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Tuesday 3 October 2023 Dublin: 11°C
John Sadleir circa 1910.
Column The forgotten Tipperary man who pursued Ned Kelly's gang
Many Irish people have emigrated over the centuries and whilst making names for themselves abroad have been largely forgotten in their native land, writes Tom Hurley.

I DON’T KNOW where I got the idea to make a documentary on John Sadleir to be honest, but I obviously picked up his name somewhere along the way. Many Irish people have emigrated over the centuries and whilst making names for themselves abroad have been largely forgotten in their native land.

I suppose to a certain extent John Sadleir might fall into that category, although there would naturally have been some people in his native Tipperary Town area and elsewhere who would have been aware of his story.

Sadleir: A biography

John Sadleir (1833-1919) was born on the Brookville estate just south of Tipperary Town and, in a career that spanned over four decades, is credited with having played a pioneering role in policing in the state of Victoria.

One of ten children, the privileged teenage Sadleir attended school in Ennis as a boarder. His early life was not without incident, however, as his uncle was murdered outside Nenagh in 1845, and the needless suffering he witnessed during the famine in the particularly hard hit Tipperary Town area left a lasting impact on him.

He would later recall that:

From my own home some score of people were daily supplied with food prepared for them and similar provision was made by other families amongst our acquaintance.

It was within weeks of arriving in Australia that Sadleir joined the police in Victoria, rising quickly through the ranks. In 1857 he married Isabella Maria Crofton who had disembarked two years previously, having lived the majority of her life in Co Sligo.

Between 1858 and 1880 the couple had twelve children, born variously in Beechworth, Hamilton, Melbourne, Sale, Kyneton, Mansfield and Benalla, reflecting their father’s postings.

Pursuing Ned Kelly’s gang

In social circles Sadleir befriended fellow policeman and explorer Robert O’Hara Burke, originally from Co Galway who died in 1861 on his attempted expedition through the interior of Australia from south to north. When he had initially volunteered to go with him the eccentric O’Hara Burke’s reply was brief but decisive: “You have got to look after your wife and children. You cannot come.”

It was on being promoted to superintendent that Sadleir became involved in the pursuit of Ned Kelly and his gang. When in 1880 they were cornered, with hostages at a hotel in Glenrowan, it was he who took over command of the siege. At the climax as a wounded Kelly, wearing a suit of armour forged from ploughshares lay wounded on the ground, it was the Tipperary native who assured him that he would have every care and attention.

Ironically Kelly’s father was also a native of the Premier County having been transported to Australia as a convict in 1841.

Investigating police efficiency

The siege in Glenrowan resulted in three members of the Kelly gang and three members of the public being killed. The police suffered no fatalities. Ned Kelly stood trial and was hanged on November 11th 1880.

A year later the government of Victoria set up a commission to investigate the efficiency of the police in apprehending the Kelly gang. Its critical findings resulted in many senior police officers including John Sadleir being demoted, whilst others were fired or they simply resigned.

John Sadleir continued to serve in the Victorian Police until he retired on pension in 1896 according to one newspaper without receiving as much as a scratch during all that time. He involved himself in the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and spoke out on issues such as the treatment of aboriginals. He died on 21 September 1919 at his residence at Orwell, Kooyong Road, Elsternwick, Melbourne at the age of 86.

Tom Hurley is a journalist and documentary maker. The 3-part documentary on his life entitled The Captor by Tom Hurley will be aired over three Wednesdays at 7.05pm on Tipp Mid West Radio. It began on 11 October. The programmes can be heard outside the county on

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