Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XX page 3

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)

The power of vision in those trackers is not confined to things near; they can see long distance objects with great acuteness, and they are always on the look out. They pointed one day to the opposite side of a swamp more than a mile wide, where, they said, were two horses with saddles on, tied up to a fence. To talk of seeing a saddle on horse’s back, when none of us whites could see either horses or fence, sounded like a joke. Further looking with a pair of good glasses showed post and rail fence and two dark spots in the line of fence; and as one watched further, the glittering of the sun on the saddles revealed to us after careful scrutiny what the boys discovered at a glance.

It is strange that Hare, although urging that these trackers should be obtained, showed no interest in their work and failed altogether to appreciate their useful qualities. At a later crisis he felt keenly the disadvantage of being without their help, but as a rule he looked forward to the Kellys being captured by the white police alone.


The usual police parties were continued by Hare. He took charge also of a party that continued for weeks, day and night, on watch near the home of Mrs Byrne, the mother of Joe Byrne, one of the Kelly gang. He returned to Benalla disheartened and worn out in June, 1879, and left for Melbourne after handing over the conduct of affairs to Nicolson. The Chief Commissioner also returned at the same time to Melbourne .

Nicolson had been for many years Chief Officer of the Detective Police. He was by no means as brilliant in some respect as Hare, but he was an expert in dealing with criminals, an art that Hare knew nothing of; and he possessed a higher sense of duty without the element of self-seeking. The part he had now to play had become more difficult than before, for a considerable number of police had been withdrawn from the district against his judgment and mine. However, their withdrawals did not substantially add to our difficulties, though it did to our anxieties in regard to some remote banks. It was found, now that speculative search parties were discontinued, there was a great saving in men and horses.


Nothing about Nicolson was more remarkable than the way in which he inspired confidence in the men whom he desired to employ as scouts. It was dangerous work that he asked them to undertake, but they seemed instinctively to trust him. Amongst several men so employed I single out one who was known as the ‘Diseased Stock’ Agent. He was always spoken of under this title, and his written communications were so signed, and the plan lent itself easily to the use of expressions such as ‘pleuro is about’ , or ‘disease is on the increase,’ etc, that no one expect those in the secret could understand. This agent was first brought under the notice of the officers by Sergeant Whelan of Benalla, one of our staunch and loyal helpers, and the choice did him credit, for this agent’s services were worth more than those of all others put together. He held on to the work from about June, 1879, until a day or two before the final outbreak, twelve months later, when he brought in his last words of warning.

This ‘Diseased Stock’ Agent, to be called hereafter the DSA for the sake of brevity, had a professional standing in the district that brought him into contact with all classes of people; the talk and family gossip of the place came to him without seeking; he moved about without suspicion even amongst persons who favoured the Kellys. But there was an inner and more secret circle that he found it difficult to reach. It was something, however, that he could assure the police that the Kellys were still about, and that while the money, taken from the banks held out, no further outbreak need be expected.

But there came a sudden drying up of the sources of information when for a period of some weeks no news whatever of the Kellys could be had. That they had actually fled the country seemed the most likely explanation. The DSA was sorely perplexed, and so also were the police. Possibly a raid into some remote town in Gippsland or elsewhere was being planned. It was a relief to our anxiety when the DSA was able to report again signs of the return of the gang to the district.

The explanation of this strange interruption in our scout’s work came later, and it was on this wise. Two Wangaratta youths were out opposum shooting one night in the Warby ranges, when they were suddenly set upon by the Kelly gang. Ned Kelly believed, or pretended to believe, that the two youths were police in disguise. After much talk he allowed them to go to their homes, first swearing them in dramatic style on the butt of his pistol not to mention for one month to any person the fact of their meeting, and promised that at the end of that period they would each receive ten pounds. Both parties kept faithful to their contract. One of the youths left Victoria altogether through fear, the other brought the money, that had come to him through the post, to the police asking for their advice. The Kellys had not trusted the fidelity of the lads, for they went immediately into hiding somewhere near the head of the Buckland River , where they had a very bad time, and were nearly starved. It was during this time the DSA lost the run of them altogether.

During the months that followed there offered but one possible chance of putting the Queensland trackers on the genuine track of the Kellys, and unfortunately it was not accepted. It was in favour of using the opportunity, and so was Nicolson at first, but without consulting me he changed his mind. Shortly after, when, with some warmth, we discussed the matter again and I pointed out fresh reasons for my views, Nicolson was greatly put out, but comforted himself in the hope of another chance that never came.

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