The Royal Commission Second Report -Part XIII
The Assistant Commissioner takes no pains to conceal the opinion that his removal in June 1880, although ostensibly the direct act of the Executive, was in reality the result of official intrigue. Whatever may have been the influences at work - whether, as Mr Ramsay declared, the decision of the Government meant no more than a desire for a change of bowlers, or, as has been insinuated, Captain Standish, for reasons of his own, was responsible for the move - of this there cannot be a doubt, that there was thereby revealed the existence of acrimonious feelings amongst the officers - of jealousy, distrust, and personal rivalry, of which nothing previously had been positively known, although perhaps suspected. There is no gainsaying the fact that the recall of Mr Nicolson implied dissatisfaction, if not censure; but the fact of his having received a month's grace at a time when, according to his own account, he was in daily anticipation of capturing the Kellys, indicates some consideration for his feelings. Public servants are not always the best judges of the motives which actuate a Government in adopting a particular policy, and unfortunately private interests and individuals must often be sacrificed to public expediency. Mr Nicolson evidently regarded his case as a hard one under the circumstances. He states that, for some time prior to his removal, he felt that there was mischief brewing. On the 22nd of April the Assistant Commissioner had an interview with the Chief Secretary, who was then returning from the ceremony at Mansfield of unveiling a monument erected to the memory of the victims of the Wombat tragedy. Mr Ramsay expressed the greatest pleasure and confidence in Mr Nicolson when informed of how things were going on. An anonymous letter, which has been frequently adverted to in evidence, was forwarded by the Chief Commissioner to Mr Nicolson on the 26th April for his explanation, and a week subsequently he received intimation that he was to be superseded. The so-called anonymous letter was signed "Connor," evidently a fictitious name. It criticised unsparingly Mr Nicolson's character and conduct throughout the pursuit, and from internal evidence it was clearly written or inspired by some member of the force. It had been forwarded in the first instance to the Honorable J H Graves, the member for the district, and by that gentleman placed in the hands of the Chief Commissioner. The witness Wallace, a State-school teacher, and an alleged sympathizer with the gang, was the putative writer of the document, but he denies the allegation, and subsequently, in a communication addressed to your Commission, he declares that it was the joint concoction of Jack Sherritt and the outlaws, in order to have Mr Nicolson removed from the district. But Wallace's bona fades and veracity are open to grave suspicion, and his flippancy of manner, when before your Commission, apart from the evidence respecting his equivocal relations with the gang, mark his statements as wholly unreliable. The Assistant Commissioner, when informed of the intention to remove him, sought an interview with the Chief Secretary early in May, when, upon his urgent representations, he obtained a month's extension of his charge of the district. The scenes which occurred between Mr Nicolson and Captain Standish at this period indicate exacerbation of feeling and defiance on the one hand, and of cold superciliousness on the other, utterly at variance with that esprit de corps which is so desirable amongst brother officers. During the last month Mr Nicolson remained in command he strained every nerve to make the most of the limited time allowed him. His last effort was made on the strength of a report by a secret agent, that Joe Byrne had been seen in the ranges, to the rear of his mother's hut. Mr Nicolson organized and led a search party to the spot. It was upon this occasion that Aaron Sherritt accompanied the expedition as a guide during daylight - a proceeding that has induced many to attribute the murder of Aaron Sherritt to a want of discretion on the part of the Assistant Commissioner. The fact, however, should not be forgotten, that some time previously Byrne had seen Mrs Sherritt at Sebastopol , and had threatened to shoot Aaron. At the end of the month, Mr Nicolson in the interim having failed to effect the capture of the outlaws, Mr Hare was sent up to supersede him. This latter officer remonstrated with Captain Standish for having selected him for the duty, and appealed to Mr Ramsay with a view to some other officer being appointed to the post. The only reply that he received was that the Government had determined that he should take charge, and that there was left him no other alternative than to obey orders. The interview between Mr Nicolson and Superintendent Hare on the 2nd of June 1880 , when the latter took over charge, is variously described by the witnesses who were present. Superintendent Hare emphatically declares, and inserted a statement to the same effect in his official report after the affray at Glenrowan, that the interview lasted only ten minutes, and that Mr Nicolson "gave him no verbal information whatever." Mr Sadleir speaks of a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, but, in cross-examination, goes further. Mr O'Connor thinks that the interview lasted much longer, while Mr Nicolson insists that Superintendent Hare remained with him in the office nearly an hour; that during that time he gave him all the information he possessed, and, in conclusion, asked Mr Sadleir if he thought he had omitted anything. Mr Hare, in support of his allegation, produces his diary, and Mr Nicolson relies, to a great extent, upon the corroborative fact that the train by which his successor arrived reached Benalla at ten minutes past eleven; that it took him about half-an-hour to reach the police station; and it is admitted upon all hands that the interview did not terminate until one o'clock, when the officers adjourned to their hotel for luncheon. A more serious charge than that levelled by Mr Hare against Mr Nicolson it would be difficult to define, amounting as it does to disloyalty to the service and the country, and meanness and treachery to brother officers; and if Mr Hare at the time considered Mr Nicolson guilty of such conduct, it was his duty to have at once reported the circumstance. He wrote, it appears, a private letter to Captain Standish informing him of his impressions, but such a course was not calculated to meet a case of such grave significance as Mr Hare represents in his official report and evidence. The Assistant Commissioner indignantly repudiates the charge under which he had been allowed to labor for over twelve months, and appeals to his long service and the respect entertained towards him by his brother officers and men in refutation, urging that he would be even more criminal than the Kellys themselves if there were the least foundation for the charge. It must be mentioned that Mr Hare was the first to leave the room in which the interview occurred; that he called again at the office in the afternoon without asking for further information; and that, if the interview were briefer than might have been expected under the circumstances, it was owing to Mr Hare having asked Mr Nicolson, in the course of conversation, to come to the last that had been heard of the outlaws. The telegram despatched by Mr Nicolson to Senior-Constable Mullane prior to his leaving Benalla for Melbourne seems to have strengthened Mr Hare's suspicion of male fades on the part of the Assistant Commissioner; but, judging from the explanations made, and the tenor of the document itself, there does not seem sufficient grounds for preferring so grave a charge against Mr Nicolson as having wilfully sought to coerce the agents, and obstruct the efforts of the officer by whom he had been superseded. ....
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