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    Bill Denheld
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follow up article to -
The hut behind the school

at Bobinawarrah, N. E Victoria.  Bill Denheld.

Transcript copy of text from the Wallace letters to the Age -

    James Wallace, Schoolmaster

Source: The Age    Date: 10 Jun 1882


The case of James Wallace, State school teacher, whose dismissal from the public service was recently announced, forms a curious and not unintuitive chapter in the history of Ned Kelly, the outlaw, and his companions in crime.

The circumstances connected with his alleged sympathy, if not complicity, with the gang are surrounded with uncertainty and mystery, the unraveling of which has totally baffled all the exertions of the police. Wallace was a State school teacher in the North-eastern District when Sergeant Kennedy and his comrades were murdered near Mansfield. He conducted two half-time schools, one at Hurdle Creek and the other at Bobinawarrah, about ten miles distant from each other. The former was his headquarters, and there he also acted as postmaster.

Having been a schoolmate of Joe Byrne, a strong friendship had grown up between him and the outlaw, and from his position and long residence in the district he was intimately acquainted with the peculiarities of the country, the haunts of the gangs, their relatives and sympathisers. When therefore he applied to Captain Standish, early in 1879, to be employed as a secret agent, the Chief Commissioner, although inundated with similar offers, felt personally disposed to avail himself of his services, and that he did not do so was simply owing to Wallace's apparent untrustworthiness.

The Chief Commissioner was led to this conclusion owing to a very peculiar circumstance. Negotiations had been secretly opened with Captain Standish by a well known spy with a view to inducing Joe Byrne to betray his mates. Acting upon an understanding with this agent, the Chief Commissioner, accompanied only be an orderly, left Benalla one night without allowing his destination or departure to be known. He rode through the bush straight towards Hurdle Creek, but he failed to meet his informant. About eight o'clock in the morning he found himself near the schoolhouse. Wallace observed him and having previously been in communication with the Chief Commissioner in relation to the Kellys he at once invited him to breakfast.

In the course of the conversation that ensued the schoolmaster stated that he had long been on terms of friendship with Byrne and Aaron Sherritt, but neither of them had been near his place since the murders. The Chief Commissioner rode back to Benalla, where he found Aaron Sherritt awaiting his return. In the interview which followed Sherritt stated that he had been staying some time at Wallace's house, and had only left it the day previously.

This incident led the Chief Commissioner to think that Mr. Wallace was not very reliable. The facts connected with the bootless errand of the Chief Commissioner are variously recounted, one version being that Captain Standish was led to expect that Joe Byrne would meet him, but that he refused to do so at the last moment. Further, that at the very time he was partaking of breakfast the outlaw was in the room adjoining. This, however, was stoutly denied by Wallace.

Some six months later, Mr. Nicolson, who had succeeded to the command of the pursuit, visited Wallace, and, thinking that his services might be useful, undertook to employ him as a secret agent. Wallace shaped splendidly at the start. He was a very prolific correspondent, and if his other exertions bore any proportion to his epistolary zeal the Kellys must have soon been run to earth. He furnished elaborate accounts respecting his adventures in search of the outlaws' lair, that read like extracts from the romance of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men.

He described with great circumstantiality the physical peculiarities of the ranges he had passed over, the creeks and ravines he had crossed, the individuals he had met and conversed with, and drew a lively picture of the outlaws holding a sort of rifle tourney in the depths of the forest and otherwise spending the leisure and tranquil hours in their mountain home. After a time a game of cross-purposes arose between Wallace and Detective Ward. While they outwardly expressed the utmost friendship they were secretly writing to Mr. Nicolson denouncing each other in emphatic terms.

Wallace charged Ward with revealing police secrets to the sympathisers, and with being guilty of conduct which, on moral grounds, was highly reprehensible. Ward, on the other hand, repeatedly furnished reports directly implying that Wallace was in secret league with the outlaws, selling their gold, changing their notes and supplying them with provisions and clothing. The detective had not been informed of the fact that Wallace was employed by the police, and he naturally kept a watchful and perhaps a jaundiced eye upon that gentleman's movements.

Wallace was consistent in one particular namely, that notwithstanding the voluminous nature of his correspondence he avoided communicating anything of importance to the police. That he could have otherwise acted there seems little doubt, inasmuch as upon his own admission when under examination he had met Joe Byrne on one occasion and Ned Kelly on another, but failed to inform Mr. Nicolson of the fact until the matter was mentioned to him some weeks afterwards.

The reasons he assigned for this singular reticence were the distance he was from Benalla, the utter uselessness, as he considered, of giving the information, and the probability of Detective Ward communicating the intelligence to some of the sympathisers, and thus directly compromising him. At length Mr. Nicolson began to think Wallace's letters, unaccompanied by a more satisfactory outcome of his supposed efforts, somewhat monotonous.

He expostulated with Wallace, and threatened to dispense with his services. He had received various sums of money, and in his letters frequently applied for payment of certain amounts. On one occasion he had hinted that owing to the time he devoted to the Kelly business he was likely to lose 10 by way of results from his schools, but it was subsequently proved that he had a fixed salary, and did not depend upon results for any portion of his remuneration.

When the Assistant-Commissioner wrote on the subject of paying him for his services, Wallace repudiated the insinuation that he had even been a paid agent. He only required and demanded actual expenses incurred in prosecuting his inquiries. Finding apparently that nothing was likely to be gained from a further retention of his services, Wallace ceased to be employed by Mr. Nicolson some time prior to the destruction of the gang. There seems good ground for believing that Wallace was cognisant of the haunts and doings of the gang to a much greater extent than he has ever acknowledged.

In one of his letters the following significant passage occurs: "When time shall have dissolved the obligation of secrecy I shall be able perhaps to state more fully," &c, &c. Again, in his late letters he takes credit for his efforts in assisting to save life; and he darkly hints at being, in some way not stated, instrumental in bringing about the capture and destruction of the outlaws. His testimony and correspondence, however, are characterised by great caution, and are more specious than satisfactory or convincing. He writes a readable letter, and has a literacy and somewhat cultivated style; but from a police point of view their principal feature indicated more than ordinary powers of imagination.

Wallace's proceedings became known to the officers of the Education department some months prior to the destruction of the gang. In consequence of certain representations made to the department arrangements were privately made to remove him. This was determined upon about a week before the affray at Glenrowan. Without any previous notification his successor was sent up to Hurdle Creek, bringing with him his authority to take immediate charge of the school, and instructions to Wallace to at once proceed to Yea to take over the local school. Owing, however, to Wallace's connection with the Post Office department he could not leave as soon as directed. Some days are said to have elapsed before he proceeded to his destination.

It would be most unjust, in the absence of direct proof, to maintain that Wallace personally knew anything of, or had any complicity in, the doings of the gang immediately prior to Glenrowan, or, indeed, at any period during which he was acting for the police. The most that can be urged is suspicion. Immediately upon his suspension his case was entrusted to one of the ablest and most experienced officers in the Government service for investigation, and he, together with a prominent official in the Education department, went into the matter most carefully, and though there were many things inexplicable, and surrounded with suspicion, nothing was discovered that when duly weighed and regarded from a legal point of view could be construed into an absolute charge against Wallace of any participation in the proceedings of the gang.

A remarkable discovery was, however, made by the police about six months subsequent to the extermination of the outlaws. While scouring the country in the vicinity of Hurdle Creek a solitary hut was found in the bush. It presented the appearance of having some time previously been in permanent occupation. It was fitted up with four banks, and the place was strewn with empty tins, such as those used for preserved fish and meat, an immense quantity of bottles, and similar indications of good living. Now, it has always been a mystery where the gang concealed themselves for the six or eight months that preceded their final exploit. It has been stated that they were located at Wilson's paddock, near Greta, also in a paddock near Sebastopol, where they are said to have been frequently seen by the owner of the land.

They have also been described as travelling constantly from one portion of the district to another. But there is no evidence to support those statements. It must be obvious that, in order to ensure an uninterrupted supply of provisions and secure themselves against the inclemency of the weather, they must have had a fixed abode of some sort one of easy access, and removed from the general surveillance or suspicion of the police authorities. The hut found near Hurdle Creek would have answered every purpose. From the inquiries made in the neighborhood sufficient information was gleaned to lead the authorities to conclude that the outlaws for a time lay concealed in this hut.

The police at the time were averse to reopening the Kelly business, and no action was taken in relation to the discovery for some months. Then, however, the matter was taken up and strict search instituted. The officials who had undertaken to investigate the matter despatched two detectives to the scene, but their mission proved fruitless. Their visit had been apparently forestalled. On reaching the spot they found the hut burned to the ground, and the tins, bottles and similar debris totally destroyed so as to prevent a possibility of identification. The destruction had been caused, the detectives thought, by a bush fire; but an examination of the place showed that the fire had commenced a little below the hut on the rise, and the flames having done their work soon died out after passing over the spot where the hut stood. Regret was expressed by several upon becoming acquainted with the fact that the police in the first instance had not taken the precaution to preserve the empty tins and bottles seen in and around the hut inasmuch as the identity of the purchasers might thereby have been traced.

Other circumstances of a suspicious nature were discovered that strengthened the supposition that Wallace was cognisant of the whereabouts of the outlaws, but there was only one witness who could give decisive evidence upon the point. That witness, when sought, had disappeared, from no other motive seemingly than to defeat further inquiry. After a close scrutiny of all the facts connected with Wallace's case, the most that can be said is that his conduct was inexplicably mysterious and unsatisfactory. The evidence against him is purely circumstantial. At the same time it must be remembered that he had the power in his hands to remove any doubt as to his bona fides, and if he, as he states, has allowed certain obligations to seal his lips he cannot blame the department for putting the very worst construction upon his silence. If guilty, he has been but lightly punished; if innocent, he has only his own reticence to thank for his dismissal. Of this there cannot be a reasonable doubt; that under the circumstances the Government was left no other alternative than to dispense with his services as a State school teacher, in accordance with the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Police.

This is the Reply that Wallace sent-

   James Wallace, The Schoolmaster

Source: The Age   Date: 14 Jun 1882


SIR, On reading the article with the above heading in your issue of this morning I begin to doubt that I am myself. In common fairness I trust you will permit me to contradict the misrepresentations it contains, as if allowed to pass they may work me serious injury. In the first place, I deny emphatically that there are or ever were any just or reasonable grounds for suspicion that I entertained or expressed any sympathy for the outlawed Kelly gang.

The alleged strong friendship said to have existed between Byrne and myself is purely mythical. The extent of our mutual relations may be judged from the fact that during the fifteen years preceding his death I did not meet with him more than half-a-dozen times altogether, and then only casually. No application was ever made by me to Captain Standish for employment as a secret agent, and until I read your paper this morning I was not aware that I ever had the honor of that gentleman's company to breakfast. No outlaw ever visited my house. The references to the alleged strained relations between Detective Ward and myself are untrue, uncalled for, and unfair both to that officer and myself. No assertion was ever made by me in connection with the business that cannot be absolutely proved to be true.

The circumstances of my transfer from Hurdle Creek to Yea are shamefully misrepresented. The insinuation that I was unreliable is a cowardly and gratuitous one. I do not know of anything in my conduct that was either mysterious, inexplicable or unsatisfactory. What earthly connection has the alleged discovery of a hut in the ranges with me? How ever conveniently the aforesaid hut and debris, together with some nameless witness, are made to disappear. The charge of reticence made against me does not hold good, when viewed in the full light of the facts of the case. I did not shrink from inquiry. I courted the fullest investigation. I asked, as a matter of justice, that I should be allowed a board of inquiry.

This request was refused, and dark and covert threats of probable action on the part of the law officers of the Crown were made, upon which I directly and fearlessly challenged a prosecution. When I was informed the "prominent official" referred to was making frantic efforts to get up a case against me, I acted as any honorable man would have done. I promptly wrote offering all the assistance in my power towards getting up the case, and tendered all the information, books and papers in my possession on the subject. My offer was not acknowledged. Surely I was better able than any one else to assist in unravelling the so-called mystery, which is alleged to have baffled the police. I was suspended, without reason being given. After six months' suspension, I was dismissed without any official reason.

My applications for a board of inquiry were not acknowledged for months, but through the press I was informed that the Minister had refused me that privilege, and had referred my case to the Cabinet. I am at a loss to understand why the question of my innocence or otherwise should be trammelled by party bias or party interests. On personal application to Mr. Grant, in company with a well-known Melbourne pressman, I was refused an interview. On waiting on Mr. Brown, the secretary, I was informed that I was dismissed on the recommendation of the police board, but he did not say why.

The writer of the article in your columns goes on to say, "It would be most unjust, in the absence of direct proof, to maintain that Wallace personally knew anything of, or had any complicity in, the doings of the gang immediately prior to Glenrowan, or indeed at any period during which he was acting for the police. The most that can be urged is suspicion.

" If these be his real sentiments, what object can he have in dishing up these defamatory insinuations " ? In concluding his remarks he says: "Under the circumstances the Government was left no alternative than to dispense with his services as a State school teacher."

I differ with him. I think the Government should have allowed me an opportunity of bringing forward rebutting evidence in my own defence. Having been cruelly denied one of the commonest privileges of British citizenship, I have no other alternative but to at once endeavor to have the whole facts of the case thoroughly sifted in the law courts in an action for libel against my detractors. And until that is done I must request your readers to postpone their decision on my case.

Yours, &c., JAMES WALLACE.
10th June.