“There is a great untold Australian story of tragedy and triumph that has been covered in a mountain of myth”: Darren K. Hawkins and Leo Kennedy Interviewed

The Ned Kelly story remains one of the most popular and enduring in Australian history, but there are always multiple perspectives from which to look at it. One of the most overlooked perspectives is of the families of the slain policemen, whose spilt blood cemented the Kelly Gang in infamy. Of these men, Sergeant Michael Kennedy was the most distinguished, and now independent filmmaker Darren K. Hawkins wants to tell his story in film – and not just the tragic ending. The project is supported by Leo Kennedy, a descendant of the policeman, whose book about Ned Kelly from the perspective of law and order, Black Snake, has become one of the most popular currently available titles on the subject.

Darren and Leo both took time out of their schedules to discuss the project with Aidan Phelan, exclusively for A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

Thank you for taking some time to have a chat. To open up, let’s talk a bit about Michael.

How would you best describe what you are aiming for with this project?

Darren: It’s multi-layered. First and foremost, Michael and Bridget’s story being told to a wider audience, cinematically.  Michael Kennedy, and two other police were murdered by the Kelly gang at Stringybark. This is something that has never been disputed by history, even Ned’s own words in his trial for the murders, yet Michael has been consigned to a mere footnote of history.  I’d love that people who watch the film begin to find out about the REAL Michael Kennedy to begin with. He wasn’t the stereotype of the “bad cop” that a lot of the police in the Kelly narrative have been tarred as being. This is a narrative that has to be corrected. The community support for his wife Bridget was overwhelming too. If the Kennedys were bad people, this wouldn’t have happened. This amazing woman became a tower of strength for her young family. There’s just so much to unpack, the more you find out about them.

If I can start a conversation for people who watch the film, to ask themselves about the REAL story, for them to do the research, find out more and draw their own conclusions, then I will have achieved something special.

Leo: The [aim is] telling of Michael and Bridget’s story to a wide audience, cinematically; and also a retelling of one of the darkest chapters of the Kelly Gang. Michael Kennedy and two other policemen were murdered by the Kelly gang at Stringybark Creek. Despite the remarkable police career of Michael and life of Bridget outside of their area their story is not widely known. But the Kelly Gang story and Stringybark Creek murders have now become unrecognisable and distant from the real history. It is sad that Michael has been consigned to a mere footnote of history; and the villain of the piece is now incorrectly feted. If only people could watch a film and begin to find out about the REAL Michael Kennedy. He wasn’t the phoney Kelly narrative of a stereotypical “bad cop”. This is an opportunity to correct that narrative. The community supported his wife Bridget and family very generously and caringly. This generosity sprang from the Kennedys’ own kindness being repaid. This amazing woman became a tower of strength for her young family. She also played a large and influential part in the community. I hope the film ignites people to reconsider our history and go after the REAL story for themselves. That is one of the reasons I laid out as many references as possible in my book, Black Snake – the Real Story of Ned Kelly. People can do the research and draw their own conclusions. Between my book and this movie I hope myth can be replaced with true history.

What was it that drew you to the story of Sergeant Kennedy?

Darren: As a young boy, naturally, I was drawn to stories about our history, I was fascinated by stories of the bushrangers.  As an adult, I began to discover that not everything that had been presented to me in the past was consistent. By chance I saw Leo Kennedy on a television show talking about his great grandfather and something struck a chord with me listening to him talk.  I started researching Michael Kennedy and discovered that here was a man that was not only respected by his community and peers, but in many ways was ahead of his times. It’s in those moments that you realise what sort of a significant individual he was, that his murder, the loss of his life, well, you just feel the incredible loss of a life that WOULD have been so much more.

Leo: I grew up hearing stories of Sergeant Kennedy, the exemplary policeman and his stoic widow Bridget who raised their five children. My mother also instilled in me a great interest in history. I was drawn to stories about our family and Australian history. Going to secondary school I was confronted by others who had been presented with a fictionalised account of history; and was shocked by the awe in which they held a murderer. Unfortunately it did not stop there. The situation got even worse when places sacred to us were taken over in the name of tourism and our family members and police officers were maligned. I started to step up and called out the errors and mistruths; and restore pride in our murdered policemen. They deserved much better than to be villainised and their murderer be lauded. It is a gross travesty. Michael Kennedy was respected by his community and peers; and was both influential in his tolerance and extending the hand of friendship to all people in this fast expanding colony; and innovative in policing. A man ahead of his times.  His impact was significant. It is very sad such an individual was cut short and his family impacted so dreadfully. The violent loss of his life changed our family’s course in history; and has had ramifications for generations.

How do you see the character of Michael Kennedy, and what qualities will be at the fore in this interpretation?

Darren: An honourable man, loving, loved, respected, devoted to his duty and his community.  Michael Kennedy for my mind was not only the sort of man you WANTED to be your local police officer, but you’d want as a friend.

Leo: Michael was an honourable man, loving, loved, respected, devoted to his family, duty and his community.  Michael was held up to me as the sort of man I should aspire to be. I recall former Chief Commissioner Ken Lay reading his record and saying that “this is a remarkable record, it is what we would want all our police officers’ records to be”.

How will the other members of the Mansfield party be woven into the narrative?

Darren: Michael Scanlan in particular will play a large part.  Kennedy and Scanlan had a close bond, a close friendship . In this telling of the story too, when Kennedy and Scanlan are tasked with apprehending the Kelly’s , the first people that they think of are Lonigan and McIntrye . I want to show a fun comrade between Kennedy and Scanlan too.

Leo: Michael Scanlan should play a large part.  They were close and had a great friendship. There was a lot of fun and camaraderie between them.

How important for your vision is it to concentrate on the Kennedy family rather than simply the incident that deprived them of their breadwinner? 

Darren: His murder, and again, let’s be blunt, that’s what is was, I don’t want to dwell on it and glorify it. For too long that part has been the only time Michael was mentioned. This man was more than that. His wife Bridget was more than that.  Their story is what needs to be told. These were amazing people in quite the cultural melting pot of colonial Victoria. The community reaction to rally behind Bridget and her young family (as well as Lonigan’s widow Maria let me add) shows just how much of an effect she had too.   The fact that the community continued to rally and petition the government for years to help her, that she and Maria were the FIRST to receive a legacy pension, these men, their wives, their families, were so much more and deserve so much more.

Leo: In past tellings of his story his murder unfortunately overshadows all he was and did. For too long that event has been the only mention of him. He was so much more. And Bridget has an inspirational story too. Their story needs to be told. A story of love, doing good, overcoming grief; of pressing on. All in the cultural melting pot of burgeoning colonial Victoria. It would be fantastic to capture the community reaction and to see them rally behind Bridget and her young family. As they did for Lonigan’s widow Maria and family. The community would not let their dire situation continue. They rallied and petitioned the government for years to help her. That Bridget and Maria were the first to receive a legacy type pension, this established a precedent that has since been followed. These policemen and their wives and families were so much more than how they have been portrayed and presented. They deserve much more attention and consideration.

Given the recently released short feature Stringybark, which ostensibly covers the same ground as what you are looking at with Michael, comparisons will be drawn. What separates what you are aiming for and what has gone before?

Darren: I have to be honest, I haven’t had the opportunity to see the other short (especially with so many festivals closing their doors due to Covid), so I can’t comment on what ground it covers. If, however, it just covers Stringybark Creek, the large difference will be that Michael, while showing what happened at Stringybark Creek, aims to not concentrate upon the Kellys, and focuses upon the human side of the tragedy, the Kennedys in particular, something that I truly [believe] to be unique in any past cinematic retelling of any part of the Kelly story.

Leo: I am forever grateful to have been involved in Stringybark. It covers a section one of what Darren is covering in the life and times of Michael and Bridget. As the title indicates it covers a short lead up to the party forming and heading to Stringybark, the three murders, the escape of McIntyre; and the finding of the bodies. The difference here will be the deep dives into the lives and who these people are. Key is the focus upon the human side of the tragedy. The impact of the tragedy on the Kennedys, the Lonigans, Scanlans and the McIntyres, in particular, has never been explored or exposed before. This is quantum shift in the telling of history. The victims’ story. The story of those who carry the grief.

Leo Kennedy

Naturally, people are going to be interested in how you will portray the Kelly Gang, Ned in particular. What is your interpretation of them, and how will they fit into the film?

Darren: The Kelly gang are bit players in the film. This will be Michael and Bridget’s story. I know t.his may get a lot of the Kelly supporters upset, but I’m not going to glorify the actions of a man that, by his own words in his trial, admitted to hunting down and then murdering a wounded man who begged for his own life. Those were Ned’s own words in his trial. People can serve that up any way they want, but those were Ned’s own words.

My interpretation of the Kelly gang, and this is from a man who, when he was younger, like many Australians, saw him as some “hero fighting for the freedoms of others”; as someone who played both Dan Kelly and Steve Hart on stage; from all my research, I no longer see the Kellys as heroes.

Leo: As this is Michael and Bridget’s story; the Kellys are minor and correctly cast as the villains of the piece. I hope there is an insight provided into a young man brought up to be anti-establishment and longing for the bad old days. A man in denial of the fast growing reality that wild colonial life is coming to speedy end. He is a relic clinging to a past that he had romanticised; haunted and taunted that he was Power’s pup and only holding the horses. His cattle and horse thieving empire has just imploded and his impetuousness and recklessness now have him facing an attempted murder charge and his mother who was an accessory has just been gaoled. He is at the end of the road – but won’t surrender. There is no glory in the path he takes or his actions. This is a man who steals from the bodies of those he has murdered. He is a very low man, if a man at all. A man who murders a husband and father who has pleaded for his life. Ned’s own words and deeds make him who he is. The Kelly gang were not heroes

In the Kelly world there’s a constant tug of war between whether the story is viewed with a pro-Kelly or pro-police slant. What is your view on that, and how will it be reflected in the film?

Darren: Good question! I know that what we’re doing with this film, it will be seen as having a pro-police slant.  From the simple point of view that I’m telling the story of one of the police that Kelly murdered.  I’d like to think that what I want to do with this is to have more of a “pro-history” view and let the audience decide as to where they fit.

Leo: I am hoping there is no slant; just a straight telling of a tragic story. There are plenty of historical primary records on which to base this movie; instead of the embellishments that have been added for over a century. It is one where a man new to this country works hard to make it a better place; his life is ended too soon when he is one of three policemen that Kelly murdered. A balanced presentation based on facts. One that enables an audience to take in information and form a view.

There’s a lot of potential in telling this story to be able to create a sort of bridge between the camps. Do you believe that Michael will be able to please people on both sides of the divide and highlight the things they can all agree on, rather than pushing one perspective as the entire truth?

Darren: Yes, there will be some dramatic licence.  We don’t have any digital recordings from the people that lived through everything that happened in those days, but what we DO have are plenty of documents.  Newspapers, gazettes, hansard from parliament, written record of events as they happened. That’s where I’m taking this film’s core from.

Leo: The only camps I know of are families and non family story (all too often myth) tellers. A factual telling will heal the families and restore their confidence in media makers. When I have spoken to people about Black Snake – the Real Story of Ned Kelly and about Michael and Bridget; I have sensed a genuine interest in them and their story. The “pro-Kelly myth” narrative is tired and tarnished. The families long for the real story to be told; not a collection of embellishments and false stereotypes. The telling of real history is long overdue. It is time for the telling of Michael’s story.

You’re currently raising funds to get a short feature made, what’s the game plan like once you hit the funding target?

Darren: I’ve been very lucky that I have a LOT of very talented people that have already committed themselves to the project, so I feel quite blessed that I don’t need to do a search for the talent. A number of the locations have been scouted, so in many ways, we’re ready to roll. I have a target that will get the film made, funding past that, and like any target, we’d all love to go past the target to ensure the belt doesn’t have to be as tugged tight. Should the fundraising REALLY excel, then we can move towards the feature version, which is the endgame.

Darren K. Hawkins

You’ve had a lot of experience, Darren, in front of and behind the camera, would you say this is potentially the most ambitious undertaking you’ve pursued to date as a filmmaker?

Darren: I would have to say that it is.  This is a period specific piece too, which provides it’s own set of challenges, but something that I’m not only relishing the challenge of, but embracing. This project is something that I’m very passionate about, I don’t think I’ve worked on something that’s quite lit the fire in my belly the way this has. I suppose it’s not only because I’m a bit of a film geek, but I’m a bit of a history nerd too!

Have you got anyone earmarked for the cast and crew yet?

Darren: Indeed I do!   I’ve got a brilliant actress in Lauren Hamilton Neill already to play Bridget and a soon as the fundraiser is done, I’ll be heading to the casting director (who has been in the industry since the 1980’s) who has agreed to get onto the casting of Michael for me.

Crew wise, the amazing Casimir Dickson who was the DOP for Legend of the Five and is a multi award winning DOP and my executive producer, Sara Joyce just finished working with Alex Proyas on his latest film. These are just a couple of examples of the incredible talents that have committed to this film!

Lauren Hamilton Neill is slated to appear as Bridget Kennedy

The project has clearly been given a great deal of support by Leo – who reached out to whom first?

Darren: I tried getting in touch with Leo via Email some time before recently, but the mail was probably lost in the ether!  After my interview with 3AW, Leo reached out to me via email and I’ve been blown away by his generosity with his time since.

Will you be using Black Snake – the Real Story of Ned Kelly as the basis of the screenplay, or will you be looking to a wider range of sources?

Darren: Both. I’ve drawn on information from a number of sources for the initial screenplay. The internet has some great source material that you can find via digital records these days, records that were once only on microfiche or in the back room of a library. Newspaper articles and the actual records of the legacy payments to Bridget Kennedy and Maria Lonigan are right there for all to see. Leo’s book, Black Snake, has also been an amazing reference source too. An absolute WEALTH of first hand information, and more importantly, direct family information, how it affected their family and there’s a treasure trove of information that had just never really been presented.  His book is a MUST for anyone wanting to get a broader understanding of the narrative.

As I move towards the feature, my hope is that I can spend some quality time with Leo and other members of the Kennedy family (and indeed the familes of Lonigan, Scanlan and McIntrye). A story like this isn’t complete without their input.

Leo: I deliberately included tomes of references in my book, Black Snake, to assist anyone to undertake their own research. Many are internet references to make people’s research easier. My book addresses the many misunderstandings of the time and the people; and that is done by accurately quoting from the original sources. I have offered to assist in the research of the characters and history.

What would you say is the most fundamental message that people need to take away from this story?

Darren: First of all , to know that there’s more to the story they’ve been used to hearing. Then secondly, to see, feel and understand the greater human story and tragedy that befell those families. To be able to listen to another perspective of the Kelly narrative. To be able to walk away from watching the film and want to find out more for themselves and form a more rounded opinion on one of the most iconic stories in Australian history and culture.

Leo: There is a great untold Australian story of tragedy and triumph that has been covered in a mountain of myth. It is the untold story of the Kelly Gang’s victims. Here is but one of them. Michael.

What can people do if they want to support the project?

Darren: Go to the website, www.australianculturalfund.org.au , search “Michael”. Donations would be amazing; all donations over $2 receive a receipt that is tax deductible. Share the project on their social media, or write to us at info@lonelyhillfilms.com.au 

The project is on Facebook, “Michael – movie”, give us a follow there and you can find all the information about how to access and donate to the ACF campaign there too.

Darren K. Hawkins and Leo Kennedy, thank you very much for your time and best of luck with Michael. Hopefully we will be seeing this story play out on the screen very soon.

Bushranging Gazette #3

Saturday, 1 May 2021

The past month has been much quieter on the news front than in previous months, but there are still new things to report and a little bonus feature at the end.

New film about Sgt. Kennedy in development

Filmmaker Darren Hawkins of Lonely Hill Films is attempting to get a feature film about Sergeant Michael Kennedy off the ground. The project, titled Michael, is described as “a dramatic retelling of an often forgotten side of the iconic Ned Kelly saga, told from the perspective of one of the murdered police, his family, his community and the repercussions that still echo today.”

The story of the police killings at Stringybark Creek has been retold on film many times, beginning with 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, and most recently being the subject of 2019’s Stringybark. Where this film will differ from previous versions, according to Hawkins, is that it focuses on the Kennedys but is not designed to be a take-down of the Ned Kelly legend.

Hawkins explains, “It’s told from the perspective of one of the murdered police, his family, his community and the repercussions that still echo today. It’s core narrative is from one of the turning points in the Kelly saga from a side that is so often overlooked. We’re not about tearing apart the Kelly story or legacy, rather, about addressing an imbalance.”

The decision to make a film about Kennedy has been met with great enthusiasm from his descendants, especially Leo Kennedy who is the slain sergeant’s great grandson. Kennedy released a book, co-written with Mic Looby, in 2018 titled Black Snake, which tells the story of Michael Kennedy and his family, as well as attempts to tear down popular perceptions of Ned Kelly.

“Michael was an exemplary policeman; and an all round good man. Telling his story will set the record straight on many accounts,” says Kennedy, “We hope this movie – Michael – will play a huge part in achieving that.”

Hawkins is currently raising funds online to create a short feature that can be used as a proof of concept to help gather funds for an eventual full-length feature film. Donations can be made via the Australian Cultural Fund with all donations over $2 being tax-deductible. The campaign will run until May 31, 2021.

You can donate here.

Ned’s armour back on display

With the Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, the State Library of Victoria took the opportunity to do some renovations. One of their projects was to create a space for their most popular exhibit: the armour worn by Ned Kelly.

The armour is on display in a purpose-built cabinet that controls the climate and environmental conditions in order to preserve the contents. The cabinet, in turn, is on display in a designated space that is dedicated to the Kelly story.

Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed that a piece of the armour is missing – the left shoulder plate. This piece is owned by Museums Victoria, who had loaned the piece to the library for display with the armour. With the arrangement expiring, it would appear that either the piece has been reclaimed by the museum, who are in the midst of redesigning much of their interior and displays, or has been respectfully withdrawn from display by the library until another agreement is made.

Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy Box Set

This month a box set of Jane Smith’s first four Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books is slated for release.

The historical fiction books, aimed at audiences aged 6+ and illustrated by Pat Kan, focus around a time-travelling boy who crosses paths with some of history’s most renowned bushrangers such as Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner and Captain Thunderbolt, and have been published by Big Sky Publishing since 2016.

In the first box set are the books Shoot-out at the Rock, The Horse Thief, The Gold Escort Gang and Outback Adventure.

In addition to this popular set of chapter books, Jane Smith has also published multiple non-fiction books on bushrangers. For children she has published Captain Thunderbolt (shortlisted for an ABIA 2015), Captain Moonlite, Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner, and Captain Starlight. For older audiences she has also published Captain Starlight: the strange but true story of a bushranger, impostor and murderer.

Teaching notes for all of the children’s books can be downloaded freely from the author’s website: https://www.janesmithauthor.com/teaching-notes.html

You can find out more about the books here: https://www.janesmithauthor.com/books.html

Australian Bushranging Podcast

On the A Guide to Australian Bushranging YouTube channel there is now an ongoing podcast. Though it is only two instalments in, there is much fertile ground to be covered in upcoming episodes. You can listen to the first two podcasts below.

This Month’s Articles on A Guide to Australian Bushranging

– An interview with author of Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy, Jane Smith.

– An interview with Darren Hawkins and Leo Kennedy about the in-development film Michael.


Canaries and Magpies

Convict uniforms at Port Arthur

At the beginning of the British occupation of Australia, convicts wore the same clothes they were transported in. It wasn’t until the early part of the nineteenth century that there were calls for a standard issue of clothing for convicts, along with other penal reforms.
The first convict uniforms consisted of a linen shirt, white duck trousers, stockings, a blue kersey wool jacket and a woollen cap. As time went on, however, uniforms changed and were generally used to distinguish between classes of convict.

Throughout New South Wales the majority of convicts were dressed in “slops” — uniforms cut to a single, standard size and made of white duck, which was stamped with broad arrows. These uniforms did not weather well, and had to be replaced frequently. Many transportees were made to wear their slops through the duration of the transportation process and into their sentence once they reached Australia. Ticket-of-leave men were allowed to wear civilian clothing, and eventually convicts that were educated but still had much of their sentence to endure wore grey woollen uniforms.

Van Diemen’s Land was given its own classes of convict uniforms. From 1833 onwards, as soon as convicts arrived in Van Diemen’s Land they were given their “punishment suit”. For the regular convicts was the “canary” — a woollen uniform with side-buttoning trousers (to allow removal while wearing leg irons) that was dyed bright yellow. The colour allowed the convicts to be easily spotted in the bush or amongst crowds. They wire a grey woollen cap in the winter months and the rest of the time wore leather caps with large side flaps that could be tied up, and when let down formed a brim to keep the sun off.

In 1814, Government Macquarie devised the “magpie” uniform, which had the same design as the canary, but instead of being completely yellow it comprised juxtaposed black and white panels that were inspired by a harlequin costume. These punishment suits later became available in black and yellow and yellow and grey. In Van Diemen’s Land these were worn by the worst offenders and recidivists. They not only made the wearer even more noticeable, but acted to humiliate the wearer.

In order to stop the illegal trade in repurposed uniforms, the government stamped broad arrows onto every part of the uniform. Often, convicts would salvage the good parts of the fabric, recondition it and trade it. Very often, as a further punishment, convicts were made to wear their uniforms until they had completely rotted away, shoes included. For this reason, very few original examples remain today.

Black Snake (Review)

Black Snake: The Real Story of Ned Kelly by Leo Kennedy and Mic Looby is one of those rare occasions when you get a truly fresh insight into familiar history. Driven by the desire to tell the story of his great-grandfather, Sergeant Michael Kennedy, after decades of bullying and seeing the killer of his forebear glorified, Leo Kennedy has produced a marvelous family history. His account of the life of Ned Kelly, however, is a different matter entirely.

Where Black Snake stands head and shoulders above so many other books about this history is in its account of the Kennedy family and the police force. The love for the family history drips off every page where we see their tale unfold. One could be forgiven for thinking that Kennedy and Looby have gone out of their way to paint them in a good light, but there is nothing here that contradicts the information already readily available about the Kennedys. Little anecdotes really bring the story to life like Michael Kennedy digging out and constructing the cellar of the family home and Kennedy and Scanlan ambushing a sheep thief.
Michael Kennedy himself is portrayed in the most heroic way possible. There is nothing on record to suggest that Kennedy was anything other than a model citizen, but at times the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth characterisation used in this book runs the risk of betraying the author’s hero-worship and leading the reader to question how much of what they’re reading is merely romance.
Despite this starry-eyed artifice employed to portray the hero of the story, we learn a lot in these sections about the family and the unenviable lifestyle of the police of the late 19th century. These are points that have not really been featured in any significant way in Kelly biographies to date. Seeing how the dire situation the police found themselves in impacted on law enforcement portrayed in a Kelly book is refreshing. Many times we see the lack of training, the stretched resources and the kinds of dangerous situations police would find themselves in illustrated clearly and vividly. That there is no moral grandstanding in these passages, for the most part, is what makes them so good.
Had Black Snake been just about the Kennedys with Ned Kelly only popping up in relation to the Stringybark Creek tragedy, this would be an essential text to illustrate the other side of the story. However this content only comprises around half of the book and what balance it creates in these passages is completely dwarfed by the remaining content.

Black Snake hinges on the Stringybark Creek tragedy where the paths of the Kellys and Kennedys collided with horrific consequences.

Alas, where the book falls down, and it is a significant pitfall, is its depiction of the other side of the story it tells. The title of the book says everything you need to know about the author’s position on its subject. The attempts to illustrate how despicable the Kellys and their ilk were rely very heavily on dramatisation based on little information. For example, referring to the Ah On incident (wherein Aaron Sherritt and Joe Byrne were charged with injuring a Chinese man with rocks) as evidence that the Greta Mob indiscriminately attacked the Chinese and indigenous people as a matter of course. Furthermore where he feels that he hasn’t made them out to be villainous or cretins he tries to attack their masculinity by referring to Steve Hart frequently riding around in a dress and gang members dancing with other men instead of women at Glenrowan, implying homosexuality. Such vitriol is lazy and draws on just enough factual information to make the conclusions believable. One can forgive Kennedy for wanting to push this interpretation forward given his past. The public perception of Kelly was (and in many cases still is) quite warped thanks to decades of myth-making and regurgitation of half-truths as fact, but you don’t remedy one warped viewpoint by pushing more falsehoods in the opposite direction. What a pity that this should be the focus of the book – not an elevation of the Kennedys but a degradation of the Kellys. No doubt this is largely shaped by the works of Doug Morrissey, who provides a glowing assessment of the book in his foreword and whose books have been referred to heavily throughout Black Snake.

In Black Snake we finally get to see how the murder of Sergeant Kennedy affected his family.

As for the man behind the words on the page, Mic Looby does an excellent job of dramatising the information provided by Kennedy, really engaging the reader. It is clear that he had a strong connection to Kennedy during the writing process and portrays his interpretation of history clearly and consistently, even if it isn’t one everyone would agree with. Looby’s extensive writing background in the media and journalism is put to good use here and is undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the tome. Despite the often difficult content, a reader should have no issue devouring the writing the way they would with, say, the work of Peter FitzSimons.

In a nutshell, Black Snake is a tender love letter to ancestors who have inspired a strong moral understanding while also being primarily a scathing character assassination against the man who caused so much heartache in the family for generations.
It is heartening to think that descendants are finally giving themselves and their forebears a voice. In the case of the gallant Sergeant Kennedy, the release of this book just in time for the 140th anniversary of his slaughtering at Stringybark Creek could not be more appropriate.
This is a book that will repulse the majority of pro-Kelly die-hards, be championed by anti-Kelly crusaders as a masterpiece and met with disappointment by anyone looking for a balanced and objective approach to the subject. However, for someone only just getting into the story it is highly recommended reading, if only for the fact that it elevates the Kennedys beyond merely being the names of victims, but should be paired with something more nuanced as a counterpoint.
Leo Kennedy deserves kudos on the admirable research into his family history and the history of the Victoria Police that has gone into this book. It is no trivial task to piece together so much information where so little has been written on it before. Grab a copy and judge for yourself.

A massive thank you to Affirm Press for providing Black Snake: The Real Story of Ned Kelly for the purposes of this review. The book is available now in stores across Australia.

Stringybark Creek: Remembering the Fallen

October 26, 2017 marks the 139th anniversary of the police killings at Stringybark Creek, widely regarded as the worst single incident of police killing in Victorian history. Three police officers were killed in the line of duty hunting for Ned and Dan Kelly in dense forest and to this day there remains much controversy surrounding the event. Alas it is impossible to know exactly what happened, but by using testimony from Ned Kelly and Constable McIntyre as well as forensic evidence reported on at the time and analysed since, it becomes easier to piece together a narrative that makes sense. What follows is a condensed narrative of what occurred, not an authoritative account.



After an incident at the Kelly house on 11 Mile Creek on April 15, 1878, involving police officer Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, Ned Kelly and his youngest brother Dan were wanted for attempted murder. Their mother, brother in law and a family friend had been arrested, tried and imprisoned for their part in the assault while the brothers had fled to the bush. Ned Kelly had allegedly sent correspondence to the authorities stating that he and Dan would give themselves up in exchange for their mother’s release. This offer, if it was received, was rejected out of hand. The Kellys were in no position to bargain.

Meanwhile, in Mansfield Senior Constable Michael Kennedy was engaged in the hunt for the pair, regularly riding through the district and canvassing locals, assisted by Constable Thomas McIntyre. It was on one of these rides that Wild Wright seemingly warned McIntyre that Ned Kelly was not to be trifled with.

[Wright] told me on one occasion that I mentioned the matter to him that he would not betray Ned Kelly for all the money in Australia. He also several times said to me “Ned Kelly is mad.” I pressed him to explain what he meant but he only emphatically reiterated his statement.

It was during this time that the Kelly brothers were living in a hut on Bullock Creek in the Wombat Ranges looking for gold and distilling bootleg whisky in an effort to raise money for a solicitor for their mother. They were joined here by Steve Hart and Joe Byrne for a time, presumably they had been assisting Dan with his digging. The Kellys must have clung to the vain hope that by laying low that the dust would settle, the opposite proved true.

The Hunt

In October Kennedy, now a sergeant,  was informed by Superintendent Sadleir that he was required to take charge of one of two search parties that would try to snare the Kellys in a pincer movement. Kennedy had been selected for his renowned prowess with bush work as much as his leadership qualities. Unfortunately he had no experience with Ned or Dan Kelly at all. Kennedy requested that he be accompanied by McIntyre and his good friend Mounted Constable Michael Scanlan. Sadleir agreed but stipulated they would also be accompanied by Mounted Constable Thomas Lonigan from Violet Town as he could identify Ned Kelly from experience. Kennedy was unimpressed but had no choice. He promptly prepared for the mission by getting information on the forest the gang were supposed to be hiding in from as many people as possible.

When Lonigan received news that he had to join the party in Mansfield he did not welcome it. The incident with Fitzpatrick in April as well as an earlier incident he was involved with in Benalla had asserted just how dangerous Ned Kelly was. Ned Kelly had been arrested for being publicly intoxicated and fled from custody in the Benalla police station, hurtling down the road and around the corner before seeking refuge in the boot maker’s shop. A fight between Ned and the local Constables broke out and in an attempt to control Ned, Lonigan had used an old trick he probably learned during his time in the artillery called “blackballing” wherein he roughly grabbed Ned’s scrotum and held tight, resulting in the trousers ripping at the crotch. Lonigan’s grip on Ned’s testicles was not enough to subdue him but it was clearly enough to cause some damage to Ned’s ego if not his most private parts and gave Ned fuel for yet another in a long line of grudges against policemen. No doubt this was playing heavily on Lonigan’s mind as he set off to Mansfield, leaving behind his adoring wife and four children. It is telling that he returned after a few minutes to say goodbye again, something the normally stoic Irishman would not do.

The police came together in Mansfield and collected supplies as well as practiced bush skills that the majority of the party were unacquainted with. On the morning of the party beginning their mission Kennedy asked McIntyre to fetch the Spencer repeating rifle they had acquired. McIntyre was quite concerned that the rifle was far more overpowered than the task warranted, but Kennedy simply pointed to a copy of Ned Kelly’s mugshot they had been provided and stated “I do not like the look of this man.” As Kennedy and McIntyre packed their bags in the police station, Michael Scanlan was taking breakfast in a nearby establishment with his faithful dog by his side. As he dabbed his voluminous moustache with a napkin he asked a friend to look after the canine in his absence, going on to state “If I don’t come back, you can have my dog.” The party convened outside the police station, Lonigan arriving late for undisclosed reasons, then began on their fateful journey. It was October 25, 1878.

Wombat Ranges

Kennedy had assembled much information from locals about the area they were travelling through including waterways and crossings. However, Kennedy played his cards close to his chest despite frequent inquisition from McIntyre.

Some way into the journey McIntyre spotted a tiger snake on the track. With his revolver he blasted the reptile’s head off and gloated to his comrade “First blood Lonigan!” – a comment that it would not be hard to imagine going down like a lead balloon. McIntyre noted that Kennedy seemed agitated as they travelled through the forest. Could it be that his knowledge of the bush allowed him to sense that they were being followed?

Indeed, Ned had been patrolling the forest as a matter of course and had come across the police horses’ hoofprints in the soil. Perhaps thinking of information that had been given to him via the bush telegraph about three police parties on their way to take out he and his brother, even equipped with special straps designed to facilitate carrying corpses on a pack horse, Ned resolved to track the troopers. His intimate knowledge of the terrain and scrub enabled him to follow the police close enough to see what they were up to without being spotted.

When the police reached a clearing near an old hut by the banks of Stringybark Creek, Kennedy grabbed the Spencer repeater and stalked wordlessly off into the bush where they had just been while Lonigan and Scanlan set up the tents. McIntyre was befuddled but did what he could to give the others a hand. Kennedy was gone for some time and was quite perturbed upon returning when McIntyre gave him the third degree about wandering off alone. Kennedy thrust the Spencer into McIntyre’s hands and told him to go and find some kangaroos to shoot.

With the camp set up the police established a fire and began to eat. The bread was unfortunately too sour and the men were unanimous in their distaste. McIntyre offered to hunt some fowl and kangaroos in the morning to supplement their supplies. They all slept that night fairly soundly, exhausted from their trek. Little did the men in their tents realise that they were within a mile of their targets.

26 October

The next morning Kennedy elected to take Scanlan on a scout nearby but stated not to panic if they weren’t back before dark. Scanlan equipped himself with the Spencer repeater and the two friends left in a jovial mood with a packed lunch and quite probably Scanlan, a devil for drink when given the opportunity, had a flask concealed about his person to keep their spirits up figuratively and literally. Lonigan busied himself by reading The Vagabond Papers wherein Harry Power was interviewed in Pentridge, in part stating ominously that he believed that due to his temper Ned Kelly would have committed murder if he hadn’t stopped him. No doubt this did nothing to alleviate Lonigan’s fear and he was noticeably skittish throughout the day. McIntyre proceeded on a hunting mission as promised the previous night. McIntyre clearly considered something of a black-powder-wielding William Tell after the incident with the tiger snake. Heading close to the creek, McIntyre used a double barrelled shotgun to kill a selection of parrots and attempted to nab a couple of flighty kangaroos. His inexperience in bush work was never more evident than at this point for the sound of the shots travelled far quickly thanks to the awesome acoustics at Stringybark Creek. It would appear this allowed the Kelly brothers, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart to pinpoint the location of the police camp with ease.

After McIntyre had returned to camp Lonigan was even edgier than before. He made comment to McIntyre that he could hear movement in the undergrowth but McIntyre dismissed it as animals. In fact the Kelly Gang (as they would later be known) had found the camp and were laying low in the scrub to scope the site out, using the scrub for cover. McIntyre decided that billy tea was the solution to calm Lonigan’s nerves and he hoped the smoke from the fire would help guide Kennedy and Scanlan back. Lonigan strapped on his pistol belt and tended the horses then moved back across the camp. The two officers stood at the intersection of two logs by the fire. At this moment the desperadoes presented themselves.

Emerging from the tall grass and ferns surrounding the camp, Ned strode forward with his brother and companions and bellowed “Bail up!” while leveling a shabby modified carbine at the troopers. McIntyre put his hands out and Lonigan, behind McIntyre, jogged backwards, clutching at his revolver with his eyes on the new arrivals.  As Dan, Joe and Steve covered McIntyre, Ned turned to his right and fired. In a flash Ned Kelly’s carbine discharged. McIntyre flinched but did not dare take his eyes off the bushrangers. Out of the warped muzzle sped what seems to have been a lead ball quartered into tiny pieces of deadly shrapnel. The largest piece of shrapnel pierced the outside of Lonigan’s left thigh, as the rest sliced into his left forearm, right temple and right eye. Lonigan reeled and staggered, tumbling to the ground gasping “Oh Christ! I’m shot!” as hot, jagged shrapnel and bone fragments bored its way into his brain. The immeasurable agony caused Lonigan to breathe with hideous, laboured breaths as he rose and plunged into the dirt until finally his body flopped belly up and all movement ceased.  Within a moment Mounted Constable Thomas Lonigan was dead, aged thirty two years leaving behind a widow as well as a son and three daughters. Ned strode over and inspected the corpse muttering “What made the fellow run?” as if unaware that seeing a man approaching with a gun could instill enough fear to cause flight.  Dan said in disbelief “He was a plucky fellow, did you see how he went at his revolver?” McIntyre was overwhelmed but would later state that he did not believe the bushrangers had descended upon the camp with the intention to take life, however Ned’s actions had forced a situation that would result in death as an inevitability.

The gang proceeded to raid the tents and Joe Byrne sat and smoked a pipe with McIntyre. Ned seemed incredibly agitated, pacing around and rambling. Joe drank the billy tea with McIntyre, making sure that the constable drank first in case it was poisoned. The gang made short work of McIntyre’s fresh bread, which gave him a slightly perverse sense of happiness to have his culinary skills appreciated. Ned spoke at length with McIntyre who asked many questions about his motives and made a point to mention that his life was insured as he had no beneficiaries in Victoria in the event of his death. Ned instructed McIntyre to force Kennedy and Scanlan to surrender so that no further blood should be shed. McIntyre agreed and Ned refused Dan’s suggestion to cuff McIntyre believing that the policeman’s word was enough to entice his colleagues to surrender. This would prove to be flawed logic at best.


The scouts return

Late in the afternoon as storm clouds rolled in, the gang had raided the tents and were taking advantage of the new weapons and ammunition they had acquired, Ned taking a particular liking to the double-barrelled shotgun. Suddenly McIntyre could hear voices approaching the camp. Kennedy and Scanlan were returning from a fruitless scout but were in good spirits. Before their horses reached the clearing the Kelly Gang hid themselves, Ned dropping down behind the log McIntyre was seated on the others using the tents as cover and training their guns on McIntyre. As the riders appeared McIntyre tried to remain calm and walked to them and stated “You’d better surrender, the Kellys have got us surrounded.” Kennedy was skeptical as he glanced around the camp for signs of anything amiss. Placing his hand on his holster he began “Well, in that case…” but never got to finish the thought.

Ned Kelly rose from cover and demanded the police throw down their arms. Kennedy drew his revolver and dismounted. Scanlan tried to unsling the Spencer repeater from his upper body but only managed to get it part way. The police opened fire, Kennedy firing his pistol over the rump of his horse, Scanlan firing from the hip. The gang, now fully equipped, fired back. A shot to Scanlan’s right side knocked him off his horse, the bullet shattering his rib and decimating his lung before lodging in his sternum. He hit the ground hard and struggled to get up, shakily getting on all fours as a flurry of bullets hit him in the right hip and shoulder. Kennedy’s horse broke away in the chaos and McIntyre grabbed it as it bolted in terror, leaping onto its back. Speeding away from the camp, he could not see the drama unfolding. In that moment the jolly 34 year-old County Kerry native collapsed into the dust, dying from internal haemorrhaging. Scanlan died as a bachelor with no next of kin in Australia.

As McIntyre fled the scene in an attempt to get help Dan Kelly could be heard shouting “Shoot that fellow!” and in a torrent of hot lead the horse was shot, causing McIntyre to be flung off the creature’s back. McIntyre regained control over the wounded beast and pressed on. Branches struck McIntyre mercilessly as the horses galloped through the forest until a particularly hefty branch caught McIntyre by surprise and hurled him out of the saddle. Covered in gashes and bruises and bleeding from just about every outlet on his head from the reckless flight he proceeded on foot. Ned Kelly would later joke that McIntyre was cowardly for his escape. As darkness descended upon the Wombat Ranges and storm clouds unfurled, McIntyre sought temporary refuge in a wombat hole where he wrote furiously in his notebook and would stay for part of the night aching from his injuries.

Meanwhile at the police camp, Ned was chasing Kennedy on foot in the same direction McIntyre had fled. Armed with the shotgun, Ned tried to take Kennedy down, but the sergeant was full of fight. Ducking behind trees for cover, Kennedy fired at Ned with his Webley, one shot passing through his opponent’s beard, another passing through his sleeve close to his ribs. A blast from Ned hit Kennedy in the right arm, and blood began pouring down his sleeve. Kennedy’s fingers lost strength and he could no longer hold his revolver. It fell with a quiet thud in the scrub. The pain from the shot was almost paralysing as he staggered on short of breath. He could hear Ned’s footsteps growing closer. Was he still running? Was he bothering to take cover? Kennedy turned to see where his pursuer was and a blast from Ned Kelly struck Kennedy under the arm. Kennedy hit the ground hard. As Ned approached he found the Webley, the grip slick with blood. Wordlessly he realised what he had done. He would later recount that moment in the Jerilderie letter:

I fired again with the gun as he slewed around to surrender, I did not know he had dropped his revolver. The bullet passed through the right side of his chest and he could not live or I would have let him go. Had they been my own brothers I could not help shooting them or else let them shoot me, which they would have done had their bullets been directed as they intended them.

Back at the camp the others inspected the body of Scanlan, Joe taking the ring from Scanlan’s lifeless hand. Was this symbolic? Was this a trophy? Or was it just a matter of stealing jewellery he liked the look of? Dan and Steve seemed not to have had any real interest in raiding corpses. Their accounts of the day were never to be recorded.

What occurred between Ned and the dying sergeant is subject of much speculation. It would be reasonable to imagine with the little life he had left Kennedy spoke to Ned of his family and his fears about what might happen to them. It seems that, at least in some accounts, Kennedy had enough time and strength to write a letter to his wife and entrust Ned with taking the letter to his wife with his watch. Perhaps such a moment may have provided Ned with enough time to resolve and prepare to finish him off. Ned placed the muzzle of his weapon to Kennedy’s chest and fired. Satisfied that Kennedy was out of his misery he trudged the half mile back to the camp and fetched one of the police cloaks, which he took back and draped over the corpse.

As night enveloped the forest, McIntyre tried to navigate through the wilds using the stars and a compass. In crossing a stream his boots had become waterlogged and he was forced to remove them for the remainder of the journey. The next day he was delirious from exhaustion and injury to the point of hallucination and sought refuge in a hut for a time before continuing on to Mansfield.

At the police camp the gang finished raiding the tents and corpses and set fire to all they could not carry before leaving. Clearly Ned Kelly considered the outcome to have been justified by the apparently murderous intentions of the police. Convinced right to his dying day that the police had not meant to apprehend the brothers but to put them down like rabid wolves he would remonstrate:

It would not be wilful murder if they packed our remains in, shattered into a mass of animated gore, to Mansfield. They would have got great praise and credit as well as promotion, but I’m reckoned a horrid brute because I had not been cowardly enough to lie down for them under such trying circumstances and insults to my people. Certainly their wives and children are to be pitied, but they must remember those men came into the bush with the intention of scattering pieces of me and my brother all over the bush and yet they know and acknowledge I have been wronged and my mother and four or five men lagged innocent.

McIntyre would return with a party led by Sub-Inspector Pewtress to reclaim the corpses of Lonigan and Scanlan. Kennedy’s heavily decomposed remains would not be found until five days after the massacre. The widows of Lonigan and Kennedy would be given a pension but it was hardly compensation for losing their husbands and the fathers of their children. The three men are buried in Mansfield cemetery, a quiet spot comfortably away from the main thoroughfares of the town. In 1880 a monument was unveiled to the memory of the policemen. In the unveiling of the monument Captain Standish, chief commissioner of police, remarked:

…in the Police department there was not a better or truer, or more trust-worthy and energetic member of the force than Sergeant Kennedy ; and it was with sincere sorrow that he received the announcement of his sad and untimely fate. It was well known that in his encounter with the outlaws he behaved most gallantly, and fought to the bitter end against overpowering odds. Constables Scanlan and Lonigan were also good and deserving men ; and the brutal and revolting manner in which they were shot down naturally sent a thrill of terror through the whole community. It was therefore the more surprising that the perpetrators of the fearful crime had met with so much strange sympathy and material assistance from many persons of that district. It must of course be satisfactory to fellow colonists to know that the legislature had made substantial provision for the widows and orphans of these brave fellows who lost their lives in the discharge of their duty. He sincerely hoped that the mellowing hand of time would soothe the great affliction which had befallen Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Lonigan. (Hear, hear.) He could not omit gratefully to acknowledge the warm-hearted sympathy of the New South Wales police in subscribing so liberally to the memorial inaugurated that day. It was a proof, if need be, of the cordial feeling which, he trusted, would always exist between the police of the two colonies. Once more he desired to convey to the residents of the Mansfield district his earnest appreciation of their generosity and sympathy.
(Source: Illustrated Australian News 8 May 1880)