Author: Jacob Hill
You don’t have to be an historian to know the name Ned Kelly. He’s everywhere in Australia: in films, in art, in advertising, even immortalised on people’s skin. His armour is instantly recognisable and has come to represent having the courage to take a stand for what you believe is right, even if it means defying the authorities. He’s particularly a darling for those of Irish descent, a man who supposedly stood up for the downtrodden Irish against the oppressive English.
Ned Kelly died incredibly young, yet his deeds have left an indelible mark on Australian history. It’s difficult to talk about Australian colonial history without mentioning him, but is Ned Kelly an admirable man, worthy of praise? Or should we hold his memory in contempt?
Before we can tackle that question, we need to get familiar with his story – who he was and what he did. And so, this is the life of Ned Kelly.
Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born in early 1855 in Beveridge, a town north of Melbourne. The colony of Victoria was also an infant, having been formed four years before Ned was born. Due to the discovery of gold, this nascent state was fast becoming a land of opportunity. People from all over the world flocked to Victoria to stake claims in the goldfields. But not everyone came to Australia willingly…
John ‘Red’ Kelly had been transported from Ireland to the prison colony Van Diemen’s Land in 1841, serving a seven-year sentence. Afterwards, he moved to Victoria and met Ellen Quinn, with whom he had eight children. Ned was the second-born, but his older sister died in infancy. The Kellys eked out a living from dairy farming, sharing a tiny, dirt-floored hut. When Ned was ten years old, the family moved to nearby Avenel and rented some farmland.
An unsuccessful farmer, Red was prone to indulging his criminal habits. During a drought in Avenel, he was caught stealing a cow from a neighbouring property and was imprisoned for six months. Afterwards, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly. In December 1866, Red Kelly drank himself to death, leaving behind a widow and seven children.
Ned, being the oldest son, became the man of the household at just twelve-years old. The family moved to Greta in 1867, deep in Northeast Victoria. Before leaving Avenel, Ned saved a boy from drowning in the Hughes Creek, for which he was given a green sash of bravery. Ned was also charged with horse theft (but never jailed).
In the Northeast, life was a living hell for honest folk, but a paradise for criminals. Farming was tough in this area, exacerbated by the rugged land and poor soil. The opportunity to ‘get ahead’ was always taken, especially unlawful means. Since many towns didn’t have police officers, criminality was ubiquitous in the Northeast, where gold transports and travellers were routinely robbed by Australia’s bandits, the ‘bushrangers.’
This lawless land became Ned’s home. A man in one sense, Ned was still a child. And like any young boy, he sought role models who could guide him and mentor him. His choices were poor: His father was hardly a saint and his uncles, the Quinns and the Lloyds, were known for their horse-theft operations. But in 1869 Ned’s mother, Ellen, arranged an apprenticeship with a man associated with the Kelly family – Harry Power.
BECOMING A BANDIT
Harry Power was a legendary bushranger who committed hundreds of robberies across Victoria. He was infamous for effortlessly evading arrests from police, regularly disappearing into the Northeast wilderness. Even prisons couldn’t hold him – he had just escaped Pentridge and was straight back to bushranging! Although armed, he never killed anyone (people are surprisingly compliant when a gun is pointed at them).
His apprentice, however, found violence and intimidation to be useful tactics. At just fourteen, Ned allegedly assaulted and robbed Chinese salesman Ah Fook (yes, that is his name). He was briefly jailed, but because Chinese interpreters weren’t available, a trial couldn’t be held. Another call for young Ned.
Power preferred to work alone, so having Ned with him caused a lot of tension, especially because of their different approaches to robbery. Then, at age fifteen, Ned was charged with highway robbery in 1870. But the charges were dropped – third time lucky. Incidentally, Harry Power was also found in a remote mountain range and arrested.
Power believed Ned betrayed him (there was no way police could have found him organically). Although Ned probably offered information as part of a deal, his uncles Jack Lloyd and Jimmy Quinn were the ones who collected the reward for Power’s arrest. Perhaps a family conspiracy?
Regardless, Ned was free from Power and had little compunction against committing crime, especially since he kept getting away with it. But his luck ran out – or, rather, he flew too close to the Sun. He served four months in Beechworth for assaulting his neighbour Jeremiah McCormick in 1870. In 1871, he knowingly received a stolen horse and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was sixteen at the time.
BECOMING A HORSE THIEF
Once released from prison, a felon in Australia had the option to ‘select’ crown land for £1 an acre. This was so they could have a second chance in life. Ned didn’t apply after his 1870-71 stint, but in 1874, nineteen-year-old Ned put in paperwork for land selection. However, he didn’t follow through with it, likely since his mother needed to pay off her land selection in Greta. He lived with her after his release.
Ned apparently worked various jobs that earned him honest money, but there was a lucrative operation in Greta that earned too much to turn down – horse thieving. Ned became heavily involved in the scheme, as did many of his family. Close Kelly associates also joined in, to the point they earned the nickname “The Greta Mob.”
It was no secret that the Kelly-led Greta Mob were involved in such a scheme. Nobody was safe; not even friends of the family were immune from having horses stolen, brands altered, and deeds forged. The horse-thieving hit a fever pitch in late 1877, when dozens of horses were stolen from all across the Northeast in rapid succession and sold across the Murray River into New South Wales. The scheme was incredibly successful, particularly because the government slashed the police budget in response to a financial crisis. Now, there were just eighty policeman to patrol the Northeast – an area the size of Belgium!
In fact, the scheme became too successful and drew too much attention. In March 1878, the Baumgarten Brothers, who held the stolen horses to sell across the border, were found with the stolen horses on both their properties. A key link in the racket had been destroyed. Crucially, Ned Kelly was implicated in the crime spree (despite the use of aliases). It was quickly confirmed he was definitely involved. More evidence confirmed that his younger brother, Dan Kelly, was also participating in the scheme. Warrants were put out for their arrest.
In April 1878, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, a police officer that formed a bizarre relationship with the Kellys, discovered the warrants and foolishly went to their Greta household alone to arrest Ned and Dan. He was attacked by the family, smacked with a fire shovel by Ellen Kelly and shot in the wrist by Ned. Ned, realising who it was, stopped the attack.
The family was charged with attempted murder of a police officer. Ellen Kelly, a son-in-law and a neighbour were sentenced to three years by judge Redmond Barry. Ellen’s defence was she was simply upset at the thought of having another son in jail (James “Jim” Kelly was in prison for…yep, horse-theft).
Ned and Dan were now on the run with £100 on their heads. They were twenty-three and seventeen respectively. They had criminal associates throughout the area who regularly fed them information about police search parties, allowing them to avoid capture. Sometimes people would visit them in the Wombat Ranges, but close friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart would stay with them.
BECOMING A MURDERER
On October 25th 1878, another police search party set out. Leading the charge was Sergeant Michael Kennedy, who led Constables Michael Scanlan, Thomas Lonigan and Thomas McIntyre from Mansfield to Stringybark Creek. The plan was to make camp and spent the next few days combing the area.
Little did they know that Ned, Dan, Joe and Steve were only a mile away.
In the evening of 26th October 1878, the two Michaels went on patrol. The two Thomas’s were alone. They were suddenly ambushed by the Kelly Gang. Lonigan was shot in the head by Ned. When the Michaels returned, McIntyre warned Kennedy to surrender. Kennedy, thinking it a joke, laughed and grabbed his revolver. Provoked, the gang opened fire.
Scanlan was killed. McIntyre jumped on Kennedy’s horse to calm it down. This freaked it out more and it bolted through the bush with McIntyre still on it. Kennedy followed McIntyre, firing at the gang as they chased him, but they caught up to him. Kennedy was executed while surrendering. McIntyre was also pursued, but he narrowly escaped. He retreated to Mansfield the next day and delivered the shocking news: three policemen were murdered by the Kelly Gang.
Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart were immediately outlawed – they could be killed without warning or consequence.
BECOMING A BANK-ROBBER
Being outlaws didn’t deter the gang from appearing in public. On 10th December 1878, they raided the bank in Euroa, stealing upwards of £5000 to fund their outlaw lifestyle (and Joe’s opium addiction).
This was embarrassing for Victorian Police. The police were prevented from taking effective action due to scarce resources and bureaucracy. People were afraid to speak up due to fears of reprisal. Even the new £4000 bounty wasn’t loosening lips. Those that did testify provided useless information the police couldn’t follow up on.
New South Wales mercilessly mocked their southern neighbours for their incompetence. But they wouldn’t be laughing for long. In February 1879, the Kelly Gang struck north of the Murray, taking the town of Jerilderie hostage.
First, they locked up the two police officers. Then, they disguised themselves as police and took dozens of townspeople hostage at the Royal Mail Hotel. The Jerilderie bank was within the hotel, which meant taking all hotel guests hostage too. There were sixty hostages in total. Over £2000 were stolen before the deposit boxes were plundered. Property deeds, bills of sale, family heirlooms, and jewellery were pilfered. Then, the hostages were frisked. Ned gave the bank teller Edward Living a fifty-six-page document, the infamous ‘Jerilderie Letter’, and ordered him to publish it. Living never took it to print: The letter was only published in 1948.
The gang had attacked New South Wales. Outraged, New South Wales matched Victoria’s £4000 bounty. The Kelly gang now had an £8000 bounty on them. Victoria Police hired six Aboriginal trackers from Queensland, dreaded by criminals for their uncanny ability to find people (and hated for their black skin). Because of this, the gang disappeared.
For a year-and-a-half, nothing was heard from them, save for their venomous letters to police and threats against anyone who crossed them. Even the Aboriginal trackers (one of them, Corporal Sambo, died during an expedition) were having a difficult time hunting the gang down thanks to the tricks Ned had learned from Power. Few credible leads or sightings were reported, especially from those associated to the four outlaws. They refused to supply police with any information, even if they had burnt bridges with the gang. This was partly due to resentment of police, partly because of family loyalty, but above all, it was because ‘snitches get stitches.’
The gang’s threats of retribution weren’t hollow. Aaron Sherritt, Joe Byrne’s former best friend and key player in the Greta Mob, supplied (dubious) information to police and allowed them to use his home for stakeouts. Not only did Joe Byrne’s mother discover this, the police followed up on information that Ned had told Aaron alone. The gang sent Joe and Dan to teach him a lesson…
On 26th June 1880, Aaron heard his neighbour call out to him. When he opened the front door, Joe blasted Aaron in the chest with a shotgun – Dan had forced the neighbour to lure Aaron out. Knowing full well that police were inside the house, Dan and Joe proceeded to taunt the occupants, identifying themselves and shooting at the house. The police, fearing numerous assailants, didn’t engage.
After all this time in hiding, why did they so brazenly reveal themselves? Why call attention to themselves? Because they were at their wits end. Steve and Dan had suggested giving it up and making a break for Queensland, but Joe and Ned wanted a showdown with police…
THE GLENROWAN SIEGE
Aaron Sherritt’s murder was used to draw police attention to the area. A special train laden with special weapons and artillery was sent from Melbourne to Beechworth. It would stop to pick up police from Benalla. A few kilometres up the tracks from Benalla is the town of Glenrowan. Soon after Aaron’s murder, the gang rode into Glenrowan, rounded sixty-two hostages into the Ann Jones Inn and forced nearby linesmen to tear up the railway track (George Metcalf, one of the linesmen, was accidentally shot by Ned. He later died from his injury).
The gang planned to crash the train, eradicate the survivors, steal the weaponry and then ride to defenceless Benalla and wreak havoc. Weeks before, the gang had fashioned armour that covered their heads and torsos to protect them from bullets. They were going out in a blaze of glory…
The plan immediately derailed. The train was supposed to arrive on the morning of 27th June, but by 10.00PM the train hadn’t appeared. Thomas Curnow, a hostage, secured Ned’s trust and was allowed to leave the inn. He proceeded to run along the track, warning the conductor of the torn-up track. The train safely pulled into Glenrowan at 3AM on 28th June. Dozens of police were on their doorstep, including the dreaded trackers. Their plan had disintegrated. There was nowhere to run.
The gang still wanted a showdown. They opened fire at the police. The police fired back.
Many hostages were wounded by initial police gunfire, who were initially unaware there were civilians inside. Two died – Martin Cherry and Johnny Jones, Ann Jones’ son. Superintendent Francis Hare and a tracker sustained injuries.
But the Kelly Gang fared worse: Ned was riddled with bullets and escaped the inn, collapsing in nearby bushes. Joe Byrne was killed. Around 5AM, the women and children were released from the inn.
Ned lay undiscovered for hours. At 7AM, he got up and tried to attack the police. Bullets pinged off his armour, so he was shot in the legs. Defeated, Ned Kelly was finally captured. Underneath his armour was his green sash, used to cushion his shoulders against the heavy armour.
Dan and Steve were still inside the inn. 50% of the gang’s strength was gone. In contrast, dozens of civilian volunteers from surrounding towns joined the police, bolstering their strength. The remaining hostages were released at 10AM. At noon, some shots were heard from within the inn.
After several hours of inactivity, the police set the inn on fire. Inside, they found two charred bodies next to two sets of armour – Dan and Steve were dead, presumably from suicide a few hours before. Joe’s body was recovered intact. The twelve-hour siege was over.
Ned, the only surviving outlaw, was transported to Melbourne and trialled by a familiar face – judge Redmond Barry. He was only charged with the murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan. He was found guilty. The punishment: the death penalty.
On 11th November 1880, Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol. He was only twenty-five years old. The Kelly gang was destroyed. Victorian Police got extra funding and training, meaning the law finally got a foothold in the Northeast.
Steve Hart, Ned, Dan and other Kelly relatives are buried in Greta cemetery. Joe Byrne was laid to rest in the corner of Benalla Cemetery.
So now that we have the facts laid out, we can move on to the real question: Was Ned Kelly a criminal, or a champ? Click here to find out in the next post!
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