The Kelly gang

This is an interesting conversation. It’s between ex members of the Irish gentry about the ordinary Irish in Australia:

Nicholas reminisced about entertaining two of his brothers at Quamby.  ‘In 1882 my mother sent me a strange letter from Tipperary:

Brookville House


14 March 1882

My Dear Nicholas,

To begin I must thank you and your darling wife Anna for the pretty photographs of your children you sent me.  Photography is a wonderful thing and we must give thanks for it.

We are approaching a grand spring and our farmers look forward to renewed activity and prosperity as the days grow longer and the weather gets warmer.  James is installed here with his new wife Emma and they help to fill what was previously an empty nest.  Most of you, my darling children, have left for Australian colonies.  Have you news of Helena?  I have not had a word from her for some time. 

All seems normal here but I fear it is not.  The Church of Ireland has already been disestablished.  Insurgency in this beautiful country seems ever present but its evil tentacles seem to be spreading to London – Irish emigrants from America who call themselves Fenians are dynamiting buildings in London as a means, they say, of persuading Prime Minister Mr Gladstone to restore a separate Irish Parliament.  They disrupt ordinary life with a method they call Terrorism.  So far, their activities remain in London but I fear they may cross the Irish Sea to wreak their mischief here.

I am concerned about this so-called Terrorism emanating from the Irish in the colonies and I worry particularly about John and his role in the Victoria police force in struggling against what seems to be a similar development in Victoria.  We have recent news of the so-called Kelly gang and their martyrdom at a place in Victoria called Glenrowan.[footnote]This was the site of the famous Last Stand of the Kelly gang.  Three members of the gang died and Ned Kelly was arrested.[/footnote]  I have written to John and to Marshal seeking their opinion about this burgeoning colonial menace but they have not responded.  I imagine perhaps they dismiss my entreaties as the imaginings of a silly old woman, but please Nicholas, I beg you to report to me on the perils to the British Empire of this new Australian Fenian development and of the hazards to John and his family’s safety in attempting to dismantle it and Marshal, as an attorney, may be menaced as well.  I believe he resides in the district harbouring this turmoil.  But equally importantly, I beg of you to use your influence as an honorary magistrate and gentlemen to see this evil menace is countered and cancelled.

I beg of you Nicholas, respond quickly.

Your loving mother,

Elizabeth Sadleir.

 I asked Anna to read it and explain it.

“Your mother is clearly disturbed, Nicholas.”

“You mean not of sound mind?”

“No.  From the construction of the letter I do not judge her to be feeble-minded.”  And she looked at me and ducked her head.  “I think she is genuinely concerned.  She is appealing to you to correct matters.”

“But what does that mean, my dear Anna?  I have never heard the expression Terrorism.  Does Mater believe supporters of the Kelly gang are plotting to blow up a railway station in Melbourne, and that I should rush to prevent it?  Are you concerned Anna?  Do you really believe the good horse-stealing folk of Greta in Victoria are conspiring with American Fenians in New York?”

“No, my dear Nicholas, but perhaps your mother does.”

I left the letter in my writing desk.  I talked about it later with John and Marshal who had flitted across Bass Strait on a steamer from Port Melbourne to join me and the Northern Tasmanian Coursing Club in two days of fun at Quamby judging the speed and proficiency of greyhounds and wagering on their combination.  Neither were accompanied by their families (Marshal had come from Mansfield alone to join John in Melbourne) and they had the spring and swagger of single men.  John looked especially unbound.  He had just been through an ordeal of a police commission enquiring into conduct concerning the detection and capture of the Kelly Gang and he had fought strenuously to defend himself and his colleagues.  He had prevailed but he was exhausted and looked forward to two days of coursing.  He had brought a greyhound bitch with a litter of pups with him as gift for me.

Richard had not been able to come.  He was encumbered with the conduct of an accouchement hospital, and when he complained, we reminded him of the encumbrances of the profits as well.  He had become a rather sensible and dull fellow.

At the end of the second day we were toying with our brandy after a fine dinner.  Madam had left to attend to the children and I raised mother’s letter.

“Gentlemen, have you received a letter from our mother fearing a connection with the Kelly gang here and the American Fenians who are dynamiting London?”

They said they had.  “But the Kelly gang are gone.”  John said.  “Ned has been hanged.  Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne perished in the hotel fire we lit at Glenrowan – or they died of their wounds before the fire overwhelmed them.  We were never certain.”

Marshal intervened, “Concerning our letters from Mater.  She is obviously less bold than we remember her.  I think she is imputing more in the activities of the Kelly gang than perhaps we might concede.  I believe some of the Irish press have painted the Kelly gang as activists in a worldwide movement encouraging the emancipation (and that is probably an incorrect term) of Ireland.  I think that has alarmed Mater, she remembers some of the Tipperary bloodshed before the potato famine – remember Uncle Patrick – and, as a mother, she worries about us.”

I passed them my letter from my mother.  “How does this differ from the letters you received?’

“Well I don’t think we received the lofty flattery that Mater heaped on you, Nicholas – honorary magistrate indeed!  And she was not to know that the judiciary function applied to New South Wales and had no currency in the colony of Victoria, or that you are a resident of the colony of Tasmania without Kellys, but even so, you should lead us in formulating a plan to defeat this evil menace.”

“All right, gentlemen.  You have the better of me.  I would love to see the letters you received, but clearly I may not.”  I passed them the brandy decanter and poured more coffee.  “John, I remain curious.  I am sorry to raise this.  I’m sure the whole Kelly business and the subsequent police commission has exhausted you, but was there anything political in the actions of the Kelly gang?”

“A difficult question, Nicholas.  As you know, I spent months hunting them after they had murdered our comrade.  The Kellys had a great deal of support from members of their class and that support was mixed with genuine affection and with collaboration in the distribution of the proceeds of crime.  And the gang was betrayed – so the motives were mixed.  Some of the Kelly gang supporters were able to quote the exploits of Irish patriots but I think many of them were just struggling to make a living and stealing livestock was just one of the ways.  Certainly most of the small farmers envied the wealth of the larger landholders.  But…”

Marshal interrupted.  “I think there is still a marked divide, John.  It is mostly in people’s heads, but it is Protestant versus Catholic, landed versus landless, just as it was in our old country.  But if our Roman Catholic countrymen bothered to look, when they become free men in these colonies (and remember many of the first generation came as convicts) they have far more rights here than they had at home.

John resumed.  “I agree, Marshal.  I think if there had been someone like you, or a useful priest, or even sufficient police constables to maintain law and order to show say, for example, the Kelly family, that they did have rights, they would be treated fairly, and that the rule of law applied equally to everyone, then things may have been different.  I suppose it is natural that I would, but I think deterrent to crime is the best defence against it.  Had there been sufficient fair constables in the Greta district when Ned and the others started their small affairs in stealing horses, they would have been dissuaded.  I’ve listened to stories about the Kellys and I think some of the early encounters the family had were not with the best members of the Victoria police and they were treated grimly which soured them.  But I always thought of them as ordinary criminals (and remember, I did not know them from the beginning, I came to the investigation late).  And, in the end, I thought of them as murderers of a policeman.  I think they elevated themselves to appear as revolutionaries later on.  It may have been a mixture of self-delusion and a sort of madness that came with the belief that they were beyond arrest and could continue being merry bushrangers forever, with no safe home or haven. Going on from that – the armour they wore – attacking us by hoping to derail a trainload of police and capturing people in the Glenrowan Hotel led to a tragedy that should never have been.”[footnote]He wrote about it in his book: Sadleir, J. 1913. Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer, 1913, George Robertson & Company Propy Ltd, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and London. [/footnote]

Marshal said, “The gang did have a lot of popular support, John.  Things were nasty in the district for a while after Ned was hanged.”

“Oh yes Marshal,” John responded.  “One of the leaders of an inner circle of sympathisers approached me and told me they intended to go on with things, but he paused a little in his bravado when I pointed out to him what happened to the Kelly gang, and that he could not eliminate a total police force – perhaps a constable here or there may be shot – but a police force would go on forever.  He became more reasonable at the end of the interview.  He ended it by asking that those of the Kelly circle who had taken up land not be dispossessed.  I was able to promise him that nobody who kept the law would be interfered with, but I went on to say that no further selections would be allowed to doubtful characters.  We formed an important truce.

Marshal nodded.  “I still spend much of my time defending my people against the police.’

And John said, “And so you should Marshal.  That’s your calling.  Police need to be kept to the straight path.  The difficulty in this police commission I’ve just been through was that many of the police were being treated in the way that you say many of your clients are.  There were all kinds of uncorroborated evidence and it was a kind of witch-hunt without proper cross-examination.  I had to work very hard to defend colleagues and myself.

May we talk about something else?  No one is going to dynamite buildings in Melbourne.”

I said, “Well what do we say to Mater?”

Marshal said, “I shall write to her on behalf of us all.  Richard has a letter as well that he doesn’t know how to respond to.”

Marshal sent us copies of the letter:



1st of June 1882

My Dear Mother,

Thank you for your last letter sending us your good wishes.  I am pleased to report that we are thriving at Mansfield, two of my sons are working with their Uncle Nicholas either at Albemarle or on a station he shares further north in Queensland called Bingara and all the children are well.

Since I received your letter, I seriously considered the grave concerns contained therein and I took the opportunity of discussing it with Nicholas and John during a recent visit to Quamby.  Nicholas invited us to coursing matches there.  John and I stayed for two nights and it was a grand family reunion.  It was a pity Richard and Helena were not present.  Richard could not absent himself from his hospital duties and Helena did not respond to Nicholas’s invitation.  We believe Helena is in a remote district of Western Australia and the mails are slow and unreliable.  John has made enquiries of the Western Australia authorities in search of Helena’s exact location and he hopes for a favourable response soon.

To the matter you seek our advice about – colonial conspiracies of insurrection.  Since you told me of the North American-based Fenians and their work with dynamite in London, I have found copies of English newspapers to read brief reports of the carnage left after the explosions and attributed to Fenians.  It is indeed a grave threat to the good order of things and we can only hope that Prime Minister Gladstone will remain steadfast in opposing this extortion.  We do not believe there is any connection between the North American Fenians who are active in London and the Kelly gang who have recently been defeated at Glenrowan in Victoria. The Kelly Gang were criminals, not political revolutionaries, and that is the way most people here remember them.

As for our safety, Mater, there is no hazard from revolutionary people or tendencies.  Richard continues to thrive as a surgeon.  Nicholas delights in his duties as a steward to your cousins, the brothers Phelps, with their large agricultural and pastoral holdings in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, as well as developing enterprises with a partner in Queensland.  John now has major responsibilities for the police force in Melbourne and I continue with my modest practice of law in the beautiful Mansfield district of Victoria.  I expect we will report on Helena’s progress soon.

 As a rule, we delight in the company of happy, just and healthy people who thrive in these new colonies.

Your loving son,

Marshal Sadleir.

Marshal made a fine effort to mollify our mother.  But I doubt she was convinced.  I smiled when I read in a newspaper several years later that Prime Minister Gladstone had had agreed to an Irish Parliament and planned to introduce a bill to the House of Commons.  Perhaps my mother was right about the influence of Fenian dynamiters from New York but I hoped brother Marshal had convinced her that the Kelly gang were not responsible.

A lot more came from that conversation in the Quamby dining room.  John told us of the theory he developed using a modern term, paranoia, to describe the unusual fear the Kelly gang had for the members of the Queensland Native Mounted Police he had recruited to track them down.  “It seemed to change them.  They became more fearful and reckless at the same time.  When Ned was lying wounded after we had captured him at Glenrowan, a railway fireman stooped over him to offer him comfort and Ned screamed get away you black bastard, with rolling eyes.  He was terrified.  The railwayman’s face was blackened with soot.  Ned thought he was a black tracker.”

Victoria police with Queensland black trackers. John Sadleir is on the right wearing a bowler hat.

Marshal reminded me that Redmond Barry, who had condemned Ned Kelly to death and died soon after Ned hanged, had tried to persuade me to a legal calling when I was newly arrived in Victoria.  “It could even have been you on the bench, Nicholas.”  And we talked about how John, the arresting officer, and Ned’s father had come from Tipperary, and Barry from neighbouring County Cork.  And we compared our differing circumstances.  Ned’s father, the convict Roman Catholic, arrived in the colonies from Tipperary for stealing pigs.  We, the Protestants, came as free men looking for gold or new vocations in a developing paradise.

This is from Chapter 4 of Away from Tipperary, Nicholas Sadleir ,Australian Gentlemen