Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter IX page 2

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadlier

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Burke’s eccentricity showed itself in other ways. At one time he fancied he was growing too stout, so he insisted that Sarah, the very respectable middle-aged woman who kept house for him, should spend no more than sixpence a day on his food. This arrangement did not last very long. Another trouble Sarah had was how to dodge Burke when he was coming from his bath. His practice was to call for breakfast when drying himself. This he commonly did when standing at one end of the passage, while Sarah stood at the other taking his orders. Matters went all right until Burke, who was absent-minded, proceeded to rub his back and shoulders with the towel. The ordinary 'tub' in vogue in those days was not sufficient for Burke, who was as fond of water as a retriever and longed for room to splash about in. He persuaded a working man of his acquaintance to construct a bathing place near the camp. This was done by sinking a pit 12ft square, and about 10ft deep, when the solid rock was reached. Some two feet of water collected here, and Burke might be seen sitting in it reading a book, his only covering, like that of the African traveller, being a helmet and several mosquitoes. This luxury he had to give up after a time, as the water became slimy. I believe this pit is still known as ‘Burke’s folly.’

A burlesque opera company, in which Miss Julia Matthews took the leading part, visited Beechworth about 1858. Burke attended every performance, and ended by falling over head and ears in love with the prima donna. He made love to the mother for her daughter’s sake, and followed the company from one town to another, pressing his suit without success. Over fifty years have passed, and one cannot help wondering how many old playgoers remain who remember the buxom and sprightly actress; and, if the lady is still living, whether her pretty brown hair has turned to grey, and whether she ever indulges in a kindly thought of the hero who flung himself at her feet.

After this disappointment Burke returned to Beechworth, believing that life had no further good in store for him. He laid bare his wounded heart before his friends, who were disposed to laugh at his grief. He bought a piano and took daily lessons from a little German teacher, so that he might learn to play the airs Julia used to sing. His quarters were close to mine. I was then married. Burke suddenly remembered that an auspicious event was daily expected in my family, and that his constant practice on the piano might cause annoyance. He could not, however, give up the luxury of soothing his grief by playing the music with which his loved one was associated, so he compromised the matter by covering up his piano with all the blankets and rugs he could lay hands on. When a son was born to me, Burke was the very first to inquire after the welfare of mother and child; and when I brought the baby boy out in my arms for him to see he kissed him, and, turning away with tears in his eyes, said, ‘Ah, if I had such ties as you have, I think I should be a happier and better man.’

In spite of the disregard he commonly showed of the ways of fashionable life, Burke was a well-bred gentleman and quite at home amongst people of the best class; but he was easily provoked by pretentiousness or sham of any kind. When dancing once with a lady of fashion, who was putting on airs, and speaking disparagingly of others in the room as having come to the colony to seek their fortune, he very bluntly remarked, ‘Why, my dear Mrs. G---, did not you and I come out here because we could not get so good a living at home?’ DRILLING THE FOOT POLICE

I had gone through a special course of drill before going to Beechworth, and was in fact sent there in order to get the foot police into shape. It was considered the proper thing in those days to use strong language to men who were slow in learning the necessary movements, on the same principle, I suppose, that a bullock-driver thinks he cannot get his team to put their full power into their work unless he swears at them. At any rate, when I was drilling a squad of men, one of them, a big round-shouldered fellow, a carpenter by trade, could not ‘keep dress’ with the others. He came in for his full share of reproof that day. Walter Butler, afterwards Commissioner and Warden at Wood’s Point and Grant, was in the barrack-square looking on. When the men had dispersed he came over, and said, in his blandest manner: ‘You are a very smart young fellow; but you must find this kind of work very trying to your temper.’ I said: Yes, it is trying when one dull fellow sets the whole thing wrong.’ ‘Well’, he replied, ‘if I were that man I know what I should do.’ I said: ‘I suppose you would hold yourself up straight.’ ‘No’, said he; ‘I should give you one in the eye for the severe language you used.’ While Butler and I were having a warm argument Burke came on the scene, and, to my confusion, took sides against me. I do not think I have ever since spoken a harsh word to any man who erred through dulness. Not that this particular recruit was dull in other ways, for he afterwards proved himself to be a very efficient constable and sergeant of police, and I was glad to find him in charge of one of the principal stations in Melbourne , when I took charge of the City in 1883.

Burke was somewhat of a democrat as things went in those early days. In church he took his seat often amongst the constables, reading out of the same book with the man nearest him, for, of course, he had no prayer-book of his own.


When any important police work had to be done, calling for the exercise of sound judgment, Burke was never found wanting. Besides serving in an Austrian hussar regiment, he had had some years’ experience in the R I constabulary. I was much struck with the way in which he acted on the occasion of what was known as the Buckland riots. These disturbances, which have nearly passed out of recollection, occurred in 1857, and seemed very serious at the time. The European population at Buckland secretly made their plans for driving away all the Chinese, and chose their opportunity on a day when all the police, excepting one constable, were at Beechworth, sixty miles distant. The diggings were in a deep gorge, through which the Buckland River ran, and at the head of this gorge the Europeans - with them I include some few Americans - formed line, driving the Chinese before them as if they were so many sheep. The Chinese were so scared that, in hurrying over the narrow logs that formed the only crossings, several fell into the river and were drowned.

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