Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XVIII page 4
Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir
AFTER THE WOMBAT MURDERS
There was difficulty at first in establishing the identity of the two men who were associated with the Kellys in the killing of the police in the Wombat Forest , but it was soon discovered that they were Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, two young men belonging to families residing in the North eastern District. Though young in years they were old in crime. Still it is certain that they did not contemplate being implicated in murder; and their first feeling was of the nature of a shock when after the excitement of the encounter with Sergeant Kennedy’s party was over, they saw the gallows waiting for them.
From information that came to hand, too late unfortunately to be of any use to the police, it is possible to trace the early movements of the Kelly gang after the Wombat affair.
They spent the night of the murders at a place since called Kelly’s stronghold. This stronghold was within a mile or two of the scene of the murders. It was a hut with walls of thick slabs, quite bullet proof and loopholed. The door was lined with a sheet of stout iron cut from a ship’s iron water-tank. The timber had been cut down and removed for a radius of about 100 yards round the hut. The trees that stood nearest the cleared space showed numberless bullet marks. It was discovered by a police search party under Sergeant, afterwards Superintendent James, but it was no longer used by the Kellys.
These four young criminals must have had a bad time while they tarried for the night at this hut. It was all very well that they should have prepared its defences against possible attack by the police, and have talked bravely of selling their lives dearly if need be, but it was a different thing altogether now to find themselves actual murderers with the gallows awaiting them. The two Kellys were of a very brutal nature, and it would not be worth enquiring what their thoughts were. With their two companions the case was different. We know now that they had not started out that afternoon deliberately to take life, and that the shock of finding themselves involved in so dreadful a crime was very great. So great was it in Byrne’s case he would probably, had an early opportunity offered, have given himself up to the police in the hope of saving his own neck. However this may have been, the whole party were now in flight, terrified at their crime, and they would not have halted at the hut had they not found there one of their Greta friends. He happened to reach the place just as they were starting off in their wild fright, and undertook to keep watch for them through the night.
On the next night, Sunday 27th, they reached Everton, on their way towards the river Murray . Then there is a gap of three days, after which they were seen near Howlong on the river Murray . This information reached the police on November 2nd, two days later. It was clear that they were stopped by the flooded state of the river, and were besides shut in by the backwaters, which were rising rapidly. They appeared at a farmhouse, the owner of which was at the time under sentence for horse stealing, in which the Kellys were associated with him. Then followed the nearest chance of their arrest ever offered to the police, but defeated by circumstances over which they (the police) had no control.
The Kellys had left the farmhouse only a very few minutes when a party of police under Detective Kennedy and Sergeant Harkin arrived on the scene. The woman of the house, who blamed Ned Kelly for getting her husband into trouble, told her story to the police, and pointed out where the Kellys had forded one of the anabranches of the Murray . Harkin’s party started in pursuit, but found the crossing no longer fordable, for the waters were rising rapidly, and they headed for another ford that the sergeant knew of. Standing up to their necks in the water were the four bushrangers concealed by the reeds, and not many yards from where the police turned away. Their weapons under water, and they themselves benumbed with cold, the gang could have offered no resistance whatever had it been the fortune of the police to see them, but they did not. Immediately the police were out of sight the Kellys got out of the water, picked up their horses, which were hidden in the scrub, and took a different direction from that taken by the police. So far for November 2nd. This was the very country that I had urged that the early police parties should be sent into, as already related. Mr Nicolson, the Inspecting Superintendent, had by this time come to see with me that this locality offered the best promise of a successful search, and, collecting a few police, he took the matter up at the point where the search by the Kennedy and Harkin party ended. It was then too late, however, for Mr Nicolson found that the bushrangers had headed back towards their own (the Greta) country. Without competent trackers it was impossible to carry on this particular search, and Mr Nicolson returned to Benalla.
Following the sequence of events in this most interesting period in the Kelly pursuit, the next reported appearance of the gang was at the home of the Sherritt family at Sheep Station Creek, a few miles west from Beechworth, where they were seen on November 3rd, men and horses pretty well worn out. Here again begins another series of misadventures. The man who saw the bushrangers rode directly to Beechworth, intending to give information to the police there. He felt that he was on a serious business, and thought that a little Dutch courage was required. He took several drinks, so many in fact that he had to be carried to the police lock-up in a speechless state of drunkenness. In the town he had hinted that he knew where the Kellys were, but made no mention whatever of the matter to the police. On the 4th, 5th and 6th he continued drinking in the town, and it was not until the last-mentioned date that his first communication to the police was made. Had this information reached the police on the 3rd or 4th of November something might have come of it, for, as was afterwards ascertained, the Kellys remained at or near Sherritt’s house, not leaving it until the night of the 4th, passing through Wangaratta before daybreak on their way back to the Greta country.
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