Despite their infamy, the Kelly Gang were hardly prolific in any sense as far as bushrangers are concerned, but perhaps it’s a matter of quality over quantity. The second raid they undertook was one of the most audacious in history and definitely ranks with anything performed by the likes of Ben Hall or Dan Morgan. Yet, there are many conflicting accounts that vary in small details so creating an accurate and concise account is no small feat.
Since December 1878 the Kelly Gang had gone to ground and, despite the best efforts of the police, they had avoided capture easily. A change in police leadership saw Superintendent Hare take the reins from Superintendent Nicolson with no noticeable change in effect. The gang meanwhile were plotting. A morally dubious undertaking by the police saw scores of people arrested and imprisoned indefinitely on remand as suspected sympathisers. This no doubt put a strain on many of the poor farms in the region and would have infuriated Ned Kelly, who had already identified himself as a figurehead for the struggles of the smaller farmers against the oppressive influence of certain squatters and police.
The gang had a plan to ride across the border into New South Wales and rob a bank. The banks in Victoria had all been allocated guards since the Euroa robbery and the New South Wales police had bragged that the Kelly Gang wouldn’t last 24 hours in their colony. The gang were determined to prove them wrong. They used Joe Byrne’s best friend, Aaron Sherritt, to create a diversion by telling the police the gang were headed to Goulburn. The police fell for it and the gang were able to pass into the neighbouring colony unmolested while the police were distracted elsewhere.
On 7 February 1879 the Kelly Gang crossed the border into New South Wales. Splitting up, Dan and Steve going one way, Ned and Joe the other, they made their way into the Riverina. Ned and Joe stopped at the Woolpack Inn where they spoke and drank freely with Mary Jordan (aka Mary the Larrikin), a popular barmaid. The pair were able to glean some information about the township of Jerilderie, specifically about the police, and this helped to cement the game plan. What other shenanigans they got up to at the Woolpack Inn one can leave up to their imagination.
On the 8 February the gang moved into the township of Jerilderie. It was a town primarily concerned with agriculture and pastoral industry, flat and close to Billabong Creek. At midnight they approached the police station. Inside Senior Constable George Devine and Constable Henry Richards were just settling into bed. Mrs. Devine, who was pregnant at the time, had related to her husband that she had had a dream that the Kelly Gang were there but the annoyed husband dismissed it as rot. Suddenly there was a racket outside. “Devine, Richards, come out! There’s been a row at the hotel!”
When the police exited the building they were greeted with the Kelly Gang brandishing revolvers. The gang had split up to cover the front and rear and they closed in on the shocked officers. The troopers were taken prisoner then locked in the cell behind the station usually reserved for drunks and freshly arrested criminals. Mrs. Devine and her children were kept in the sitting room. Mrs. Devine was then sent to gather the firearms in the house. She begged Ned not to harm the men. Ned stated that if they didn’t misbehave then they would be unharmed. While Dan and Steve stabled the horses Mrs. Devine prepared a supper. When she moved to shift a bath full of water Ned refused to allow her to and did it himself, recognising that she was pregnant and in no condition for heavy lifting. In the early hours the gang took turns to rest and guard the others.
The following morning the gang set about putting the rest of the plan into action. The police ate breakfast with the bushrangers and then Ned and Dan dressed in police uniforms. Mrs. Devine expressed that she was scheduled to decorate the courthouse for mass and Ned, realising that her absence could arouse suspicion, allowed her to go, but she was accompanied there and guarded closely. Shortly after her return she accepted a delivery from the butcher, watched closely by Steve Hart and Ned Kelly.
Ned and Steve dressed in police uniforms to patrol the town, escorting Constable Richards and learning the lay of the land. Everyone assumed these new constables were reinforcements against the Kelly Gang. Mrs. Devine was guarded in the house with her husband by Dan and Joe.
A photolithograph of the town’s layout was procured and Ned and Joe plotted their exact movements for the following day. It was a remarkably domestic scene with Mrs. Devine bustling about doing chores while the outlaws made plans. Dan sat attentively and bounced one of the children merrily on his knee. Joe wrote a joke on the back of the photolithograph:
Q. Why are the Kellys the greatest matchmakers in the country?
A. Because they brought loads of ladies to Younghusbands (station), Euroa, Victoria.
As the night wound on Joe rode back to the Woolpack Inn and stayed there having a grand old time with Mary the Larrikin, until midnight when he was so sozzled Mary had to help him onto his horse. Meanwhile Ned had read a portion of the letter he and Joe had been writing to Mrs. Devine but it had all gone in one ear and out the other, her continued anxiety over the welfare of her family too dominant in her mind to pay attention.
On Monday the 9th, the raid was put into action. The gang rode into town early and Dan and Joe, dressed as troopers, took their horses Rea’s blacksmith shop. They had the horses shod by blacksmith Andrew Nixon (all charged to the government account, naturally) and Joe left a loaf of bread. Next, Dan and Joe examined the telegraph wires that ran through town and noted them for later. Ned and Dan escorted Constable Richards through the streets with Joe and Steve riding behind on their horses. Ned and Dan ordered Richards to introduce them to Cox, the publican at the Royal Hotel. Ned informed Cox that his hotel was to be a prison for the day, but that if there was compliance there would be no bloodshed. Cox made the sensible choice to co-operate. Joe and Steve were placed in the front room, Dan on guard in the bar. As people entered the building they were bailed up.
Over the course of the day prisoners were rounded up and installed at the Royal Hotel where they were guarded by Dan Kelly, who remained in a police uniform. The gang had surmised that people are more likely to be compliant if you give them free booze. The hotel was connected to the bank by a walkway at the rear. It was not uncommon for drunks to go ambling in the back door of the bank, and with this in mind Joe began to pretend to be intoxicated as he wandered across the walkway into the bank. The bank staff were not alarmed by his intrusion but rethought their opinion when Byrne drew a pistol and stated “I’m a Kelly, bail up!”
Joe was soon joined by Ned and Steve. The till was emptied of just under £700 but Ned was not satisfied. “You must have at least £10,000!” he shouted. Edwin Living, the accountant, maintained that there was no more. Living was in his mid-twenties and spoke with a slight stammer. Just as Robert Scott had done at Euroa months earlier, Living was doing all he could to delay and misdirect the bushrangers. Not believing a word of it Ned located a locked treasure drawer. In order to open the treasure drawer the manager’s key was required. Joe suggested using a sledgehammer to get it open. Tarleton, the bank manager, had only just returned from a trip and was having a bath when Steve Hart burst in waving a revolver. The key was soon liberated. Steve was ordered to keep watch over the manager while he dressed and the cash was liberated, in all just over £2000. In the meantime, William Elliott the school teacher had wandered in and been bailed up by Joe Byrne. Ned told Elliot to return to the school and let the children go home as he was declaring a holiday in honour of the gang’s visit. Tarleton soon emerged freshly washed and dressed in a silk coat and smoking cap. The situation was one of great peril but no peril was too great to prevent him from indulging in selecting his finest haute couture for the occasion, it would seem.
Ned located a strongbox and while rummaging through it Ned came across the bank’s collection of mortgage papers, deeds and books. He decided that destroying the records of the bank’s debtors was a far more virtuous action than merely robbing the bank and announced his intention to burn the records. Edwin Living was permitted to rescue his life insurance policy. The documents were soon burned.
A trio of locals wandered into the bank at this time – the postmaster, his assistant and the newspaper editor – and caught the bushrangers in the act of robbing it. Two were seized but the third took off and kept running until he was out of town. It eventuated that this fleet-of-foot man was Gill, the newspaper editor, who Ned wanted to publish his letter. This letter was of huge significance to Ned. It was a 56 page document detailing much of his life, with emphasis on what he perceived to be injustices perpetrated against him and his family. It was his attempt to explain and justify his actions in killing three policemen and he wanted his message to be broadcast. With Gill missing the chance of Ned’s letter being published was effectively null. Edwin Living heard Ned’s grievance and offered to safe-keep the letter and forward it to Gill. Reluctantly Ned did so.
Joe rode to the telegraph office dressed as a trooper and ordered the postmaster to dismantle the Morse key. He then examined the telegrams that had been sent that day to see if there was anything concerning.
With the bank robbed, everyone was herded into the pub. When Joe attempted to direct the hotel’s cook, a Chinese man, into the bar he was met with insolence and gave him a whack to make him compliant. With a captive audience, Ned gave a speech detailing his life, crimes and tribulations. At the conclusion of the speech drinks were had and the gang performed riding tricks in the street shouting “Hurrah, for the good old days of Morgan and Ben Hall!”
Ned set a group of townsfolk to work hacking down the telegraph poles with axes. He declared that if anyone touched the wires before the following day he’d return from robbing the Urana bank and shoot them all down like dogs. It was Ned’s typical hyperbolic, overly violent bluffing style and it worked. Many of the men continued chopping down the poles long after the gang were gone.
As they left town, Joe and Dan paired up and headed off while Ned and Steve headed to the Traveller’s Rest Hotel. There Steve Hart stole a saddle to replace his own with then bailed up Reverend Gribble and took his watch. Gribble went to Ned and expressed his distaste for Steve’s behaviour. Ned responded to the reverend’s quibble by berating Steve and forcing him to return the watch. Steve complied and Ned berated him, though it was unclear whether he was more annoyed at the act of petty theft or the fact that the watch was far less valuable that what Steve had already taken that day. Ned had another drink, conspicuously placing his revolver on the counter and announcing that anyone looking for the reward could come and grab it and shoot him if they had the guts. Ned left with another of his famous threats, this time stating that if anyone were to raise an alarm then Jerilderie would be awash in its own blood.
Once the outlaws were gone Reverend Gribble attempted to form a posse to hunt them. He was met with a mix of apathy and strong rejection. Living and Tarleton mounted up and rode to Deniliquin to raise the alarm. By the time news had filtered out it was too late to catch up with he outlaws. They had performed one of the most successful bank heists in Australian history.
In the wake of the raid Sir Henry Parkes, premier of New South Wales, committed to doubling the already hefty reward to £8000. This was the largest reward offered to date for anyone foul of the law, equating to around $2 million AUD. The guards on the banks created a massive hurdle to any future robbery plans for the gang and they disappeared for the remainder of the year. They would re-emerge in a spectacular way midway through the following year when executing a masterplan in Glenrowan. Gill never published the letter.