Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XXIV page 1

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)



Many Melbourne people will no doubt remember a disturbance, some twenty or more years ago, at Bruswick, between Orangemen and Roman Catholics. The Ulster men came off rather badly, some vehicles were upset, several Orangemen were assaulted, and their procession hindered or altogether broken up. The police on the ground were too few to maintain order. They managed, however, to prevent the tumult extending.

The trouble occurred on Sunday, and, when Parliament met on the following Tuesday, there was a tremendous outcry by the friends of the Protestant party that the police were shamefully remiss - they knew what was to be expected, and made no provision - the aggressors in the affair must be brought to justice etc.

Then followed peremptory instructions from the Minister that the officer responsible (myself) for the failure in the police arrangements should be called upon to explain; and that no effort should be spared to bring to justice the persons who attacked the Orangemen.

I found it difficult to explain my own failure in the matter, except that it arose through a misunderstanding. The misunderstanding was in this way. On the day before the riot (Saturday), one of the local Roman Catholic clergy, very considerately and very wisely, came to inform me that if the Ulster men determined on a procession next Sunday there was likely to be trouble. When the priest left I searched the newspaper for an Orange advertisement or other notice of their intended proceedings, but found none. There was an advertisement of a somewhat cryptic kind, asking Hibernians to meet to discuss some abstract question. I thought that my informant, speaking inaccurately as my countrymen are apt to do, meant not ‘to-morrow,’ or he surely would have so expressed it, but the following Sunday. Fortunately, the officer in charge of the division, Inspector John Gray, had collected all the men he could on short notice, and thus prevented further evil. My explanation might be summed up in the one word peccavi.

As regards the discovery of the offenders against the Orangemen - more especially those who had upset one large vehicle full of men and women—thanks to the smartness of plain-clothes constable O’Sullivan of the Brunswick division I was able to send in a much more satisfactory report. Although O’Sullivan belonged as I knew to the Church of Rome, I sent him on this inquiry, and within a few hours he was able to furnish the names in full of the chief culprits. The most notable of these has since provided himself a good citizen, and has done good work for the Empire in South Africa . My ‘explanation,’ with Constable O’Sullivan’s report, was sent to the Minister, and I never heard another word about either.


It is a little over twenty years since the people of Melbourne had their first experience of a great strike, when all waterside workers and seamen ceased their labours. Few, except those directly concerned, took the matter very seriously at first, not even those ‘lions led by asses,’ as someone has called the strikers. It was not a pleasant sight to see some of these later coming away from the Trades Hall swaggering and tipsy, as was the case with many amongst them who had just received their first weeks strike pay. They swung round the street corner where an old sergeant of police happened to be standing. I cannot forget the look of wonder at the sight that first spread over his face, followed by a sad, pathetic expression as he turned away. I have often thought that good old soul must have recognised someone dear to him in that unseemly crowd. A few weeks, however, brought to these high spirits a chastened and sober look. Their leaders might be seen making their way daily at luncheon time to the Maison Doree, where they were sure of an excellent repast; but how fared it with the lions who were led by them?

Such an extensive strike caused a flutter in police circles, as a strike always does. No one can tell what may happen on these occasions, and this particular strike was not without its incidents. These were not, numerous, however, nor did they, as might easily have happened, lead to any grave results.


Until towards the close of the strike the hands of the police were strangely tied. A considerable body of mounted police and of infantry cavalry were brought from the country, but they were strictly confined to their barracks. These reinforcements were hardly needed, for I think the local police would have been sufficient to keep order, if they had only been free to act. One of the first essentials was to keep the wharves and their approaches free from idlers and loiterers likely to interfere with persons coming there on lawful business. Instead of this the wharves were often taken up by a noisy crowd, who were ready to hoot and roughly handle anyone towards whom they had a grudge. The police, who were kept in small squads, had their time taken up hurrying to and fro at any sign of turbulence, but beyond this they were not free to act. The victims in these troubles might be safely conducted off the ground, but no one who caused the trouble was brought to book.

The natural result followed. The police were held in little respect, and the more dangerous members of the crowd grew bolder. A squad of some dozen police, standing quietly on the wharf, suddenly found themselves being forced by a mob of rowdies towards the river-edge of the wharf. A few moments more and every policeman would have been pushed into the river had not another squad, under Sub Inspector John Gray, seeing the peril their comrades were in, rushed to their relief. They used their batons to such effect that unmannerly persons no longer cared to come to too close quarters with these police squads. Yet a solitary policeman wishing to pass from one place to another had to run the gauntlet of threats and jeers. At last the police, being quite full up of this sort of thing, took matters into their own hands, and kept the wharves clear of all intruders.

I fancy the great Maritime Strike would have shortly fizzled out of itself, but the end came about more suddenly than was expected, and in a quite unlooked for way.

I happened, one day, to have luncheon with Mr C H Nicolson, who was then a police magistrate and had been told off, in case of any serious tumult, for the duty of reading the Riot Act. It will be remembered that Nicolson had been for many years an officer of police, and he was greatly interested in the story of our troubles as police. He was more than interested, he was alarmed and, as I afterwards learned, he held a consultation with a fellow-magistrate. The latter happened to drop in on the Mayor, Mr William Lang, whom he found chatting with some city friends. The story must by this time have received some additions, for a deputation to the Government was decided upon on the spot.

These gentlemen must have told something very sensational to the Minister whom they interviewed, for he declared that, if the Cabinet did not take instant action, he would send in his resignation and table a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet.

While this was going on, I had visited the wharves, where I found everything quiet and no sign of any interference by the strikers, and had just returned to my office. Here I found an urgent call to the telephone. The order came that all available police should be taken to the wharves to quell the disorders going on there, and I was instructed to summon the whole of the mounted police at the Victoria Barracks at the same time. I replied that I had just come from the wharves, where everything was quiet. The order was imperative, however the police must go at once.

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