Superintendent Hare and the Kelly pursuit

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Having successfully liberated the bank in Euroa of its wealth, the Kelly Gang went into hiding. The pursuit for the bushrangers was intensified and soon Superintendent Nicolson (who had been in charge of the hunt since the tragedy at Stringybark Creek) was replaced by Captain Standish. Standish felt that the perfect replacement for the cranky Scotchman was the man who helped Nicolson nab Harry Power in 1870, Superintendent Francis Augustus Hare. Hare was a towering, 6’3″ South African with extremely limited experience of bush work, almost no knowledge of the country the gang were hiding in and an ego big enough to convince him that these factors were irrelevant. Hare hand picked his troopers and held them in high regard for their temerity and their restraint in the face of grueling and unrelenting weather and terrain. Hare was also devout in his belief in the superior tracking abilities of the Aboriginals and had a Victorian tracker attached to his party named Moses who Hare adored then later another named Spider. Believing that he had the best task force the police could offer, Hare headed into the wild. The team would soon encounter significant obstacles in their pursuit. Hare went into detail in his memoirs about how difficult it was to find the gang:

There were peculiar difficulties connected with this undertaking… Firstly these men were natives of the district… They knew every inch of the ground, bushes and mountains; they had hiding places and retreats known to few, if any, but themselves, and they were acquainted with every track and bypath. Secondly, the sparseness of population. These men might disappear into the bush, and with their knowledge of the locality, ride hundreds of miles without coming near a dwelling-house, or meeting a human being…

Certainly this was a considerable setback for investigation. Kelly Country is an incredible patchwork of geography made up of softly undulating hills punctuated with heavily forested mountains in the Strathbogie and Warby Ranges in particular where the police knew the gang were reputed to be hiding. Ned Kelly would later brag about his ability to track the police without being noticed, even getting close enough to read and memorise the brands on their horses. When recounting details such as how many troops tended the horses or brewed the tea it was noted to be eerily accurate according to Hare. Ned of course used this to emphasise that he was no cold blooded cop killer because he could have picked off the police without setting a hair out of place if he had desired to. Yet, it was not only the geography that the troopers were struggling against.

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Superintendent Hare towers over his party. Among the men in the image are Conststables Thomas Lawless, Alfred Falkiner, Joe Mayes, John Milne, Tom Kirkham, William Canny and Daniel Barry. Moses the tracker is crouched at Hare’s feet. [Source]

Perhaps the most significant obstacles came from the people. Many reports that were made to the police about gang sightings were either misinformed or stale by the time police could reach the area.

And lastly – what aided them more than anything else – they commanded an enormous amount of sympathy among the lower orders. It was a well-known fact that they had friends and adherents either open or semi-veiled, all over the colony. The families of the Kellys, Harts and Byrnes were large ones… The Kelly family are the most prolific I have ever met in my life. There was no part of the colony from which we did not receive reports of them; in every part the Kellys had a cousin, an aunt, or something… And outside their family the sympathy they obtained was almost as great, though it was more of a meretricious order… If they had not a relation they had a sympathiser who was always talking in their favour and picking up the news… The gang was lavish with its money. They subsidised largely, instituted a body of spies known as ‘Bush telegraphs’ who kept them fully informed and aided them on every possible occasion to avoid capture. Apart from the money consideration the gang never behaved badly to a woman, but always treated them with consideration and respect. In like manner they seldom, if ever, made a victim of a poor man. And thus weaved a certain halo of romance and rough chivalry around themselves…

One could be forgiven for assuming from the way Hare spoke of the syndicate of sympathisers that he viewed the gang with a sort of admiration. Certainly Ned Kelly had learned some very important lessons from his time with Harry Power about the value of maintaining sympathy via the distribution of the proceeds of crime. Of course, robbing banks proved a short-lived solution as the raid on the banks at Euroa and Jerilderie prompted the government to supply banks with armed guards. This resulted in the gang disappearing for the majority of 1879 while they devised a plan. During this time the police made moves of dubious moral substance, first arresting anyone they suspected of being a sympathiser and holding them in indefinite remand until they could find something to pin on them, second there was a rumoured blacklist that prohibited members of the Kelly, Hart and Byrne clans to buy property in the district (this included relatives such as the Lloyds). This attack on the relatives and associates of the gang, in conjunction with the £8000 reward for their capture dead or alive (£4000 each from Victoria and New South Wales) meant that the gang were becoming desperate. Ned seems to have interpreted these as acts of war of a sort and began devising a plot to escalate things to a level that would truly reflect a war between the outlaws and their supporters and the forces of the law.

Having observed Superintendent Nicolson’s success with hiring spies and informants, Hare had set about recruiting his own spies. Most significant of these was Aaron Sherritt, who Hare considered the best chance they had of nabbing the gang. Sherritt kept the police at arm’s length from the gang at all times until things began to heat up and Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne began to put pressure on him and his brother Jack. Byrne would summon the brothers to meetings in the bush but wouldn’t always be there, or when he did would look very unwell. Meanwhile Dan was prone to calling on Jack Sherritt at home, on one occasion raiding the house with a pistol in his hand. This made Sherritt understandably edgy and constables were stationed at his place around the clock to protect him. Hare had taken a particular shine to Sherritt, as had Detective Ward, and the two lavished their star informant with gifts of silverware and clothing. As well-intentioned as the constables were, they would prove to be more of a liability than insurance.

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Aaron Sherritt posing in a jacket and boots gifted to him by Hare.

Hare’s attempt at active duty in the field resulted in poor health and he was replaced briefly by Nicolson but was quickly re-instated on the orders of the Chief Secretary Robert Ramsay who gave Hare Carte Blanche to tackle the pursuit however he wished. When Hare resumed work as leader of the hunt on 1 June, 1880, he took dramatic measures, arranging police to watch the domiciles of the Byrnes, Harts and Kellys (posting Constable Hugh Bracken as the lone policeman at Glenrowan to facilitate ease of spying on the Kellys in nearby Greta) then seeking to have the Queensland trackers sent home as he believed their intimidating presence was stopping the gang from emerging. When the gang re-emerged in late June 1880, Sherritt was the first domino in Ned Kelly’s master plan to land a decisive blow against the police and launch a war against the authorities. Hare had been trying to tackle seemingly deliberate inefficiency in his subordinates, namely the constables stationed with Sherritt, as their shirking of their duty was at risk of allowing the outlaws to go about unperturbed. It was in the midst of this attempt to force his constables to shape up that Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly murdered Sherritt and then threatened the other occupants of the hut – Sherritt’s wife and mother-in-law as well as the four assigned constables. This was to lure a train full of police to Beechworth to investigate while the trail was hot, only to be derailed at Glenrowan. The exact nature of Ned’s plan here was subject of much speculation, though based on comments he made to people over the course of the weekend they held Glenrowan captive, we do know he planned to destroy the train and kill all the police and black trackers on board, though his later claims contradicted this. Unfortunately Joe and Dan did such a good job of terrorising the police and then their sympathisers, clearly not understanding the plan, did such a good job of intimidating messengers that news of Sherritt’s death was unable to leave the hut until daybreak. Hare and Superintendent Sadleir would subsequently spend most of the day in the telegraph office in Benalla trying to reach Captain Standish in Melbourne in order to establish a course of action.

When things eventually fell into place for Hare, he and a party of police as well as Sub-Inspector O’Connor and his Queensland trackers headed for Beechworth via a special train. The hunt for the gang was shortly to be brought to a violent end when the police besieged Ann Jones’ Glenrowan Inn. In the fray Hare’s left wrist was shattered by a bullet from Ned Kelly – a wound that almost resulted in an amputation – and his absence from the field left a power vacuum until Sadleir arrived with reinforcements later in the morning.

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Hare’s last act as head of the hunt for the gang was to lead the charge against them at Glenrowan.

Hare’s recovery was prolonged but he was healthy enough to visit Ned Kelly in the hospital of Melbourne Gaol and remain active in the aftermath of the Glenrowan siege. He gifted Joe Byrne’s armour and Ned Kelly’s Colt revolving carbine to the family who looked after him as a way of thanking them. Hare would be brought into the 1881 Royal Commission as a champion of law and order but come out the other side with his tail between his legs and a recommendation from the commission that he be redeployed away from active service. He spent the rest of his career as a police magistrate, during which time he compiled his memoirs before succumbing to diabetes in 1892.


Selected Source:

Hare, Francis Augustus. The last of the bushrangers; an account of the capture of the Kelly gang. 3d. ed. London, Hurst and Blackett ltd., 1894.

5 thoughts on “Superintendent Hare and the Kelly pursuit

  1. I’m still trying to work out what I think of Hare, in light of how close my great great grandfather (Joseph Ladd Mayes) was to him professionally. Hare praised Mayes in his memoir and earlier in during the RC and I know they consulted frequently on what to do about Fitzpatrick when he was transferred to Lancefield under Mayes.

    Yet I do wonder whether Hare was more about Hare than he was about his men. There were a few accounts that give me cause to question his character – particularly the arrest of Harry Power, which only happened because of intelligence supplied to Hare by Mayes. I’d have thought Hare – as a senior officer – would have tasks Mayes with the arrest (being closer to the area) but, it seems he was eager to take that scalp for himself, despite being miles away from the Quinn property where Power was hiding out.

    It seemed not to have troubled Joseph Ladd though.

    Great piece again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hare was indeed a complex man driven by ego, which was why he was constantly butting heads with Assistant Commissioner Nicolson. It didn’t help that he was openly Standish’s favourite.
      I plan to dig deeper into his role in Power’s capture as I’m curious about how much input he had in the decision to sideline Mayes, and indeed about why he had such a dislike for Nicolson.
      Even Ned Kelly had respect for Hare as an opponent so there must be something in that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d be interested to see what you find! I’m relying on JL’s testimony to the RC regarding his role there. He butted up against a fellow named Furnell at Mansfield during that operation and was basically sent back to Marysville without passing on his intel – which he later gave to Hare. It could be that Hare had some argy-bargey going on with Furnell as well and JL was caught in the middle.

        Liked by 1 person

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