Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter VI page 2

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)

It was a serious thing in those days to lose a prisoner. It meant suspension, or loss of position altogether. Mr Chomley had been several weeks under suspension, in the case before alluded to, although the escape in that instance could scarcely have been provided against. The Chief Commissioner, Captain Macmahon, was justified in the severity of this rule, as so many prisoners had been lost through want of due precautions. Besides, the criminals who are most eager to get away are of a very dangerous class, and their re-capture is often a very difficult and costly business. Some thirteen prisoners escaped from the log lock-up at Ballarat; but for this the military pensioners were alone to blame. In another case a prisoner had been handed over at a police station, and a few minutes later had made good his escape. He got up a pretended fight with other prisoners in the cell, and the Watch house Keeper without waiting to call assistance went in amongst them to stop the fight. The prisoner referred to slipped quietly out, shutting the cell door on the Watch-house Keeper. He was never recaptured. The fact is, the most intelligent men were not always chosen as Watch-house Keepers, as the following incident will show.

A constable named Leary, in charge of the Benalla Watch-house, had custody of a prisoner charged with some serious offence. The constable had been a sprinter in his youth and boasted of his smartness as he escorted the prisoner to the river for a supply of water. The latter did some boasting too, for he also had been a runner. He said: 'Mr. Leary, let me put down the bucket and I will give you fifty yards start to the lock-up for a plug of tobacco.' 'Measure fair,' he called out, as Leary paced the distance, 'and say off’ when you are ready.' The exsprinter fell into the trap. Leary said 'off' and got to the lock-up first, but the prisoner never got there. Of course, faults of this sort required sharp correction.

The head of the police, Captain Macmahon, must have had his hands full on first assuming office in dealing with the many sins of commission and omission of those under his command. The irregularities were of various kinds. One rather silly, vain officer named Langley , out of love of display I suppose, had his trooper orderly always at his heels. Macmahon cured this by directing that the orderly should ride in front. Another installed a near relation, a poor half-witted fellow, as his police servant, and drew his pay. Still another, with a sporting turn, employed his police servant in training a horse for the Bendigo races, and when complaint was made, gave the servant two months’ leave of absence with full pay, so that the principal witness might be out of the way when the board of inquiry met.


Soon after the early gold discoveries in 1851-52, the police of Victoria as an effective force may be said to have temporarily disappeared. There were a few elderly men left in the city police, and, scattered at wide intervals throughout the country, were a few old fashioned chief constables and constables. Henry Dana’s small company of Native (black) Troopers were chiefly occupied with troubles caused by the aborigines and were disbanded after Dana’s death in November, 1852. Almost all the efficient men amongst the white police had long before thrown up their billets to go to the goldfields; while at the same time many thousands of adventurous men of nearly every nation were pouring weekly into Victoria; and at the same time from our own adjoining colonies came crowding in all the foul brood of criminals, our heritage from the transportation system that had prevailed for over half a century in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land ( Tasmania ). Assuredly not often before had the Government of any British dependency a more difficult crisis to meet.

I have spoken elsewhere of the raising of various small corps of cadets during the latter months of 1852; but not even of the best material can effective police be made to order. Yet raw as these cadets were it was by one of them, William Symons, that one of the chief participators in the great crime I am about to speak of was brought to justice. It is to be noted further that the gold escort which met with misadventure was a private speculation of which there were more than one, and not a police or military escort. From none of these government escorts was there a shilling’s worth of treasure lost at any time.

On Wednesday, July 20th, 1853 , there started from McIvor diggings, now known as Heathcote , a private escort for the safe conveyance of gold and treasure via Kyneton to Melbourne , some 74 miles distant. The late Captain William Le Souef seems to have been in general control of the enterprise, though Mr Robert Warner was in actual command during the trip. The charge per ounce, as I have understood, was two and sixpence, which should leave, barring accidents, a very handsome profit.

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