Ned Kelly and The Cave Parties

In the history of Victoria’s criminal past, the infamy of one bushranging figure towers above all others – Edward “Ned” Kelly. The bushranger, outlaw, gang leader and police murderer is revered and reviled in equal measure and, he holds an enduring fascination in Australia’s cultural lexicon.

Edward “Ned” Kelly – Australia’s most notorious outlaw.

As a school kid, it was hard to determine if Ned Kelly was a folk hero or a murderous criminal. The narratives were multiple, confusing and more often than not, grossly misrepresented. I can recall seeing him as a Robin Hood figure and it was the Police who were the evil doers The resultant aura around Kelly meant that those impression remained with me for far too long. With time and a nuanced reconsideration of history, it became clear what Kelly represented – and it wasn’t good.

In the early 2000’s, when my Dad made the first discoveries about Joseph Ladd Mayes, we had no idea just how pivotal a role he had in The Kelly Affair.

In the aftermath of the murders of 3 police troopers at Stringybark Creek in October, 1878 by Ned Kelly, his brother Dan and Joe Byrne, the colony of Victoria had been shocked to attention. The Kelly Gang had declared war on what they saw as a corrupt constabulary and initiated a brazen crime spree across Victoria’s North East. In December of 1878, the gang conducted an audacious bank hold up in the Victorian town of Euroa and it became clear that the Police Force had to channel all resources into a relentless manhunt.

The Stringybark Creek Police Party. Clockwise from top left: Constable Lonigan, Sergeant Kennedy, Constable McIntyre and Constable Scanlon.

Backed by new legislation known as the Felon’s Apprehension Act, the Victoria Police under the command of Captain Frederick Standish, Superintendent Francis Hare, and Officer Sadlier began piecing together a military styled operation. They recruited and redirected personnel from surrounding stations, while Francis Hare secured equipment and supplies from Melbourne. On the basis of local intelligence, the Police began arresting known Kelly friends and sympathizers, holding them without charge at Beechworth Gaol. The idea was to interrogate these sympathizers while using them as a means of forcing the Kelly Gang out into the open.

In February, 1879 the Kelly Gang crossed the border into New South Wales where they raided the town of Jerilderie. The incident prompted the NSW Government to offer a reward of 4000 pounds for their capture – dead or alive – which, when matched with Victoria’s own 4000 pound reward, became the largest ever reward offered in Australia.

Following Jerilderie however, the Kelly Gang went into hiding, frustrating the Police efforts.

During the early months of 1879, Francis Hare arrived in the North East and came into contact with Aaron Sherritt – a lifelong friend of Kelly Gang member Joe Byrne. Sherritt was encouraged to act as a police informant and report to Hare, all the goings on at the property of Joe Byrne’s mother. Believing the Kelly Gang would emerge eventually, Hare concocted a secret operation and assembled some of his most trusted officers into what became known as the Cave Parties.

Now a Senior Constable, Joseph Ladd Mayes answered the call from Superintendent Hare, who had come to greatly admire Mayes as one of the most capable officers and bushmen on the Force. Joseph Ladd over the mountains from Mansfield on horseback to Benalla, where Hare and Standish were assembling the police parties.

Troopers in pursuit of the Kelly Gang – artists Alfred May and Alfred Martin Ebsworth
Police Party photographed at Benalla, Victoria June 20 1879. Joseph Ladd Mayes is standing 4th from left and Frances Hare is standing on his right in the center of the picture. The members in order L to R are O’Loughlin, Kirkham, Mills, Mayes, Sup. Hare, Canny, Faulkiner, Lawless; kneeling are Barry and tracker Moses.

From Benalla, the parties traveled into the Woolshed Valley near Beechworth. Having secured an agreement from known Kelly associate, Aaron Sherritt, Hare and Standish established a base of operations at Sherritt’s property. The plan was to strike out from Sherritt’s at night and ensconce themselves in a series of caves that overlooked the neighboring Byrne farm. The hope was that the Kelly Gang would appear there and could be swiftly arrested.

Francis Hare put Joseph Ladd Mayes in charge of one group of officers, while the Superintendent led the other group. From February to June, the Cave Parties conducted the mother of all stakeouts, rotating through day and night. One party would surveil the Byrne property while the other party rested at the Sherritt home. Aaron Sherritt was said to be feeding them intelligence, suggesting the Kelly Gang would indeed emerge from the wilderness. This kept Hare motivated throughout the long months the Cave Parties operated in the area. It is not clear whether Joseph Ladd maintained a consistent presence in the Woolshed Valley during the period from February to June or whether he was rotated back to Broadmeadows to enjoy a period of respite with his family.

In the 2003 publication “The Fatal Friendship”, author Ian Jones recalled the reminisces of Francis Hare, who described the operation of the Cave Parties during early 1879;

“Hare decided that he and six men would camp in the clearing, while four men, under Senior Constable Mayes, occupied the upper cave.” 

“Hare and his men waited, listening to the night sounds of the Valley, humbled by the great pergola of the Milky Way arched from range to range, momentarily chilled by the shriek of a plover, tension easing to boredom as the hours passed. Then, at 12 or 1 o’clock, Aaron (Sherritt) came ambling up the slope to settle on the ground by Hare and wait another four or five hours for the first lightening of the sky behind the blackness of the peak.”

(“The Fatal Friendship: Ned Kelly, Aaron Sherritt & Joe Byrne”, page 114, Ian Jones, 2003, Copyright © Ian Jones, 2003, Lothian Books.)

The uneasy alliance with Aaron Sherritt continued on over the course of months, with Sherritt reportedly going to visit his girlfriend Kate Byrne – the elder sister of Joe Byrne. The aim was to gather intelligence on the possible movements of the Kelly Gang and report back to Hare.

Aaron Sherritt – friend of The Kelly Gang who became their enemy.

Concerns were raised in the constabulary about Aaron Sherritt as to whether he was playing both sides – the police and the Kelly Gang but, it seems Francis Hare maintained his trust in Sherritt as a reliable informant. 

Joseph Ladd was singled out during the Cave Party operations for his conduct and meticulousness as Hare’s 2IC. Referencing Hare, Ian Jones cites a passage from the Superintendent’s memoir in the footnotes of his 2003 revised edition of “The Fatal Friendship.”

“A total lack of debris suggests that Senior Constable Mayes and his four men were a far more responsible and disciplined group than those in the lower camp, who probably relaxed their standards after Hare’s departure – by then knowing that the location of the site was almost common knowledge in the Woolshed.”

(“The Fatal Friendship: Ned Kelly, Aaron Sherritt & Joe Byrne”, page 222, Ian Jones, 2003, Copyright © Ian Jones, 2003, Lothian Books.)

Joseph Ladd was described as a proven and well tried man with whom Frances Hare had the utmost confidence.

Things began to unravel when leaks around the the existence of the Cave Parties emerged back in Melbourne. The costs of resourcing them caused alarm among the top brass. Meanwhile, back in the Woolshed Valley, the viability of the Parties was thrown into doubt when one of the constables was actually discovered by Kate Byrne as he was collecting water from a nearby creek.

Joseph Ladd’s participation in the Cave Parties lasted from their inception to June of 1879. However, he did not stay on through the second half of that year – nor did he witness the eventual disbanding of the Cave Parties in April 1880. The Cave Party operation became an expensive operation for no return. Its existence, having become an open secret among the Police and those in the Woolshed Valley who were sympathetic to the Kelly Gang, destroyed its credibility.

In June 1879, Joseph Ladd took command of the Lancefield Police Station, north east of Melbourne. A month later, on the 19th of July, he remarried – to Eugenie Rebecca Bourke, the 26 year old daughter of a farming family originally from NSW. The marriage was solemnized in Keilor. The marriage certificate states that Eugenie Rebecca Bourke was residing in Broadmeadows at the time.

By June of 1880, circumstances began to unravel for the Kelly Gang. Having discovered Aaron Sherritt’s treachery – the police informant was murdered by Joe Byrne for conspiring against the Kelly Gang. The Gang made their last stand at Glenrowan in a fierce gun battle with police. Joe Byrne was shot and killed,  Dan Kelly & Steve Hart were both incinerated in a hotel fire and Ned Kelly, severely wounded, was captured. We are certain that Joseph Ladd Mayes was not at Glenrowan during the last stand of the Kelly Gang.

Writing in his memoir much later, Francis Hare singled out Joseph Ladd’s conduct during the Cave Party operation. He described the Senior Constable as a proven and well tried man with whom he had the utmost confidence.

In amongst the saga of the Cave Parties – another piece of the Kelly Affair had a direct impact on Joseph Ladd Mayes. During the height of the Cave Party operations, Joseph Ladd took charge of Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick – who had been stationed at Benalla in the north east of Victoria.

Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick.

A prominent figure in the Kelly saga, Alexander Fitzpatrick has often been described as the catalyst for the resulting warfare between the Gang & the Police. In April, 1878 – acting on a notice posted in the Police Gazette – Fitzpatrick attempted to arrest members of the gang at the property of Kelly matriarch Ellen. During a confrontation with the family, Fitzpatrick was shot and wounded by Ned Kelly himself. Accounts of this incident vary greatly and there is a healthy amount of skepticism towards those accounts from both sides of the often charged Kelly debate. But most agree, the incident at the Kelly property marked a significant escalation in the war between the Kelly’s and the police.

Alexander Fitzpatrick remains a controversial figure in the history of the Victorian Police Force. Opinion about his character has almost, always, been in the negative with him being cast as a drunkard and a less than reputable individual. Questions remain as to just how close Fitzpatrick was to the Kelly family, with accounts suggesting that he was too trusting of Ned Kelly – that perhaps he was even passing information to the Gang.

When he came to the notice of Commissioner Standish and Superintendent Hare at the height of the Affair, they formed the view that Fitzpatrick was on a hiding to nothing in the constabulary. He was either considered too close to the Kellys or he was responsible for all out war between the police and the Kellys. There were allegations of his being drunk on the job, of associating with the lowest of individuals, even the attempted rape of Ned Kelly’s sister Kate.

And yet, following the events at the Kelly homestead and the Stringybark Creek murders, Fitzpatrick was dispatched to Sydney – tasked with looking out for and apprehending Kelly Gang members in case they arrived there to escape the country via ship. Given that he had identified Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart at the Kelly homestead, it was thought Fitzpatrick would be best placed to spot them, should they arrive in Sydney. Accounts of his poor conduct in Sydney dogged Fitzpatrick however and he was ordered back to Victoria by senior police who feared he was casting the Victorian Police into disrepute.

Alexander Fitzpatrick was sent to Lancefield in September of 1879, apparently as a last resort where he served 9 months under Joseph Ladd Mayes – until the now decorated Senior Constable could no longer tolerate the insubordinate officer.

Evidently, he had formed the view, having studied the constable in-situ, whilst gathering information on Fitzpatrick from his previous postings. Joseph Ladd reflected on Fitzpatrick’s conduct in 1882.

“he was not fit to be in the police force … he was associated with the lowest persons in Lancefield  … he could not be trusted out of sight and … he never did his duty” ~ JL Mayes, May 1882.

In recent times, there has been some reconsideration around the history and conduct of Alexander Fitzpatrick and a theory has emerged suggesting the Constable was more a victim of circumstance than a poor officer.

In a 2015 essay titled “Redeeming Fitzpatrick”, historian Stuart Dawson presented a minority view of the Constable, arguing that, up until the events at the Kelly homestead in 1878, Alexander Fitzpatrick had an unremarkable service record, with no evidence of poor conduct. In fact, he had been described in a positive light by his superiors in Sydney. The accounts of the incident at the Kelly homestead appear to have relied too heavily on the Kelly side of the incident, where Kelly himself was known to fabricate and misrepresent the truth. The account of Fitzpatrick seems to have been ignored or dismissed because, he too, was regarded as unreliable. It is after the Kelly homestead incident, that Fitzpatrick’s career took a downward turn.

Dawson argues that the constable’s posting to Lancefield was a concerted effort to rid Fitzpatrick from the Force in the aftermath of his Sydney posting. By putting Fitzpatrick under the command of a “strict disciplinarian in Joseph Ladd Mayes – who was said to have already formed a view of the Constable as a worthless character – the senior ranks of the Victorian Police Force would achieve that end. As Mayes testified in 1882, Fitzpatrick was charged with dereliction of duty at Lancefield and associating with disreputable individuals. Fitzpatrick was to last 9 months before Joseph Ladd Mayes recommended the Constable be sacked from the Force.

2 separate petitions were raised by 100 prominent residents of Lancefield and Romsey following Fitzpatrick’s dismissal, calling for his immediate reinstatement. Both petitions were rejected by the Police and Fitzpatrick was dismissed from the Force in 1880.

Was Joseph Ladd over zealous in calling for Fitzpatrick to be sacked? Did senior police – including Standish & Hare – use Mayes as an “instrument” to facilitate Fitzpatrick’s removal from the Force, knowing they had a reliable man they could count on? Was Fitzpatrick made a scapegoat for the Kelly Affair?

There is documentary evidence suggesting that Joseph Ladd Mayes had genuine concerns about Fitzpatrick during his time at Lancefield. One catalyst for Fitzpatrick’s removal was the sustained harassment and threats of harm towards a Lancefield man, Maurice Casey and his family. While the details of this incident are sparse, they are recorded on the police record of Alexander Fitzpatrick and in the reports submitted by Joseph Ladd Mayes to the Commissioner of Police in Melbourne. Fitzpatrick was notably cagey about the Casey incident during his own testimony in 1881 and refused to entertain any detailed examination of it. We know Joseph Ladd was a thorough investigator, who would have left no stone unturned in pursuing the truth in any matter that came before him. While his reputation might have been strict, he was also fair and did not stray from proper process.

During Fitzpatrick’s Sydney posting, he was said to have befriended a woman named Edith Graham (or Edith Jones), who had been accused of stealing jewelry from her employer, a hairdresser named Pogonowski. Pogonowski had suggested to police that Fitzpatrick (who was married at the time) had more than a casual association with Edith Graham and the two may have even been co-conspirators in multiple instances of theft. The case of the stolen jewelry was resolved when Fitzpatrick directed police to the residence of Edith Graham herself and the stolen goods were recovered. Yet no charges appear to have been laid. It was as a result of this curious incident that Fitzpatrick was recalled to Victoria. The view of the hierarchy there was that his conduct had brought the Force into disrepute.

It was apparent that others agreed with this view. During the Royal Commission, a letter of complaint was tendered from the Inspector General in Sydney, attesting to a litany of complaints over the course of Fitzpatrick’s entire career and not just the period from the Kelly incident forward.

The true facts surrounding Alexander Fitzpatrick may never be fully illuminated. He remains a divisive identity whose conduct, revealed in numerous pieces of documentary evidence, was questionable at best. What I do think is fair however, is to question the existing narratives, which do seem to be unfairly skewed in one direction. I believe the case of Fitzpatrick is more complicated.

By the end of 1880, with the execution of Ned Kelly, Victoria effectively saw the end of one of the most fraught periods in its fledgling history. For Joseph Ladd Mayes, the end of the Kelly Gang marked a turning point in his professional and personal life. Approaching his fiftieth year, Joseph and his new wife Eugenie would see the growth of their family begin, while Joseph would contribute to one of the watershed moments in the history of the Victorian Police Force.

Next: The Royal Commission…

DFA.