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Saturday, 18 December 2010


Superintendent John Sadleir of the Victoria Police is a distant cousin – my 6x great grandfather Clement Sadleir was the brother of his 4x great grandfather Samuel. Still, we cling onto such thin connections when we have stories like this one to tell.

Superintendent John Sadleir (1832-1919)

John Sadleir was born in Co Tipperary in Ireland, but emigrated to Australia in 1852. He immediately signed up with a newly formed special police corps in Melbourne and worked his way up through the ranks in a series of postings. He seems to have had a greater than usual understanding of the ordinary people whom he policed, and of their “righteous dissatisfaction” with a “stubborn and unwise central government.” He often felt uncomfortable in his role, caught between the two, for example during the 1854 miners’ uprising at Eureka.

In 1874 he was promoted to superintendent and posted to Upper Goulburn, north east of Melbourne. When in 1878 one of his junior officers, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, claimed to have been shot at Benalla by a gang which included the brothers Dan and Ned Kelly, Sadleir found himself at the centre of Australia’s most famous manhunt.

Ned Kelly (1855-1880), in a portrait which he requested,
taken the day before his execution

As the hunt for the Kelly Gang proceeded over the next two years, Sadleir was extremely critical of the high-handed and inappropriate tactics of the police, particularly when they decided to arrest anyone and everyone whom they identified as a sympathiser of the fugitives. Although the Kellys were thieves and murderers, they were also the focus for more legitimate anti-authoritarian resentment about the way in which Crown land was being parcelled out by recent legislation. The Land Acts of the 1860s were intended to encourage settlement, but were open to widespread abuse, something which Irish-born Sadleir would have recognised and understood. Arresting victims of that abuse, on the grounds that they supported the Kellys, only deepened resentment towards the police and made their search for Ned Kelly more difficult.

The search came to an end on 27th June 1880 when the gang were cornered, with hostages, in the Glenrowan Inn. At 5.30am the next morning John Sadleir’s superior, Supt Francis Hare was injured by a bullet to his left wrist and fled the scene. John took over command of the siege. In the exchange of gunfire which followed, it became clear to the gang that there was no chance of escape. Resigning themselves to capture and death, two members committed suicide; another was fatally injured as he poured himself a drink at the bar of the inn. Several hostages were also injured, two fatally, before the survivors were led to safety and the inn set on fire.

Ned Kelly’s last stand
(drawn by Francis Thomas Dean Carrington
only five days after the event)

Ned came out fighting, wearing a suit of makeshift armour forged and beaten from ploughshares, but it only protected his upper body front and back, and his head. He survived three direct hits on the armour, to the disbelief of the police, before a series of shots to his legs, hip and hand brought him down. As Kelly lay close to death, it was John Sadleir who comforted him, telling him, “You shall have every care and attention, Ned. Do not irritate yourself, keep yourself quiet.”

It was a remarkable act of compassion, again demonstrating Sadleir’s affinity with ordinary people, an admirable quality in a policeman. But his criticism of the handling of the manhunt must have made him enemies. In the ensuing inquiry into its conduct he was heavily criticized and demoted, receiving only the sixth largest share of the reward money for Kelly’s capture (whereas the cowardly Superintendent Hare received the largest amount).

Ned Kelly recovered from his injuries well enough to stand trial and be sentenced to death; he was hung on 11th November 1880, aged 25. John Sadleir retired in 1896 having risen again to the rank of officer in charge of the Metropolitan District of Melbourne. He published his very readable memoirs, “Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer,” in 1913.


  1. A fascinating account, Colin. It's really interesting to hear about the siege from your ancestor's perspective. You've filled in more of the story for me.

  2. Very interesting account. John Sadleir is one of my direct ancestors; my mother's maiden name is Sadleir and she has traced the family tree back to him. I didn't know he had written memoirs.

  3. As well as his own memoirs, I think there are a number of books about him, and certainly a few featuring him in his Ned Kelly connection. Not a bad man to have as a direct ancestor! Glad you enjoyed this account of him.

  4. I am also a direct descendent, John Sadleir was my grandmother's grandfather. My 10 yo was thrilled with your account which she took to school as part of an Australian history project earlier this year.

  5. John Sadleir was my grandfathers grandfather. Given he had 12 children, he has many descendants! I inherited a tea set which I donated to the Victorian Police Museum. He received this on his retirement from the police force.


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