The Life And Times Of Ned Kelly
The extraordinary story of iconic bush-ranger Ned Kelly owes its origins to the townland of Clonbrogan, just outside Moyglass in County Tipperary. Ned’s father, John Kelly was born in Clonbrogan and was the eldest of seven siblings. All except one were to travel to Australia; five through emigration and one, John, by other means. In 1840, 20-year-old John Kelly was convicted of stealing two pigs from a neighbouring farmer named Cooney. He was kept in Mobarnon Police Station until 7th January 1841, when he appeared at Cashel and was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia.
Despite the infamous brutality of the penitentiary at Port Arthur in Tasmania, John “Red” Kelly proved a model prisoner and was released in 1848, with six months cut from his sentence for good behaviour. Most convicts released from Port Arthur made their way across Bass Strait to the Port Phillip District (now Victoria). Red Kelly was no exception, he immediately made his way northward to a strong Irish community at Wallan Wallan, north of Melbourne.
Red Kelly was now 31 years of age. He found work as a bush carpenter and, while working at the farm of his neighbour James Quinn, fell in love with James’ eldest daughter, 18 year old Ellen Quinn. The Quinns had emigrated from Ballymena, County Antrim. The match was not favoured by James Quinn, and so the couple eloped on horseback to Melbourne, where they were married on 18th November 1850. The couple eventually made enough money to buy a farm in Beveridge, a small hamlet not far from Wallan. In the following years, they welcomed to the world their children Annie, Maggie, Edward (Ned), Jim, Dan and Kate.
In early 1866, a wealthy local farmer reported that a calf was missing. Although it was 13 years since Red Kelly was released and he hadn’t been in any trouble in all that time, the stigma of being an old “lag” was hard to shake and police called on the Kelly home. Finding meat in the cooler and a calf hide tanning outside, they arrested Red Kelly. Protesting that the meat and calf hide were from his own stock, John Red Kelly was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to six months hard labour.
Ellen, then pregnant with Grace, was unable to raise the 25- Pounds bail, and John served his time but came out of prison a broken man. Diagnosed with dropsy, he died on 27th December 1866 at the age of 46. Young Ned was just 11 when his father died and had the onerous task of recording his father’s death at the village store, proudly signing his full name, Edward Kelly, in the register. For the rest of his life, Ned would call himself “Ned Kelly, son of Red Kelly, and a better man never wore boots!”. Leaving school, Ned Kelly assumed the role of head of his family, and became his mother’s greatest support.
Eventually, the family settled in Greta, and Ned, a strong youth, quickly found work chopping and carting wood. By 1869 they had saved enough money for Ellen to qualify for a selection of 88 acres on the banks of the Eleven Mile Creek just out of Greta. They supplemented their income by distilling and selling illegal alcohol, and providing accommodation for passing carriers, hawkers, seasonal workers and travellers.
Although the Quinns had never been in trouble with the law in Ireland, Ellen’s brothers grew into wild men who drank and brawled and were involved in horse and cattle duffing. Two of Ellen’s sister married the Lloyd brothers and the Quinns, Kellys and Lloyds were soon to become the focus of police attention. When Ned was fourteen years old, his Lloyd cousins suggested to Ellen and Ned that he could make money helping Harry Power; an Irishman who bailed up coaches and travellers with legendary gallantry and joviality.
Young Ned had the job of holding Harry’s horse when he was “working”, but a close call in which they were both nearly shot by a wealthy landowner was enough to force Ned to hand-over the reins. Harry Power was arrested by police who crept up on his hideout while he was asleep. Harry Power always blamed Ned Kelly for informing on him, but it was his uncle Thomas Lloyd who actually led police to the old bushranger’s hideout high above the Glenmore property.
Ned received a sentence of three months for assault after a fight in 1870, and was only out of prison three weeks when a friend of the family, Isaiah Wright, visited and put his horse in the Kelly paddock. When the horse broke out, Wright borrowed the horse of Alec Gunn, a young Scot who had married Annie Kelly, saying he would collect his horse when he returned. When Ned Kelly found the horse, he openly rode it in and out of Greta and nearby regional town Wangaratta.
He had been doing so for a couple of weeks, even giving the pub owner’s daughters rides up and down the main street, when the local policeman decided to check the horse against the Police register. It appeared as stolen from the postmaster at Mansfield, some 50kms away. A Constable Hall arrested called for help from onlookers and eight men were eventually needed to subdue the youth.
Once he was restrained, the policeman hit Ned Kelly over the head with his revolver. Mrs. Kelly and Wild Wright followed the blood trail to the barracks, where a local doctor inserted eight stitches in the 16 year old’s scalp. Ned Kelly, Wild Wright and Alec Gunn were all brought before the court and Wild Wright was sentenced to 18 months with hard labour for stealing a horse.
In 1878, life was to deal another cruel blow to the Kelly family when trooper Alexander Fitzpatrick came to the Kelly home to question Dan about some stolen horses in the nearby town of Chiltern. Constable Fitzpatrick had already set an appreciative eye at 14 year old Kate Kelly and, according to the family, when he was inside the hut he pulled young Kate on to his knee.
Outraged, her mother ordered him from the home, but Fitzpatrick pulled his gun saying it was his authority to stay. Mrs. Kelly said that if her son Ned were there Fitzpatrick would not be so brave. The sound of approaching footsteps caused the policeman to jump to action and Dan took his opportunity. They struggled and fell, Fitzpatrick denting his helmet when he landed and catching his wrist on a latch.
The family say they patched the policeman’s flesh wound and he remained at the house for several more hours. They say Fitzpatrick assured them he was fine and there was no problem, though he advised Dan to “clear into the bush and let it all blow over”. The policeman’s story, however, was much different. He claims that when he entered the hut, Mrs. Kelly hit him over the head with a shovel and Ned Kelly came in the door firing three shots at the policeman, only hitting him in the wrist with the third shot.
It should be noted that Fitzpatrick disobeyed an order that no police were to go to the Kelly home alone, and he had been seen to stop at drinking houses on the way to and from the Kelly home. Irrespective, police swooped on the Kelly home and arrested Ellen Kelly, her son-in-law Bill Skillion (who had married Maggie Kelly) and neighbour Bricky Williamson for the attempted murder of a policeman. Ned and Dan Kelly were wanted for questioning.
They appeared before Justice Redmond Barry, the Irish born son of English landed gentry in Cork. A brilliant lawyer, Redmond Barry was known as the Hanging Judge because of his penchant for giving harsh sentences for menial offences. In October 1878, Ellen Kelly King, with a new baby in her arms, appeared before Justice Barry at Beechworth Court.
She was sentenced to three years hard labour for attempting to murder a policeman, while Bill Skillion and Bricky Williamson were each sentenced to six years hard labour. Although Ned and Dan Kelly were only wanted for questioning, Justice Barry told Ellen: “If your son Ned were here I would make an example of him, I would sentence him to 15 years”. Ned Kelly always denied that he was present at the Fitzpatrick incident, admitting instead that he was horse and cattle stealing interstate at the time.
On news of his mother’s imprisonment, he was outraged. He later found his brother Dan camped in the dense ranges outside Mansfield. Dan was gold panning and distilling poteen. He’d been joined by his mate Steve Hart from Wangaratta and Ned’s mate Joe Byrne from Beechworth; both were also sons of poor Irish farming families. The Kelly brothers wanted to surrender themselves and ask for the release of their mother and friends, but Joe and Steve persuaded them this was useless.
The Fitzpatrick Incident, as it became known, sparked a vigorous police hunt for the Kelly brothers. In October 1878, a party of four was dispatched from Mansfield to cross the ranges and meet with another party coming from the other direction. The Mansfield party were all Irish-born, led by Sergeant Michael Kennedy of Westmeath, it also comprised constables Michael Scanlon from Kerry, Thomas Lonigan of Sligo and Thomas McIntyre from Belfast. They were dressed as prospectors, but were heavily armed and their horses carried ominous straps generally used for transporting bodies.
On 26 October 1878, the four youths approached the police camp. They were lazing by the fire when a voice suddenly called, “Bail up! Throw up your arms”. McIntyre was unarmed and immediately surrendered, but Lonigan dropped behind the log and, aiming his gun, was shot dead by Ned Kelly. Assured by the gang that no man who surrendered would be shot, McIntyre agreed to ask the other police to surrender when they returned to camp. Later that afternoon, they could be heard approaching and McIntyre saying, “You’d better throw down your arms, we’re surrounded”.
Thinking it a joke they laughed, until Scanlon caught sight of Ned Kelly, slung his rifle and fired. Ned Kelly shot and Scanlon fell dead from his horse. Kennedy jumped on the offside of his horse and ran into the bush for cover. McIntyre took advantage of the confusion to jump on Scanlon’s horse and gallop for help. Ned Kelly pursued Michael Kennedy into the bush and engaged in a gun battle that resulted in the sergeant’s death. In a mark of respect, Ned Kelly covered the policeman’s body with his cloak. McIntyre, racing in hysteria through the dense bush, fell from his horse and, fearing the Kellys might be chasing him, hunkered down for the night.
Thomas McIntyre reached Mansfield the next day and delivered the shocking news of the massacre. He led a police party the following day to retrieve the bodies of constables Scanlon and Lonigan. Michael Kennedy’s body was not found for several days. The Government immediately instituted an Act of Outlawry and set a reward of 400-Pounds for Edward and Daniel Kelly and two unknowns. By the end of 1878 they needed money and Ned Kelly decided they must rob a bank. They chose the National Bank at Euroa.
Just before closing time at the Euroa bank, Ned Kelly told the teller they would like to make a withdrawal, and the gang netted 2000 pounds. In February 1879, the Kelly Gang struck again, this time at the New South Wales town of Jerilderie. Stopping at Davidson’s pub, outside town, Joe Byrne got chatting to the barmaid, who unwittingly told the handsome stranger the town was protected by two policemen, constables Richards and Devine. At midnight, the gang rode to the police station, Ned Kelly rousing the policeman with the ruse that there had been a murder at Davidson’s pub. Rushing to the door, the police found themselves officially bailed up and were safely ensconced in their own lock-up for the night.
The following Monday the gang donned police uniforms, posing as reinforcements to protect against the Kelly Gang. Entering the Bank of New South Wales, they bailed up the astonished tellers but were told the keys to the safe were with the manager, Mr. Tarleton. Ned Kelly finally found the bank manager in his bath and patiently waited for him to get dressed so the robbery of 2000-Pounds could be completed.
The crowd asked Ned Kelly to tell their story and, in the now flowing tones of an experienced orator, he relayed the course that had led them to outlawry, and his concerns about what he felt was the persecution of poor people and the disadvantaged by a police force that, at the time, was rife with corruption and comprised of recruits that included ex convicts. So spellbound was the crowd that they didn’t hear two men enter the hotel. One was a local businessman who was grabbed by Dan Kelly and Steve Hart.
The other was the newspaperman, Gill, who jumped the back wall and ran out of town down a dry creek bed. It was a blow for Ned Kelly, who had hoped to have a manuscript published by the newspaper. One of the bank tellers offered to take it and deliver it the publisher later. Ned Kelly agreed. The manuscript didn’t make it to the publisher; the teller gave it to the police instead. Over 7000 words long, it became known as the Jerilderie Letter and one of the most exciting pieces of Australian colonial literature.
For the next year the Kelly Gang easily avoided the attempts of police to catch them. The price on their heads had risen to a staggering 8000-Pounds, but they had an extensive network of family and sympathisers who warned them of police movements and even helped to lead police parties away from Kelly hideouts. In their outlawry, the Kellys were known to ride in and win many country racing events. Poor people of the district suddenly had money to mend fences and buy provisions, paying in sixpences and three pences, when copper farthings and pennies were more common.
Ned Kelly started the Widows and Orphans Fund of Greta, calling on police to contribute. But, in June 1880, Ned Kelly had developed a Proclamation of the Republic of North East Victoria and set a deadly plan in motion. Joe Byrne’s childhood friend, Aaron Sherritt, who had also been engaged to Joe’s sister was rumoured to have turned police informer. But it was not until Mrs. Byrne stumbled upon a hidden police camp watching her home, and saw Aaron in the middle of the troops, that the proof was irrefutable.
Some historians say the Kellys knew that Aaron was acting as a double-agent, but a blazing row with Mrs. Byrne after the police camp incident indicates this may not have been the case. Kate Byrne also broke-off their engagement. Whatever the case, Aaron was indeed an agent the police code named Moses and they were concerned enough about him to install a four-party protection squad in his house outside Beechworth.
On the night of 26 June 1880, Aaron was at home with his new and pregnant wife Rita, her mother Mrs. Barry and the four policemen, when there was a knock at the door. A neighbour’s voice said he had lost his way and Aaron was laughing when he opened the door. But the neighbour had been waylaid by Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly, and Aaron found himself facing his old friend. Joe Byrne shot Aaron Sherritt and called on the police to come out of the hut and fight. They didn’t, literally taking cover under the bed and pulling Rita Sherritt and her mother to its safety, where all stayed until morning. The outlaws left within an hour and rode to Glenrowan, a railway hamlet near Greta, where they met with Ned Kelly and Steve Hart. Ned Kelly had planned the shooting of Aaron Sherritt would bring a Special Police train from Melbourne and he was now having the tracks lifted to derail the train in an act of ultimate defiance against officialdom.
They took over the Glenrowan Inn, to which they brought key figures from the community such as the policeman, Constable Bracken. They expected the news of Aaron Sherritt’s murder to be reported immediately and the police train to arrive by the early morning. They could never have anticipated that it would be fully mid morning before the police in Sherritt’s hut would venture into town to raise the alarm. Further bungling in Melbourne delayed the train for the best part of another day, so it was 18 hours after the shooting before the train was even dispatched. Meanwhile, the Kellys amassed a total of 62 captives in the small hotel.
By midnight on Sunday, Ned Kelly had decided to abandon the plan.They had been waiting for two days, without sleep, and constantly on guard. But, just as everyone was starting to file out of the hotel, the sound of the train was carried on the still night air. A little earlier, the school teacher Thomas Curnow had asked Ned Kelly if he might take his wife and sister home, as his wife was not feeling well. Dan Kelly didn’t trust Curnow and advised Ned not to let them leave, but Ned Kelly immediately relented, advising Mrs. Curnow: “Go straight to bed and don’t dream too loud”.
Away from the hotel, Curnow abandoned his wife and sister and took a lamp and red scarf down the railway tracks. His warning was spotted by a pilot engine preceding the police train, and both came to halt outside the town. When Curnow told his amazing story, he was allowed to hurry away to safety, and the trains shunted slowly into Glenrowan. Police poured from the train and surrounded the hotel. It was too late for anyone to leave. Advising the captives to lie on the floor out of harm’s way, the outlaws disappeared into the back rooms, to reappear dressed in armour.
They must have made an astonishing sight, clanking to the front veranda to face a barrage of police fire. In the shadow of the veranda, it was not apparent that the outlaws were wearing armour, but an odd clanging sound was heard with every volley. The armour was visionary in its ability to protect the vital organs of the torso and helmets protected the head. But the arms and legs were unprotected and the heavy armour (95lbs) limited their manoeuvrability. The slits in the helmet also limited the field of sight.
In the first volleys, the police didn’t realise they had hit the outlaws hard. Ned Kelly sustained serious injuries; a bullet passed through the forearm of his left arm and, as the arm was bent holding a rifle, exited the bicep, another bullet shattered his left elbow, one lodged at the base of his right thumb, and another entered the big toe of his right foot and exited at the heel. Joe Byrne was shot in the leg.
During the night, Ned Kelly left the inn several times, undetected by the police. He was gauging the movements of police, releasing the horses before they were shot by police and, in his last foray, he went to warn over 30 sympathisers waiting to join the uprising. Telling them the plan had gone wrong and it was now the Kellys fight, Ned Kelly ordered them to return to their homes, then went back to the inn alone to try and save his brother and mates.
Inside the inn, the publican’s 13 year old son was shot by police and later died from his injuries. Her 14 year old daughter suffered a grazed forehead from a bullet. Two civilians were also shot; one died instantly and the other would die later. Several times the captives tried to leave the inn, but police fire forced them back, their screams and pleas ignored. Inside the inn, Dan and Steve were becoming despondent. In an effort to cheer them, Joe Byrne poured a drink and toasted, “Here’s to the bold Kelly Gang. Long may they live in the bush”. At that moment, a police bullet thwacked through the wall and hit him in the groin. In his 23rd year, Joe Byrne fell and bled to death on the bar room floor.
On his way back to the inn, Ned Kelly tried to reload his rifle but his left arm was hanging useless and he had to abandon the task. Loss of blood, lack of sleep and the weight of the armour overcame him and he passed out. He awoke to the sound of muffled voices, as two policemen passed within 10 feet of where he was lying. Lurching to his feet, he painfully reloaded his revolver. The green skullcap his sisters had made to protect his head from the helmet fell to the ground, blood soaked. He pulled on his helmet and, with a superhuman effort, he made his way to the hotel, coming on police from behind.
He made an eerie sight as he came through the winter morning mists, brandishing his revolver, his coat flapping in the breeze. At first nobody knew what it was. One newspaper man said it was “like the bunyip descending upon us”. There was an uncertain silence, during which the iron clad figure thumped its chest with a dull ringing sound and taunted, “You can’t hurt me, I’m made of iron”. When the spell was broken, 50 police opened fire. The huge figure staggered under the impact, but continued to advance, firing wildly.
At one point, he even sank to one knee, but still nobody rushed him and he regained his footing to lurch forward. It was only after a particularly strong volley that made him stagger and he parted his massive legs to steady himself, that one policeman saw a gap in the armour and fired. Hit in the hip, Ned Kelly toppled like a fallen tree and police converged on the prone figure. One policeman wrenched the revolver from his hand, the muffled voice heard to grumble: “Break my fingers”.Ripping the helmet from his head they gasped to see it was the outlaw leader.
One grabbed him by the beard and rammed a revolver in his face, threatening to kill him. Another kicked him in the groin. “Cowardly to kick a man when he’s down,” Kelly said. Ned Kelly was taken to the railway shed where a doctor tended his wounds. He was found to have 28 shots, five of them serious. His body was also severely bruised. He was so close to death that a Catholic priest was called to give the prisoner the Last Rites. But, despite his condition, Ned Kelly lucidly answered a barrage of police questions. By now, a crowd had gathered at Glenrowan, including members of the Kelly family.
A police cannon had been ordered from Melbourne and troopers were heaping straw against the side of the inn. Police demanded that Ned Kelly ask his brother and mates to surrender, but he refused. The Catholic priest, Fr. Gibney, asked if he could go to the hotel and Ned Kelly told him no. “But surely they wouldn’t shoot a priest?” he said. “They won’t know who you are and they won’t wait to find out,” the outlaw responded.
Outside, his sister Maggie Skillion was told by police to ask her brother to surrender. She refused, but had to be restrained as she tried to run screaming to the hotel when the straw was set alight. Ignoring police orders, Fr. Gibney also ran to the hotel, crucifix aloft, calling: “I’m a Catholic priest, I’ve come to help you”. When he entered the building, it was already well alight and dense smoke made visibility poor. In the bar he found Joe Byrne and realised he was dead. In the kitchen he found mortally wounded civilian Martin Cherry.
Hefting the man onto his back, he ran from the hotel, passing a room as he did, he saw Dan Kelly and Steve Hart lying seemingly unconscious. Calling to police there was no threat, Fr. Gibney knew there was time to get all out of the hotel. However, at the last moment, Joe Byrne’s already singed body was pulled from the inferno. Horrified onlookers could only watch as the flames engulfed the building and the blazing roof fell on the prone figures of the young outlaws. From the ruins, the charred remains were raked from the ashes and placed on bark sheets. Grotesque and unidentifiable, one had the stump of an arm raised as if eerily pointing at something.
The Kelly girls were led to the gruesome sight, where newspaper reports say they uttered dirge-like cries and wept bitterly. The bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were taken by family and sympathisers back to the Eleven Mile Creek where an Irish wake was held. Police, realising they shouldn’t have allowed the bodies to be taken, showed up to reclaim them but were told that 100 men mad with grief were heavily armed and prepared to protect their dead. Wisely, the police retreated and 19 year old Dan Kelly and 20 year old Steve Hart were quietly buried in Greta Cemetery the next day.
Joe Byrne’s body was taken to Benalla and kept in the lock-up overnight. The next morning it was strung-up against the cell doors, for morbid sightseers to pose for photographs with the body, before a young woman burst from the crowd and threw her arms around it crying: “Can’t you give Joe Byrne peace at last?” At midnight, Joe Byrne was buried outside the confines of the Benalla Cemetery, as was custom with criminals. Only a policeman and undertaker were in attendance.
Surviving the night, Ned Kelly was also taken to Benalla and transported to Melbourne for convalescence. Returned to Beechworth some months later for a preliminary hearing, unable to stand and having to wear slippers on his wounded feet. He was again transported to Melbourne, where feeling was thought to be less pro-Kelly. In the train he gazed out at his beloved North East, already known as Kelly Country.
In November, Ned appeared before Justice Redmond Barry at Melbourne Supreme Court. He was formally charged with the murder of Constable Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. Most of the witnesses were members of the constabulary. It took just two days for the trial proceedings to be completed and jury deliberated for only 30 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. When Justice Barry started to pass sentence of death, one of the most amazing discourses in Australian legal history began between the Supreme Court Judge and the prisoner at the bar.
At its end, Ned Kelly said: “A day will come at a higher court than this when we shall see who is right and who is wrong” before the judge passed the sentence of death by hanging. When he had finished Ned Kelly said: “I will add something to that. I will see you where I am going”. A petition for clemency was signed by 60,000 people, massive public rallies were held and, at 16, Kate Kelly fell on her knees before the Victorian Governor LaTrobe to beg for her brother’s life. But it was all to no avail. Ned Kelly wrote his last letter: “I do not pretend I have lived a blameless life … nor that one fault justifies another but the public, judging a case like mine, should remember that even the darkest life may have a bright side. “After the worse has been said against a man … he may, if he’s heard, tell a story in his own rough way that would lead them to soften their harshest thoughts, and find as many excuses for him as he would find himself.
“I know, from the stories I have been told, that the press has not treated me with the kindness often afforded a man awaiting death… “Let the hand of the law strike me down if it will. But I ask that my story be heard … people in the cities do not know how the Police in the country abuse their powers … if my lips teach the public that men are made mad by bad treatment, then my life will not entirely have been in vain.”
At 10am on Tuesday 11 November 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged at the Melbourne Gaol, with the immortal last words: “Such is life”. He was just 25 years of age. Two days after Ned Kelly’s execution, Justice Redmond Barry fell ill from complications of diabetes. Despite the best medical care, he died nine days after the outlaw who said: “I will see you where I am going”.
Following his death, Ned Kelly’s head was decapitated, his skull was used as a paperweight by a government official and his headless body was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison. Subsequent building works resulted in the body being moved some 13 or so times and its final resting place was unknown for decades, believed to probably be in the grounds of Pentridge Prison.
Ned Kelly was survived by his sisters, mother and one brother. His sisters Maggie and Kate would both die young before the end of the century, although Grace Kelly lived to old age. Ned Kelly was finally granted his dying wish when, 132 years after his death he was laid to rest in consecrated grounds.
A funeral mass was held at St. Patrick’s church, Wangaratta on January 18th and Ned Kelly was finally laid to rest Sunday January 20th 2013 at Greta cemetery in North East Victoria. He was buried beside his mother Ellen’s unmarked grave. His brother Dan and fellow gang member Steve Hart are also buried in Greta cemetery ,in the heart of Kelly country, a short drive from his famous last stand at Glenrowan. Monsignor John White, assisted by Fr. John Ryan and Fr. Frank Hart was the chief celebrant. Monsignor White was a fitting choice to preside as he was born in Jerilderie and a past priest at Euroa and still conducts mass at Glenrowan.
Monsignor White in his eulogy said “This man Ned Kelly has a certain immortality…..not just in our hearts but in the hearts of Australia” .