Chapter 13 [The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers, by J. J. Kenneally]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers (5th edition, 1946) by J. J. Kenneally.]



Mr. O’Connor arrived at Benalla on March 8, 1879, and boarded with the other officers at Craven’s Commercial Hotel.

He met there the sister-in-law of Supt. Nicolson. It was a case of love at first sight; but the parties were evidently not ready to make elaborate preparations for their marriage. It was decided that they should get married quietly, and still live as Mr. O’Connor and Miss Smith.

One morning the happy couple appeared at the Church of England at Benalla, in company with Mr. James Knox, Benalla shire secretary, as best man, and were married by the Rev Mr. Scott.

This marriage was a great secret, and both parties continued, as far as the public were concerned, as unmarried people. However, a great public wedding was arranged six months later at Flemington. Many guests were invited. The four who figured at the secret marriage at Benalla were there, and retired to a room in one part of the house where the marriage ceremony was supposed to be performed. The guests were in another part, in a big room, and were waiting till the clergyman, Mr. Scott, and Mr. Knox, the best man, and the bridegroom and the bride would emerge and receive their congratulations. This farce was successfully staged, and the guests, except Mr. Knox and the clergyman, were in complete ignorance that the happy couple had been lawfully married six months before.

Captain Standish heard the full account of the secret wedding, and his dislike to Mr. O’Connor was considerably intensified, and, when giving evidence before the Royal Commission on March 23, 1881, he was cross-examined by Mr. O’Connor as follows:—

Mr. O’Connor. — Do you ever remember saying to me that you would endeavour to get the Kellys without my valuable assistance?

Captain Standish. — I never said any such thing.

The Chairman (to Mr. O’Connor). — You had better for the present confine your questions to any personal matters you wish dealt with at this sitting. The witness (Captain Standish) stated he had heard things about you he would not like to mention.

Mr. O’Connor. — He made some reflections about my private character, but I do not care a fig about it from a man of his private character, but I should like him to state what he alluded to.

The Chairman. — Captain Standish referred to your letter, in which you said you have been treated in an ungentlemanly, ungenerous, and discourteous manner by him throughout the whole sixteen months you were under his command, and he said he gave that the lie direct, and further, that he found out things that made him keep out of your company. Do you desire to say anything about that?

Mr. O’Connor. — Captain Standish’s knowledge of my private character is very limited, and all I can say is that, if he has so low an estimate of my character, I care very little about it, considering the character of the man who judges. He said I was not a fit and proper person; I say that of him. (Under such circumstances it was natural that at least 85 per cent of the public took the side of the Kellys.)

By Mr. O’Connor, to witness (Captain Standish). — Did you allude to my private character? — No; I said things came to my knowledge that shook my faith in you.

By Mr. O’Connor. — Let him say it.

By Commission (to the witness). — I think, in fair play to Mr. O’Connor, you ought now to state what you refer to? — You (Mr. O’Connor) told several people that you were engaged to be married to a certain lady, and I remember asking what day and you said on the anniversary of your birthday, the 10th of February; and I found that you were married all the time.

Mr. O’Connor. — I give that the lie direct. I say that is a falsehood, and I am ready to prove it. On one occasion, when I dined with Captain Standish, he said, “I noticed you making love to a certain young lady,” and I said, “That is nonsense, it is only fun,” and I thought nothing more about it until I received a letter congratulating me. I immediately wrote back and said there was not a word of truth in it.

The witness. — I was driven to say this, and Mr. O’Connor was married a few days after he came to Benalla.

Mr. O’Connor. — But everything was quite correct.

Captain Standish. — May I ask for all that to be withdrawn? I request, as a particular favour, that you allow the whole of that to be expunged from the evidence.

Mr. O’Connor — I am sorry for my loss of temper, and will be glad if this matter be not reported.

The Chairman observed that, as the earlier statements of Captain Standish had already been reported in the “Herald” newspaper, he did not see how the later remarks could be withdrawn.

Mr. O’Connor told the Royal Commission on March 30, 1881, that Captain Standish often spoke of Mr. Nicolson in the most disparaging terms. On one occasion Captain Standish, referring to the death of the Hon. John Thomas Smith, said, “Now Mr. Nicolson’s billet as Assistant Commissioner will soon be done away with, as the Hon. John Thomas Smith got it for him; the billet is a farce, and it will be all up with him now, as he has not another friend left.”

Mr. Nicolson was the son-in-law of the late Hon. J. T. Smith.

Mr. O’Connor and his trackers went out on two occasions with Mr. Hare, but with no results. At the end of June, 1879, Mr. Hare acknowledged himself badly defeated by the outlaws. His health began to fail, and he asked to be relieved.

Supt. C. H. Nicolson was sent to Benalla early in July, 1879, and was given a free hand in controlling the pursuit of the Kellys.

On taking over the Kelly hunt, Supt. C. H. Nicolson decided to alter the plan of campaign. Supt. Hare rushed parties of police around on any rumour, and had his men and horses worn out after their return from some of their trips. Mr. Nicolson changed all this. He decided to lie in wait until some really good information came to hand, and to push forward with both men and horses in the pink of condition.

The Kellys, on the other hand, had developed a great fear of the blacktrackers. They had been pursued very closely on one or two occasions, and they were very much struck with the accuracy and speed of the blacktrackers when following them. On one occasion they saw a party of police in search of them. Supt. Hare was in charge, but he had no blacktrackers. The police camped for the night. One of the constables moved some distance away from the others to camp. The Kellys, who were not very far away, approached the police camp cautiously, and took stock of the police horses and the number of men in the camp. The Kellys would have annihilated the whole police party if they had been even one per cent. as bloodthirsty as the daily papers had represented them to be.

This was shortly after the Jerilderie bank robbery; the Kellys did not want to disturb the peace, or to give definite information where they had been putting in their time, so they left the police to rest undisturbed.

On one of their expeditions with the blacktrackers the police were in hot pursuit, but had no idea they were so close to the Kellys.

The backtrackers were working with great enthusiasm. The Kellys knew the police were in pursuit. After they had travelled a long journey the trackers picked up their tracks. The Kellys pushed on as fast as they could with their jaded horses; one horse knocked up, and had to be abandoned. They pushed forward for about a quarter of a mile, and tied the rest of the horses up. They gave these horses the balance of the horse feed which they had carried with them. Having secured their horses, then they prepared to meet their enemies — the police — in a desperate fight for life. They had one great advantage — the selecting of their battleground. They decided to double back about twenty yards from the track by which they had come and parallel to it, and take up their position behind a big log about twenty-five yards from their disabled horse. Their position gave them a good view of the disabled horse, and the track coming to him. Ned gave instructions how they were to pick their men in the event of the police refusing to throw up their hands. The outlaws were now ready. They did not have to wait long to learn their fate. They heard the blacktrackers coming, with about eight or nine policemen following close up. The tracker who was about a dozen yards in the lead pulled up as he came to the abandoned horse. The police looked surprised, and the tracker exclaimed, “Kelly very soon now, you go catch ’im.” The officer in charge said quickly, “We’ll go back to the camp, and come out to-morrow,” and already started back with all possible speed. Before the outlaws recovered from their surprise the police had retreated a good distance, but were still within range of their (the outlaws’) rifles. “Well,” said Ned, “that beats Banagher!” The Kellys fully expected to either have the pleasure of disarming the police and taking their horses, or putting up a real good fight. Of course, they recognised that they had a great advantage over the police, who would not know in their surprise where the challenge came from when called upon to surrender.

The police duly reported that they were on the outlaws’ tracks sure enough, but owing to the cowardice of the blacktrackers, who refused to go on any further, they were very reluctantly compelled to return to their camp.

The Kellys paid a visit to the police paddock at Benalla and examined the police horses, but they did not come up to the outlaws’ requirements, and were not taken by them. The Kellys wanted horses with some blood and breeding; the police horses were big, upstanding crossbreds that could show neither pace, nor endurance, and were described by Ned Kelly as a lot of scrubbers.

On Mr. Nicolson taking over the management of the Kelly hunt he relied almost exclusively on the spies he employed. He had to deal with a large volume of correspondence from these spies, and decide whether or not action should be taken. The following were a few of his most prominent spies:— “Renwick” — Lawrence Kirwan, of Carbour; “Diseased Stock” — D. Kennedy: Greta — “Tommy” (Aaron Sherritt); Moses (J. Wallace), a school teacher. The latter, after drawing £180 from the Police Department, was looked upon as a genuine friend of the outlaws, to whom it was alleged he regularly communicated full particulars of the police plans and movements. This spy wrote volumes of reports, but they contained no tangible information of the whereabouts of the Kellys. The spies, through their reports, were very optimistic, and continually promised the early capture of the outlaws.

These spies also reported that the outlaws were starved out, and that Dan Kelly was seen somewhere, and that he was very thin and starved-looking. Mr. Nicolson reported these optimistic records to the Chief Commissioner of Police as the justification of his policy of patience — to lull the outlaws into a feeling of false security so that they may become reckless and venture out into the open, and be easily captured or destroyed.

The Kellys took full advantage of the immunity they now enjoyed from pursuit, and settled down in their old home at Eleven-Mile Creek. They put a ceiling of bark in the house, and the four outlaws slept there in the attic, and seldom ventured out during the day. Their friends kept a close watch on all the movements of the police, and advised the outlaws if there was any danger of police invasion.

A party of twelve mounted police were sent from Benalla to Greta. They were on some “good information,” and were out to pick up the tracks, and, if possible, capture the Kellys. The four outlaws were sitting inside taking things easy. Suddenly one of Mrs. Skillion’s children rushed in, and then exclaimed that there was such a lot of men coming from Benalla on horseback. There was no time for the four men to get away.

Ned told Mrs. Skillion to take the children into the back room, and lie down flat on the floor with them. Mrs. Skillion said she would get the children out of the way as suggested, but that she herself would remain beside them and hand them the cartridges. The police were coming on at a walking pace. Ned was a bit worried, as the women and children might get shot. Each of the outlaws took up his position in readiness for the battle. The usual position was, however, altered in this case. It was the police who would come up and challenge the outlaws. But then the police might just ride up and bully the women to show them over the house. In that case they would be called to “bail up” and throw up their arms. There was great excitement in the old home; the police were now almost up to the sliprail, and the four outlaws had the leading four covered. With good shooting, it would take three shots each to account for the twelve policemen. The tension was suddenly relieved when Mrs. Skillion exclaimed, “They’re off; they’re off to Greta!” The police as they came to the sliprails started off in a canter, quite oblivious of the reception that was in store for them if they had attempted to call at the homestead.

The police went on to inquire into the “good information” sent in by one of the spies. They found some tracks, and after following them for some time came to the conclusion that the tracks were not those of the outlaws.

J. J. Kenneally, The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers, Melbourne: J. Roy Stevens, 5th edition, 1946 [first published 1929], pages 166-173

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