June 28, 1880 – Glenrowan, a small town in Victoria, Australia. The police have a small hotel surrounded. Members of Ned Kelly’s gang create a diversion, allowing Ned to sneak out. Just past dawn, Ned creeps up, flanking the police line and then starts firing.
The police scramble, caught off guard by the strange armored figure emerging from the fog. They shoot back, but Ned seems impervious to their bullets. He keeps advancing towards the police, shooting and taunting them as he comes. Diving to the ground to avoid a bullet, a policeman realizes the figure’s legs are unprotected.
He shoots low, crippling and eventually bringing the armored figure to the ground- that is how the police finally captured the notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly. Edward ‘Ned” Kelly was born in December 1854 in the British colony of Victoria, Australia. He was the third of eight children for Irish parents Ellen and John ‘Red’ Kelly.
His father Red was a convict, he had been found guilty of stealing two pigs in Ireland and was transported to Australia. As a boy, Kelly attained basic schooling and spent a lot of time in the bush. At age 11, Kelly, at great risk to himself, bravely saved 7 year old Richard Shelton who was drowning in Hughes Creek.
Shelton’s family presented Kelly with a green sash as a thank you. Kelly would wear the sash under his armour during his final confrontation with the police. By this time the Kelly family had moved to Avenel, Victoria. They were frequently targeted by the local police due to Red’s criminal past as well the Kelly family’s status as selectors.
Selectors were settlers who came to Victoria to claim land given to them by the Crown. However, by the 1850’s many large tracts of land had been claimed by squatters. Exacerbating the tension, newer immigrants tended to come from Ireland and were Catholic as opposed to the original settlers from England who were Protestant.
In 1865, when he couldn’t pay the fine, Red was sentenced to 6 months hard labor at a Kilmore jail for unlawful possession of a bullock hide. Upon release, Red drank heavily which had an ill effect on his health. He ended up dying from dropsy on December 27, 1866. His father’s run ins and subsequent incarceration with the authorities would have a profound effect on Kelly.
After his father’s death, 12 year old Kelly became his family’s breadwinner and quickly turned to a life of crime to support them. He gained a reputation with the local authorities who were frustrated; they knew that Kelly was commiting crimes, but were never able to convict him. A few years later the Kelly family selected 88 acres of uncultivated farmland at Eleven Mile Creek near the Greta area of Victoria.
In 1869, 14 year old Kelly met bush ranger Harry Power, a transported convict who became an outlaw after escaping Melbourne’s Pent ridge Prison. Power became a bush ranging mentor to young Kelly. However they split up after being shot at during a failed horse robbery. In the spring of 1870, Kelly reconciled with Power.
Over the next month, the pair committed a series of armed robberies. In early May, Kelly was captured by police and confined to Beechworth Gaol. Kelly ended beating the 3 robbery charges–the first 2 of which were dismissed as none of the victims could positively identify him. For the third charge, no evidence was produced in court, and he was released after a month.
Power often camped at Glenmore Station, a large property owned by Kelly’s maternal grandfather,James Quinn. In June 1870, while at a mountain shelter overlooking the property, Power was captured by a police search party. Following Power’s arrest, word spread within the community that Kelly had snitched.
Kelly denied the rumor, and actually wrote a letter to a police Sergeant pleading for help in clearing his name. The informant turned out to be Kelly’s uncle, Jack Lloyd, who received $603 dollars for his tip. On April 20, 1871, while riding a fine chestnut mare that he had ‘borrowed’ from horse-breaker Isaiah Wright, Kelly was intercepted by Constable Edward Hall, who suspected that the horse was stolen.
He directed Kelly to the police station on the pretence of having to sign some paperwork. As Kelly dismounted from the horse, Hall tried to grab him by the scruff of the neck, but missed. When Kelly fought back, resisting arrest, Hall drew his revolver and tried to shoot him, but the gun misfired 3 times. Hall was then overpowered by Kelly.
Seven bystanders had to help Hall subdue Kelly. When Kelly was finally trussed, Hall pistol-whipped Kelly’s face to a bloody pulp. Though Kelly maintained his innocence, he was still implicated for his part in Wright’s horse stealing scheme which also involved Kelly’s brother-in-law Alex Gunn. Both Kelly and Gunn ended up being sentenced to three years hard labor.
Wright received eighteen months. Kelly was released 6 months early for good behavior on February 2, 1874. To settle his beef with Wright, Kelly fought him in a bare-knuckle boxing match at the Imperial Hotel in Beechworth, on August 8, 1874. Kelly won after 20 rounds. A Melbourne photographer took a portrait of Kelly in a boxing pose and he garnered local fame.
Kelly continued to have various runs in with the police. In the spring of 1878, he and his brother Dan were forced to go on the run after they allegedly shot Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick who had come to the Kelly home to arrest them for horse theft. Fitzpatrick exaggerated the incident saying that he was attacked by Kelly as well as Dan,their mother Ellen, a neighbour Bricky Williamson, and Kelly’s brother-in-law, Bill Skillion.
The Kelly brothers managed to escape into the bush while Mrs. Kelly, Skillian and Williams on were arrested. Upon what Kelly claimed was Fitzpatrick’s false evidence, the 3 were tried and convicted of attempted murder against Fitzpatrick. Skillion and Williamson both received sentences of 6 years while Ellen received 3 years of hard labour, though Mrs. Kelly’s sentence was considered overly harsh and unfair even for non-Kelly sympathizers.
A reward of $120 was offered for Kelly’s arrest. The Kelly brothers went into hiding, camping out in the hills near their family homestead. The police searched for the outlaws, but were unable to find them due to the Kellys’ superior knowledge of the area.
Later the Kellys were joined by their friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. The police received a tip as to where the the Kelly gang was camped out. On October 25, 1878, two police parties were secretly dispatched from different directions with the intention of trapping the Kellys. At Stringybark Creek, one of the police teams set up a campsite.
A policeman shot some parrots for dinner and the gunfire alerted the Kellys as to the camp’s presence. They ambushed the police, taking one police officer hostage and killing 2 more. The hostage was able to escape the outlaws and alert the authorities. The public was outraged at the murder of the police officers, and the bounty on the Kellys was raised to $603.
On October 31, 1878, the Victorian Parliament passed the Felons’ Apprehension Act, which outlawed the gang and made it possible for anyone to shoot them on sight. The law also penalized anyone who assisted the outlaws or withheld or gave false information about them to the authorities. On December 9, 1878, the Kelly gang held up Young husband’s Station, cutting the telegraph wires to the town and robbing the bank.
They treated their temporary hostages well and no harm came to anyone. In January of 1879, the police arrested 23 of the Kelly Gang’s friends and sympathizers without cause. They were held without charges for over 3 months. Public opinion began to change, many Australians were coming to identify with Ned Kelly due to police retaliation and the supercilious attitudes of the authorities.
Much of the population saw the police as corrupt bullies protecting wealthy squatters and discriminating against poor selectors. In February 1879 the Kelly Gang raided the small town of Jerilderie. They took the few officers at the town’s police station hostage, impersonating them for a time and then robbed the local bank and the Royal hotel.
While at the hotel, Kelly gave a speech to several hostages mainly discussing the Fitzpatrick incident and the Stringybark killings. Kelly also gave a letter to a bank accountant, and demanded that he deliver it to the editor of the local newspaper. The Jerilderie letter as it came to be called, was 56 handwritten pages long–dictated by Kelly to Byrne over a period of time.
The letter justified Kelly’s actions, outlining the injustices he and his family suffered at the hands of the police. He also denounced the oppression of poor Irish Catholic selector families by Victoria’s ‘Squattocracy’. Only small excerpts of the letter were published, most of it was suppressed by the authorities. Still, public opinion continued to swing in favor of the Kelly gang.
In response to the Jerilderie raid, the New South Wales Government and several banks collectively issued a $9,657 bounty, the equivalent to $1. 5 million in modern Australian money,for the capture of the Kelly Gang dead or alive. From early March 1879 to June 1880, the trail went cold, nothing was heard of the gang’s whereabouts.
Allegedly during this time the gang discussed their plans for the future, even considering trying to go overseas to America. On 9 February 1880, the Felons’ Apprehension Act lapsed and the gang’s arrest warrants expired. While the Kelly brothers still had prior warrants outstanding for the attempted murder of constable Fitzpatrick, technically Hart and Byrne were free men, although the police could stillre-issue the murder warrants.
In April 1880 a “Notice of Withdrawal of Reward” was posted by the government. It stated that after July 20, 1880 the Government would withdraw the bounty on the Kelly Gang. Meanwhile, the police monitored houses belonging to relatives of the gang, including that of Byrne’s mother. The police used the house of her neighbour, Aaron Sherritt, as a base of operations.
Sherritt received payment for providing information on the bush rangers’ activities. Some police thought that Sherritt was a double agent in cahoots with the gang, but convinced that he was a traitor, the gang plotted to murder him. On June 26, 1880 they besieged Sherritt’s home, shooting him in cold blood.
They also shot at his wife and 4 police officers who happened to be inside the house. They started preparing to burn the house down before abruptly stopping and riding off. The Kelly Gang assumed that the policemen inside Sherritt’s home would relay news of his murder to town by early Sunday morning, prompting a special police train being sentfrom Melbourne and picking up reinforcements in Benalla to apprehend them.
Anticipating this action, Kelly and his gang rode into the small town of Glenrowan with a grand plan: derail the special police train, shoot dead any survivors, then ride to the now unpoliced town of Benalla where they would rob the banks, set fire to the courthouse,and generally wreak havoc. Perhaps they could get the locals to rise up and help them declare the Republic of North East Victoria.
Unable to damage the train tracks themselves, the gang forced local railroad workers to destroy the tracks near the town. The gang took over Glenrowan without meeting resistance and imprisoned 62 citizens at Ann Jones’ Glenrowan Inn. Hours passed without any sight of the train. By Sunday afternoon, the gang allowed the hostages to drink and play games.
They actually danced with some of the hostages and Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne got drunk. As Sunday night wore on, Kelly grew increasingly anxious over the train’s non-arrival. The delay was caused by the fact that news of the murder did not reach Melbourne until Sunday afternoon. The police train finally approached Glenrowan at about 3 am Monday morning.
One of the hostages who had been allowed to leave the hotel managed to alert the train driver to the gang’s plan. The train then slowly traversed the tracks into Glenrowan. Around this time, Kelly decided to let more townspeople go home, but the hotel owner Ann Jones told them to stay to hear the outlaw lecture.
Byrne interrupted, alerting the group that the train was finally coming. The gang prepared for action, pulling out their secret weapon: armor. They had fashioned suits of bullet repelling armor from plows, each complete with a helmet and weighing about 97 lb . When the police arrived, they took up a position outside the hotel and started firing.
The gang fire back and the enemies exchanged shots for about a quarter of an hour. Kelly was wounded, shot in the left elbow and right foot. Throughout the night reinforcements arrived and police, trackers and civilian volunteers surrounded the hotel, for a total of about 30 men. Spates of shooting were exchanged intermittently.
While his gang fired as a distraction, Kelly snuckout of the hotel. At some point Byrne made a toast while drinking whiskey at the bar, saying, “Many more years in the bush for the Kelly gang!” Moments later, a stray bullet passed through a small gap in his armour and struck his femoralartery- he bled out instantly.
At dawn, the gang allowed the women and children to leave the hotel. The freed hostages were investigated as they approached the police line to ensure that the outlaws were not attempting to escape in disguise. Meanwhile, Kelly, dressed in his armor and armed with three handguns, rose out of the bush and attacked the police from the rear.
The police scattered and fired back. But still Kelly advanced, seeming almost inhuman with his odd, impenetrable armor. Kelly taunted the police as he came, calling for his gang to shoot, which they did. Realizing that the figure’s legs were unprotected, a police fired with his shotgun, tearing apart Kelly’s hip and thigh.
The outlaw staggered, then collapsed against a log and moaned, “I’m done, I’m done”. A sergeant went to disarm Kelly, but Kelly got in a final shot, blowing the sergeant’s hat off and burning the side of his face. Meanwhile, the hotel siege continued. Female hostages had confirmed to the authorities that Dan Kelly and Hart were still alive in the hotel.
At 10 am, a white handkerchief was waved out the front door, and immediately afterwards about 30 male hostages came out. The police ordered the hostages to the ground and checked them individually. Two were arrested for being known Kelly sympathisers. Unwilling to storm the hotel, by mid afternoon the police decided to set it on fire.
The wind stirred up the flames and building began to quickly burn. . Matthew Gibney, a priest, entered the burning structure in an attempt to rescue anyone inside. He discovered the bodies of Dan and Hart, though it wasn’t clear if they commited suicide or died from the fire. As a result of the siege, 4 hostages died and several more were injured.
Kelly was shot in the left foot, left leg, right hand, left arm and twice in the groin area, although no bullet had penetrated his armor. Kelly survived his bullet wounds to stand trial in Melbourne on October 19, 1880. He was charged with the murder of 3 policemen, various bank robberies, the murder of Sherritt, resisting arrest at Glenrowan and a host of minor infractions.
He was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Despite street rallies across Melbourne demanding a reprieve for Kelly, and a petition for clemency with over 32,000 signatures presented to the governor’s private secretary, on November 11, 1880, Ned Kelly, aged 25 was hanged at the Melbourne Gaol.
In March 1881, the Victorian Government created a Royal Commission to review the conduct of the Victoria Police during the Kelly Outbreak. After 6 months of investigation, the Commission produced a report exposing widespread police corruption. This resulted in many police officers being reprimanded, demoted or dismissed.
Today Ned Kelly is seen as a folk hero; a legend that’s passed onto myth. He’s thought of as brave and daring–some even see him as an Australian Robin Hood. Numerous books, movies and songs have been written about him. Kelly memorabilia has been purchased by collectors for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Kelly’s armor is on display in the State Library of Victoria.
Testament to the epic shootout, the helmet, breastplate, back plate and shoulder plates show a total of 18 bullet marks. In your eyes was Ned Kelly a rebellious Robin Hood or just a criminal? Let us know in the comments.