Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, issue no. 10, 2011.
ISSN 1832-2522. Copyright © Brett Wright.
by Brett Wright
Brett Wright is an undergraduate student majoring in history at the University of Melbourne. He is a former journalist who worked in police rounds for the Sydney morning herald and The Age in the 1980s. In 2010 he won the Mary O’Donoghue Prize for Irish Studies, awarded by the Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne, for an essay on the Fenians and Irish terrorism.
The offer of an £8000 reward in 1879 for the capture or destruction of the Kelly gang drew numerous applications to join the hunt from ex‑police and others, many of whom were seeking employment, and a surfeit of schemes to effect a capture. Letters to the police during that year are examined in some detail. The reward, although eventually paid, failed in its primary objective and it is contended that it may have been detrimental to police efforts to apprehend the gang through the use of informers.
The year 1879 heralded a crisis for the Victoria Police. The bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang were at large following the murder of three policemen the previous year at Stringybark Creek, near Mansfield. They had evaded a massive police hunt launched immediately after the murders and gone into hiding at various locations in rural Victoria and New South Wales, emerging to commit spectacular bank robberies at Euroa and Jerilderie. The gang were ably supported in their activities by a rural network of sympathisers – a ‘bush telegraph’ that helped to keep them ahead of their pursuers. By early 1879, the Victoria Police, hardly a highly regarded institution in its early years, now lay exposed as an inefficient and bumbling force seemingly incapable of catching violent offenders, particularly in the bush.
Almost as worrying for the police, the popular impression of the Kellys as Australian anti‑heroes, supported by extensive press coverage of their daring exploits, had crystallised public resentment towards colonial authorities seen to be privileged by ancestry and out of touch with the emerging ethos of an increasingly native‑born population. For whatever reason, native‑born Victorians avoided joining the Victoria Police in the 1870s. The Census of Victoria, 1871 recorded that 45 per cent of Victoria’s population was native to Victoria, yet, according to Robert Haldane, there were just ‘thirty native‑born constables in a force of 1060′ in 1874. Irish‑born men, who comprised less than 14 per cent of the Victorian population in 1871, made up an astonishing 82 per cent of the force’s numbers in 1874. At the head of the police force, however, stood a figure of authority whose career was to suffer in the wake of the Kelly outbreak. Captain Frederick Charles Standish, the Chief Commissioner of Police, was a member of an English upper‑class family, appointed in 1858 with little military and no police experience. Living the convivial life of a gentleman in Melbourne society, Standish was known for his political manoeuvrings, haughty manner and destabilising favouritism in police promotions. Such an image, matched with an inability to capture bushrangers, made the Victoria Police and, by association, the government that supported the police leadership, an easy target for criticism during the Kelly outbreak.
The government’s reaction to the Stringybark Creek murders was swift and severe. Within ten days of the murders, the Berry Government had enacted the Felons’ Apprehension Act 1878 and called on Ned Kelly and his brother Dan to surrender or be declared outlaws under the Act’s draconian provisions, which authorised any citizen to shoot a declared outlaw on sight. The Victorian Government also committed a major outlay in public funds to the Kelly hunt and, after the Jerilderie raid in February 1879, combined with New South Wales to increase the reward for the gang’s capture to £8000, the fourth increase in the reward in the space of just four months.
By early 1879, press coverage of the gang’s exploits and proposed methods for their capture was lengthy, lively and no doubt profitable for the newspaper proprietors. The journalists were aided by an extensive telegraph network in rural Victoria, which enabled them to file several stories a day from townships close to the Kellys’ area of activity. Fairly or unfairly, the press coverage highlighted the inadequacies of the police effort. After the Jerilderie raid, the Argus reported that:
The outrage was of the most daring character, for, after crossing the Murray, the gang had to travel through level country, and had the Victorian police been aware of the movement it would have been easy to cut the gang off from their old retreats, and to have brought them to bay. The Victorian police have little information on the subject, but Captain Standish has telegraphed to the Acting Chief Secretary…
The negative press coverage was exacerbated by ignorance among journalists and their city readers as to the practical difficulties in tracking and surrounding a group of four outlaws in the wide tracts of ‘Kelly country’, much of which was inaccessible. But ignorance was no barrier to the many reports and speculations on the Kelly outbreak, and suggested plans to capture the outlaws appear in the pages of the Melbourne press throughout much of 1879. ‘The police have shown themselves to be completely out‑generalled’, railed a bank manager in the Argus two days after the Jerilderie raid. Another letter the same day urged a loosening of ‘ridiculous’ police regulations to allow police troopers to hunt the Kellys without a requirement to report to their superiors, while a third advocated the use of bloodhounds which had proven successful in catching fugitive slaves in the United States. One letter writer recommended a reward of £10,000 plus a free pardon and conveyance from the colony for any accomplice or informer not implicated in the murders. ‘The capture of the Kellys should be regarded as a matter of money’, the writer advised.
The Kelly outbreak and government responses to it, in particular the reward, enlivened the public’s imagination. The press coverage gave ample voice to public opinion but the strength of sentiment went beyond the ambitions of a mere newspaper campaign. One begins to think of the impact of a declaration of war on a body of citizens. I can think of no better way to illustrate the mood of the colony at this time than through the recollections of Constable Thomas McIntyre, the sole police survivor of the Stringybark murders. Several weeks after the murders, McIntyre was re-assigned to a desk job – that of an orderly to the Chief Secretary, a billet he recalled as ‘very disagreeable':
The Chief Secretary was apparently annoyed by the numerous callers… as I did not know who to announce or who not to announce… To add to my discomfort a number of those seeking an audience were offering their services to catch the Kellys, and it was a subject constantly talked about…
[A] gentleman called several times and I understood him to be a representative of several public servants who were anxious to catch the Kellys, and who were applying for leave and equipment for that purpose. I think his proposal was not favourably received, but judging by the persistent and energetic manner in which he returned again and again, he was quite capable of catching the Kellys, if he could have found them… I do not know whether these gentlemen had any special qualifications for finding the bushrangers, indeed it was quite possible they had not even the most rudimentary knowledge of the difficulties surrounding the work they were so anxious to undertake, but it did not require much discrimination to see that their representative was fairly bubbling over with pluck, and no doubt his associates were in an equally effervescent state.
In the midst of a vigorous public debate, a few members of the community wrote directly to the police on the quiet, offering their assistance to catch the gang. The focus of my research has been on these letters and some associated documents, which have come down to us in about fifty police correspondence files relating exclusively to the Kelly hunt, dated 1878‑79. The files, which mainly comprise letters to the chief commissioner and some internal memoranda, first came to light in two bundles found in the archives of Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) by the police historian Helen Harris. They had been misfiled in police correspondence for a later period, 1894‑1908. Harris has described the 1870s Kelly hunt correspondence as part of her discussion of a much larger body of police correspondence related to applications for admission to the Victoria Police. However, it would be misleading to categorise the 1878‑79 Kelly correspondence as applications for admission; overwhelmingly they are applications for employment as volunteers, police informers or special constables for the purpose of catching the Kelly gang. Recently the letters were re‑catalogued by PROV and joined with hundreds of items of inward and internal correspondence relating to the Kelly hunt, including telegrams and confidential reports.
It is difficult to summarise the nature and intent of the authors of the 1878‑79 Kelly correspondence, but the term ‘would‑be bounty hunter’ comes to mind. Looking first at former police, the files reveal that at least eleven ex‑policemen applied to take part in the Kelly hunt during this period. These included two former New South Wales police officers: JC Mitchell, who was ‘desirous of joining the Victorian police force’ (although there is no record of him joining later); and Charles Drake, who offered to assist in the hunt but would require arms and ammunition, as well as money for the journey from Newcastle. In his letter to the chief commissioner on 2 February 1879, Mitchell did not mention the Kelly gang but said he had a good knowledge of the locality. It is possible he had referred to the Kelly gang in a letter written four weeks before, but which has not survived. Drake’s letter asked if the reward offered was secure ‘in the case of the capture being effected’. John McMahon, a 40‑year‑old in South Australia, with experience in ‘the English army’ and an unnamed police force, offered to catch Ned Kelly ‘within two months dead or alive’. In seeking to volunteer for the hunt, ex‑constable John Flynn of Williamstown emphasised his loyalty to his fellow police. ‘I will not take a wombat hole and leave my comrades in action’, he wrote, apparently in reference to the behaviour of Constable McIntyre at Stringybark Creek. Flynn does not state the police force to which he belonged; there is no record of a ‘John Flynn’ in the Index to members of Victoria Police, 1853‑1953.
The correspondence shows that several former Victorian policemen sought re-admission. They were: ex‑constable Hugh Bracken, who had been a warder at Beechworth Lunatic Asylum and a volunteer in the search for the Kelly gang; ex‑constable Daniel Lanigan, a warder at Sandhurst Gaol; and ex‑constable S Bennett. The remaining five former police variously offered plans for the gang’s capture or sought appointment as special constables for the hunt. Ex‑constable Denis Boyle had been dismissed from the Victoria Police ‘on a very trifling charge’ and since then ‘had been temperate and supported my family respectable’. Ex‑senior constable George Buckmaster had resigned in 1870 after punishments for drunkenness and offensive behaviour but now sought to return from Brisbane to become a special constable ‘with the pay of a 1st class sergeant’, permission to act independently and the assistance of four constables. His offer was declined. Chief Commissioner Standish noted in the correspondence that Buckmaster had written several offensive letters about the Victorian police to the Queensland newspapers. Ex‑constable Phillip Deniher of North Melbourne offered his assistance but a local police inspector remembered him to be fond of drink and talking, and so his offer was declined. Robert Shanahan, writing from Avenel, claimed to ‘have been in the mounted police’ but there is no mention of him in Victoria Police records. His plan to catch the Kelly gang involved gaining the assistance of a man called Hanney who was in custody and ‘a particular favourite with the Kellys’. Ralph Johnson in Ballarat sent a telegram on 31 January 1879: ‘Will my services be accepted please reply I am anxious’. This was a reminder about his letter, dated 27 December 1878, saying he would have offered earlier to assist in the Kelly hunt if not for being ‘laid up all through the harvest with a broken hand’. In his letter, Johnson also claimed to have been in the mounted police, ‘stationed some time in Benalla’. In their letters, the ex‑policemen tended to emphasise their bushcraft, knowledge of the area and its people, and their skills with guns and horses. As a group they give an impression of being down on their luck and hoping to gain some much‑needed employment.
The remaining correspondence from persons without police experience is more varied but it is reasonable to assume that their primary motive was financial. Certainly it is evident that many were short of funds. WC Creed from Dairy Dartmoor in south-west Victoria wrote three letters to police between February and July 1879 offering to capture the Kelly gang ‘alive and single‑handed’ – but first he would require a railway pass and £2. Creed wrote to Captain Standish in March: ‘In reply to my letter of the 15th of February you told me that I could try my plan to capture the Kelly gang privitly but… I have not the means… and I shall need the cooperation of the police.’ Unusual schemes to catch the Kelly gang, often ill‑considered and occasionally bizarre, were a feature. James Gloster of Woodend had devised a plan that was ‘better than forty men’ and, if the police sent him the money to buy a fare to Melbourne, he would reveal it. Subsequently, Gloster, who was apparently a hawker, came under police suspicion for supplying goods to the Kelly gang. The engineer Benjamin Dodds, of Flinders Lane, Melbourne, laboured over a plan to establish a network of tethered hot‑air balloons in four country towns. Each balloon would act as a look‑out and – equipped with an officer, telegraphic operator, arms and telescopes – it would be able to rise to a height of two miles. Standish declared Dodds’s scheme ‘simply absurd’. Perhaps the most detailed plan was offered by William Wattie of Templestowe, who worked for the Education Department. Wattie’s plan involved an elaborate sham creation of a bank manager gone wrong. The seemingly desperate manager would approach the Kellys seeking their assistance to rob his bank and destroy evidence of his fraudulent dealings. A frustrated Standish annotated Wattie’s letter with: ‘I wish the numerous wiseacres who are convinced that they can capture the outlaws would try their hands at it!’ In a different vein, James H Mason from Campbell’s Creek, near Castlemaine, wrote about his suspicions concerning a man, John Bruce, who was trying to sell a horse in Kyneton and whom he believed may have been connected with the Kelly gang:
I think that if a cute man whos to try to buy the horse and make him drunk or watch him that you would soon find out. Should this lead to there apprehension you will not forget my portion of the reward.
The Assistant Commissioner of Police, Charles Hope Nicolson, while suggesting that Kyneton police visit Mr Bruce, doubted if much of the reward ‘would find its way into [Mason's] pockets’. Superintendent Palmer replied to Nicolson that, although Bruce had a conviction for cattle stealing, ‘I should not consider him a likely person to be connected with the Kelly gang’. James Edwin Sawtell wrote from Bowna in New South Wales offering a plan involving police pretending to rob a business:
JG Shelley of Carlton wrote on behalf of two unnamed diggers in Gippsland who were willing to hunt the Kellys for £3 a week:
As regards the reward for apprehension of the outlaws, they will be satisfied with whatever portion might be allotted to them if successful in pointing out to the police their whereabouts… If they could afford to go without assistance they would gladly do so.
J Wilkinson wrote from Tatura, outlining his experience in the Royal Irish Constabulary and the London Police and his terms for joining the hunt:
It is true the Government has £8000 for the Safe capture of the three Kellys, well known as terrible bushrangers in Victoria. If this be so, should the Commissioner of Police favourably consider my application by recommending me to the Government as that of a Special Constable – or in otherwise Detective for which I will have to be supplied with arms and all other necessary Equipment attending it.
The Kelly reward is a recurring theme in the correspondence, which is no surprise. In 1879 the amount of £8000 was comparable in purchasing power with over $1 million today, and it would have appeared a huge sum of money to any Victorian, not least the struggling selectors, ex‑gold diggers and constables, drovers and rural poor of the 1870s. Hence, an out‑of‑work hotel manager in Horsham, JP Andersen, asked ‘Is there still a reward offered for the capture of the Kelly gang?’ and Robert Bell of Fitzroy reminded the chief commissioner of what Bell had understood to be a previous offer of a liberal share in the Kelly reward.
‘… Constables and troopers have indeed utterly failed …’, reports J Wilkinson in this four-page letter, dated 21 November 1879, to the Chief Commissioner of Police, seeking appointment as a special constable for the capture of the Kelly gang. PROV, VPRS 4965/P2 Kelly Historical Collection – Part 1 Police Branch, Unit 5, Item 277.
However, it should not be assumed that, in identifying a financial motive for joining the Kelly hunt, the applicants lacked a sense of public duty or concern about crime. The American anthropologist Stuart H Traub has argued that rewards were a characteristic of criminal justice and policing in England and the US in the 1800s, especially during the frontier era of the American West when government authorities lacked a coherent response to crime. The reward system was in keeping with public reservations about the police as a ‘standing army’ and it appealed to the sense of individualism among frontier communities. While modern‑day critics of rewards have dismissed the practice as little more than public relations, Traub’s historical view is that rewards provided frustrated citizens with an opportunity to ‘channel their moral outrage in directions that had a positive effect on law enforcement’.
‘Is there still a reward?’. The first page of JP Andersen’s three‑page letter, dated 1 July 1879, to the Chief Commissioner of Police, offering to help capture the Kellys. PROV, VPRS 4965/P2 Kelly Historical Collection – Part 1 Police Branch, Unit 4, Item 220.
Yet the Kelly reward raises questions about the effectiveness of police tactics. If the reward had played a significant role in motivating members of the community to come forward, what effect did its offer have on the police effort to capture the outlaws? Did the reward aid the police pursuit or actually hinder the police? The 1880‑81 Longmore Royal Commission into the Victoria Police, which was prompted by the Kelly outbreak, and which was scathing in its criticism of police management and training, concluded that:
As indicating the condition of the [North Eastern] district and the influences at work to shield and assist the gang, it may be mentioned that not even the offer of £8,000 for their capture, to any appreciable degree, facilitated the operations of the police.
The implication here is that the North Eastern Police District was rife with members of the criminal classes, including a network of Kelly sympathisers that effectively nullified any incentive created by the reward. Senior Constable John Kelly, stationed at Woodspoint, near Mansfield, during the Kelly outbreak, later recalled that police had compiled ‘a list… of nearly one hundred families who would render every aid possible to the outlaws, most of these were connected with the bushrangers by ties of blood or marriage’. To be working as a policeman in Kelly country, Senior Constable Kelly wrote, was ‘to imagine we were foreign troops in a hostile country’. Accordingly, when the Kelly reward was apportioned in 1880, it was largely distributed among the police involved in the hunt and the shoot‑out at Glenrowan, with only a small number of payments to members of the public. JJ Kenneally has argued that the reward had a demoralising effect on senior police because it increased their jealousy over what share each might receive. This in turn led to quarrels among the senior officers that somehow ‘increased the public’s contempt’ for the police. But Kenneally’s argument is offered without evidence of the reward’s effect on police or of the public being sufficiently aware of internal rivalry in senior ranks.
Assessing the reward’s impact on police effectiveness depends on understanding the various tactics used by police during the outbreak. These were examined in some detail by the Royal Commission, which concluded that two principal tactics had been employed: a mix of police patrols and search parties, a method favoured by Superintendent Francis Augustus Hare; and secret agents or informers, which were preferred by Assistant Commissioner Nicolson. Effective patrolling of a large rural police district required many men and guns and, although these were quickly procured, the costs were unsustainably high. According to evidence collected by the Royal Commission, the strength of the North Eastern District rose from 74 police officers in July 1878 to 213 officers in February 1879 while the district’s monthly expenditure rose from about £538 to over £3000 during this period. In addition, a 75‑man contingent of the Victorian Artillery Corps was deployed in the North Eastern District, at a total cost of £5736. Moreover, the police murders at Stringybark Creek, which resulted from a poorly conceived patrol, had given the Victoria Police cause to re-think their approach. Over time, Nicolson’s use of police informers bore some fruit but the results, especially early on, were modest at best. According to McIntyre, the police received 109 reports of the outlaws’ whereabouts between the murders in October 1878 and the gang’s destruction at Glenrowan:
Of this number upon investigation in 57 instances the reports were found to be untrue, unfounded or cases of mistaken identity. In 38 other distinct reports the information was not received until it was from 7 days to 2 months old [and] in one instance 4 months old; these cases were considered too stale to investigate and possibly many of them were also untrue.
The Royal Commission’s assessment was less pessimistic than McIntyre’s, noting 127 sightings of the Kellys between November 1878 and June 1880, of which 25 were deemed unfounded, untrue or unreliable and 17 too stale to be of value. Several others were deemed indefinite or a case of mistaken identity.
Intelligence‑gathering by police informers or ‘fiz‑gigs’ forms only a small fraction of the 1878‑79 Kelly correspondence. The files note payments of £17 each to Edwin Dine and C West for ‘special services’ but give no details. Several others were paid for scouting. A better‑known police spy, Lawrence Kirwin or Kirwan (alias ‘Renwick’) of Carboor is mentioned in a memorandum, dated 3 January 1879, by Detective Michael Ward, recording his unsuccessful attempt to recruit Kirwin to assist in the hunt. Kirwin did eventually take part and later sought a share of the Kelly reward, as did the spy BC Williams, believed to be ‘Diseased Stock’, the police’s most‑valued informer in the North East. Both were refused a share of the reward – perhaps because they had been paid well enough already. According to his affidavit for the Royal Commission, Lawrence Kirwin was paid £1 a day, more than double the pay of a police constable. Finally, an unusual inclusion in the correspondence is a letter from Mrs E Byrne of Kent Street, Sydney, who offered to help catch the Kelly gang by assuming ‘the character of a Ladies’ nurse or Teacher of music’. Mrs Byrne, who is the only female applicant recorded in these files, had worked for a lawyer in Melbourne and had experience in obtaining evidence.
However, the unlikely tenor of Mrs Byrne’s offer is not a consequence of her sex. What she shared with many other applicants who were willing to join the hunt was her ‘lack of cover’, an absence of opportunity for infiltrating a close‑knit Irish Catholic family clan in rural Victoria without being detected or viewed with deep reservation. Herein lies the challenge to all would‑be police informers: how to get close enough to obtain information of value without arousing suspicion. Haldane notes that informer networks served the Victoria Police well in the seedy parts of Melbourne during the force’s earlier years, but he says the method failed in the North East during the Kelly outbreak because the police were unable to induce enough people to inform on the outlaws. He attributes the failure to a mixture of rural sympathy for the Kellys and fear of them. Haldane’s view is undoubtedly part of the story but there is more to this than public sympathy and fear. The Kelly hunt correspondence shows that some, and perhaps many more, viewed the Kellys unsympathetically and with little fear. The problem lay in the fact that, in order to do their work well, police informers needed to be able to come and go in an atmosphere of normality, one in which their criminal targets would trust the people around them. Yet trust in others is precisely what criminals at large lose when they see the authorities post a large reward, a reward that fires the public’s imagination, combined with shoot‑on‑sight laws and a show of police numbers and soldiery. In a spirited but fatally confused defence of his use of police informers, written in a confidential report in February 1880, Assistant Commissioner Nicolson claimed that:
The preparations made to resist them [the outlaws] at every township… have reached the ears of the offenders… and also the fact that the outlaws are afraid to trust even their best friends beyond a limited extent, and are mere skulkers among the mountains, has restored the feeling of security to a great extent, which was so rudely shaken among the citizens.
What Nicolson vividly described was an environment in which his beloved informers could not operate as they should. In such an environment, unable to gain genuine information about their criminal targets, who are ‘skulking among the mountains’, an informer is likely to resort to what Constable McIntyre described twenty years later as Machiavellian behaviour, ‘alternately giving information to the police about the outlaws, and to the outlaws about the police; this information being generally imaginary’. Rewards may well be effective in law enforcement but they carry the risk of increasing the criminal’s efforts to avoid detection, as well as a flood of time‑consuming false leads. An example of this very problem is evident in the 1878‑79 Kelly correspondence. Henry ‘Black’ Franklyn or Franklin (variously described in the correspondence as an American black or an Aboriginal) had sought to take part in the Kelly hunt, but he was rebuffed by Captain Standish, who recalled later that Franklyn had intended to ‘go on his own account and do his best to earn the Govt. reward’. According to police memoranda, Franklyn’s interpretation of ‘doing his best’ was to approach various police stations with fictitious sightings of the Kellys or claim to be a government official in search of information about the outlaws’ movements.
In handling the responses to an offer of a reward, distractions such as these are normally manageable risks and had the Victoria Police not been so reliant on its use of informers many of the dubious leads and unreliable sources probably would have been ignored. However, until the police found other ways to ascertain the whereabouts of the Kelly gang – for example, their belated use of native trackers – they had little choice but to pursue all lines of enquiry.
My sincere thanks to Daniel Wilksch, coordinator of digital projects at PROV; Ralph Stavely, president, Victoria Police Historical Society; and the librarians of the State Library of Victoria and Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne.
. TN McIntyre, ‘A true narrative of the Kelly gang’ [typescript], n.p., c. 1902, p. 63. Available online, section 4 ( accessed 13 December 2010).
. HD Harris, ‘Application for admission to the Victoria Police’, Journal of police history, vol. 6, no. 1, summer, 1999, pp. 15‑21. The 1878‑79 letters form part of Harris’s Index to candidates for the Victoria Police, part 4 – 1894‑1908 and miscellaneous 1870s [microfiche], Harriland Press, Melbourne, 1999.
. Formerly catalogued by PROV under VPRS 807/P0, Unit 41, most of the 1878‑79 Kelly hunt correspondence now falls within the series VPRS 4965 Kelly Historical Collection – Part 1 Police Branch, which covers the period from 1878 to 1881. Specifically, the correspondence examined here is contained within VPRS 4965/P2, Units 1‑5. However, some 1879 correspondence listed in Harris’s index (see note 9) does not appear in VPRS 4965/P2, Units 1‑5.
. Police Commission, ‘Second progress report of the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the circumstances of the Kelly outbreak, the present state and organization of the police force, etc.’, Victorian parliamentary papers, Session 2, 1881, vol. 3, no. 22, p. xviii.
. Kelly Reward Board, ‘Report of the Board appointed to enquire into and report upon the proper mode of distributing the rewards offered for the capture of the Kelly Gang’, Victorian parliamentary papers, Session 1, 1880-81, vol. 4, no. 85, Schedule A.
. Police Commission, ‘Minutes of evidence taken before [the] Royal Commission on the Police Force of Victoria’, Victorian parliamentary papers, Session 2, 1881, vol. 3, no. 31, Appendix 8, p. 698.