The bushranger Ned Kelly is one of Australia’s greatest folk heroes. He has been memorialised by painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers alike. More books, songs and websites have been written about Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang than any other group of Australian historical figures.
Bushranging was said to have ended with the shooting of the Kelly Gang in 1880 at Glenrowan, Victoria, made possible by the introduction of theFelons Apprehension Act 1865 (NSW) which allowed outlawed bushrangers to be shot, rather than arrested and sent to trial.
Irish rebels and wild colonial boys
Before the end of transportation in 1840, more than 50,000 Irish ‘rebels’ were exiled to Australia. Their mistrust of British authority came with them, along with their vehement independence as Catholics, specifically excluded from holding public office or government positions until after 1900. It has been argued that this independence of the Irish contributed to the showdown with Ned Kelly and the police at Glenrowan in 1880.
Many of the transported convicts were also agitators, machine breakers, political activists and union organisers. These included the Scottish lawyer Thomas Muir, transported in 1794 for handing out copies of Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man.
Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born at Beveridge in 1855, the first-born son of an Irish Catholic couple. His father, John ‘Red’ Kelly was an ex-convict (transported for the theft of two pigs), who eloped with Ellen Quinn, an Irish ‘bounty migrant’, from Van Dieman’s Land (later Tasmania) to Port Phillip. The Kellys settled in the Victorian ranges north of Melbourne, eking out a living on the edge of the squatter’s rich lands. Red Kelly supplemented his income by horse stealing. After his arrest and gaoling for horse-stealing, Red Kelly died before finishing his sentence. Ellen moved the family to a slabhut at Eleven Mile Creek in the north-west of the colony where Ned became the main breadwinner, taking jobs as a timber cutter and rural worker – ringbarking, breaking in horses, mustering cattle and fencing.
Ned Kelly grew up with the tales of bushrangers and knew the tale of Ben Hall well. At the age of 14, Ned was arrested for stealing 10 shillings from a Chinese man and reportedly to have announced that he ‘was going to be a bushranger’. Ned was sent as a kind of apprentice bush worker to Harry Power, one of the last of the convicts transported to Van Dieman’s Land in 1842 for stealing a pair of shoes, who took to bushranging after escaping from Pentridge Gaol. A year later, Kelly was charged with robbery under arms on one occasion when he was holding Power’s horse. He was freed for lack of evidence, although a few months later has was back in the lockup for assault. During this time, Ned also gained some notoriety as the ‘champion’ boxer in the Beechworth district.
The shooting of Constable Fitzpatrick
Ned’s real troubles with the police began when his mother, Ellen Kelly, was arrested for aiding and abetting in the attempted murder of Constable Arthur Fitzpatrick on the 15th of April. Fitzpatrick visited the Kelly home to serve warrants to arrest Dan Kelly for alleged horse stealing. As a result of the subsequent brawl, Ned and Dan fled to the bush where they were joined by Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. They became the Kelly gang.
Fitzpatrick returned to the police station with a different story which involved being hit on the head with a shovel, an ambush by Kelly sympathisers and being shot at three times by Ned Kelly. Constable Fitzpatrick, was later dismissed from the police force as ‘a liar and a larrikin’. Fitzpatrick was in charge of the Greta Police Station for a few days and had been warned to stay away from the Kellys – a warning he ignored, boasting in several hotels that he would ‘fix the Greta mob’.
In 1878, Judge Redmond Barry sentenced Ellen Kelly, to three years hard labour for assaulting a police officer, even though the officer’s testimony was dubious.
While Ned Kelly did not try to break into Beechworth gaol to rescue his mother as planned, he offered an ultimatum to the government of the day:
…to give those people who are suffering innocence, justice and liberty. if not I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagems which will open the eyes of not only the Victoria Police and inhabitants but also the whole British Army…
(Jerilderie Letter, p. 19)
Hiding out in the Wombat Ranges
Ned was so enraged that he made a hide-out, with his brother Dan and their mates Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, at the head of the King River, a virtually impenetrable place where Harry Power had long eluded escape (before he had been eventually caught with the help of an informant and black trackers). Ned Kelly used this hide-out to his advantage, aided by sympathetic ‘informers’, to confirm who made their way into the Wombat Ranges.
Ned was furious about the use of the Felons Apprehension Act and the use of black trackers brought in from Queensland. The Gang relied upon their network of friends,
‘and in this manner they could find retreats, over hundreds of miles of impenetrable mountains amongst which they had been brought up all their lives, and where they knew every road, gully and hiding place.’
(Superintendent Francis Hare)
The police were determined to hunt down the Kelly Gang, and in October 1878 a party of four police with heavy arsenal were sent out from Mansfield. Their camp at Stringybark Creek received a surprise visit from the Kellys, with Ned commanding ‘Bail up! Throw up your arms’. Constable McIntyre surrendered but Constable Lonigan went for his revolver, before being shot dead by Ned Kelly. When the other two police appeared and, Sergeant Kennedy reached for his revolver, he was mortally wounded. Constable Scanlon was then killed trying to drag his rifle from its holster.
The Kelly Gang were declared outlaws after raids on the National Bank at Euroa and Faithful Creek station in December 1878. The sum of 8000 was put on their collective heads for robbery and murder, issued by the New South Wales Colonial Secretary, Henry Parkes. A further 4000 was added by the Government of Victoria. In February 1879, Ned and his Gang bailed up the Bank of New South Wales at Jerilderie via the adjoining Royal Hotel. From here, Ned dictated the now famous Jerilderie Letter, an essay of over 7,500 words in his attempt to set the record straight.
Shooting of Sherritt
In June 1880, Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly visited Aaron Sherritt, a close friend of Joe Byrne and whom Joe and Ned Kelly had helped fence his property. This, however, had only marked him as a Kelly accomplice and Sherritt had ended up colluding with police. Four policemen were hiding in Sherritt’s hut and, after Sherritt was shot by Byrne for betraying Kelly, the police remained hiding, using the women in the hut as hostages. The Kelly’s shooting of Sherritt made it look as if the Gang could move about the district as they wished, and the police redoubled their efforts to capture the Gang.
The Glenrowan shoot-out
After more bank robberies, the Kelly Gang had their ‘last stand’ in the small town of Glenrowan, Victoria in 1880, where they took 60 hostages in a hotel. The Gang established a base at the Glenrowan Hotel, determined to fight it out with police when they came. Kelly planned to derail the expected train carrying the police, but this was prevented by a school teacher, let out of the hotel, who flagged the train to a halt. Led by Superintendent Hare and assisted by local Constable Bracken, the troopers attacked the Gang in the hotel. Superintendent Hare and other police officers were wounded when the Gang shot at the police. The townsfolk were allowed to leave the hotel when there was a lull in the fighting.
Ned Kelly was shot in the arm and thumb, and retreated to the bush, from where he hoped to attack police from behind. Knowing that the Felons Apprehension Act meant they could be shot, the Kelly Gang all wore suits of steel armour, made during the previous year. Despite this, Joe Byrne was shot in the groin and died. Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were shot dead, and the hotel was burned to the ground by the police.
As dawn broke, Ned Kelly, in his armour, approached the police from the rear and began shooting at them with his revolver, despite his wounds. After half an hour, he was shot in both unprotected legs. A wounded Ned was arrested and charged with the murder of a policeman. Ned Kelly was tried and convicted of the murder of Constable Lonigan at Stringybark Creek.
In gaol, Kelly wrote a long letter to the authorities demonstrating the discrimination against poor Irish settlers. Despite public protests, the judgement of Redmond Barry prevailed. Kelly spoke the immortal last words ‘Such is life’ and was hanged on 11th November 1880 at Melbourne Gaol.
A flawed hero
Ned Kelly’s final defiant stand against the Felons Apprehension Act and his pleas for justice to end discrimination against poor Irish settlers did end up opening the eyes of people. Ned Kelly in his armour came to symbolise a fight by a flawed hero, a convicted criminal, for ‘justice and liberty’ and ‘innocent people’. This captured the imagination of writers, authors and the general public alike.
Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang – films
The Australian film industry produced what was probably the world’s first full-length feature film in 1906. The film was the Tait Brothers’ production The Story of the Kelly Gang . It was a success in both Australian and British theatres, and it was also the beginning of a genre of bushranger stories.
In November 2006 the National Film and Sound Archive released a new digital restoration of The Story of the Kelly Gang. This restoration incorporated 11 minutes of material discovered in the United Kingdom. Prior to this discovery, only a few minutes of footage was available. The Story of the Kelly Gang can be seen when visiting the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.
While the Australian public took a liking to bushranger stories, the New South Wales police department did not. The production of films about bushrangers was banned in 1912. The Kelly story, however, outlasted the ban and has been re-filmed a number of times since.
Other well known films about Ned Kelly include: Ned Kelly (1970) starring English rock singer Mick Jagger as Ned; the Trial of Ned Kelly (1977) starring John Waters and Gerard Kennedy; the 1980 mini-series The Last Outlaw starring John Jarratt, Steve Bisley and Sigrid Thornton; and the 2003 Gregor Jordan directedNed Kelly which starred Heath Ledger.
Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang – books and art
The Australian author Peter Carey won the 2001 Booker Prize for his fictional novel True History of the Kelly Gang . Carey’s inspiration, in part, came from the Sidney Nolan series of Kelly paintings, some of which can be seen at the Nolan Collection Gallery. The novel’s first person narrative style was crafted from Ned’s own ‘Jerilderie Letter’ – an account of the dramatic events leading to him being outlawed in the 1870s.
Carey’s book is not the first to be written about Ned and the Kelly Gang. There are many other books including Ned Kelly: A Short Life (1995), Ned Kelly: The Authentic Illustrated History (1984 and reprinted in 2001), I am Ned Kelly (1980) and the Inner History of the Kelly Gang (1929), a very brave move on behalf of the author, J J Kenneally, considering that some of the people being discussed were still alive.
Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series are probably the most well known of the art works about Ned Kelly. Many other artists, including Norman Lindsay, have also produced a variety of art works of this Australian bushranger.
Stringybark Creek, where three police officers were shot and killed by Ned Kelly in 1878, and the gang’s bush hideaway, both located in the Benalla region of Victoria, have been added to the Victorian Heritage Register. The two camp sites are significant to the cultural history of the state for their association with the nation’s most famous bushranger.
- The Jerilderie Letter– external site – Treasures of the State Library of Victoria
- Kelly Gang Armour– external site – Treasures of the State Library of Victoria
- Sidney Nolan Gallery– external site – National Gallery of Australia
- Ned Kelly– external site – Public Record Office Victoria
- Ned Kelly: a brief but remarkable life– external site
Listen, look and play
- Ned Kelly’s Armour – external site, video, 5 mins. Part of Australia’s Heritage: National Treasures. Screen Australia.