“You all will have heard of the Kelly Gang of bushrangers who terrorised the population of the north-eastern district of Victoria, Australia, from 1878 to 1880. Its leader, Ned Kelly, was eventually captured by police under the command just at that moment of my great-granduncle, Superintendent John Sadleir. I would like to talk to you about both of them in the following piece”
Ned was and is without doubt the best-known wholesale horse-thief, bank-robber, police murderer and all-round folk hero in Australian history.
This is what John Sadleir wrote many years later :[Read from “Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer,” p 182]. “The true picture of the bushranger shows him to be a very poor and sordid thing indeed. The Kellys, in spite of a few successful enterprises, were as poor and unheroic as any of their kind. The more one reflects on the circumstances of these enterprises the more one wonders on the timidity and faint heartedness of the people they had to do with, and that made these successes possible.”
John was born in 1833 in Brookville House which is situated about a mile south of Tipperary Town. John’s father was a tenant farmer. His uncle Nicholas was a solicitor in Tipperary and Dublin and the maternal grandfather of Admiral of the Fleet David Beatty.
Not being the oldest son, in 1852 John decided to emigrate to Australia ; along with him, but not in the same ship, went my great-grandfather, who at seventeen was two years younger.
My great-grandfather tried digging for gold before going into farming, and John went straight into the Victoria police as a cadet – he went on to serve for 44 years. After various promotions he was put in charge of the North-Eastern district, which was inhabited by several inter-related and lawless families, the Kelly’s most prominent amongst them.
John Sadleir was heavily involved from the outset in the pursuit of Ned Kelly and the three other members of his gang, who in 1878 went well beyond horse-stealing and murdered three policemen who were part of a party of four that Sadleir had sent out to look for them. Ned then allegedly invited all of the members of the gang to fire bullets into the bodies of the dead policemen to implicate themselves equally. John Sadleir
The gang were all then declared outlaws, liable to be shot on sight. They could have turned themselves in to the police to avoid being outlawed, but chose not to, and therefore had to face the consequences, which were not at all good for all of them, as it turned out.
They went on to hold up small towns in Victoria and in New South Wales, locking up the inhabitants and robbing the banks. After that went deeper into hiding, as they knew the Victorian government were now deploying aboriginal trackers borrowed from the Queensland government.
The Kellys greatly feared them, as they possessed bushmen’s skills which were superior to theirs, and vastly superior to those of the colonial police, who also were quite poorly paid, mounted and armed.
The climax of the affair came in June 1880, immediately after Joe Byrne, one of the gang of four, had broken cover to shoot his former best friend Aaron Sherritt dead in front of Aaron’s wife and her mother, believing, correctly, that he had become a police informer. Knowing that the Queensland trackers would immediately be dispatched from Melbourne by train to go after them, the gang quickly rode to the nearby hamlet of Glenrowan, which is about 150 miles from Melbourne on the main railway line to Sydney.
There they captured the only local police constable and locked him up with all of the other inhabitants, numbering about 50, in a small hotel. They then compelled some captured line-repairers to take up rails beyond the station, on a bend and near a ravine, with the intention of killing everyone on the train, namely the aboriginal trackers, many more police, several newspaper reporters, and other civilians – Ned confirmed all this to John Sadleir after his capture.
Back in the hotel they donned their subsequently famous armour, which had been made for them from stolen ploughshares. All this was happening in the middle of the night.
However, a schoolteacher managed to escape and ran to warn the train driver, who stopped his train safely at the station. The police superintendent in charge on the train, after disembarking his men and their horses, rather recklessly led a charge on foot towards the hotel, and was immediately wounded in the wrist by a shot fired almost certainly by Ned, and due to loss of blood he had to retire from the scene for treatment. A reporter from the train tied a tourniquet on the wrist, and then made some on-the-spot sketches of the encounter and its aftermath.
The sub-inspector from Queensland who was in charge of the trackers took upon himself temporary command, and summoned reinforcements by telegraph. Superintendent Sadleir arrived at 5.30 a.m. from Benalla, a nearby town, with nine more troopers, and assumed command. The besieging force now numbering about 30 were exchanging brisk fire with the outlaws in the hotel, when they were surprised to be attacked from the rear by Ned Kelly himself, who had managed to get out of the hotel much earlier but had chosen not to leave the scene.
The police fired their Martini-Henry carbines, shotguns, and revolvers at him, but the shots from these bounced off the outlaw’s armour, so Ned was eventually brought down by revolver shots aimed at his legs. Sadleir had him taken to the railway station for treatment to his numerous wounds and the administration of two or three bottles of brandy. John actually had some kind words for Ned, as he thought at that time that he was dying.
After the captives had somehow managed to escape from the hotel, the police set it on fire, but before it burned to the ground they managed to retrieve the slightly-charred body of Joe Byrne, who had earlier been killed by a stray bullet when he lifted up his armour to drink some whisky. The two other gang members, one of them Ned’s younger brother, had probably shot themselves a little earlier and were burnt beyond recognition.
The day all this happened, the 28th of June, is said to be the most written-about single day in Australian history.
After recovering from his wounds Ned was tried and inevitably convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He insisted on being photographed in gaol the day before he was hanged.
Sadleir was later credited with helping to bring peace to the so-called “Kelly Country” by his conciliatory approach, and in the event there were no more serious outbreaks of bushranging in Australia.
John and many other senior and junior officers were heavily criticized by the Royal Commission that followed the Kelly outbreak, but most of this was set aside when the report was largely debunked.
He was given the joint sixth largest share of the £8000 reward for the destruction of the gang, and finally retired in 1896 as Inspecting Superintendent, one rank below chief commissioner.
He published his memoirs in Melbourne aged 80 in 1913, six years before he died. These were re-published by Penguin Australia in 1973.
John was a police colleague and good friend of Robert O’Hara Burke, who in 1860 led and perished in the disastrous Burke-Wills expedition across the interior of Australia, which John would have gone on but for family commitments.
Several of his and his brothers’ descendants served voluntarily in both world wars with the Australian and British armies, the RAF and Royal Australian Air Force, and British Army nursing services – not all of them survived.
Another served in the Argentine Army in the 1970s. I should add in fairness that the descendants of Ned Kelly’s siblings have also served their country in peace and war.
One of John’s great-grandsons, Richard, is an eminent zoologist who has worked all over the world, from Scotland to Antarctica. And he has in turn two daughters who have, on two occasions fairly recently, represented New Zealand at the Olympics in, of all things, synchronised swimming. Such is the rich diversity of human endeavour.
Written by, Ronald Land.