Dr. Meg Foster’s book on bushrangers, first mentioned in Bushranging Gazette #4, has finally hit the presses from NewSouth Publishing and features many figures often overlooked. Among these is “Black Douglas”, an African American bushranger, who up until now had rarely been examined by authors and historians.
Foster’s focus was on uncovering the stories of Australian bushrangers who were not the typical white men that are associated with the label, with Jimmy Governor, Sam Poo and Mary Ann Bugg all featuring in the book.
These bushrangers’ remarkable lives have been forgotten, obscured, misrepresented or erased from the national story for over a century, and this is no accident. All is not as it appears. There is far more to these bushrangers, and their histories, than immediately meets the eye.
Deadly flooding in New South Wales continued to affect rural communities in November, with the Central West being slammed by unprecedented inundation.
Forbes and Condobolin suffered their worst flooding on record around 16 November, with the Lachlan River coming close to reaching a height of 8m. Improvised sandbags were hurriedly laid, a 3km stretch of bags in Condobolin being nicknamed “The Great Wall of Condo”, but in some areas it was not enough to hold back the waters.
Eugowra was also left devastated by floods with houses washed away. At least one woman was killed, with others reported missing and many having to be evacuated Orange. Water rescue teams from Singapore were brought in to help with the rescue operation around the Murrumbidgee, which continued to suffer from the flow on effects of torrential rain.
Beechworth’s inaugral 2022 drag festival, Drag’d Out, took place in late November. The occasion saw a number of performances and events play out over three days, and rainbows decorating the streets of the town. The festival was a great success, and has been slated to return in 2023.
A small number of vocal Ned Kelly enthusiasts expressed their dislike of the festival on social media, with one Facebook page accusing the organisers of exchanging the long-defunct Ned Kelly Weekend in favour of what they considered “the government’s indoctrination of school children”. In particular, much consternation was caused by the use of the likeness of the bushranger’s helmet on pride-themed clothing that was sold for the event. One design featured a figure in a rainbow coloured ball gown wearing a Kelly helmet, and brandishing a pair of stiletto shoes across their chest in the same fashion as many illustrations depict Ned Kelly holding pistols, with “I ❤ Beechworth” in the background. It eventuated that it was a storm in a teacup, however, with the vast majority embracing the festival as a welcome draw card to the region referred to affectionately as Kelly Country.
In early November it was reported that Janet McCalman had received the 2022 Premier’s History Award for her book Vandiemonians.
The book follows the lives of some of the Tasmanian convicts who crossed over to the Australian mainland to start new lives in Victoria. Among the many figures featured are people such as the bushranger Captain Melville.
The judges reportedly stated of the book:
“Telling poignant and personal stories with wit and irony, Vandemonians is more than a collective biography. Faced with the difficulty of tracing, through scant records, the lives of hundreds of individuals transported to Van Diemen’s Land, McCalman turned to prosopography, a research strategy focussing on the common characteristics of the group of people as a means of explicating the relationships and activities in the subjects’ lives. The book is also a fine product of the time and effort volunteered by an indefatigable group of family historians who compiled the dataset drawn on by the talented author. This year’s Victorian Premier’s History Award winner shows how the research and the writing of history, and not just its reading in armchairs and libraries, can be a collective enterprise.”
Launching on 3 December 2022, Geelong Gaol’s new temporary exhibition Crime Time TV offers a look at the history of crime in Australian film and television. Featuring a myriad of memorabilia and artefacts related to this prominent section of our cinema history, the exhibition naturally features many bushranger films and TV shows in the mix.
A new novel based on the life of Steve Hart had raised eyebrows. The novel, Steve Hart: The Last Kelly Standing, written by Peter Long and published by Hawkeye Books, tells a fictionalised account of Hart’s life before, during and after the Kelly Outbreak, pushing the debunked, yet persistent, narrative that he survived Glenrowan.
Naturally, this alternative history angle was hotly debated online, with Hart descendant Noeleen Lloyd sharing some choice words on a post about the book on Facebook.
The ongoing fallacy that Steve Hart and Dan Kelly escaped continues to distress living Hart and Kelly family and relatives to this day.
My Great grandmother, Rachael Hart was ten when her brother, Steve, died at Glenrowan.
She died in 1958, and there are many of her grandchildren alive today. Including my father, his siblings and cousins.
Whether this piece is intended to be ‘historical fiction’ or not, it is distasteful and disrespectful.
Noeleen Lloyd, via Facebook
Hawkeye Books, who have previously published a different alternative history novel about the Kelly Gang, Nicole Kelly’s Lament, describes the book as “a literary masterpiece” that will have readers on the edge of their seat.
Lloyd’s comment led the publisher to offer to connect the author to the descendant for a conversation about the book.
Tall tales about Dan Kelly and Steve Hart surviving the siege of Glenrowan have circulated since the 1890s, many peddled by swaggies who identified themselves as one of the other of the two. Most accounts suggest the pair hid in a cellar and survived the blaze, emerging one the police had left. Archaeological digs of the site of the inn showed no traces of a cellar. Though the stories have been frequently debunked, some still choose to believe them.
End of year round-up
Stay tuned for a New Year’s Eve Special Edition of the Bushranging Gazette that will recap the year’s top stories and articles.
We will look at some of the books that hit shelves this year, events and exhibitions, as well as revisiting some of this year’s top features on A Guide to Australian Bushranging and taking a look at what’s on the horizon.
In part one we covered Ned Kelly’s Glenrowan plot, the murder of Sherritt, the gang’s occupation of Glenrowan, the bungling of the police response and the machinations of Thomas Curnow to foil Kelly. At the conclusion, Ned Kelly had allowed Thomas Curnow to return home and the police train was leaving Melbourne with a team of journalists on board. This is where we resume ournarrative…
At 10:00pm the train departed from Spencer Street and proceeded north. A little under an hour later it arrived at Essendon train station where it collected Sub-Inspector O’Connor, his five trackers, his wife and sister-in-law. Once the passengers were settled in it was full steam ahead until they reached Craigieburn. Despite the order to close the railway gate, the Craigieburn stationmaster had left the gates open across the track to allow the regular traffic to cross unimpeded on the Sunday. As a result when the engine did not slow down as it passed the station, believing the track was clear, it ploughed through the iron gates causing considerable damage. The collision had destroyed part of the braking mechanism as well as pulverising a lamp and the footplate on the carriage. A stop at Seymour allowed the passengers to get coffee while the engine was patched up well enough to continue.
The police special arrived at Benalla a little after midnight. In the meantime, a second engine organised by Hare and Sadleir had been raising steam and was ready for action. When Hare was informed about the damage to the engine there was a discussion about how to assess if there were further hazards along the tracks, especially in light of the rumours circulating that Kelly sympathisers had sabotaged the line. Hare’s initial idea was to tie a constable to the engine as a lookout, but this was scrapped when it was pointed out that this would be lethal and impractical. Instead the damaged engine would journey ahead as a pilot to ensure a clear path, and the carriage would be shunted onto the spare engine to carry the passengers.
Curnow swings into action
All the time that the drama had been unfolding with the trains, Curnow had been attempting to convince his wife to allow him to leave and warn the police train. She was terrified that the bushrangers or their sympathisers would find out and murder them but Thomas’s mind was made up. Once his wife was asleep, he snuck out with a candle, matches and his sister’s red llama wool scarf. He took his horse and rode down the train line to a spot where it would be safe to flag down the train.
A Fateful Decision by Mrs. Jones
Once Ned had returned from capturing Bracken, things had stayed fairly quiet. It was just before 2:00am when Margaret Reardon asked Dan Kelly for permission to go home. Dan agreed that it was time for everyone to leave and instructed the prisoners to head home through the back door. However, Ann Jones panicked and blocked the door, telling the crowd that Ned would give a lecture first. Ned, of course, relished the opportunity to hold court again and proceeded to begin a rambling rant. Twice he attempted to stand on a chair and failed, seemingly incapable of retaining the necessary balance either through exhaustion, intoxication or the weight of his armour. During the lecture he took verbal potshots at the police, which Constable Bracken rebuffed with great indignation. While all this took place in the inn and unbeknownst to the gang and their captives, the police train was approaching Glenrowan and was minutes away from arrival.
Curnow stops pilot engine
As the pilot engine came into view, Curnow lit the candle and held it behind the red scarf as a warning signal. When the engine stopped, Curnow explained the danger ahead and the warning lanterns were lit. A whistle was blown to alert the police special bringing up the rear.
While the trains sat idle, Hare went outside to get information about what was happening. He positioned some of the constables on the rise that overlooked where the trains were stopped and learned that the Kellys had pulled up the tracks just beyond the Glenrowan station. Curnow mounted and rode home, fearing that the longer he stayed the more likely he would get caught. The journalists in the press carriage caught wind that something was amiss and brought the lamp in from outside the carriage and pressed the seat cushions into the windows so they couldn’t be seen. Slowly the trains began to move towards the station.
As Dan kept watch outside the inn, he heard the train whistle then ran inside, interrupting Ned to tell him the train was coming. Joe Byrne locked the front door and put the key on a shelf as the gang ran into the bedroom they were using as their armoury. When he was certain the outlaws were occupied, Bracken stole the key and hid it in his trouser cuff before positioning himself near the rear passage to eavesdrop. In the bedroom, Dan and Steve helped each other into their armour while Ned went outside to investigate.
By his own account, Ned mounted his horse and rode out of the inn’s paddock and down towards the train line. Here he was able to see the pilot engine arriving and slowing down, the police special close behind. Ned would have realised at that moment that he had been betrayed. Some of the police on the train spotted Ned as he rode back to the inn to break the news to his gang.
As the train arrived, Hare saw a candle burning in the window of the gatehouse. As the police and their equipment and horses were being unloaded, Hare took a small party with him to the gatehouse, leaving Sub-Inspector O’Connor in charge at the station. At the gatehouse, Hare roused Mrs. Stanistreet who, terrified and weeping, informed him that the Kelly Gang had kidnapped her husband and taken him away, pointing towards the Glenrowan Inn. The police, thinking Mrs. Stanistreet had pointed to the Warby Ranges, headed back to the station where they would prepare to ride into the mountains on horseback.
The daring of Constable Bracken
When Ned returned to the inn he ordered Ann and Jane Jones to snuff out the lights and put out the fires, which they promptly did. The gang then went outside where they presumably discussed their plan of attack.
Meanwhile in the inn, Bracken told the prisoners to keep low in case there was shooting before unlocking the front door and leaving. He ran across the railway reserve as fast as he could go. When he reached the train station platform he found Superintendent Hare and explained that the outlaws were in Jones’s inn.
The Kellys, in full armour and well-armed, shifted the sliprail next to the inn’s sign as they walked around the side of the building, believing the doors were still locked, and took position along the verandah. Hidden by the shadows, there was no way for the police combatants to see they were in armour. They waited patiently for the onslaught.
Hare called out to his men to join him in storming the inn. There was some confusion and only a handful of the men initially headed down with Hare leading the charge. The police horses that were being unloaded were let go and allowed to run free. Bracken took one of the horses and began to ride towards Wangaratta in order to gain police reinforcements.
As Hare passed through a gate and took position, a blast from Ned Kelly hit him, shattering his wrist. He reeled and perched himself on a tree stump. He managed to get at least one shot off before realising he needed first aid. With the opening of fire the rest of the police ran to join the fray. O’Connor and the trackers took cover in a drainage ditch, which provided reasonable cover directly in front of the inn.
The outlaws mocked and jeered from the verandah as their armour protected them. Bullets went past them into the building, causing mass panic inside. The gang’s sense of invulnerability was short-lived however as Ned was injured when a bullet struck him in the foot, and became lodged. Another shot struck his bent left arm at the elbow rendering it essentially useless. He wasn’t the only outlaw casualty, with a bullet tearing through Joe Byrne’s calf, leaving him unable to walk.
It was at this stage of the battle that two skyrockets were fired from just near McDonnell’s railway tavern. Whether this was a signal to summon an army of sympathisers or a signal to turn them away, or perhaps something else altogether, remains a mystery, with only oral traditions providing any explanation.
Hare, losing copious amounts of blood due to the severity of his wound combined with a pre-existing heart condition, was forced to retreat to the train station. He left instructions to surround the inn and ensure the outlaws were unable to escape. When he reached the train station, the journalists had created a barricade with the police saddles. Upon seeing Hare was injured, Thomas Carrington offered to help as he had some knowledge of first aid. A handkerchief and scissors were taken from O’Connor’s wife and cut into strips that were used to bandage Hare’s wrist. Once the makeshift bandages were applied, Hare attempted to go back onto the battlefield but soon passed out from blood loss. He was helped back to safety by Rawlins, the volunteer.
Back at the inn, with Joe and Ned injured, the gang decided to retreat to the rear of the building to regroup and reload. While Dan and Steve went inside, Joe and Ned were overheard at the back door having a discussion by Constable Phillips, who had positioned himself at the rear of the inn. Unable to reload his carbine, Ned ordered Joe to perform the fiddly task for him. The pair bickered about their situation with Joe saying, “I always said this bloody armour would bring us to grief.” Ned tried to buoy his spirits by bragging about Hare having been taken out and boasting that they would soon do the same to the rest of the police. It was at this time Ned was able to observe that the only way Joe could move around was by crawling on all fours.
In the early fray the police fire had resulted in multiple civilian casualties. Johnny Jones had been hit by a police bullet that tore through his pelvis and up through his body, exiting under his arm. George Metcalf was hit in the eye as police bullets hit the bricks of the chimney he was hiding behind (though it was later claimed by some of his colleagues, when questioned by police, that he was shot by Ned Kelly the day before, though no other witnesses seemed to notice one of the prisoners having been shot in the eye during during the many hours leading up to the siege.) In the kitchen, a police bullet ricocheted and hit Jane Jones, cutting across her forehead and lodging behind her ear. Civilians were laying low in the inn, the bulk of the women and children were sheltering in the kitchen where they were further away from the police who continued to fire into the inn relentlessly even when there was no return fire. The order was raised to fire high to avoid civilians cowering on the floor after the police had heard women screaming inside the inn.
Ned Kelly decided to find an escape route. He tried to mount Joe’s horse but she broke free and bolted into the bush. Ned followed her. This was noticed by Gascoigne who shot Ned, but the bullet took no effect except to throw him off balance, leading Gascoigne to surmise that he was wearing protection of some kind.
Shortly after heading into the bush, Ned passed out near a fallen tree. It is uncertain how long he was unconscious for, but when he came to he crawled into the bush leaving his carbine and skull cap behind in the mud.
Brave Jack McHugh
Ann Jones was distraught over the wounding of her son and began wandering through the inn, shouting at Dan, Joe and Steve to go out and fight, before turning her ire towards the police. A torrent of lead saw her retreat to the kitchen.
Aware that the boy needed urgent medical attention if there was any hope of preserving his life, Jack McHugh draped the boy over his shoulders and ran out into the crossfire. Somehow avoiding getting shot, he made it to the train line where he was spotted by police. After explaining his mission he was allowed to seek shelter in McDonnell’s tavern. Young Jones was made as comfortable as possible, but his life was fading fast.
Emboldened by McHugh’s miraculous escape and desperate to get out of the mess, John Stanistreet also managed to escape under fire to warn the police that there were women and children trying to escape. Ann Jones rallied the women and children in the kitchen and Jane took a candle and held it aloft to guide the escapees as they ran and to show they were not the bushrangers. Despite being fired at, most of the women and children escaped, with only an odd few retreating or remaining inside the main building.
Senior Constable Kelly and Constable Arthur ventured into the bush behind the inn hoping to find a spot to close off any escape route. Here they found Ned’s carbine and skull cap. While Arthur took position, Kelly took the items. When he returned to the front he wore Ned’s skull cap, claiming that his own hat had gone missing. Ned, who had been close by, managed to go deeper into the bush without being noticed.
Superintendent Hare tried to gain passage back to Benalla, but the pilot engine was hit by bullets from the inn and took off without him. The police special then turned around and carried him back. Once in Benalla he managed to make it to the telegraph office and secure medical assistance from Doctor Nicholson. Superintendent Sadlier was summoned and Hare sent word to Beechworth, Wangaratta and Violet Town to send all available police to Glenrowan before falling unconscious.
Death of Joe Byrne
Witnesses in the inn reported that close to 5:00am Joe Byrne was killed. Joe was observed pouring himself a drink and shortly after toasting to the effect of, “Here’s to many more days in the bush, boys!” It is unlikely this was a triumphant gesture so much as a darkly sarcastic one. After this he was struck by a bullet in the groin and collapsed across the prisoner named Sandercook and bled out within a couple of minutes, the femoral artery having been severed. Despite popular belief, there is no evidence to support the claim that Ned was present at this moment. In fact, all of the prisoners in the inn that testified stated that once the firing started Ned never re-entered the inn. The only account that stated otherwise was Ned Kelly’s, though his personal recounting of what transpired at Glenrowan changed slightly every time he discussed it, making such accounts unreliable.
Arrival of Police Reinforcements
Bracken had by this time ridden to Wangaratta and roused Sergeant Steele who had received the telegram from Hare and organised a police train. Not wanting to waste a moment, Steele and his mounted troopers headed to Glenrowan on horseback while the foot constables took the train. The train arrived slightly before the rest of the Wangaratta party and Rawlins briefed them on what was happening. As the mounted troopers arrived, they heard clanking in the bush that they dismissed as stirrup irons. Ned Kelly would later claim they had ridden so close to him as he lay in the bush that he could have reached out and grabbed them, but instead he tried to remain silent and let them pass. Immediately upon arriving at the inn, Steele took a position at the rear and began firing into the building without having received any instructions or waiting to be updated on the situation.
Simultaneously, a train from Benalla carrying Sadleir and his party arrived. The men were sent out to reinforce the existing troopers while Senior Constable Kelly and Sub-Inspector O’Connor got Sadleir up to speed. Sadleir maintained the strategy of surrounding the inn and directed his men to fan out.
A mad dash for freedom by Mrs. Reardon
Margaret Reardon had enough of hiding and attempted to flee with her children. Dan Kelly called out that women and children were coming out and as they did, police ordered them to stay back. The prisoners continued to run towards the fence, desperate to escape the firing. Sergeant Steele took aim at Margaret Reardon and fired, the shot passing through the swaddling cloth her baby was wrapped in and cutting the infant’s head. The group scattered in terror. 19 year-old Michael Reardon tried to double back and get inside the inn, but Sergeant Steele shot him in the back, the lead lodging in the teen’s back and lung. When the police around him told him to stop firing he simply replied “I don’t care; I shot mother Jones in the —!”
Where is Ned?
By now Ned had been missing for several hours while Dan and Steve had been left to hold the fort. The police had shot dead all of the horses in the paddock, whether they were the gang’s or not, to cut off a potential escape. A local man named Martin Cherry had been shot in the belly by a police bullet and was taken to the kitchen and hidden under a mattress. Dan had taken to standing at the back door and calling out to his big brother with no reply. Witness accounts stated that both remaining outlaws seemed greatly deflated after Joe’s death.
The remaining prisoners were almost entirely men, with a few children in the mix. The majority of those who were trapped had migrated to the bedrooms in order to get some distance and some barriers between them and the police. With the arrival of Sadleir’s party and Steele’s party the opportunity for the prisoners to escape had effectively evaporated.
Nobody in the inn had any idea what had happened to Ned. Oral tradition states that he had been found in the bush by his cousin Tom Lloyd who helped him prepare for a return to the inn. Ned himself would never make such a statement, but evidently something transpired in the bush and at sunrise, rather than make good his escape Ned decided, for whatever reason, to turn back and face the police again in open combat.
Ned Kelly’s last stand
The first policeman to take notice of Ned was Constable Arthur who warned him to stay back. Instead Ned threatened him and drew a pistol. Arthur fired his Martini Henry rifle at close range, badly denting the armour but not stopping the outlaw, who replied by bashing his revolver against his chest and boasting about his invulnerability. Other police left their posts to confront the mysterious figure. For around half an hour, Ned stumbled around half-conscious through blood loss, sleep deprivation and alcohol consumption. He occasionally steadied himself by resting his broken foot on the odd tree stump. For all the firing he managed, cycling through three different revolvers, not one trooper was killed or injured.
Eventually Ned reached the fallen tree where he had collapsed earlier that morning. Senior-Constable Kelly and Jesse Dowsett, a railway guard, approached. Dowsett began shooting Ned’s helmet and taunting him. As Ned was distracted, Sergeant Steele emerged from the bush and shot Ned in his right knee and pelvis. The shots were enough to knock the wind out of his sails and Ned collapsed. In a moment police piled on top of him. Senior-Constable Kelly removed Ned’s helmet, whereupon Steele began to strangle the outlaw and put a pistol to his head. Before Steele could pull the trigger he was threatened by Constable Bracken who levelled his shotgun at Steele and declared, “If you shoot him, I will shoot you.”
The crowd that had formed around the fallen bushranger had to react quickly as they were being shot at by Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. Ned was picked up and carried a short distance where Dr. Nicholson was able to use a penknife to cut the straps on one side of the armour to remove it. He was lifted over a fence and taken to the train station. He was put in the guard van of the train, but a flurry of bullets struck the van so he was transferred to the station building. A mattress was procured and Ned was laid upon it with his head resting on a large roll of cotton. The boots were cut off his feet and most of his clothing stripped from his body for medical examination. The main injuries that required attention were his shattered left elbow, a pistol ball lodged in his right thumb, the injury to his right knee and the bullet lodged in his foot. The rest of the injuries, of which there were more than twenty, were considered minor. He complained of hunger and was given bread and brandy, the dribbles of which he sucked out of his beard.
While he was in the station various police and journalists interviewed him, though he would often slip into unconsciousness. He explained that he had intended to fight to the bitter end and that the other bushrangers would not surrender. The whole time Steele kept watch over Kelly as if he were afraid he would vanish.
Then there was two
Likely believing Ned had been killed, Dan and Steve remained in the inn. Occasionally they would shoot at police but Dan was shot in the knee and retreated inside where he remained. When Dave Mortimer asked permission to try and escape Dan allowed it but as soon as the white handkerchief was presented to the police to signify surrender, the police opened fire at it. Thinking better of walking out to be gunned down, the prisoners remained in the inn. Now they were made prisoners by the police rather than the outlaws.
At 10:00am the decision was made to allow the civilians to come out. They were instructed to keep their hands raised and to lie on their bellies. The terrified victims were then scrutinised to prevent the risk of Kelly or Hart escaping. Two brothers were recognised as Kelly sympathisers and arrested; the rest of the crowd were allowed to disperse. Now the inn was empty apart from Dan Kelly and Steve Hart, Joe Byrne’s corpse and old Martin Cherry who was still in the kitchen under a mattress.
Sadleir brings in the artillery
Desperate for a way to get into the inn that would mean no police casualties, Sadlier ordered artillery be sent up from the garrison in Melbourne to blow the inn apart. Sadleir had also brought thick ropes with him to pull the chimneys down, thinking the outlaws could be hiding therein, but had decided it was too risky. Sadleir continued to mull over options for capturing the two remaining outlaws while bored police continued to shoot at the inn.
By this time the rails had been repaired and trains were running along the line, bringing gawkers in from all over the region. Amongst the crowds, Father Matthew Gibney arrived. Gibney, the Vicar General of Western Australia, had heard of what was transpiring and wanted to be available to provide spiritual assistance where possible. He gave Ned the last rites and asked if the others would surrender to him. Ned told him they would not know him from a policeman but Gibney was determined to get into the inn, believing that a man of the cloth could bring the outlaws to reason.
More reinforcements arrived from Beechworth, led by Senior-Constable Mullane. Given how late in the siege it was, they had little to do other than use the inn for target practice, which was exactly what they did. There remained no definitive instructions for the police from Sadleir though the suggestion had been made to him that the police should rush the inn. Sadleir considered even one police casualty to be too many and refused to agree to such a measure.
Kelly sympathisers arrived in Glenrowan to see what was happening. Among them were Ned and Dan’s sisters Maggie, Kate and Grace who were all dressed as if for a great celebration. They were granted admittance to see Ned and briefly spoke with him. When Superintendent Sadlier asked Maggie if she would get Dan to surrender she proclaimed she would see him burn first. Also present were Wild Wright, Tom Lloyd and Dick Hart. The presence of such high profile sympathisers put the police on edge.
That afternoon a telegraph was set up by the telegraph operators from Beechworth using a portable receiver and transmitter that was connected to the wire that went past the train station. This enabled messages to be transmitted directly to Melbourne from the battlefield.
Burning the inn
After consulting with Sadlier, Senior-Constable Johnston gained permission to start a fire to smoke the remaining gang members out. Johnston gave the inn a wide berth as he gathered items to use to light a fire. While going about this duty he was stopped by armed Kelly sympathisers who interrogated him about what was happening. Luckily for Johnston, they did not suspect him of being a policeman. He gathered straw, kerosene and matches and as he approached the inn, the police intensified their firing to create a diversion. At 3:00pm Johnston set fire to the exterior wall of the parlour and ran for cover.
The fire spread quickly through the weatherboard building. Seeing this Kate Kelly attempted to run to the inn but was held back by police. Instead Father Gibney rushed inside in search of survivors. He entered the dining room and upon entering the bar saw Joe’s corpse. After establishing it was cold and stiff, he checked the other rooms. In the makeshift armoury he found Dan Kelly and Steve Hart lying dead on the floor with their heads propped up on sacking. Beside them was the greyhound, which had been shot. With the inferno spreading to the bar, the alcohol exacerbated the fire. Joe’s body was dragged out by police but the bedrooms were too aflame to risk retrieving the others. As the kitchen was explored Martin Cherry was found and rescued. Once he was dragged clear Gibney gave him the last rites, whereupon Cherry passed away.
With the exterior wall having Byrne’s away, the crowds gathered to see Dan and Steve burning within the bedroom. Thomas Carrington took the time to draw the scene as the crowd watched the gruesome spectacle.
The fire was allowed to take its course and the burnt out shell collapsed around half an hour after the fire had started. As the wrecked lay smouldering the police began sifting through the rubble. The unrecognisable corpses of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were dragged out with long poles and laid out on sheets of bark. One of the bodies was photographed.
The burnt bodies were taken to the train station where they were seen by Maggie Skillion and Kate Kelly, who wailed mournfully at the sight. Sadleir made the executive decision to allow the families of the outlaws to take possession of the bodies. He assumed that such a gesture would quell any rumblings of revenge against police. When Captain Standish arrived at 5:00pm he agreed that the families should have taken the bodies, though he would later try (unsuccessfully) to retrieve them for a coronial inquest.
Ned was loaded onto a train and, along with the bodies of Byrne and Cherry that were loaded onto the guard van as well taken to Benalla. Overnight the corpses were kept in the police lockup with Ned housed in a lockup under the Benalla courthouse. Thus ended the Glenrowan Siege.
The following day Joe Byrne’s corpse was strung up for photographs and gawkers. After his post mortem his results casts were made of his head and hands that were then used for a wax figure in the Bourke Street Waxworks. At the same time the corpse was being viewed Ned Kelly was surreptitiously taken to the train station and transported to Melbourne.
Ned was taken to Melbourne Gaol where he was put in the prison hospital in order to recover well enough to stand trial.
Souvenir hunters took no time in scouring the Bartley and picking it clean of bullets, bits of the inn, even dirt and leaves. Charred bits of Dan and Steve which had separated from the trunk were even salvaged. Nothing was sacred and everything was up for grabs. Some might say not much has changed.
When Ann Jones eventually returned, she build a hut around the parlour chimney to live in. Thereafter she faced many more difficulties. On the day of Ned Kelly’s execution she was arrested for harbouring outlaws, but beat the charge. Magistrates refused to issue her with a liquor licence, which meant she eventually opened a wine saloon in place of the inn. Jane Jones died two years after the siege. She had been in failing health ever since that weekend in 1880. The inn site was later leased to the police department in a strange turn of events.
Joe Byrne was buried in a pauper’s grave in Benalla cemetery, while Dan and Steve were buried in unmarked graves elsewhere. Officially they were buried in a twin plot in Greta cemetery, but oral tradition begs to differ, helping to fuel rumours that they never died at Glenrowan and it was all a hoax to allow them to escape.
The siege of Glenrowan has become an important part of Australian culture, taking on the significance of historic battles such as Gettysburg or Waterloo (even if the scale was hardly comparable.) It is often seen as an exciting tale of rebellion and defiance though the reality is far less fanciful. While some may speculate the different outcome that may have come about if the police train had been derailed as planned, perhaps it is more apt to consider the fact that the outlawry on the bushrangers was weeks away from expiring when they were destroyed. It is unlikely that the police would ever have allowed the gang to avoid meeting their demise at the end of a rope or a bullet, but it is curious to consider a world where the Kelly Gang managed to run out the clock, so to speak, and regain the rights and protections of the law. Speculation aside, there was no glory in what transpired at Glenrowan. It was a tragedy from beginning to end with no real winners. Civilians lost their lives or were permanently scarred and traumatised; three of the outlaws were killed; a considerable number of police were later demoted or sacked either directly or indirectly due to their conduct during the siege. The site where it all played out is marked by signs and plaques, but there are no monuments to memorialise the tragedy. Thus, with many myths and half-truths still accepted as facts, Glenrowan sits in the awkward place between history and folklore where imagination turns devastating tragedy into a rollicking good yarn. Such is life.
Few events in bushranging history have the fame of the Glenrowan Siege. The incredible and spectacular close to the career of the Kelly Gang has been immortalised in print, song, film, painting and more. Over time the events have become obscured by retellings that embellish and dramatise them. Here, on the 140th anniversary of the siege, we will take a concise look at what ended one of the most renowned and dramatic chapters in Australian history.
There is no definitive understanding of what the Glenrowan plot actually was. Most of what we know has been taken from the witnesses accounts of being told by the outlaws, and Ned Kelly’s own unreliable narratives in his interviews and the letters he wrote in gaol. Anything else is either unsubstantiated oral history or inference. All we know for certain is that Ned Kelly intended to derail a train full of police and trackers at Glenrowan, and an event on a Saturday night at the hut of Aaron Sherritt – a sympathiser who the gang had reason to believe had been assisting police – was to provide a lure for a special police train. No civilian trains ran on a Sunday, so the only vehicle that would be on the tracks that day would be one specially assigned to move police from Benalla to Beechworth. This is all that we know beyond dispute. There are many various elaborations on this information that historians and researchers have put forward to describe Ned Kelly’s plan:
1) The Republic of North East Victoria
One explanation that was championed by some notable Kelly historians was that Ned Kelly was attempting to kick-start a revolution and establish a republic. Once the train was derailed, the survivors would be killed excepting any notable survivors who would be bartered for Ned’s mother’s release from prison. The Kelly Gang, in armour, would be joined by a “phantom army” of heavily armed sympathisers that were waiting in the hills behind the Glenrowan Inn, summoned by skyrockets acting as a signal. The militia would then ride to Benalla, capture the town, and declare a republic. It must be noted that there is no official contemporary record to indicate this was the plan or even rumoured, and none of the documents that were supposed to have proved the legitimacy of the claim have surfaced.
2) Mass Murder
The least imaginative explanation of Ned’s plot is that he had no plans beyond murdering as many people as he could. This supposition relies on a very skewed perspective. It derives from the simplistic view that Ned Kelly was a psychopathic terrorist that was only interested in killing people, specifically police. Given Kelly’s two previous well-planned outings in Euroa and Jerilderie, during which no blood was spilled, it seems unlikely for straight up massacre to have been his next move. Given the efforts he had previously gone to in order to prove he was not bloodthirsty, this is not a consistent mindset. To accept this explanation does not require a deeper look into the behaviour and psychology of Ned Kelly or his gang, relegating them to be cast as cartoon villains.
3) Escalation of a war with police
By looking at what has been definitively established, contemporary rumours, and Ned Kelly’s own statements such as the Cameron and Jerilderie letters and the letters he dictated in gaol, we can see that Ned Kelly saw himself as being in some kind of war with police, referring to them as his “natural enemies”. In light of this, it could be supposed that Kelly intended to disable the police in order to remove the threat of capture. Such a large scale attack would in turn potentially make the government wary of continuing to pursue the outlaws. Taking out the bulk of the police force that were stationed in Benalla, the regional headquarters, would leave the Benalla police station unmanned, whereupon the gang and sympathisers would be able to take control of the station as a headquarters for themselves and take control of the town. Ned intimated on occasion that he desired to rob the bank in Benalla, and it was well known that since the Jerilderie raid the gang had been looking desperately for a suitable target for a robbery around Beechworth or Yackandandah in particular. Such a plan is more in line with what the gang did when they bailed up the town of Jerilderie, using the police barracks as a base of operations. It also demonstrates a more extreme thought process, whereby Ned was willing to take out huge numbers of police in order to ensure a greater chance of success and to intimidate his remaining opponents into backing down. If this was his aim, it has echoes of the kind of guerrilla warfare carried out by the IRA and implies a far more militaristic mindset than on the gang’s previous two outings. Ned established that he felt that he was right in striking first, even with lethal force, in order to protect himself. By 1880 the pursuit had likely taken a physical and mental toll on him and made him desperate. It is also worth noting that Mrs. Byrne had been bragging the gang we’re going to do something to make all of Australia’s ears tingle.
There is room to speculate what the intention was at Sherritt’s hut. Ned Kelly would later claim he had not ordered Sherritt’s murder; that it must have been a decision made by the others. This seems to marry up with Ned’s claim at the time he was trying to break the train line that many police had been shot in Beechworth and he was expecting a train full of police and trackers in response. It was known that Aaron Sherritt had police staying in his hut with him. Later, Ned would suggest that the police must have tortured Aaron to make him complicit. It stands to reason that if Ned was intent on taking out a train load of police that he would also be inclined to take out a party of police that he suspected were stationed with his friend against his will.
Regardless of the exact plan, Glenrowan was picked as the location and Ettie Hart was sent to scope out the area and gauge the sympathies of Ann Jones who owned one of the two pubs in town, the other being the McDonnell’s Railway Tavern, which was run by known sympathisers. As Glenrowan had no telegraph station of its own it would be unlikely that news of the train line being damaged there would be able to get out in time to warn the police. Ned knew there was a chance, however, that he might need to take prisoners to prevent someone raising the alarm, thus it suited his purpose to have access to Ann Jones’s inn.
The gang each had a home-made suit of iron armour to protect them from bullets. It is unclear what the initial idea behind the armour was, but based on Joe Byrne’s later comments it was Ned Kelly’s idea alone. Ned would at one time indicate they were meant to protect the gang from guards when robbing banks, but the unprotected legs and arms may have gone against this idea.
Some have speculated that the design of the armour was devised with the intention that the wearers would be shooting downwards from an embankment, thus eliminating the need for leg protection. This very specific application seems unlikely if there was to be any further use of the armour after the derailment. It may simply have been the case that armour thick enough to be bulletproof would simply have been too heavy if it also covered the arms and legs.
The notion of the armour is mysterious as there has never been a definitive primary source found that explains the genesis of the idea. It is known that the gang’s hideout on Bullock Creek had an armoured door, so it seems likely that Ned Kelly was aware of the usefulness of a bulletproof protection as far back as mid-1878. There have been scores of suggestions as to where the idea for the armour originated from the novel Lorna Doone to a suit of Japanese armour in the Burke Museum in Beechworth.
The armour covered the head, chest, back, thighs, and in Ned’s case his upper arms as well (he probably also had a plate to protect his buttocks that has long disappeared, but is featured in contemporary illustrations.) Joe and Dan also had iron plates that joined the body armour together to encase the torso like a cuirass. The helmets offered limited scope of vision and we’re supposed to have had quilted lining sewn inside to pad them. The iron was taken mostly from ploughs, the mouldboards being an appropriate shape and size to use. It also appears that some sheet metal was likely also used in some instances such as Steve Hart’s backplate. Rumours persist that the armour was either made by sympathetic blacksmiths or the gang themselves using a partly submerged green log as an anvil that would dull the sound of hammering. The quality of the smithing indicates that a blacksmith was probably involved at some point.
Murder of Sherritt
On the evening of 26 June, 1880, Anton Wick was walking along the road to El Dorado as night fell. He knew the way well enough as he had lived there a long time. As he was walking, he was passed by two riders leading a packhorse who ignored him before doubling back. One of the riders asked Wick if he recognised him, to which Wick replied that he didn’t. The rider revealed himself to be Joe Byrne and flashed his pistol. Wick was handcuffed by Dan Kelly, the other rider, and walked back up the road to the Devil’s Elbow where Aaron Sherritt lived in an old miner’s hut with his wife. The bushrangers hitched their horses and walked up to the hut. Joe Byrne took Anton Wick to the back door and Dan Kelly guarded the front door in case anyone tried to escape.
Byrne ordered Wick to call out to the occupants. Inside were Aaron Sherritt, his wife Belle as well as his mother-in-law and four policemen, who were in the bedroom preparing for the evening’s watch party at the Byrne selection. When Wick called for assistance it was Belle who asked who it was. “It’s Anton Wick; I’ve lost myself,” was the reply. Ellen Barry told Aaron to tell the old German where to go. Aaron opened the back door and said “Do you see that sapling?” before noticing movement by the chimney. Aaron asked, “Who’s there?” Suddenly Byrne pushed Wick aside and unloaded a barrel from his shotgun into Sherritt’s torso, followed by a second blast that tore Sherritt’s throat apart. Sherritt staggered back and hit the dirt floor without any utterance. Joe coldly stated “That’s the man I want.” He would also say, “The bastard will never put me away again.” As Belle wailed over her husband’s body, Dan Kelly was brought inside. For two hours the bushrangers attempted to flush the police out of the bedroom but the officers cowered inside, even trapping Belle under the bed, pinning her against the wall with their feet until she passed out and did the same with her mother. At one point Dan Kelly attempted to set fire to the house but the wood was too wet to catch and there was no available kerosene. Dan and Joe freed Wick and left at about 9:00pm. Inside, constables Duross, Dowling, Alexander and Armstrong remained, too petrified to see if the bushrangers had gone until after sunrise the following day. They were convinced the gang had surrounded the hut to trap them. It was unclear what the packhorse the bushrangers had with them was carrying. There is some reason to believe it was their armour, which they never wore during the affair.
Meanwhile in Glenrowan
Ned Kelly and Steve Hart arrived in Glenrowan around the same time Dan and Joe left El Dorado. They put their horses in the paddock of McDonnell’s tavern and took tools to try and take up the railway track. They went a short distance down the line to where the track curved on an embankment and attempted to break it. In the event that a train did not stop before hitting a broken line at this spot it would have resulted in catastrophe, but they had the wrong tools and were unsuccessful in their sabotage. Already things were not going to plan, but Ned Kelly was resourceful.
Realising that they were out of their depth, the bushrangers went to a row of tents pitched between the train station and Ann Jones’ inn. Thinking these were railway workers, they awoke them one by one with the intention of making them damage the tracks for them. Ned interrupted the foreman Alfonso Piazzi attending to “country matters” and a scuffle ensued. Piazzi pulled a gun on Ned but the bushranger knocked it aside with his carbine causing it to go off. Fortunately nobody was injured, but soon all the men, and the woman Piazzi had in his tent, were rounded up and ordered to break the line. It was then explained to the outlaws that they were not able to do as asked as they were not railway workers, they were labourers who had been working with the gravel along the line and knew nothing about the tracks. Ned was then informed that he would need the stationmaster. He proceeded to take the men with him to the gatehouse where John Stanistreet, the stationmaster, resided.
Stanistreet and Jones
John Stanistreet and his wife were roused by knocking at the door, which was not uncommon as they had frequently been pestered by people travelling late at night requesting that the railway gates be opened so they could pass through (a substantial amount of whom were Kelly sympathisers.) However, before the door could be answered, Ned Kelly burst in and held the couple at gunpoint, demanding Stanistreet come with him. When Ned ordered Stanistreet to instruct the gravel collectors on how to disassemble the track, Stanistreet informed him that he had no understanding of how to do that himself and that it was the plate-layers that would know what to do. Ned’s patience was wearing incredibly thin and he took Stanistreet with him to the Glenrowan Inn which was not much more than a few metres away. Steve Hart was left to guard the labourers.
Ann Jones and her daughter Jane, who were sharing a bed, were woken up by Ned knocking at the door. When Ann answered, John Stanistreet and Ned Kelly were there waiting. Ned ordered Ann to accompany him to the gatehouse but before they left Ned watched Ann and Jane get dressed to make sure there was no funny business. He then took the keys and locked the door to the bedroom where Ann’s sons were sleeping. Ann and Jane were taken to the gatehouse and added to the growing number of prisoners. Ned left Steve in charge while he went to look for the plate-layers.
Bailing up the plate-layers
Ned walked down the line and bailed up a plate-layer named Sullivan, then as he was crossing the tracks they met James Reardon. Reardon had been roused by his dog barking and asked what Sullivan was doing out at such an hour, whereupon he was told that Ned Kelly had bailed him up. Ned appeared and pushed the muzzle of his pistol into Reardon’s cheek and demanded to know who he was. When Reardon confirmed he was a plate-layer, Ned stated that there had been a conflict near Beechworth and many police were killed. He explained that he was expecting a train full of police to come in response and that the plate-layers would help him dismantle the track to wreck the train. They were marched back to the gatehouse.
When Ned returned, the gravel collectors and Stanistreet were waiting with Steve Hart. Reardon announced that his tools were at home. Ned sent Steve to get the men to fetch tools from the shed while he went back with Reardon. After much hassle a length of the rail was displaced. The half hour job had taken two hours. With this, the group retired to the gatehouse for refreshments.
At around 5:00am, Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly arrived in Glenrowan, left their horses at McDonnell’s and went to the gatehouse to meet Ned. It is unclear if they expressed any details to him about what had transpired in El Dorado the previous night.
At breakfast time, Ann Jones suggested sending Jane across to stoke the fires and begin preparing meals. She also suggested Ned could have a wash up there. Ned sent Joe Byrne across to the inn with Jane to keep an eye on her. The fires were stoked and Jane checked on her brothers. Soon the male prisoners were brought across to the inn and the women and children were left at the gatehouse under Steve’s watch, excepting the Joneses who remained at the inn to serve the food and drinks.
The police in Aaron’s hut
When the police felt safe to leave the bedroom it was already morning. They asked Ellen Barry for a drink. She told them that there was water on the table. Belle tossed the water out saying it may have been poisoned and was then told by the men to go outside and fetch water. The first attempt by the police to get help failed when the local schoolteacher they asked told them his wife wouldn’t let him go. The next attempt was when a Chinese man was stopped and paid to take a note to Beechworth police station. The Chinese man soon returned saying he couldn’t take the note as it was too far. He kept the money.
Stuck for options, the police asked Aaron’s neighbour to send word but although the neighbour said he would do it when he made a trip into town the police did not trust him to follow through. Frustrated, Constable Armstrong commandeered a horse and rode to Beechworth. It was midday when he arrived to tell Detective Ward the news. Once the information reached Ward he sent telegrams to inform his colleagues.
As Sunday rolled on the gang continued to add to the number of prisoners. The longer the wait, the more difficult it was proving to be to stop people from noticing what the gang was up to. Male captives in the Glenrowan Inn occupied themselves with card games such as cribbage and bought drinks. Ann Jones would comment to Ned Kelly that she would be glad if he came every weekend given how much business he had drummed up for her. Steve Hart continued to guard the women and children in the gatehouse but grew increasingly laissez-faire, drinking heavily and even napping on a sofa with two revolvers resting on his chest. Mrs. Stanistreet would note that despite how much he had to drink, he managed to retain an admirable level of sobriety and self control. At one point Dan Kelly burst into the gatehouse in search of a bag. It was unclear why he was so desperate to find it.
Around mid-morning, three boys, the Delaney brothers, went out with the intention of going kangaroo hunting with their greyhound. They went looking for Michael Reardon to accompany them. Unable to find anyone at the Reardon house they continued to walk down the line. As they reached the crossing they were bailed up by Ned Kelly, who was riding Joe’s grey mare. He escorted them back to the gatehouse but when he recognised 15 year-old Jack Delaney as a youth that had helped police some months earlier, he became apoplectic. Kelly ranted and abused the boy, accusing him of trying to sell him out to the police. Delaney was trembling so violently with fear that he shattered a clay pipe he was borrowing. Ned went so far as to thrust a pistol into Delaney’s hand, suggesting he shoot him right there if he was so keen on helping the police. Within moments, Joe Byrne emerged from the gatehouse and intervened, telling Ned to go away and cool off. Such an incredible outburst showed how the stress of his plan falling apart, combined with alcohol consumption and a lack of sleep, was causing him to act irrationally.
As the drama with the Delaney boys was unfolding, Thomas Curnow was driving his buggy, accompanied by his wife and baby, his sister and his brother-in-law. As they reached the railway crossing, they were flagged down by Stanistreet who warned them Ned Kelly had bailed everyone up. A moment later, Kelly appeared and confirmed this. He sent the women into the gatehouse and Curnow parked his buggy at the I before he and his brother-in-law joined the other male prisoners inside.
The Glenrowan Games
In the afternoon, the outlaws became aware of the growing restlessness of their prisoners. Ned initiated a series of sporting games, even participating in hop-step-jump while holding a revolver in each hand. After the sports, Dan Kelly suggested a dance and the bar was cleared out to allow space for the activity. Dave Mortimer played concertina and Dan asked Thomas Curnow to join him. Curnow insisted he needed to fetch his dancing shoes and asked to go home and fetch them. Ned considered the request until he was informed that in order to get to Curnow’s house it required passing the police station. Ned immediately refused the request and Curnow begrudgingly accepted this outcome. He had spent the preceding hours gathering information about Ned’s plan and was determined to stop the police train from derailing. His first attempt may have failed, but he continued to scheme.
Superintendent Hare received word that there was a telegram waiting for him at 2:30pm. He immediately went to the Benalla Telegraph Office where he was informed by a telegram from Captain Standish of Sherritt’s murder. A request was sent to Captain Standish to arrange for Sub-Inspector O’Connor and his native police, who were about to return home to Queensland, to come back to Beechworth for a fresh pursuit. Hare was joined by Superintendent Sadleir and they began to formulate a plan to pursue the outlaws from El Dorado as soon as possible.
After buttering Ned up, Curnow received consent to visit his pregnant wife at the gatehouse. Here he attempted to curry favour with Steve Hart by helping him remove his boots and soaking his sore feet in warm water. He later informed Ned that Stanistreet kept a loaded revolver in his office, which Ned ordered Steve to confiscate. Curnow hoped that this would bring Ned to trust him, then once trust was established he would be able to seek permission to leave.
Special train organised
It wasn’t until the evening that Standish was able to arrange for O’Connor and his trackers to return to active duty for the Victorian police. He then organised a special train to leave Spencer Street that night, consisting of a locomotive, guard van and first class carriage. Just as Ned had asserted, this was not to be a civilian train but a conveyance specifically to get O’Connor and his team to Benalla and then the entire police search party to Beechworth from there.
Once O’Connor confirmed his involvement, it was agreed that he and his trackers (Hero, Jacky, Barney, Johnny, and Jimmy) would board the special train at Essendon station that night. His wife and sister-in-law decided they would accompany him to Beechworth and packed for a holiday up north.
Late in the evening another dance was held, with Dave Mortimer calling the sets and playing concertina. Those who weren’t dancing were mostly indoors playing cards or drinking. At this time Jane Jones was observed sitting on Dan Kelly’s knee and kissing him. Ned spent considerable time outside talking with Ann Jones who seemed to be going out of her way to accommodate him. As the dancing died down, Ann Jones was also seen flirting with Joe Byrne, attempting to pull Scanlan’s ring off his finger while he played with her hair. Johnny Jones sang for the crowd, performing “Cailin deas cruitha na mo” (The Pretty Girl Milking a Cow) and then performing “Farewell to Greta” for Ned Kelly with the promise of a sixpence from his mother if he did so.
Bailing up Bracken
At 9pm Ned and Joe put on their armour and gathered a group of prisoners to escort them to the police barracks, where they could capture Constable Bracken. Curnow convinced Ned to take Dave Mortimer to lure Bracken out, while also gaining permission to take his family home from the barracks. Bracken was the only policeman in the town, having been stationed there to keep an eye on Kelly sympathisers for Superintendent Hare. At the barracks the group roused Bracken, who had been in bed with gastro. Ned bailed him up, but as Ned was dressed in his full armour Bracken thought it was a prank. He was made to mount up but Joe kept a close eye on him to ensure he didn’t escape.
With Bracken captured, Ned allowed Curnow to leave, warning him not to dream too loud. When the Curnows arrived home, Thomas informed them of his plan to stop the train before it reached Glenrowan. His wife feared that if the bushrangers discovered he had stopped the train they would murder the whole family.
Word sent to journalists
As the special train was being prepared, journalists from multiple publications were requested to ride to Beechworth in the train so they could report first-hand on the work the police were doing to catch the Kelly Gang. The police had been regularly criticised in the press for their apparent ineptitude for catching bushrangers since the Euroa raid in December 1878, and the government seemed keen to get good press for their officers of the law as a fresh lead had presented itself. John McWhirter, Joe Melvin, Thomas Carrington and George Allen were all sent to join the train, which left Melbourne at 10pm. Apart from rumours of a murder, there was no indication for the reporters of what was unfolding in Kelly Country, but they were soon to find themselves in a journalist’s dream and recording history unfolding right before their very eyes.
Much conjecture has been made around whether Aaron Sherritt was a sympathiser or a traitor; a matyr or a double agent. All of it relies on the same broad brushstrokes and oversimplification that has plagued understanding of the Kelly story for over a century. The truth is far more complex and the more one delves into the events of the Kelly outbreak, the murkier it becomes. Aaron Sherritt made friends everywhere but in the end was surrounded by enemies. How did he go from everyone’s mate to persona non grata?
[Source: Illustrated Australian news. July 3, 1880.]
Sherritt was born into an Irish protestant family in 1854, growing up in the Woolshed Valley – a notoriously rough area of the north east of Victoria right in the heart of the goldfields of that region. He met Joe Byrne as a young boy and the pair were inseparable. Naturally, the Catholic Byrnes were wary of Aaron, and the Protestant Sherritts equally wary of the Byrnes, but the friendship continued to flourish.
As teens, Aaron and Joe began to spend most of their downtime around Sebastopol, a mining town between El Dorado and Beechworth. Here they would spend considerable amounts of time in the Chinese camp, even earning the nicknames Ah Joe and Ah Jim (because Ah Aaron proved too difficult to pronounce). Much has been made of Joe’s bilingualism, speaking Cantonese proficiently, but it is probable that Aaron was also proficient to some degree as he spent time with the Chinese almost as much as Joe, though history doesn’t record how robust his linguistic skills were.
In his early twenties, Aaron worked on a gold claim with two Chinese men named Ah Loy and Ah Fook. This Ah Fook was very probably the same man that had been robbed by Harry Power and assaulted by a young Ned Kelly several years earlier, and would suffer a horrific murder not long afterwards. Aaron fancied himself as something of a butcher and tried to obtain a butcher’s licence under Ah Loy’s name when his own licence was revoked. The ploy was not as clever as Aaron thought, so when his cover was blown he was fined.
Chinese Sluicing, Near Beechworth [Source: The Australian news for home readers. August 25, 1864.]
Aaron and Joe frequently caught the attention of the police through their various schemes, with Detective Ward and Senior Constable Mullane being frequent visitors to the Byrne and Sherritt farms. In 1876 the pair were tried for assault against Ah On, a Chinese man who lived on the outskirts of Sebastopol. The pair had been skinny dipping in a waterhole near Ah On’s house and a dispute arose. It seems that there was an argument and while Ah On chased the boys away, waving a bamboo staff, Aaron threw a rock at Ah On. The rock hit him, fracturing his skull. Joe and Aaron narrowly avoided gaol time but it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out. It is possible that this was when they first met Dan Kelly, who was in Beechworth awaiting his own hearing over an allegedly stolen saddle at the same time. His big brother Ned was also in attendance to provide a statement. There is no definitive account of how they met the Kellys, but as they tended to move in different circles, owing to Beechworth’s distance from the Kelly stomping ground in Greta, it is unlikely that they had made significant contact before this time.
The pair took up stealing horses and cattle for easy money. Aaron had been coached in the world of “stock trading” by a man named John Phelan and likely put the lessons to good use, selling duffed livestock. This soon escalated into an unfortunate incident where a stolen cow was inexpertly butchered by the pair and saw them locked up in Beechworth Gaol in May 1876 for six months. The El Dorado school’s pet cow had been stolen from the common, then taken to a place of slaughter. They borrowed a knife and steel from Joe’s neighbours and as they were slaughtering the cow were spotted by a local sticky-beak named Sandy Doig. Joe and Aaron were arrested by Ward and Mullane after dividing the carcass among their families. Unable to beat the charges, this was to be their first time going to prison.
Aaron was a larrikin and something of an adrenaline junkie. For him, few things gave him more of a thrill than stock theft. When the opportunity arose to take the flashness out of some local squatters by stealing their horses he didn’t stop to think twice, and joined Ned Kelly, along with Joe, in a horse stealing racket. A rotating roster of larrikins from the Greta Mob helped the thieves shift the stolen animals. Aaron would later brag of his love of horse stealing to Superintendent Hare. The operation saw the gang moving stock throughout Victoria and parts of southern New South Wales. No doubt Aaron was able to use some of the tricks he had learned from John Phelan to help disguise the stock. Likely, the horse thieves had made good money from their dodgy trade. When Aaron would reflect on the time he would only mention himself, Joe and Ned. It is impossible to know if Ned’s stepfather George King had been left out of the reminiscences due to Aaron trying to protect his identity or something else having happened. George King seemingly vanished from history straight after the campaign of larceny and the only tangible evidence he was involved comes from Ned’s allusions to him as a duffer in his letters.
It was around this time that Aaron became unofficially engaged to Joe’s sister Kate. In kind Joe was in a serious relationship with Aaron’s sister Bessie, though both boys had a reputation as skirt chasers. Aaron seems to have maintained this relationship admirably long considering his roving eye. Aaron was a frequent visitor to the Byrne homestead where he would do chores for Margret Byrne. Meanwhile, Aaron had gained a lease on a selection that Joe Byrne was helping him fix up per the lease agreement. Unfortunately the domestic bliss was doomed to be short lived.
In October 1878 Joe Byrne was implicated in the police killings at Stringybark Creek. While Aaron wasn’t there he was keen to provide support for his greatest friend. Just after the event Aaron took the gang into the bush and guarded while they slept in a cave. For a time he acted as a spy for the gang, keeping tabs on police movements to allow the gang to move freely. Shortly after the killings a large party of police raided the Sherritt and Byrne homes, during which time Aaron became acquainted with Captain Standish, the Chief Commissioner of police. Aaron and Standish reached an agreement by which Joe Byrne would be taken alive and spared the noose if Aaron gave information leading to the capture of the rest of the gang. Subsequently Aaron began making himself known in the police offices in Benalla, providing useless information in a thinly veiled attempt to throw police off the scent of the gang. A few days before the gang headed to Jerilderie, Aaron misdirected the police by informing Superintendent Hare the outlaws were headed for Goulburn. Despite this, Hare took a liking to Sherritt and maintained his services. Aaron now found himself in the position of stringing the police along and making money out of it in the process, allowing his mates to go unmolested while keeping the police under the impression they were getting insider information to help catch them. This would not last.
Night after night, Aaron would accompany a party of police to caves that looked down onto the Byrne property. He maintained that this was the place the gang were most likely to visit after their activities. Hare claimed in his memoirs that on one occasion Sherritt had secretly convinced one of the constables to help him steal the booty from the bushrangers, which they would then split between them. Hare was convinced that Sherritt was doing his best to help the police nab the outlaws, but despite months of camping in the caves they were no closer to catching the Kellys.
Things began to fray at the seams for Aaron when the police party was discovered by Margret Byrne. Alerted by the sun glinting off a discarded sardine tin, Mrs. Byrne crawled up into the rocks and saw Sherritt asleep with several police. When the police announced that they’d been spotted, Aaron went white as a sheet and declared he was a dead man. Soon after, the engagement between Aaron and Kate Byrne was called off and this threw Aaron into a downward spiral. This is where Aaron’s motives become unclear and his actions began to raise red flags amongst the sympathisers.
The dust had barely settled after the engagement was broken before Aaron was making moves on Kate Kelly. This coincided with controversy over a horse named Charlie. Aaron had gifted a filly to Kate Byrne but had told her that if she didn’t intend on keeping it he would take it back to sell. Whether on Kate’s or Margret Byrne’s instructions, Paddy Byrne sold the filly to a Chinese man and received a gelding in the exchange. Aaron, fuming over the disregard for his stipulation, stole Charlie the gelding as compensation for the filly. Aaron then sold the horse to Kate Kelly’s sister Maggie, who was unaware it was stolen. Margret Byrne filed charges and Aaron was dragged into court. It was alleged that Margret had offered to drop the charges if Aaron would leave the colony. The case against Aaron was complicated but not compelling enough to secure a conviction. Aaron walked free but the damage was done and he had lost the trust of the Byrnes. People began to suggest that his involvement with the police saw strings being pulled to get him off.
By this time Aaron had become so entrenched in the police activities that Detective Ward had expense accounts all over Beechworth to cover his purchases. Aaron was not earning a wage otherwise and this began to put stress on him financially. When he started courting Ellen Barry, better known as Belle, things started looking up for Aaron – or so he thought.
Belle was a fifteen year-old whose mother was well known in the district due to her work as a midwife and her husband was infamous for his involvement with stock theft. The Barrys were Catholics and when Aaron proposed to Belle this caused friction between him and his own family. His mother in particular was so incensed by the suggestion that Aaron would not only marry outside of the family faith, but convert to Catholicism to facilitate it, that she essentially disowned him and started a period of direct antagonism towards Aaron from his family members.
Despite the union causing a fracture in his family, Aaron married Belle in Beechworth on Boxing Day, 1879. They stayed in the Hibernian Hotel for the honeymoon, all expenses paid by the police, naturally. Detective Ward even gifted the newlyweds a set of silverware.
In early 1880 tensions were high. The police were suspicious of Aaron, the Byrnes had distanced themselves from him and the Lloyds and Quinns were putting pressure on the Kelly Gang to have Aaron taken out. And now on top of that, as Aaron began his married life, his own family had disowned him and were blatantly stirring up trouble. Aaron’s brother Jack, on one occasion, had broken into Aaron’s in-laws’ home and stolen items belonging to the newlyweds, including Belle’s new saddle and watch. The stolen items were planted at the Byrne farm to throw suspicion but Jack was not as clever as he liked to imagine, having left a tie that was gifted to him by Detective Ward at the scene of the crime. Once Aaron had uncovered the deed he engaged his brother in a horseback chase before the pair came to blows. In his rage, Aaron ripped a sapling out of the ground and walloped Jack across the head with it. The blow rendered the younger Sherritt unconscious and bleeding heavily from the head. Suddenly terrified at the thought that he may have killed Jack, Aaron headed to the pub to steady his nerves before turning himself in to the police. As this was transpiring, Jack appeared in the pub behind him covered in blood. The pair got drunk and briefly patched things up but it would not last long.
Soon Aaron took possession of an abandoned hut near Sebastopol. This caused problems when the owner turned up and started threatening Aaron. The police who were working with Sherritt at the time pitched in and bought the old hut in order to cool the situation down. This two-roomed miner’s hut was flimsy and the furnishings were rudimentary, but it suited the newlyweds better than bunking down at Aaron’s in-laws’ place where they were heavily scrutinised.
Aaron was now struggling to cope with the lifestyle. He threw himself wholeheartedly into working with the police, knowing it would put the final nail in the coffin, but perhaps Aaron figured it couldn’t get any worse. In response to threats from the sympathisers, Superintendent Hare and Detective Ward arranged to have police constables stationed with Sherritt around the clock. A team of four would work in shifts; during the day police were to stay in the hut to avoid detection and at night they would accompany Aaron to his watch at the police caves. Of course things did not go to plan, with constables seen outside during the day performing chores and relaxing. This was, naturally, noticed by Kelly sympathisers, particularly the Byrne brothers, and word inevitably reached the gang.
In June, the Kelly Gang came back into the open with a grand plan to lure a train full of police and trackers to be derailed at Glenrowan. Unlike in their previous missions, Aaron was not made privy to the plan and for a very good reason: he was a key part of it. There is conjecture about the gang’s true intentions, but the plan was most likely one of two options. The first is that Aaron Sherritt would be murdered in order to lure the train from Benalla based on the four constables raising the alarm. The second is that the police were the targets with the alarm to either be raised by Aaron or by a surviving policeman. Ned Kelly’s comments made after his capture to Constable Armstrong, one of the police stationed in the hut, implied that he believed Aaron was being tortured for information by police and that his plan was to target the police, not the informant. According to multiple reports, Ned was unaware during the gang’s time in Glenrowan that Aaron was the one that had been killed and asserted it must have been the others that came up with the idea of killing him.
Only days before the plan was put into action, Aaron was taken on a pub crawl by one of the police assigned to his hut, Constable Alexander. During this they went to the Vine Hotel in Beechworth where Aaron spotted Joe Byrne’s girlfriend. Alexander immediately began questioning her unsuccessfully. Word promptly found its way back to Joe Byrne what Aaron had done. Perhaps it was this final straw that made Joe decide to put Aaron to death.
[Source: The Australasian Sketcher. July 17, 1880.]
On the night of 26 June, the gang split up with Ned Kelly and Steve Hart heading to Glenrowan while Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly headed to the Devil’s Elbow, where Aaron lived. Joe and Dan rode with a pack horse in tow, likely carrying their weapons and possibly their iron armour. On the way to Aaron’s hut, the pair passed Anton Wick, Aaron’s neighbour, doubled back and bailed him up. They led Wick at gunpoint to Aaron’s homestead. Dan waited at the front door while Joe went around the rear with Wick and ordered him to call out to Aaron. When Aaron answered the door, Joe shot him twice with a shotgun. With gaping wounds in his stomach and throat, Aaron hit the floor and died without a word. So extreme were the wounds that when the post mortem was conducted it was found that his heart had been completely emptied of blood.
The police that had been assigned to protect the Sherritts cowered in the bedroom, unable to leave without being shot, and forced Belle and her mother to hide under the bed until morning. The police did not leave until midday on the following day, throwing Ned Kelly’s plan out the window and resulting in the disastrous siege of Glenrowan, wherein all of the Kelly Gang but Ned were killed.
Aaron’s inquest was held in The Vine Hotel, and on 29 June Aaron was buried in Beechworth cemetery in an unmarked grave. Over the next few years, Belle would seek reparations from the police for their culpability in Aaron’s death. The stress of what happened on 26 June contributed to her having a miscarriage and subsequently suffering poor health. She received no support, financial or otherwise, from Aaron’s family.
Aaron’s brothers Jack and Willie Sherritt would use the connections they made as police informants during Kelly hunt to become constables. Unfortunately the nepotism only went so far and they were deemed a poor fit for the force, subsequently being kicked out by the Assistant Commissioner. Unemployed and unable to return to live with their parents for fear of being killed by Kelly sympathisers, Willie went to Queensland and Jack begged, unsuccessfully, to be let back into the police force. When Jack testified during the Royal Commission into the Kelly outbreak in 1881 he used it as a platform to try and defame Assistant Commissioner Nicolson.
Many years after the outbreak, Jack Sherritt and Paddy Byrne had a public reconciliation in Beechworth in an effort to bury the hatchet between the two families that had been so terribly affected by their roles in the Kelly outbreak.
Over time, the myths of the Kelly story resulted in Aaron Sherritt being unfairly vilified as an outright traitor; a self-serving fizzgig. Such a negative association with Aaron’s name blackened his character, despite him being a victim of the politics of the Kelly story rather than an antagonist. Sadly, not only did the police’s carelessness make Aaron a target, but their terrible decisions helped the outlaws decide to murder him and meant that his death was not reported for more than twelve hours. That the police in question were demoted or sacked afterwards was little comfort to Belle, who was constantly denied assistance from the police, despite her husband being, to the best of her knowledge, one of them. Were it not for a push by the press to get Belle compensation the poor girl would have had nothing.
Aaron Sherritt has suffered a tremendous injustice due to the inaccuracies in the telling of the Kelly story through the years. Whereas he was traditionally portrayed as some kind of Beechworth Judas, his story highlights, more than any other, the true nature of the network of Kelly Sympathisers. While many were sincere in supporting the cause and the gang, the majority were bandwagon riders that hoped for reflected glory and a share of the loot whenever a bank was robbed. The truth is that the sympathisers are directly responsible for Aaron’s murder and the chain of events that followed, resulting in no less than six untimely deaths. If misinformation about Aaron being a traitor had not been spread as gospel truth, quite contrary to the reality, the gang would have had a different path roll out for them.
The following article from 1923 begins with the death of Ellen Kelly then recaps the story of the Kelly Gang as it was understood at the time. Mrs. Kelly (she had returned to using her first husband’s surname) was a remarkable woman who lived almost a century, outliving nearly all of her own children. She had been cared for by her only surviving son Jim but lived in desperate poverty. The hardships of colonial life, and of the drama that unfolded around her family, must have taken a severe toll on her. It wasn’t until authors like Max Brown began researching and writing about the Kelly story that public opinion began to soften toward them, but right up until Ellen’s death there remained a strong sentiment of condemnation that was only exacerbated by the half-remembered and outright fabricated stories that were circulating at the turn of the century. The following article demonstrates this point remarkably well. Statements about how bloody their record ~AP
Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1903 – 1926), Sunday 8 April 1923, page 11
MOTHER OF THE KELLYS.
DIES IN BUSHRANGERS’ HAUNT.
Stories of Blood and Terror. Outlaws’ Last Stand at Glenrowan.
The death of Mrs. Ellen King. formerly Kelly, which took place at Greta West, near Wangaratta (Victoria), last week, recalls memories of her sons, Ned and Dan Kelly, leaders of the most notorious gang of law-breakers that ever infested the Australian bush. From 1878 to 1880 the Kelly gang terrorised a considerable area of Victoria and New South Wales. They were practically the last of the bushrangers, as they were undoubtedly the worst, their record being the most daring and bloody in all the list. Several histories of their career have been written, and the story has been dramatised for stage and film. They serve to illustrate a period in the development of the country that has happily passed, and which, with increased settlement, and improved means of rapid communication, will never come again.
The mother of the Kellys was 95 years of age at the time of her death, and for the past 40 years she has lived in the wild hills of Greta West, the scene of many daring exploits by her sons. She was a native of Antrim (Ireland), and came to Australia with her parents in 1841. Her maiden name was Quinn. In 1851, at Ballarat, then in its heyday as a goldfield, Ellen Quinn married John Kelly, who had been transported from Ireland some time previously. Their son, Edward, was born in 1854 at Wallan Wallan ; James was born in 1856, and Daniel in 1861. There were, besides, four daughters. At the time of the brothers’ exploits one of these was married to a man named Gunn, another to a man named Skillian, and two others, Kate and Grace, were single.
START WITH HORSE-STEALING.
The Kellys, like the Kenniffs in later years in Queensland, appear to have started on the downward path by stealing horses. F. A. Hare, P.M., who, as Superintendent of the Victorian police, was personally concerned in the hunt for the Kellys, declares in his book, “The Last of the Bushrangers,” that “Ned Kelly was regarded as a horse and cattle thief from earliest boyhood. He was known to steal carriers’ horses at night, ‘plant’ them in the bush until a reward was offered for them. and then in the most innocent manner produce them and claim the reward. When he was 16 years of age he joined the bushranger, Power, taking charge of the outlaw’s horses whilst he committed his depredations. In 1870 he was arrested and charged with having assisted Power, but no one could identify him, and so he was discharged. In 1870 Jim Kelly, then only 15 years of age, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on two charges of horse-stealing. On his discharge in 1876 he went to New South Wales and stuck up a number of people, but was captured immediately and was sent to gaol for 10 years, so that he was out of the way when his brothers were outlawed. In 1871 Ned Kelly was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for horse-stealing. Many stories are told of the manner in which the Kellys and their associates used to run mobs of horses into the Warby and Strathbogie Ranges, fake the brands with iodine, keep them until the marks had healed, and then drive them to Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong, and even as far as Sydney, where they would be sold openly in the auction yards.
SHOOTING OF FITZPATRICK.
The plunge to crime of the most violent character was taken in 1878. Warrants had issued for the arrest of Dan Kelly on no less than six charges of horse stealing. Constable Alexr, Fitzpatrick, on April 15, 1878, went to the Kellys’ hut at Greta, with the object of effecting an arrest. As he rode up he saw Dan standing at the door, and he said, “You’re my prisoner.” Dan replied. “All right; but wait until I get something to eat. I’ve been riding all day.” The constable agreed. After Dan sat down, his mother said, “You won’t take Dan from here this night.” Dan told her to shut up. The woman continued to grumble, and presently asked, “Have you got a warrant?” Fitzpatrick replied, “I have a telegram, which is just as good.” The constable then accepted Dan’s invitation to have some food, and as he sat down Mrs. Kelly said, “If my son Ned was here, he’d throw you out of the window.” Dan looked out of the window and said, “Why, here he is!” As Fitzpatrick turned to look, Dan sprang on him, and at the same moment, Mrs. Kelly struck him on the head with a heavy spade that had been used as a fire shovel. As Fitzpatrick fell several persons rushed into the room, including Ned Kelly, who held a revolver in his hand. Evidently he had fired, for Fitzpatrick was wounded in the arm. Ned Kelly said, “I’m sorry I fired. You are the civilest — — trap I’ve seen.” He offered to cut out the bullet and bind the wound, but Fitzpatrick refused to let him touch it. Ned said the constable could not be allowed to go until he had promised not to tell how he got wounded, and Mrs. Kelly cried, ” Tell him if he does tell he won’t live long after.” Fitzpatrick promised not to tell, and after himself extracting the bullet he bound up the wound with his handkerchief and was allowed to depart. On the following day a party of troopers arrested Mrs. Kelly, who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for her part in the affair. William Skillian and William Williams were each sentenced to six years.
THREE POLICEMEN MURDERED.
A party of 25 troopers with black trackers were sent out to capture Ned and Dan Kelly. On October 25 one party of searchers went into camp at Stringy Bark Creek, about eight miles from the Wombat Ranges. Sergeant Kennedy, who was in charge, had information of the movements of the wanted men, but it appears that his informant had also told the Kellys of the approach of the police. Sergeant Kennedy and Constable Scanlan went into the scrub seeking track of their quarry, whilst Constables Lonergan and McIntyre were left in charge of the camp. Lonergan was making tea when four men rode up on horseback and cried, “Bail up ; put up your hands.” Lonergan made a jump to get behind a tree at the same time reaching to his belt for his pistol. As he did so he was shot dead, his last words as he fell being, “Oh, Christ, I’m shot.” McIntyre, who was unarmed, surrendered. Ned Kelly, after examining Lonergan’s body, said, “What a pity ; why didn’t the —— fool surrender.” The bushrangers then hid themselves until Kennedy and Scanlan returned. As they came close, McIntyre said, “Sergeant we’re surrounded; you’d better surrender.” Scanlan put his hand to his belt, and Ned Kelly fired at him, but missed. Scanlan jumped from his horse and made for a gum tree, but was shot dead before he reached it. Kennedy wheeled his horse and started to gallop off, but was brought down by a bullet from the rifle of one of the terribly accurate marksmen. As the frightened horse dashed through the camp McIntyre threw himself upon it, but it had not galloped far before the animal was shot through the heart. McIntyre fell clear, and crawling into a patch of scrub, he secreted himself in a wombat hole, where he lay hidden whilst the bushrangers searched all around, swearing what they would do to him when they found him. After dark he got clear, and walked 20 miles to Mansfield, where he made known the facts of the murder of his three comrades.
£8000 REWARD OFFERED.
Rewards of £100 each had been offered for the capture of Ned and Dan Kelly, and these were increased to £500. As time went on the rewards offered by the New South Wales and Victorian Governments, and the associated banks were increased until they totalled £8000 for the capture of the gang, which now included Steve Hart (aged 20 years), and Joe Byrnes (aged 19 years); who had been identified as having been with the Kellys in the fatal encounter just described. The next exploit of the bushrangers was the sticking up of Younghusbands station on Faithfull Creek on December 8. This was a carefully planned coup, the statlon hands, manager, and several callers being locked up in a store room. The outlaws helped themselves to arms and clothes, they took it in turns to sleep, two reposing whilst two watched, and an itinerant hawker who called during their stay had his stock ransacked for new clothes, etc. Some quaint fancy led the outlaws to smother their clothes with the contents of bottles of perfume from the cart. On December 11 Joe Byrnes was left in charge of the prisoners, whilst the others rode to Euroa, where they robbed the National Bank, taking possession of just on £2000 in notes, gold, and silver, besides 31oz of smelted gold. Everything was carried out in the boldest possible manner. The telegraph lines had been cut on each side of Younghusband’s station, so that no alarm could be given, and Mr. Robert Scott, the manager of the bank at Euroa, was forced to put his wife and child in a buggy and drive the whole party back to Younghusband’s after the robbery. That night the robbers left the station with the booty, after first threatening that the manager, Mr. Macauley, would be ‘shot like a b—— dingo,’ if anyone stirred for three hours after they had gone.
TOWNSHIP HELD UP.
At midnight on February 8, 1879, Constables Devine and Richards were at the station and lock-up, just outside the town of Jerilderie (N.S.W.), when they were advised that a row had taken place at Davidson’s Hotel, and a man killed. When the police reached the scene they were confronted by Ned Kelly who, with revolver in hand, ordered them to bail up. As they were unarmed there was nothing for it but to comply and the two officers were locked up in their own cells. The next day was Sunday, and the outlaws, donning the uniforms of the police, spent the day at the police station. On the Monday they took possession of the Royal Hotel, the largest in the town, they locked up everyone likely to interfere with their plans, and proceeding to the Bank of New South Wales, which adjoined the hotel, they surprised the officials, overpowered them, and obtained possession of sums which again totalled over £2000 in notes and gold. At the hotel Ned Kelly had drinks served to everyone. In a speech, he blamed Constable Fitzpatrick for all that had happened. He said he had not been within 100 miles of Greta when Fitzpatrick was shot; he blamed Lonergan for having threatened his mother and sister ; and said he was going to shoot Devine and Richards. He added “The police are worse than the —— black trackers.” The robbers remained masters of the whole town, consisting of about 300 inhabitants, from Saturday night. until the afternoon of the following Wednesday, when they rode off, flourishing their revolvers, and shouting “Hurrah for the good old times of Morgan and Ben Hall.”
COLD BLOODED CRIME.
For some time after this the gang remained in hiding, and little was heard of them until on June 27, 1880, they shot and killed Aaron Sherritt for giving information of their whereabouts to the police. Sherritt, it appears, had been engaged to a sister of Joe Byrnes, but he was suspected of playing traitor, and the engagement was broken off, Sherritt then marrying a daughter of a settler on Woolshed Creek. On the date mentioned, a party of four policemen were secreted in Sherritt’s house, watching the home of Byrnes’s mother. Dan Kelly and Joe Byrnes held up a German named Weeks, who was walking along the road, and they compelled him to call out to Sherritt. When Sherritt came to his door to see who had called, he was shot dead by the outlaws, who called to Mrs. Sherritt: “Send out some of the — traps to bury your husband. We’ve shot him for being a traitor.” The outlaws were hidden in the outside darkness, and there was a bright wood fire burning in the house, which would have made the police easy marks for the rifles of the murderous pair had the officers moved. Finding the police would not come out, the bushrangers fired their rifles several times through the windows and doors. At about 2 o’clock in the morning they rode off without doing further mischief.
LAST SCENE AT GLENROWAN.
The news of this fresh outrage led to the despatch of a strong party from Melbourne by special train. These included Sub-inspector O’Connor of Queensland, with six black trackers, Superintendent Hare, Inspector Pewtress, several other Victorian police officers and Press representatives. Amongst these latter was Mr. J. Melvin, a veteran who, many years later, worked in the Parliamentary Press Gallery at Brisbane. As the police train drew near to the scene of the trouble, it was pointed out that the brightly lighted carriages provided a fine mark for the rifles of the outlaws. Mr. Melvin thereupon climbed on to the roof, as the train sped through the darkness, and he put out all the lights. Approaching Glenrowan the party learned that the bushrangers had torn up the railway line a short distance ahead, and had taken possession of the Glenrowan Inn, about 100 yards distant. The inn, which was fated to be the scene of the bushrangers’ last stand, was a long, low weather-board building, with a wide veranda on the front. Into this building the gang had collected a total of 62 of the townspeople, including Constable Bracken.
THE INNOCENT SUFFER.
The police besieged the building, and in the exchange of rifle fire between them and the outlaws a number of innocent people were wounded. Supt. Hare’s wrist was shattered. Mrs. Jones, the landlady of the hotel at one stage rushed on to the veranda calling the police “murderers,” and declaring that her son had been killed and her daughter wounded. The police ceased firing, and the boy was removed and taken to Wangaratta Hospital, where he died. An old man named Martin Cherry was also killed. During a short truce the whole of the non-combatants were removed from the hotel. Shortly after day-break police reinforcements from Benalla were being placed in position, when they were fired at from behind a tree, which stood some distance behind the hotel, and a tall, stout figure, with what looked like a nail can over his head, was soon to appear. Several of the besieging force fired at this, but the bullets seemed to rebound. Sergeant Steel then fired at the legs, and at the second shot the figure toppled, crying : “I’m done for.” It proved to be Ned Kelly. As the police rushed forward he raised himself on his elbow, and commenced shooting wildly, shouting: “You shall never take me alive.” However he was soon overpowered and handcuffed. In the meantime a successful attempt had been made by the police to fire the building. Whilst this was being done Mrs. Skilllan. a sister of the Kellys, attempted to ride up to the building to persuade her brother Dan to surrender, but was stopped by the police, who pointed out that she would be in great danger. As the flames began to envelope the building the Rev. Father M. Gibney walked to the front door, crucifix in hand, and followed by a number of police. On entering the front bar they found the body of Joe Byrne, who was said to have been shot dead as he drank a glass of brandy. The bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were found dead in a small parlour off the bar. It was surmised that they had either suicided or had shot each other simultaneously. Ned Kelly was convicted and hanged in Melbourne gaol on November 11, 1880. And so at last the law was vindicated, as it must ever be, and the whole gang of desperadoes perished as violently as their victims had done. It was officially estimated that the cost of capturing the gang was not less than £40,000, exclusive of the salaries and wages of those engaged.
Few figures in history reach the notoriety and cultural impact of the Kelly Gang. As so much is easily available on the subject already, here is an easily digestible summary of the so-called Kelly Outbreak. For more detailed information, there is a swathe of articles available on A Guide to Australian Bushranging that examine elements of the history in more depth.
The story of the Kelly Gang begins on 15 April, 1878. Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick was sent by Sergeant Whelan at Benalla to take charge of the police station at Greta. Greta was well-known to police in the district as members of the Kelly, Quinn and Lloyd families(all related) had selections there. These families were under particularly strict scrutiny by the police due to their recidivism and suspected involvement in crimes such as stock theft. In fact, Constable Fitzpatrick had heard there was a warrant out for the arrest of Dan Kelly, the seventeen year-old son of the notorious Ellen Kelly, for his suspected involvement in horse stealing. He made it known to Whelan that he intended to arrest Dan en route to Greta police station. Despite popular understanding, Fitzpatrick was not required by law to carry a copy of a warrant with him.
When Fitzpatrick arrived at the Kelly selection, Dan was not at home so he spoke with Ellen Kelly (who was nursing a newborn), then rode to their neighbour, William “Brickey” Williamson, and questioned him about whether he had a permit for the logs he was splitting. He lingered until dusk and returned to the Kelly selection in case Dan had returned rather than riding to Greta to take charge of the station as ordered. Dan Kelly answered the door and Fitzpatrick made his intentions known. Dan agreed to go quietly with Fitzpatrick on condition that he could finish his dinner first as he had been riding all day. He denied having stolen any horses and it would later be revealed that he had been in gaol when the animals in question were stolen, corroborating his assertions. What happened next is not known for sure due to conflicting evidence. What seems to have been the case, according to popular understanding, is that Fitzpatrick possibly made an unwanted sexual advance on fifteen year-old Kate Kelly and a fight broke out. Fitzpatrick claimed that Ellen Kelly hit him in the head with a coal shovel and Ned Kelly entered the house and shot him in the wrist, accompanied by Brickey Williamson and Ellen Kelly’s son-in-law Bill Skillion who were both brandishing revolvers. Ned Kelly would claim he was never there and Ellen would indicate that Fitzpatrick was drunk and had fought with Ned and Dan. Another version of the story states that Fitzpatrick injured his arm on a door latch and claimed it was a bullet wound, cutting himself to make it look like he had removed a bullet. Regardless, Fitzpatrick returned to Benalla and lodged a report. The following day Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Bill Skillion were arrested and charged with aiding an attempted murder. Ned and Dan Kelly had gone into hiding at Dan Kelly’s hut in the bush, and a £100 reward was posted for the capture of Ned Kelly for attempted murder.
While the brothers were hiding in the Wombat Ranges Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Bill Skillion were sentenced. Ellen Kelly received three years hard labour, the two men were given six years each. Days later a search party was sent from Mansfield to find the Kelly brothers. Word soon reached the bushrangers that they were being hunted and they tracked the police as they ventured into the bush from Mansfield on 25 October, 1878. Despite the fact they had constructed a fortified hut with huge logs for walls and an armoured door made of sheet metal to protect them in an ambush, they remained on edge. The Mansfield police party consisted of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constables Thomas McIntyre, Michael Scanlan (of Mooroopna) and Thomas Lonigan (of Violet Town). They set up camp on the banks of Stringybark Creek, less than a mile from Dan Kelly’s hut. The following day Kennedy and Scanlan headed off to scout for the brothers, leaving McIntyre and Lonigan to tend the camp. McIntyre shot some parrots with a shotgun Kennedy had left him for the task of hunting something for supper. He returned to camp and began cooking bread. Unknown to them, the sound of McIntyre shooting had been heard and Ned Kelly decided to bail up the police. He and Dan were joined by Joe Byrne, a young man from the Woolshed Valley who had recently been involved in stock theft with Ned, and Steve Hart, a jockey from Wangaratta. Ned claimed his intention was to rob the police of their food and weapons.
In the afternoon of 26 October, 1878, the Kelly Gang emerged from the bush and ordered McIntyre and Lonigan to bail up. McIntyre did as instructed but Lonigan ran and was shot by Ned with a quartered bullet. A piece of shrapnel pierced Lonigan’s eye and entered his brain, killing him. Ned insisted that Lonigan had gotten behind a log and was about to shoot him. McIntyre would refute this, stating that there was not enough time for Lonigan to have done so. The bushrangers raided the camp, gathering what they could. Dan Kelly insisted McIntyre be handcuffed but Ned refused. He ordered McIntyre to tell the other police to surrender when they returned or be shot. Joe Byrne drank tea and smoked with McIntyre as they waited. When Kennedy and Scanlan returned the gang hid and McIntyre attempted to get the police to surrender. Very suddenly shots were fired. Ned shot Scanlan in the back as his horse tried to run away. Kennedy jumped out of the saddle and began shooting with his pistol. McIntyre escaped on Kennedy’s horse and rode into the bush. Kennedy attempted to follow McIntyre and shot Dan Kelly in the shoulder. Ned pursued Kennedy and they fired at each other in a running gunfight. Kennedy was wounded and fell a considerable distance from the camp. Ned finished him off by shooting him in the chest at close range. He would claim it was a mercy killing. The bushrangers then looted from the corpses and took everything they needed from the camp before burning the tent. Constable McIntyre, meanwhile, had been badly injured as he escaped and hid in a wombat hole overnight. The following day he walked to a farm and raised the alarm.
Almost immediately parliament passed the Felons Apprehension Act, which gave them the power to declare people “outlaws”. This was based on the legislation of the same name passed in New South Wales in response to bushrangers such as Ben Hall and Dan Morgan. It meant that the outlaws were not protected by the law and could be murdered without provocation and the killer would not only be exempt from any repercussions, they would receive the reward money. Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly and their two accomplices (Joe Byrne and Steve Hart had not yet been identified) were officially declared outlaws in the colony of Victoria. £1000 was put on Ned’s capture, another £1000 was offered for the others. The assistant commissioner of police, Charles Hope Nicolson, was assigned to lead the hunt for the gang.
On 9 December, 1878, the Kelly Gang re-emerged. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station at Faithfull’s Creek and imprisoned the staff in a storeroom. That evening a hawker arrived to camp at the station and he was bailed up as well. The outlaws took new outfits from the hawkers wagon and spruced themselves up with perfume. Later, Ned held a Q&A session in the shed where he answered all the questions his prisoners had about his life and crimes. The next morning, Dan guarded the prisoners while the other gang members destroyed the telegraph lines. A hunting party was also captured and added to the prisoners in the shed.
In the afternoon of 10 December, Ned, Dan and Steve rode to Euroa to rob the bank. Dan guarded the back door as Steve went into the manager’s homestead via the kitchen. Here he was recognised by one of the servants who had been a schoolmate of his. He locked her in the drawing room with the rest of the manager’s family before heading into the bank. Meanwhile, Ned had tried to get in the front door with a dodgy cheque he had made the superintendent of Younghusband’s Station write out. When the bank clerk tried to tell him they were closed, he burst in and bailed the staff up and ordered them to give him all the money. Once the till was emptied he ordered them to open the safe but they needed the manager’s key. Ned and Steve bailed up the manager, Robert Scott, and after much hassle, including sending Scott’s wife to get the key from the study, the safe was emptied too. The outlaws then took the staff and the Scotts with them back to the station where Joe had been guarding the prisoners, and had even captured the linesman sent to repair the broken telegraph wires. The gang stayed until night time and then left, ordering the prisoners to wait until they were gone before leaving themselves. The gang escaped with over £1500 on gold and money. In response the reward was raised to £4000 and Assistant Commissioner Nicolson was replaced by Superintendent Francis Augustus Hare.
With all four gang members now officially named, it was harder for them to move around, so they got Joe Byrne’s best friend Aaron Sherritt to keep the police distracted by giving them false information. In early 1879 he informed Superintendent Hare that the Kelly Gang would be going to Goulburn. The police immediately headed for Goulburn, but the outlaws were actually heading for Jerilderie, further west. They split up and Ned and Joe went to the Woolpack Inn to get information about Jerilderie. They soon rejoined Dan and Steve and headed into the town.
At midnight on 7 February, 1879, the Kelly Gang woke the Jerilderie police up and captured them. They locked the police in their own lock-up cell and planned their next heist. The next day Ned and Joe disguised themselves as police reinforcements and went through the town with one of the constables. They made note of where everything was. Later, Joe and Dan traced the telegraph lines and got their horses shod. The next day Dan guarded the wife of the town’s Sergeant as she decorated the town hall for mass. The gang then began to round the townsfolk up and imprisoned them in the Royal Hotel. Joe went into the bank via the back door and bailed up the staff. Ned and Steve soon appeared. They robbed the till, but again had to get the manager’s key for the safe. Steve was sent to find the manager and caught him having a bath. Eventually the safe was opened and emptied. Ned began destroying records of the bank’s debtors and the bank staff were added to the prisoners in the hotel. Ned and Joe had written a letter that was to be published in the local newspaper, but the local news editor had run out of town once he realised the Kelly Gang were robbing the bank. Ned gave the letter to one of the bankers to be passed onto the press. The gang soon headed off with £2000 pounds of stolen money and gold. This caused the New South Wales government to contribute another £4000 to the reward.
For months the gang seemed to disappear. During this time Aaron Sherritt kept the police distracted by hosting watch parties at the Byrne selection every night. Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor was sent from Queensland with a party of native police. The native police were feared for their incredible tracking abilities and their discipline. During the latter months of 1879, Superintendent Hare took ill and was replaced by Assistant Commissioner Nicolson. Nicolson stopped the watch parties and relied on a syndicate of police informants to keep track of the Kelly Gang. Unfortunately a lot of information the police received was either outdated, false or cases of mistaken identity. The media criticised the police for their apparent ineptitude.
At this time the outlaws had begun to collect steel plates, mostly plough mouldboards, in order to craft bulletproof armour. Ned Kelly would claim his original intention was to wear the armour during bank robberies as the banks were now all guarded by armed soldiers. Each gang member had their own suit, but mystery still surrounds who made the armour. Many believe it was made by blacksmiths or by the gang themselves.
The gang had also been very reliant on their sympathisers for fresh horses, food, shelter and information. The proceeds from the bank robberies had all gone to their supporters. The most prominent sympathisers were Tom Lloyd, Wild Wright, Paddy Byrne, Ettie Hart and the Kelly sisters. Aaron Sherritt was a sympathiser too, but many of the gang’s other supporters thought he was working for the police and had told the gang to murder him. Sherritt’s family had actually been working as police informants, his brother Jack Sherritt in particular, but Aaron had remained a supporter of his closest friend. Nevertheless, the rumours were persistent and Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly frequently tested the Sherritts by giving them useless information to see if it reached the police. When Superintendent Hare returned as head of the pursuit, he re-employed Aaron to take watch parties to spy on Mrs. Byrne. When the threats against Aaron became worrisome, Detective Michael Ward, one of the heads of the hunt based in Beechworth, had arranged for Aaron to be guarded day and night by police. Meanwhile, Ned Kelly had decided to escalate the conflict with the police and take out as many of them in a single go as possible. He planned to lure them out on a special train and derail it. A commotion at Aaron Sherritt’s hut would cause the police, who were based in Benalla, to go by train to Beechworth and resume the hunt with a fresh trail. In order to get to Beechworth they had to pass through Glenrowan, where the train line would be broken on a treacherous bend, causing the train to fly off the tracks. The intention seems to have been to murder the police on board in order to force the government to stop pursuing the gang out of fear.
On 26 June, 1880, Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne bailed up a German neighbour of Aaron Sherritt named Anton Wick. They took him to Sherritt’s hut and used Wick to lure Aaron to the back door. When Aaron opened the door Joe murdered him, shooting him twice with a shotgun. Aaron died instantly. The four police constables that had been assigned to protect Aaron cowered and hid in the bedroom. Joe and Dan tried to force the police out of the bedroom for two hours before giving up and riding off to join Ned and Steve at Glenrowan.
At Glenrowan, Ned and Steve bailed up a team of quarrymen and some plate-layers to pull up a section of the train track. Ned also captured Ann Jones, proprietor of The Glenrowan Inn, and her daughter Jane. The prisoners were taken to the gatehouse where Joe and Dan arrived at around five in the morning. At daybreak the prisoners were split into two groups: women and children were kept in the gatehouse to be guarded by Steve, everyone else was taken to The Glenrowan Inn. Throughout the day more prisoners were captured as Ned waited for the police. To keep the prisoners occupied there were sporting games held at the inn, card games were played inside, drinks flowed freely and there was even a dance in the bar room. Still, there was no sign of police. As it was a Sunday, no civilian trains would be running and Ned expected the police to arrive as soon as they heard the news of what had happened at Aaron’s hut. What Ned had not discovered was that the news of Aaron’s murder did not reach the police in Benalla until after lunchtime. The police took a long time to make any arrangements but as dusk approached, arrangements were made for a special police train to be sent to Beechworth.
That evening Ned decided to bail up the local policeman, Constable Bracken. Thomas Curnow, the schoolteacher, had been trying to convince Ned he was on his side all day and Ned finally agreed to let Curnow take his sick wife home when they went to capture Bracken. As soon as he got home, Curnow gathered materials to help him stop the train. He took a candle and a red scarf and rode off to the train line. Back at the inn there was more dancing and after midnight Dan Kelly told everyone to head home. However, Ann Jones stopped them from leaving so Ned could give a speech. As Ned was talking the police train finally arrived and stopped at the station. Curnow had used the lit candle behind the red scarf as a danger signal and warned the train about the damaged line. The Kelly Gang donned their armour and prepared for battle. Constable Bracken escaped and ran to the train station where he informed Superintendent Hare that the gang were in The Glenrowan Inn. The police headed to the inn and a battle commenced.
In the initial exchange Superintendent Hare’s wrist was smashed by a shot, Joe Byrne was shot in the calf, and Ned Kelly was shot in the foot and his left elbow was smashed. As the battle continued, the prisoners tried to escape. Jane Jones led a group of women and children to safety after she had been hit in the head by a police bullet and her little brother had also been mortally wounded by police fire. Over the next few hours, Ned escaped into the bush, most of the women and children escaped even though the police continued to try and shoot them, and Joe Byrne was killed by a police bullet to the groin. Police reinforcements continued to arrive throughout the early hours of the morning and just before sunrise Ned Kelly reappeared behind the police lines.
Ned fought the police for almost half an hour before Sergeant Steele blasted his unprotected knee. He was captured alive but badly wounded. Dan and Steve remained in the inn. At ten o’clock the rest of the prisoners were let out. By this time people from all around had descended upon Glenrowan to watch the siege. At three in the afternoon the police decided to burn the inn down to flush Dan and Steve out. They had previously ordered a cannon to be sent from Melbourne to blown the inn up but it had not yet arrived. As the inn was set on fire a Catholic priest, Matthew Gibney, ran inside to rescue anyone that was still in there. Joe Byrne’s corpse was dragged out and the dead bodies of Dan and Steve were found in the bedroom but could not be retrieved before the fire took hold. Another civilian shot by police, Martin Cherry, was rescued from the fire but only lived long enough to be given the last rites. After the fire had stopped, Dan’s and Steve’s bodies were retrieved. They were charred beyond recognition. The onlookers crowded around to get a good look at the dead bodies and to grab any souvenirs they could. Photographers captured images of many of the scenes.
Ned Kelly was taken to Benalla, where Joe Byrne’s corpse was strung up against a door of the police lock-up to be photographed. Ned was then sent to Melbourne Gaol to be treated for his wounds but was not expected to survive. Meanwhile, Dan and Steve were buried in unmarked graves to prevent the police taking the bodies away from the families. Months after Glenrowan there were still bullets and bits of shot being removed from Ned’s hands, feet and limbs. When he was deemed fit, he was sent to Beechworth for a committal hearing. Authorities were worried that having a trial in Beechworth would mean there was a strong likelihood of there being sympathisers in the jury so in order to have the best chance at convicting him, he was transferred back to Melbourne for his murder trial.
The trial in the Supreme Court was quick and Ned Kelly was found guilty of murdering Constable Thomas Lonigan and sentenced to death by Sir Redmond Barry, the judge that had sentenced his mother to gaol in 1878. While he was held in Melbourne Gaol to await his execution, his sympathisers tried to get a reprieve. Petitions with tens of thousands of signatures were gathered and there were protests and riots in the streets of Melbourne. Kate Kelly met with prominent politicians to beg for mercy but the Executive Council were unmoved and the sentence was upheld. Ned dictated several letters from his cell in order to make his version of events heard. As he was unable to write due to his injuries another prisoner was made to write for him. On 11 November, 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol. Thousands of people gathered outside the prison and Ellen Kelly worked in the prison laundry within earshot of the gallows. After his execution, his body was taken to the dead house, his head was shaved and a cast made, then his body was removed to be dissected by university students. The remains were buried in the gaol.
The Kelly Gang was not prolific by a far stretch. They did fewer robberies than the Hall Gang; they murdered less people than Jimmy Governor; they were not at large as long as Captain Thunderbolt; and there were not as many members as The Ribbon Gang. But what distinguished the Kelly Gang was that there was a political element to their story that was unprecedented, and a sophistication to their operations that surpassed similar feats from the “golden era” of bushrangers. Most people believe bushranging ended with the Kelly Gang, but in fact bushranging continued well into the 1920s before it began to evaporate.
Certainly the armour is a powerful piece of iconography and it encapsulates a lot of what makes the Kelly story so unique. In almost 100 years of bushranging, starting with Black Caesar in 1788, nobody had thought to protect themselves from bullets. Ned Kelly mixed the best bits of old fashioned bushranging with a fresh, more methodical approach: to prevent being shot they made armour; because mail coaches were not lucrative targets they robbed banks; they destroyed telegraph lines to prevent information reaching the police quickly; to gain sympathy they gave speeches and wrote letters to the press and politicians; to prove they were not cold blooded murderers they performed intricate heists with no bloodshed. They were bushrangers that didn’t act like typical bushrangers and that made them a cut above the rest.
Because the Kelly Gang came from the selector class and so many people identified with them, they became representatives of people in a way not seen since Jack Donohoe became the hero of the convict class. They came to represent everything one group of people tried to suppress, at the same time as being everything the other group wanted to be, which struck a chord and captured the imagination. Even now, they capture that same spirit because a lot of the class conflict in the modern day is merely a mutation of what it was then and stems from the same things. People will always be able to find something in the Kelly Gang they either love or hate because they have transcended history and become part of the cultural tapestry.
Joseph Byrne was the eldest son of Patrick (Paddy) and Margret Byrne (nee White). Paddy was the son of an ex-convict from County Carlow, his mother was from County Clare and had travelled to Australia due to the Great Famine. Joe was born in the Woolshed Valley in 1856, though there is no known birth certificate, nor is there a baptism record to verify the date. He was soon joined by John in 1858, Catherine (“Kate”) in 1860, Patrick jnr (“Paddy” or “Patsy”) in 1862 , Mary in 1864, Dennis (“Denny”) in 1866, Margaret in 1869 and Ellen (“Elly”) in 1871.
All of the Byrne children went to school and church in the Woolshed Valley. Joe was a good student and demonstrated early signs of the gift for language that would become a major part of his persona. He was at one time, according to the recollections of a former classmate, dux of his school, but academic excellence was irrelevant to the lifestyle thrust upon the Byrne children. The small Byrne selection was a functional dairy and the cows didn’t milk themselves. It was a case of all hands on deck where farm life was concerned.
Joe was always considered to be quiet and unassuming by most that encountered him. As he got older he would become more outgoing, largely thanks to the influence of his closest friend, Aaron Sherritt. It is unclear when and how Joe and Aaron met. The Sherritts were an Irish protestant family from El Dorado and moved in different circles to the Byrnes. Regardless of the nature of their meeting, the two became such firm friends that Aaron managed to get himself transferred to the Woolshed School so he could spend time with Joe while still getting a basic education. Aaron was far more outgoing and seemed to get himself into mischief regularly. This would prove to be a defining aspect of the relationship between the pair.
When Joe’s father Paddy died of a heart attack, Joe was expected to take on the mantle of head of the household. It fell on Joe to earn some money, so, as a fifteen year-old, he took up work doing odd jobs for the Chinese in Sebastopol. It was during this time that he witnessed a man named Ah Suey strung up outside a shop screaming for help. Days later Ah Suey was found murdered due to debts he owed to Chinese mobsters. Joe was a witness in the trial of the two Chinese men charged with the murder but gave very little information, possibly due to fear of a reprisal as the accused were apparently members of the Triad, a Chinese crime syndicate with branches all over the world. This would not be the only time Joe would end up in court thanks to his association with the Chinese. Joe spent much of his youth around the Chinese and learned Cantonese by ear. He indulged in the food and other cultural aspects such as gambling and opium smoking.
For a brief time, Margret Byrne attempted to court their German neighbour Anton Wick, who they referred to as Antonio. Joe seems to have disliked Wick, who was known for being something of a drunk and a brawler. Joe defiantly stole a horse from Wick and even flaunted his act by showing off his riding at Wick’s selection on the stolen horse. Wick took Byrne to court but the case was dismissed. No doubt this rebellious act did nothing to improve the already strained relationship Joe had with his mother.
As Joe and Aaron got older they became so intertwined in each other’s lives that Aaron became unofficially engaged to Joe’s sister Kate and Joe was in a long term relationship with Aaron’s sister Bessie and expected to be engaged. For whatever reason, Joe seems to have been reluctant to commit to Bessie, a dressmaker, but people would report on their relationship well into future events. The pair tended to get up to greater and greater mischief, eventually engaging in stock theft together. This brought the pair in frequent contact with two Beechworth-based policemen, Detective Michael Ward and Constable Patrick Mullane. The first recorded incident of Aaron and Joe getting into trouble with the law was in May 1876 when they stole the pet cow from the El Dorado school common. The pair butchered the unfortunate animal and divvied up the carcass between their families. The evidence against them was overwhelming and Joe and Aaron were both sent to Beechworth Gaol for six months. Joe appears to have been well behaved in prison and gained his release on 6 November, 1876. This was to be the only time that Joe would be convicted.
The pair had barely gotten readjusted to life on the outside when they were charged with assaulting a Chinese man named Ah On in February 1877. Joe and Aaron had been skinny dipping in the dam where Ah On got his water and a disagreement arose during which the Chinese man chased them with a bamboo rod and Aaron threw a large rock that cracked Ah On’s skull. They were arrested and held in Beechworth to await trial.
It is likely that it was in the holding cells of Beechworth while awaiting their day in court, that Joe and Aaron met 16 year-old Dan Kelly who was waiting for his own appearance on a charge of stealing a saddle. Despite the evidence being fairly conclusive against the pair, Joe and Aaron were let off. No doubt Joe was counting his lucky stars, but it wasn’t enough to convince him to walk the straight and narrow.
In late 1877 and early 1878, Joe and Aaron joined a horse stealing gang with Dan’s big brother Ned. Under the alias ‘Billy King’, Joe helped Ned, his stepfather George King, Aaron Sherritt and an array of others that came and went, to steal horses from wealthy squatters and perform an elaborate ruse to sell them over the border. Ned would ride into town with the stock, joined shortly after by Joe. Then Ned would “sell” Joe the horses, complete with bill of sale and Joe would sell the horses on. This way everything seemed legitimate and above board to witnesses who had never met the men before. Ned Kelly claimed they stole more than 250 animals and they were never caught (although some of the men who bought the stock from them ended up in gaol). What caused the lucrative operation to be stopped is a mystery, but likely it had something to do with Ned feeling like he had taught the squatters he was taking a swipe at a lesson.
In April 1878, Ned and Dan Kelly took to the bush after an incident at the Kelly homestead where Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick was shot in the wrist while trying to arrest Dan. Some historians have speculated that the Kellys’ brother-in-law William Skillion was misidentified by Fitzpatrick who had actually seen Joe, despite Skillion being shorter, heavier and older than Joe with no comparable facial features. At any rate, the Kelly brothers were joined by Joe and Dan’s mate Steve Hart at Dan’s hut on Bullock Creek. The Kelly brothers were attempting to raise money for their mother’s court appearance by mining for gold and distilling bootleg whiskey. Ned soon received news that there were parties of police heading into the Wombat Ranges to capture them and in response the four decided to bail up the police and rob them.
On 26 October, 1878, a party of four policemen consisting of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constables Thomas McIntyre from Mansfield, Michael Scanlan from Mooroopna and Thomas Lonigan from Violet Town, entered the bush in pursuit of the fugitive brothers and camped at Stringybark Creek, less than a mile from the hideout. The next day Ned, accompanied by the other three, ambushed the police. Lonigan was shot dead while attempting to fire at Ned. Ned interrogated McIntyre, who revealed that Kennedy and Scanlan were out scouting. Joe attempted to settle the terrified trooper by drinking tea and smoking with him. When the other police returned, McIntyre attempted to get them to surrender but a gunfight erupted. Constable Scanlan was shot and killed, then Kennedy was also killed after a running gunfight. It has been suggested that Joe Byrne fired the shot that killed Scanlan, but there is not enough evidence to conclusively prove the notion. Regardless, Joe took Scanlan’s solitaire ring, a gold band with a blue topaz set in it, as well as Lonigan’s wedding band and watch. The watch was eventually returned but Joe always wore the rings and is seen wearing them in the post morte. photos taken of him at Benalla. The gang were soon declared outlaws by act of parliament, with Joe for the first time having a price of £250 on his head, though he was unidentified at the time. Based on descriptions given by Constable McIntyre, some people recognised his as Billy King, another name put forward was Bob Burns.
The outlaws’ next move was to rob a bank to pay their supporters. After weeks of scouting and collecting tips, the gang struck on 7 December, 1878. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station, Faithful Creek where the staff and visitors were locked in a shed. The gang dressed in new clothes taken from a hawker’s wagon. The following morning Joe joined Ned and Steve in vandalising the telegraph lines. Later, Joe was left to guard the prisoners while Ned, Steve and Dan rode into Euroa to rob the bank. Joe had written a letter in red ink, dictated by Ned, which was Ned’s attempt to explain his side of the story. This would become known as the Cameron letter as it was sent to Donald Cameron MP whose political posturing Ned had mistaken as being sympathy. The gang released the prisoners in the evening and escaped with £1500 in gold and cash.
The gang went to ground briefly following the robbery, but they were still active in planning their next heist. In February 1879 Joe convinced Aaron Sherritt that the gang would strike at Goulburn. Aaron duly passed this information on to Superintendent Hare in Benalla. Hare had been given the job of leading the hunt for the Kelly Gang after the previous leader, Superintendent Nicolson, was deemed unfit for purpose. So, while the police headed for Goulburn, the gang headed for Jerilderie. Ned and Joe spent a night drinking in the company of Mary Jordan, a barmaid known locally as Mary the Larrikin. The next day they joined Dan and Steve and rode into Jerilderie at night where they roused the police and bailed them up. The police were held in their own lock-up and the gang took over occupancy of the police station. Over the weekend the gang dressed in the policemen’s uniforms and scoped the town out. Joe had the gang’s horses shod on the government account and helped Ned plan the big robbery. Another letter was written up by Joe, dictated by Ned, to be printed in the local rag, since named the Jerilderie letter. It was a much longer version of the previous letter and appears to have had much more content influence by Joe. On the day of the heist the locals were rounded up into the pub and Joe went next door into the bank via a rear entrance, pretending to be a drunk. He held the staff at gunpoint declaring “I’m Kelly!” and was soon joined by Ned and Steve. The bank was raided and Ned even took to burning debt records. Afterwards the gang shouted everyone drinks and Ned gave a speech before the gang rode away with £2000 in unmarked, untraceable banknotes, gold and change. The New South Wales government immediately doubled the reward for the gang to £8000. In the wake of the gang’s increased notoriety, a song began circulating supposed to have been written by none other than Joe Byrne himself, telling the story of the gang’s exploits.
The few months after Jerilderie saw Joe and Dan testing the Sherritt brothers for their loyalty. On numerous occasions Joe would write threatening letters to Detective Ward and draw caricatures that were both insulting an a threat. He would give them to Jack Sherritt to pass on to Ward. Joe would frequently tell Jack and Aaron about supposed plans the gang had for future robberies and at one point suggested he and Dan would recruit Jack and Aaron to join them in robbing a bank behind Ned’s back, because Joe did not agree with Ned’s method. Joe was soon being pressured by sympathisers to murder Aaron and in a letter sent to Aaron on 26 June, 1879 he stated:
The Lloyds and Quinns wants you shot but I say no, you are on our side.
It was around this time that Joe’s opium addiction because problematic. Opium is a powerful drug that is highly addictive and when Joe’s supply ran out he suffered withdrawals. With this came weightloss, fever, mood swings, and anxiety among other symptoms. While opiate withdrawal can induce a form of psychosis, it is unclear if this was something Joe suffered. Some speculate that he was paranoid that the Sherritts were plotting against him, but it must be remembered that not only was this belief fostered by the Kelly sympathisers, it was actually true (at least where Jack Sherritt was concerned). There was even suggestions that one of the Sherritt brothers, likely Jack, was masquerading as Joe to plant stolen horses in people’s paddocks and harass station-masters at railway crossings in order to stimulate police presence in areas where there were suspected sympathisers.
Throughout his outlawry Joe was seeing a general maid named Maggie at The Vine Hotel in Beechworth. The hotel was run by the Vandenbergs, a prominent family in the community, and was far enough outside of the town centre that Joe could access it with hardly any risk of being spotted. On Saturday nights Joe would sneak out of the bush for a drink and a bit of horizontal refreshment, then catch up on the gossip from around town. The last time they saw each other was just before Glenrowan when Maggie informed Joe that Aaron Sherritt had been in The Vine with a policeman who had interrogated her.
Despite Joe’s apparent misgivings about Aaron’s supposed infidelity, it was decided to make Aaron a vital part of Ned Kelly’s masterplan to lure a train full of police to Glenrowan. Many questions still loom about the details of Ned’s original plan but what is known is that Joe and Dan bailed up Anton Wick and used him to lure Aaron to open the door to his hut, whereupon Joe blasted him twice with a shotgun, killing him instantaneously. For two hours Joe and Dan terrorised the four armed police hiding in the bedroom, threatening to shoot them or burn the hut down, before setting Wick free and heading off for Glenrowan to meet Ned and Steve.
After arriving at Glenrowan, Joe was tasked with escorting Jane Jones, the daughter of the Glenrowan Inn’s publican, into the inn to prepare for the gang’s prisoners. Throughout the day he guarded the prisoners. At one stage Joe had to calm a situation outside the gatehouse, where Ned was verbally abusing a teenage boy to the point that the boy was shaking uncontrollably in terror. As time went on Joe’s mood seemed to improve and he grew friendly with Ann Jones, dancing with her and at one point playing with her hair while she tugged at Scanlan’s ring on his finger. In the evening Joe accompanied Ned to bail up Constable Bracken, the town’s only policeman.
In the early hours of Monday morning, 28 June, the police special train Ned had planned to derail finally arrived in Glenrowan. It was warned by the school teacher who had been allowed to go free by Ned the night before. The gang put on suits of iron armour and confronted the police. In the gunfight Ned was injured as was Superintendent Hare and Joe, who was shot in the right calf, an injury that would have damaged nerves, tendons and ligaments. During the fight Joe and Ned were overheard bickering, Joe reportedly telling Ned:
I always told you this bloody armour would bring us to grief, and now it has!
The armour had been constructed mysteriously in the early part of 1880. They were made mostly from repurposed plough mouldboards. Each suit had a slightly different design. Joe’s is considered the best made suit and has small plates to connect the backplate and breastplate. The helmet has a distinct scalloped faceplate that gives the impression of two individual eye holes, rather that a single eyeslit like the rest of the gang’s helmets. Despite it’s effectiveness in protecting the head and torso, the arms, legs and groin were still vulnerable. Ned seemed to think the armour would lead them to victory, but the opposite seemed true.
Over the next few hours Ned disappeared and the rest of the gang retreated into the inn. Police reinforcements began to arrive and the inn was continuously riddled with bullets. Some of the prisoners, mostly women and children, managed to escape, mostly unharmed. With Ned missing and no sign of an escape route, the gang’s morale was low. Joe began to drink heavily. At around 5am Joe poured himself a drink and stood at the bar giving a toast:
Here’s to many more long and happy days in the bush, boys!
At that moment a fusillade of bullets penetrated the inn and Joe was hit in the groin. He collapsed on top of two of the trapped civilians and bled to death within minutes, the bullet having severed his femoral artery.
In the afternoon, after Ned was captured and the prisoners freed, the inn was set on fire by police. Father Gibney, a priest from Western Australia, rushed in to try to rescue Dan and Steve but found them dead. Joe’s body was dragged from the inferno by police but the other two gang members were incinerated. Joe was still dressed in his armour when he was dragged out.
Joe’s body was taken to Benalla police station where it was sketched by artist Julian Ashton, then tied to a lock-up door for photographers. The sight attracted a number of curious spectators but was described with great disgust in the press. The skin on the hands had begun to crack and blister from the fire, and the face was black with smoke. The clothes were stained with dirt and blood.
The inquest on Byrne’s body was conducted in secret that night and immediately followed by a casting of the body for the Bourke Street wax museum. Stripped of his clothing and jewellery, Byrne was given a pauper’s burial in an unmarked grave in Benalla cemetery, before the family had a chance to claim it. This was deliberately engineered by Captain Standish, the chief commissioner of police. The report from the inquest was never released, only a summary of the findings.
Decades later a grave marker was placed in the approximate location of Joe’s grave. To date he is the only member of the Kelly Gang with a marked gravesite. His family later moved further north but tragedy seemed to follow them. His sister Kate was briefly admitted to a lunatic asylum. His brother Paddy apparently committed suicide by drowning and Margret Byrne refused to discuss Joe, referring to him only as “The Devil”.
The popular perception of Joe Byrne is to either typify him as a romantic balladeer with Bohemian proclivities or a murderous, paranoid and unhinged drug addict. Neither interpretation is correct. Joe was a complex man who at once was loyal to a fault and hopelessly addicted to sex, booze and opium. At the same time he had a fierce temper that would result in violent acts, sometimes extremely so, and his intellect was hamstrung by his lack of education and opportunities to flex his grey matter. Under more favourable circumstances Joe Byrne could have become a successful bush balladeer like Lawson or Patterson. Instead, his poverty stricken home life and lack constructive outlets to indulge his artistic leanings resulted in delinquency and eventually outlawry that resulted in his premature death.
A Special thank you to Georgina Stones for her assistance in putting this brief biography together.
If you would like to read some of Georgina’s writings about Joe Byrne, you can read them at An Outlaw’s Journal.
Forever consigned to popular culture as Ned Kelly’s little brother, Dan Kelly was a young man of only nineteen when he lost his life fighting the police. Like so many “boy bushrangers” his young life was snuffed out without him having ever fulfilled his potential, wasting his youth on a life of crime. But there was more to Dan Kelly than just having Ned Kelly as his big brother.
Daniel Kelly was born on 1 June, 1861 to John “Red” Kelly and Ellen Quinn. He was named after one of his father’s brothers and christened in the church in Beveridge, Victoria, where the family were living in a house John had built. Before Dan was born, there had been Mary Jane (died in infancy), Annie, Ned, Maggie and Jim. Dan would be followed by Kate and Grace. Dan’s infancy years were quiet for the family. John turned his hand to a number of occupations but was primarily employed doing odd jobs around the district and splitting timber. Financial strain, however, soon saw John attempting to distill his own whiskey. Unfortunately he took to drinking most of the produce himself. The difficulty saw the family relocate to Avenel, but here their problems would not only continue, they would worsen.
John spent six months in gaol in 1866 for stealing and butchering a calf. This meant that for half a year Ellen was reliant on her brothers for help around the place. The Quinn brothers were not model citizens by the furthest stretch, Jimmy Quinn being the worst of the lot. Jimmy was too fond of liquor, quick to violence and did not discriminate when choosing a target. No doubt Dan’s exposure to this would have negatively shaped his young mind. When John was released from gaol he was a broken man. Dan was barely five years old when his father died of dropsy, an old term for oedema (build-up of fluid in the soft tissues), likely linked to his alcoholism. He was buried in Avenel. The family soon found themselves frequently homeless, moving from Avenel to an abandoned pub in Greta. Here the Kellys co-habited with Ellen’s sisters, both of whose husbands were in prison at the time, and their children while they attempted to make ends meet.
The new home in Greta was short-lived. One night John Kelly’s brother James had arrived at the house drunk and his sexual advances were rebuffed by Ellen. He returned later that same night and burned the place to the ground. The children inside were asleep but the sisters remained awake, fearful of retribution. After another binge at the local pub, James threw incendiary devices at the house until a fire took hold, but thankfully there were no fatalities. The families were now homeless again and devoid of earthly possessions such as clothes and furniture. When James was tried he was sentenced to death by Sir Redmond Barry. This was later commuted to a long prison sentence by the executive council. The Greta community got together and helped the victims get back on their feet. Ellen soon gained a lease on a selection on the 11 Mile Creek. Things were starting to look up.
With his big brother Ned, only twelve himself when Red died, acting as man of the house, Dan and his brother Jim often ran wild. By 1870 things had changed dramatically for the family. Ellen had her selection but the land was not fit for crops. The family had to rely on the money they made from lodgers and travellers looking for a drink. Fifteen year-old Ned worked for a time as Harry Power‘s offsider, and then found himself in and out of gaol, eventually copping three years for receiving a stolen horse. Jim was now the man of the house in Ned’s absence. Jim was not a good candidate, however, and would coax Dan into mischief; their first arrest occurring when Dan was only ten years old.
In September 1871, Jim and Dan had borrowed horses without permission from a hawker named Mark Krafft. Krafft had been grazing his horses at the Kelly selection, as he had frequently done, and the boys had taken them for a joyride. Jim had previously been working as Krafft’s servant to get some extra money, the pudgy child being less physical than his big brother and thus less suited to splitting work. Constable Ernest Flood, newly stationed in Greta, nabbed them on a charge of illegally using a horse and took the children to Wangaratta to be kept in the logs until trial. When they went to court two days later the case was quickly dismissed on account of Jim’s and Dan’s ages (12 and 10 respectively) and the fact that Jim had been a servant of Krafft for a time. One can only imagine the impact that the experience of being taken away from their family and locked up in a cell with a bunch of strange, grown men waiting for trial for two days would have been on the children. It would eventuate that Flood was nothing but bad news for the family, allegedly stealing their horses and selling them to railway workers and sexually assaulting Dan’s big sister Annie and making her pregnant, though the truth of this is debatable owing to there being no solid evidence to back the claims.
Jim, only fourteen, ended up in gaol in 1873 with two sentences of 2 1/2 years to be served consecutively for helping shift stolen cattle. With Red gone and Ned and Jim in gaol, Ellen was on the lookout for a new man to help around the house and to protect her from her brothers or anyone else that might come sniffing around with bad intentions. She took the bold move of selling grog on the sly to travellers and seemed to think she had found her man in Bill Frost, an itinerant worker who had lodged with the family. Frost engaged in a sexual relationship with Ellen, from which she became pregnant with a daughter. Frost was apparently not keen to be a father and skipped town. Ellen, not one to be passive, tracked him down and took him to court for maintenance. After a long and bitter dispute she won but the infant died before the first maintenance payment came through. One can only imagine how this would have impacted young Dan, who had to assume the role of man of the house.
It wasn’t all gloomy for Dan though. According to some accounts, while his big brothers were doing time, Dan was lavished with affection from his sisters. Some considered this made him spoiled, but at any rate he managed to keep his nose clean during this period. It was at this time that Ellen took in George King, a 25 year-old American-born traveller, miner and stock thief. It was a remarkably short courtship as they were married in 1874, just after Ned came home from Pentridge. Within a month Ellen gave birth again. No doubt Dan, now thirteen, was relieved not to have the responsibility of being the male head of the household anymore. Between Ned and George the role was well taken care of.
Dan’s main hobbies at this time were much the same as the majority of young men in the country – riding and hunting. Dan would latch onto groups of boys who were out kangaroo hunting and took much pride in his marksmanship. He also took much joy in racing his peers on horseback. A brilliant description of Dan came from Joseph Ashmead, a friend of the Kelly family, in an unpublished memoir:
He was riding a smart black pony, and proudly told us it was a galloper and could clear any fence in the north east. The boy was alert and active with piercing black eyes that took in everything at a glance. He wore strapped trousers, a red shirt and straw hat tilted forward, secured by a strap under his nose. The back of his head was broad and covered with close cropped hair as black and shiny as a crow; his jaw was heavy, his lips thin, and when closed tightly, there seemed to be something cruel in them, but when they relaxed into a smile, he appeared to be a jovial, good-natured fellow. His name was Dan Kelly and he was a great lover of horses. I was the only one of the boys who had a horse. A bay pony. She had belonged to a clergyman and was an honest goer. Dan ran his eye over my over my horse and proposed that we should have a race, a challenge that I gladly accepted. When Dan found that he could not shake me off, he developed a great respect for me, and declared there was not a kangaroo in all the country who could get away from us, so we went kangaroo hunting, not once but many times. I left my cows to look after themselves, or bribed some of the boys to look after them for me, with the promises of some sinews out of the kangaroo’s tail to make whip crackers with.
No doubt Dan’s hunting provided much needed meat for the family, or at least was able to be sold to raise money for other goods. Seemingly Dan left home at the first opportunity to seek work. By some reports he travelled into New South Wales to work on sheep stations around the Monaro region as a shearer. He was also reported to have worked in Chesney Vale with Ned as a brick layer, but was not very good at it. It is likely that this is when Dan took up possession of an abandoned miner’s hut by Bullock Creek in the Wombat Ranges and began prospecting for gold. Sluices were later constructed along the creek and this would have provided a bit of pocket money. No doubt the seasonal nature of most of these jobs left Dan with a considerable amount of free time in between and he soon found himself adopting the larrikin culture of the day.
The fast riding, clownishly attired, skirt chasing lifestyle of the larrikin had become a widespread issue throughout the colonies. Gangs of youths in porkpie or billycock hats worn on jaunty angles, short Paget coats and jackets, bell-bottom trousers, colourful sashes and pointy high-heeled boots would loiter in public areas making a nuisance of themselves. Dan became a founding member of the “Greta Mob”, who populated the streets around Greta and Wangaratta. Apart from Dan, the mob consisted mostly of his cousins Tom and Jack Lloyd and a young Wangaratta jockey named Steve Hart, with the rotating roster of associates typical of these forms of social group. Their primary interests were fast horses, smoking, booze and chatting up girls. The boys were known to ride full gallop through the streets and challenge each other to various horse tricks. Steve Hart, for instance, could get his horse to vault over the railway gates, much to the chagrin of the gatekeeper. The Greta Mob adopted as their signature the larrikin badges of high-heeled boots, cocked billycock hats with the hatstring worn under the nose (to stop the hat flying off when riding at full gallop) and brightly coloured sashes worn around the waist. The style was clownish but that’s not unusual for teenage boys of any era. Unfortunately, Dan was still living in hand-me-downs and cut an odd figure in his threadbare, oversized, outdated outfits. The only verified photographic images we have of Dan illustrate this clearly. He wears a rumpled hat, a baggy sack coat with missing buttons and fraying cuffs as well as baggy trousers held up with a piece of rope. He was known to grow his hair long and seems to have cultivated a moustache at some point. But what Dan lacked in creole couture he made up for in his riding and his drinking. It has been written that Dan had many sweethearts but whenever they were unavailable for a night of frivolity he would employ the services of working girls, though it is incredibly unlikely that a fifteen year-old boy would have the presence of mind or the funds to engage in that lifestyle, regardless of the usual rampant libido they enjoyed.
One of the few times Dan graced the courts was in relation to a supposedly stolen saddle. In March 1877 he was charged with stealing the saddle in question in Benalla and was tried during the Beechworth general sessions before Judge Hackett. It had taken five months to lay charges against the teenager. The saddle in question was one that Dan had purchased from a man named Roberts in exchange for a different saddle and £1, and he produced a receipt to prove it, which was verified in court. Along with Jack Lloyd and his brother-in-law Bill Skillion, Ned Kelly was present during the hearing as a witness to back up his little brother. In the end the case was dismissed and Dan walked away with a sense of vindication. Judge Hackett stated that he “did not see why the prisoner was there at all” as his case was clear-cut. During this case Dan displayed a trait that distinguished him from his older brothers – he provided no resistance to arrest and complied happily with the police. This could be interpreted by some as overconfidence in his ability to dodge a conviction, but more likely Dan understood that resisting arrest was a fool’s game and further that he was innocent of the crime of which he was accused (which a trial would – and did – prove). This would not be the last time he displayed a conspicuous willingness to comply.
While he had been waiting to appear in court over the saddle charge, Dan met two boys from the Woolshed Valley named Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt. They were also waiting to appear in court that day over a charge of assault against a Chinaman named Ah On. It would eventuate that the pair would not get their day in court that same day, remanded to be tried in the next session. What exactly transpired between the young men in that cell can only be guessed at, but this would prove to be a fateful friendship.
Dan’s first and only conviction came from an incident at Goodman’s store, Winton, on September 28, 1877. Dan had travelled into town to exchange meat for goods. When he arrived the establishment wasn’t open and therefore no trade took place. Annoyed, Dan went drinking with his cousins Tom and Jack then returned with them to Goodman’s store, drunk. Dan smashed in the door and took the goods he sought. A man going by the name Moses Solomon was also there and claimed he was assaulted by the rowdy larrikins. Tom Lloyd lingered and flashed Mrs. Goodman, the other two pushing Tom into her with the lights out. Dan was found guilty of wilfully damaging the property and sentenced to three months in Beechworth Gaol. Tom Lloyd was additionally charged with intent to rape but was found not guilty, yet still got six months for his part. Dan did his time in Beechworth Gaol without incident. Almost miraculously for a Kelly boy he managed to get through his sentence without incurring any additional penalties. Three months crushing granite would have given Dan bigger muscles, but also greater resolve to walk the straight and narrow once he was out. Unfortunately fate had a different plan for him.
While Dan was still in prison a warrant was issued for his arrest. A witness saw two young men they believed to be Dan Kelly and Jack Lloyd leading a mob of stolen horses near Chiltern. They reported it to the police and the paperwork was duly issued. This was noted by Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick after reading the announcement in the Police Gazette. On April 15, 1878, Fitzpatrick was sent from Benalla to take over at Greta police station. Fitzpatrick informed his superior, Sergeant Whelan, that he knew of a warrant for Dan Kelly and intended on arresting him on his way to the station. Fitzpatrick went alone to the Kelly property and what occurred has been subject to much scrutiny and debate. The general thrust is that Fitzpatrick enquired after Dan but found he was away. The constable then asked a neighbour, Brickey Williamson, about Dan’s whereabouts before electing to return to the Kelly house and wait. He was greeted by Dan who offered to go quietly on the provision that he could finish his dinner first. After this, a scuffle broke out and Fitzpatrick was wounded in the wrist. The policeman claimed Ned Kelly had shot him, Ned Kelly claimed he wasn’t even there. Each witness account conflicted with the others in some way. Regardless, Dan and Ned immediately fled to the Wombat Ranges. Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Dan’s brother-in-law Bill Skillion were arrested and charged with aiding attempted murder.
For six months Dan and Ned hid in the ranges. A second, fortified, hut was built further up the creek from Dan’s place using thick logs, and both huts were equipped with whiskey stills. The intention was to raise money for Ellen Kelly’s defence by selling gold and bootleg whiskey. Unfortunately it was not enough and Ellen got three years, the men each received six years.
After the trial police parties were organised to bring the Kelly brothers to justice. Warrants had been issued for their arrest. There was £100 on each of their heads; Ned for attempted murder, Dan for aiding and abetting. A party was sent from Mansfield to find the Kellys in the Wombat Ranges. The party consisted of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and constables Michael Scanlan, Thomas McIntyre and Thomas Lonigan. When Ned found the police party’s tracks he sent Dan to find their camp, which he duly did. The next day the brothers, roused by McIntyre firing a shotgun while hunting parrots, went to the police camp with Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. They hid in the spear-grass and intended on ambushing the camp to take the police guns and horses. When the bushrangers emerged they held McIntyre at gunpoint. When Lonigan ran to cover and moved to fire at the arrivals, Ned shot him. There was a moment of disbelief as Lonigan struggled on the ground. Dan remarked “He was a plucky fellow. Did you see how he went for his gun?” He then seized the police shotgun and searched the tent. When Lonigan’s identity was revealed, Dan exclaimed that “He won’t be putting any of us poor buggers away again.”
McIntyre took a particular dislike to Dan, describing his nervous laughter and his “grotesque” appearance in his oversized hand-me-down clothes. McIntyre fully believed that Dan would be the one to put a bullet in him.
Dan insisted McIntyre be handcuffed but Ned refused, believing a fear of being shot was incentive enough for the trooper to obey his orders. This did not sit well with Dan who grumbled that the police would just as soon clap cuffs on them.
When Kennedy and Scanlan returned from scouting McIntyre tried to persuade them to surrender but a gunfight broke out. Scanlan was shot, McIntyre escaped on Kennedy’s horse and Kennedy fired at the Kellys with his pistol. A bullet from Kennedy hit Dan’s shoulder as the sergeant retreated into the bush after McIntyre. Kennedy was soon killed by Ned a considerable distance from the camp. The gang looted the bodies and Dan took Scanlan’s pocket watch. The salvageable items were collected and the tent burnt as the gang escaped.
As a result of the incident at Stringybark Creek, Ned and Dan were outlawed with a reward of £500 each. At this stage Joe and Steve were unidentified.
In December 1878 the gang re-emerged near Violet Town. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station on Faithfuls Creek in the afternoon and began herding the staff into a shed. They kept the staff as prisoners in the tool shed overnight and stole new outfits from a hawker’s wagon. That night the gang chatted with their captives, answering questions but with Ned doing most of the talking. Dan and Steve were overheard talking about how they’d like a lark with the female prisoners. In the morning the nearby telegraph poles were damaged by Ned, Joe and Steve. In the afternoon Ned, Dan and Steve headed into Euroa to rob the bank, leaving Joe on sentry at the station. The timing was meticulously arranged to coincide with a funeral that would keep the townsfolk occupied during the gang’s activities. Dan acted as a guard, standing at the rear of the bank, making sure that nobody escaped or interrupted while Ned and Steve robbed the place. Once the loot had been acquired the bushrangers headed back to the station with the bank staff and the manager’s family and servants. On the way Dan rode in the stolen hawker’s wagon and kept his gun trained on Mrs. Scott, the bank manager’s wife, who was driving a buggy alongside, in case she tried to escape or raise an alarm. The raid went off without a hitch and the gang escaped with thousands of pounds to distribute among their families and sympathisers. Before they left, Dan gave Constable Scanlan’s watch to Becroft, the hawker’s assistant, and money with which to repair it. It is unclear what the nature of the damage was.
In February 1879 the gang struck again at Jerilderie. They travelled over the border to answer a challenge that they wouldn’t last 24 hours in New South Wales. The gang roused the police in the middle of the night and locked them in their own cells. Mrs. Devine, the wife of the senior constable, recalled how as the gang occupied their home during their stay Dan would bounce her son on his knee but later spoke in quite a violent manner in order to make her work faster as she decorated the courthouse for mass. The gang then went through town disguised in police uniforms pretending to be reinforcements against the Kelly Gang. On the Monday Dan and Joe had their horses shod at the blacksmith and investigated the telegraph lines before the gang put their plan into full effect. Ned, Steve and Joe robbed the bank while Dan kept prisoners under control next door in the hotel. The gang had successfully managed to occupy the town for a whole weekend unmolested and rode away with thousands of pounds in unmarked notes that could not be traced. In response, the New South Wales government doubled the reward for the gang to £8000.
Upon leaving New South Wales, the gang split up to reconvene at the Byrne selection at a set date and time. Only Dan arrived on time. He stayed for dinner and questioned the Byrnes about whether the other gang members had been past. Dan seems to have had a good relationship with the Byrnes, frequently stopping by in much the same manner for a meal and a chat. Dan also seemed to be the most active gang member, being reported as having been spotted more than any other member of the Kelly Gang. It is also probable that he partook in Joe’s favourite past-time of visiting the Sebastopol opium dens for a smoke and card games.
Over the course of 1879 and early 1880, Dan and Joe Byrne tested the loyalty of the Sherritts and various other sympathisers that were suspected of turning on the gang. On 14 May, 1880, Dan paid a visit to his uncle Tom Lloyd. Lloyd’s neighbour, a police informant named Jacob Wilson, saw horses in Lloyd’s garden and began snooping. He was found behind the cow shed by the dogs and the barking roused everyone in the house. Uncle Tom sent the dog to chase the man down and he climbed up a cherry tree. Dan Kelly and cousin Tom Lloyd, who were unarmed, fetched the dog and yelled taunts to the police they assumed were nearby, before going back inside. Wilson was so terrified he stayed in the tree until morning. Incidents like this were increasingly common and the gang began to stop visiting certain people in case they were spotted.
More concerning to the gang however was the rumour that had been circulating that the Sherritts were in cahoots with the police, fuelled by the vicious game of “Chinese Whispers” that accounted for the gang’s bush telegraph. On one occasion Dan arrived at the Sherritt selection on Sheepstation Creek looking for Jack Sherritt, Aaron’s younger brother. When he was told Jack wasn’t home he pushed his way inside with a revolver drawn and searched for him. Dan said they wanted to speak with him. Unbeknownst to Dan, Jack was at that moment speeding away to speak to Assistant Commissioner Nicolson in a desperate attempt to seek protection. Nicolson told him to go to a local pub and use that as his alibi. It was clear to everyone that the gang was getting desperate and had cottoned on that something was up and Ned was determined to address it in his next big scheme.
In early 1880 a plan had been devised by Ned Kelly to escalate the gang’s activities. The banks were too heavily guarded to rob as they had done previously, so now they were struggling to find ways to keep their network of sympathisers on-side. The gang’s health was also deteriorating as the rigours of life on the run was wearing them down. Ned suffered sciatica and sandy blight, Joe struggled with withdrawals as his opium supply was cut off due to lack of funds, and Dan was described by one witness as looking gaunt and hollow-cheeked. Police parties were coming closer than before to catching the gang and even had the assistance of an elite team of black trackers from Queensland on top of a network of police spies and informants. Ned wanted to end the pursuit in dramatic fashion by luring a trainload of police and trackers to be derailed at Glenrowan. He sent Dan and Joe to create a commotion at Aaron Sherritt’s hut, where a team of constables had been allocated to protect him, as the bait. On Saturday 26 June, Dan and Joe kidnapped Aaron’s neighbour Anton Wick and used him to lure Aaron to his back door whereupon he was murdered by Joe with a shotgun. Dan guarded the front door in case the police that were hiding inside tried to escape. The two bushrangers then terrorised the party of constables as they cowered in the bedroom, Aaron’s mother-in-law and pregnant wife stuck between the two sides. Attempts to burn the place failed and the outlaws rode away two hours later. It would be midday the next day before any of the police were brave enough to see if they had gone. Initially Ellen Barry, the mother-in-law, stated that Dan had been quiet when entering the hut with a pistol. It was only later when attempts were being made to gain a payout from the police that she would describe him resting on the table as he looked at the murdered Sherritt with a grin.
Dan and Joe arrived at Glenrowan at around 5am on 27 June, 1880. Dan was immediately employed with tending the horses and carrying the gang’s armour into the Glenrowan Inn. Over the course of the day Dan guarded the prisoners in the inn and even initiated dancing to keep them entertained. He was seen to get intimate with Jane Jones, the publican’s daughter, she having been spotted sitting on his knee and kissing him, even being given one of his revolvers to use while she kept the prisoners at bay when Dan had to leave the room. As the weekend rolled on and the special train did not appear as expected, tensions began to rise. Multiple times during the gang’s stay at Glenrowan, Dan told Ned they should leave and argued the point only to be shouted down by his brother who was determined that they would stay and fight. The longer they waited the more difficult it became to keep the prisoners under control and the more they risked accidentally derailing a civilian train. Ned refused to heed his brother’s pleas. When Ned decided to release Thomas Curnow, the school teacher, Dan argued publicly with him as he knew Curnow could not be trusted. Curnow had spent the day trying to butter Ned up, a suspicious Dan watching like a hawk. Sure enough, when the train did appear in the early hours of 28 June, Curnow warned the police that the tracks were damaged and the gang was in Glenrowan. Just before the train arrived, Dan had told the prisoners to head home, however they were detained by Ann Jones who told them to wait for Ned to make a speech. If Dan’s instructions had not been countermanded a considerable amount of the tragedy that was to unfold could have been avoided.
When the train arrived the gang dressed in their homemade armour and engaged in a gun battle. Ned and Joe were wounded early on and they retreated inside. Ned soon disappeared into the bush behind the inn and Dan took control of the situation, doing his best to evacuate the women and children despite the relentless firing from police. Joe was shot dead by a police bullet early in the morning and Dan and Steve became very disheartened, believing Ned had also been killed or had abandoned them. When Ned re-emerged just before 7am the remaining gang provided covering fire from the inn, but within a half hour Ned was captured and the two bushrangers were stuck in the inn surrounded by police in broad daylight. Dan had received a bullet in the leg that shattered his knee and necessitated a retreat into the inn. At 10am the rest of the prisoners were released and Dan and Steve remained inside. As the prisoners left they shook Dan’s hand.
What happened in the inn next is unknown but it is possible that Dan was struck in the neck by a bullet while his helmet was off and killed or that he took his own life by taking poison. All that is known for certain is that at 3pm the inn was burned and while it was on fire his corpse was witnessed by multiple people, in the back room still in body armour and resting on a pillow made of sacks. The body was effectively cremated in the fire and the burnt remains released to his family. Later, Dr. Hutchison, a medic who had been called up to assist during the siege, retrieved what was believed to be Dan’s foot from the ruins and the scorched bones were handed down through the family.
Around 200 people attended the wake at Maggie Skillion‘s home, many of whom were drunk and armed. Police efforts to reclaim the bodies were scrapped in response, the risks being too high. Though there are a number of (probably deliberately) conflicting oral histories with respect to the location of the last resting place of the two outlaws, most accounts indicate Dan Kelly was buried in an unmarked double grave in Greta cemetery with Steve Hart. The location within the cemetery of the exact double grave they were interred in is a closely guarded secret in family traditions in an effort to avoid the graves being disturbed. Unfortunately, this has added fuel to the fire of conspiracy theories and in one infamous case a particularly motivated “truther” went through the cemetery plunging steel probes into grave sites hoping to prove that there were no coffins in them. When Ellen Kelly died the 1923, she was buried in an unmarked plot next to the official spot where Red Kelly’s youngest son is buried.
In the years after Glenrowan there were rumours that Dan and Steve had escaped to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. In 1911, novellist Ambrose Pratt, author behind the memoirs of Captain Thunderbolt’s apprentice William Monckton, published a book claiming to be the memoirs of Dan Kelly. In fact, many people claimed to be Dan Kelly over the years, most notably a tramp called James Ryan whose ridiculous attempt to cash in on the survival rumours were published in the press and convinced scores of people who lacked knowledge of basic facts of the story. Ryan’s story even inspired the utterly woeful film The Glenrowan Affair. Ryan was killed by a coal train in the 1933 and is buried in Ipswich, Queensland. In order to lure tourists, the cemetery even erected a memorial telling the story of the claimant. None of the alleged Dans ever had any solid case to back their claims up but the myths of a miraculous escape from the burning inn persist to this day.
Dan Kelly was, in most ways, at least as competent as his big brother. As a horseman, tracker and marksman, his abilities were perhaps even better. Certainly he was more ruthless than Ned, a pragmatism that some interpreted as callousness or even psychopathy. It must be remembered that the gang were wanted dead or alive (preferably dead) and mistakes could not be afforded. Dan was a much better judge of character than Ned and certainly better at performing under pressure. Even the Kelly matriarch was known to have held Dan in more regard than Ned in these measures.
Unlike his brothers, Dan was fairly successful at avoiding trouble. In fact, it is probably telling that the worst trouble in Dan’s life seemed to come from following Ned’s and Jim’s lead. Imagine how different the story would have turned out if Dan had been able to accompany Fitzpatrick as intended, before Ned and Ellen had attacked the policeman. A stint in the logs, a quick trial during which the mistaken identity could be proven and Dan could have gone home as a free man. Sadly, as in all things, life never pans out the way we think it should.
Every interpretation of the Kelly story brings with it a host of conflicting perspectives on various points, and each is unique. More recent film depictions have been executed more artfully than the early silent films or even early “talkies”. Whereas the formative depictions of the story were usually morality plays, emphasising the social ramifications of lawlessness, the rise of the understanding of film as an artform changed the approach many directors and writers took. Gregor Jordan’s contribution is no exception. It is not a depiction of a historical figure, rather it’s an interpretation of the cultural figure of Ned Kelly that seeks to explore the idea of a man being shaped and guided by external forces to his doom.
Jordan’s film is crafted from a John Michael McDonagh screenplay based on the Robert Drewe novel Our Sunshine. Just as the book moves away from history for the sake of artistic expression, the film steps away from the history as well as the book both for artistic purposes and marketability (the latter being driven by executives rather than the creative team). This has riled many history buffs who had hoped to see the history brought to life on screen, but this is most definitely not that. It must be highlighted that the film differs drastically from the book in many areas also, thus any interpretation of the film text is not reflective of the source novel, just as much as it is not reflective of history, and must be viewed on its own terms.
He wasn’t such a bad fella. He… he was just a dumb paddy who got picked on his whole life. And that does something to your pride, you know?
Jordan’s Ned is a man with a deeply ingrained sense of injustice and is a passive protagonist. The events in the story that shape his life have nothing to do with the decisions he makes, he merely enacts a pre-conceived narrative. While Ned is brash and prone to explosions of temper his actions have no real effect on the outcome of events. This is most conspicuous in the aftermath of the Fitzpatrick incident when Ned is accused of injuring the constable despite not being present. He seeks an alibi but is denied, locking in his fate. It is then that he goes into hiding and his mother is jailed. Neither Ned’s participation, nor indeed his presence, was required to affect him becoming a bushranger. Even the act of taking Kennedy’s watch at Stringybark Creek plays out without any explanation of the protagonist’s motivation, it is simply part of the pre-conceived narrative.
None of his actions prevent the bad things from happening and nothing he does results in the undoing of the undesirable outcomes. By the end Ned has become resigned to this and when Hare unexpectedly appears and asks for Ned’s sash, he is met merely with a look of weary indifference – nothing Ned could say or do would matter because it would happen anyway.
Of course, there is an easy explanation for this fixation on destiny. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his life being acted out before the audience. This is demonstrated by the voice-over narrating the story throughout. Ned is unable to see how his actions could have resulted in the outcomes that he found himself subject to and thus we are not shown anything that could condemn him. The effect is that Ned is merely following a script and is little more than a puppet of fate. This sense of determinism is the desperate rationalising of events to make sense of a life gone astray.
Ned is thrown in gaol over a suspected stolen horse but we’re never shown anything to contextualise the event other than Ned finding a horse then being assaulted by police. The police are bullies who pick on the Kellys, but again there’s no context given beyond them being Kellys and Irish and the police not liking them for that. This trend for oversimplified cause and effect creates a sense of there being no control over things – they just are. We don’t know why the police at Stringybark Creek are carrying stretchers in the middle of the bush, but this is all it takes to confirm Ned’s belief that he would be gunned down. There’s no suggestion that the police may simply arrest him. All of this indicates Ned twisting the events in his mind to justify the way they turned out in such a manner that he is not at fault.
Further to this is the way that the supporting players are portrayed. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his gang, his family, the police and public, but of course it is all determined by its relationship to himself. Joe Byrne is Ned’s closest friend, but depicted as a womaniser and keenly intelligent, always at Ned’s beck and call. This is in contrast to Ned’s comparative sexual repression, lack of education and his natural leadership. Joe is the yin to Ned’s yang; the Horatio to Ned’s Hamlet, always on hand to confirm Ned’s suspicions or bounce ideas off. Dan Kelly is depicted as an impulsive runt. He is brash and somewhat arrogant but just as devoted to his family as his big brother, despite harbouring ill-feelings towards their deceased father. Ned takes on that paternal role and we see their relationship develop in such a way that Ned becomes something of a sage for Dan, offering wisdom from the school of hard knocks. Steve Hart however is shown as petulant, flaky and mischievous with a cowardly streak. Ned seems to look at him as little more than an inconvenience and is not afraid to belittle him. For all their differences, one thing unites this gang, which is a complete subservience to and admiration of Ned.
Then we see how the various other characters relate to Ned: Julia falls in love with him to the extent of cheating on her husband because he is so much more manly; Kate adores him and sees him as the family’s protector; the police fear Ned while also having a begrudging respect for him; Aaron views Ned with admiration but this soon gives way to fear once he starts helping the police. In essence, the characterisation of the cast is almost entirely derived from how they view Ned, or rather how Ned imagines they view him.
I am a widow’s son, outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed!
This leads us to Ned’s perception of himself. By the way many events play out we see Ned as charming, attractive, playful, witty, tough, commanding and, moreover, popular. Everyone knows who he is wherever he goes, even if they occasionally need their memory jogged at gunpoint. When we see the Jerilderie robbery, Ned’s passion and charisma as he dictates his letter in front of a crowd whips them into a frenzy, chiming in to help him create memorable insults directed towards the police. Whenever Ned speaks people listen and even the police can’t help crack a smile when they think of how devilishly clever and witty he is.
I’ve watched gravel fade. Dust settle into crust. I’ve seen drips of water turn to stone that defied gravity. I’ve turned blood red with cave mud. I’ve been a bloody rock!
The film’s extremely gloomy, desaturated palette echoes the increasingly burdened state of mind of Ned. As the film is framed as Ned telling his own story, naturally the atmosphere is reflective of Ned’s own feelings, embodying his essence. The flatness and sparseness of the locations is also indicative of Ned’s emotional connections to the places we visit in the story. While in reality the Kellys lived near the foot of a large, smooth hill dotted with trees and covered in grass, albeit prone to drought, when we see the homestead in the film it juts out of the grey, flat and boggy landscape as if plonked in the middle of nowhere and looks more like his ancestral home, Ireland, than Australia. Ned does not really imagine the surroundings, his only focus is what the house represents – his family. To Ned, it’s his mother and siblings that matter, not the place they live in. Ned is very focused on family and the pain and loss he feels relating to his mother’s imprisonment is signified by a shot of Ellen in her cell, alone and surrounded by darkness except for a patch of light coming from the cell window. His memories of his family are generally bleak bar one: the memory of the day he received his green sash.
Ah, what did Da call me? That’s right. He called me Sunshine.
Here we see his parents beaming with pride, the sun shining brightly upon young Ned as he receives his reward for saving a life, surrounded by people that cheer for him. This is Ned’s “happy place”, the memory he clings to that proves he really is a good person. This is why the reveal of the sash after his capture is so important. It shows how beneath the armour, his outlaw facade, he still clings to this sash as a symbol of something pure and virtuous inside him. The only other time we really see the sunshine and the beauty of the landscape is between Ned’s return home and the Fitzpatrick incident then the gang’s emergence from the fire-decimated landscape. Colour and sunshine and the beauty of nature symbolise hope and optimism. His time working on the Cooks’ station is a happy time as it seems things could be improving for the Kellys, and it serves to drive home how bleak things become afterwards.
They said I’d lost what it meant to be human, maybe never had it in the first place, but wasn’t this about protecting the ones I loved? The ones who gave me food, and shelter, even the clothes on me back? And therefore wasn’t it now a war?
Perhaps the most disturbing sequence in the film involves the gang, starving and dying of thirst, slaughtering their horses to drink the blood. This is immediately following a huge bushfire that the police cause leaving the gang stranded and struggling to survive. The horses are slaughtered in the dark of night and the gang look like wild men, deranged and filthy. The desperation of their situation is written on their faces in mud, soot and blood. This nightmare is a representation of Ned’s feelings during the height of his outlawry. He is ashamed of what he has become and is desperate to reform his image and so ventures to the only person he can think of that could help him – the only woman who has ever shown him romantic love – Julia Cook. Julia reminds Ned of who he really is and this motivates his crazy scheme at Glenrowan.
They say the trouble with the Irish is that they rely too much on dreams and not enough on gunpowder. Whereas the English were shy on dreams, as usual, but had plenty of the other. Now we had both.
Ned never states definitively what the plan is for Glenrowan. We are given allusions that it’s something big and important as the gang create armour, gather weapons and then re-emerge with clean clothes and haircuts. The town of Glenrowan becomes the base of operations, though what Ned hopes to achieve here is never made clear. Ned gives a speech about how he and his gang are at war with the British Empire and even the London Times. Ned has emerged from the chrysalis of desperation as a revolutionary, a freedom fighter. The bizarre mix of people in the inn represents what Ned sees as the common people, the ones who are victimised by the corruption in the power structure. Yet, they are also reflective of the nature of the social and political dimension Ned’s situation has taken on: little more than a bizarre circus. The caged lion that paces and hollers outside is a symbol of Ned’s warrior spirit; ironic and subversive in that the lion is usually the symbol of England, the culture Ned is so opposed to. When the gang emerge in their armour they are chivalrous knights, protecting the downtrodden from the oppression of police and the political construction they represent. We see the ruthlessness of the police as they gun down innocent civilians as they try to escape from the inn. The gang respond by emerging from the shadows like steel automatons and casually decimate the front line of the police despite the fact that it is pitch black, raining and they are wearing helmets that restrict their vision. The gang avenge those who have been struck down by the cruelty of the police before being forced to head back inside. This is where Ned decides to make his last stand.
Whereas in history Ned’s last stand occurred as he returned to the inn from behind police lines, in this interpretation it is portrayed as Ned venturing out to fight the police single-handedly to create enough of a distraction for the captives to escape. The last stand now becomes a noble and selfless act whereby Ned saves the surviving captives at the cost of his own freedom and, in effect, his life. Naturally without Ned to lead them, the rest of the gang end up dead and the scene of what should have been Ned’s greatest victory goes up in flames. Ned wanders through the bizarre, alien landscape with its camels and pelting rain, only to collapse metres behind the police. The dead lion signifies the death of Ned’s spirit. He realises that he was never destined to succeed and when he regains consciousness again he fires on the police and is quickly taken down. His survival beyond this maiming seems to add insult to injury as he lies gasping under the weight of his armour, the very thing that saved his life from gunfire now little more than an embodiment of his crushing defeat resulting in a demeaning death at the end of a rope.
Such is life.
This is perhaps one of the most unusual interpretations yet of the Kelly story, as it is in essence a warped portrayal played out in the memories of a doomed man. The inaccuracies become the artifice that demonstrates the unreliable nature of a narrator assured of the notion that his life was predetermined and all of his actions, no matter how nefarious or altruistic, were incapable of altering the course of his destiny. Everyone is in awe of the protagonist either through fear or respect as he does a marionette dance from one happenstance to another. This is the story of a man shaped by external forces to become the most hunted man in the British Empire and destined to die an ignominious death as a young man fighting a war he cannot possibly win. There is no real moral lesson to this story, merely the depressing realisation that life rarely turns out the way we want it to.
On Saturday, February 22, 2019, the Greta Heritage Group held the second of what is planned to be an annual Ned Kelly themed event to raise funds to maintain and modernise the 104 year-old Greta-Hansonville hall. The previous theme was Max Brown’s Australian Son, this year the topic was The Armour: The Myths, The Facts.
Tickets for the event were sold out quickly this year and the numbers were bigger than the previous event. Support came from various quarters, with the Ned Kelly Vault in Beechworth loaning out their replicas of the armour to be displayed at the event. Each attendee received a goodie bag with postcards, a printout of documents pertaining to the armour, a copy of Chester Eagle’s The Armour and as a final sweet treat there was a small packet of Minties.
The event opened with a reading by Alan Crichton of a poem he had written about the armour that evoked the wild notion of the so-called Republic of North Eastern Victoria and the idea of the gang as “Knights of old”. There’s no doubt that Crichton has a gift for the written word and it was a perfect piece to set the mood.
The first presentation was Noeleen Lloyd’s run-down of the history of the armour. The story of the mysterious creation of the four iconic suits of iron and their subsequent misadventures through the siege of Glenrowan then years of being bounced around various owners, being jumbled, having bits stolen or acquired on the sly, attempts to destroy them and then eventually being recognised as culturally significant enough to display, is an incredible tale in itself. Noeleen’s talk covered this concisely, cleverly and without any need to discuss the moral arguments about the actions of the bushrangers or police.
The second presentation was by blacksmith Nick Hawtin. Hawtin was tasked with creating exact replicas of the armour for the township of Jerilderie and in so doing gained some fascinating insights into how the armour may have been constructed. After a video of the Catalyst report on tests performed on Joe Byrne’s armour was shown, Nick spoke about his experience in studying the minute details of each suit and analysing the materials and process. He identified that while the majority of the steel was from plough mouldboards, there was also sheet metal used and likely much of it was scrap metal from various blacksmiths. By incorporating his knowledge of the craft, culture and history of blacksmithing, he was able to recognise the methodology used, the likely tools used and subsequently offer some valuable insights into the process. By virtue of the processes used it is incredibly unlikely that the suits were constructed in the bush or by one person. If the story of the suits being constructed by a creek have any validity, he supposed that it was that the armour was adjusted there rather than constructed in the bush. There was enough material in Nick Hawtin’s account to fill a decent sized book and hopefully some day we can get a published account of his knowledge.
The third presentation was by Brad Webb of ironoutlaw.com. He discussed Ned Kelly in popular culture, drawing upon early etchings in illustrated newspapers through to film, television and comics, but especially comics (Webb believes Ned Kelly provided inspiration for the superhero The Invincible Iron-Man). There is no doubt that the Kelly armour has captured the imagination of countless people around the world and continues to do so.
At this time there was a brief change of pace as Nick Hawtin got his forge fired up to demonstrate the difficulty in adequately heating steel of the thickness and type used for the armour. After several minutes of cranking a fan to heat up the coke the crowd was ushered inside for lunch to emerge again when the metal was heated. It was evident from the demonstration that a bush forge would have been impractical and inadequate in heating up the sheets of metal used to craft the armour, further asserting that the bulk of construction must have occurred in blacksmith shops, likely by multiple smiths.
The final presentation was by artist Joe Zapp, who had been painting a portrait of Ned throughout proceedings. He discussed his work and his fundraising before auctioning off the painting and some prints. Zapp uses an impressionist style to create images quickly and expressively. The result is a stylised portrait that is endowed with feeling and movement. The sale of his work raised a fair amount for the hall and no doubt the buyers will be pleased as punch with their purchases.
It was fantastic to see so many people turn out for the event and demonstrating their mutual love for the Kelly story while supporting the fantastic work done by the Greta volunteers. While the Kelly story seems to often bring out the worst in people online, in person it seems to be a very different situation and it’s nice to be reminded that a mutual appreciation for history and folklore can be a wonderful tool for uniting people rather than a device for dividing them.