Edward Kelly, hanged in Melbourne gaol on November 11th, 1880, came at the end of a long tradition of Australian bushrangers who attained the status of folk hero. But he was the only one who transcended such localised fame to become Australia's sole national hero. How a brawling Irish-Australian brat grew into an angry young man, died, and was transformed into a nation's defining symbol, can only be understood by reference to events both before and after Ned Kelly's brief life.
Firstly, what is a bushranger? He is essentially the same as the outlaws or bandits of any nation, from Dick Turpin to Jesse James. In early penal Australia convicts frequently escaped or 'bolted' into the unknown terrors of the surrounding bush. Those who avoided madness, exposure and a variety of possible deaths managed to survive by robbing travellers and outlying farms, often aided by convict friends still in captivity.' Because these bolters literally 'ranged' the bush, they became generally known as bushrangers from around the end of the Eighteenth Century.
The first of the convict bushrangers to gain more than passing notoriety was Jack Donahue, probably the original of the legendary 'Wild Colonial Boy'. Donahue's story is typical of others like him. Transported from Dublin in 1824-25 for intent to commit an unspecified felony, he took to the bush in 1828, gathered a gang of like-minded escapees and spent the next two years outwitting the mounted troopers and playing the highwayman around the young settlement of Sydney.
Donahue's exploits caused a good deal of excitement amongst his contemporaries. At least two ballads were written about him, one of which informs us that:
Every day in the newspaper was published something new,
Concerning of the gallant deeds of bold Jack Donahue.
But Donahue's gallant deeds were brought to an end in what was to become the usual finale to bushranging dramas - the troopers finally caught up with him in 1830 and he was killed by a hail of police bullets.
After Jack Donahue, very little of any significance was added to the annals of bushranging for some time. Convicts were still escaping into the bush, of course, particularly in the notoriously harsh Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania), but it was not until the 1860s that what is sometimes termed the 'second wave' of bushranging caused great consternation amongst the governments of New South Wales and Victoria. This decade produced famous figures like 'Thunderbolt', 'Mad Dog' Morgan and the multitude of bushrangers who were involved with the Frank Gardiner and Ben Hall gangs in the west of New South Wales.
Francis Christie alias Clarke alias Gardiner was an ex-convict and petty criminal whose main claim to fame was his masterminding of the Forbes gold escort robbery at Eugowra Rocks in 1862. He was eventually caught, receiving a thirty-two year sentence. After serving only ten years he was released in exile, ending up in San Francisco, where he became a hotel-keeper and died in the 1890s. It is largely due to these relatively tame facts of Gardiner's life that his fame was eclipsed by that of his one-time companion, Ben Hall.
A popular local figure, Ben Hall was arrested on suspicion of participating in the Eugowra Rocks robbery. After being released for lack of evidence, Hall returned to his property to find that the police had burned his house down and left his cattle penned up, causing them to starve to death. Shortly after, in 1863, he took to the bush and began a career that spanned almost two years and involved him with many lesser bushrangers, most of whom died by the bullet or the hangman's noose.
The manner of Ben Hall's own death - betrayed by a trusted friend and shot to death while he slept - set the final seal of popular sympathy upon the bushranger's image, ensuring his perpetuation in numerous folk songs and traditions. These final lines from one of the Ben Hall ballads are typical of the others:
Ever since the good old days of Turpin and Duval,
The people's friends were outlaws too, and so was bold Ben Hall.
All the bushrangers discussed here attracted extensive popular sympathy and active support from members of their own social groups. In Jack Donahue's case, this was the convict and ex-convict population. Frank Gardiner and Ben Hall were heroes to most of the itinerant bush workers and small farmers of western New South Wales.
The reasons for such popularity are complex and best compared with the similar repute of some English and Irish highwaymen and American outlaws like Jesse James. All these figures originated within certain social groups which, for a variety of reasons, felt themselves to be economically or politically disadvantaged by the government, the police, the wealthy, or a combination of all three. One consequence of this is the widespread characterisation of such outlaws as men who rob the rich to benefit the poor, Robin Hood style. In Australia, Jack Donahue symbolised the vicarious revenge of the convicts upon their often brutal gaolers. And it was the dissatisfaction of the bush workers and farmers of western New South Wales with the wealthier squatters and the administration in general that led to their support of Frank Gardiner and Ben Hall. A similar dissatisfaction in north-eastern Victoria, compounded with a smouldering Irish hatred of English law, impelled the activities and popularity of Ned Kelly over a decade later.
Edward, the first-born son of Ellen and James ('Red') Kelly, grew up in the hothouse atmosphere of a combination of clan-like Irish-Australian families, the Kellys, Quinns and Lloyds. Each of these families had their own extensive histories of trouble with the Victorian and other police forces, surviving as they did by a combination of legal pastoral activities and stock-stealing, or 'duffing' as it was colloquially termed. The Kellys and their relations were by no means the sole transgressors in this area. In fact, this was the normal means of existence for most free-selectors' at that time, the distinction between stock that had 'strayed' and that which had been stolen being a difficult one to make.
By 1871, at the age of sixteen, Ned Kelly already had numerous experiences with the law behind him, and had served one gaol sentence. In that year he was convicted of receiving a stolen horse and given three years in Melbourne's tough Pentridge gaol. He went into prison a high-spirited, 'flash' youth and came out a hard, bitter man in February, 1874.
Nevertheless, he seems to have gone straight for a time, working as a timber-getter in the Wombat Ranges and keeping out of trouble - until September, 1877. Ned was arrested for drunkenness and on the way to the courthouse attempted to escape. The ensuing brawl with four policemen and a local shoemaker is notable only for the fact that two of those policemen, Constables Fitzpatrick and Lonigan, were to play small but significant roles in the coming Kelly drama.
Fitzpatrick was the first to make an entrance. Seven months after the fight with Ned, the Constable, probably drunk, rode up to the Kelly homestead near Greta, alone and against orders, to arrest Ned's younger brother, Dan, on a charge of horse-stealing. The truth of what occurred then will never be known, but Fitzpatrick later claimed to have been assaulted by the Kellys, including Ned and Mrs. Kelly. The family claimed that Fitzpatrick had tried to molest one of the daughters and that their actions had been justified. Six months after, Judge Redmond Barry did not agree and sent Mrs. Kelly to gaol for three years, saying that he would have given Ned and Dan fifteen years apiece, if they could have been found.
Of course, they could not be found and were safely hidden in the rugged Wombat Ranges, accompanied by two other young friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. In October, 1878, a party of four policemen was sent into the Ranges to hunt the Kellys down. In charge was Sergeant Kennedy, a good bushman and a crack shot. He was aided by Constables Scanlon, McIntyre and Lonigan, the same Lonigan who had fought with Ned the year before. All these men had been hand-picked for their bushcraft and general police aptitude, and they intended to get the Kellys. On the night of October 25th they camped along the edge of a creek known as 'Stringybark'.
The following evening the four-strong Kelly gang bailed up Lonigan and McIntyre who were minding the camp while Kennedy and Scanlon patrolled he bush in search of the outlaws. McIntyre surrendered immediately, saving his life; but Lonigan was brave and foolish enough to clutch at his revolver. Ned Kelly shot him dead.
On their return to the camp, Kennedy and Scanlon were called upon to surrender, but they resisted too, and were both killed in the ensuing gunfight. During the fighting McIntyre managed to clamber onto a stray horse and ride for his life.
The Melbourne and provincial newspapers reacted to the shocking news that McIntyre eventually brought with revulsion, enabling the Victorian parliament to rush through an adaptation of earlier New South Wales bushranging legislation called the Felon's Apprehension Act. The Victorian law, known as the 'Outlawry Act', rendered those persons pronounced outlaws totally outside the law. All rights and property were forfeit and the outlaw was liable to be killed on sight by any citizen. In addition, harbourers and sympathisers were liable to fifteen years imprisonment with hard labour and the loss of all their goods.
Popular reaction, however, was somewhat different. The following ballad was concocted by some anonymous bush bard and sung throughout Victoria:
A sergeant and three constables set out from Mansfield town
At the end of last October for to hunt the Kellys down.
They travelled to the Wombat and thought it quite a lark,
And they camped upon the borders of a creek called Stringybark.
They had grub and ammunition there to last them many a week,
And next morning two of them rode out to explore all the creek,
Leaving McIntyre behind them in the camp to cook the grub,
And Lonigan to sweep the floor and bass the washing tub.
Shortly after breakfast Mac thought he heard a noise,
And gun in hand he sallied forth to try to find the cause;
He never saw the Kellys planted safe behind a log,
And he slithered back to smoke and yarn and wire into the grog.
Kelly and his comrades thought they'd take a nearer look,
And being short of grub they wished to interview the cook.
And of fire-arms and of cartridges they found they had too few,
So they longed to grab the pistols and the ammunition too.
Two bobbies at the stump alone they then were pleased to see,
Watching of the billy boiling for the troopers' tea.
They smoked and chatted gaily, never thinking of alarms,
Till they heard the fearful cry behind, 'Bail up, throw up your arms'.
Lonigan started wildly, but Mac he firmly stood,
And threw up his arms while Lonigan made tracks to gain the wood;
He reached for his revolver but before he touched the stock,
Ned Kelly drew his pistol, shot, and dropped him like a rock.
After searching McIntyre, all through the camp they went,
And cleared the guns and cartridges and pistols from the tent;
Kelly muttered sadly as he loaded up his gun,
'Wasn't it a pity that the bastard tried to run!'
Less than six weeks after Stringybark Creek the Kellys struck again. This time they robbed the bank at Euroa, a busy town about 100 miles north of Melbourne, the state capital. The bushrangers escaped with around #2,000 in gold and cash. Ned also stole deeds and mortgages held in the bank safe, an action that endeared him to the struggling selectors of north-eastern Victoria, most of whom saw the banks as 'poor mancrushers', as Ned himself was to describe them in a letter he would write to the world.
Acting upon false information intentionally supplied by one of the Kelly's 'bush telegraphs', or informants, the police went looking for the gang across the border in New South Wales. Meanwhile, back in the 'Kelly country', the bushrangers divided up the Euroa loot between relatives and sympathisers, as well as themselves, no doubt. Over the next few months, many previously impoverished selectors managed to pay off their debts, usually with crisp, new banknotes.
Frustrated in their futile attempts to capture the outlaws, the police revenged themselves upon the sympathisers. A score of them were arrested and confined in Beechworth gaol for periods of up to three months without trial and without evidence against them. This misguided manoeuvre made the police even more unpopular in the district as many of the prisoners missed that year's harvest, causing severe hardship for many families.
At about the same time the reward for the Kellys was increased from $2,000 to a total of #4,000, a large sum of money at that period. But this had no effect upon the loyalty of the sympathisers either, as another of the contemporary Kelly songs points out:
Oh, Paddy dear, did you hear the news that's going round?
On the head of bold Ned Kelly they have placed a thousand pounds
For Steve Hart and Dan Kelly five hundred more they'll give,
But if the sum were doubled, sure, the Kelly boys would live.
After the Kelly's next escapade the sum was indeed doubled.
On February 5th, 1879, the gang appeared at Jerilderie, forty-six miles across the New South Wales border, where they locked the two astounded local policemen in their own cells. The Kellys spent that night and most of the next day in the town, masquerading as police officers in their stolen police uniforms. That afternoon they occupied the bar of the Royal Mail Hotel, handily adjacent to the bank, which they then robbed. Another #2,000 haul was made and mortgages were burned to the accompaniment of cheers from the crowd held hostage in the hotel. Everyone was treated to drinks and a speech from Ned about the various injustices he had suffered at the hands of the police, the government and the squatters. More importantly, he left with one of the bank tellers a 10,000-word statement that came to be known as the Jerilderie Letter.
This fascinating document, now known only in a copy, catalogues the complaints and grievances of Ned Kelly and his friends, and also gives us an insight into the motives and attitudes behind their actions. Amongst other things, the letter complains of discrimination against free-selectors and small farmers, like the Kellys, by the administration, which, it is claimed, was working hand-in-glove with the wealthy squatters against the poor. Ned Kelly's opinion of the Victorian police is worth quoting, both for its historical value and its memorable invective. According to Ned, the police were:
... a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splay footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or English landlords...
The letter ends with a stern warning for the rich to be generous to the poor and not to oppress them:
I give fair warning to all those who has reason to fear me to sell out and give $10 out of every hundred towards the widow and orphan fund and do not attempt to reside in Victoria but as short a time as possible after reading this notice, neglect this and abide by the consequences, which shall be worse than the rust in the wheat in Victoria or the druth of a dry season to the grasshoppers in New South Wales l do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning, but I am a widows son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed.
In an earlier letter, written just before the raid on Euroa, Ned had cautioned his readers to 'remember your railroads'. The full implications of this mysterious warning became apparent on Sunday, June 27th, 1880. The cluster of buildings and tents surrounding a railway station was known as Glenrowan. It fell to the bushrangers as easily as Euroa and Jerilderie. But this time they had not come to rob a bank, they had something more ambitious in mind.
The night before, Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne had 'executed' a one-time companion named Aaron Sherritt. Sherritt was apparently pursuing the dangerous game of double-agent, playing the police off against the Kellys. But his murder also had another motive, to lure the bulk of the special district police force on to a train that would have to pass through Glenrowan on its way to (he scene of the murder in the Kelly country. The bushrangers planned to wreck this train and pick off the survivors, particularly the Aboriginal black-trackers who had several times brought the police a little too close to the Kellys for comfort. Exactly what the gang intended to do after tbis massacre remains something of a mystery. It has been said that they merely aimed to rob as many unprotected banks as possible; others believe that their plans were far more enterprising, involving an insurrection to establish a Republic of North-Eastern Victoria. Whatever the Kellys had in mind, they were well prepared for a hard fight.
During the months before the attack on Glenrowan, plough-shares and quantities of cast-iron had been disappearing throughout the Kelly country. The reason for these unusual thefts became plain when the bushrangers herded most of Glenrowan's small population into Jones's Hotel that Sunday. In the back room were four rough suits of armour, consisting of back- and breast-plates and an adjustable metal apron to protect the groin of the wearer. Each suit weighed about eighty pounds and there was one metal helmet, with eye-slits and a visor, weighing about sixteen pounds. Ned Kelly was the only member of the gang strong enough to wear both armour and helmet and still manage to handle a gun.
About ten o'clock that night, after a round of singing, dancing and drinking with the crowd in the hotel, Ned allowed a few prisoners to go home because the police train had not arrived as early as expected. This blunder ensured the failure of the bushrangers' plot. One of the freed prisoners, the Glenrowan school-master, Thomas Curnow, walked along the railway track and warned the police train just outside Glenrowan.
Hearing the train stop outside the town, the bushrangers' realised what had happened, buckled on their armour, and stood in front of the hotel to meet the police charge that very soon came. After a lengthy exchange of shots, Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne were both wounded, and the clumsiness of their armour, together with the intensely painful bruises caused whenever a bullet smashed into the metal, had become apparent. Ned lumbered into the bush to reload his revolver and fainted from loss of blood. At about the same time, Joe Byrne was killed by a stray bullet that splintered through the wooden hotel wall.
The hotel was still full of prisoners, a fact that did not discourage the police from raking the building with gunfire. A young boy and an old man were both wounded inside the hotel and a woman with a baby in her arms and her family in tow was frustrated three times in her attempts to escape by the refusal of the police to cease firing. She was finally helped to safety by the gallantry of a bystander who braved the gunfire to rescue her, though one of her children was wounded.
Shortly after this, Ned Kelly recovered consciousness and came crashing out of the bush, firing at the police from the safety of his armour. He was finally brought down by a shotgun blast to the legs and taken into custody.
The police then sent to Melbourne for a field-gun to demolish the weatherboard hotel and the two bushrangers left inside, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. Long before the gun arrived, the prisoners were all released and the police set the hotel alight. A Catholic priest amongst the 500 sightseers who had gathered at the railway station rushed into the burning building. He found the bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart, and rescued the badly wounded old man who had been forgotten by the prisoners in their rush to escape.
It was all over; the sightseers had nothing to do but wait for the blaze to subside and then hunt for souvenirs. The relatives of the dead bushrangers waited to claim the charred bodies for burial. Ned Kelly was taken to Melbourne where he rapidly recovered from his thirty wounds and stood trial in front of the same judge who had sentenced his mother two years before.
Not surprisingly, the verdict was 'guilty' and Edward Kelly was sentenced to hang. Strong campaigning to have the sentence commuted was unsuccessful, and at ten o'clock in the morning of Thursday, November 11th, 1880, Ned Kelly dropped through the gallows trapdoor and into legend.
After Ned's death, the stories and songs about the Kellys proliferated. One tradition had it that Dan Kelly and Steve Hart did not perish in the final conflagration at Glenrowan but escaped to South Africa where they fought in the Boer War on the Boers' side. As late as the 1930s it was not uncommon to hear of men who claimed to be Dan Kelly, or knew someone who was. Songs were written and sung that portrayed the bushrangers as heroes and the friends of the poor, and vilified the police. One typical example is 'Kelly Was Their Captain', which ends:
It was at the Glenrowan station where the conflict raged severe,
And more than fifty policemen on the scene then did appear.
No credit to their bravery, no credit to their name,
Ned Kelly terrified them all and put their blood to shame.
Books, plays, songs and even Australia's earliest feature-length film dealt with the Kelly story in varying shades of fact, fiction and folklore, and continue to do so today. Ned Kelly has become a thriving media industry.
Even before the conflagration at Glenrowan the Kelly gang was the subject of an early attempt at media exploitation. A Mansfield newspaper published a pamphlet entitled The Kelly Gang, or the Outlaws of the Wombat Ranges . This appeared in 1879 and contained an account of the bushrangers' exploits and a number of songs on the same theme, some of which are still sung today.
Around about the same time a melodrama called The Vultures of the Wombat Ranges played to packed houses in Melbourne. Although this play was suppressed by the authorities (mainly because the bushrangers usually outwitted the police), Ned Kelly's head had hardly been severed from his body by the police surgeon when another melodrama about the bushrangers opened on the night of November 11th. Nothing is known about this piece of stage-craft other than the astounding fact that one of Ned's sisters, Kate, actually took a role in the play at its premiere. Not surprisingly, Kate was virtually ostracised by the rest of her family and later married and moved to New South Wales where she eventually committed suicide.
Between 1880 and the turn of the century the Kelly story continued to interest writers and song-makers, and in 1906 the makers of the country's first full-length feature film simply called their production The Story of the Kelly Gang . It was a box-office sensation throughout Australia and probably ensured Ned Kelly's eventual elevation to the status of a national figure in the public mind.
And just in case the public mind proved forgetful, the publishers of popular literature provided a continual reminder in the steady stream of books and articles about the Kellys that appeared in the first two decades of the century. Reporters visited the Kelly country to interview 'those who were there'. An old reprobate named Jack Bradshaw, the self-styled 'last of the bushrangers', wrote books in which he claimed to have been on intimate terms with the Kelly's - as well as every other bushranger of note since the 1860s! These were just some of the varied media responses that the Kelly legend stimulated during this period.
With the development of commercial radio and the consequent importation of American country music into Australia during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ned Kelly soon came to feature prominently in the new media of radio broadcasting and recording. Numerous songs celebrating Ned's deeds appeared on record at this time, and a few, such as 'The Ned Kelly Song' and 'Poor Ned Kelly', have caught the popular fancy and live on in oral tradition.
Since 1940 there have been more plays, novels, poems, films, and even a musical about Ned Kelly. Most recently, a local television network has produced a multimillion dollar series about the bushranger for nationwide screening. And just to prove that Ned really has made it as a celebrity, last year his skull was stolen from its resting place in the old Melbourne gaol, now a police museum.
But although Ned's skull is no longer with us, his heroic image most certainly is, both in the media and in popular mythology. It is largely because of the interaction of these two that Ned Kelly has become Australia's only real national hero. The image that is perpetuated by this interaction embraces the paradoxes and concerns of the Australian character. Yes, Ned Kelly was a murderer, but he only shot policemen, who have never been very popular in Australia anyway. He robbed the rich, perhaps not to help the poor, but at least to show that the wealthy and the powerful could not always have things their own way. Finally, and most important, Ned Kelly was 'game'. He fought for what he believed in, and died for it. One of the highest compliments an Australian can give is to say that someone is 'game as Ned Kelly'.
By Graham Seal