Looking for Ned: Life versus Legend


Many people have a very clear image in their head of Ned Kelly: tall, muscular, bushy beard and pompadour hairstyle. This image is Ned Kelly a day before his execution, almost six months after he was nearly shot to pieces at Glenrowan. So, if this is Ned at the end of his life how close is it to how he was in the prime of life? The truth is, even within his lifetime the idea of Ned and how he appeared was not always in line with the reality and the perception of a person can be very heavily influenced by the image we have of them. Ned’s legend has only grown since those days and the ideas of him have become so entrenched and polarising it’s time we began to try and figure out who Ned Kelly the person was. So how do we find the “real” Ned Kelly?

They say a picture says a thousand words so for this exploration we will be looking at the known images of Ned and analysing them. The earliest image of Ned is a portrait taken when he was on remand in Kyneton charged with aiding Harry Power. This image shows a gaunt looking fifteen year old in ill-fitting clothes (probably handed down from his deceased father) with a gentle wave in his hair, parted on the left demonstrating prie in his appearance. He is tight lipped and stares determinedly past the photographer almost like a challenge to some unnamed opponent. He may have been the most notorious fifteen year old of the day but nobody could have known the height of infamy this strong-bodied and hot-headed youth would reach. It was at this time that Ned was subject to an immense amount of ostracism on multiple fronts. The general public looked at him with suspicion and scorn for his criminality, many of his family and friends also looked at him with scorn because they believed he had turned Harry Power in (it was actually his Uncle Jack Lloyd who was instrumental in Harry’s capture but that’s a story for another day). So here was Ned, a teenager dealing with his own adolescence, needing to provide for his family and being treated like a black snake by all and sundry with the notable excetion of Sergeant Babington and Superintendent Nicolson who he would later write to asking for financial aide to help tide the family over. If ever there was a recipe for an angry and troubled youth this was it and Ned’s behaviour following his release from Kyneton would portray exactly this. The McCormick incident he details in his Jerilderie letter and the brawl with Senior Constable Hall demonstrate Ned to be short tempered and confrontational, traits that would land him in serious trouble.

Black snake: Ned Kelly at fifteen

The next image is Ned’s prison mugshot taken as he was finishing his sentence in Pentridge Prison.  By the time this image was taken Ned was a hardened eighteen year old and he sports a short layer of stubble that accentuates his strong jawline. Again with pursed lips and narrowed brows this is Ned Kelly finally reaching manhood among the worst of the worst the Victorian penal system had to offer. Gone is the determined gaze of the wild fifteen year old, replaced with a hardened complicity forced into him by hard labour and enforced isolation. Incidentally there is an incredibly strong probability that during his stint here Ned crossed paths with his old teacher Harry Power and the notorious Captain Moonlite himself, Andrew Scott, who was something of a go-to guy in Pentridge for contraband (which Ned did not partake in). Ned had spent the past two plus years learning various skills including bricklaying that were to soon do him well on the outside. His time at Point Gellibrand on the Sacramento would have been his first and only time seeing any body of water greater than a river. Ned kept his head down in prison and earned himself an early remission around the time this photograph was taken. Life in Pentridge was a horror show that many fully grown men struggled to survive, let alone a seventeen year old country boy, and Ned was determined never to go back. Legend states that Ned once remarked that the next time they got him into a prison they’d have to hang him.

Ned Kelly during his stint in Pentridge

When Ned Kelly was released from prison he went straight – for a while. There are multiple images claiming to be Ned during this time but the only one that has been authenticated is an image that was not known to authorities of the time depicting Ned in his underwear, boxing shorts and slippers in a boxing pose which, according to the handwritten annotations on the foot of the image, was taken to commemorate his boxing match with Wild Wright. Ned looks every inch the confident young man, his features much softer in expression than the previous two images but still strong. This is the Ned of legend – tough, skilled with his hands and handsome. If only his notorious temper and personal brand of justice hadn’t toppled this path to success we may have never seen the ensuing outbreak of lawlessness that thrilled, entertained and terrified the nation for three years and cemented his place in our history.

Ned Kelly as a nineteen year old boxing champion

That this image was apparently unknown to authorities in the time of Ned’s outlawry explains why it was never used to try and demonstrate his appearance. Instead, when the Kelly gang bailed up the police camp at Stringybark Creek and killed three of the troopers the police were still relying on his prison mugshot. Thereafter the police created a myriad of doctored images to try and convey Ned’s potential appearance to assist in his capture. The results range from passable to ludicrous.

This image puts Ned Kelly’s head on the shoulders of James Nesbitt, a fellow Pentridge inmate and partner of Captain Moonlite, with an added beard and longer hair to update his look creating a surprisingly accurate image of the outlaw
This rather uninspired mock up merely adds a hand drawn beard and moustache to Ned’s mugshot and darkens his eyes

Not all of the mock ups were photographic. Illustrated papers of the day took the route of rather unconvincingly adding facial hair to the known photographs of Ned in etchings to make him more closely resemble the descriptions of him, usually with the image of the bushranger as a fifteen year old as the primary source. The effect was rather akin to a child wearing a false beard to look older.

This bearded fifteen year old Ned looks perplexed at the clumsy attempt to depict his likeness
A drawing based on the above etching graced the cover of G. Wilson Hall’s account of the Kelly gang
Despite the assertion that this is Ned sketched as he was leaving Benalla, it is quite clearly another portrait based on the fifteen year old Ned mirrored and with added beard, messy hair and stink-eye that lends Ned a strange and intimidating appearance
This etching, based on Ned’s mugshot, was used in a feature about the police killings at Stringybark Creek and makes him look rather more portly than it should, which has the unique quality of lending him a more thuggish countenance

With these inaccurate depictions of Ned it’s hardly surprising that he went unrecognised for so long. In fact the lack of definitive likenesses fed into the popular media of the day with cartoonists having the flexibility to simply portray a stereotypical bearded bushranger to act as a proxy for Ned. These cartoons effectively set Ned up as the arch criminal and created a visual shorthand for unmitigated criminality that could be effectively employed against controversial political figures of the day.

This Thomas Carrington cartoon shows Ned Kelly dancing around the banner of Communism with Victorian premier Graham Berry and a little lady representing The Age newspaper (Source: Melbourne Punch (Vic. : 1855 – 1900) 13 February 1879: 5.)
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This Carrington cartoon gives Ned a far different appearance more in line with how most people commonly imagined the rugged bushranger to be in order to highlight the dodgy behaviour of the Victorian government. (Source: Melbourne Punch (Vic. : 1855 – 1900) 27 February 1879: 5.)

When we look at the known images of Ned it tells us an awful lot about how the events of his life shaped him as well as showing where many of the ideas about Ned came from. There is one very controversial image that is supposedly Ned that has recently seen the light of day and has been nicknamed “Lumberjack Ned”. This image is of great interest to Kelly historians as this may be the only image to depict Ned and Dan Kelly together and more importantly it was a photograph owned by Ellen Kelly herself if the provenance proves to be true.

lumberjack ned.jpg
This low fidelity copy of the “Lumberjack Ned” photograph was published by The Australian (Source)

The image can be viewed at the Ned Kelly Vault in Beechworth inside a specially made box as the Kelly descendants that gave permission for the image to be exhibited had strict conditions for its display including that the image not be published in its full resolution. Many who have seen the image are split on the likelihood that the larger of these two men is in fact the most infamous outlaw in Australian history. More research needs to be undertaken and no doubt as time passes the opportunity to see this image in all its glory and make a more thorough and public analysis will eventuate. Until then we must be satisfied with the existing verified imagery. Should it prove to be legitimate it would be the most incredible image yet of Ned highlighting his imposing physique with rippling muscles in his arms, a neatly groomed beard and soft smile even showing teeth. This is a much more relatable Ned, a tradesman and pioneer who could have led a very different life under other circumstances.

Since Ned’s execution he has become a part of Australian folklore and his likeness, especially in his armour, has become an icon representing rebellion and toughness in a uniquely Australian way. This idea of Ned is closely associated with the idea of the Eureka rebels who were willing to lay down their lives in the pursuit of liberty and equality, thus Ned in his armour is often paired with the Eureka flag better known as the Southern Cross. In recent years Ned has been referred to as the “original hipster” for his unique beard and hairstyle. The idea of Ned as a rugged outdoorsman and “alpha male” accentuates the idea of Ned Kelly that appeals to the public consciousness and creates an almost aspirational figure for some who wish to possess such qualities. While this notion has taken root in Australian culture, it has very little to do with the historical Ned Kelly as we’ve seen.

A fabulous tattoo design by artist Paula Stirland using all-too-familiar iconography (Source)

Oral traditions and art helped to create a mythological Ned Kelly, which many will fight to protect while others fight to tear it down for, just as Captain Cook has become for many Australians a symbol of British colonialism and genocide while to others he represents ingenuity, determination and enlightenment, Ned Kelly is a symbol for people to focus their loves, hates, confidence and timidity on to. But what happens to the idea of this man so loved and reviled by so many when we look back on that image of the defiant, ill-kept and impoverished fifteen year old with only ten years ahead of him in his then-uncertain future? Or when we look at the photograph of the embittered eighteen year old whose rebelliousness, carelessness and anger has led him to the worst prison in Victoria? Does this entrench our ideas or elaborate on them? Will we ever reach a satisfactory and mutually acceptable understanding of the man Ned Kelly was or are we doomed to forever argue over preconceived ideas of Australia’s most notorious outlaw based on misremembered stories and popular culture? The real Ned Kelly is out there, you just need to look beyond the beard and helmet.

Despite what much imagery indicates, Ned Kelly never rode a motorcycle. Incidentally, this is a piece by John Harding who is actually a fantastic artist and you can see more of his work here

Captain Thunderbolt: An Overview


*** Revised and Updated, 2022 ***

Frederick Wordsworth Ward has gone down in Australian history as the quintessential bushranger. Gentlemanly, daring, and a skilled horseman and bushman, he operated under the alias of Captain Thunderbolt until his death in 1870.

Frederick Wordsworth Ward was born near Wilberforce in New South Wales in around 1834. Fred Ward was the youngest of the eleven children of ex-convict Michael Ward and free settler Sophia. When Fred was still young the family moved from Wilberforce to Maitland, and at age eleven he worked as a station hand at Aberbaldie Station in New England. From these early days, Fred had a passion for all things equine, and he had already developed bush skills that would serve him well in years to come. He spent the bulk of his adolescence working at various stations including the renowned horse stud Tocal Station.

Through early 1856 a huge theft of horses and cattle was made from Tocal and surrounding stations. Fred Ward was spotted helping his nephew John Garbutt, who had been using aliases to employ auctioneers to sell stolen horses and cattle. It was widely believed at the time that many of the Ward and Garbutt siblings were in on the crimes, engaged in wholesale horse and cattle theft. In fact, James’ brother John Garbutt, who was considered the ringleader, was sentenced to ten years hard labour in June of that year over his involvement. Ward was nabbed and held in Maitland Gaol until his trial. When he finally went to court with James Garbutt on 13 August 1856, it was on a charge of having stolen sixty horses from William Zuill, fifteen horses from Charles Reynolds, and a second charge of knowingly receiving stolen goods. This got him his first and only conviction: ten years hard labour to be served on Cockatoo Island.

After four years in prison, in 1860 Ward earned himself a Ticket-of-Leave that allowed him to work within the Mudgee district. However he was required to attend a parole muster every three months as part of the conditions of his ticket. This was when he met the charming Mary Ann Bugg, a well-educated half-Aboriginal woman who was married to a squatter. The marriage didn’t seem to bother the pair much as evidenced by the fact that soon Mary Ann was pregnant to Ward. He decided to take her back to her father near Dungog for the birth, which was an unfortunate decision as not only did this require him to leave his district, it resulted in him arriving late to his muster and thus violating the ticket of leave. Moreover, in his rush to get to the muster, Ward had pinched a horse to get him there. Needless to say this combination resulted in Ward back on Cockatoo Island, with an extra three years for the stolen horse to boot.
During his re-internment he was informed that he had to remain imprisoned for the entire duration of the sentence — a total of seven years — with no option to obtain a Ticket-of-Leave due to new regulations. Ward was subsequently involved in a prison riot. Unwilling to ride out his sentence in penal servitude, Ward conspired with a fellow inmate, highwayman Frederick Britten, to escape.

Absconding on 11 September 1863, Ward and Britten managed to breach the prison walls and swim to Woolwich. Some claimed that Mary Ann was there to help but she was accounted for elsewhere at the time. Ward would never again see the inside of a prison.
Taking to the bush, Ward and Britten began committing highway robberies around New England. With word of the crimes reaching authorities came a reward of £25 offered for their capture, and with it was an increase in search parties. Inevitably the bushrangers were spotted by a search party near the Big Rock — nowadays known as Thunderbolt’s Rock — outside of Uralla and a conflict arose. Ward was shot in the back of the left knee as they escaped, but even with this injury the police could not keep up. They followed him into the rock but only managed to collect some of his supplies.

Fred Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt

Soon the pair went their own ways and Ward began calling himself Captain Thunderbolt, possibly as a homage to a British highwayman who used the same moniker. One story goes that late one night Ward robbed a toll-keeper at Rutherford who responded that the bushranger’s bashing on his door sounded like thunder. It is said Ward presented a pistol and introduced himself, “I am the thunder and this is my bolt.”
He reunited with Mary Ann and, leaving her children with family, they kept a low profile throughout much of 1864 in the Bourke district of New South Wales. By the end of the year, however, Ward teamed up with three other desperadoes: Thomas “The Bull” Hogan, McIntosh (AKA “The Scotsman”) and John Thompson. The gang committed robberies around Bourke, Walgett, Barraba and Narrabri but in April 1865 things fell apart. During a robbery at the Boggy Creek Inn in Millie, the gang, carousing and already slightly intoxicated from a previous raid, were interrupted by a party of police in bush clothes. A gunfight ensued during which Constable Dalton was shot and wounded through the body, and Thompson was shot through the jaw and captured. Both survived their injuries. As for the others, they fled to Queensland to avoid the increased police presence with McIntosh seemingly vanishing and Hogan getting himself arrested after a drunken spree.

In a corner on the Macintyre (aka Thunderbolt at Paradise Creek), by Tom Roberts (1895) [Source]

Thunderbolt was on his own again and now more robberies were committed around Collarendabry and Liverpool Plains before a daring raid on the township of Quirindi on 8 December 1865. Thunderbolt was now accompanied by two men and they committed various robberies in town before rounding up the locals in the pub for singing and dancing. They evacuated just before a party of police arrived to chase them. The bushrangers returned the following day and did it all again.

Realising that he again faced operating alone, Ward had recruited Jemmy “the Whisperer” and Patrick Kelly. While undertaking a raid at the Carroll Inn a few days after the Quirindi caper, Jemmy shot and wounded Senior Constable Lang in yet another gunfight. This iteration of the gang did not last long and was disbanded in early 1866, whereupon Ward took Mary Ann to the Gloucester district where she was soon arrested for vagrancy and imprisoned, but was later liberated by the Governor after protests from the public.
With the new Felons Apprehension Act in place, and pressure from the public on the police force to put an end to bushranging, more search parties were sent out after Thunderbolt. Despite police and bounty hunters being hot on his tail, Ward continued his depredations.

Portrait of Frederick Ward alias Thunderbolt, by Shallard Gibbs (The Illustrated Sydney News, Vol. V, No. 75, 8 June 1870, p. 405) [Source]

On 25 May 1867 a Proclamation was made announcing a reward of £200 for the capture of Thunderbolt. At around the same time Ward recruited teenager Thomas Mason and they robbed coaches, inns and stations until Mason was nabbed after a horseback chase in September of that year. He was subsequently convicted at Tamworth and given three years hard labour. Around this time Mary Ann was also nabbed for possession of stolen goods and imprisoned.

Desperate for company, Ward took up with a married, part-Aboriginal woman named Louisa Mason, also known as “Yellow Long”, who accompanied him on his robberies but died of pneumonia at Denman on 24 November 1867.
After this turn of events Ward went back to Mary Ann who was now at liberty again. Soon Mary Ann was pregnant to Ward with their third child, and they both knew that a life on the road was not suited to her condition, so they separated for the last time. In August 1868 Mary Ann bore Ward a son whom she named Frederick Wordsworth Ward junior.

Ward continued his epic tally of crimes during 1868, this time with a young lad named William Monckton, who had joined Ward after running away from home. One of their most renowned adventures during this period was when they bailed up Wirth’s band at Tenterfield on 19 March 1868. As the story goes, Thunderbolt and his sidekick stuck up the travelling German band and were displeased with the mere £16 takings from the robbery, so Thunderbolt ordered them to perform for him for several hours. When the musicians complained about how poor they were, Thunderbolt took down a postal address and promised to send them the money back when he had more, which he supposedly did some months later.
The reward for Ward’s capture was raised to £400 just in time for Christmas 1868. While it was a fraction of what had been offered for his peers Dan Morgan, Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert, John Dunn, and the Clarkes and Connells, it was still an enormous amount to the average settler of the 1860s.

Ward and Monckton split in December 1868 and Monckton found work at Wellingrove Station. He got himself into trouble over some minor offences after leaving Ward, and was eventually recognised as Ward’s accomplice and tried in 1869. He was sentenced to serve six years hard labour, the first year in Darlinghurst Gaol, the rest in a reformatory.
After the split, Ward went quiet and would not make any notable appearances until he began to undertake intermittent mail robberies in New England. When he did appear he was alone. He would never take on any other accomplices ever again.

Death of Thunderbolt, The Bushranger by Samuel Calvert, (Illustrated Australian News, June 18, 1870)

On 25 May 1870, Ward was spotted near Blanch’s Inn near Uralla by two constables responding to a complaint about an Italian hawker having been robbed. Fleeing on horseback, Ward was pursued by Constable Alex Walker and engaged in a riding gunfight for almost an hour. Ward’s horse was shot dead and he attempted to cross Kentucky Creek on foot. Walker rode into the stream, shot Ward in the chest and clubbed him with his revolver until he was unresponsive. Walker dragged Ward onto land and rode back to the inn. The next day he and his partner rode back to retrieve the body.
The corpse was taken to the courthouse, identified and autopsied. Photographs were taken post mortem to help establish the identity in the event that decomposition began to take hold before a positive identification could be recorded. One of the people that positively identified Ward was his former sidekick Monckton who had been released after serving the first year of his sentence. Ward was buried in the local cemetery.

Cadaver of Frederick Ward, the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, by A. Cunningham, Armidale (1870) [Source]

Despite Ward’s body being positively identified, rumours were started posthumously that it was not actually him, and moreover that there was a government conspiracy to cover up the fact that he had actually escaped. The stories of Ward’s survival have been frequently debunked, but to the minority that choose to believe the folklore over the history the facts are not enough to prove them wrong.
While other bushrangers have been somewhat lionised for having never taken life, Thunderbolt conducted himself in such a way that his largely non-violent career is far more laudable. This is perhaps reflected in the way that despite his innumerable robberies, the reward for his capture was so comparably low when measured against other bushrangers. He seemed to be viewed more as a nuisance than a threat. This has helped considerably in fostering the image of Thunderbolt as a “gentleman bushranger”.

New England Highway and Thunderbolts Way, Uralla, NSW, By C. Goodwin (2008) [Source]

Further Reading:

The Captain and his Lady by Carol Baxter

Three years with Thunderbolt: being the narrative of William Monckton, who for three years attended the famous outlaw, Frederick Ward, better known as Captain Thunderbolt, as servant, companion and intimate friend: during which period he shared the bushranger’s crimes and perils and was twice severely wounded in encounters with the police edited by Ambrose Pratt

Captain Thunderbolt by Annie Louise Rixon

Riding with Thunderbolt : the diary of Ben Cross, Northern New South Wales, 1865​ by Allan Baillie

Captain Thunderbolt and Mary Ann Bugg : history, myth, legend and the ethical responsibility of the story teller​ by Warwick Hastie.

Captain Thunderbolt : horsebreaker to bushranger​ by David Brouwer

Captain Thunderbolt, bushranger by Robin Walker

Spotlight: The capture and death of Fred Lowry as it was reported 

When bushranger Fred Lowry met his end after a heated confrontation with police it created a sensation across New South Wales. Here we have excerpts from an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald about some of the happenings as well as the outlaw himself.

Photograph of the deceased Fred Lowry (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

“ON Sunday last, just as divine service was concluded, considerable excitement was caused by the arrival in town of a party of policemen in coloured clothes with a dray, in which was the dead body of Lowry, the noted bushranger, and the following prisoners :- Lawrence Cummins, charged with robbery under arms, and supposed to be the man who lately shot his brother, John Cummins, when on his way to Binda in custody on a charge of bushranging; Thomas Vardy, licensed victualler of the Limerick Races Inn, Cook’s Vale Creek ; Robert and Henry Hogan, Vardy’s stepsons ; and Thomas Brown, James Williams, a lad of sixteen, and John Watson, an aboriginal native, employed in Vardy’s service. The Last six named prisoners were all charged with harbouring bushrangers, and with being accessory to robberies after the fact.

The body of Lowry was removed to the hospital, where, in the course of the afternoon, it was seen by numbers of people. He appears to have been a very tall young man, measuring six feet two inches, and probably weighing thirteen stone, well made, with small hands and feet, white skin, small moustache, and a particularly well-developed chest. Taken altogether he was physically a very fine man. He is described as having been twenty-seven years of age; and although he must have led a life of mingled dissipation and hardship, he did not appear to be any older. 

Some doubt was expressed as to the body being that of Lowry, the bushranger; Mr. Horsford, the gaoler, who had known Lowry at Cockatoo Island, where he was undergoing a sentence under the name of Frederick M’Gregor, considered that the hair was much darker than that of the man he had known, and that he was much stouter, and was of opinion that deceased was not Lowry, though he was not able to speak positively. Mr. Fogg, a settler at the Narrawa, and his wife came into town on Monday and saw the body, which they declared was not that of Lowry; but it seemed they have not seen Lowry for three years, and although called at the inquest they did not attend. On the other hand, the Rev. H. H. Gaud, who had seen Lowry some twelve months back, believed that deceased was he, as did also Mr. Moses Baird, who, however, had not seen Lowry for seven or eight years. The evidence taken at the inquest is all in favour of the view of deceased being identical with Lowry ; and it is quite certain that he was the man who robbed the Goulburn mail on the 2nd July last-Mr. Futter, Captain Morphy, and the coachman (Michael Curran) having positively identified him, and Captain Morphy’s watch having been found in his possession.

There is every reason to believe that he is the man who in conjunction with Foley robbed the Mudgee mail. Foley and Lowry, it may be remembered, escaped together from Bathurst gaol on the 13th February last.”

It is intriguing that despite there being far less consensus about the identity of the corpse there have been no noted conspiracy theories raised in intervening years about Lowry escaping death such as the one about Captain Thunderbolt, which was generated with far less supporting evidence.

The report goes on to give a run down of Lowry’s criminal history using excerpts from other publications to illustrate. The history of the deceased out of the way the article continues with the account of the coroner, Dr. Waugh who states in part (with a seeming addiction to semi-colons):

“I directed [Detective] Camphin to keep guard in front with the same instructions, while Saunderson and myself would search the house; at the same time I told all the men that I suspected Frederick Lowry, the bushranger, was in the house, and to be prepared; we then dashed up to the house; we saw a girl, who seemed to be frightened and who was half-crying; Saunderson and I dismounted, hung our horses up to the front of the house, and went on to the verandah; I asked the girl if there was anyone in her room; she said “no”; I looked in and saw only a little child; the girl was about half-dressed; I then went into the bar and called for Vardy the landlord; Vardy came out of his bedroom into the hall adjoining the bar; I asked if he had any strangers in the house; he said “yes”; I asked where they where; he nodded his head to the room they were in; I asked if he knew who they were; he said no, and to look out; I went to the parlour door adjoining the room he mentioned and leading to it; it was locked inside; I knocked and asked for admittance; I got no answer; I then said if the door wore not opened at once I would break it open; I then knocked my shoulder against the door for the purpose of breaking it open; I failed in the first attempt, and I no sooner took my shoulder away than a shot was fired from inside, and a voice exclaimed “I’ll fight you, b__s”; the shot came through the door and wounded the horse I had been riding in the back; I removed the horse from that place and gave him to Vardy, and told him I should hold him responsible for him ; I then went back to the bar-door, and then the parlour door was opened and a man came out with a revolver in each hand crying out “I’m Lowry; come on ye b__’s, and I’ll fight ye fair”; at the same time he presented one of the revolvers at me; I covered him directly; I think we both fired together; at that time we were four or five yards apart ; he then advanced upon me within three feet; I covered him again, and we both, fired in each other’s faces; the second shot I fired he dropped his revolvers and staggered; I jumped forward and seized him by the neck, struck him with my revolver on the head, and told him he was my prisoner; I brought him into the bar; he continued to struggle; Saunderson came to my assistance; we then shoved the deceased into the yard, threw him on his back, and putting my knee on his chest I handcuffed him ; he then said he was Lowry, and was done…”
To further support the assertion of the corpse’s identity various effects of the deceased’s are detailed in the article:
“Lowry’s vest [a black-cloth vest bound with blue, with buttons like silver] ; it is similar to that described as having been worn by the robber of the Mudgee mail; I produce a thin black cloth sac coat claimed by Lowry, a brown Inverness cape, another heavier one, a cabbagetree hat with broad black ribbon, and an elastic riding-belt: one of the capes
contained a flask of powder, a few percussion caps, two dice, a gold watch, chain, and key ; I believe, from the description, that the watch belongs to Captain Morphy, who was robbed on the Big Hill, Goulburn, on the 2nd July ; I also found two knives, one £50 note, and altogether £164 19s. 6d., in notes stolen from the Mudgee mail, all except £10 in notes, £2 in gold, and 19s. 6d. in silver ; the money, except the silver, was in a little bag in Lowry’s trousers pocket…”

The article closes with a note of what was to come next:

“The body will be kept till Thursday, when Mr. Kater is expected to arrive. In the meantime some photographic likenesses of deceased have been taken by Mr. Gregory.”
Interestingly, the in-depth article detailing the thrilling exploits and capture of one of the Lachlan’s greatest outlaws is followed by two curious stubs wherein we are informed of a morning tea to welcome a new pastor and that a farmer in Wollongong had killed a pig of “unusual size”, highlighting the old adage that life goes on.


Source: ​“THE CAPTURE AND DEATH OF LOWRY, THE BUSHRANGER.” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) 4 September 1863: 2. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13083854&gt;.

Ned Kelly: What’s the Appeal? (Opinion) 

As co-writer for The Legend of Ned Kelly I was faced with the conundrum of what made Ned Kelly such a significant character. What is the legend of Ned Kelly? Why is he the one everyone thinks of when the topic of bushrangers is raised? Unfortunately, the Kickstarter to raise the initial $2.5 million AUD budget was a fizzer despite a solid effort from our team and strong enthusiasm and backing from around 400 supporters so it’ll be a while before we can get our vision on the big screen, but the question remains: what’s the appeal?

The first thing we need to look at is the debate about whether Ned Kelly was a hero or a villain and why people dig their heels in on a particular side. It’s very easy to forget that Ned Kelly was a living, breathing human being. He had loves, hates, family, friends, skills and talents just like all of us. He loved horses, he was an excellent tradesman and his favourite book was Loorna Doone. Do these qualities negate the fact that he killed policemen, robbed banks and held people hostage? Certainly not, but they help to remind us that Ned Kelly was not some cartoon character or a black hat wearing outlaw in a cowboy movie.
What value is there in casting him as a hero or villain? To those that deify Ned, he’s a champion of the oppressed, an underdog who stood up for his beliefs and was matyred trying to instigate change. He represents the ideal of standing for something and not standing idle while injustices occur. To those that vilify Ned Kelly he is a murderous psychopath, a pathological liar and the figurehead for some kind of quasi-cult. To these people he represents everything that is wrong with human kind and should be used as a kind of bogey man to make people walk the straight-and-narrow. He is irredeemable to those that see him as nothing more than a glorified thug, and untouchable to those that idolise him.
The debate then takes on a personal dimension for some who identify strongly with the respective beliefs of their side of the argument. The question of Ned’s hero or villain status becomes the indicator of one’s own moral compass. Thus the debate about Ned Kelly ceases to be about Ned Kelly at all and simply becomes a contest about the moral superiority and respective intelligence of the opponents. Ned Kelly becomes the scapegoat upon which society heaps its hang-ups about moral values.

18403054_1794737887506294_5307872411546548215_n This illustration from the Melbourne Punch shows the way that contemporary media would portray Ned Kelly in an attempt to cast him as a villain.

The second thing we need to look at is his career as a bushranger. Ned Kelly was not prolific on any account. The Clarke brothers killed more policemen, Ben Hall committed more robberies, Captain Thunderbolt was at large far longer and Mark Jeffries committed more despicable acts. His aptitude as a bushman was remarkable, but Musquito’s was considerably more so. His network of sympathisers was large, but so was Harry Power’s. Matthew Brady had more female admirers as evidenced by the letters, flowers and gifts he received from them in prison. The key difference seems to have been his approach to his own criminality. He deliberately chose not to kill indiscriminately or rob every bank from Benalla to Seymour because he was trying to send a message.
Ned Kelly believed he represented a class of people who were oppressed by the unlawful and immoral conduct of squatters and police. He wanted to cast himself as the voice of the people. He robbed banks to raise money to pay his supporters, he wrote letters in an attempt to have his voice heard. Ned Kelly’s story takes on a unique political dimension not matched in bushranging since the days of Matthew Brady and William Westwood.
Moreover, his political leanings were matched with idiosyncratic pragmatism – in the near century since Black Caesar had become the first bushranger, nobody had ever considered bulletproof armour. This helped create the symbolism of the armour. Combined with Ned’s posturing as a kind of revolutionary, the armour came to represent the idea of fighting for justice to many and a unique Australian ingenuity when faced with hurdles.

Ned Kelly’s capture sanctified him to many and made Glenrowan akin to holy ground. His armour became a powerful symbol in Australian culture as a result.

Finally, there’s the contextual element. Ned Kelly’s story closes the true “bushranger era” that began in the 1820s and reached its peak in the Gold Rush. While other bushrangers have existed since 1880, they have been rare exceptions. The Kelly story spans from the convict era, through the Gold Rush, the “squattocracy” and the introduction of trains and telegraphy.
The Kellys were like celebrities as their exploits were detailed in the media on a scale of distribution never seen before and closer to the events chronologically than ever before. The siege of Glenrowan was effectively broadcast live thanks to the ability to rapidly transmit information through the telegraph service. Ned Kelly was a media sensation because technology allowed him to be. If Captain Thunderbolt or William Westwood had been afforded the same sort of coverage there’s no doubt they’d be just as popular.
Moreover, the story of the Kelly Gang is fascinating because the themes of persecution, justice, family and criminality are almost universally relatable, and the more modern world Ned inhabited compared to other bushrangers makes it easier to understand the stories for modern audiences. To understand the times and the people of the Kelly story is to understand ourselves and our time, which takes us back somewhat to my first point.

703016609 Within hours of the siege of Glenrowan beginning, word was reaching Melbourne and police reinforcements were being sent. On top of this people were able to get almost live updates of the proceedings thanks to the relatively new invention of telegraphs.

Looking at these elements we can see that Ned Kelly is not necessarily the most interesting or necessarily the most relatable or admirable, but he is probably the most accessible for most. More depictions of his story exist across media than any other bushranger (rivaled only by Thunderbolt, Matthew Brady and Ben Hall). He’s close enough to us in time that most of the documents, relics and places are still accessible and well preserved.
The way his story was recorded plays a big part in this too. Researchers have a far easier time learning about him than, say, Dan Morgan for whom most official records no longer appear to exist. As such, Ned Kelly is an easy target for historians because you don’t have to do much digging around for the facts, thus enabling more people to have access to information and formulate an opinion than in the case of most other bushrangers. This may account for why there’s no online flame wars between factions of Moondyne Joe enthusiasts or museums dedicated to the relics of the Ribbon Gang.
That the Victoria Police museum dedicates almost a third of its floor space to the Kelly Gang is testament to the way the story has not only captured the imagination, but has been rather successfully preserved for posterity.

DSC_0556 Items such as the silk cummerbund Ned Kelly received for saving Dick Shelton from drowning help people create a connection to the Kelly story not possible with many other bushrangers.

So what then is the legend of Ned Kelly? It seems that the legend of Ned Kelly is that a widow’s son emerged from poverty in rural colonial Victoria to become a self-proclaimed people’s champion and the most wanted man in the British Empire – a so-called “public enemy number one”. In death he became a symbol that was much more potent than he could ever have hoped to have been in life, because word of his deeds and character traveled at an unprecedented rapidity and gave people time to form a connection before the story had ended. It’s not that Ned Kelly was a prolific criminal or even that he was necessarily the best at what he did, it was that he hit a nerve at just the right time to cement his reputation in the cultural psyche and that is why it’s important to examine these stories. Understanding why Ned Kelly is integral to our culture allows us to reflect on the values we, as a nation and society, hold in esteem and who we are as people.

70356152 A legend in his own lifetime, Ned Kelly was just the right person to help cement Australia’s attitudes to authority and criminality in ways that impact even today.

Australian Bushranging Merchandise

*** Updated for 2021 ***

As a bushranger enthusiast it’s always bothered me that there’s such a lack of bushranger related things to wear and use so I decided to fill the gap in the market myself and have a whole bunch of bushranger related designs on Redbubble:


This gives customers a wider range of products, and most at slightly better prices. However, there is also a merchandise store at TeePublic, where you can get some of the designs that haven’t yet been put up on the Redbubble store. Some of these designs have a more vintage feel to them, if that’s your thing, but all of the designs across both stores are original and unique to Australian Bushranging. All products are high quality and made to order, ranging from t-shirts and hoodies to phone covers and mugs and beyond.


I addition, there is also a shop page on this website where you will be able to get exclusive items such as books and art cards as they become available. Payment options include PayPal and credit card.


Purchasing merchandise from any of these outlets helps support the ongoing work I do for A Guide to Australian Bushranging while also catering to the bushranging enthusiasts who are tired of the same mass-produced items that can be found everywhere from tourist traps to tobacconists. I always make sure never to put up a design I wouldn’t be happy to wear on my own clothes or other items, and many of these items are in my personal wardrobe. You can rest assured that what you will be getting is a quality, bespoke item and not something churned out in a factory in Bangladesh and sold at 300% profit.

~ Aidan Phelan

Spotlight: Ned Kelly at Bay

“NED KELLY AT BAY” from The Australasian Sketcher, 03/07/1880

This iconic image of Ned Kelly was first sketched by Thomas Carrington, a press artist, during the siege of Glenrowan. Carrington had been part of the press party on the police special train that had been sent from Melbourne to record the hunt for Aaron Sherritt’s murderers. Carrington’s account of the siege and Kelly’s capture were recorded in the newspapers at the time and later released as a book in 2003 titled Ned Kelly: The Last Stand.

Carrington’s vivid and imaginative description of the sight of Ned assaulting the police in an attempt to return to the besieged Glenrowan Inn helps to capture the excitement onlookers must have felt watching the scene:

“And now occurred the most sensational event of the day. Just about break of day, standing on the right hand side of the station, the Beechworth end, suddenly we noticed one or two of the men on the extreme right, with their backs turned to the hotel, firing at something in the bush. Presently we noticed a very tall figure in white, stalking slowly in the direction of the hotel. There was no head visible, and in the dim light of morning, with all the steam rising very heavily from the ground, it looked, for all the world, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father with no head, only a very long, thick neck.
Those who were standing with me did not see it for some time, and I was too intent on watching its movements to point it out to the others. The figure continued gradually to advance, stopping every now and then, and moving what looked like its headless neck slowly and mechanically round, and then raising one foot on a log and aiming and firing a revolver. Shot after shot was fired at it, but without effect, the figure generally replying by tapping the butt end of its revolver against its neck, the blows ringing out with the clearness and distinctness of a bell in the morning air. It was the most extraordinary sight I ever saw or read of in my life, and I felt fairly spell-bound with wonder, and I could not stir or speak.”


Carrington, Thomas. Ned Kelly: The Last Stand. South Melbourne: Lothian, 2003. Print.

“CATCHING THE KELLYS.” The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) 5 July 1880: 6. Web. 27 Jun 2017 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article5983068&gt;.