Crime and Punishment History The Kelly Gang The Police

The Kelly Gang and the Police (2 July 1880)

Two letters to the editor criticising the police actions at Glenrowan.

Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), Friday 2 July 1880, page 7



Sir,—May I offer a few remarks bearing on the capture of the Kelly gang. There is, I think, little doubt that they, through fool-hardiness and want of foresight, gave them-selves into the hands of the police. They had plenty of opportunities to escape both before and during the fight, and it appears, from a paragraph in your yesterday’s issue, that but for the Chief Secretary ordering a special train, the police did not intend leav-ing Melbourne until the next day, thus displaying a fondness for warm beds and daylight and a reluctance to put the country to unnecessary expense that is quite touching. However, what I wish more particularly to draw attention to is this —from the reports I find there were some 30 or 40 prisoners in the house with the Kellys. These prisoners—men, women, and children—were not even given a chance to escape, but were fired on at once, and I think I may say that those that were killed were ruthlessly butchered. How would matters have stood had 20 of them been killed? After all what did the police do? They shot Byrne, and they wounded Ned Kelly, when he stood out to be shot at. It is doubtful whether the younger Kelly and Hart did not shoot themselves. Everybody is, of course, highly pleased at the dispersion of the gang, but it seems a pity that such inhumanity was shown towards the harm-less prisoners. The end of the en-counter was as ruthlessly conducted as the beginning. Ned Kelly was in custody, Byrne was shot, and the other two outlaws supposed to be dead. Yet these 30 or 40 valiant policemen were quite easily restrained from rushing the place, and determined on burning it down, quite regardless of the fact, of which they were well aware, that there was a wounded prisoner inside. The police were, of course, quite right not to expose them-selves more than was necessary, but their caution in this respect contrasts unfavourably with their reckless disregard for other people’s lives. I suppose the blacks would look upon the affair as a “dispersion.” What about the black that was wounded? Being a coloured gentleman, I suppose he does not count, as I have not seen him mentioned in the list of casualties.—Yours, &c.,

June 30 T. H. B.

A gathering of police and onlookers, including members of the Queensland native police.


Sir,—Now that the Kelly excitement is cooling, some of its features begin to excite comment. People are heard asking such questions as the following:—

Why were the police permitted to fire into a slightly-built weatherboard house, which was well known to be crammed with men, women, and little children, killing and wounding indiscriminately? Again, who was it that permitted the police to burn the building when it was known that an innocent and helpless man lay there, and must be destroyed, and was in fact only saved by a civilian’s pluck and humanity?

Next, who was it that permitted the bodies of Daniel Kelly and Hart to be handed to a defiant pack of thieves and lawless vagabonds, whose sympathy and help had so long saved them from the gallows?

Who allowed these bodies to be carted away before the inquest could be held? And why, when the tribe had got the bodies, and got drunk and insolent over them, did the authorities first claim them, and when denied and dared, recall their orders, and give these desperadoes best?

If it was necessary to hold an inquiry upon Byrne, why was it unnecessary to have one over Hart and Daniel Kelly? What a farce it would be to hold one over Edward Kelly when he has been executed, and yet this has been the rule, and is the law. The police first promote a drunken orgie amongst a set of desperate rogues by improperly giving them the bodies to wake, and when the corpses are needed for the coroner they permit the law to be defied and insulted.

Are there any Kelly sympathisers in the force, or are they simply muddled-headed and craven? We shall next hear of the erection of monuments inscribed with expressions of admiration for the careers and sorrow for the fate of these outlaws. The stones will become shrines, and be venerated by the neighbourhood, tainting its moral atmosphere by exalting these murderers into heroes, in the eyes of the young in particular. Their graves should have been a nameless hole in a gaol-yard—out of sight, out of mind.

If we experience further difficulties with these people, let us thank our policemen. Under all the circumstances it might be wise to utilise our garrison corps by quartering them at Greta for three months to over-awe these people, and then the authorities should lock-up such characters as Wild Wright and his associates whenever their language or acts give a chance. The crew should be stamped out or dispersed as quickly as possible.—Yours, &c.,


Queensland native police pose with Victorian troopers and Joe Byrne’s horse.

By AJFPhelan56

Father, writer, artist and bushranging historian residing in Melbourne, Australia. Author of 'Glenrowan' and the popular website A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

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