Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XXI page 3

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)


I asked Ned Kelly whether he would send any message to the remainder of the gang in the hotel, now that there was no hope for them to get away. But he answered sullenly that there was no use in trying, they would not mind anything he could say, and he added something disparaging about them which I did not quite understand. It was after this that the police learned the true position of those innocent men shut up within the hotel, the women having been already passed out.

I directed the police to cease firing while I approached the front of the hotel. I called to the innocent people to come out and assured them that they would not be injured. I stood alone at first, then a Mr Charles Rawlins, who had been on the ground all the morning, joined me, and presently a few of the police who were posted near. Rawlins asked to be allowed to call out as he had, he said, a voice like a bull. He had scarcely repeated my words when the entire body of prisoners came rushing out to where we stood, and threw themselves prostrate at our feet. A short examination showed that they were unarmed, and without any molestation from the bushrangers within we went back together into the police lines. We certainly offered an easy target while so many of us stood in a quite open place not many yards distant from the hotel. This is the more strange, for the firing from the place soon recommenced.


One item of news from the released prisoners was that Byrne was lying dead inside, shot by the police shortly before. We were told that Byrne had been firing, and was in great spirits, boasting of what the gang were going to do. The work was hot, and he went to the counter for a drink. Finding that the weight of his armour prevented him throwing back his head to swallow the liquor, he lifted the apron-shaped plate with one hand while with the other he lifted the glass to his mouth. In this attitude a chance bullet struck him in the groin, and spinning round once he fell dead.


We now had but two of the gang to deal with, and they were called on to give themselves up. To this there was no response. Looking at the matter in the light of later knowledge, it is possible that a sudden rush in upon the two men might have been effected without serious loss, but at the time the view I took was different. I knew that there were several rooms in the hotel through which we should have to search; that while we might be under fire from the bushrangers our fire would be ineffective, and that until the police had actually laid hands on them and disarmed them they were still in a position to use their weapons. I had actually selected the police I should take with me as already stated, should a rush be determined on, but in view of all the circumstances I resolved instead to burn the building over them.

This building, though of wood, did not appear very inflammable on the outer side, and the task did not appear too safe, since the weatherboard walls were perforated with numerous bullets, and any person approaching could easily be seen. The first man to offer to take the risk was Senior Constable Charles Johnston, a man spoken of in the early part of these Recollections, and whose courage I well knew. He was a married man with several children, and his wife had formerly been in the service of my family. Johnston persisted, and urged the right as the first to offer for the work. With some reluctance I gave consent, on condition that he would strictly follow my instructions. These instructions were very simple. He was to procure a bottle of kerosene and a small bundle of straw, and come back to me without allowing any of the great crowd that had by this time assembled to know what he was about.

Johnston made a wider circle than I intended, and one that brought him face to face with a new and unexpected danger. While passing round on the west side of the hotel, far outside the police lines, Johnston came up against four armed men, not police. They were men, as we afterwards learned, who were waiting to join the Kellys in further raids had their plans not miscarried. Fortunately for Johnston he had laid aside his rifle, or these men would not have allowed him to pass with the few simple questions they put to him.

When Johnston rejoined me, I instructed a small party of police to direct their fire into that part of the hotel nearest to where it was to be set alight. Johnston soon had his work done. The other police had formed a line between the hotel and the crowd congregated near the platform. As the building was seen to burst into a blaze one man broke through the police line - Father Gibney, afterwards Roman Catholic Bishop of Perth . He strode forward to the building in spite of repeated calls to stop. I myself tried to intercept him, and overtook him just as he entered the door, when a great sheet of flame fell between us. I felt certain that his life was sacrificed, but was greatly relieved on running round the end of the building to find him coming out without hurt. His was a worthy and courageous act, done with the purpose of administering spiritual aid to those wretched men, who he supposed might be at the point of death. But all were dead except a man named Martin Cherry, who was wounded at the beginning of the fight, and whom the police carried away out of the reach of the fire. They also bore out the body of Byrne, but the other two they could not reach. After the fire the bodies of these two were found lying close together. The appearance of the bodies showed that the iron breastplate and aprons had saved the trunks from the scorching effects of the fire, while their heads and feet were burned almost to cinders. These two, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart, must have died in their armour.

While the events just related were going on, Ned Kelly lay in a state bordering on collapse, in the station building where we had placed him. He would have died, but for the care of Dr John Nicolson, of Benalla, who steadily supplied him with stimulants. It is quite true, as Dr Fitchett relates, that Ned must have swallowed two or three bottles of whisky why he lay between life and death, but towards evening he was able to bear the journey by train to Benalla. All those who saw Ned Kelly while he lay helpless on a mattress were struck with the gentle expression of his face. It was hard to think that he was a callous and cruel murderer. But the old spirit, half savage, half insane, was there notwithstanding, for while talking to him the same evening as he lay swathed in bandages, there passed suddenly over his face a startling look of wild passion as he called me to send away the black b---- who was leaning over him. It was the fireman with his face blackened from his work on the engine, whom Kelly took to be one of the black trackers. ( It was known by all his family that it was dangerous to approach Ned Kelly when he was in anger; he then seemed to lose all control over his actions, and was quite ready to kill his nearest friend at such a time. He was once seen to knock over one of his near relations, one of the few who stood by him in his later troubles, and, as the young fellow lay insensible)


For some time after the Glenrowan business there were rumours of a fresh outbreak. The material was plentiful enough, and the wrath and disappointment of those who had been living on the spoils of the Kelly gang were great. The bodies of Hart and Dan Kelly were handed over to their friends, and there was much talk, and many threats were indulged in. But wiser thoughts prevailed.

One of the Kelly relations, the prospective leader of the new gang, sought an interview with me when matters looked most threatening. New police stations had been established, covering as it were the lines of communications of any fresh gang, and this no doubt had a sobering effect on the turbulent spirits that were about. My interviewer was pretty frank, not to say impudent at first. When he was reminded of what had happened to the Kelly gang and, that though a constable here and there might be shot yet the police went on for ever, he became more reasonable, and asked only that those of the Kelly circle who had taken up land should not be dispossessed. I was able to promise that no one who continued to obey the law would be interfered with, but that no further selections would be allowed to doubtful characters. (Kelly tried to drown him in a deep waterhole. Of the men and women looking on not one dare to interfere. It is, I think, very probable that savage and ferocious criminals, such as Melville, Morgan and many others were, like Ned Kelly, more or less insane under excitement or opposition.)

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