[Editor: This is a chapter from The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers (5th edition, 1946) by J. J. Kenneally.]
The Victorian police were not only not sorry, but somewhat pleased, that the Kellys were so successful in locking up the New South Wales police at Jerilderie and assuming control of the town.
They recognised that, to some extent, the tables had been turned. Anyhow, they could say that notwithstanding their boast, the New South Wales constables had suffered greater humiliation than the Victorian police. The Kellys actually arrested the police, locked them up, and, by donning the police uniform, made themselves responsible for order in the town.
As police in charge of Jerilderie the Kellys were a huge success. There was no rowdiness or drunkenness from Saturday night till Monday afternoon; and, although, it may seem strange, it is nevertheless true that after the Kellys returned home they were not inconvenienced by the police, who were alleged to be pursuing them. In fact, it seemed that the Victorian police had an intuitive understanding with the Kellys to the effect that each should give the other as wide as berth as possible. They (the police) were afforded an excellent excuse for retiring from the pursuit, when the blacktrackers, refusing to continue to lead the police, announced that the Kellys were now close at hand. This was bad enough, but what the police really objected to was the cowardice of the blackfellows in ordering the police to go first: “Kelly very soon now, you go catch ’em.” The police now decided to rely entirely on the employment of “spies.” But as the word “spy” has a nasty sound, the police spies were called “agents.” The first “spy” engaged was Aaron Sherritt.
When he was first approached by Supt. Sadleir, after the “Charge of Sebastopol,” near Beechworth, Sherritt humiliated that officer by doubting his authority. Supt. Sadleir then called in Supt. C. H. Nicolson, Assistant Chief Commissioner of Police. Mr. Nicolson endorsed the promises made to Sherritt by Supt. Sadleir, but still Aaron Sherritt doubted the authority of both Sadleir and Nicolson. Then Sherritt was introduced to Captain Standish, Chief Commissioner of Police. The captain endorsed the promises made to Sherritt by Sadleir and Nicolson, and then Aaron Sherritt, who was at that time engaged to Joe Byrne’s sister, was appointed as a police spy. His duties were to still pretend to be the most faithful friend of Joe Byrne and the Kellys, while he accepted service with the police to betray his intended brother-in-law for “blood-money.” Sherritt fed the police with a constant supply of news of the outlaw’s plans. Sherritt felt himself in very much the same position as some newspaper men. He felt that he had to supply facts if available, but if facts were not available then fiction. Sherritt displayed a good deal of skill in handling the police. He did not get on too well with Supt. Nicolson, whom he described as that “Crankie Scotchman.” But he completely hypnotised Supt. Hare. It was quite true that the police officials did not like this method of capturing the outlaws, but their slogan at that time appeared to be “Safety first” — that is, their own personal safety. The Kellys were associated very little with Sherritt. He practically had nothing to do with them. But he had been the schoolmate and intimate acquaintance of Joe Byrne. While in the employ of the police Sherritt stole a horse from Mrs. Byrne — Joe Byrne’s mother. He brought the horse down to Greta and sold it to Mrs. Skillion (Ned Kelly’s sister), to whom he gave the usual receipt. Mrs. Skillion soon discovered that the horse she had bought from Aaron Sherritt belonged to Mrs. Byrne. The latter reported the matter to the police, and took out a warrant for the arrest of the police spy — Aaron Sherritt. This placed the police in an awkward predicament. If justice were done, Sherritt would be sentenced to gaol for a term of years. But as the police considered Sherritt’s services as a police spy were indispensable, they apparently controlled the course of justice and secured Sherritt’s discharge. A further example of police patronage in crime occurs in connection with John Sherritt Jr. A sheep owner at Woolshed, near Beechworth, reported to the police that he had been losing sheep, and that he suspected some of the Sherritt family of stealing and killing them. Constable Barry caught John Sherritt in the act of skinning a sheep, but no action was taken. The attitude of the police authorities in this connection suggested that the police and the Sherritt family had a licence to commit crime. This same sheep stealer was afterwards permitted, on the recommendation of Supt. Hare, to join the police force. In reference to this matter, Supt. Hare, on oath before a Royal Commission, said:—
Question by Superintendent Nicolson. — Do you not think that before you took Sherritt into the force you ought to have been very clear as to whom that sheep belonged that he was seen skinning by the constable? — No. I do not think so. My reasons are, for acting as I did, that through some means or other these men were thrown on the Government. I do not know how, but when I returned to duty I found they were there, and I had to find the best means of disposing of them. I made the suggestion, and Captain Standish said, “Find out everything you can.” I did and reported to Captain Standish. That is all I had to do in the matter.
Question by Superintendent Nicolson. — Did you recommend their being taken into the force? — Yes, certainly, in the first instance; and when I made inquiries I could find nothing tangible against them, and two clergymen and other old inhabitants of the district, with Mr. Zincke, a member of Parliament, all gave these men (sheep stealers) an exemplary character.
Question by Superintendent Nicolson. — That is since I (Supt. Nicolson) spoke of it, and since you recommended them to be taken into the police force. Was it not your duty to make inquiries about this matter of sheep stealing? — All the inquiry was made that could be. Constable Barry saw Sherritt skinning sheep as he passed, and that was all. What further inquiry could be made?
Question by Superintendent Nicolson. — To whom did the sheep belong? — How could I specify to whom it belonged when it had been skinned and eaten? Whom could I have got information from?
Question by Superintendent Nicolson. — Could you not have used the police to ascertain for you who had lambs running about in that quarter? — Certainly that would be a gross injustice to imply that a man stole a sheep. There was no proof of it. Because a squatter ran sheep on the run this man lives on, and because this man is seen skinning a sheep, is it to be implied that he stole it?
Question by Superintendent Nicolson. — I did not say implied, I say inquiry — sufficient to prevent him getting into the force.
Question by Superintendent Nicolson. — No, but to make inquiries? — I did make inquiries.
Question by Superintendent Nicolson. — Did you make inquiries whether the Sherritts had sheep of their own? — No; they might have bought it.
Question by Superintendent Nicolson. — Would not the possession of this sheep be prima-facie evidence of his stealing it? — No.
Now let us look at the police attitude towards the Kellys.
“Forwarded for information of Mr. Nicolson and Mr. Sadleir. I address this to the latter, being uncertain whether Mr. Nicolson is still in Benalla. At all events, the information, which is important, should be communicated to him as soon as possible.
“The signals which Mrs. Skillion makes from her place clearly bring her within the reach of the new Act. It would be very desirable to commit her, if possible, or, at any rate, to prosecute her. — F. C. Standish, C.C. Police.”
LOADED DICE STILL ON ACTIVE SERVICE.
The above is one of the numerous examples which prompted Inspector Mountford, when giving evidence on oath before the Royal Commission behind close doors, to state: “I might say that a great deal of the trouble with these men (Kellys and their friends) would be got over if they felt that they were being treated with equal justice — that there was no ‘down’ on them. They are much more tractable when they feel that they are treated with equal justice.”
The police had another spy, “Diseased Stock,” whose activities were well known to the Kellys. They knew him well, and knew him to be a police spy. His name was Kennedy. This man was not a friend of the outlaws, and it was impossible for him to secure first-hand information. Kennedy was aware of that, but he knew also that the Government had plenty of money to spend, and he never failed to supply reports and draw his allowance. His reports and information, when submitted, were always stale, and usually second, and sometimes third and fourth hand.
The spy business was regarded by some as a new industry, and the “official spy” frequently worked with some of his friends to concoct likely stories of the plans, intentions, and whereabouts of the outlaws. A fair specimen of this class of concoction was responsible for the taking of Supt. Nicolson and Supt. Sadleir to Albury while the outlaws were, without opposition, securing £2000 from the bank at Euroa. The letter was written in New South Wales, and bore the postmarks of Bungowannah and Albury, December 3, 1878.
It was received by one of the police spies at Greta, and handed as something extra special to the senior constable at Edi. The latter sent it to Supt. Sadleir at Benalla. This letter was handed to Supt. Nicolson by Supt. Sadleir, both of whom took the next train to Albury. Here is the letter as quoted by Supt. Sadleir when giving evidence on oath:—
“Sir, — I have been requested by E. and D. Kelly to do what I could to assist them in crossing here, I am to write to you to let you know the arrangements. They are to be at a time to be named at the junction of the Indigo Creek and the Murray, and there is to be a password. It is this:— ‘Any work to be had?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Where?’ On the New South Wales side one shall meet you. I will have a boat ready. There must not be any horses come to the river. If you should have horses they must be led by the bridge to a safe place already prepared for them. I will have four on each side on the river to watch upper and lower sides. I have a place fixed where you will be safe. If you should want horses there will be some got for you. There are two who say they will join you if requested. You must mind it will want money, and I have got none. When you write, direct to Howlong for the signature.”
After quoting the above, Supt. Sadleir continued:— “It is not out of sympathy I do not mention his name, but it is sent by a person well known and suspected in that neighbourhood. I made a note of it at the time to this effect, amongst other matters, that the envelope showed the Bungowannah and Albury postmarks of the 3rd inst.”
This letter was responsible for diverting the attention of the heads of the police force at Benalla to Albury while the Kellys entertained the Euroa bank manager and his wife and family and staff with tea at Faithful Creek homestead.
“Renwick” was the alias of another spy named Lawrence Kirwan, of Carbour, near Oxley, farmer, who on oath stated:—
(1) That in April, 1879, I was employed by Mr. Hare as a scout and guide to assist the police in the pursuit of the Kellys, at the rate of £1 per day.
(2) That I acted as scout or guide for different parties of police for thirteen days and received in payment therefor the sum of thirteen pounds.
(3) That I was instructed by Mr. Sadleir to go out and seek information on the gang, and, acting on those instructions, I went to Benalla, round Mt. Emu and Dondongadale River, where I met Mr. Furnell and party; thence back to Carbour, and then up the Mitta River to Beechworth, where I met Detective Ward, who approved of what I was doing. I went next to the Little River, and then to the Upper Murray by way of Cotton Tree Hill, but found no traces, and returned to Benalla and reported where had been, and that I had found no traces of the gang.
(4) That when I sent in claim for payment for the time I was out seeking information, Mr. Sadleir declined to pay me, as he said he did not know I was out; and I was left by this decision without a shilling and had to borrow ten shillings to take me home.
(5) In September or October, 1879, I got a written message from Mr. Assistant Commissioner Nicolson to meet him at Wangaratta. I went in on Monday to Wangaratta and saw Mr. Nicolson, who asked me to go out and seek traces of the gang. I refused to go on the ground that I had a claim against Mr. Hare and Mr. Sadleir for services which they declined to recognise. Mr. Nicolson pressed me to go out, but I several times refused to go. I explained to Mr. Nicolson my claims, and he said he would do his best to get the amount for me. Mr. Nicolson said he had heard of the disputed claim at Benalla, and that he knew he would be handicapped over it. I understood that Mr. Nicolson meant that this disputed claim would prevent my working for him. I afterwards saw Mr. Nicolson; three days after I agreed to go out under him. I went out alone the following day. I was out four days on the King River. I went out with specific instructions to see if there were camps or traces of camps in certain localities on the river. I found no traces. I found an old saddle, which afterwards proved to be one of the saddles belonging to the police murdered at the Wombat. There were floods in the King River, which interfered with the search I was directed to make. I returned to Wangaratta and saw Mr. Nicolson and reported to him.
(6) That I remained in Mr. Nicolson’s service until the first day of June, 1880. That I was paid for all the time I was working for him. I was paid all the time I was out, whether I got information or not. I never had a dispute with Mr. Nicolson. I was paid by Mr. Nicolson the sum of twenty-six pounds, fifteen shillings. When not employed by Mr. Nicolson I was idle, so that I received only twenty-six pounds, fifteen shillings in twenty-seven weeks.
(7) That when Mr. Nicolson was leaving the district I saw him near Beechworth. He told me he was about to leave and paid me three pounds which were due to me. He told me that Mr. Hare was coming to take charge and that he (Mr. Nicolson) would like me to go on working for him. I told Mr. Nicolson I did not think I would, and added that if he was going to leave I would knock off working. Mr. Nicolson pressed me to stay on, and I at last said I would go down to Benalla and see Mr. Hare on the subject.
(8) That what I said might have led Mr. Nicolson to believe that I intended to go on working for Mr. Hare.
(9) That Mr. Nicolson could not have said more than he did to induce me to remain working for Mr. Hare. I did not mention my claim to Mr. Nicolson on this occasion.
(10) I never spoke to Mr. Nicolson again until August, 1880.
(11) I went to Benalla and saw Mr. Hare. He asked me to work for him. He said: “I want you to keep on working for me the same as you have been doing for Mr. Nicolson, as you know the locality and the whole affair.” I said I wanted my disputed claim paid before I would do any more work. He said: “Can’t help that; it is nothing to do with me.” I said that I had asked Mr. Sadleir and he gave me the same reply, and if that was the way of it I was quite full of it and would work no more. I went home by train.
(12) That I met Detective Ward afterwards, and he told me that when Mr. Hare complained to him of my refusal to work he (Ward) said I had a disputed claim with the department for work performed, and that Mr. Hare had said in reply: “If Kirwan had told me that I would have made it all right.”
(13) That from the information I was supplying and from the movements of the gang and police, I am sure that Mr. Nicolson and his party must have encountered the gang within a few days of the time Mr. Nicolson was removed. An encounter could not have been postponed for ten days, and might have occurred in four or five.
— LAWRENCE KIRWAN. Sworn at Wangaratta, in the Colony of Victoria, this fifth day of September, one thousand eight hundred and eighty-one, before me, Fred J. M. Marsden, a Commissioner of the Supreme Court of the Colony of Victoria for taking Affidavits.
Towards the end of 1879 each of the permanent police spies developed the spirit of prophecy to a very high degree. They always reported that the Kellys were starved out; that they were very thin, and would soon be caught. Dan Kelly, as a matter of fact, had developed into a fine, well-made man, although he was only ninteen years old when he died at Glenrowan. Constable Bracken, who had been arrested by the Kellys at Glenrowan, said that the four bushrangers were in the pink of condition; that Ned Kelly was fit to win the Melbourne Cup.
Supt. Nicolson loudly proclaimed his great faith in the spies he employed, and, on the other hand, the spies proclaimed their great faith in Mr. Nicolson’s ability to capture the outlaws.
From the spies’ stories of the starving bushrangers it would appear a wise policy that Mr. Nicolson should remain at the Benalla police barracks, so as to be on hand when the outlaws would come in to give themselves up. They were a happy family — Mr. Nicolson and his spies.
Pat Quinn joined in the crowd of spies. He was not on friendly terms with the Kellys, and would willingly give them away if he could. He was not related to the Kellys, but his wife was Mrs. Kelly’s sister.
The friends and sympathisers of the Kellys kept Mr. Pat Quinn well supplied with mythical movements of the outlaws, and Quinn lost no time in communicating these mythical movements to the police officials. On one occasion he was told in the deepest and most intense confidence that the Kellys were at the head of the King River, where they were to rest for a few days. Quinn rushed to the Benalla police barracks, where he met Supt. Nicolson, who had just returned after a long wild-goose chase. Mr. Nicolson did not have any confidence in Quinn, and made a legitimate excuse that his men and horses were worn out, and were unable to undertake a 70-mile ride without a rest. Paddy was somewhat annoyed at his failure to arouse Mr. Nicolson’s enthusiasm. Actually at the time that this news was given to Mr. Nicolson the Kellys were introducing themselves to the foreman and his wife at Younghusband’s Faithful Creek station, near Euroa. This was the end of Quinn as a police spy.
On still another occasion Quinn was anxious to “discover” reliable traces of the outlaws. While his wife was away from home he took some of the contents out of a bag of flour he had recently brought home, and putting it into a sugar bag took it over to a spot near his front slip rails. He dumped the sugar bag of flour on the ground and led his horses around the bag several times. Some of the flour sifted out of the sugar bag, and left clear evidence that a quantity of flour had been placed there. The tracks of horses about this spot indicated that the outlaws had been there and received provisions from Mrs. Quinn during her husband’s absence. He then planted the sugar bag of flour in a shed. When Mrs. Quinn came home he was angry. He accused his wife of giving flour and other provisions to the Kellys. She denied the charge, whereupon her husband took her over the spot where the flour had sifted out of the bag, and called her attention to the tracks made by the horses. After hearing her denials, Paddy ordered her to go to the house and see if any flour was gone. She went, and to her astonishment a quantity of flour was missing. “They must have been here while we were away!” she said. Quinn rode with all speed to report this positive evidence of the outlaws’ visit, and when the police party arrived and saw the evidence they too were convinced that the outlaws had been there. This incident somewhat revived official confidence in Quinn as a genuine friend of “law and order.”
A schoolmaster named Wallace offered his spying services to the police. He was, he said, in close touch with the outlaws and held their complete confidence. His services were readily accepted. He undertook to get hold of Joe Byrne’s diary, under the pretence of licking it into printable shape. He was in reality not in close touch with the Kellys at all, but he was in financial difficulties, and drew large, and regular sums from the police department. He wrote very voluminous reports, which contained no news of any value. He drew £180 in about seven months.
Eventually the police officials woke up and came to the conclusion that this pedagogue was either a financial expert or a faithful worker for the outlaws.
In his reports he disclosed his disapproval of the character of some of the police officials stationed at Beechworth. On November 26, 1879, he wrote to Supt. Nicolson as follows:— “Met . . . Junior and P. . . . I had a long and interesting conversation with these worthies, who manifested much pleasure in meeting me. I wondered at the marked change in Jack’s manners towards me, as, on two or three previous occasions, he carefully avoided me. I soon ascertained the reason. It appears by their account that the virtuous detective who is standing the season at Beechworth had stated a day or two previously that my name had been added to the black list at the office; that he believed that ‘bloody’ W. . . . was in constant communication with the outlaws.”
In giving evidence before the Royal Commission, the following statements were made by the schoolmaster on oath:—
Question (by Commission). — What did you mean by “The virtuous detective” who is “standing the season” at Beechworth? — That is exactly what I meant. He had the reputation of acting immorally, “putting it in a mild form.”
Question (by Detective Ward). — Do you know anything personally about it? — I know no one in the North-Eastern district who bore a more unenviable character for immorality, than you yourself.
Question (by Ward). — Can you give any instances? — Tampering with the pupil teachers (the girls) in the State School.
Question (by Commission). — Was there any stir made about that at the time? — I believe so. I believe Captain Standish made an inquiry into the matter, but it was hushed up.
Question (by Commission). — Did you hear anything of the result of that inquiry? — I did not.
Question (by Ward). — Any other person? — I have heard you are the father of several illegitimate children.
Question (by Ward). — Will you give me just one if you can? — It is currently reported in the North-Eastern district that you were the father of the illegitimate child of Miss ——, of ——.
The character of some of the police and police spies had a good deal to do with deciding a very large section of the community to become Kelly sympathisers. The moral character of the four outlaws was admired by the respectable section of the community. Even the police had so much confidence in their chivalry that when two or three of the police were under the bed after the shooting of Aaron Sherritt they pulled Mrs. Sherritt under the bed with them, saying, “The Kellys won’t fire when they know that there are women here.”
What a striking contrast to the action of the police at Glenrowan, where the police shot down innocent men, women and children!
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 148-159
[Editor: Added double quotation mark before “Sir, — I have”; changed double quotation mark to a single quotation mark before “Yes’. ‘Where”. Inserted a line break before “— LAWRENCE”.]