[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 POLICE IN PURSUIT.
Supt. C. H. Nicolson was instructed by Captain Standish on Monday, October 28, to proceed to Benalla, as news had come through of the shooting of Sergeant Kennedy and Constables Lonigan and Scanlan. He said he found the people at Benalla, and, in fact, all along the line, in a state of great excitement. Next day, Tuesday, 29th October 1878, he despatched Supt. Sadleir to Mansfield, the scene of the tragedy.
As they had no idea that Joe Byrne and Steve Hart had joined the Kellys, the police concluded that the two men reported by McIntyre as being with Ned and Dan Kelly were William King and Charles Brown.
On 2nd November the police received a report that the Kellys had been seen three days before (31/10/78) between Barnawartha and the Murray River. Detective Kennedy, with a part of police, searched this locality, and were afterwards joined by Supt. C. H. Nicolson, who remained searching that district until the 5th November. On this date the Kellys were “at home” on Eleven-Mile Creek.
On the 4th November the police received a report that the Kellys had passed under the bridge at Wangaratta, and a party of police, under Inspector Brooks Smith, went in pursuit. He secured the services of a local blackfellow to track the Kellys. This tracker followed the outlaws’ tracks towards the Warby Ranges, and when nearing the foot of the ranges the party came upon a horse that had evidently knocked up — it was Sergeant Kennedy’s pack-horse. As the police crowded around this horse a report of a rifle or gun was heard as coming from the top of the ranges. The blacktracker said the Kellys were “up thar; you go catchen Kelly.” But Inspector Brooks Smith decided to return to Wangaratta with the pack-horse, and when reporting this incident the inspector stated that, as the blacktracker was too frightened to proceed, they (the police) had no option but to retreat with the “prize” pack-horse, and report at Wangaratta. The police were very angry with this blacktracker for the cowardice he displayed in refusing to go forward and capture the Kellys. If he would go on, they felt sure of capturing the outlaws, although further tracking was unnecessary, as the Kellys already made their presence known by discharging a rifle. By the time this report was sent to headquarters the outlaws were resting in Frank Harty’s crop.
On November 6th a report came to the police headquarters that the Kellys had been seen near Sheep Station Creek, near Sebastopol. Next day Captain Standish, Chief Commissioner of Police; Supt. C. H. Nicolson, assistant C.C. of police; and Supt. J. Sadleir went to Beechworth, and with a party of police and civilians, all mounted, and numbering about fifty, intended to sneak noiselessly upon the outlaws, and take them asleep in one of the houses in the vicinity.
In giving his evidence on oath in reference to this incident, Supt. C. H. Nicolson said: “Capt. Standish and Mr. Sadleir were very much engaged in talking. I could not hear what they said, there was a confounded noise. I saw the men riding together, and I devoted myself to knocking the men into some order. I went to the various sub-officers and asked, ‘Where are your men?’ and I said, ‘Keep them together.’ That is how I occupied myself.”
Question: “You desire us to understand that you were interfered with, and men brought there without your knowledge who should not have been?”
Supt. Nicolson: “No, I merely mention that as an instance. I am coming to something more important. I have been attacked about this, and I intend to tell you what I saw. We then came to a hut called ‘Sherritt’s,’ and, as related by Captain Standish, the hut was empty. I would not mention such a thing as I am going to mention except that insinuations had been made that I had almost avoided meeting the Kellys — it was insinuated yesterday. I knew nothing about what was going. I was riding by myself with two or three men near me, when Mr. Sadleir came up and said to me: ‘Now, Mr. Nicolson, this is the house of the Sherritts. You will do this and you will do that, and the outlaws are said to be here.’ I turned to Mr. Sadleir and said: ‘You send some men into that paddock, and see the men do not escape by the back’, and said to two or three men about me (mentioning their names), ‘Come along with me’. And I galloped with those men to the hut at full speed. I found the cavalcade was very noisy — we were expecting to get these men asleep — and called to the men to come with me, and I galloped to the front.”
Question: “Were you under his (Captain Standish) control, or were you not?”
Supt. Nicolson: “I received no instructions from Captain Standish.”
Question: “Who was in charge — you, Captain Standish, or Mr. Sadleir on that morning?”
Supt. Nicolson: “I never thought of taking charge. I left the matter with Captain Standish and Mr. Sadlier.”
Question: “Was Mr. Sadlier in charge up to that point?”
Supt. Nicolson: “Yes. I did not interfere with him, as this was his information that we were out upon.”
Question: “At what distance could a man have heard the noise of the police you spoke of?”
Supt. Nicolson: “One man told me afterwards that he heard us a mile away.”
Question: “Did this whole body of men remain after you searched the hut?”
Supt. Nicolson: “After searching three huts the men dispersed.”
* * * * *
This ended the fiasco which was known afterwards as “Rat’s Castle” or “The Charge of Sebastopol.”
The Kellys were to be taken while asleep in a hut, yet the morale of the police was so seriously affected that nothing less than a cavalcade of 50 horsemen was considered necessary to make sure of their capture. If the Kellys had been in any of the huts visited, the thundering noise of 50 horsemen travelling over stony country would have been sufficient to give the outlaws a most effective alarm. This expedition was the laughing-stock of the whole countryside. Captain Standish, who was over all as Chief Commissioner of Police, was in doubt as to his position in this big failure, because Supt. C. H. Nicolson was in charge of the pursuit of the Kellys. Then, again, Supt. C. H. Nicolson, who was in charge of the Kelly hunt, was in doubt, because Mr. John Sadleir was superintendent in charge of that particular district. Each of the three heads said he left the leadership of this fiasco to the other two.
The next move by Standish, Sadleir and Nicolson was to try and catch the outlaws by persuading the friends of the latter to betray them. Supt. Sadleir was informed who Aaron Sherritt was, and that he (Aaron Sherritt) was likely to know all about the Kellys.
Superintendent Sadleir on oath said: “I spoke to him (Aaron Sherritt), and asked him just to do what he could to assist us, and make certain promises which I forgot. I was a stranger to him, and he was not satisfied with my authority. I then called, I think, first to Mr. Nicolson and asked him to come and speak with him, and I think he was still uncertain about whether we had any authority. I then told him of Captain Standish, and I asked Captain Standish to speak to him. I think we were out of hearing of the police standing around us, but they could see all that we were doing. He seemed to promise. I expected that he would do something; in fact, there was a promise to that effect from him. We came to an understanding. I do not know what the terms were. I think I was the first to speak to Aaron Sherritt. I am pretty sure of it.”
Question: “Did Aaron Sherritt accompany you from the time you met him at Byrne’s house?”
Supt. Sadleir: “We had searched Byrne’s house when he turned up. We searched to see if any of the property of the murdered men was there; and when the whole thing was over, a light-looking, high-shouldered man walked in, and Strachan said, ‘Here is the man that knows the Kellys well, and will be of use to you; he knows all that is going on.’ And then I went and spoke to Sherritt; and as I have explained the matter went on to the end.”
On November 11th the Kellys were reported as having been seen on that date crossing the railway at Glenrowan, going from Greta to Warby Ranges. Supt. Nicolson met Supt. Sadleir next day, the 12th, at Glenrowan. They had two black-trackers with them, in addition to a party of policemen.
This search is described by Supt. Sadleir on oath as follows:—
“We had one or two trackers with us. The tracks were perfectly plain, and the tracks took us to the foot of the ranges without any trouble. It will be a mile or two, altogether, where the tracks are still visible. Those trackers took us clean away from them; they left the tracks. . . . They took us off the tracks, and took us to a swampy ground, where there were thousands of tracks, where all the cattle of the neighborhood came to water, and we could not get the trackers back again to take up the tracks where they left them. I am perfectly satisfied that they were simply misleading us.”
Question: “Were they (the trackers) actuated by a spirit of fear or sympathy?”
Supt. Sadleir: “They (the trackers) were actuated by the spirit of self-preservation, because they knew they would be the first to be shot. In fact, it was too much to ask them to lead you into a place where an ambush might be, and ask them to go first. Our police could not go first, because they would interfere with the tracks and obliterate everything, but these men would not show us — would not follow the tracks any further. We then had to strike out for ourselves independently of the blacks, and while waiting for luncheon a small party under Sergeant Steele, through some mistake of orders, got out of sight, and we could not pick them up again.”
It would have been very unwise for the police to venture forward when nearing the outlaws, because they (the police) would interfere with the tracks. Apparently the “heads” thought it safer to retire from the search than run the risk of obliterating the tracks made by the Kellys. If the Kellys were close at hand the tracks were not wanted, so that the search ended, like others, in the police returning home safely.
On December 6 the Kellys were reported as having been seen at Gaffney’s Creek. The local Gaffney’s Creek police, however, made inquiries, and could not find a trace.
By the time the police reached Euroa after the bank robbery the Kellys were at home at Eleven-Mile Creek, visiting again their friends and relatives about Greta. Shortly afterwards Supt. Nicolson gave up the Kelly hunt on account of ill-health, and was superseded by Supt. F. A. Hare.
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 110-117
[Editor: Changed ““You send” to “‘You send” (using a single quotation mark, in line with other quotations within the quotation); “(Aaron) Sherritt)” to “(Aaron Sherritt)”.]