When it comes to law enforcement we usually think of colonial era police as stern, bearded, working class men with no time for the criminal ilk (or perhaps even some of them were little more than the criminal ilk in disguise) but some of the more notable figures in law enforcement of the colonies were far from that. Many of the police and magistrates were as colourful as the men they hunted ranging from foppish gamblers to trigger happy bounty hunters and pillars of the community. Here are a sample of the more notable examples.
Charles Frederick Standish is one of the most controversial figures in police history. Standish was an upwardly mobile gentleman who came to Australia to avoid gambling debts and by rubbing the right elbows found himself in the Melbourne Club and in the top job within the police force despite having no experience as a policeman. Standish established the Melbourne Cup to facilitate his love of horse racing and gambling, unknowingly establishing an Australian institution. Standish’s soirees were legendary among Melbourne’s elite with one party allegedly featuring nude female waitresses. Standish was a masterful card player but his love of all things four-legged and fast was where he regularly burned a hole in his wallet.
Despite his actual rank being chief-commissioner of police, Standish encouraged people to refer to him as captain. In his time in the job he oversaw the police operations to end the careers of numerous bushrangers, most notably Harry Power and the Kelly Gang. His ego often interfered with his judgement and a number of questionable decisions in relation to the Kelly hunt resulted, notably his tendency to put his favourite officer Superintendent Hare in charge of the operation at the earliest opportunity despite Hare’s being ill-equipped for the work. Standish was severely reprimanded by the Royal Commission of 1881 but continued his role for some time afterwards. He died a few years later and was best remembered for his contribution to sports.
Pottinger was the figurehead for the New South Wales police force during the war on bushranging in the early 1860s. Born in April 1831, Pottinger was a baronet who had accrued massive gambling debts and sought protection in the colonies. Dropping out of the Grenadier Guards to travel to Australia, he joined the New South Wales police force and was assigned to protect the gold escorts. He was well liked in the role and successfully hid his nobility for some time. He moved to Dubbo where he became clerk of the petty sessions. Due to the introduction of the Police Act in New South Wales he was soon promoted to a Sub-Inspector, stationed at Forbes, to get him out of the ranks. Pottinger was a proud and sometimes childish man who was not altogether suited to a lot of the police work he was assigned to undertake. On one occasion Pottinger was involved in a bar fight over billiards, cementing his reputation as someone not to be trifled with but also resulting in him being charge and convicted of assault.
Pottinger’s time in pursuit of the Hall Gang was hampered by clumsy mistakes and and ineffectual troopers as well as his own pride. Numerous times Pottinger came within a whisker of nailing Ben Hall or one of his gang but never came through with the goods. In one event Pottinger missed an opportunity to shoot Hall and capture him because his gun was tangled in the poncho he was wearing. On another occasion he was assigned to an escort mission but refused to cooperate after being passed over for a promotion. To his dismay the escort was robbed by the Hall gang en route. Incidents such as these made Pottinger a target for the sarcasm and disdain of the papers, though on occasion a word of support would make it into print.
He was tenacious in his drive to bring Gardiner and his ilk to justice, especially after being denied satisfaction on so many occasions due to twists of fate. Pottinger died in April 1865 en route to give evidence against James Alpin McPherson, the Wild Scotchman. When climbing onto the coach at the Pilgrim Inn he accidentally shot himself in the abdomen with a concealed pistol, passing away a few days later aged thirty four.
Arthur Loftus Maule Steele was a man with an ego the size of a house. He took immense pride in his reputation as the man who captured Ned Kelly. He was born in Tours, France, in 1839 while his parents were travelling but was raised in Donegal, Ireland. Here he followed in his father’s footsteps and attended a military academy and was enlisted in the army with which he was destined for the fight in the Crimea. However in between his deployment and arrival peace had been declared and Steele was denied the chance for glory on the battlefield. Steele’s family were very prominent in the nobility and relatives of Steele were high ranking military officers and even earls. Of his seventeen siblings, five of Steele’s brothers died in battle in various conflicts around the world. On the advice of the brother of Robert O’Hara Burke (of the doomed Burke and Wills expedition) he arrived in Victoria in 1853 with the intention of becoming a police cadet but ended up as a clerk. Before long he managed to join the Victoria Police and was stationed in various locations and usually acting as a gold escort. He was a family man, marrying Ruth Ingram Ballinger in 1864 and having ten children with his wife Ruth. Steele served with the Wangaratta police in the 1870s onwards. Steele had more than his fair share of bizarre, horrendous and hilarious moments during his lifetime. On one occasion he was called in to Wangaratta State School to investigate claims that a Chinese man named “Charcoal Bill” had been repeatedly pelted with apples by a student. When Steele arranged the students into a line-up, Bill found his attacker straight away – one of Steele’s own sons.
Of course, Steele’s biggest claim to fame was his role at Glenrowan where he led the Wangaratta party into battle. Steele had had lots of dealings with the Kellys and Harts over the years and had personally vowed to be at Ned Kelly’s death after his friend Sergeant Kennedy was killed by him at Stringybark Creek. Armed with his double-barrelled shotgun and a killer instinct he took potshots at anything and everything including women and children. Notably he shot at Mrs. Reardon, almost killing her infant, and shot her teenage son in the back as they tried to escape from the Glenrowan Inn. He immediately bragged that “I shot mother Jones in the tits!”
When Ned Kelly appeared in the early morning as a one man assault on the police, Steele saw his opportunity for a decent bit of bloodsport and ran into action. After much back and forth he managed to find Ned’s weak spot and blew out his knee with swan drops. He then attempted to shoot Kelly in the head once the bushranger was restrained by police but was stopped by Constable Bracken. Steele refused to leave Ned’s side for the remainder of the siege in case someone thought he hadn’t caught him. Afterwards Steele claimed that his colleagues had conspired against him to discredit his claim of being the only man to bring Kelly down. Because of his actions the Royal Commission recommended Steele be demoted but this never eventuated, retiring in 1896 after twenty two years of service. In his twilight years Steele became a horticulturalist and raised flowers on his stately property. He died of heart complications in February 1914 leaving an estate worth £7854.
Police Magistrate Baylis
Best known for his battle with Dan Morgan, Henry Baylis was a prominent police magistrate from Wagga Wagga. He was born in 1826 in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland, where his father, who was a military lieutenant, was stationed. He relocated the family to Australia in 1832. Baylis, then only six years old, became a student at The King’s School, Parramatta. Baylis trained in a legal office in Sydney before turning his hand to horses, moving stock overland to Adelaide, then prospecting for gold in Mudgee. By and by he became a clerk of Petty Sessions in Hartley working his way up over the next seven years to become police magistrate at Wagga Wagga. From 1862 he worked at the courts in Wagga Wagga, Urana and Narrandera travelling from town to town on horseback. Baylis was a very important person in the growing township of Wagga Wagga, helping establish a number of amenities and institutions such as the National School, St John’s Church of England, the bridge over the Murrumbidgee and even in getting Wagga Wagga declared as a municipality. In coming years Baylis would be involved in all sorts of adventures including being forced to read the Riot Act at Brookong Station after unionists threatened to lash out at their employer hiring non-union shearers. One account tells of his being the only member of law enforcement present at the races in one instance and arresting a drunkard. The next day in court, rather than fine the man he gave him such a stern lecture the man burst into tears and swore off alcohol.
Baylis came upon Dan Morgan and his accomplice Clarke while en route to Wagga Wagga on 21 August, 1863. Stumbling upon the pair vandalising telegraph poles, the bushrangers proceeded to bail up the magistrate. Morgan demanded he turn out his pockets but found Baylis only carried a cheque. The bushrangers allowed Baylis to ride away telling him to forget the incident. The next day Baylis returned with an army of troopers to search for the pair and after a couple of days found their camp. A shoot out occurred during which Clarke was mortally wounded and Baylis was shot in the hand and chest. When the bullet was removed, Baylis had it turned into a chain fob and wore it as a lucky charm. He suffered greatly from the wounding for the rest of his life and was compensated by the government as well as being awarded a bravery medal.
In July 1905 Baylis was struck by a train at Homebush as he was attempting to cross the tracks and died of his injuries. He was fondly remembered as a prize cattle breeder and was by all accounts a kind and hospitable man, known for his bravery and benevolence as a magistrate of forty years, letting drunks off with a warning and always being cautious in issuing warrants. Few men could boast such seemingly universal admiration.
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