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Steele, Arthur Loftus (?–1914)

Arthur Steele, by W. E. Barnes, 1880

Arthur Steele, by W. E. Barnes, 1880

State Library of Victoria, CC5/7

The hero of another day has slipped quietly into his grave at Wangaratta (says the Melbourne correspondent of the Sun). Sergeant Arthur Loftus Maule Steele was known throughout the Victorian country police—he was to them the link with the great days of the country police. But with the public this fine old warrior-policeman, this relic of stirring times, was forgotten. Romance is going from the country police, who have to chase electoral cards now instead of track bushrangers, and the public is losing its interest.

Steele figured in many splendid exploits, and will go down to history as Ned Kelly's captor. He spent practically all his life at Wangaratta, where he became senior-constable and later sergeant in charge of the station, and his power was sufficient to keep his own district safe. Desperadoes, of whom there were many on the Victorian roads in his young days, avoided Steele and Steele's men. He took oaths against them, and made no secret of them. And he was a dead shot and a fine bushman, qualities which gave him an excellent chance of fulfilling his vows.

Steele's acquaintance with the Kelly gang commenced before Ned Kelly and his three dare-devils terrorised the north-eastern district. Steele knew the family, and Ned Kelly always vowed that he carried about a grudge against the police officer from the days of his youth. Obviously the two never liked each other. They each "looked" high and low for the other. There was certain to be killing as soon as they met after Kelly had been proclaimed, by special Act of Parliament, an outlaw. Steele swore that he would shoot the outlaw. Kelly swore that he would get even with his police foe. The public has forgiven Kelly much during these years, and it can afford now, to think of the strange, romance in that final meeting between the two men—Kelly smitten by Steele's bullets fighting furiously in his ploughshare armor as he recognised in his captor the foe of his early days.

The "battle of Glenrowan" stands second in the list of sensational Australian shootings—we can still say that Glenrowan and Eureka have been our greatest battles. But the conquest of the Kellys was more than a battle—it was a war. It cost the country £115,000, and it proceeded continuously for five months. In this Steele was the commanding officer of a small scouting unit. He was kept in the Wangaratta district, though he should have been brought down into the centre of the war theatre. He had from seven to 10 men under him, and so muddled were the police arrangements that this reserve was seldom called up until the Kellys, with that bloodthirsty determination and expert bush skill that made them terrible foes, had fought their way through police ranks and escaped into their bush retreats.

Had Steele been in the shoes of the unfortunate Sergeant Kennedy, the Glenrowan battle would probably never have been fought. After the earliest Kelly outrages, in the beginning of 1878, two parties of police were sent into the Wombat Ranges to find the bushrangers—one party under Kennedy and the other under Steele. It was Kennedy's fortune, or misfortune, to meet the outlaws. He was shot with one of his constables, and by the time the Steele section had come upon the scene the gang was away—Kelly riding neck-or-nothing on his wonderful and beloved grey, the others scattered about the country, secure with the friends who, law-abiding though they appeared to be, loved these daring outlaws as if they were their country's saviours.

The Kellys got far into New South Wales after the Wombat outrages, far away from Steele and the Victorian police, and Sir Henry Parkes, the New South Wales Premier of the day, awoke one morning to hear that the Victorian outlaws were plundering his richest province. With characteristic promptitude Parkes clapped on £3000 to the Victorian reward of £4000, and induced the border banks to add £1000. This made £8000 for the gang, or £2000 for each man, and surely if the Kelly mountain friends were to be bought this sum would have finished the bushrangers' savage career. But Parkes could not buy those who loved Ned Kelly. The £8000 reward was as nothing. Looked at from this distant date, it says something for the loyalty of men and women that the huge price of £2000 a head did not bring about the sale of the bushrangers.

This was a more daring, more determined, more savage, more skilled gang than any that had ravaged Australian country districts, and to say that the police were beaten is to put it mildly. Steele used to tell in Wangaratta how the authorities handicapped the policemen and bungled the campaign. But at least part of the blame is attachable to the force itself, which was poorly armed, ill-led, and no match for the Kellys in bushmanship. After the Wombat murder the public awakened, and the authorities were denounced as fiercely as the murderers. The Kellys used rifles and heavy revolvers; the police were given only revolvers. The Kellys got secretly plentiful supplies of ammunition; the police were insufficiently supplied. When at last the police heads sought rifles, they could not get them, and the men sent to hound down the fully-equipped bushrangers had to be content with £8 breech-loading shot guns, these being the most dangerous firearms the Government could procure in Melbourne. Talking coolly on the Glenrowan railway station after his capture, Kelly said that nothing had astonished him more than that the police should have kept peppering away at him with shot guns. He wondered why they had not got rifles.

Steele said that he always knew that he would be the final cause of Ned Kelly's undoing. He had vowed that his bullet would bring the outlaw down, and with that unquestioning faith that distinguishes such strange beliefs he never wavered, even in the days when the Kellys were being hard pressed in districts far removed from Wangaratta, in this assertion. When the Kellys attempted their greatest exploit, and Melbourne was stirred with the news that the little township of Glenrowan was being held up, Steele was one of the first men sent for. A special train was at once despatched from Melbourne with strong forces of police, guns, and doctors, but Steele and his Wangaratta men had arrived before these Melbourne men were near the scene. Steele had his men round the hotel in which the Kellys were encamped, and his guns were showering bullets on the windows before Superintendent Hare had his forces disposed of. But even then Steele nearly missed his chance. During the night Ned Kelly escaped—left his mates, dead and dying, in the barricaded hotel, and rode hard into the bush. He came upon two troopers, men who the next day took a prominent part in his capture, and could have shot both. But some strange feeling of compassion was on Kelly that night. Instead of adding to his list of murders—he would not have scrupled at other times—he rode back to Glenrowan again passed safely through the lines of the police, and re-entered the hotel. "I wanted to see the finish," he said afterwards. "Yes. I wanted it to finish." Perhaps also there was a feeling in him that he was safe from harm in his queer armor—the breastplates, helmet, and thigh-plates made from old ploughs, that made him appear to the police as though he bore a charmed life amid bullets. Even to the end Kelly seemed to think that he could shoot all the police, and that they could not harm him.

But Steele got him. The reserved, quiet, calm-minded sergeant—the modest country police officer who was more a garden philosopher than a match for fierce Ned Kelly—had reached the great moment for which he had waited and planned. Steele's story of the final shooting is worth giving, now that its hero has passed:—

"I got to the tree at the back of the hotel. There was no firing then. A woman and child came to the back door screaming. They were from the frenzied group of residents whom the Kellys had penned up in the hotel. I told the woman to run back quick or she might be shot. A man then came to the door, and I told him to throw up his arms or I would shoot. He was only 25 yards away. He stooped and ran for the stable and I fired. He turned and ran back to the house and I fired again. I am certain I hit him with the second shot, as he screamed and fell against the door. (This was one of the bushrangers afterwards found dead.) There was then some hot firing, and the bullets whistled all round me. The firing was kept up for some time, and some of the men behind me called out. It was then breaking day. I looked round and saw a man stalking down. I thought he was a blackfellow and called on the others to be careful. I then saw him present a revolver and fire at a policeman. I could see the bullets hitting him and staggering him for a moment (this was the effect of the bullet blows on the armor). They had no further effect. I therefore thought he had armor on, and determined to have a close shot at him. I ran towards him, and when within 10 yards he turned round and fired at me. I fired then at his legs and he staggered, but still tried to fire at me. I then fired the second barrel at his legs. We were in the open and he fell and cried, 'I'm done, I'm done.' I ran up to him then, and he turned savagely and tried to shoot me, but I pushed the revolver down. I had a great scuffle with him, but others ran up and his shots had no effect. We found a bag of ammunition, and when we divested him of his armor we found that he was weak from loss of blood, and bore three wounds—two I had given him in the legs and a third in a toe. I was strained in the scuffle, but we got our man."

Kelly was hanged, and Steele received reward and a comfortable sustenance as head of the Wangaratta police. Steele's days became quiet. The garden occupied more and more of his time. But occasionally he was called out. An interesting incident regarding his work as gold escort is mentioned by Superintendent Milne, the second in charge of Victorian police. Milne remembers Steele's vigorous days well, and one of the curious facts he recollects is that the names of one of Steele's gold escorts were Steele, Flint, Pepper, and Salt.

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Citation details

'Steele, Arthur Loftus (?–1914)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/steele-arthur-loftus-13561/text24283, accessed 22 November 2017.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2017

Arthur Steele, by W. E. Barnes, 1880

Arthur Steele, by W. E. Barnes, 1880

State Library of Victoria, CC5/7