By Lynley Wallis
The story of bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang is widely known amongst Australians, with literally 100s of books and articles having been written about their exploits in colonial Victoria. What is less well known is the role a group of Native Mounted Police (NMP) troopers from Queensland played in the downfall of the outlaws.
Frustrated by repeated failed attempts to capture the Kelly Gang, the Victoria Government requested the assistance of the Qld NMP. In return, the Queensland Commission of Police agreed to send a contingent of Aboriginal troopers under the leadership of Sub-Inspector O’Connor Stanhope, then stationed in Cooktown, and native police Constable Thomas King from Maryborough. The troopers were Hero, Johnny, Jimmy, Jack Noble, Barney, and Corporal Sambo; all bar Sambo are shown in the pictures below with SI O’Connor.
The contingent left Qld in late February and, after travelling via boat to Sydney and then overland via Wagga Wagga, the group reached Benalla in early March 1879. Captain Standish of the Victorian Police Form met them on their arrival in Benalla and O’Connor was sworn in as a Sub-inspector of the Victorian police. Thereafter they set to work.
Sadly however, Sambo had been quite unwell during the sea voyage, and despite participating in an unsuccessful search of the ranges for the gang, when the group returned to Melbourne on March 19 after their initial foray (luckily for Ned rain fell and obliterated their tracks), he was seriously ill and died from inflammation of the lungs that evening.
Although not confirmed yet by other sources, it has been suggested that one of the other troopers was his brother:
His black companions cried when they heard of his death, but only one of them, said to be a brother of deceased, went to the cemetery with Inspector O’Connor to see him buried (Morning Bulletin, 2 April 1879, p2).
The picture below shows Sambo’s headstone in Benella Cemetery, with members of the Police Historical Society.
By early June 1880, the troopers had had no success in capturing the Kelly Gang. Their movements during the past year were said to have been relayed to Ned by scores of informants and sympathisers, Ned’s fear of the troopers tracking abilities (he was said to have referred to them as “bloody black devils”), led the gang to curtail their activities and use of horses that could be too easily tracked.
Despite their best efforts, their lack of success saw O’Connor, King and the troopers about to make their way back to Queensland, when word reached them that the Kelly Gang was holed up at Glenrowan, after they had shot police informant Aaron Sherritt at Sebastopol. O’Connor, King and the troopers left Melbourne by special train at 10 p.m. on June 27, en route for Beechworth (Brisbane Courier, 10 July 1880, p5).
Ned was said to have been aware that the Aboriginal troopers would be amongst those aboard the train dispatched from Melbourne to Beechworth to come after him, and it’s been suggested that his fear of the troopers was the explicit reason that he forced line-repairers James Reardon and Denis Sullivan to damage the track.
After being warned of the damage to the tracks, the train was safely pulled up and the troopers and officers began disembarking and taking the horses off. Another man came up and told them that the outlaws were holed up at the public-house. As O’Connor recounted later:
Superintendent Hare and I started at once off towards the house, calling the men to follow us, but, owing to the confusion and noise in taking out the horses I presume, some of the men did not at once respond, as only Mr. Hare, myself, and three or four white men, and I think about two of my boys, were in the first rush. We rushed straight for the house, and upon getting within about twenty yards of the place one shot followed by a volley was fired at us from the verandah. We returned the fire, and before I could load again Superintendent Hare called out to me, ‘O’Connor, I am wounded ; shot in the arm. I must go back.’ (Brisbane Courier, 10 July 1880, p5).
Sub-inspector O’Connor and senior-constable Kelly then took charge of the police force. The former took up a position in a small creek in front of the hotel, and stationed his black troopers one on each side of the creek, and stuck to this position gallantly throughout the whole encounter. The black troopers also stood the baptism of fire with fortitude, and never flinched for an instant (Brisbane Courier, 29 June 1880, p3).
O’Connor later advised that Hare was not the only person present to have been wounded during the shootout:
One of my troopers was shot alongside me—cut across the eyebrows. He jumped on the bank, fired five shots into the house, and said, “Take that, Ned Kelly.” It seemed to afford him great relief, but rather amused us (Warwick Examiner and Times, 7 July 1880, p2).
From all accounts, the efforts of Hero, Johnny, Jimmy, Jack and Barney were highly regarded by the press, police and pubic in the southern states:
I must not omit to mention that Inspector O’Connor and his black trackers have not been allowed to leave this colony without a very general expression of thanks for the services they have rendered. Without doubt their presence at first was treated as an intrusion by the Victorian police force, but the feeling wore away as their willingness, cheerfulness, and endurance became manifest. Surely the men who are capable of developing such qualities in an employment not at all elevating or ennobling might be reserved for a better fate than the imminent extinction with which the Australian aboriginal is threatened (Brisbane Courier, 20 July 1880, p5).
In the wash-up of the affair, Hero, Johnny, Jimmy, Jack and Barney reportedly each received £50 of the $8,000 reward money on offer, with Sub-Inspector O’Connor receiving £237 15s. While O’Connor ultimately transferred permanently to the Victorian police force, the Aboriginal men returned to Qld and, at this stage of our research, we’re not sure exactly what became of them. We’ll let you know if we ever find out; alternatively if you know anything about the fate of these five men after their return to Qld, we’d love to hear from you!
POSTSCRIPT 28 May 2016: We’re very excited to have just heard from a descendant of Jack who has told us that the Aboriginal troopers never received their reward monies. Back in the 1990s the families of Jack Noble and Barney began, and thereafter failed, to secure payment for their ancestors involvement. We’re looking forward to talking more with these people about their family history!