Hugh McClement Burch was the fireman on the Police special train on
the night of June 27, 1880.
He wrote a letter to his family the following year describing the journey.
It is held at the National Library in Canberra.
On a website a couple, Ron & Jan Barham, described in a travel
newsletter how the library came to acquire the letter:

“We paid a short visit to the National Library. Some years ago a
letter came into our possession that had been written by Ron’s
great-grandfather, Hugh Burch, in 1881. Hugh Burch was the fireman on
the train that took the troopers to Glenrowan to capture Ned Kelly,
and this letter to his parents described his experience. The letter
was so fragile we didn’t dare try to open and read it. In the end,
after talking to Ron’s brother, we decided to donate it to the
National Library.
After they had restored it, they sent us photos of it, and a
transcription. We thought, since we were in Canberra, we would like
to see it again now it had been restored. Having been directed to the
Manuscript reading room, Ron had to fill in a couple of forms and show
some ID, and then we were handed the letter, sealed in plastic.”

The notation that was at the bottom of the following transcription stated:

“Minimal punctuation added, repetitions and spelling transcribed
exactly. National Library of Australia, June 1996.”


Melbourne, 14th March 1881.
Dear Father and Mother,
I have again to acknowledge that I have again been undutifull and to
some extent unkind and careless in allowing such an amount of time to
elapse in answering your last letter. I cannot say why I have allowed
this, it certainly does not arise from the fact that I never think of
those who kindly reered and nurtued me in my early home, but I think
that now being surrounded with my own family and being happy in it
makes me commit an error in being careless about writing to those who
watched over my childhood days. I do not see why it should be so, but
it has been I have been callous in not doing as I ought, knowing that
it would give you both much pleasure and satisfy your minds in regard
to one whom you have tenderly loved. I have wared with my own evil
mind and allowed it to overcome me in this respect, but it is not too
late now to make amends and I hope and pray that the Almighty who
created will guide me to and in a better sense of my duty in future. I
must say that it is certainly not my loving wife’s fault, as she has
been pleading hard with me for some time to fulfill my obligations to
you and answer your kind letter. I am thankful to be in the land of
the living and to do so we are all in the enjoyment of that great
divine blessing, good health, in fact I have much reason to thank him
for his sparing mercy which has been bestowed on me and mine, although
I must say I have had three most wonderful escapes from death since I
last wrote to you. On the first instance I was leaving melbourne and
just starting the train when the leading axle of the engine broke
clean in two without the least warning, it was a mercy it broke when
it did, as had it [……..] with me going at a high speed upon some
of the heaving inclines on which the engine was specially designed to
travel, the train was a heavy one and I had another engine the to
assist me in hauling it so that had this shaft broke on the journey I
would without doubt have left the rails and had the other Engine and
train on top of me. She was a new Engine, in fact on her trials after
leaving the stocks. She is of enormous weight, as when ready for her
journey she is over 75 [?] tons, her shafts and axles are of steel,
the one that broke being 10 1/2 inches in diameter. Before this
occurred I had reported her as being to rigid and that she would carry
away some of her gear, but the superintendant thought I was prejudiced
against her and the design of which she was built. However one thing
is certain, that this happening to her has been the cause of having
the evils remieded of which I had complained. The next merciful escape
for me I expect you have heard its surroundings without knowing that
your son was implicated in it, viz. the capture of the band of
brigands known as the “Kelly Gang”. These scoundrels, after murdering
and robbing and defying the authorities for close on two years, were
at length brought to bay amidst a scene of carnage and death which I
have witnessed never to be forgotten. On the Sabbath night I was just
come in from church and having had a bad hand, the Mrs was dressing it
prior to my going to bed when a rap came to the door and a man
informing me that I was urgently required to run a fast special train.
I did not know whether to go or not as my hand was bad, but I
suspected the errand which I was wanted for, and thinking that it
might be construed into cowerdice, concealing from an anxious wife the
dangers which I suspected would meet me, on going to the station I
went for instructions as to what was expected of me, but was informed
that I would be under the guidance and instructions of the chief
Commissioner of Police, to use every care and precaution, the rate of
speed to be at my own descretion. Information had been received that
the gang of outlaws had come out of cover and wer at Glenrowan amongst
their friends, which is about 140 miles from Melbourne. On passing
through a station 17 miles from Melbourne, the train going at a high
speed, I went to steady the Engine by applying the tender brake until
she until she would be clear of all points and crossings. Knowing the
road perfectly, as I felt her going over the last pair, I had just
taken it off and was going over to the other side of the Engine when I
felt a crash and found myself knocked up into a corner. I found on
gathering myself together that I had gone through a heavy pair of iron
gates which had been left across the rails from the carelessness of
the person in charge. This accident carried away my tender hand brake,
also the gear of the automatic brake, leaving leaving me almost
helpless as too stopping power with the exception of reversing the
Engine and using the steam against her. However I accomplished the
journey to Benalla, a distance of 122 miles, in 2 hours and a 1/4. On
getting there they put [some men] on the train with horses for the
troupers. I then objected to go any further with the train as
considering the condition of my engine and being unable to stop in a
proper manner that it would be highly dangerous life. Ther was another
Engine ready on the Station for the purpose of going ahead it being
night if possible to prevent the police from falling into an ambush.
Considering the importance of the case, I got this Engine to take
charge of the train as she would have the brake power to stop it quick
if required and that I would go ahead about a mile with my Engine as
pilot and give the warning, if possible, of danger. I accordingly,
proceding with the utmost care and caution–I fully suspected they
would tear the rails up for the purpose of upsetting the Police–I
never remember such a feeling before in life, as suspecting danger and
death and not knowing when or what form it would come, however I
remember that my mate and I shook hands with each other, each
consoling ourselves with the thought that if the worst happened, our
wifes and family would be provided for.

(As a sad aside, Hugh Burch died the following month, April 1881.)

My thanks to both Brian Stevenson for taking a snapshot of the
transcribed letter during his visit to the National Library and to
Sharon Hollingsworth for typing it up for the Glenrowan1880 site.