Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XXI page 1

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)



For those readers who may not have seen the more detailed accounts that others have given of events that occurred from the time the police party left Benalla until Hare received his wound at Glenrowan, I wish to give here this short report of what happened.

The police train with its pilot engine met with no interference until it began the ascent of the bank approaching Glenrowan, when there suddenly appeared, in front of the pilot engine, a man holding a red cloth behind which he held a light, giving warning of danger ahead. He spoke but a few words - ‘The Kellys are in Glenrowan, the line is torn up’ - and instantly disappeared into the darkness. Hare promptly took what precautions he thought best to meet any attack upon the train as it travelled slowly ahead. The carriage lights were put out, and without further adventure the party reached Glenrowan station. Glenrowan at this time - June, 1880 - had but a few scattered houses, none of which, except the railway buildings, were clearly visible from the platform.

At this early hour, some time before 3 am , while Hare was still debating what course to take, there rushed in amongst the police party the local constable, a man named Bracken, who had been held with others as a prisoner by the Kellys and had just escaped. He called out: ‘The Kellys are in Mrs Jones’ hotel. For God’s sake, don’t let them get away,’ and then he too disappeared. Hare acted quickly, and, calling on the police to follow him, took the direction leading to the hotel, which was some 150 yards distant. Hare did not know the locality, or he would probably have approached the house in a different manner. His men were clustered together with him as they all approached within some thirty yards of the hotel, when they were received with a volley from the verandah. Hare’s left wrist was shattered by a bullet and he was forced to retire, but not before calling on his men to surround the house and keep the bushrangers from escaping. None of the other men were hit, but, in accordance with previous instructions as to what they should do in case of ambush, they threw themselves flat on the ground and returned the bushrangers’ fire from that position. This it was that gave rise to the report already mentioned, that nine police had been knocked over. After Hare’s departure to Benalla the police under Senior-Constable Kelly took measures to surround the building, from which there proceeded repeated volleys. This was still the position of affairs when I reached Glenrowan an hour or so after. By this time there had been an addition to the original police party, Sergeant Steele and his men having galloped the eight miles from Wangaratta. It has to be remembered that all these things occurred in the darkness of a midwinter night. The police and the bushrangers only caught sight of each other in the momentary flash of the rifle shots.

It was still dark when, with such police as I had been able to collect at Benalla, I arrived at Glenrowan. The firing was still kept up for, as I stood with these men while hearing from Senior Constable Kelly how matters stood, we were fired upon from the house, a bullet striking the ground, splashing the gravel up against us.

The report I received was that the Kellys had some thirty supporters with them in the hotel. It was not until the morning had well advanced, and some of those who had been held prisoners by the Kellys had escaped, that we learned the real facts. It was stated at the same time that breastworks from bags of horse-feed lined the wooden walls of the hotel. As the event proved, neither of these reports was true, but in the light of our first information there appeared to be a pretty serious piece of work before us. It was while I was considering the situation that Dr Nicolson, of Benalla, approached me. The question of the police rushing the hotel came up, and he very vehemently spoke against it, and urged that a small gun should be requisitioned from Melbourne to knock the building to pieces. To this I assented without giving the matter much thought then or during the subsequent proceedings. Hare, while lying wounded at Benalla and without any communication with me, appears to have anticipated me in the matter, by sending a telegram to the same effect. The proposal was quite justified under the circumstances, with the information that we then had. Under the same circumstances to rush the building would have been an act of folly, although in view of what might be done later on I told off a party of five police to accompany me, should a rush be determined on. Amongst the men selected was Constable Armstrong, one of the four police in Sherritt’s hut when Sherritt was shot dead by the bushranger Byrne. I knew Armstrong to be a sturdy, resolute fellow, in spite of all that happened on that occasion.

It has been said that a great opportunity of gaining kudos was lost by not sending a party of police to rush the building where the bushrangers were. But I was not looking for kudos. I was determined only that the outlaws, whom we held as rats in a trap, should be captured or destroyed without needlessly risking the life of one good man.

I remember conversing on the subject a year or two later with Sir Charles Macmahon, at one time Chief Commissioner of Police. He said I might have sent in a sergeant and four or five men, who, he thought, would probably be knocked over; then another party, and so on. It has never appeared to me the right thing to have done in the case of men so completely in our power as the Kellys were at Glenrowan.

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