The following is comprised of extracts from John Sadleir’s Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer. These memoirs cover his police career, but his entries about Glenrowan are a useful, concise account of his perspective on what transpired. One thing that is abundantly clear from the tone in Sadleir’s words is that he continued to carry a grudge against the Royal Commission of 1881. He makes a concerted effort to paint his colleagues, particularly Sergeant Steele, in a favourable light. It seems that he considered himself, and numerous other police, to have been victimised by the commissioners, who seemed in his eyes to have gone out of their way to paint the police as inept or cruel and deny them a right of reply. That Sadleir states that Michael Reardon (incorrectly written as Riordan in the text) brought shot by Sergeant Steele on himself is very telling. Sadleir also dismisses all of the evidence given by the gang’s prisoners, especially Margaret Reardon, asserting that there’s no way they could have made an accurate assessment of what events were unfolding around them due to terror. It is a very cynical and patronising attitude born purely from long-held resentment at having been publicly chastised for the way the police, himself particularly, operated throughout the Kelly Outbreak. Sadleir was a proud man with a bruised ego. Still, despite these obvious attempts to clear his reputation, this is still a valuable resource. ~AP
Hare Dismisses the Diseased Stock Agent
The Kellys had provided themselves with bullet-proof armour which they had tested with their own rifles, and part of their plan was to effect something that would cause the ears of the Australian world to tingle. Further question brought out the statement that the breastplates of one of the suits of armour had been shot on its concave side, and it stood the test, sitting only a dent where struck by the bullet. I do not quite know what the man thought of the reception he met with. Hare treated him with scorn, dismissed him from all further service, and, turning to me, remarked: “If this is the story of person Nicolson and you have been depending upon, it is no wonder you have not caught the Kellys.” This occurred the days before the Kellys appeared in armour at Glenrowan.
The Fate of Aaron Sherritt
I had nothing but admiration for Hare’s zeal, yet there were matters on which we had opposite views. For instance he placed for police in Aaron Sherritt’s hut, not far from the home of Joe Byrne, one of the gang, in the expectation that they could remain there week after week, without being discovered. I was quite sure that any such expectation was futile, and I endeavoured, but in vain, to dissuade him from the undertaking. Men could not I knew be kept concealed in a two-roomed but which was already occupied by Sherritt and his wife, especially as the place stood open to a main road. The end was — Sherritt was shot dead at his own door, and the four police found themselves under fire from the bushrangers and in a trap from which the was no escape. The four police finally got away unhurt, but they were branded with a disgrace that they did not quite deserve.
On the afternoon of Sunday, the 27th, a messenger came to me from Hare with news of the killing of Aaron Sherritt and the discomfiture of the police in the man’s hut. I found him greatly disturbed, and expecting evidently the natural “I told you so” from me. It was not a time, however, for any personal feeling of this kind, and we together set to work.
The Response to News of Sherritt’s Murder
The first thing I proposed was to get O’Connor and his boys, who were still in Melbourne, back again. The Chief Commissioner was at the Melbourne end of the telegraph line, but neither he nor Hare, both of whom had had differences with O’Connor, cared to ask him to return. I then sent a request from myself personally, to which O’Connor at once responded, as he would no doubt, had the others appealed to him.
Later in the day finding that Hare was suffering from a cold, I proposed that I should take his place, but he was then as always too eager for the fray to consent, and determined to go to Beechworth himself, there to pick up the tracks near Sherritt’s. By this time the [Diseased Stock Agent’s] warning was having more meaning for us. What was most to be feared, as I thought, was the wrecking of the train conveying the police party. I recommended the use of a pilot engine. Hare did not understand the term at first, but on its meaning being explained he at once assented.
The Plan Rolls Out
To enable Hare to have a few hours’ rest, I attended to all necessary matters until the arrival of the special night train from Melbourne, with sub-inspector O’Connor and his Queensland boys. This train reach Benalla after midnight, and contained besides these Mrs. O’Connor and her sister, as well as Messrs Melvin, McWhister, G.V. Allen, Carrington, and another whose name I have forgotten, all representatives of the Melbourne press. I do not know how these gentlemen came to know what was afoot, but there they were. The plan was that the police should leave the train at Beechworth and take up the tracks and Sherritt’s hut, as already stated. Sergeant Steele, at Wangaratta, was instructed to report to me by Telegraph the arrival of the special train there, and similar instructions were given to the police at Beechworth, and after seeing Hare’s party off from Benalla, about 2 a.m., I turned in, first arranging that any messages received at Benalla should be at once brought to me.
News From the Front and a Prayer
The first message to come in was from Wangaratta, saying that the police train was approaching ; then followed another message soon after to say that this was an error ; the train the police heard approaching was a special coming from Beechworth to Wangaratta. The next message, which reached me some little time later, was also from Wangaratta, to the effect that the police train had not yet reached that town, adding that the sound of rifle firing was heard from the direction of Glenrowan, a station about eight miles distant from Wangaratta towards Benalla. Before I was fully dressed followed still another report — that the Kellys were shut in at Mrs Jones’s hotel at Glenrowan, that Hare was wounded, and that nine of the police were knocked over. This last piece of news was brought by the driver of an engine that had just returned to Benalla, bringing Hare back for medical attention. Serious as this piece of news was, my first impulse was to kneel down beside my bed and thank God that he had given the enemy into our hands. It was not that I thought less of the loss of these police, but rather that I thought more of the prospect at any cost of ending the horrid uncertainty that had a pressed us all so long.
Hare Out of Action
As I was hurrying into the railway station at Benalla I met Hare just as he reached the telegraph station. I saw that he was bleeding from a wound in the wrist, and after a few words urging me to see that Mrs Jones’s Hotel was surrounded by the police, he fell fainting on the floor. And no wonder, for the kindly pressman who bandaged his wound on the ground, had made the mistake of placing the ligature below instead of above the severed artery. It was clear that in the condition in which he then was, Hare could take no further part in the fight.
Sadleir Takes Charge
It was still dark when, with such police as I had been able to collect at Benalla, I arrived at Glenrowan. The firing was still kept up for, as I stood with these men while hearing from Senior-Constable Kelly how matters stood, we were fired upon from the house, a bullet striking the ground, splashing the gravel up against us.
The report I received was that the Kelly’s had some thirty armed supporters with them in the hotel. It was not until the morning had well advanced, and some of those who had been held prisoners by the Kelly’s had escaped, that we learned the real facts. It was stated at the same time that breastworks of bags of horse-feed lined the wooden walls of the hotel. As the event proved, neither of these reports was true, but in the light of our first information there appeared to be a pretty serious piece of work before us. It was while I was considering the situation that Dr. Nicolson, of Benalla, approached me. The question of the police rushing the hotel came up, and he very vehemently spoke against it, and urged that a small gun should be requisitioned from Melbourne to knock the building to pieces. To this I assented without giving the matter much thought then or during the subsequent proceedings. Hare, while lying wounded at Benalla and without any communication with me, appears to have anticipated me in the matter, by sending a telegram to the same effect. The proposal was quite justified under the circumstances, with the information that we then had. Under the same circumstances to rush the building would have been an act of folly, although in view of what might be done later on I told off a party of five police to accompany me, should a rush be determined on. Amongst the men selected was Constable Armstrong, one of the four police in Sherritt’s hut when Sherritt was shot dead by the bushranger Byrne. I knew Armstrong to be a sturdy, resolute fellow, in spite of all that happened on that occasion.
It has been said that a great opportunity of gaining kudos was lost by not sending a party of police to rush the building where the bushrangers were. But I was not looking for kudos. I was determined only that the outlaws, who we held as rats in a trap, should be captured or destroyed without needlessly risking the life of one good man.
I remember conversing on the subject a year or two later with Sir Charles Macmahon, at one time Chief Commissioner of Police. He said I might have sent in a sergeant and four or five men, who he thought would probably be knocked over ; then another party and so on. It has never appeared to me the right thing to have done in the case of men so completely in our power as the Kellys were at Glenrowan.
Ned Kelly Escapes and Sergeant Steele Shoots a Prisoner
It is a curious fact, that in all those early morning rumours referred to, there was no allusion to the armour worn by the Kellys. In going around the building, seeing the police placed at various points to prevent escape, one of the first persons I came to was Constable Gascoigne, who had but recently joined the service. It was quite dark at the time and he did not observe my approach until I was quite close. He had taken up a position within a few yards of the south-east corner of the hotel, covering also the front of the building. He was excited, as he just been fired at by Ned Kelly himself, he said, for he recognised his voice. Gascoigne was covered by a small tree, from which he returned the fire. His words to me were: “I fired at him point blank and hit him straight in the body. But there is no use firing at Ned Kelly; he can’t be hurt.” I gave him an encouraging answer, but it is strange that here again there was no thought of armour. If Gascoigne was not mistaken as to the man at whom he fired, Ned Kelly must have got out through our police lines much later than is generally supposed.
While it was still dark I found my way round to the north-west corner of the hotel. There I found Sergeant Steele posted behind tree; he had a partial protection also from a post-and-rail fence which stood near. He and Gascoigne were the police nearest to the building, and had chosen their places well. As I was approaching Steele he fired towards the building. He told me that he had observed a man creeping alongside the fence towards him who, when called upon to stand, turned and fled back towards the house. Steele seemed confident it was Dan Kelly at whom he fired, and said that he had “winged” him, or words to that effect. It proved after that the man was not Dan Kelly, but a young man named Riordan, who brought the trouble on himself by not standing when called upon. Curiously enough, Sergeant Steele forgot all about this interview with me when giving evidence before the Longmore Police Commission some months later. Fortunately for the sergeant I had not forgotten, for my evidence was the means of relieving him from a very cruel and damaging attack made against him by the Commission.
Ned Kelly’s Capture
The dawn was breaking when there appeared outside the cordon of police a strange-looking figure, a man dressed in a poncho-shaped cloak which covered his body almost to the ground. His headgear was like a nail can resting on his shoulders. Men’s nerves were excited, as was natural after the events of the previous hours, and when the police saw this mysterious object coming towards them out of the forest in the imperfect light with slow measured gait, striking his breast with his pistol, the blows bringing out strange metallic sounds, it is no wonder that those nearest to him were startled. Some regarded him as a lunatic intruding on the scene, some as a devil. It was only when the strange being began shooting at them that they turned their weapons against him. But the result was only to make matters more inexplicable. They heard their bullets strike without effect. One Martini bullet, striking his headgear, checked him for an instant only, and he still came on cursing and threatening as the constables backed away, still pouring in a hot fire at close range. It was at this stage that Sergeant Steele who happened to be posted near, came on the scene. Seeing that the shots aimed at the body of the stranger seemed to have no effect, Steele aimed at his legs, when the man fell; not prostrate, but straight down as one sinking under a heavy weight. Then Steele, followed by other police, threw himself upon the mysterious stranger. It was Ned Kelly, the leader of the gang, dressed in bulletproof armour from head to knees.
When the armour was stripped from Ned Kelly it was found that the breastplate was marked all over with the splashes of bullets and shot, showing how well the police aimed while backing away from him. Yet there was no dint whatever in the iron, only the lead marks where the bullets struck and glanced off the convex-formed breastplate. On the concave side, however, there was a deep dent not the result of the police shooting, but the test mark of which the Diseased Stock Agent had already reported, confirming, as indeed did all the occurrences of these two eventful days, the genuineness of the information that Hare had so confidently rejected.
The helmet, what the police at first supposed to be a nail can, showed where a Martini Henry bullet had struck just over the forehead of the wearer. The iron was flattened by the force of the shot, but the padded lining softened the blow, and the only effect of the concussion was to check Ned Kelly’s advance for a moment. To the lower edge of the breastplate was slung an apron-shaped plate of the same material reaching to the knees. Besides these there were two narrower plates covering the upper arm to the elbow-joint. All these plates were balanced by one larger plate hanging at the back and reaching to the loins. All the made from the same material, the mould boards, as they are called, of ploughs.
There was some very vicious shooting from the hotel on the place where Kelly was being attended to. Some shots struck the van of the train into which he was first taken, and he was then removed into one of the station buildings not so open to the view of the three remaining bushrangers in the hotel. The whole of the station buildings and the platform were within easy range of the hotel, and the wonder is that none of the crowd of onlookers received any injury. If there had been the reckless shooting by the police, as Mr Longmore his fellow-commissioners chose to believe, the onlookers could scarcely have escaped.
The Unreliable Narratives of Sheeple
In an earlier chapter I have pointed out the danger people are liable to who, like those at Younghusband’s station and at Jerilderie a little later, submit like timid sheep to be rounded up by lawless persons. Glenrowan furnishes, as I have said, an object lesson of this. The people held captive there might laugh and dance and sing, with mirth more or less simulated no doubt, but when police made their appearance there opened a scene that might easily have meant destruction for many of them, had not the first fire from the attacking party been directed with discrimination as soon as the facts were known.
All who have written of the fight at Glenrowan seem to be misled by a few loose statements by persons, too excited and too full of the dread of their position, to be able to give any accurate account of what happened. The attitude of the members of Mr. Longmore’s Commission helped to add to the mischief. Take for instance another accusation against Sergeant Steele. A woman who made her escape from the hotel at nine o’clock said that the sergeant fired at her, and showed in proof the mark of a bullet hole through her skirt. Everyone on the ground knew that Steele had been disabled and had left the ground nearly two hours before; and that he carried a double barrel gun loaded with shot and not with bullets. The poor woman, as she made her escape, thought that every shot she heard was aimed at her; as for the bullet mark in her skirt, she had been under fire in the hotel all the morning, and no one could tell when it occurred. Mr. Longmore and his friends accepted all such sensational statements without question, and, following the extraordinary practice they had adopted towards other officers, denied the sergeant the right of cross-examining the witness.
Release of the Prisoners
I asked Ned Kelly whether he would send any message to the remainder of the gang in the hotel, now that there was no hope for them to get away. But he answered sullenly that there was no use in trying, they would not mind anything he could say, and he added something disparaging about them which I did not quite understand. It was after this that the police learned the true position of those innocent men shut up within the hotel, the women having been already passed out. I directed the police to cease firing while I approach the front of the hotel. I called to the innocent people to come out and assured them that they would not be injured. I stood alone at first, then a Mr. Charles Rawlins, who had been on the ground all the morning, joined me, and presently a few of the police who were posted near. Rawlins asked to be allowed to call out as he had, he said, a voice like a bull. He had scarcely repeated my words when the entire body of prisoners came rushing out to where we stood, and threw themselves prostrate at our feet. A short examination showed that they were unarmed, and without any molestation from the bushrangers within we went back together into the police lines. We certainly offered an easy target while so many of us stood in a quite open place not many yards distant from the hotel. This is the more strange, for the firing from the place soon recommenced.
The Siege Winds Down
One item of news from the released prisoners was that Byrne was lying Dead inside, shot by the police shortly before. We were told that Byrne had been firing, and was in great spirits, boasting of what the gang were going to do. The work was hot, and he went to the counter for a drink. Finding that the weight of his armour prevented him throwing back his head to swallow the liquor, he lifted the apron-shaped plate with one hand while with the other he lifted the glass to his mouth. In this attitude a chance bullet struck him in the groin, and spinning round once he fell dead.
We now had but two of the gang to deal with, and they were called on to give themselves up. To this there was no response. Looking at the matter in the light of later knowledge, it is possible that a sudden rush in upon the two men might have been effected without serious loss, but at the time the view I took was different. I knew that there were several rooms in the hotel through which we should have to search; that while we might be under fire from the bushrangers our fire would be ineffective, and that until the police had actually laid hands on them and disarmed them they were still in a position to use their weapons. I had actually selected the police I should take with me as already stated, should a rush be determined on, but in view of all the circumstances I resolved instead to burn the building over them.
Destruction of the Inn
This building, though of wood, did not appear very inflammable on the outer side, and the task did not appear to safe, since the weatherboard walls were perforated with numerous bullets, and any person approaching could easily be seen. The first man to offer to take the risk was Senior Constable Charles Johnston, a man spoken of in the early part of these Recollections, and whose courage I knew well. He was a married man with several children, and his wife had formerly been in the service of my family. Johnston persisted, and urged the right as the first offer for the work. With some reluctance I gave consent, on condition that he would strictly follow my instructions. These instructions were very simple. He was to procure a bottle of kerosene and a small bundle of straw, and come back to me without allowing any of the great crowd that had by this time assembled to know what he was about.
Johnston made a wider circle than I intended, and one that brought him face to face with a new and unexpected danger. While passing round on the west side of the hotel, far outside the police lines, Johnston came up against four armed men, not police. They were men, as we afterwards learned, who were waiting to join the Kellys in further raids had their plans not miscarried. Fortunately for Johnston he had laid aside his rifle, or these men would not have allowed him to pass with the few simple questions they put to him.
When Johnson rejoined me, I instructed a small party of police to direct the fire into that part of the hotel nearest to where it was to be set alight. Johnston soon had his work done. The other police had formed a line between the hotel and the crowd congregated near the platform. As the building was seen to burst into a blaze one man broke through the police line — Father Gibney, afterwards Roman Catholic Bishop of Perth. He strode forward to the building in spite of repeated calls to stop. I myself trying to intercept him, and overtook him just as he enter the door, when a great sheet of flame fell between us. I felt certain that his life was sacrificed, but was greatly relieved on running round the end of the building to find him coming out without hurt. His was a worthy and courageous act, done with the purpose of administering spiritual aid to those wretched men, who he supposed might be at the point of death. But all were dead except a man named Martin Cherry, who was wounded at the beginning of the fight, and whom the police carried away out of the reach of the fire. They also bore out the body of Byrne, but the other two they could not reach. After the fire the bodies of these two were found lying close together. The appearance of the bodies showed that the iron breastplate and aprons had saved the trunks from the scorching effects of the fire, while their heads and feet were burned almost to cinders. These two, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart, must have died in their armour.
An End to the Reign of Terror
While the events just related were going on, Ned Kelly lay in a state bordering on collapse, in the station building where we had placed him. He would have died, I believe, but for the care of Dr John Nicolson, of Benalla, who steadily supplied him with stimulants. It is quite true, as Dr. Fitchett relates, that Ned must have swallowed two or three bottles of whisky while he lay between life and death, but towards evening he was able to bear the journey by train to Benalla. All those who saw Ned Kelly while he lay helpless on a mattress were struck with the gentle expression of his face. It was hard to think that he was a callous and cruel murderer. But the old spirit, half savage, half insane, was there notwithstanding, for while talking to him the same evening as he lay swathed in bandages, there passed suddenly over his face a startling look a wild passion as he called me to send away the black b— who was leaning over him. It was the fireman with this face blackened from his work on the engine, whom Kelly took to be one of the black trackers.