Few events in bushranging history have the fame of the Glenrowan Siege. The incredible and spectacular close to the career of the Kelly Gang has been immortalised in print, song, film, painting and more. Over time the events have become obscured by retellings that embellish and dramatise them. Here, on the 140th anniversary of the siege, we will take a concise look at what ended one of the most renowned and dramatic chapters in Australian history.
The Glenrowan Plot
There is no definitive understanding of what the Glenrowan plot actually was. Most of what we know has been taken from the witnesses accounts of being told by the outlaws, and Ned Kelly’s own unreliable narratives in his interviews and the letters he wrote in gaol. Anything else is either unsubstantiated oral history or inference. All we know for certain is that Ned Kelly intended to derail a train full of police and trackers at Glenrowan, and an event on a Saturday night at the hut of Aaron Sherritt – a sympathiser who the gang had reason to believe had been assisting police – was to provide a lure for a special police train. No civilian trains ran on a Sunday, so the only vehicle that would be on the tracks that day would be one specially assigned to move police from Benalla to Beechworth. This is all that we know beyond dispute. There are many various elaborations on this information that historians and researchers have put forward to describe Ned Kelly’s plan:
1) The Republic of North East Victoria
One explanation that was championed by some notable Kelly historians was that Ned Kelly was attempting to kick-start a revolution and establish a republic. Once the train was derailed, the survivors would be killed excepting any notable survivors who would be bartered for Ned’s mother’s release from prison. The Kelly Gang, in armour, would be joined by a “phantom army” of heavily armed sympathisers that were waiting in the hills behind the Glenrowan Inn, summoned by skyrockets acting as a signal. The militia would then ride to Benalla, capture the town, and declare a republic. It must be noted that there is no official contemporary record to indicate this was the plan or even rumoured, and none of the documents that were supposed to have proved the legitimacy of the claim have surfaced.
2) Mass Murder
The least imaginative explanation of Ned’s plot is that he had no plans beyond murdering as many people as he could. This supposition relies on a very skewed perspective. It derives from the simplistic view that Ned Kelly was a psychopathic terrorist that was only interested in killing people, specifically police. Given Kelly’s two previous well-planned outings in Euroa and Jerilderie, during which no blood was spilled, it seems unlikely for straight up massacre to have been his next move. Given the efforts he had previously gone to in order to prove he was not bloodthirsty, this is not a consistent mindset. To accept this explanation does not require a deeper look into the behaviour and psychology of Ned Kelly or his gang, relegating them to be cast as cartoon villains.
3) Escalation of a war with police
By looking at what has been definitively established, contemporary rumours, and Ned Kelly’s own statements such as the Cameron and Jerilderie letters and the letters he dictated in gaol, we can see that Ned Kelly saw himself as being in some kind of war with police, referring to them as his “natural enemies”. In light of this, it could be supposed that Kelly intended to disable the police in order to remove the threat of capture. Such a large scale attack would in turn potentially make the government wary of continuing to pursue the outlaws. Taking out the bulk of the police force that were stationed in Benalla, the regional headquarters, would leave the Benalla police station unmanned, whereupon the gang and sympathisers would be able to take control of the station as a headquarters for themselves and take control of the town. Ned intimated on occasion that he desired to rob the bank in Benalla, and it was well known that since the Jerilderie raid the gang had been looking desperately for a suitable target for a robbery around Beechworth or Yackandandah in particular. Such a plan is more in line with what the gang did when they bailed up the town of Jerilderie, using the police barracks as a base of operations. It also demonstrates a more extreme thought process, whereby Ned was willing to take out huge numbers of police in order to ensure a greater chance of success and to intimidate his remaining opponents into backing down. If this was his aim, it has echoes of the kind of guerrilla warfare carried out by the IRA and implies a far more militaristic mindset than on the gang’s previous two outings. Ned established that he felt that he was right in striking first, even with lethal force, in order to protect himself. By 1880 the pursuit had likely taken a physical and mental toll on him and made him desperate. It is also worth noting that Mrs. Byrne had been bragging the gang we’re going to do something to make all of Australia’s ears tingle.
There is room to speculate what the intention was at Sherritt’s hut. Ned Kelly would later claim he had not ordered Sherritt’s murder; that it must have been a decision made by the others. This seems to marry up with Ned’s claim at the time he was trying to break the train line that many police had been shot in Beechworth and he was expecting a train full of police and trackers in response. It was known that Aaron Sherritt had police staying in his hut with him. Later, Ned would suggest that the police must have tortured Aaron to make him complicit. It stands to reason that if Ned was intent on taking out a train load of police that he would also be inclined to take out a party of police that he suspected were stationed with his friend against his will.
Regardless of the exact plan, Glenrowan was picked as the location and Ettie Hart was sent to scope out the area and gauge the sympathies of Ann Jones who owned one of the two pubs in town, the other being the McDonnell’s Railway Tavern, which was run by known sympathisers. As Glenrowan had no telegraph station of its own it would be unlikely that news of the train line being damaged there would be able to get out in time to warn the police. Ned knew there was a chance, however, that he might need to take prisoners to prevent someone raising the alarm, thus it suited his purpose to have access to Ann Jones’s inn.
The gang each had a home-made suit of iron armour to protect them from bullets. It is unclear what the initial idea behind the armour was, but based on Joe Byrne’s later comments it was Ned Kelly’s idea alone. Ned would at one time indicate they were meant to protect the gang from guards when robbing banks, but the unprotected legs and arms may have gone against this idea.
Some have speculated that the design of the armour was devised with the intention that the wearers would be shooting downwards from an embankment, thus eliminating the need for leg protection. This very specific application seems unlikely if there was to be any further use of the armour after the derailment. It may simply have been the case that armour thick enough to be bulletproof would simply have been too heavy if it also covered the arms and legs.
The notion of the armour is mysterious as there has never been a definitive primary source found that explains the genesis of the idea. It is known that the gang’s hideout on Bullock Creek had an armoured door, so it seems likely that Ned Kelly was aware of the usefulness of a bulletproof protection as far back as mid-1878. There have been scores of suggestions as to where the idea for the armour originated from the novel Lorna Doone to a suit of Japanese armour in the Burke Museum in Beechworth.
The armour covered the head, chest, back, thighs, and in Ned’s case his upper arms as well (he probably also had a plate to protect his buttocks that has long disappeared, but is featured in contemporary illustrations.) Joe and Dan also had iron plates that joined the body armour together to encase the torso like a cuirass. The helmets offered limited scope of vision and we’re supposed to have had quilted lining sewn inside to pad them. The iron was taken mostly from ploughs, the mouldboards being an appropriate shape and size to use. It also appears that some sheet metal was likely also used in some instances such as Steve Hart’s backplate. Rumours persist that the armour was either made by sympathetic blacksmiths or the gang themselves using a partly submerged green log as an anvil that would dull the sound of hammering. The quality of the smithing indicates that a blacksmith was probably involved at some point.
Murder of Sherritt
On the evening of 26 June, 1880, Anton Wick was walking along the road to El Dorado as night fell. He knew the way well enough as he had lived there a long time. As he was walking, he was passed by two riders leading a packhorse who ignored him before doubling back. One of the riders asked Wick if he recognised him, to which Wick replied that he didn’t. The rider revealed himself to be Joe Byrne and flashed his pistol. Wick was handcuffed by Dan Kelly, the other rider, and walked back up the road to the Devil’s Elbow where Aaron Sherritt lived in an old miner’s hut with his wife. The bushrangers hitched their horses and walked up to the hut. Joe Byrne took Anton Wick to the back door and Dan Kelly guarded the front door in case anyone tried to escape.
Byrne ordered Wick to call out to the occupants. Inside were Aaron Sherritt, his wife Belle as well as his mother-in-law and four policemen, who were in the bedroom preparing for the evening’s watch party at the Byrne selection. When Wick called for assistance it was Belle who asked who it was. “It’s Anton Wick; I’ve lost myself,” was the reply. Ellen Barry told Aaron to tell the old German where to go. Aaron opened the back door and said “Do you see that sapling?” before noticing movement by the chimney. Aaron asked, “Who’s there?” Suddenly Byrne pushed Wick aside and unloaded a barrel from his shotgun into Sherritt’s torso, followed by a second blast that tore Sherritt’s throat apart. Sherritt staggered back and hit the dirt floor without any utterance. Joe coldly stated “That’s the man I want.” He would also say, “The bastard will never put me away again.” As Belle wailed over her husband’s body, Dan Kelly was brought inside. For two hours the bushrangers attempted to flush the police out of the bedroom but the officers cowered inside, even trapping Belle under the bed, pinning her against the wall with their feet until she passed out and did the same with her mother. At one point Dan Kelly attempted to set fire to the house but the wood was too wet to catch and there was no available kerosene. Dan and Joe freed Wick and left at about 9:00pm. Inside, constables Duross, Dowling, Alexander and Armstrong remained, too petrified to see if the bushrangers had gone until after sunrise the following day. They were convinced the gang had surrounded the hut to trap them. It was unclear what the packhorse the bushrangers had with them was carrying. There is some reason to believe it was their armour, which they never wore during the affair.
Meanwhile in Glenrowan
Ned Kelly and Steve Hart arrived in Glenrowan around the same time Dan and Joe left El Dorado. They put their horses in the paddock of McDonnell’s tavern and took tools to try and take up the railway track. They went a short distance down the line to where the track curved on an embankment and attempted to break it. In the event that a train did not stop before hitting a broken line at this spot it would have resulted in catastrophe, but they had the wrong tools and were unsuccessful in their sabotage. Already things were not going to plan, but Ned Kelly was resourceful.
Realising that they were out of their depth, the bushrangers went to a row of tents pitched between the train station and Ann Jones’ inn. Thinking these were railway workers, they awoke them one by one with the intention of making them damage the tracks for them. Ned interrupted the foreman Alfonso Piazzi attending to “country matters” and a scuffle ensued. Piazzi pulled a gun on Ned but the bushranger knocked it aside with his carbine causing it to go off. Fortunately nobody was injured, but soon all the men, and the woman Piazzi had in his tent, were rounded up and ordered to break the line. It was then explained to the outlaws that they were not able to do as asked as they were not railway workers, they were labourers who had been working with the gravel along the line and knew nothing about the tracks. Ned was then informed that he would need the stationmaster. He proceeded to take the men with him to the gatehouse where John Stanistreet, the stationmaster, resided.
Stanistreet and Jones
John Stanistreet and his wife were roused by knocking at the door, which was not uncommon as they had frequently been pestered by people travelling late at night requesting that the railway gates be opened so they could pass through (a substantial amount of whom were Kelly sympathisers.) However, before the door could be answered, Ned Kelly burst in and held the couple at gunpoint, demanding Stanistreet come with him. When Ned ordered Stanistreet to instruct the gravel collectors on how to disassemble the track, Stanistreet informed him that he had no understanding of how to do that himself and that it was the plate-layers that would know what to do. Ned’s patience was wearing incredibly thin and he took Stanistreet with him to the Glenrowan Inn which was not much more than a few metres away. Steve Hart was left to guard the labourers.
Ann Jones and her daughter Jane, who were sharing a bed, were woken up by Ned knocking at the door. When Ann answered, John Stanistreet and Ned Kelly were there waiting. Ned ordered Ann to accompany him to the gatehouse but before they left Ned watched Ann and Jane get dressed to make sure there was no funny business. He then took the keys and locked the door to the bedroom where Ann’s sons were sleeping. Ann and Jane were taken to the gatehouse and added to the growing number of prisoners. Ned left Steve in charge while he went to look for the plate-layers.
Bailing up the plate-layers
Ned walked down the line and bailed up a plate-layer named Sullivan, then as he was crossing the tracks they met James Reardon. Reardon had been roused by his dog barking and asked what Sullivan was doing out at such an hour, whereupon he was told that Ned Kelly had bailed him up. Ned appeared and pushed the muzzle of his pistol into Reardon’s cheek and demanded to know who he was. When Reardon confirmed he was a plate-layer, Ned stated that there had been a conflict near Beechworth and many police were killed. He explained that he was expecting a train full of police to come in response and that the plate-layers would help him dismantle the track to wreck the train. They were marched back to the gatehouse.
When Ned returned, the gravel collectors and Stanistreet were waiting with Steve Hart. Reardon announced that his tools were at home. Ned sent Steve to get the men to fetch tools from the shed while he went back with Reardon. After much hassle a length of the rail was displaced. The half hour job had taken two hours. With this, the group retired to the gatehouse for refreshments.
At around 5:00am, Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly arrived in Glenrowan, left their horses at McDonnell’s and went to the gatehouse to meet Ned. It is unclear if they expressed any details to him about what had transpired in El Dorado the previous night.
At breakfast time, Ann Jones suggested sending Jane across to stoke the fires and begin preparing meals. She also suggested Ned could have a wash up there. Ned sent Joe Byrne across to the inn with Jane to keep an eye on her. The fires were stoked and Jane checked on her brothers. Soon the male prisoners were brought across to the inn and the women and children were left at the gatehouse under Steve’s watch, excepting the Joneses who remained at the inn to serve the food and drinks.
The police in Aaron’s hut
When the police felt safe to leave the bedroom it was already morning. They asked Ellen Barry for a drink. She told them that there was water on the table. Belle tossed the water out saying it may have been poisoned and was then told by the men to go outside and fetch water. The first attempt by the police to get help failed when the local schoolteacher they asked told them his wife wouldn’t let him go. The next attempt was when a Chinese man was stopped and paid to take a note to Beechworth police station. The Chinese man soon returned saying he couldn’t take the note as it was too far. He kept the money.
Stuck for options, the police asked Aaron’s neighbour to send word but although the neighbour said he would do it when he made a trip into town the police did not trust him to follow through. Frustrated, Constable Armstrong commandeered a horse and rode to Beechworth. It was midday when he arrived to tell Detective Ward the news. Once the information reached Ward he sent telegrams to inform his colleagues.
As Sunday rolled on the gang continued to add to the number of prisoners. The longer the wait, the more difficult it was proving to be to stop people from noticing what the gang was up to. Male captives in the Glenrowan Inn occupied themselves with card games such as cribbage and bought drinks. Ann Jones would comment to Ned Kelly that she would be glad if he came every weekend given how much business he had drummed up for her. Steve Hart continued to guard the women and children in the gatehouse but grew increasingly laissez-faire, drinking heavily and even napping on a sofa with two revolvers resting on his chest. Mrs. Stanistreet would note that despite how much he had to drink, he managed to retain an admirable level of sobriety and self control. At one point Dan Kelly burst into the gatehouse in search of a bag. It was unclear why he was so desperate to find it.
Around mid-morning, three boys, the Delaney brothers, went out with the intention of going kangaroo hunting with their greyhound. They went looking for Michael Reardon to accompany them. Unable to find anyone at the Reardon house they continued to walk down the line. As they reached the crossing they were bailed up by Ned Kelly, who was riding Joe’s grey mare. He escorted them back to the gatehouse but when he recognised 15 year-old Jack Delaney as a youth that had helped police some months earlier, he became apoplectic. Kelly ranted and abused the boy, accusing him of trying to sell him out to the police. Delaney was trembling so violently with fear that he shattered a clay pipe he was borrowing. Ned went so far as to thrust a pistol into Delaney’s hand, suggesting he shoot him right there if he was so keen on helping the police. Within moments, Joe Byrne emerged from the gatehouse and intervened, telling Ned to go away and cool off. Such an incredible outburst showed how the stress of his plan falling apart, combined with alcohol consumption and a lack of sleep, was causing him to act irrationally.
As the drama with the Delaney boys was unfolding, Thomas Curnow was driving his buggy, accompanied by his wife and baby, his sister and his brother-in-law. As they reached the railway crossing, they were flagged down by Stanistreet who warned them Ned Kelly had bailed everyone up. A moment later, Kelly appeared and confirmed this. He sent the women into the gatehouse and Curnow parked his buggy at the I before he and his brother-in-law joined the other male prisoners inside.
The Glenrowan Games
In the afternoon, the outlaws became aware of the growing restlessness of their prisoners. Ned initiated a series of sporting games, even participating in hop-step-jump while holding a revolver in each hand. After the sports, Dan Kelly suggested a dance and the bar was cleared out to allow space for the activity. Dave Mortimer played concertina and Dan asked Thomas Curnow to join him. Curnow insisted he needed to fetch his dancing shoes and asked to go home and fetch them. Ned considered the request until he was informed that in order to get to Curnow’s house it required passing the police station. Ned immediately refused the request and Curnow begrudgingly accepted this outcome. He had spent the preceding hours gathering information about Ned’s plan and was determined to stop the police train from derailing. His first attempt may have failed, but he continued to scheme.
Superintendent Hare received word that there was a telegram waiting for him at 2:30pm. He immediately went to the Benalla Telegraph Office where he was informed by a telegram from Captain Standish of Sherritt’s murder. A request was sent to Captain Standish to arrange for Sub-Inspector O’Connor and his native police, who were about to return home to Queensland, to come back to Beechworth for a fresh pursuit. Hare was joined by Superintendent Sadleir and they began to formulate a plan to pursue the outlaws from El Dorado as soon as possible.
After buttering Ned up, Curnow received consent to visit his pregnant wife at the gatehouse. Here he attempted to curry favour with Steve Hart by helping him remove his boots and soaking his sore feet in warm water. He later informed Ned that Stanistreet kept a loaded revolver in his office, which Ned ordered Steve to confiscate. Curnow hoped that this would bring Ned to trust him, then once trust was established he would be able to seek permission to leave.
Special train organised
It wasn’t until the evening that Standish was able to arrange for O’Connor and his trackers to return to active duty for the Victorian police. He then organised a special train to leave Spencer Street that night, consisting of a locomotive, guard van and first class carriage. Just as Ned had asserted, this was not to be a civilian train but a conveyance specifically to get O’Connor and his team to Benalla and then the entire police search party to Beechworth from there.
Once O’Connor confirmed his involvement, it was agreed that he and his trackers (Hero, Jacky, Barney, Johnny, and Jimmy) would board the special train at Essendon station that night. His wife and sister-in-law decided they would accompany him to Beechworth and packed for a holiday up north.
Late in the evening another dance was held, with Dave Mortimer calling the sets and playing concertina. Those who weren’t dancing were mostly indoors playing cards or drinking. At this time Jane Jones was observed sitting on Dan Kelly’s knee and kissing him. Ned spent considerable time outside talking with Ann Jones who seemed to be going out of her way to accommodate him. As the dancing died down, Ann Jones was also seen flirting with Joe Byrne, attempting to pull Scanlan’s ring off his finger while he played with her hair. Johnny Jones sang for the crowd, performing “Cailin deas cruitha na mo” (The Pretty Girl Milking a Cow) and then performing “Farewell to Greta” for Ned Kelly with the promise of a sixpence from his mother if he did so.
Bailing up Bracken
At 9pm Ned and Joe put on their armour and gathered a group of prisoners to escort them to the police barracks, where they could capture Constable Bracken. Curnow convinced Ned to take Dave Mortimer to lure Bracken out, while also gaining permission to take his family home from the barracks. Bracken was the only policeman in the town, having been stationed there to keep an eye on Kelly sympathisers for Superintendent Hare. At the barracks the group roused Bracken, who had been in bed with gastro. Ned bailed him up, but as Ned was dressed in his full armour Bracken thought it was a prank. He was made to mount up but Joe kept a close eye on him to ensure he didn’t escape.
With Bracken captured, Ned allowed Curnow to leave, warning him not to dream too loud. When the Curnows arrived home, Thomas informed them of his plan to stop the train before it reached Glenrowan. His wife feared that if the bushrangers discovered he had stopped the train they would murder the whole family.
Word sent to journalists
As the special train was being prepared, journalists from multiple publications were requested to ride to Beechworth in the train so they could report first-hand on the work the police were doing to catch the Kelly Gang. The police had been regularly criticised in the press for their apparent ineptitude for catching bushrangers since the Euroa raid in December 1878, and the government seemed keen to get good press for their officers of the law as a fresh lead had presented itself. John McWhirter, Joe Melvin, Thomas Carrington and George Allen were all sent to join the train, which left Melbourne at 10pm. Apart from rumours of a murder, there was no indication for the reporters of what was unfolding in Kelly Country, but they were soon to find themselves in a journalist’s dream and recording history unfolding right before their very eyes.
Continued in part two…