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Ned Kelly is one of the most famous bushrangers in 19th century Australia. He is best known for constantly defying colonial authorities and has since gained folk hero status in some circles. He always denied he did wrong and claimed he and his family were the victims of ongoing police harassment. His life has been portrayed in film, television, literature, poetry and song.

Edward “Ned” Kelly was born at Beveridge, a small town 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Melbourne in the colony of Victoria, Australia, sometime between mid 1854 and mid 1855. He was the first son of John “Red” Kelly and Ellen Quinn. Kelly Senior was from Ireland and had stolen some pigs in the early 1840s, for which he was sentenced to transportation for seven years to Tasmania. He moved to Victoria in 1848 and worked on James Quinn’s farm at Beveridge. At age 30, he married Quinn’s 18 year old daughter Ellen.

They had seven children that survived past infancy: Annie, Ned, Margaret, James, Daniel, Kate and Grace. Young Ned was baptised by Charles O’Hea, a Catholic priest who would later minister to Kelly before his hanging in 1880. Ned received some basic schooling and is credited with saving his friend Richard Shelton from drowning. The boy’s family gave him a green sash, a garment he probably wore often, including under his armour on the day of his shoot-out with police in 1880.

Kelly Senior was frequently suspected of horse or cattle stealing but was never caught. One day he was arrested for killing and skinning a neighbour’s calf. He was found guilty of removing the branding mark from the animal’s skin and was fined $50. But Red had no money and served six months with hard labour at nearby Kilmore gaol. His sentence and treatment by police took their toll on him and this impacted on young Ned who was at an impressionable age. Red died in 1866 when Ned was aged just 11 years. The Kelly family moved to a 32 hectare (80 acre) farm near Greta, just south of Wangaratta in north-east Victoria. This area is still known as Kelly country.

At age 14 years in 1869, Ned Kelly was arrested on a charge of assaulting Ah Fook, a Chinese pig farmer. Ah Fook claimed Ned had robbed him but Ned said the altercation was the result of a row between his sister Annie and Ah Fook. Ned was detained for seven days. The charges were dismissed, but Ned was regarded as a “juvenile bushranger” by police, despite the term bushranger usually referring to runaway convicts who lived in the bush to avoid the authorities.

In 1870, Kelly was arrested as an accomplice to known bushranger Harry Power. Ned was held for a month but was then released as no evidence was produced. It is unsure whether the episode was an instance of Kelly suffering police harassment or if his relatives intimidated witnesses to prevent them talking about the charge. Only a year later, he was arrested again, this time for assaulting hawker Jeremiah McCormack and for playing a part in sending a parcel with an indecent note and a calf’s testicles to the man’s wife. Kelly served six months’ hard labour as a result.

Soon after his release, a 16 year old Kelly was riding a horse he was looking after for Isaiah “Wild” Wright. He had found it after Wright lost it several days earlier. But the horse was listed as stolen and a police constable attempted to arrest Kelly over the matter. Ned resisted and the policeman tried to shoot him. Kelly overpowered him but was later arrested. Kelly said he was unaware the horse had been stolen by Wright in the first place. Despite this, Kelly received three years with hard labour. When he got out in 1874, legend has it that he beat Wright in a 20 round bare-knuckled boxing match.

Meanwhile, Ned’s younger brothers Jim and Dan were arrested for riding a horse that was not theirs, although it turned out that a farmer had lent it to them. Later, Jim Kelly was charged with cattle rustling, but claimed he thought the stock belonged to his employer. He was gaoled for five years. Ned Kelly continued to get into trouble for things like drunkenness and receiving stolen horses. He was also known to be involved in cattle rustling with his brother Dan and their step-father George King, a Californian who had married Ellen. They had three more children.

One day in 1878, policeman Alexander Fitzpatrick came to the farm to question Dan about a cattle stealing incident. After making a pass at Kelly’s sister Kate, who was not quite 15, Fitzpatrick was set upon by Ellen with a coal shovel, and other family members knocked the constable to the ground. They bandaged his left hand, hit by Ellen, and he went on his way. However, he claimed the family all had guns except Ellen and one of them shot him. Ellen was arrested (and had to take her baby), as were Ned’s brother-in-law and an associate, and all three were later gaoled for attempted murder. Dan could not be found, and it was claimed Ned was interstate, in New South Wales, at the time of the incident. The judge stated he would have given Ned 15 years had he been present at court. The pair remained in hiding and were later joined by a couple of friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart.

A police sergeant and three constables searched for the Kellys in October 1878. When two of the policemen shot at some birds, the brothers were hiding only a mile away and went to investigate. They ordered the police to surrender. Ned shot one dead when the constable raised his gun at him and killed another policeman in similar circumstances. He fatally wounded a third constable in a gunfight. The Victorian Parliament quickly passed the Felons Apprehension Act 1878, outlawing the Kelly gang, as the brothers and their friends had come to be known. The Act stated there was no need for arrests or a trial and that anyone could simply shoot them as they were outlaws.

The gang robbed two banks, firstly at Euroa in Victoria in December 1878, and then at Jerilderie in New South Wales in February 1879, using hostages. None was harmed. They stole over $4,000 on each occasion, equivalent to several hundred thousand dollars today. Each state government offered a reward of $8,000 for their capture. The Kelly gang lay low and nothing was heard of them between March 1879 and June 1880.

A few days after the Euroa robbery, Kelly wrote to a member of the Victorian Parliament about his grievances. In February 1879, he dictated a 7,000 word letter, the so-called Jerilderie letter, to friend Joe Byrne, describing the harsh treatment of him and his family by the police, as well as the poor treatment of Irish Catholics and leniency shown to Protestants. Neither letter was made public.

On the same day that the Felons Apprehension Act expired, 26 June 1880, Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne killed police informer Aaron Sherritt. But he had been set up by police as a traitor in their attempt to find the Kelly gang. Four constables had been living with Sherritt at the time of his murder and were at the house hiding under a bed. They didn’t report the crime until next day as they knew the gang had plans to derail a train at Victorian town Glenrowan early on 28 June and that would amount to even more evidence against them.

The gang took about 70 hostages at the Glenrowan Inn on 27 June and ordered them to pull up rail tracks to derail a train carrying police reinforcements. The four gang members each had a suit of armour weighing 44 kilograms (96 pounds) made of plough mouldboards, as well as a helmet, and a large coat to cover the armour. But a hostage convinced Ned Kelly to let him go and in the predawn he waved a lantern covered in a red scarf as the train approached. It stopped and police sieged the inn at dawn on 28 June.

A gun battle commenced, although it is unsure which side started it. Ned Kelly was hit in the foot and the left arm at a range of 30 metres (about 100 feet). He advanced, returning fire. When 15 metres from the police, he was hit a number of times in the legs, which were unprotected by the armour, and fell to the ground. Other gang members, Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, died inside the hotel.

Ned Kelly was tried before Justice Redmond Barry, an Irish-born Protestant, the same judge who had sent his mother Ellen to gaol (she was still there) and had stated he would have sent Ned there for 15 years had he been in court. The case is famous for its exchanges between judge and prisoner. After Barry sentenced him to death and stated the customary line: “May God have mercy on your soul”, Kelly said: “I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go”. Kelly was hanged at Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880. Ironically, Barry died 12 days later of an infection from a carbuncle on his neck.

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