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One of the most famous and best known characters in Australian folk lore, Ned Kelly was a murderer, bank robber, horse thief and a Robin Hood of the Australian bush. No story is better known amongst Australians than the gunfight at Glenrowan where he and his gang met their “Waterloo”. Up in “Kelly country”, north east Victoria, one still needs to take care of what one says if the topic of the Kellys comes up over a few beers or three. He still has many supporters. If my comments appear to be biased it is because I am.

So how did this legendary bushranger become part of our folklore? As the anniversary of his last stand approaches on 28 June, it seems timely to take a look at the story of Ned Kelly and his infamous gang. 

Ned Kelly was born to a father named John “Red” Kelly, a ticket of leave man of Irish birth.

 

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Many of the labourers in the early days of the colony were ticket-of-leave men, convicts who had served part of their sentence and demonstrated good behaviour. Ticket-of-leave holders were allowed to take up paid work in an allocated district and had to notify any change in their circumstances. The ticket-of-leave could be rescinded if the holder fell afoul of the law.

He was convicted and sentenced to 7 years transportation for stealing two pigs valued at six pounds. He got his ticket of leave in 1845 and was pardoned in 1848. He met up with another Irishman named James Quinn who had a farm at Wallan who took him on as an employee. Red lived at the farm and married the farmer’s daughter, Ellen, 18 years old. They had two girls, the first of which died in infancy. Red went off to the goldfields and returned a year later with enough gold to buy his own 41 acre property at Beveridge, a nearby town. In December, 1854 a son, Edward, known as Ned, was born.

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The family increases with the birth of more sisters and brother for Ned. Red cannot make ends meet and sells his farm at a considerable loss. Other family members are constantly in trouble with the police and being an ex-convict, Red is a target for persecution. To get away from the police the family moved to Avenel, about 50 miles north on the Sydney Road.

Red now had six children with another on the way. To make ends meet he set up a still selling sly grog. A poddy calf strays onto his property. He kills and skins it. The carcase is used to feed his family and an uneaten hind quarter is left hanging on his verandah. The neighbour who owned the calf sees it and concludes it must have come from his missing calf. Cattle stealing was rife at the time and the Victorian government introduced a law that said whenever a beast is to be slaughtered the police had to be notified first and the brand must be kept on the hide. Red is convicted for possessing an unbranded calf skin and is fined 25 pounds, in default, 6 months in prison. He does not have 25 pounds and goes to the Avenel lock-up. Ned, 10 years old at the time then becomes the man of the house. His main task is cutting and chopping wood for cooking and warmth. He develops into a strapping big and muscular young man and to make ends meet starts stealing horses, hiding them in the bush and when a reward is offered returns the horse and claims the reward. He also befriends local aboriginal people who teach him many of their bush skills.

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At 45 years of age Red is released from prison but the years of incarceration and heavy drinking play havoc with his health and at Christmas 1866 he breathes his last breath leaving Ellen destitute with 7 children.

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Ned resumes his role as man of the house. The family move to a little town east of Benalla called Greta where two of Ellen’s sisters live without their husbands who are in Beechworth prison for cattle stealing. There are many Kelly relatives living in this district and almost to a man they have been in trouble with the police for stealing cattle and horses. The area is heavily populated by selectors.

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Selection is the act of choosing and acquiring a subdivided tract of land for farming purposes in Australia. A selection is also descriptive of the plot of land that was selected. The term derived from "free selection before survey" of crown land in some Australian colonies under land legislation introduced in the 1860s. These acts were intended to encourage closer settlement, based on intensive agriculture, such as wheat-growing, rather than extensive agriculture, such as wool production. Selectors often came into conflict with squatters, who already occupied the land and often managed to circumvent the law.

In 1860 the Victorian government passed the Land Act. This allowed small parcels of land to be separated from Squatters large holdings and passed to selectors at a nominal rent for 3 years and obligations to improve the land after which they could claim the title. Police were in league with the wealthy squatters to force selectors to default in which case the land would revert to the squatter. Police harassment of selectors was common thus generating much resentment.

Ned’s first brush with the police occurs when a Chinaman named Ah Fook calls to the homestead and starts an argument with Ned’s sister. Ned comes to her aid and an altercation starts.

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Ah Fook runs off and complains to the police that Ned accosted him and stole 10/-. Ned is arrested and gaoled where he remains for a week due to delays in him being brought before the magistrate. He is eventually acquitted but the experience instils a hatred of the police which will never end.

He takes up with Harry Power, a bushranger who has escaped from Pentridge gaol. Together they commit a number of minor robberies far afield from Greta. They part company in May, 1870. Ned is 15, a grown man and returns to the homestead in Greta. He is arrested as an accomplice of Power but is acquitted of three charges for lack of evidence. Ned is always in trouble with the police for a succession of minor infringements but in August, 1871 and still only 15 he is convicted of receiving a stolen horse and sentenced to 3 years in Pentridge with hard labour.. He had, in fact, paid 20 pounds for the horse but trumped up police evidence got him convicted.

 

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On his release Ned stays out of trouble finding work easy to get due to his formidable size and strength until he is arrested for being drunk & disorderly and engaged two policemen, Lonigan and Fitzpatrick, in a very vicious fight resulting in him being fined and released. The two police will become his bitter enemies.

On 15th April, 1878, Fitzpatrick goes to the Kelly house to arrest Dan Kelly without a warrant. An altercation occurs as he attempts to handcuff Dan. Ellen, attacks him with a shovel. A shot is fired and Fitzpatrick is wounded in his wrist. Fitzpatrick goes to a neighbouring house and has his wound dressed before returning to Benalla. Ellen and two neighbours who were also present are charged and convicted of attempted murder. Ellen is sentenced to three years in prison while still nursing a new born baby by Judge Redmond Barry, known as The Hanging Judge.

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In exchange for their mother’s freedom, Ned and Dan offer to give themselves up on the various charges the police want them for but they are rejected. Ned, Dan and two mates, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne have been operating a gold sluice deep in the Wombat Ranges and return to their diggings to be out of harm’s way. The police are determined to get them and two parties set out from Benalla and Mansfield with orders to bring the Kelly’s in dead or alive. The Kellys were tipped off about these parties by faithful neighbours.

The Mansfield party set off provisioned for two weeks and armed with pistols, shotguns and a 0.52 repeating rifle. After about 20 miles they set up camp in wild country at Stringybark Creek. Const. McIntyre goes off to shoot game for a meal and fires two shots at some parrots but misses. The shots are heard by the Kellys who carefully investigate and find the camp about a mile from their own. The Kellys have a pocket revolver, a sawn-off carbine and a shotgun. He conceives a plan to disarm the police before the second party arrives and send them on their way back home.

Ned is an expert bushman and knows he can get away from the police in this wild country. They carefully approach the police camp and find McIntyre and Lonigan tending a big fire. Ned bursts into the camp ordering the police to throw down their weapons. McIntyre does as ordered. Lonigan jumps up, draws his pistol and aims at Ned who fires first and with a single shot hits him in his right eye.

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Dan Kelly searches the police tent and finds a large cache of guns and ammunition. They are convinced that the police intended to kill and not just arrest them. The other two policemen, Kennedy and Scanlan are out nonpatrol in the bush. Ned makes a deal with McIntyre that if they all surrender their weapons he will let them go next morning on foot.

As nightfall approaches Kennedy and Scanlan are seen arriving. The Kellys secrete themselves behind logs and stumps. McIntyre calls to Kennedy to dismount and surrender his weapons because he is surrounded. Kennedy thinks it’s a joke and puts his hand on his revolver. Ned fires a warning shot at him and calls for his surrender. Both policemen fire back. Scanlan is bucked from his horse and attempts to fire at Ned. Ned fires and wounds him. Joe Byrne finishes him off.

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Kennedy is thrown from his horse which is grabbed by McIntyre who leaps onto it and gallops away while Kennedy gets behind a tree and fires back. He runs off in the same direction as McIntyre in his horse. Ned takes a double barrelled police shotgun and takes off in pursuit. Kennedy has two shots at Ned and misses, one searing his beard. Kennedy has another shot with his revolver and grazes Ned’s ribs. Ned returns fire hitting Kennedy in the right armpit. Ned fires again and Kennedy falls down dead. By this time McIntyre is well away but after about 2 miles his horse cannot go any further. Suspecting it has been wounded he removes the bridle and saddle and turns the horse loose proceeding himself on foot.

 

McIntyre sleeps the night in a wombat hole and next morning starts walking west knowing that sooner or later he will cross the Benalla/Mansfield telegraph line. The Kellys are met by a relative, Tom Lloyd and return to his hut at Greta where they get a feed and head off once more through the scrub towards Beechworth in pouring rain. On 27th October McIntyre reaches John McColl’s run and raises the alarm but it is Sunday and the telegraph office is closed so a Mansfield policeman takes a horse to ride on to Benalla, 50 miles away.

 

Down in Melbourne the authorities move fast. The Premier, Graham Berry and Chief Commissioner, Captain Standish meet in the Premier’s office. Superintendent Nicholson is instructed to proceed to Benalla in command of a special force solely devoted to capturing the Kelly gang. All available troopers from the Richmond police depot are ordered with their horses to proceed by special train to Benalla. 79 of them depart that same afternoon. Sergeant Kennedy is popular in Mansfield and left a wife and 5 children. Citizens are keen to form groups to join the search for the gang but the police reject the offers; they want professionals, not amateurs.

 

The Kelly gang make slow progress due to flooded streams blocking their way but eventually make it to a woolshed owned by Aaron Sherritt, a close friend of Joe Byrne. Sherritt takes them to a cave where they light a fire and dry out while he stands watch. The gang planned to cross into NSW but the Murray River was in record flood at the time and could not be crossed. The main crossings were patrolled by police and other crossings were impassable. Several unsuccessful attempts were made. By this time police resources were heavily bolstered by transfers from Melbourne. The gang kept moving throughout northern Victoria to avoid capture and were able to do so by a combination of superb bush skills and help from sympathisers.

There is a growing mood of sympathy for the gang and the matter of police behaviour was raised in the Victorian parliament on 13th November, 1878 about what had been the root cause of the Stringybark Creek massacre. The premier is called upon to instigate an inquiry and after much heated debate he agrees to do so.

 

The gang cannot exist on the goodwill of friendly neighbours and living off the land. They have to keep away from closer settlements and remain on the move within their familiar stamping grounds in north-east Victoria.

 Next time, the Kelly family work out what to do next. 

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