Early Trials, Bitter Triumphs

In 1860, Mounted Constable Joseph Ladd Mayes arrived on Ballarat Gold Fields where he was to spend three years at the tiny settlement of Pitfield in the Piggoreet District.

Pitfield, 1859 – image courtesy of The Woady Yaloak Historical Society.

Tragedy befell the young family not long after their arrival when Joseph & Marrian’s son Charles Mayes died on the 15th February 1860. The death was a cruel blow, particularly at the time when Marrian had just given birth to their second child on the 23rd January 1860, a boy, which they named John Adolph.

Living conditions in the newly established district would have been hard and unforgiving. In an article for the Sovereign Hill Education Blog, the author details a number of childhood diseases that were prevalent.

“In the 1850s, people – especially children – often died from diseases which rarely kill Australians today, like scarlet fever, pneumonia, diphtheria and consumption (tuberculosis).

However, children were most likely to die from drinking water contaminated by human ‘poo’ … Horrible diseases like dysentery, cholera and typhoid killed thousands of children during the Victorian gold rushes.”

Indeed the fate that befell the young Charles Mayes was a particularly tragic one. The death certificate records the cause of death as “Scarlatina & Diphtheria – 6 weeks”.

Joseph Ladd and Marrian brought another two lives into their world, after John Adolph – Rebecca (1861) who was born in Buningyong near Pitfield and Sarah (1863) who was born in Pitfield.


An artist’s engraving of a ‘bail up’ – similar to that which confronted the Gold Escort (State Library of Victoria

Lawlessness was rife. Fear of dangerous criminals was a constant for those eeking out a modest existence. It was in the Piggoreet District that Joseph Ladd facee a baptism of fire and established a reputation as a tenacious policeman.

One notable account places Joseph Ladd at the centre of a conspiracy when he unwittingly did his job too well. A Pandora’s box was broken open when Thomas Ulick Burke, a Smythsdale banker and gold merchant, murdered by two men – Break O’ Day publican George Searle and his employee Joseph Ballan.

One of Thomas Burke’s tasks as bank manager was to travel throughout the Woady Yaloak diggings buying gold from miners. At this time, gold transports weren’t accompanied by armed escorts in the District.

Early on 10 May 1867, Burke collected a horse and buggy from the Smythesdale coach-builder and traveled to the Break O’ Day area (now Corindhap, Victoria), arriving at the nearby town of Rokewood at 1130 am. He bought gold at Rokewood and Break O’ Day, then left to make the return journey to Smythesdale, stopping at hotels along the way to buy more gold.

Thomas Ulick Burke – date unknown.

On this return journey, he was intercepted by Searle & Ballan, whose intention it was to rob Burke and make off with the gold shipment. They carried out their robbery and Thomas Burke was murdered in the exchange.

Acting on concens for Burke’s welfare, Joseph Ladd Mayes initiated a swift investigation and tracked down the slain banker and the gold shipment to Searle’s Hotel at Break O’ Day. Soon after, he arrested George Searle and Joseph Ballan and, following protocol, delivered the murderers into the hands of the Detectives at Ballarat.

It appears, however, that Joseph Ladd’s efforts had ignited jealousies in fellow police officers.

Officers Hill and Ryall of the Ballarat Detective Branch had themselves invested significant time and resources in trying to solve the Burke murders without success. So incensed were they that this upstart constable from the back woods had brought the murderers to justice, they tried to discredit Joseph Ladd Mayes in the aftermath.

Imprisoned in Ballarat awaiting trial, Hill & Ryall forced a confession from George Searle, effectively taking credit for the investigation and arrest. They then blocked Joseph Ladd from giving evidence at trial – in which Joseph Ladd Mayes no doubt would have exposed Hill & Ryall as liars. His expulsion from the official record prevented Joseph Ladd Mayes from receiving the 500 pound reward on offer for the capture of the murderers.

During their trial, Searle admitted to the robbery but sought to have his charge of murder reduced because it was Ballan who had shot Burke. They were tried at Ballarat by Judge Redmond Barry, who convicted them both of murder and sentenced them to death. Searle and Ballan were hanged at the Ballarat Gaol on 7 August 1867 and buried in the grounds.

The evidence was clear that Joseph Ladd’s efforts were crucial in bringing the Burke murderers to justice. His role was acknowledged by the Victorian government and from the Bank that was to receive the gold – he was awarded 25 pounds respectively by both institutions. The Break O’ Day Mining Company – upon hearing of Joseph Ladd’s treatment by the Police in Ballarat – took a collection from it’s workers of a further 25 pounds which they presented to the Constable with gratitude.


Main Street of Ballarat from Marks Corner c.1880’s (The Ballarat Historical Society).

Despite this Joseph Ladd’s role was excised feom the police record. Even more troubling was the ongoing treatment of Joseph Ladd by the Superintendent of the Ballarat District and other officers. Joseph recalled during the 1882 Royal Commission that he and his family was persecuted to such an extent afterwards that he feared for his and their lives.

“When I found that Superintendent Hill and Mr. Ryall had such a down on me, I applied to leave the district forthwith”. JL Mayes, 1882.

He returned to the Richmond depot, effectively being reduced to the status of a trainee, for a period of six months. However he received a new posting, to the small settlement of Raywood just north of Bendigo – then known as Sandhurst.

An unfortunate series of events happened during this transfer. When Joseph Ladd received his orders, he had asked a colleague to pack up his belongings while he prepared his family for the journey. The colleague mistakenly packed a pair of boots, belonging to a foot constable, into Joseph Ladd’s trunk and the error wasn’t picked up by anyone until after he had left for Raywood.

The Age, December 2nd, 1867.

Mistakenly believing an act of theft had occurred, a warrant was issued for Joseph Ladd’s arrest and police were dispatched from the Richmond depot. Upon being confronted with the charge of theft in Raywood, Joseph Ladd Mayes was arrested and taken into custody – first at Sandhurst, after which he was transported back to Melbourne where he was held at the Melbourne Gaol, pending an appearance before a Magistrate. On the day of his court appearance, Joseph Ladd recalled that Mr. Ryall – his nemesis from the Burke murder case in the Ballarat – had been appointed to prosecute Joseph Ladd.

The affair was to have a swift resolution however, when the constable who’d packed up Joseph Ladd’s trunk at the Richmond depot, realized what had happened and presented himself to give testimony. Joseph Ladd was exonerated of all charges against him and the matter was considered closed.

The whole sorry saga had a significant impact on Joseph Ladd. Humiliated despite being cleared of the charges, he felt he was unable to return to the posting at Raywood – having been arrested so publicly and shamed by the incident. He implored his superiors, not to force him back there where he felt he would be doing a disservice to the image of the Force. Of greater concern to him though, was the effect it had on his wife Mariann. In giving evidence to the Police Royal Commission in 1882 Joseph Ladd describes the effect.

“The shock acted so on my wife that she broke down under it.” JL Mayes, 1882.

He was convinced these events contributed to a nervous breakdown that would “eventually kill her”, even though Mariann was to live on for another 15 years. Reflecting on the events in 1882, Joseph seems to suggest that Mariann might not have recovered mentally or emotionally from the stress of that period.


Police Superintendent, Francis Hare – artist unknown
Captain Frederick Standish – photographer unknown.

The family remained in Melbourne after the court case, while Joseph Ladd awaited the processing of his application for a new posting. He didn’t wait long. Having friends in high places of the caliber of Francis Hare and Frederick Standish was a fortunate card. They knew who Joseph Ladd really was and they trusted him. Sure enough, a posting arrived that would put Joseph Ladd right into the center of one of Australia’s most notorious historical periods…

Next: A Brush With A Bushranger…

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