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First Hand Accounts Sergeant Steele The Police

Sgt. Steele Interviewed by Cookson

“But, all the same, I may as well say that my success was owing to my using a shot gun instead of a rifle or pistol. It was no use trying to reach a vulnerable place in that man’s armour with a bullet. Shot was the stuff for that job; good big shot. And that’s what I got him with at last…”

The Kelly Gang From Within, The Sun, 3 September 1911

SURVIVORS OF THE TRAGEDY INTERVIEWED

GLENROWAN AND ITS PEOPLE AS THEY ARE TODAY

THE MAN WHO SHOT NED KELLY,

STILL HAS THE BLOOD STAINED CARTRIDGE BAG

To Sergeant Steele belongs the distinction of having brought down the chief of the notorious outlaws during the night fighting at Glenrowan. Steele had been one of the most implacable of the gang’s pursuers and one of the cleverest also. And they would have been pleased enough, no doubt, to have accounted for him. But he escaped without a hurt throughout the long hunt.

Sergeant Steele is living in retirement with his grown up family at Wangaratta. His house, a commodious, well shaded one, is at once pointed out to the visitor. It is on the top of the river bank. Below, the King and Ovens Rivers merge into one sluggish stream. Sergeant Steele occupies his leisure a good deal in farming. He is as keen as ever on horses; he always did love a good horse; and he finds agriculture an agreeable and profitable pastime.

It was in his pleasant home at Wangaratta that the representative of the “Sun” saw the man who shot the outlaw chief. Very well, indeed, was the doughty sergeant looking, carrying his years well – even jauntily. After all, a hard life fits a man for the enjoyment of a restful autumn, and the sergeant is one who can appreciate the fact. His is a hardy family. Both his daughters sleep out of doors in all weathers. And neither has ever known what a cold means.

Of course, the pursuit and capture of the outlaws was the principle task undertaken by Sergeant Steele in all his long service in the force. But he speaks of his exploits in a very matter of fact vein.

He remembered perfectly the stirring events of that memorable night at Glenrowan, especially the grand finale in which he played so large a part. But he was not disposed to discuss it. “It has all been told so often,” he said.

“But, all the same, I may as well say that my success was owing to my using a shot gun instead of a rifle or pistol. It was no use trying to reach a vulnerable place in that man’s armour with a bullet. Shot was the stuff for that job; good big shot. And that’s what I got him with at last.

“No, strange to say, I haven’t any relics of the battle, none, that is, except one. Let’s see, where is it? Ah! I know.” And diving into a room at the rear he reappeared with a dark looking object that presently turned out to be a leather bag, with a strap to carry it over the shoulder. The bag was of crescent shape, and the leather was stout. On the front flap was a large, dark stain.

“That,” said the sergeant, ” is Ned Kelly’s cartridge bag. That is the one he was wearing at Glenrowan. I took it off him, with the other things, when he fell. And that stain is his blood. He was wounded in several places, and bled a good deal. Yes; its a grim relic – not at all pretty. Let’s put it away.” And he did.

“You know,” resumed the sergeant, as he re-entered the room. “I wasn’t down at Glenrowan when the trouble started. I was here. But it was a clear, fine night, and we heard the noises of the firing when the police sent in the first volley distinctly. We knew what it was. And we didn’t wait long. We were there in time for the finish.”

We met Constable Bracken on the way. He was galloping along the railway line.

“And of the other men who took leading parts in the affair; what of them, sergeant?”

“Well, Mr Hare, who got shot in the hand, is dead. Constable Bracken, who so pluckily escaped from the Glenrowan Inn and told us what was doing there, committed suicide some time ago. Mr Sadleir is living at Elsternwick. I think, Sergeant Whelan I last heard of was living at Melville Street, Hawthorn. I don’t know about the others, but I believe a good number must still be on this side of the Divide.”

THE MAN WHO STOPPED THE SPECIAL TRAIN

MR CURNOW LIVING UNDER AN ASSUMED NAME

It is a matter of history that the bushrangers rendered desperate by consciousness of impending retribution, and with appetites for the slaughter of those whom they had made their enemies to the death, whetted by their sharp and decisive defeat of the police in the Wombat Ranges, determined to annihilate the special force of police sent to encounter them at Glenrowan. Their arrangements for the wrecking of the special train were nothing short of terrible in their completeness. Nothing could have saved the train from an awful disaster had it been permitted to reach the embankment just beyond Glenrowan, at which the outlaws had had the rails torn up. The courage and self devotion of one man alone prevented that calamity. Mr Curnow, the schoolmaster, knew of the outlaws’ dreadful intentions. Taking his life in his hands he left the inn in which he and the other people were prisoners to frustrate them. He was successful in stopping the train, and in preventing the contemplated massacre, and was, beyond question, by that act responsible in a very great measure for the bringing of the bushrangers’ long and sensational career to a close.

After the destruction of the gang Mr Curnow disappeared. He received a liberal share of the reward offered by two Governments for the apprehension of the outlaws. But thenceforward he vanished from human ken. It is presumed – has been presumed for years – that this plucky school teacher is dead. That belief is only partially correct. As Mr Curnow he has certainly ceased to exist. But the man himself is still alive – or was very recently. Living under another name, old but still active, Mr Curnow was until lately teaching a small school in the wilderness of Gippsland. Tall, grave of features, his long beard now almost white, the man who saved the special train is a very prominent figure in the small community in which he has chosen to immune himself. His secret is not unknown. When on rare occasions he makes a visit to the principal town in the district on some business of compulsion, he is pointed out occasionally by the few who know him as the hero of the Glenrowan fight; the man who risked his life to save the lives of his fellow men. But his new home is a long way removed from the scene of his memorable exploit. And there is no likelihood of the fact of his identity becoming known involving him in any of the trouble which, rightly or wrongly, he anticipated as the result of what he did on that fateful night. There are none in that region who have any sympathy with the notorious outlaws or their fate. To the people there the whole story of the gang and its exploits and destruction is a memory only. Those who know the old school teacher him for his great exploit – but they respect his wishes by seldom or never alluding to it. And so, in the placid serenity of his autumn of life Mr Curnow gores on with the work that he has always followed ; the instruction of the young. And a wise and capable instructor he has proved himself.

THE KELLY HOMESTEAD TO-DAY

LOOPHOLES CAREFULLY PRESERVED

A DOOR OF HISTORIC RECORDS

The old Kelly homestead is just the same to day as it was when the gang were terrorising the whole country. It was too substantially built to fall to pieces easily. The walls and partitions are of thick slabs. The floors are of rough hardwood boards. The present proprietor, who is a farmer, doing pretty well, has added a new iron roof to the old building, but has not changed it in any other respect. He uses the place as a dwelling for his family. There are four apartments in it. He has built another cottage at the rear of the old building, and has considerably improved the property in other ways.

We found the tenant an obliging man, very willing to do the honours of his home. He displayed with something like proprietary pride the loopholes in the partition walls. Through these, he said, the Kellys, when at home during the period of their outlawry; which was more often than the police imagined; could watch anyone in the adjoining apartment and shoot them, if they so desired, without the risk of a shot in return.

“And there was not much chance of anyone getting here without them knowing it,” continued the guide. “See those holes in the Doors!”

In the back door, about half way down, was a slit about 4in. long and 3/4in. wide. Looking through this from within, when the door was closed, the eye had a clear view of the whole of the country stretching away to the rear of the homestead, for miles. It would have been impossible for anyone to have approached the place on that side without being seen by a watcher within. The door at the other side was similarly provided with a “lookout.”

“This back door used to be the Kelly’s front door,” said the new owner of the place. Look at it carefully.”

It was worth looking at. There was scarcely an inch of space on the plain pine boards that did not bear a mark of some kind. Initials of members of the gang, or of their friends and relatives, cut, scratched, or stained in the wood, were all over his rude drawings the work of idle moments, were there in plenty. The initials of all the Kelly girls were prominent. And there were many other initials that could not easily be “placed.” So as to speak and others that were almost obliterated by time and weather.

Altogether the old door was a queer historic record; with some chronological value, as well, because many of the scratches and cuts had dates accompanying them.

PLAYING AT OUTLAWS

It not difficult to throw the mind back 21 years or so, and imagine this old slab hut, stronghold of the bushrangers. Here, many a time, they had met to learn news of the movements of the police. Here, often enough, they had planned and arranged all manner of depredations on neighbouring properties and the disposal of the proceeds.

We stop back warily, and endeavour to enjoy the sensation of feeling like a police topper stalking the place. We look carefully at the slot in the door, half expecting to see an eye glinting wickedly behind it, and the muzzle of a rife protruded through the larger aperture below. And we retreat in haste and great disorder several feet – to the back fence, in fact, on realising that there actually is a pair of keen eyes watching through that well worn loophole, and that something much resembling the muzzle end of a lethal weapon is projecting from the shot hole. For a moment this apparition was a little too realistic. The farmer found it quite an enjoyable joke, and laughed long and heartily about it. And as fresh phases of it occurred to him he would break out into more ebullitions of hilarity. It was a good while before he got his good humoured face straight enough to explain.

Playing at Kellys is, of course, the game of games in this district. And this farmer’s children had enviable and unique facilities for doing the thing realistically. They had all the original properties, so to speak, and they took advantage of them. Aaron Sherritt was usually slain in the stable at the end of the yard. But the troopers were frequently massacred in holocausts before the slotted door of the old stronghold. No doubt those youngsters had a gallows rigger somewhere around the place.

The temptation to regard a stranger as a hostile trooper had been too much for one youthful Australian, and he had just drawn a lead on the intruder’s liver with the whip handle that did him for a gun, when the ambush was perceived and the visitor backed out of range.

The farmer had no objection whatever to a photo of the place being taken. So while the camera was being adjusted he fetched some children up to the front. It only took a few seconds, but when the operator looked up from the view finder he was met with the spectacle of the son and heir of the family, a desperate villain of about eight summers, revelling a huge Enfield revolver against a small sister, who was, for the moment, a superintendent of police. It was no toy of a gun either, but a self acting weapon of modern make and deadly appearance.

The most striking feature about this impromptu tableau was the astonishing celerity with which the pistol made its appearance.

The farmer explained that he did not believe in firearms much, but he generally kept some handy; everyone in that part of the country did.

Many years, it appears, must roll on before the Kelly country gets free of its deeply permeating taint of crime and lawlessness and the summary jurisdiction of the sudden and deadly firearm.

We might have been in Texas or Kentucky.

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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