The life of Ned Kelly has, throughout the last 150 years, sparked many debates. Some have described him as a Robin Hood-like hero while others say he was nothing more than a murderous, thieving terrorist. Ned Kelly is an iconic part of Australian folklore, and as such has had many books, songs, films and plays made about him, and his extraordinary life.
Edward 'Ned' Kelly was the third child, and first son, of Ellen and John 'Red' Kelly. Red was an ex-convict, born in Tipperary, Ireland who settled in Victoria, Australia - and eloped with Ellen Quinn, who was originally from Antrim, Ireland. Ned was born sometime in December 18541 in Beveridge, Victoria, Australia.
In 1865, five year old Richard Shelton, one of the boys that attended the same school as the Kelly's, fell into Hughes Creek at Avenel, Central Victoria, while crossing a fallen tree footbridge on his way to school. Showing amazing courage and initiative, the ten-year-old Ned rescued Richard from drowning. The Shelton's rewarded Ned for this deed by presenting him with a green silk sash.
Not long after the death of his father in 1866, Ned and his family moved to Greta in North-Eastern Victoria. Ned became the bread-winner of the family, and so his schooling had to be cut short. He took jobs clearing wood and tree stumps from properties as well as fencing2, horse-breaking and branding.
The Young Outlaw
Ned's first brush with the law occurred in 1869, when a Chinese pig and poultry dealer named Ah Fook called on the Kelly household for a drink of water. Ned's sister Annie offered him a drink of creek water at which Ah Fook became angry and shouted at her. Ned came to his sister's defense, punched Ah Fook and told him to leave. He was later arrested for the assault, but the case was dismissed.
In October 1870, a hawker named Ben Gould borrowed a horse that had strayed from another hawker's cart to pull his own cart out of a bog. The horse belonged to Jeremiah McCormick and he was not at all pleased about this, and went to the Kelly homestead where Gould was staying to tell him so. Ned and his uncle, Jack Lloyd, were castrating calves at this time and Gould wrote an insulting letter about their inability to conceive children, had a pair of calf testicles wrapped in the letter and told Ned to give it to Mrs McCormick. Ned gave it to his young cousin to deliver and the boy gave the note to Mr McCormick instead. A fight broke out over the insult, and Ned was arrested and sentenced to six months hard labour in Beechworth Gaol for assault and indecency to a lady.
A month after his release from prison, Ned was arrested for receiving a stolen horse from a horse breaker, Isiah 'Wild' Wright. Ned had no idea the horse was stolen and was sentenced to three years in prison, while Wright only received 18 months for stealing the horse. After he was released from prison in Beechworth, a bare-knuckled fight was carried out between Ned and Wright to settle the score. After twenty rounds, Ned won the match and the two became friends there after.
Around this time, young Ned was also apprentice to a notorious bushranger Henry Johnson, more popularly known as Harry Power. Apparently legendary for his bad temper, Power was known to behave very affably to those that he robbed, even in one instance praying out loud that his victims would co-operate. These methods were taught to young Ned. Ned's uncle Jack, a friend to Power who was in prison at the time for stealing cattle, betrayed Power to the police. Power blamed Ned for his capture. Ned's trial was dismissed when witnesses were not able to identify him as Power's accomplice.
The Kelly Gang
In April, 1878, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (who had been put in charge of Greta police station for the week), went to the Kelly homestead to arrest Dan Kelly, Ned's brother, for horse stealing. He was told not to go to the Kelly homestead alone, but ignored this warning and after a few drinks, set out to make the arrest. Fitzpatrick arrived at the Kelly home to discover that Dan was not in and waited for him to return. As he was waiting a fight broke out; this started when Fitzpatrick allegedly made a pass at Ned and Dan's sister Kate. Fitzpatrick had claimed that during the fight Ned had burst into the house and shot him in the hand. Ned initially stated that he was not there at the time of the incident.
Knowing that the police would soon be arriving to arrest Ned and Dan for the incident involving Constable Fitzpatrick, they escaped into the bush, joined later by friends Stephen Hart and Joseph Byrne. Ellen Kelly was arrested for the assault and attempted murder of Fitzpatrick when the police returned. The Kelly's hid in a hut at Bullock Creek in the Wombat Ranges, 50 miles from the homestead. Here they distilled whiskey to sell, and mined for gold in abandoned mines to raise money for the legal defence of their mother. A reward of £100 was offered for the capture of each Kelly brother, and several police parties started to search the areas around Greta and Mansfield.
The gang received word that there were three police parties closing in on them at Bullock Creek. On 26 October, 1878, the gang heard some gun shots from Stringybark Creek and decided to try to disarm the police. When the gang approached the camp, they found only two constables there, Lonigan and McIntyre. Two other officers, Kennedy and Scanlan were out searching for the Kelly's hut. Ned called to them, 'Bail up, hold your hands up!'. McIntyre surrendered, but Lonigan drew his revolver and took aim at the gang. Ned shot him before he had a chance to fire. He then told McIntyre that if the the other officers were to surrender when they returned, he would not shoot them.
When Kennedy and Scanlan returned on their horses, McIntyre went to speak to Kennedy who drew his revolver and got off his horse. Ned called out to them to, 'Bail up!'. Scanlan went to ride away but the horse would not move. He then shot at where the voice had come from. Ned and Joe Byrne shot Scanlan dead. McIntyre escaped on horseback and Kennedy had taken up firing at the gang. After being wounded several times, Kennedy dropped his revolver and turned to surrender. Ned thought he was turning to fire at him again, aimed a shot at Kennedy's chest and fired. He was not dead, but mortally injured, so Ned killed him as an act of mercy (allegedly).
In December 1878, Ned, Steve and Dan rode into Euroa (pronounced yew-row-ah) to rob the National Bank. Ned entered the front of the bank with a drawn gun, while Dan covered the rear. They got away with £2,260 worth of bank notes and gold in less than ten minutes, and without firing a single shot. Onlookers stated that the outlaws behaved very well throughout the robbery. The reward for their capture was raised to £1000 pounds each.
Two months after the robbery at Euroa, the Kelly gang crossed the New South Wales border to rob the bank at Jerilderie. Before the gang proceeded to rob the Bank of New South Wales, Ned attempted to put forward his own account of his actions. In over 7,500 words, he dictated to Joe Byrne what became known as the Jerilderie Letter3. On the Monday before the robbery, the gang seized a couple of police officers in the town, and donning their uniforms, the gang rounded up about sixty townspeople in the hotel next to the bank. Ned then read his letter to the people. During the robbery he gave it to one of the tellers who said he would forward it to the Member of Parliament, but in fact gave it to the Victoria Police who had it copied. The Letter would not be published until fifty years after Ned Kelly's death.
Siege at Glenrowan
Aaron Sheritt was a childhood friend of Joe Byrne. He had been aiding the police with their efforts to capture the Kelly Gang; however, it was not easy to ascertain whose side Sheritt was on. The Kelly Gang were plotting to lure the special force of police, who had been stationed at Benalla to track down the Kelly gang, into a trap. Knowing that there would be police at Sheritt's house, Joe shot and killed Sheritt expecting that the officers would be off to raise the alarm at once. The police did not leave the homestead until the next day, which would play a crucial part in the downfall of Ned Kelly.
The Kelly Gang dismantled part of the railway line just outside Glenrowan in Victoria. The idea was that by luring the police by train to Sheritt's house, the train would approach Glenrowan and be derailed. The Gang would then go along and shoot any survivors. They then took a group of townspeople captive in the local inn, and kept them entertained so that they would keep calm. Expecting the train to arrive sooner, the Kelly Gang allowed some of their hostages to leave the inn. The school headmaster, Thomas Curnow, was allowed to leave as his wife was quite ill. After fetching a lantern and a red shawl, Curnow signalled the police train to stop before the derailment, thereby foiling the Gang's plan.
On the 28 June, as the police disembarked from the train, the Kelly Gang readied themselves by donning the iron armour they had made from the mouldboards of ploughs. The Gang, clad in their armour, fired at the police officers from the porch of the inn, while withstanding a large barrage of bullets from the police. During the shoot-out, Ned escaped into the bush behind the inn while Dan, Steve and Joe took cover within the building. Some of the townspeople were wounded or killed by police fire. Joe Byrne died after being shot in the groin and Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were killed when the inn was set alight by the police. Some have suggested they may have committed suicide by drinking poison before the flames and smoke got to them, and others have felt that they may even have survived the battle.
As dawn was breaking, Ned approached the police from the bush. During the exchange of fire, Ned was shot in the legs4. He collapsed, was captured, and then taken by train to the Beechworth Gaol. There he was to be held until he was fit enough to stand trial, and on 28 October, 1880, Ned Kelly was tried in Melbourne. He was found guilty of the murder of Constable Lonigan and sentenced to death by the presiding judge, Sir Redmond Barry. After handing down the sentence, Ned was heard to remark to Barry, 'I'll see you there, where I go.' Barry died the day before Ned was hanged5. On 11 November, 1880, Ned was led to the gallows at the Old Melbourne Gaol - his final words were reported to be:
I suppose it had to come to this.Ned's head was removed from his body in order to make his death mask6, and his remains were buried in the grounds of the Old Melbourne Gaol, then later moved to Pentridge Prison in Coburg, Melbourne.
Such is life.
Ned Kelly has become a household name in Australia, and his image has appeared on countless items from tea towels to restaurant frontages. In 1906, possibly the first full-length feature film made anywhere in the world was about the Kelly Gang. The Story of the Kelly Gang ran for about 60 minutes, in total of which only about 10 minutes still exist today. More recent films of the Ned Kelly story see Ned played by Mick Jagger in 1970, and Heath Ledger in 2003. The Australian artist Sidney Nolan also created a number of famous paintings depicting Ned as a bold, black-armoured figure, and these, along with the legend of the Kelly Gang continuing to inspire controversy, ensure Edward 'Ned' Kelly will remain an iconic part of Australian history.