Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir
After the May, 1877, election ‘Black Wednesday’ followed. One need not enlarge on this foul blot in the history of Victoria . The police department which the Berry Ministry had determined to disband, was one of the few branches of the public service that was not broken up. A strange chance saved it at the last moment; and at the same time saved the whole community from the unspeakable evils that would have followed.
The secret of the story of this chance, as I have called it, has been well kept. Why it should be so is not easy to understand, for the central figure in the affair deserved no such immunity, nor do I see why, in these Recollections, the true story may not now see the light.
A high officer of the State in those evil days, a man notoriously of unclean life, was found late at night under ambiguous circumstances on the private premises of a gentleman residing in one of the suburbs. The owner of the premises did not wait for an explanation. He took the law into his own hands and severely punished the intruder, finally kicking him out of the place. Partly to safeguard himself, this gentleman called early on the following day on the Chief Commissioner of Police, related the circumstances and sought advice as to what proceedings he should take. Then followed such negotiations and interventions of friends as might have been expected, with the result that the matter was hushed up. The high official recognised, of course, that it was the intervention of the head of the police service that saved the situation. It saved also the police department, for when the schedule for the disbanding of the service came before him he promptly vetoed it.
While I write, a discussion is being carried on and complaints are being made as to the insufficient number of police magistrates in Melbourne . What would be said by people now if they were suddenly to find that there were no police magistrates in town or country? This was what actually happened on January 18th, 1878 , the Black Wednesday of which I have spoken, when every such officer in Victoria was dismissed. While on this subject I intend to deal only with results as I found them. Neither do I desire to speak in any sweeping condemnation of the unpaid magistracy. The unpaid justices were not all incompetent nor corrupt, neither were all the stipendiary officers strong and skilled administrators of the law. This only I will say, that during the interval between the dismissal of the stipendiaries
and their restoration, the administration of the law in the lower courts was in a very unsatisfactory condition. Local men, storekeepers, traders, etc., apart from their ignorance of law, lie to often under the suspicion of favouritism and partiality, to satisfy the public sense of right. Moreover, the honorary justices themselves felt that the burden was more than they could bear. At the first Police Court which I attended after the ‘restoration,’ the honoraries, the lawyers and the police joined in one paean of rejoicing that the old order had come again.
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