Spotlight: The Police Commission at Greta

Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), Wednesday 18 May 1881, page 1


THE POLICE COMMISSION AT GRETA.

[BY OUR SPECIAL REPORTER.]

The royal commission appointed to inquire into the working of the police department concluded their task of taking evidence at Benalla on Friday night. On the following morning an early start was made for Greta, the party being conveyed in three two-horse waggonettes. The morning being fine, the drive proved a most enjoyable one. We drove over a tolerably good bush road to the north of Winton, and did not stop until we arrived in the locality of Seven-mile Creek, in front of the land occupied by Mrs. Kelly, the mother of the deceased out-laws. It is an allotment of 68 acres, pleasantly situated on a well grassed flat, the Warby ranges rising not far off in the back-ground. Immediately fronting the road are the ruins of a slab shanty that at one time did duty us an unlicensed bush public house. Within the larger enclosure a small plot of ground is securely fenced, and is carefully cultivated as a kitchen garden. This appears to be the only cultivation going on. The house in which the Kelly family live is a slab hut of small dimensions. It is roughly built, but, like thousands of its class, it is well calculated to afford all the shelter and convenience required by its bush occupants. In front of the door a domesticated kangaroo was browsing ; a few fowls, a cow and a horse in the distance, appeared to be all the livestock on the ground.

Mrs. Kelly at home with her children: Alice, Kate, Grace, Ellen and Jack.

Mr. Graves and Mr. Anderson went to the house and knocked at the door. Their summons was answered by Mrs. Kelly, who has been liberated from gaol for some eight weeks. They told her that they had called to ask her if she or any members of her family wished to make any statement to the commission, as they were quite prepared to hear their complaints if they had any to make. They told her that it had come to their knowledge that the female members of the family had complained of the conduct of the police, and if they desired to prefer any such complaint the commission would hear it. Mrs. Kelly replied that her daughters, Grace and Kate, would tell the commission how they had been treated. After some delay Grace came forward, but owing to an awkward shyness, not unnatural to a girl of 14 in her station of life, she was unable to make any statement. Mr. Longmore and Mr. Graves went into the hut and endeavored to put the girl at her ease. Her mother asked her to relate what Ned Kelly had told her as his last request to repeat to the authorities. The girl, then, after some hesitation, said that Inspector Brook Smith had dragged her and her sister out of their beds and made them go before them (the police), while they searched the place, their object being, to protect themselves against any sudden onslaught of the bushrangers. She further stated that Inspector Brook Smith had wantonly upset dishes of milk, a bag of flour, and had torn down the wall paper without reason or provocation. Mr. Longmore then asked the mother if any of the police had made improper overtures to any of her daughters, and was answered in the negative. Grace further said that Detective Ward had threatened to shoot her if she did not tell where her brothers were. Some words passed as to the question of Mrs. Kelly selling out. She stated that she would be willing to sell out and go to another district, but there was some difficulty about the title. The interview closed, and the two commissioners retired. There are some very young children about the premises, the offspring of Mrs. Kelly. Grace Kelly is not a prepossessing girl, though her sister Kate is said to be tolerably good looking. Mrs. Kelly is a woman who might very well pass for 40, and if she were well dressed, for even less. Her hair is jet black : she has a good color, regular features and by no means a bad figure. There is, notwithstanding, a restless and furtive movement in her dark and somewhat small eyes, and a worn expression creases her face at intervals, showing that the calamities that have overtaken her have left their shadows of sorrow. Kate Kelly, who was said to be in the house, did not make her appearance.

Before leaving this part of the sketch it is advisable to say a word or two about the position of the allotment held by Mrs. Kelly. If it was not chosen for its many advantages, it has happened that good fortune gave the late outlaws a situation that was admirably suited to serve the purposes of their vocation. They had an allotment on a flat piece of land where they could watch the approach of anyone coming ; they were within a few minutes’ ride of two intricate and almost inaccessible ranges of hills; they could reach the hills after a short ride, going to almost any point of the compass ; they had all the back country on which to operate, and for a market they had New South Wales to reach, which was only a long day’s ride ; they were within easy riding distance of Mansfield, Myrtleford, Everton, Beechworth, Wangaratta, Glenrowan, Benalla, Violet Town, Euroa, Longwood, Avenel and Mangalore. These advantages were used with perhaps as much skill as could be employed by any set of uncultivated bushmen. This Alpine country, with its rugged and inaccessible hills, intricate ranges, its numerous caves and its many swamps, may at any time become the retreat of a class of criminals who either wish to escape from the officers of the law or to lead lives of open lawlessness. The commission left Mrs. Kelly’s selection and drove on through what is known as the Gap to Greta. This place can hardly be called a village. It has one public house, a store, and one or two other places of business. There are four mounted constables stationed here.

After a short stay the commission drove on towards Glenrowan, leaving the long Greta swamp on the right hand at some distance from the road. It has been settled now beyond a doubt that the outlaws spent many months of undisturbed repose in the quiet retreats afforded by the islands in this swamp. The tall reeds make it impossible to see men at any distance beyond a few yards. In some places a horse can travel without being seen until you actually come upon it. The gang acted upon the plan of never remaining twenty-four hours in the same place, and whenever they were seen by accident they put long distances between the place where they were observed and their next resting-place. They had no horses with them ; they were always left with friends or blood relations. They slept by day and travelled by night. Although they changed their quarters frequently, there can be no doubt they spent the major part of their eighteen months’ liberty within six hours’ ride of Greta. They changed from the ranges to the swamps, and vice versa. The advantages of this plan were obvious enough. They were near their faithful blood relations, without whose assistance and information they could not have lived, and they were in a country every intricate nook of which they were familiarly acquainted with. Many and many a night the members of the Kelly family turned out from the several places where they assembled, and, with their half-dozen dogs, dislodged the police who were lying in ambush under cover near their houses. Of course they never made themselves offensive to the police, but they came upon them, chaffed them, and allowed that they knew perfectly well where they were. This made further watching for the time futile. In the matter of search, again, it is well known that the gang had better opportunities for watching the police than the police had for searching after them. In addition to their being advised of every movement of the police, Ned Kelly always carried a powerful field glass. On one occasion when Mr. Hare and his party were in the Glenrowan Ranges, Ned and his men were on the opposite slopes. The police could never tell at a long distance what men they might be looking at, but the bushrangers could always make a very shrewd guess as to whether men they saw were police or not.

The party arrived at Glenrowan station at a tolerably early hour in the day. The primary object of the visit was to ascertain if Mr. O’Connor had any special qualifications entitling him to be promoted over the heads of several deserving officers in the force, who have striven hard for several years to distinguish themselves. The commission were advised that if Mr. O’Connor were promoted or appointed over the heads of other Victorian officers it would create intense jealousy and dissatisfaction, even if the effect were not the demoralisation of the force. It has been pointed out that Sergeant Steele, Sergeant Whelan, Senior-constable Kelly and other sub-officers distinguished themselves, and that the effect of placing a stranger over their heads would have a most dispiriting effect, unless the person so appointed had special qualifications of such a character that all the sub-officers would have to admit his superior claims. The immediate object of the commission was to solve this question. Though some evidence was taken, the major portion of the work done was to go over the scene of the contest, and by a series of observations and questions fight the battle over again. The more the plan of the gang is examined the more is its diabolical cunning and cruelty seen. The soundness of Kelly’s judgment in going to the station at all may be questioned. Had the gang remained in ambush at the point where they intended to wreck the train, made prisoners of all they saw, and cut the line themselves, the success of their scheme was almost certain. Just before the curved embankment, over which the train was to have been wrecked, is reached, a curved cutting has to be passed through, and even the precaution of using the pilot engine would not have saved the party. The pilot only ran about two yards ahead of the police train, and as the curve in the line would have hidden the lights of the pilot from view the rear train would have been too near to the scene of the first accident to be able to pull up when the disaster was discovered. Both engines would have shot over the bank, one after the other. The mode adopted by Mr. Curnow in warning the police of this awful trap was as clever as it was brave. To avoid being seen by the gang, he went some distance along the line, and, before displaying the light, he got down a deep cutting through which the train had to pass. According to the evidence of Reardon, a platelayer, as given on Saturday, as soon as Kelly heard the train stop in the distance, he remarked at once, “This is that —— Curnow’s work.” Mr. Hare pointed out on Saturday the exact spot on which he stood when he was shot by Ned Kelly — within a few yards of the point of the house. Mr. Hare passed through the wicket-gate on the side of the railway, and being the first on the ground, became a conspicuous object for the gang to fire at. From that moment the fight became a work of earnestness. Senior-sergeant Kelly took up the work, and carried it on with energy till Mr. Sadleir came from Benalla. The trench in which Mr. O’Connor stood was examined, and found to be quite up to the terse description of a constable on the previous day, “a safe place!” At the same time it is only fair to say that the position commanded the front of the house. The plan of attack proves, on examination, to be a gross mistake. The surrounding of the house by a cordon of police, all of whom were allowed to carry on independent file firing, was an error of judgment, as the firing to the centre involved the necessity of the police practically firing at one another. How they all escaped is a miracle. The corrugated plates of the roof of the hotel are lying about in all directions, and there is not one of them that is not riddled with shot, showing that the firing must have been “high.” The relic-mongers have cut away parts of the fence and niches out of the trees to get the bullets, while they have neglected the riddled iron plates of the roof. The evidence given on Saturday went to confirm previous evidence, and showed clearly that the men, after receiving a general order to surround the house, were left to their own devices. Sergeant Steele pointed out the tree from which he started to attack Ned Kelly alone, and before he was joined by his comrades. He also showed the place where the outlaw fell after being shot in the groin by him (Steele).

After examining the site of the fight thoroughly, the commission proceeded to examine witnesses. Mounted-constable Wm. Canny was examined, but his evidence was not of much importance. James Reardon, a railway laborer, described how he had been imprisoned on the Sunday by the outlaws, and how he was obliged to take part in breaking up the line with a man named Sullivan. At that time Kelly said he had shot a lot of police at Beechworth, and threatened to shoot witness if he did not do as he was told. He (witness) said Hart was drunk on Sunday. The others refused drinks several times, though they were under the influence of drink to some extent. Towards the evening they got more sober. There was no chance of escape from the hotel, Mrs. Jones insisted on their remaining in the hotel after Dan Kelly said they might go. He (witness), with others, made three attempts to escape, but was driven back each time by the volleys fired. It was very hot, and any one would have said so if they had been there. When he made the third attempt he went towards the railway, and was challenged by someone in the trench, who said, “Who goes there?” He answered, “A lot of women and children.” Immediately after a volley came from the trench, and he ran back towards a place occupied by Mr. Sadleir, who told him to lie down on the ground, and he did so. He did not hear the police call out to the prisoners to come out till half-past nine. Three or four hours before that the outlaws were willing that they should go out. At one time they held up a white handkerchief to the window as a sign of truce, so that the prisoners might get out. Immediately three bullet holes were made in the handkerchief. The women attempted to get out but were driven back. Sergeant Steele fired at his wife, who had a child in her care. Her dress and the dresses of several of the women were torn with shots. Constable Arthur threatened to shoot Sergeant Steele if he fired at his (witness’s) wife again. On one occasion one of the police called out, “Cease firing,” and Constable Dwyer said, “Let us polish this lot off first.” Sergeant Steele shot his son as he was attempting to escape with his little brother. He had to turn back into the hotel. He had the bullet in his breast now. On the evening before the fight Mrs. Jones led off the dance and gave her boy 6d. to sing the Wild Colonial Boy. It is only just to Sergeant Steele to say that he stated that he saw a young man coming out in the dawn of the morning on his hands and knees. He challenged him, and told him to hold up his hands. When he did not obey he (Steele) fired at him. The lad is evidently broken down in consequence of the shot. He has never worked since. The commission returned to town by the last train.

TUESDAY, 17th MAY, The sittings of the Police Commission were resumed, there being present Messrs. Longmore (in the chair), Fincham, Graves, Hall, Gibb, Anderson and Dixon. Mr. O’Connor said he wished to call the attention of the board to the great injustice which had been done him by the publication of a paragraph in The Age on the previous day. In that paragraph it was alleged that the object of the board was to inquire into his fitness for the position which the Government proposed to appoint him. Under the circumstances he felt it to be his duty to ask the commission if they had given authority for the paragraph alluded to. Mr. Graves replied that he simply answered the question out of courtesy. He knew nothing about the paragraph. Mr. Hall remarked that he had replied to the interrogations of the members of the press to the effect that so far as he knew the visit of the board was made to the country respecting the conduct of O’Connor, and the appointment it was proposed to give him. He believed that was so, as the inquiry was confined to that point. Mr. O’Connor said he still must say that he felt that a great injustice had been done him, and that the statements made in the paragraph were perfectly unjustifiable, because the evidence that had been taken showed that he left the station with Mr. Hare. No evidence had been given that he acted in a cowardly manner, and the insinuation that he was in a place of safety went for nothing. The chairman remarked that the commission were not responsible for paragraphs which appeared in the press.

Constable Daniel Barry was called, and deposed that he was ordered to do duty in the North-eastern district when the Kelly gang was at large. He thought, at the first, Aaron Sherritt was acting faithfully to the police, but his apathy towards the last caused him to doubt him. When the cave party was in existence he heard one night some voices and reports like crackers. In consequence he asked Sherritt to go and see the cause. He replied there is nothing in it, but he at once ran into the bush and hid himself. He was of opinion that Mrs. Barry, Sherritt’s mother-in-law, knew of the existence of the cave party. The witness proceeded to describe the scene at Glenrowan. When within about twenty-five yards of the house, Mr. Hare was fired on, and the police returned the fire. The order to stop firing was given, and then Mr. Hare said “O’Connor, get your boys and surround the house.” He also said to Senior-constable Kelly, “For God’s sake surround the house, and see that none of them escape.” Mr. Hare, in passing him from the front, said, “Good gracious, I’m hit, the very first shot.” Heard him calling out to them not to let one of the outlaws escape. Saw Mrs. Jones, who walked about the house and abused the police, and saw Stainhurst, Mrs. Jones, her children, O’Neil, and McHugh come out of the house. After Mr. Hare left, and until Superintendent Sadleir arrived he looked upon Senior-contable Kelly as being in command. He received orders from him, and was told by him to remain where he was, as the position was a good one. During the whole of that day he fired about twenty-five shots out of his rifle. A number of the police did not fire at all, as they, with himself, did not think it would be advantageous to do so. The witness gave evidence with regard to the cave party, similar to that already given by Constable Faulkener. Mr. Hare said that when at Benalla, Constable Kirkham had been asked if he had seen him (Mr. Hare) firing after he had been wounded, and he replied in the negative. Mr. O’Connor insinuated at that time that he (Mr. Hare) could not load his gun with one hand, and Kirkham had agreed with him. To show that his (Mr. Hare’s) evidence that he had loaded and fired his gun was correct, he had obtained the gun he had used on the occasion and would show how he used it. Mr. Hare then loaded his gun with empty cartridges, using one hand only, and fired rapidly. Mr. O’Connor said it was because Mr. Hare was in pain that caused the opinion he formed that he could not load and fire his gun. It should be remembered that he was not now in the same condition as on that morning. Constable Barry continued his evidence. In reply to Superintendent Sadleir he said that it was generally understood that the Kelly horses were shod. He did not know why that opinion was formed, but he believed that those horses appropriated by the Kellys, and seen with them, were gazetted as shod horses. To Mr. Hare : It was after Sherritt got married that he lost faith in him. When the first attack was made on the outlaws at Glenrowan the gang fired about fifty shots. The police fired at least twice that number. Mr. Hare remained near to where he was hit for a short time giving orders. Witness heard him say, “O’Connor, get your boys and surround the house.” He did not see O’Connor. He was not on the hotel side of the railway fence. It was Mr. Hare’s order, on the pilot engine, that if any of the men were wounded to leave them and throw their whole attention into the capture of the Kellys. To the board ; Received an order during the day, but none direct from Mr. Sadleir. The order came by a constable, and he supposed it emanated from an officer. When the prisoners were escaping he heard shots fired by the police. To Mr. O’Connor : He was one of the first party which watched Mrs. Byrne’s house. Mr. O’Connor asked if the witness considered it a wise thing to turn the police horses out in Aaron Sherritt’s paddock. Mr. Fincham remarked that he would like to know what object Mr. O’Connor had in asking these questions. Mr. Hare said his object was to throw discredit on him. Mr. Nixon considered that officers should only examine witnesses with regard to matters afecting themselves, and not go out of their way to attack their brother officers. He thought every member of the board would agree that the witness had given his evidence in a straightforward and manly way. Mr. Hare had only examined him with regard to his own conduct. The officers were not there to attack one another. Mr. O’Connor desired to say that he thought he should be permitted to continue his line of cross-examination. Mr. Hall said if this sort of thing was to go on they had better adjourn and determine whether the officers should be present. Mr. Anderson said it was the desire of the board that the officers should only ask questions affecting their own conduct. Mr. O’Connor said he considered he should be allowed to elicit evidence which would throw discredit on Mr. Hare, who had made insinuations against him. Mr. Dixon said that it appeared as if Mr. O’Connor was desirous of usurping the functions of the board. Mr. Graves said it was clearly the desire of the board that one officer should not attack another. Mr. Sadleir said he concurred in the wisdom of the determination of the board, and so far as he was concerned he would assist them, but, at the same time, if the board were going to do this now they should excise some of the evidence that had been given. The board, for instance, should excise that portion of the letter from Mr. Carrington which had so unfairly been put in by Mr. Hare. Mr. Dixon said that it had already been pointed out that Mr. Carrington would be called to give evidence, and Mr. Sadleir would then have an opportunity of cross-examining as severely as he chose. Mr. Hare said he would have no objection to the letter being withdrawn. Mr. Graves thought that could not be done, because the letter was in print. Mr. Hare pointed out that the evidence was only undergoing correction. A discussion ensued, in which it was stated that the evidence was sent to witnesses for correction, but only verbal amendments were permitted. The chairman informed Mr. O’Connor that he could only cross-examine the witness with regard to his own conduct. The witness continued : He did not see Mr. O’Connor in the drain, but heard he was there. It was a good place for personal safety. Hero, the black tracker, conducted himself well, but Jacky was rendered speechless with fear when the firing commenced. At this stage the board adjourned till next day.

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