent one of the most severe cross-examinations that I ever witnessed, at the hands of Mr Townsend McDermott, counsel for the defence, without his evidence being in any degree shaken.


No one who knew Burke so well as I did could resist his charm of manner towards his friends, nor fail to recognise his many good qualities, but though my friendship of him led me to offer to join him in the expedition he was appointed to lead across Australia, I never could see that he was fitted to be the sole responsible leader in such an enterprise. His answer to my offer was brief but decisive- 'You have got to look after your wife and children. You cannot come.' Burke’s qualifications were a well knit frame, a brave heart, and a chivalrous spirit that would ensure thorough loyalty to friends and companions in any circumstances of danger or difficulty; but he had no knowledge whatever of the resources by which an experienced bushman might find a living in an Australian desert. If there is any such thing as the ‘bump of locality’ , it was not developed in him, for he was continually losing his way in his short trips about Beechworth. As second in command under a bushman like Landsborough, Burke would have been in his right place. It is a curious fact, too, that his companion, Wills, was deficient in the same respect. Yet, what a marvellous journey was that from Cooper’s Creek to Carpentaria and back! It was a rash undertaking, perhaps, but with what splendid courage and endurance it was accomplished! It was easy for critics to find fault in the action of Burke’s party on their return to the depot. They arrived there naked and worn out, in the full expectation of meeting aid and welcome from friends; instead of which they found themselves, as they thought, absolutely abandoned to their fate. Their judgment might have failed them, their courage never did, when they struck out on that fatal detour towards South Australia , hoping to find in that direction the relief which they supposed their friends had denied them at the appointed meeting place.

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