Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly presents an interesting juxtaposition of a desperate outlaw but one who seems to have achieved something of a folklore legend along the lines of a Robin Hood character. Both of these versions of the man have a semblance of truth. He really was a police killer and a ruthless murderer. On the other hand, he had a sense of occasion and of fun. He made outrageous gestures that genuinely surprised observers and commentators. As long as you were not caught up in one of his capers, the stories of his exploits were genuinely bizarre and fascinating.

Ned Kelly also gave voice to a certain section of society in Australia. He came from Irish Catholic stock with his father being transported to Tasmania in 1843. Australia was divided very much between free labour and the authorities on the one hand against transportees and their descendents. For some of the latter group, respecting authority in the British colonies was always going to be a problem and the Kelly's certainly followed this pattern.

Ned Kelly had brushes with the law from the age of 14 onwards and had to spend some time in prison for petty crimes. The serious incident that turned him into an outlaw was a much disputed argument with constable Alexander Fitzpatrick that resulted in the police constable being wounded in the arm. Fitzpatrick claimed that he had revolvers pulled on him whilst he was investigating a cattle rustling incident whereas the Kelly's claimed that he made a pass at Ned's sister Kate that resulted in him being hit by a shovel. No one knows for sure what happened but Ned Kelly was pretty sure that the authorities were not likely to believe him and so went on the run with his brother Dan. His flight confirmed his guilt to the authorities who found him guilty of attempted murder in absentia.

Joined by some friends, the outlaws were being hunted by a team of police lead by Sergeant Kennedy who had received a tip off about their location near Mansfield, Victoria. The Kelly gang became aware of the camp of the police and fell on the camp whilst there were only two policemen there. Ordered to surrender, one of the police constables went for his gun and was shot dead by Ned. Later, the other two police returned to camp. Once again, a request was made for them to surrender, but both policemen were killed - including Sergeant Kennedy. The original police constable who did surrender managed to escape in the confusion. However, after this outrage, the Kelly gang became public enemy number one having shot three police constables on duty.

The Kelly gang had to resort to bank robberies to fund their outlaw lifestyle. Using trickery and hostages, they extracted large sums of money from banks in Euroa and Jerilderie. The authorities, being frustrated at their lack of success, rounded up all known friends and relatives of Ned Kelly and kept them incarcerated for three months in 1879. This confirmed to many Irish Australians that the legal system was designed to discriminate and keep them in their place! Ned Kelly also gained notoriety by providing his hostages with alcoholic beverages and also by burning all the mortgage and loan deeds in the local bank - much to the delight of many local residents. For a section of Australian society, Ned Kelly was turning into a folk hero standing up for the little guy, rather than as a police killer and desperado.

The end for Ned Kelly came in Glenrowan when the gang learned that a train full of police was heading towards the town where they had killed a police informer. The gang tore up the tracks near a precarious drop and waited for the train to derail and plummet during the night. Fortunately for the occupants of a train, a hostage taken by the Kelly gang had been freed and the man alerted the guard to the danger through the use of a flag and red lantern. The police proceeded to the inn where the Kelly gang was based and a firefight broke out.

Ned Kelly Hanging
Ned Kelly Hanging
It was during this firefight that the notorious metal armour of Ned Kelly was used. Noticing that shots fired at the outlaw seemed to do little to slow him down, one police officer started shooting at his legs. Finally, Ned was arrested, charged with the death of the policemen at Mansfield and executed by hanging in 1880. The authorities felt vindicated in their actions but many Australians, particularly of Irish descent, believed that Ned had been pushed into committing the crimes by the 'system' and that he was never given a fair hearing. Ned became a folk hero for those who believed that the authorities were too oppressive and against them.

Ned Kelly has inspired many books and films since his death. He has become an Australian icon who still divides Australian opinion to this day. He is a common crook and murderer to some, but a hero who stood up against the system for others.

Ned Kelly
Ned Kelly on BBC Witness
Ned Kelly: The Genesis of a National Hero
Ned Kelly (2003)
Ned Kelly (1970)
Further Reading
Ned Kelly: A Short Life
By Ian Jones
Ned Kelly's Last Days: Setting the Record Straight on the Death of an Outlaw
By Alex Castles
Ned Kelly: Gangster Hero Of The Australian Outback
By Charlie Boxer


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by Stephen Luscombe