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Inspector Secretan - The detective and the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly, famous outlaw and folk hero, grew up in Australia in the late 1800s. His life of crime began as a teenager stealing horses and later escalated to murder. Kelly and his gang soon had a price on their heads of £8,000 - today's equivalent would be £732,600, which could be collected through his capture or death. Ned Kelly was hanged in 1880 at the Old Melbourne Gaol, uttering his reputed last words: "Such is life."

Edward (Ned) Kelly was born in Victoria, Australia, around 1855. As a teenager he was frequently in trouble with the police, was arrested several times, and served time in prison. In mid-1878, following his mother's imprisonment on perjured police evidence and feeling that the police were harassing him, Kelly took to bush-ranging with his brother, Dan, Joe Bryne, and Steve Hart. They became known as the Kelly Gang.After the Kelly Gang shot dead three policemen at Stringybark Creek in Victoria in October 1878 they were declared outlaws. Reacting to the killings, the Victorian Government enacted the Felons' Apprehension Act 1878 which authorised any citizen to shoot a declared outlaw on sight. As noted above a substantial reward was offered for each member of the Kelly Gang, 'dead or alive'.

His most audacious and iconic moment came during his final shoot out, when he donned makeshift metal armour (top) and attempted to flank the police. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria)


Often times poring over cemetery burial records brings forward a name that catches the imagination . Such was the case with a Frederick Secretan (d.1917) at Greenwich Infirmary. Sadly it appears that Frederick was buried in a public grave as the burial records reference twenty three disparate names in the same plot. According to the 1911 census Frederick Henry Secretan was noted aged 64 years and being employed as a Park Keeper in Marylebone (Regents Park perhaps?) Frederick was married to Elizabeth Barrett d.1916 at Portsmouth, the couple appeared to have had no children.

The family originally hailed from Switzerland becoming naturalised British citizens in the 18th century . Frederick's great-grandfather was Frederick Samuel Secretan d. 1837 who became a member of Lloyds of London and fathered 15 children. A London merchant he lived for a time at The Paragon, Blackheath. But significantly for the purposes of this post a confirmatory on-line search on Ancestry UK rewardingly reveals that his father from a first marriage was a Frederick Hughes Secretan d.1896 in Melbourne, Australia. His mother , Frederica Davey died in 1871 in the Marylebone Workhouse. Frederick Hughes Secretan became a Police Inspector and the head of Victoria Police’s Detective Branch in the 1870's. Although I have been unable to locate any extant photographs of the Inspector, who appears to have been the butt of much official criticism* in light of earlier police failures to apprehend Ned Kelly. As the infamous outlaw continued on his murderous activities until his capture at the Glenrowan Inn, famously attired in makeshift body armour at what was effectively a last stand in 1880. His brothers, Dan, Joseph Byrne and Steve Hart were killed in the shoot-out. 

Despite their crimes, Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang became infamous figures in Australian history. Today, Kelly’s defence of his family and his stance against corrupt officials is to some extent celebrated. However, many contemporaries of Kelly, including police, government officers and members of the wider Victorian public, knew him as a thief and a murderer. The story of the Kelly Gang has featured in Australian cinema, art, music and poetry, and is a firmly established part of Australia’s colonial history. Australia’s first feature length film in 1906 was the Story of the Kelly Gang .Ned himself appears as a major mythic figure in the paintings of Australian artist Sidney Nolan, and literature about the gang continues to be published more than a century after Ned’s trial.

Actor Heath Ledger starred in a major international film in 2003, and Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones, was controversially cast as Ned in the 1970 movie.The towns at the heart of the Kelly story, including Glenrowan, continue to attract tourists fascinated by the Kelly Gang.

Photo -taken the day before Ned Kelly was hanged in November 1880,in the Old Melbourne Gaol. Remarkably more than 30,000 people had signed a petition for him to be let go.

A phrenologist's icon !  But where is Ned's cranium now? Although Ned Kelly's death mask was exhibited for scientific purposes, there were other, less obvious reasons for putting it on display. Firstly, it showed the ability of the authorities to deal with the worst criminals. Secondly, people of the 19th century had a particular fascination with bush rangers, so it had entertainment value for the public


A remarkable detective who worked with Frederick Secretan on this investigation is I believe worthy of special mention.

Inspector Secretan’s Chinese detective, and one of the men who had been briefly involved in the hunt for the Kelly Gang, was a Detective called Fook Shing.

Fook Shing himself was appointed Chinese detective by the Head of the Victorian Police Force (detective branch), overseeing disputes in the goldfields and one of the men who had been involved in the hunt for the Kelly Gang. Wealthy, connected and well represented in court, he kept a pistol under his pillow for when extra-legal methods were required to protect his followers! He is ably profiled in this 2018 article by Australian academic, Dr. Ben Mountford - The story of Fook Shing- Chinese Detective.


Another fascinating police officer linked to the Melbourne detective force, whose career spanned this period, working as a detective in Victoria from 1867 to 1875, was Scottish born John Mitchell Christie (1845-1927) dubbed 'Australia’s Sherlock Holmes.'

Photo of John Mitchell Christie -Victoria Police Historical Unit.

He was one of Melbourne's finest detectives, famed for his creative disguises and arrests of a young city's criminal class. He was tasked with shadowing the Duke of Edinburgh in 1869 and the Duke of York in 1901 on their visits to Australia and New Zealand. It is likely John Mitchell Christie worked alongside Frederick Secretan as Frederick had entered the Police force in Victoria in 1859, becoming a detective in 1861, rising to the rank of Inspector in Victoria in 1874. His story is well told in John Lahey's  2018 book, Damn you, John Christie! The public life of Australia’s Sherlock Holmes.

* The whole Kelly cause célèbre still arouses public debate, but there is consensus about the shortcomings of the police and the methods used to capture the outlaws.The Royal Commission into the pervasive mismanagement of the hunt (the Longmore Commission) shattered a number of police careers in addition to that of Chief Commissioner Standish. Widespread corruption was exposed, described as ‘inimical to the public interest’, a ‘nursery of crime’ and a department whose ‘system of working (was) so iniquitous that it may be regarded as little less than that his appointment ( Frederick Secretan) as officer in charge of detectives was a serious error of judgement!!-Source : Victoria Police and the problem of corruption and serious misconduct (2007)