On the weekend of the 11th of November I went on a trip through the Kelly Country in North East Victoria. Ostensibly I was going up for a meeting of Kelly enthusiasts on the Saturday night but one does not simply go into Kelly Country for an evening! The following is an abridged account of some of the things that occurred during the trip.
Starting from the Melbourne region, it takes a few hours to get to the heart of Kelly Country. On the way up you will pass through Beveridge, where you can see the dilapidated remains of the old Kelly house where Red Kelly and Ellen Quinn started their family. An interesting example of 1850s bush carpentry, years of neglect and vandalism have left the building as little more than a husk. For many years various people have made a pledge to preserve and restore the house but the most that appears to have been done is the installation of a sign telling visitors what they’re looking at. Nearby you can also visit the old church where the Kelly children went to school. It’s a handsome bluestone building with boarded up windows that is kept safely removed from visitors by fences and gates.
As you continue you’ll pass Wallan, where Ned’s relatives, the Quinns, once resided. You will also pass Avenel where the Kelly family lived after Red lost the selection in Beveridge. The family likely had few positive memories there but for one that has become an integral part of the Kelly legend – Ned rescuing Dick Shelton from drowning in Hughes Creek. For this act he received his green silk sash, which is displayed in Benalla. Avenel is also where Red Kelly is buried (there is some speculation as to whether his grave is in the same location as the marker due to cemetery boundaries being shifted).
Further on, Euroa was the location the gang chose for their first bank robbery, though the original building is long gone. A sign marks where the bank once stood. It is a small town perfect for a quick stop on your journey (though this time there was no stop there).
A must-see whenever I go to Kelly Country is Benalla. It is one of the more “modern” towns in the region boasting lots of shopping and art. Various buildings throughout Benalla are painted by local artists depicting all manner of scenes ranging from Ned Kelly holding his helmet to a pair of bright green ninja turtles. Like Melbourne, Benalla has cafes and laneways where you can procure a cuppa. For Kelly buffs, Benalla is home to the Costume and Pioneer Museum where several important artifacts are housed: Ned Kelly’s sash (mentioned earlier), the old lockup doors (one of which was the one that Joe Byrne’s body was strung up on for photographs) and an exact replica of Joe Byrne’s armour made from molds of the original suit. The museum is also home to a great display of militaria and old clothing from the 20th century.
Benalla is also home to King’s bootmaker shop, which Ned Kelly sought refuge in while running from the police after being arrested for drunkenness. Across the road is the old courthouse where Ned appeared immediately after that incident, but where he was also briefly held in the lockup cell after his capture.
However, the most significant stop in Benalla for Kelly buffs has to be the cemetery. Here you will not only find the grave of gang member Joe Byrne, but also several other graves related to the story including Martin Cherry, who was killed by police fire at Glenrowan, and William Reardon, who survived the Glenrowan siege as a toddler. Finding the Kelly-related graves can be quite an undertaking if you don’t know where they are and I found myself wandering through row after row of graves reading the lecterns where the names of those buried are listed. I found Cherry’s by accident as he is buried separately to the other graves in his section. Joe’s grave, however, is easy to find under a huge tree that is perpetually adorned with ribbons and tinsel. The grave itself never seems to be without some kind of floral adornment or a cup to hold an “eye opener” (Joe’s expression for a drink of whiskey first thing in the morning), something that no doubt would be seen as bad taste by some. I made a mental note to save up for some flowers to lay on old Cherry’s grave next time. It is a charming and well maintained cemetery and worth a wander.
My hub for the weekend was Wangaratta, a town I’d only been through a handful of times. It is not a town that soaks itself in the Kelly history, rather it reminds one very much of most any outer suburban town with its variety of supermarkets and fast food restaurants. Not knowing much about the layout of the town the info centre seemed to be a logical stop-off to look for a map of some kind. Alas, no map, however there was a nice little section about the Kelly Gang and a fascinating life-size statue of Ned Kelly that appears to be wearing Steve Hart’s helmet from the 2003 Ned Kelly film. In a case in the info centre is also the replica of Ned’s sash that Heath Ledger wore in that same movie. Wangaratta is definitely a good spot for a “city mouse” to use as their hub for a North-East trip.
Of course, the key part of the weekened was the trip into Beechworth for the meetup. It began with a visit to the Ned Kelly Vault. The Vault is one of the most remarkable collections of Kelly artifacts you are likely to find anywhere. Ranging from firearms used by the gang to Mick Jagger’s replica armour used for the 1970 film, the collection incorporates elements of the history and the influence on popular culture. No doubt the collection could benefit greatly from a larger space, but as it is the Vault is fantastic.
Director of The Legend of Ben Hall, Matthew Holmes, was present also and got a chance to hold an original reward poster (with protective gloves of course).
The meetup then moved to the Hotel Nicholas, a significant site for local Kelly history. The interior is adorned with framed imagery of all things Kelly and Beechworth including portraits of the gang and their sympathisers and archival imagery of the hotels that populated Beechworth. The site was reputed to be where Joe Byrne’s armour was fashioned by Charles Knight (though there are accounts that would disagree), as well as being where Ned Kelly and Wild Wright had their famous bare-knuckle boxing match. The food was delicious and the drinks – well, it’s hard to get that wrong in a pub – all complimented by live music. As the meetup occurred during the Celtic Weekend there was a lot of Celtic music playing throughout the night.
It was a great chance to meet a few people from the community, many of whom are readers of A Guide to Australian Bushranging. The group was also lucky enough to get an exclusive update on the in-development film Glenrowan. I made sure to stay sober for the drive back to Wangaratta.
The next day some of the people from the previous night met at Beechworth cemetery where we visited several graves including Anton Wick (neighbour to Aaron Sherritt and the Byrnes who was used as a decoy to lure Sherritt to his demise) and Aaron Sherritt. The exact location of Aaron’s grave was somewhat disputed but based on the description of it being sunken with a brick border, it seems to have been the right one. For me it was strange visiting the Beechworth cemetery as it was the first time in 20 years I had been there, the first visit being part of the school camp that stoked my interest in Ned Kelly.
The rest of the day was very eventful. In the blistering sun I was accompanied by Georgina Rose Stones (whose writings on Joe Byrne you can find here, here and here) on a visit to Greta cemetery where we visited the graves of a great many of the key players in the Kelly story including Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly, Steve Hart, Ellen Kelly, Tom Lloyd and Kelly siblings Jim, Maggie and Grace. It was a profound experience to visit the final resting place of these people I’ve read and written so much about. To know that under a dry, dusty patch of earth under my feet lay the remains of Australia’s most notorious outlaw was humbling. The Greta Cemetery Trust are doing incredible work maintaining and restoring the graves and one can’t even begin to thank these dedicated volunteers enough.
One of the best parts of the trip was driving through El Dorado – Byrne and Sherritt Country. Following the path on the Heritage Route, which starts in town and ends near the Woolshed Falls, we saw the site of the Chinese Gardens where Chinese miners grew and harvested vegetables; Reedy Creek; Buttrey’s Rock where a gold escort was allegedly bailed up in the 1850s; Sebastopol Flat, a former mining town where Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt frequented; and the site of Aaron Sherritt’s hut at the Devil’s Elbow.
The dryness of the area resulted in incredible clouds of dust that completely engulfed the car when people drove ahead of us, forcing me to drive slowly to avoid a collision. The views were beautiful and you certainly feel like you’re in another time and place as you move through the dense forest or witness the sunlight hitting Reedy Creek in just the right way. I highly recommend this self-guided tour (look out for the blue markers on the roadside to find points of interest).
The eeriest location on the tour was the site of Sherritt’s hut. Nothing of the hut remains, it is merely a patch of dirt behind a barbed wire fence, however the echoes of that terrible tragedy still resound. The events that transpired here signified the end for the Kelly Gang. One is certainly inclined to consider the knock-on effects for the Byrnes and Sherritts after such a terrible twist of fate. It is important to look out for the info on the side of the road to locate the site as it has no street address you can jaunt off to.
As we drove through Beechworth we stopped at the former site of The Vine Hotel, where Joe Byrne would visit his girlfriend. The hotel is long gone, now the site of a house. It’s unlikely the residents know that where they live used to be the pub most frequented by the Kelly Gang. A hotel called The Vine still exists in Wangaratta and is considered to have some connection to the gang but it is a different hotel altogether.
No trip to Kelly Country is complete without swinging by Glenrowan. Leaving early in the morning meant getting the chance to grab breakfast in the town from the Glenrowan Vintage Hall (though the Billy Tea Rooms are a must for a bite if you’re in town). After breakfast and a look around the eclectic collection of new and second hand wares, a trip to the siege site and the site of Ned’s capture were necessities. It seems so bizarre that the site of the most famous shoot-out in Australian history is now little more than an empty lot, yet, as is a recurring theme with Kelly sites, the history is there even if there’s nothing tangible left.
There are other things to do in Glenrowan of course. You can visit Bob Hempel’s animated theatre (we chose not to), visit the museum in the basement of Glen Rowen Cobb and Co, and to pop in to Kate’s Cottage to browse the second-hand books and see the replica homestead. You can also go to the Mount Morgan Store and get a portrait done in old time clothing. I personally nabbed a very reasonably priced copy of Superintendent Sadleir’s memoirs that was published over forty years ago, though there were many more I would have snapped up if I had the money.
As we left we swung past Joe Byrne’s grave one more time so Georgina could pay her respects. This was, perhaps, my most eventful trip to the North-East yet. To have covered so much is an incredible privilege (there were things that I didn’t cover here, you got the edited highlights). I can’t wait for my next trip!