The Ned Kelly Story: Criminal, or Champ?

21st Century Jacobsweg: Ned Kelly's death mask in the Old Melbourne Gaol, Melbourne.
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Author: Jacob Hill

In my previous post I outlined the facts of Ned Kelly’s Story. In this post, we’re going to go deeper and determine whether Ned Kelly is someone to be celebrated or disgraced.


Here is a brief recap on Ned’s short yet colourful life. For a more in-depth explanation, please visit my previous article.

c. 1855: Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly is born.

27th December 1866: Ned’s father, John ‘Red’ Kelly, dies.

1867: Ned rescues a boy from drowning in Hughes Creek. He is also charged with horse theft. The Kellys move to Greta.

1869: Ned becomes Harry Power’s apprentice and commits robberies with him. Ned assaults Ah Fook, but cannot be trialled because no Chinese interpreter is available.

1870: Ned charged with highway robbery, but is released. Power is caught and jailed. Ned assaults Jeremiah McCormick and serves four months in prison.

1871: Ned is released from prison, doesn’t pursue land selection. He is charged with knowingly receiving a stolen horse and assaults the arresting officer. He serves three years in prison.

1874: Ned released from prison, doesn’t follow through on land selection. Ned becomes involved in the ‘Greta Mob’ horse-theft operation.

March 1878: Warrants put out for the arrest of Ned and his brother Dan.

15th April 1878: Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick attempts to arrest Ned and Dan. Ned shoots Fitzpatrick. His mother is imprisoned for attempted murder. Ned and Dan flee with £100 reward for their arrest.

26th October 1878: Ned and Dan, along with Steve Hart and Joe Byrne, murder Sergeant Michael Kennedy, Constable Michael Scanlan and Constable Thomas Lonigan. Constable Thomas McIntyre survives the attack. The ‘Kelly Gang’ are outlawed.

9th-10th December 1878: The Kelly Gang holds workers at Faithfull Creek Station hostage and robs the National Bank in Euroa.

8th-10th February 1879: The Kelly Gang robs Jerilderie. The “Jerilderie Letter” is given to Edward Living and telegraph lines are cut. The Gang’s bounty increases to £8000.

26th June 1880: Murder of Aaron Sherritt near Benalla. Ned and Steve arrive at Glenrowan.

27th June 1880: Special police train leaves Melbourne in response to Sherritt’s murder. Ned and Steve force linesmen to tear up the railway tracks in hopes of derailing the train. George Metcalf killed by Ned via negligent discharge. Hostages are held at the Ann Jones Inn. Joe and Steve arrive with home-made armour.

28th June 1880: Special train arrives unharmed thanks to a warning from Thomas Curnow. Shootout begins between police and the Kelly Gang. Superintendent Francis Hare and an Aboriginal tracker are wounded. Hostages Martin Cherry and Jack Jones are killed. Joe Byrne is slain, Steve Hart and Dan Kelly die, and Ned is captured.

28th October 1880: Ned Kelly put on trial for the murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan. He is found guilty the following day.

11th November 1880: Ned Kelly is executed by hanging.


There are many misconceptions about the Ned Kelly story, mainly stemming from his “Jerilderie Letter”, a fifty-six-page word-vomit that is nothing more than ahistorical nonsense. Ned was a notorious liar, and not even a good one.

Ned attempts to use the Letter to paint himself as a passive, perennial victim of systematic oppression. He calls himself a “poor unfortunate creole” and even signs off as “a widow’s son and an outlaw”! He draws on his Irish background, lamenting the unique ‘persecution’ Irish convicts went through as an explanation for his actions.

Indeed, the Irish and English had a strained relationship, especially over British actions concerning the Irish Famine and cultural repression. However, only 12% of transported convicts were Irish; most Irish came to Australia willingly.

The Irish were far from second-class citizens in Victoria. In fact, many of the top positions in society were held by the Irish. For example, Redmond Barry, the prominent judge that sentenced Ned Kelly to death, was Irish. Peter Lalor, popular politician and later Speaker of the Victorian Parliament, was also Irish.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Statue of Redmond Barry outside the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
Statue of Redmond Barry outside the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

Irish culture flourished in Victoria and has formed a cornerstone of Australian culture as a whole. Melbourne became the richest city in the world and the second largest city in the Empire. And the Irish played a big role therein. Ned’s oppression narrative rings hollow, and people weren’t buying it.

If Ned was truly fighting for the Irish, he was out of step with what the Irish wanted. The Irish clearly wanted law and order: 82% of Victorian Police were born in Ireland, and virtually all the Australian-born ones had Irish parents. Victorian Irish worked with the system and achieved their goals by peaceful means. Again, this is why Ned’s path was rejected.

It’s unlikely Ned Kelly his ancestral homeland much thought when he committed his crimes. The ‘Irish’ line was just a hook he could use to portray himself as a victim of a malicious police force.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Greta Cemetery. Ned Kelly is buried here in an unmarked grave to prevent worship.
Greta Cemetery. Ned Kelly is buried here in an unmarked grave (as requested by his descendants) to prevent criminal worship.


The Jerilderie Letter is a rambling diatribe against police. Ned asserts that the police were tyrannical and unsympathetic, even describing them as “a disgrace to [their] country.” Later, on page fifty-two, he questions whether there’s “any good” in police officers. Because of these claims, Police officers, including the Stringybark Creek victims, have received a lot of flak for ‘oppressing’ the downtrodden during Kelly’s time. Ned’s portrayals of police are not an accurate depiction of reality.

Northeast Victoria was a hotbed of crime, but anti-police sentiment was common only among criminals. In fact, many communities were screaming for law enforcement as they had not a single officer to protect them from lawlessness. But Victoria Police were spread too thin and constantly hampered by supply shortages.

Ned alleges that Fitzpatrick was drunk and trying to rape his fourteen-year-old sister Kate (other family members claimed this too). While Fitzpatrick had a reputation as a seedy cop, he was not drunk during the Greta incident, nor is there evidence that he tried to rape or assault Kate Kelly.

In the Letter, Ned claims he was four hundred miles away(!) from Greta during the Fitzpatrick incident. But he bragged to Thomas McIntyre that he had shot Fitzpatrick. Moreover, before his execution, Ned confessed that he shot Fitzpatrick and Kate was unharmed. He also confessed that, due to their bizarre friendship, he spared Fitzpatrick. Otherwise, he would’ve killed whichever officer tried to arrest him.

Ned demonstrated this at Stringybark Creek.

21st Century Jacobsweg: The Police Tree at Stringybark Creek.
The Police Tree at Stringybark Creek. This living monument to three murder victims was defaced with a depiction of Ned, one of their killers.

Ned tries to paint an honourable and fair encounter with the four policemen, but there was nothing noble about his conduct. Ned claims he understood McIntyre was doing his “honest duty”, which flies in the face of his other comments regarding police. Besides, McIntyre stated that Ned abused him for being Irish and a constable at Stringybark Creek. According to Ned, Irish men who became police had “deserted the shamrock”. Being Irish and upholding law and order was mutually exclusive – How incredibly insulting to the Irish!

Ned also states that he let McIntyre go because he surrendered. If that were the case, the Gang wouldn’t have chased after McIntyre after he escaped. The gang also wouldn’t have pursued Kennedy for a quarter of a mile before killing him. Also, Kennedy could only sustain his wounds if his arms were up in surrender. This contradicts Ned’s claim that receiving the wound caused him to surrender.

Ned claims that the police shot first, but Lonigan and Scanlan had died without firing their weapons. The autopsy reports also show that Lonigan had to be facing away from the Gang due to the trajectory of the bullet in his head.

The Kelly Gang were not defending themselves from a police hit-squad. At first, they were unaware that the two men they held up Stringybark Creek were policemen. The simple reason is that they weren’t uniformed. For all he knew, Ned was simply holding random campers hostage. Only after shooting Lonigan did the Gang discover their victims were police.

21st Century Jacobsweg: The spot where Michael Kennedy was executed by Ned Kelly.
The spot where Michael Kennedy was executed by Ned Kelly.

McIntyre stated they were police, and this was confirmed when Ned recognised Lonigan because of a previous run-in where Lonigan arrested Ned. Supposedly, Ned threatened he would kill Lonigan in that exchange. After discovering the man he shot was indeed Lonigan, whom Ned describes in the Letter as his “biggest enemy”, Ned and the Gang vindictively shot his corpse.

Ned was accused of cutting off Kennedy’s ear, but that has never been proven (Ned vehemently denies it in the Letter). However, it’s proven that the Gang robbed the policemen’s corpses. Joe Byrne was wearing Michael Scanlan’s ring during the Glenrowan Siege, two years on from the massacre. Looting the dead is the hightide mark of honour, right?

Speaking of Glenrowan, some people blame the police for the deaths of hostages. True, it was police bullets that killed them, but those bullets were intended for the Gang. Also, who put the hostages in that situation in the first place? If the gang never took Glenrowan hostage, nobody would have been placed in any lines of fire. Ned Kelly is responsible for all casualties at Glenrowan.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Martin Cherry's grave in Benalla Cemetery.
Martin Cherry’s grave in Benalla cemetery. A little Ned Kelly, the man responsible for his death stands next to his grave pointing a gun, which is incredibly disrespectful.

Ned always complained that the police persecuted him, but the police are supposed to investigate crimes, prevent anti-social behaviour and protect the community from threats. And Ned fulfilled all these requirements. He got drunk and caused public disturbances. He insulted and assaulted people. He stole livestock, robbed people of their valuables and their lives, and threatened to hurt whoever got in his way.

And when the police came knocking, Ned refused to accept any responsibility for his actions.


As seen above, Ned embraced that victim mentality I’m sure many of his supporters despise. It was everybody else’s fault his life was hard. After all, he was definitely the only person in the history of mankind to have come from a broken home, to have a parent die, to be poor, to have relatives put behind bars, and to have police arrest him when he broke laws.

Yes, Ned’s upbringing was difficult, but plenty of people had experienced what Ned experienced, especially in the 19th Century Australian colonies. And these people worked hard to improve their lives despite the poor hand they were dealt. The officers Ned murdered also came from tough upbringings, including surviving the disastrous Irish Famine, Yet they didn’t engage in egregious criminal activity.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Northeast Victoria. Life was tough out here, but people worked hard and honestly...but not Ned.
Northeast Victoria. Life was tough out here, but people worked hard and honestly to get by…but not Ned.

Yes, plenty of young men were seduced by the allure of criminality. But usually a stint in prison reformed them into productive and respected members of the community. Just look at Ned’s own brother Jim Kelly. He had admitted he would’ve fought with the Gang in Glenrowan if he wasn’t in jail, but as an older (and wiser) man, Jim regretted his actions as a criminal. He despised the myths espoused about his brother.

Ned takes no responsibility in the Jerilderie Letter, yet he can’t help but brag about how cool he is. He goes into great detail about how he beat up the arresting officer in 1871 or how Fitzpatrick only tried to arrest Dan because big bad Ned wasn’t home (which is untrue; Ned was home at the time). He also places all the blame on Fitzpatrick for all his actions after April 1878, as if Fitzpatrick ‘made’ him kill and steal.

Nothing predestined Ned’s criminality. Everyone has a choice in life: The easy way or the right way. Ned chose the easy way. This is all demonstrable from the consistent criminality that began when he was still a minor. Ned didn’t take up the opportunity to select land and improve his lot honestly. He did not contribute to society, but instead leeched off everyone else’s hard work. Ned was nothing but a young hooligan who blamed everyone else when the consequences of his actions came knocking.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Old Beechworth Prison, where Ned was unsuccessfully rehabilitated.
Old Beechworth Prison, where Ned was unsuccessfully rehabilitated. Afterwards, he did not pursue an honest life via land selection.


The Jerilderie Letter is not a political manifesto. Ned hardly mentions anything that could even be construed as a political philosophy. Being very generous, the scant lines I found were:

  • “Never was such a thing as Justice in the English law…”
  • “there will be no more police required they will be sacked and supplanted by soldiers…”
  • “It will pay the government to give those people who are suffering innocence, justice and liberty.”
  • “colonial stratagem…wholesale and retail slaughter”
  • “withdraw their money and give it and as much more to the widows and orphans and poor of Greta district”:
  • on the final page, he demands police leave Victoria.
21st Century Jacobsweg: Ned Kelly wanted his letter published at this post office in Jerilderie, but this was never done.
Ned Kelly wanted his letter published at this post office in Jerilderie, but this was never done.

In fifty-six pages and seven thousand words, that’s it. He doesn’t define what he means by liberty or justice or colonial stratagem. There are no demands for specific political reforms or economic development in the Jerilderie Letter.

The demand to tithe 1/10th of money to the “widow and orphan fund” sounds honourable, until you realise it was never set up and was intended only for people in Greta, where his family lived. Also, by killing Kennedy, Lonigan and Sherritt, Ned created three pregnant widows and left several children fatherless.

The claim that Ned Kelly was trying to establish the Republic of Northeast Victoria is laughable and deranged. There is zero evidence that the Kelly Gang advocated Republicanism. The Declaration of a Republic of Northeast Victoria isn’t ‘lost’ – it never existed. You might as well argue that the North Hollywood Bankrobbers were trying to establish the People’s Republic of Los Angeles!

This is the truth: Ned Kelly had no political aspirations. He just wanted to shoot police.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Joe Byrne's grave in Benalla, the only member of the Kelly Gang in a marked grave.
Joe Byrne’s grave in Benalla cemetery, the only member of the Kelly Gang in a marked grave. It’s strewn with flowers from supporters, but the Kelly Gang didn’t champion republicanism, liberty or justice.

And even if he was a revolutionary, there was no revolutionary sentiment in the Northeast. Most felons who participated in land selection achieved success. If the system is working, an overthrow of the system is unnecessary. People wanted to establish strong colonies for the British empire where they could live their lives, not descend into the anarchic hell Ned was agitating for. The Kelly Gang was vilified, not championed, for murdering police.

Ned says he never interfered with any person unless they “deserved” it. But how does he determine if they deserve his ‘interference’? Why, if they stop him from doing whatever he wants. On page twenty-seven he claims there’s “not one drop of murderous blood in my veins”, but two pages later contradicts himself by threatening “wholesale and retail slaughter” against those that defy him. And who were the ones defying him? The police and anyone who helped the police.

People in Victoria had no issue with people challenging the status quo: Strikes and protests were common. In fact, before becoming a prominent politician, Peter Lalor rebelled against Victoria in 1854 during the Eureka Stockade incident, losing his arm in the process. Prior to this, however, he demonstrated peacefully, protested the government and participated in civil disobedience before leading the rebellion.

21st Century Jacobsweg: The Big Ned in Glenrowan. Might as well put a big Eric and Dylan outside Columbine High School.
The Big Ned in Glenrowan. Might as well put a Big Eric and Dylan outside Columbine High School.

The difference between Lalor and Kelly is simple: After his revolt was violently supressed, Lalor garnered public sympathy and was acquitted of his crimes. He then worked with the system to implement his changes peacefully, ultimately becoming the Speaker of the Victorian Parliament. People respected him.

 Ned had only his own interests at heart and utilised violence as a first resort. Ned was motivated only by revenge for perceived mistreatment from police. His actions hurt rather than helped his fellow man. He made the world around him a worse place with his presence. People feared him, but fear is not respect.


Ned Kelly believed he was a target of pervasive, personal and permanent attacks from police, but Ned was no victim. He was a vindictive, cruel and callous man who actively tore the fabric of society apart.

If Ned Kelly was standing up for the downtrodden Irish in Victoria, his advocacy was not appreciated. The four victims at Stringybark Creek were all Irish, But Ned didn’t care: they were police and therefore deserved to die.

But Ned was apolitical, which is why I hesitate to call him a terrorist. While he satisfies four of the major criteria (acts of violence, an audience, innocent victims and creating a fearful mood), a terrorist uses violence to further a political agenda. Since Ned had no political agenda but was rather engaging in a personal vendetta against police, it’s better to class him as just a murderous thug.

A common rebuttal to Ned being a terrible person is that Ned Kelly rescued a boy from drowning in Avenel. Yes, it was a noble thing for young Ned to do, but it in no way makes him someone worth venerating. It would be akin to playing down Ted Bundy’s murder spree because he once worked at a suicide hotline.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Ned Kelly in the dock.
Ned Kelly in the dock. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It bears repeating: Ned Kelly is responsible for ten deaths (Lonigan, Scanlan, Kennedy, Sherritt, Metcalf, Cherry, Jones, Byrne, Hart and his own brother Dan), seven injuries and assaults (Ah Fook, McCormick, the arresting officer in 1871, Fitzpatrick, McIntyre, Hare, one of the Aboriginal trackers), tearing up vital infrastructure in two towns (Jerilderie, Glenrowan), robbing two banks (Euroa, Jerilderie), holding well over a hundred people hostage (some sympathisers/enforcers were among them, but most hostages were innocent), robbing and threatening several others at gunpoint, stealing innumerable horses and, finally, planning to murder dozens of police via train derailment and engaging in a shootout when the train arrived safely.

And to be clear, nobody made him do any of this. He decided to do all these things. And look how it all turned out for him: at the end of a hangman’s rope at age twenty-five.

The verdict? Ned Kelly is no Australian hero and deserves nothing but scorn. ‘Game as Ned Kelly’ shouldn’t be viewed as a compliment. Ned was bold, but what he did was anything but commendable.


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