Few figures in history reach the notoriety and cultural impact of the Kelly Gang. As so much is easily available on the subject already, here is an easily digestible summary of the so-called Kelly Outbreak. For more detailed information, there is a swathe of articles available on A Guide to Australian Bushranging that examine elements of the history in more depth.
The story of the Kelly Gang begins on 15 April, 1878. Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick was sent by Sergeant Whelan at Benalla to take charge of the police station at Greta. Greta was well-known to police in the district as members of the Kelly, Quinn and Lloyd families (all related) had selections there. These families were under particularly strict scrutiny by the police due to their recidivism and suspected involvement in crimes such as stock theft. In fact, Constable Fitzpatrick had heard there was a warrant out for the arrest of Dan Kelly, the seventeen year-old son of the notorious Ellen Kelly, for his suspected involvement in horse stealing. He made it known to Whelan that he intended to arrest Dan en route to Greta police station. Despite popular understanding, Fitzpatrick was not required by law to carry a copy of a warrant with him.
When Fitzpatrick arrived at the Kelly selection, Dan was not at home so he spoke with Ellen Kelly (who was nursing a newborn), then rode to their neighbour, William “Brickey” Williamson, and questioned him about whether he had a permit for the logs he was splitting. He lingered until dusk and returned to the Kelly selection in case Dan had returned rather than riding to Greta to take charge of the station as ordered. Dan Kelly answered the door and Fitzpatrick made his intentions known. Dan agreed to go quietly with Fitzpatrick on condition that he could finish his dinner first as he had been riding all day. He denied having stolen any horses and it would later be revealed that he had been in gaol when the animals in question were stolen, corroborating his assertions. What happened next is not known for sure due to conflicting evidence. What seems to have been the case, according to popular understanding, is that Fitzpatrick possibly made an unwanted sexual advance on fifteen year-old Kate Kelly and a fight broke out. Fitzpatrick claimed that Ellen Kelly hit him in the head with a coal shovel and Ned Kelly entered the house and shot him in the wrist, accompanied by Brickey Williamson and Ellen Kelly’s son-in-law Bill Skillion who were both brandishing revolvers. Ned Kelly would claim he was never there and Ellen would indicate that Fitzpatrick was drunk and had fought with Ned and Dan. Another version of the story states that Fitzpatrick injured his arm on a door latch and claimed it was a bullet wound, cutting himself to make it look like he had removed a bullet. Regardless, Fitzpatrick returned to Benalla and lodged a report. The following day Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Bill Skillion were arrested and charged with aiding an attempted murder. Ned and Dan Kelly had gone into hiding at Dan Kelly’s hut in the bush, and a £100 reward was posted for the capture of Ned Kelly for attempted murder.
While the brothers were hiding in the Wombat Ranges Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Bill Skillion were sentenced. Ellen Kelly received three years hard labour, the two men were given six years each. Days later a search party was sent from Mansfield to find the Kelly brothers. Word soon reached the bushrangers that they were being hunted and they tracked the police as they ventured into the bush from Mansfield on 25 October, 1878. Despite the fact they had constructed a fortified hut with huge logs for walls and an armoured door made of sheet metal to protect them in an ambush, they remained on edge. The Mansfield police party consisted of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constables Thomas McIntyre, Michael Scanlan (of Mooroopna) and Thomas Lonigan (of Violet Town). They set up camp on the banks of Stringybark Creek, less than a mile from Dan Kelly’s hut. The following day Kennedy and Scanlan headed off to scout for the brothers, leaving McIntyre and Lonigan to tend the camp. McIntyre shot some parrots with a shotgun Kennedy had left him for the task of hunting something for supper. He returned to camp and began cooking bread. Unknown to them, the sound of McIntyre shooting had been heard and Ned Kelly decided to bail up the police. He and Dan were joined by Joe Byrne, a young man from the Woolshed Valley who had recently been involved in stock theft with Ned, and Steve Hart, a jockey from Wangaratta. Ned claimed his intention was to rob the police of their food and weapons.
In the afternoon of 26 October, 1878, the Kelly Gang emerged from the bush and ordered McIntyre and Lonigan to bail up. McIntyre did as instructed but Lonigan ran and was shot by Ned with a quartered bullet. A piece of shrapnel pierced Lonigan’s eye and entered his brain, killing him. Ned insisted that Lonigan had gotten behind a log and was about to shoot him. McIntyre would refute this, stating that there was not enough time for Lonigan to have done so. The bushrangers raided the camp, gathering what they could. Dan Kelly insisted McIntyre be handcuffed but Ned refused. He ordered McIntyre to tell the other police to surrender when they returned or be shot. Joe Byrne drank tea and smoked with McIntyre as they waited. When Kennedy and Scanlan returned the gang hid and McIntyre attempted to get the police to surrender. Very suddenly shots were fired. Ned shot Scanlan in the back as his horse tried to run away. Kennedy jumped out of the saddle and began shooting with his pistol. McIntyre escaped on Kennedy’s horse and rode into the bush. Kennedy attempted to follow McIntyre and shot Dan Kelly in the shoulder. Ned pursued Kennedy and they fired at each other in a running gunfight. Kennedy was wounded and fell a considerable distance from the camp. Ned finished him off by shooting him in the chest at close range. He would claim it was a mercy killing. The bushrangers then looted from the corpses and took everything they needed from the camp before burning the tent. Constable McIntyre, meanwhile, had been badly injured as he escaped and hid in a wombat hole overnight. The following day he walked to a farm and raised the alarm.
Almost immediately parliament passed the Felons Apprehension Act, which gave them the power to declare people “outlaws”. This was based on the legislation of the same name passed in New South Wales in response to bushrangers such as Ben Hall and Dan Morgan. It meant that the outlaws were not protected by the law and could be murdered without provocation and the killer would not only be exempt from any repercussions, they would receive the reward money. Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly and their two accomplices (Joe Byrne and Steve Hart had not yet been identified) were officially declared outlaws in the colony of Victoria. £1000 was put on Ned’s capture, another £1000 was offered for the others. The assistant commissioner of police, Charles Hope Nicolson, was assigned to lead the hunt for the gang.
On 9 December, 1878, the Kelly Gang re-emerged. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station at Faithfull’s Creek and imprisoned the staff in a storeroom. That evening a hawker arrived to camp at the station and he was bailed up as well. The outlaws took new outfits from the hawkers wagon and spruced themselves up with perfume. Later, Ned held a Q&A session in the shed where he answered all the questions his prisoners had about his life and crimes. The next morning, Dan guarded the prisoners while the other gang members destroyed the telegraph lines. A hunting party was also captured and added to the prisoners in the shed.
In the afternoon of 10 December, Ned, Dan and Steve rode to Euroa to rob the bank. Dan guarded the back door as Steve went into the manager’s homestead via the kitchen. Here he was recognised by one of the servants who had been a schoolmate of his. He locked her in the drawing room with the rest of the manager’s family before heading into the bank. Meanwhile, Ned had tried to get in the front door with a dodgy cheque he had made the superintendent of Younghusband’s Station write out. When the bank clerk tried to tell him they were closed, he burst in and bailed the staff up and ordered them to give him all the money. Once the till was emptied he ordered them to open the safe but they needed the manager’s key. Ned and Steve bailed up the manager, Robert Scott, and after much hassle, including sending Scott’s wife to get the key from the study, the safe was emptied too. The outlaws then took the staff and the Scotts with them back to the station where Joe had been guarding the prisoners, and had even captured the linesman sent to repair the broken telegraph wires. The gang stayed until night time and then left, ordering the prisoners to wait until they were gone before leaving themselves. The gang escaped with over £1500 on gold and money. In response the reward was raised to £4000 and Assistant Commissioner Nicolson was replaced by Superintendent Francis Augustus Hare.
With all four gang members now officially named, it was harder for them to move around, so they got Joe Byrne’s best friend Aaron Sherritt to keep the police distracted by giving them false information. In early 1879 he informed Superintendent Hare that the Kelly Gang would be going to Goulburn. The police immediately headed for Goulburn, but the outlaws were actually heading for Jerilderie, further west. They split up and Ned and Joe went to the Woolpack Inn to get information about Jerilderie. They soon rejoined Dan and Steve and headed into the town.
At midnight on 7 February, 1879, the Kelly Gang woke the Jerilderie police up and captured them. They locked the police in their own lock-up cell and planned their next heist. The next day Ned and Joe disguised themselves as police reinforcements and went through the town with one of the constables. They made note of where everything was. Later, Joe and Dan traced the telegraph lines and got their horses shod. The next day Dan guarded the wife of the town’s Sergeant as she decorated the town hall for mass. The gang then began to round the townsfolk up and imprisoned them in the Royal Hotel. Joe went into the bank via the back door and bailed up the staff. Ned and Steve soon appeared. They robbed the till, but again had to get the manager’s key for the safe. Steve was sent to find the manager and caught him having a bath. Eventually the safe was opened and emptied. Ned began destroying records of the bank’s debtors and the bank staff were added to the prisoners in the hotel. Ned and Joe had written a letter that was to be published in the local newspaper, but the local news editor had run out of town once he realised the Kelly Gang were robbing the bank. Ned gave the letter to one of the bankers to be passed onto the press. The gang soon headed off with £2000 pounds of stolen money and gold. This caused the New South Wales government to contribute another £4000 to the reward.
For months the gang seemed to disappear. During this time Aaron Sherritt kept the police distracted by hosting watch parties at the Byrne selection every night. Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor was sent from Queensland with a party of native police. The native police were feared for their incredible tracking abilities and their discipline. During the latter months of 1879, Superintendent Hare took ill and was replaced by Assistant Commissioner Nicolson. Nicolson stopped the watch parties and relied on a syndicate of police informants to keep track of the Kelly Gang. Unfortunately a lot of information the police received was either outdated, false or cases of mistaken identity. The media criticised the police for their apparent ineptitude.
At this time the outlaws had begun to collect steel plates, mostly plough mouldboards, in order to craft bulletproof armour. Ned Kelly would claim his original intention was to wear the armour during bank robberies as the banks were now all guarded by armed soldiers. Each gang member had their own suit, but mystery still surrounds who made the armour. Many believe it was made by blacksmiths or by the gang themselves.
The gang had also been very reliant on their sympathisers for fresh horses, food, shelter and information. The proceeds from the bank robberies had all gone to their supporters. The most prominent sympathisers were Tom Lloyd, Wild Wright, Paddy Byrne, Ettie Hart and the Kelly sisters. Aaron Sherritt was a sympathiser too, but many of the gang’s other supporters thought he was working for the police and had told the gang to murder him. Sherritt’s family had actually been working as police informants, his brother Jack Sherritt in particular, but Aaron had remained a supporter of his closest friend. Nevertheless, the rumours were persistent and Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly frequently tested the Sherritts by giving them useless information to see if it reached the police. When Superintendent Hare returned as head of the pursuit, he re-employed Aaron to take watch parties to spy on Mrs. Byrne. When the threats against Aaron became worrisome, Detective Michael Ward, one of the heads of the hunt based in Beechworth, had arranged for Aaron to be guarded day and night by police.
Meanwhile, Ned Kelly had decided to escalate the conflict with the police and take out as many of them in a single go as possible. He planned to lure them out on a special train and derail it. A commotion at Aaron Sherritt’s hut would cause the police, who were based in Benalla, to go by train to Beechworth and resume the hunt with a fresh trail. In order to get to Beechworth they had to pass through Glenrowan, where the train line would be broken on a treacherous bend, causing the train to fly off the tracks. The intention seems to have been to murder the police on board in order to force the government to stop pursuing the gang out of fear.
On 26 June, 1880, Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne bailed up a German neighbour of Aaron Sherritt named Anton Wick. They took him to Sherritt’s hut and used Wick to lure Aaron to the back door. When Aaron opened the door Joe murdered him, shooting him twice with a shotgun. Aaron died instantly. The four police constables that had been assigned to protect Aaron cowered and hid in the bedroom. Joe and Dan tried to force the police out of the bedroom for two hours before giving up and riding off to join Ned and Steve at Glenrowan.
At Glenrowan, Ned and Steve bailed up a team of quarrymen and some plate-layers to pull up a section of the train track. Ned also captured Ann Jones, proprietor of The Glenrowan Inn, and her daughter Jane. The prisoners were taken to the gatehouse where Joe and Dan arrived at around five in the morning. At daybreak the prisoners were split into two groups: women and children were kept in the gatehouse to be guarded by Steve, everyone else was taken to The Glenrowan Inn. Throughout the day more prisoners were captured as Ned waited for the police. To keep the prisoners occupied there were sporting games held at the inn, card games were played inside, drinks flowed freely and there was even a dance in the bar room. Still, there was no sign of police. As it was a Sunday, no civilian trains would be running and Ned expected the police to arrive as soon as they heard the news of what had happened at Aaron’s hut. What Ned had not discovered was that the news of Aaron’s murder did not reach the police in Benalla until after lunchtime. The police took a long time to make any arrangements but as dusk approached, arrangements were made for a special police train to be sent to Beechworth.
That evening Ned decided to bail up the local policeman, Constable Bracken. Thomas Curnow, the schoolteacher, had been trying to convince Ned he was on his side all day and Ned finally agreed to let Curnow take his sick wife home when they went to capture Bracken. As soon as he got home, Curnow gathered materials to help him stop the train. He took a candle and a red scarf and rode off to the train line. Back at the inn there was more dancing and after midnight Dan Kelly told everyone to head home. However, Ann Jones stopped them from leaving so Ned could give a speech. As Ned was talking the police train finally arrived and stopped at the station. Curnow had used the lit candle behind the red scarf as a danger signal and warned the train about the damaged line. The Kelly Gang donned their armour and prepared for battle. Constable Bracken escaped and ran to the train station where he informed Superintendent Hare that the gang were in The Glenrowan Inn. The police headed to the inn and a battle commenced.
In the initial exchange Superintendent Hare’s wrist was smashed by a shot, Joe Byrne was shot in the calf, and Ned Kelly was shot in the foot and his left elbow was smashed. As the battle continued, the prisoners tried to escape. Jane Jones led a group of women and children to safety after she had been hit in the head by a police bullet and her little brother had also been mortally wounded by police fire. Over the next few hours, Ned escaped into the bush, most of the women and children escaped even though the police continued to try and shoot them, and Joe Byrne was killed by a police bullet to the groin. Police reinforcements continued to arrive throughout the early hours of the morning and just before sunrise Ned Kelly reappeared behind the police lines.
Ned fought the police for almost half an hour before Sergeant Steele blasted his unprotected knee. He was captured alive but badly wounded. Dan and Steve remained in the inn. At ten o’clock the rest of the prisoners were let out. By this time people from all around had descended upon Glenrowan to watch the siege. At three in the afternoon the police decided to burn the inn down to flush Dan and Steve out. They had previously ordered a cannon to be sent from Melbourne to blown the inn up but it had not yet arrived. As the inn was set on fire a Catholic priest, Matthew Gibney, ran inside to rescue anyone that was still in there. Joe Byrne’s corpse was dragged out and the dead bodies of Dan and Steve were found in the bedroom but could not be retrieved before the fire took hold. Another civilian shot by police, Martin Cherry, was rescued from the fire but only lived long enough to be given the last rites. After the fire had stopped, Dan’s and Steve’s bodies were retrieved. They were charred beyond recognition. The onlookers crowded around to get a good look at the dead bodies and to grab any souvenirs they could. Photographers captured images of many of the scenes.
Ned Kelly was taken to Benalla, where Joe Byrne’s corpse was strung up against a door of the police lock-up to be photographed. Ned was then sent to Melbourne Gaol to be treated for his wounds but was not expected to survive. Meanwhile, Dan and Steve were buried in unmarked graves to prevent the police taking the bodies away from the families. Months after Glenrowan there were still bullets and bits of shot being removed from Ned’s hands, feet and limbs. When he was deemed fit, he was sent to Beechworth for a committal hearing. Authorities were worried that having a trial in Beechworth would mean there was a strong likelihood of there being sympathisers in the jury so in order to have the best chance at convicting him, he was transferred back to Melbourne for his murder trial.
The trial in the Supreme Court was quick and Ned Kelly was found guilty of murdering Constable Thomas Lonigan and sentenced to death by Sir Redmond Barry, the judge that had sentenced his mother to gaol in 1878. While he was held in Melbourne Gaol to await his execution, his sympathisers tried to get a reprieve. Petitions with tens of thousands of signatures were gathered and there were protests and riots in the streets of Melbourne. Kate Kelly met with prominent politicians to beg for mercy but the Executive Council were unmoved and the sentence was upheld. Ned dictated several letters from his cell in order to make his version of events heard. As he was unable to write due to his injuries another prisoner was made to write for him. On 11 November, 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol. Thousands of people gathered outside the prison and Ellen Kelly worked in the prison laundry within earshot of the gallows. After his execution, his body was taken to the dead house, his head was shaved and a cast made, then his body was removed to be dissected by university students. The remains were buried in the gaol.
The Kelly Gang was not prolific by a far stretch. They did fewer robberies than the Hall Gang; they murdered less people than Jimmy Governor; they were not at large as long as Captain Thunderbolt; and there were not as many members as The Ribbon Gang. But what distinguished the Kelly Gang was that there was a political element to their story that was unprecedented, and a sophistication to their operations that surpassed similar feats from the “golden era” of bushrangers. Most people believe bushranging ended with the Kelly Gang, but in fact bushranging continued well into the 1920s before it began to evaporate.
Certainly the armour is a powerful piece of iconography and it encapsulates a lot of what makes the Kelly story so unique. In almost 100 years of bushranging, starting with Black Caesar in 1788, nobody had thought to protect themselves from bullets. Ned Kelly mixed the best bits of old fashioned bushranging with a fresh, more methodical approach: to prevent being shot they made armour; because mail coaches were not lucrative targets they robbed banks; they destroyed telegraph lines to prevent information reaching the police quickly; to gain sympathy they gave speeches and wrote letters to the press and politicians; to prove they were not cold blooded murderers they performed intricate heists with no bloodshed. They were bushrangers that didn’t act like typical bushrangers and that made them a cut above the rest.
Because the Kelly Gang came from the selector class and so many people identified with them, they became representatives of people in a way not seen since Jack Donohoe became the hero of the convict class. They came to represent everything one group of people tried to suppress, at the same time as being everything the other group wanted to be, which struck a chord and captured the imagination. Even now, they capture that same spirit because a lot of the class conflict in the modern day is merely a mutation of what it was then and stems from the same things. People will always be able to find something in the Kelly Gang they either love or hate because they have transcended history and become part of the cultural tapestry.