Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XVIII page 1

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

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Mr A L Haydon, in his Trooper Police of Australia, speaks of the ‘false romantic glamour’ with which the highwaymen of Australia have been invested. The true picture of the bushranger shows him as a very poor and sordid thing indeed. The Kellys, in spite of a few successful enterprises, were as poor and unheroic as any of their kind. The more one reflects on the circumstances of these enterprises the more one wonders at the timidity and faint heartedness of the people they had to do with, and that made these successes possible. That the Kellys should be able to round up like sheep large numbers of men at Faithfull’s Creek and Glenrowan, and, worse still, a whole township as they did at Jerilderie, is not a pleasant subject for reflection. I doubt if such attempts would have succeeded against the men who came to Victoria in the early days of the gold discoveries, or indeed against the people who were here before them. Messrs Dowling and Percy de Grut, when attacked in the early sixties by four armed men - the same number, by the way, as the Kelly gang consisted of - showed how brave and effective some at least of the men of those early days could be.

There was nothing heroic in the attack on a solitary constable, Fitzpatrick, nor in the slaughter of the police whom they ambushed in the Wombat Forest and whom they had practically in their power. If the Kellys were not such savages, if they were men more confident in their own courage, what kudos they might have earned for themselves! They might have sent these police back to their barracks bound in their own handcuffs. Such an exploit would have largely extenuated all their past misdoings.

It is not my intention to inflict upon the reader of these Recollections a fresh version of the story of the Kellys. It has already been told accurately enough, and told more vividly than I could tell it, both by Dr. Fitchett and Mr. Charles Chomley. To me, writing from the police point of view, the Kelly outbreak has this one moral - prevention is better than cure. The whole cost of this evil business, in life and treasure, might have been avoided by a better administration of police affairs in the north-eastern district. I have shown how effective were the efforts of a few specially zealous and competent police in other places. The true Kelly country, however, was neglected; police stations were broken up, or else constables quite unequal to the task of keeping evil doers in check, were placed in charge. Mr C H Nicolson, Inspecting Superintendent, had been through the district not long before the Kelly outbreak, and had sounded a note of warning, but no notice was taken. There is this to be said in extenuation - the shadow of Black Wednesday was still over the service, no officer felt secure in his position under the Berry regime. Indeed, Mr Berry made no secret of his view that the police service could be carried on altogether without officers, whose names were never mentioned in the courts as having arrested any one. All things considered, the man at the head of a department so threatened needed to be a very strong man and one possessed of a true sense of duty to enter upon any far-sighted policy. Captain Standish, the Chief Commissioner of Police, was not such an one, and the saving of a few hundred pounds bore as its natural fruit that great and costly trouble—the outbreak of the Kelly gang of bushrangers.


It was while this trouble was impending that I was called to take charge of a new and much enlarged district, with headquarters at Benalla. My place at Mansfield was taken by Sub-Inspector Pewtress, a thoroughly good officer unacquainted, however, with bush work. It is due to him to say that in spite of this drawback, his zeal and diligence proved him then, as indeed I found him at all times, a really efficient helper.

Before entering on my new charge, I had arranged with Sergeant Kennedy to take out a party of police to make search in the Wombat country for the two brothers, Ned and Dan Kelly, against whom warrants had been issued for the assault on Constable Fitzpatrick; and another party of police was to be sent from the Greta side in conjunction with Kennedy’s party. Sergeant Kennedy had been in communication with a selector in the Wombat forest from whom he expected useful information, a man who was likely to be well informed of all that was going on of a criminal kind in this little-known territory. But this man was not doing his part, so at least Kennedy thought, and at the sergeant’s desire he and I rode out to the selector’s home in the hope that I might use my influence with him. Our journey was in vain, for the selector was not at home. The latest communication I had from Kennedy was to the effect that the selector had furnished no information to him. I am quite sure also, that the sergeant had no definite information from any source that the Kellys were in the Wombat country when he and his party went out on this disastrous search.

I was at Dookie, some 25 miles from Benalla, on the morning of Monday, 28 th October, 1878 , when the report reached me of the murders of the police on the previous Saturday. The particulars of this great crime are too well known to need repetition here, further then to state that the police surprised by the Kellys consisted of Sergeant Kennedy, Constables Lonigan, Scanlon and McIntyre. The last-named constable was the only one who escaped.

Immediately on hearing the news I hastened to Benalla, where I found the Inspecting-Superintendent, C H Nicolson, just arrived from Melbourne . The prevailing impression at the time was that the Kelly gang, now increased to four, were likely to be still somewhere near the scene of the murders. I did not share in this view, for I was satisfied that men new to crime of this character would get away from the scene as far and speedily as possible, and I urged that police parties should be despatched to watch the crossings on the River Murray, then in high flood. Events proved that I was right. Mr Nicolson was, however, my senior officer, and the decision in the matter was in his hands. He was influenced by the thought that public feeling, so greatly shocked as it was, would demand that search should be made in the first instance near the scene of the outrage, and thither accordingly the bulk of the available police were at once sent.

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