Charles Hope Nicolson: Nemesis of the Bushrangers

History is filled with tales of remarkable lawmen and women who were formidable in the pursuit of law and order and, by extension, justice. In America the most famous lawmen of the Wild West were just as roguish as the criminals they pursued – Wyatt Earp and “Wild” Bill Hickok spring to mind. In England the creation of Scotland Yard produced some of the finest officers in the world including Inspector Abberline who spearheaded the investigation into the Whitechapel murders using pioneering forensic approaches . In Australia we had many great officers of the law but of course very few were conspicuous in the way the Earps and Abberlines of the world were. Where bushrangers were concerned most police only gained particular attention for either being on the giving or receiving end of a lethal bullet, or for their notable inefficiency in bringing outlaws to heel. In light of this, one Charles Hope Nicolson stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries as the nemesis of the bushrangers.

Nicolson was born in the Orkney Islands, Scotland on 7 October 1829 to Thomas Balfour Nicolson and Hughina Forbes, and was baptised in Dundee. He travelled to Australia in 1852 aboard The Chance as purser. The voyage was dangerous and many died en route then there was a break-out of smallpox as they arrived in Hobson’s Bay. They were quarantined off St. Kilda Beach before coming ashore, which didn’t sit well with many of the crew who undertook a plot to escape the quarantine. When the escape went belly up and a man was stuck in the bay floating on a table calling for help, Nicolson was the only one clued in enough to realise that any attempt to rescue the men floating around the ship would result in mutiny and the rescuers having their boats stolen. Nicolson ordered the men to climb back aboard at gunpoint and the man on the table was towed back. In 1852 he joined the Victoria police as a cadet. The police force was only in its infancy at the time and had been created as a response to the Gold Rush and the incredible spike in crime that came with it. Nicolson was a fit, wily recruit with a passion for upholding the law and maintaining order. His new found skills as an officer of the law were about to be tested in a big way.

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Mounted police at the time Nicolson enlisted.

In 1853 the bushrangers Bradley and O’Connor absconded from their assigned areas as per their tickets of leave. They created chaos through the north of Tasmania before finally hijacking a schooner and forcing the crew at gunpoint to sail for Port Phillip. When they landed they proceeded to continue their mayhem and a party was sent to tackle these bandits and restore order. Among the party led by Sergeant Nolan were cadets Nicolson, Ostler and Thompson who were all bristling with anticipation. Setting out from Jackson’s Creek on 25 September, the police party searched the bush all day and all the morning of 26 September and decided to stop for dinner at Cain’s Station at dusk. When they arrived they found the occupants tied up and released them. It was ascertained that the bushrangers had only lately left the premises. Nicolson went outside upon hearing hooves and saw who he thought was a colleague named McCullough and asked for verification. Inside one of the residents recognised O’Connor’s voice as he replied to Nicolson’s interrogative. Thompson drew his pistol and joined Nicolson. O’Connor ordered Thompson to throw down his gun but was refused so O’Connor shot the trooper in the chest. Nicolson reeled off two shots at the escaping outlaw with no effect. The Bushrangers returned, Bradley on foot, and were again met with fire from Nicolson. The offenders turned and fled into the night but next morning Nicolson had reinforcements.

Upon spotting the bushrangers the troopers cheered. Bradley dismounted and hid, Ostler went in pursuit. Nicolson and Sergeant Nolan turned their sights on O’Connor. Armed only with single shot horse pistols and sabres there was not much gunplay between the police and the outlaw but a shot from O’Connor hit Nicolson’s horse in the neck and another ripped the flesh of Nicolson’s cheek (it would leave a prominent scar thereafter). Sergeant Nolan rode close to O’Connor and nearly sliced the bandit’s weapon in half with his sabre. Meanwhile, charging headlong towards O’Connor, Nicolson got within arm’s reach and landed a heavy blow, wrenching him out of the saddle. As the offender bit the dust Nicolson dismounted and they grappled. As much of a brute as the bushranger was he was powerless against the righteous fury of Nicolson who landed a powerful punch that knocked sense into the rogue who immediately surrendered. The two outlaws were soon shuttled off to Melbourne where they were given their just desserts on the end of a rope. Nicolson had cemented a reputation as a man not to be trifled with and was widely lauded for his conspicuous bravery.

Nicolson led a good life as an officer, swiftly climbing the ranks and working as a detective. In 1856 he became Superintendent of Detectives working alongside Captain Standish. In 1861 he married Helen Elizabeth Smith and together they had eight children: Rupert, John, Robert Balfour, Helen Fairlie, Charles Hope, L’Estrange Disney, Shirley and Gladys Fairlie.

As the 1860s rambled on with bushrangers running amok in New South Wales and making the police a laughing stock under Sir Frederick Pottinger and his ilk, Nicolson seemed to make a mental note about how to tackle the same problem in Victoria.

In 1869 the most troublesome bushranger in Victoria was Harry Power, a middle aged bandit who had a most remarkable capacity to cover vast distances in a very short time. Nicolson was picked to help spearhead the pursuit for Power who was reportedly working with a young man described as being twenty one and very aggressive towards the pair’s victims. Nicolson was joined by a recent arrival to the Victoria Police, a towering South African named Frank Hare. Both he and Hare were superintendents by this stage and were able to work together reasonably well. Within a short span Power’s mate had been arrested and identified as a fifteen year old named Edward Kelly, better known as Ned. Nicolson and Hare interrogated Kelly in an attempt to extract information about Power’s location. Kelly was tight lipped but did let a few nuggets loose. While Kelly was being remanded in Kyneton, Nicolson took a keen interest in him, believing that he still had a chance to get back on the straight and narrow path and even tried to find him work away from the perceived negative influences of his family.

Nicolson used his experience as a detective to great effect in the pursuit of Power, luring in an informant in the form of a former prison mate of Power named Jack Lloyd. Lloyd, it emerged, was responsible for some of the crimes attributed to Power but struck a deal with Nicolson and Hare that not only meant he would not be prosecuted but would be eligible for the £500 reward for Power. Lloyd helped guide a party of police consisting of Nicolson, Hare, Sergeant Mountford and a tracker to the approximate location of Power’s hideout. The tracker led them the rest of the way. When they reached the upper slopes of Power’s Lookout they saw wisps of smoke and ascertained they were in the right place. Nicolson led the assault, hanging up his coat and then leaping on Power as he slept in his mia-mia, dragging him out with much protest. Nicolson was quietly proud but Hare couldn’t resist taking advantage of the bragging rights at the first opportunity – something that made Nicolson sour towards Hare.

When Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick was wounded in a bungled arrest attempt in the Kelly home in Greta, two Kelly Brothers, Ned and Dan, became bushrangers. A party was sent into the Wombat Ranges to find them but were ambushed by the Kellys and their mates Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. Three of the police were killed in the event. Nicolson was promptly given orders to head to Benalla as Assistant Commissioner of Police where he would be in charge of the pursuit for the gang alongside Superintendent Sadleir who was in charge of the police in the region. Nicolson wasted no time in creating a network of spies and informants and trying to get any information on the bandits possible but his underestimation of the support the gang had in the country impeded the investigation. False leads and stale information hampered the hunt and when the Kelly Gang robbed the bank at Euroa it was too much. Nicholson’s increasingly poor health and perceived ineffectiveness saw him taken off the case by Captain Standish and replaced with none other than Frank Hare who proceeded to make a dog’s breakfast of the barely functioning system Nicolson has already established. Nicolson was not subtle in his disapproval.

Hare and his men were not equipped for such demanding bush work but Hare had also learned some tricks from his time with Nicolson and believed he could do a better job. Weeding out many of Nicolson’s spies and elevating many of his own, including Aaron Sherritt, led to months of endless stake outs and following more bad leads. These took their toll on Hare’s health and a rejuvenated Nicolson was put back in charge. Unfortunately many of the spies Hare had employed refused to cooperate with Nicolson as they had not been paid for their previous work. When reports of stolen ploughshares began to trickle in Nicolson effectively dismissed them but did send a party out to investigate possible camp sites where evidence of a bush forge was found. Alas, Nicolson could not make satisfactory headway with the disaster he’d inherited and was booted off the case just as he was beginning to get the investigation back on track. Nicolson was no doubt particularly displeased that he was once more replaced with Hare. Within a couple of weeks desperation had seen the Kelly Gang murder Aaron Sherritt and attempt to derail a train full of police who they had a gun fight with dressed in armour made from the stolen ploughshares. The gang was destroyed and the leader, Ned Kelly, captured. Naturally Hare received more than his fair share of praise for the result. Nicolson subsequently resigned from the police force.

Superintendent Hare, Captain Standish and Acting-Commissioner Nicolson during the 1881 Royal Commission (Australasian Sketcher, 23/04/1881)

After Kelly’s execution a Royal Commission was held into the conduct of police. Among the many recommendations was that Nicolson be redeployed and in 1882 he became a police magistrate and remained in this role for years. Nicolson was very well respected within his community and profession, earning a reputation as a fair, calm and just magistrate, until dying at home in South Yarra from a sudden illness in July 1898. He was buried in St Kilda cemetery.


Selected Sources:
“CHARLES HOPE NICOLSON.” The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954) 3 August 1898: 2.
“ABOARD “THE CHANCE.'” The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954) 30 September 1898: 5.
“THE LATE MR C.H. NICOLSON. P.M.” Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954) 6 August 1898: 14.
“PEERYBINGLE PAPERS” Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954) 6 August 1898: 21.
“BRADLEY AND O’CONNOR.” The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954) 5 October 1910: 1
“MELBOURNE SUPREME COURT.” Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas. : 1828 – 1857) 27 October 1853: 2.

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