By the 1840s, squatters in Victoria had a firm hold of the land, occupying most of the useable land and all of the best land. Squatters simply took possession of unoccupied crown land beyond the boundaries of location. Initially they paid nothing for the land. Later they were required to obtain a government licence, but as the cost was nominal they paid virtually nothing for use of the land.
Most of the squatters seem to have come from the British gentry or tenant-farmer class. There were no openings for the poor because grazing required substantial sums of capital. Land Acts were passed in the 1860s after the gold rush, partly to compensate diggers for their loss of economic independence as mining became the almost exclusive preserve of companies. These acts allowed would-be farmers access to small parcels of land called selections. However, the same acts also protected the tenure of squatters and, in substance and administration, discriminated against selectors. Squatters managed to evade the provisions of the Land Acts, especially legislation before 1865 and keep their stock runs intact by virtue of various manipulations, like ‘dummying’ and ‘peacocking’. The former involved individuals selecting blocks, ostensibly for themselves but really for squatters. The latter saw squatters selecting areas for themselves such as creeks frontages, and fertile river flats that made the rest of the run useless for farming.
By the end of the 1860s, selection was a major social and geographical phenomenon. For complex reasons, including inadequate legislation and manipulation by the squatters, selection was not an economic success. The poverty of the selectors compared with the wealth of the squatters and the squatters’ highly visible attempts to frustrate selection, resulted inevitably in a divided rural community. The selectors resented the squatters and periodically expressed that resentment by burning fences, obstructing railway lines and illegally releasing impounded stock. Squatters, for their part, viewed the selectors as socially inferior and lawless and made no distinction between theft and the selector customs of slaughtering stock for ‘personal use’ and horse ‘borrowing’.
Police in rural areas, like those previously deployed on the goldfields, were paramilitary in style, and drew heavily on the Royal Irish Constabulary as a model. This was partly because Irish-born police dominated the force and approximately half were former members of the RIC. In addition, Chief Commissioners up until the beginning of the 1880s were either military men or proponents of the Irish model. The geography of the rural communities also favoured the mounted patrols used by the Irish Police over the foot patrols used by England’s civil police. Police in Victoria’s rural areas were likewise heavily armed and alienated from the selector communities they policed. They generally came from outside the area, knew nothing of local habits and made little effort to find out. Selectors suffered police corruption, incompetence, brutality and intimidation. The Victoria police, like the RIC, were held in low esteem by the majority of the rural community. On the other hand, squatters found a natural ally in the police. The higher ranks of the force moved in the same social circles as the squatters; the lower ranks, often posted to rural areas at the squatters’ request, like the squatters, made no distinction between killing stock for ‘personal use’, ‘borrowing’ horses, and theft. A strong alliance formed between the squatters and police and by the 1870s selectors, not unjustly, viewed the police as ‘squatter’s men’.
Tensions in the rural community came to a head with the Kelly Outbreak, and many aspects of policing were brought to public light. Because the Kelly saga was subject to so much contemporary commentary and subsequently documented by a Royal Commission and a host of ‘Kelly scholars’, it can be seen as a microcosm of the role and reputation of police in rural Victoria during the 1870s. The police station at Greta, the setting for the Kelly outbreak, was established in 1869 at the request of local squatters, who wanted selector-duffers/stock thieves dealt with. Hall, the police officer placed in charge of the station, set up a system of spies, and used threats and intimidation to control the district’s ‘criminal classes’. An incentive to corruption was supplied by the local Stock Protection Association, comprised of squatters that supplied rewards for the arrest of suspected stock thieves. Hall vigorously pursued the rewards and arrests were often indiscriminate. Selectors could complain about police but the complaints were never heard or dismissed.
In 1871, Hall arrested the then sixteen year old Ned Kelly, a member of a selector family over use of a horse. In the process he tried, more than once, to shoot Kelly, who was unarmed, and administered a severe pistol whipping when his gun failed. The arrest triggered resentment throughout the selector community in the district. Kelly was subsequently sentenced to three years hard labour on perjured police evidence. Hall’s successor, Flood, later threatened to give Kelly ‘worse than Hall did’. The whole Kelly family, including women and children, were harassed by local police. These incidents provided the background for the events at Stringybark Creek in 1878, where three police officers were shot and killed by Kelly and his gang. Four police set out on Kelly’s trail after an altercation at the Kelly family home in which a police officer was slightly injured. Although Kelly was later found guilty of murder by a Supreme Court jury there is evidence supporting Kelly’s claim that the police were shot in self-defence. The police hunt for the gang over the following twenty months and its climax at the ‘siege of Glenrowan’, demonstrate both the militaristic style of policing in the area and the extent of police alienation from the community.
Local people, generally thought Kelly was ‘a man made outlaw by persecution and injustice’ and refused to cooperate with police in the hunt. One local newspaper reported that three out of every four of the male population in the area were on Kelly’s side. Chief Commissioner Standish shared this view, lamenting:
The Gang were secure of the good will of a great proportion of the inhabitants of these regions…Indeed the outlaws are considered heroes by a large proportion of the population of the North Eastern district who…look upon the police as their natural enemies.
Unable to count on local people’s help, police resorted to spies and arresting ‘Kelly sympathisers’ during the hunt. In addition, search parties were heavily armed. Police finally caught up with Kelly and his gang at Glenrowan. During a siege lasting several hours police blazed away at an inn containing the gang and dozens of unarmed civilians. Police bullets fatally wounded three civilians, including an old man and a child, and injured others, one a teenage boy shot in the back after he tried to escape the potential death trap. One police officer, fully aware of who he was shooting at, repeatedly shot at a woman carrying a baby as she ran out of the building seeking safety, a bullet lightly grazing the baby’s head. While the police showed little regard for the civilians’ safety, the gang tried unsuccessfully to negotiate safe passage for those trapped inside. After the siege one journalist wrote that: ‘The want of judgement displayed by them [the police] was criminal. The indiscriminate firing into a house filled with women and children was a most disgraceful act’. Nevertheless the government paid the police involved in Kelly’s capture substantial rewards.
The legendary armour
The seminal place Ned Kelly and other bushrangers have in Australian history suggests that they symbolised more than individual criminality. The Kelly Outbreak was linked to a broader struggle over land and challenges to squatter privilege. Indeed, writing half a century ago Hancock maintained that, after the gold rushes and reforms to the democratic process:
Australian nationalism took definite form in the class struggle between the landless majority and the land monopolising squatters.
Because police were at the forefront of repressing selector agitation they were inevitably part of that struggle. As one police officer at the time described it, the Kelly Outbreak was a form of ‘guerrilla warfare’ and the police of the region were ‘an army of occupation’. The unpopularity of the police in rural areas assured the hero status of bushrangers in Australian history. It is true that Kelly’s ‘enemies, even more than his allies, helped make him a legend’.
As at Eureka twenty-five years previously, economic oppression combined with repressive policing to provide the backdrop for escalating conflict and loss of life during the Kelly Outbreak in the late 1870s. The Kelly saga also has some continuity with earlier struggles over land. One Aboriginal tribe includes Ned Kelly in their Dream stories that depict Kelly as ‘concerned with freedom, dignity and true justice’ because he opposed the police, who Aboriginal people associate with theft of land and destruction of life. Chief Commissioner Standish refused to address a police parade after Kelly’s capture until the Queensland Native Police, who had assisted in the hunt, were removed.
In the early 1880s policing in Victoria’s rural areas became less militaristic. These changes are usually credited to the pressure for reform brought by the Royal Commission into policing and the far sightedness of individual police. It is also true, however, that the changes to policing coincided with a shift in the significance of land as a basis for social division. Land was the major means of production in the first century of Australia’s history. By 1880, however, Victoria had moved out of plantation and development-style economies, typified by the ascendancy of the squatters and the gold rushes and into an economy where industrial capital dominated. From this time on major class divisions revolved, not around land, but around the divisions between wage labour and the capitalists that employed them. For most Victorians survival after the gold rushes and the failures of selection meant waged labour. Those selectors who survived into the 1880s generally only did so by working part-time, fencing, shearing, and the like. In the 1880s, the focus of police repression also shifted away from rural areas towards cities and regional towns where worker movements and militancy were on the rise.