The Story of the cop who hunted Australias most notorious bushrangers
For a few minutes on October 28th 1878 at Stringybark Creek Ned Kelly wrongly believed he had just shot and killed Senior Constable Anthony Strahan, the subject of this biography. At least, that is what Kelly later claimed in the Jerilderie letter, repeating an allegation made by a notorious uncle of his, Patrick Quinn, that Strahan had told him that if he had the opportunity, he “would not ask me (Ned Kelly) to stand, he would shoot me first like a dog”. Kellys claim was that he shot ‘Strahan’ because otherwise “he would have shot me”. In fact, the policeman he shot, the first of three police murdered that day, was Const Thomas Lonigan.
Ned Kellys version of everything that happened at Stringybark Creek contained many lies, and this claim, about why he shot Lonigan is probably another one, made up long after the murder, and written into the Jerilderie letter along with a host of other attempts to blame someone else for many instances of his own reprehensible behaviour. What he is trying to do is make out that because of what Strahan threatened to do if he ever came across Kelly, it is Strahan who is ultimately responsible for Lonigan’s death. However, because of previous encounters with him we know that Kelly was very familiar with who Lonigan was and what he looked like, and he took his time observing the policemen at Stringybark creek before confronting them, so his claim not to have recognised him is just not credible.
There are also many good reasons to be sceptical about Patrick Quinns claim, not the least of which being that when it was later drawn up as an Affidavit aimed at assisting Ned Kellys defence, Quinn didn’t sign it. When he appeared before the Royal Commission, Quinn mentioned Strahan six times but made no mention of his unsigned affidavit or its contents. Furthermore, prior to the Stringybark Creek murders, Kelly was a stock thief on the run for attempted murder – he wasn’t an actual murderer so it would make no sense for Strahan to threaten such an extreme act.
Never-the-less, despite the dubious quality of these claims, in some quarters Kellys excuse was believed, it was accepted that Strahan had indeed uttered those threats, and they were cited as a trigger for the police murders at Stringybark Creek and all the chaos that followed. The venomous hateful opinion of police in general that Kelly expressed in the Jerilderie letter, and which was the motivation for the orgy of police murdering that he later attempted to carry out at Glenrowan became a central theme of the entire Kelly legend, which has feasted on the reputation of just about every policeman involved in the Outbreak to this very day. SC Anthony Strahan was not spared, and his reputation suffered, he was never promoted beyond the rank of Senior Constable, he was criticised by Standish at the Royal Commission who labelled him ‘a blathering fellow’ and his long career in the police force was identified with nothing else that he did.
Lachlan Strahan, Anthony’s great-great grandson, and author of ‘Justice in Kelly Country’ explaining what motivated him to write this book, says “It’s hard to be related to a villain”. His own father, an avowed hard-core Kelly sympathiser had believed the negative image of Anthony, and believed he came from Scotland. Lachlan wanted to examine the entire life of Anthony Strahan, not just the three short years of his involvement in the Kelly outbreak, and discover the truth about the allegation that he was a villain.
There is so much to appreciate in this biography, but for me the thing that stands out is the toughness of the life Anthony Strahan chose, as a Victorian policeman, and how hard he worked to be a good one, for 32 years. Like 80% of police at the time, he was Irish, not Scottish as Lachlans father had taught him, and he emigrated to Victoria when he was twenty, joining two brothers and two sisters who had come before him. One brother was already a policeman, and Anthony followed.
His career was notable for several things, the first being the number of different country towns he worked in. Initially he was in larger towns under supervision but eventually he ended up in small isolated places where he was the sole policeman. Second was the great variety of police work that he did, ranging from the mundane to the extremely dangerous tracking down and arresting of violent criminals, two of whom were murderers that ended up being hanged in Beechworth gaol. On one occasion he followed the trail for almost 200km on horseback. He arrested a man charged with the rape of a 14-year-old girl, he tracked down a Chinese burglar, he arrested horse thieves and he had to identify the decomposing corpse of a father of eight who drowned himself in a river. He had to renovate the barely habitable Police station at Snowy Creek, and he was appointed slaughter house inspector at Beechworth. He saved a woman bitten by a snake, and had to break the terrible news to a family that a snake bite had killed their little boy.
Notable throughout his policing however, more especially in the earlier years was a temper with a short fuse, and a low tolerance for bullying but also for criticism, especially when he felt it was unjustified. He wasn’t afraid to take anyone on when he felt something needed to be challenged, and in these incidents he sometimes prevailed and he sometimes didn’t.
His personal life was also varied and challenging: he had to identify the body of his policeman brother who tragically drowned in an accident at a river crossing. He visited New Zealand in an ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of a woman who bore his first child. He fathered a second child out of wedlock with another woman, Marion Evans the daughter of convicts, whom he later married and they had six more children together. In later life, he owned a racehorse and a small farm.
And then of course there was his involvement in the Kelly outbreak. He was in charge of the station at Greta but was in NSW looking for Kelly when Fitzpatrick was sent to replace him. He went with Sgt Steele and Det Joseph Brown to arrest Mrs Kelly the day after the ‘incident’ and reported the lies she and her daughter Kate responded with to questions he asked about her sons and about Fitzpatrick’s visit the previous day. He was with the search party that went south from Greta looking for Kelly when the party of four that went north from Mansfield was attacked and three of them were murdered. He spent many a long day in the saddle following up leads which lead nowhere. Oddly enough when it was all over, even though he was mentioned by more than one person and was criticized at the Royal Commission, he wasn’t asked to testify.
So, at the end of it all the life and character of Anthony Strahan revealed in this book shows him to be like any other human being, but a man whose strengths greatly outweigh his weaknesses. He was deeply committed to justice and to serving his community and looking after his family. But did he utter those fateful words about shooting Ned Kelly? We will never know, but if he did, they were words uttered in the heat of the moment and were not expressing an attitude that was ever demonstrated by his actions, and they speak louder than words. He most certainly was not a villain.
I thoroughly recommend this book to all readers, but with one caution : its a book about Anthony Strahan, not the Kelly Outbreak. I say this because its clear Lachlan Strahan isnt entirely up to speed with some of the new thinking about the Outbreak, and he makes some quite notable errors, especially in his descriptions of the Fitzpatrick incident where he repeats several of claims about him that are now known to be false, such as a claim that Fitzpatrick had given his account ‘in a semi inebriated state’. However,for those interested in the Kelly Outbreak this is still an important contribution because it puts flesh and blood onto the name of another one of the policemen whose reputation and life of service has been so egregiously maligned by the now crumbling Kelly mythology. After reading this excellent work it will no longer be possible to see SC Anthony Strahan as just another evil policeman. He was a good man who lived a worthy life. Heres a link to where you can buy the book or get the Kindle version.