This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974
Edward (Ned) Kelly (1855-1880), bushranger, was born in June 1855 at Beveridge, Victoria, the eldest son of John (Red) Kelly and his wife Ellen, née Quinn. His father was born in Tipperary, Ireland, in 1820 and sentenced in 1841 to seven years' transportation for stealing two pigs. He arrived in Van Diemen's Land in 1842. When his sentence expired in 1848 he went to the Port Phillip District, where on 18 November 1850 he married Ellen, the eighteen-year-old daughter of James and Mary Quinn; they had five daughters and three sons.
Ned attended school at Avenel until his father died on 27 December 1866. Left indigent, the widow and children moved to a hut at Eleven Mile Creek, about half-way between Greta and Glenrowan in northern Victoria, where James Quinn had taken up a cattle run of 25,000 acres (10,117 ha) of poor country in 1862. Well known in the district, the Quinns and two Lloyd brothers, who had married into the family, were suspected by the police in connection with thefts of horses and cattle. In 1869 Ned was arrested for alleged assault on a Chinaman and held for ten days on remand but the charge was dismissed. Next year he was arrested and held in custody for seven weeks as a suspected accomplice of the bushranger, Harry Power, but again the charge was dismissed.
In 1870 Kelly was convicted of summary offences and imprisoned for six months. Soon after release he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for receiving a mare knowing it to have been stolen. In 1874 he was discharged from prison and his mother married George King. Kelly worked for two years at timber-getting but in 1876 joined his stepfather in stealing horses.
The Kelly family saw themselves as victims of police persecution, but as they grew up the boys were probably privy to the organized thefts of horses and cattle for which the district was notorious. Ned's younger brother, James (b.1858), was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for cattle stealing in 1873; released in 1877 he went to Wagga Wagga where he was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for stealing horses. He lived respectably after his release from gaol and died in 1946. His mother, always known as Mrs Kelly despite her second marriage, died in 1923. The third brother, Dan (1861-1880), had been sentenced to three months' imprisonment in 1877 for damaging property, and soon after his release in 1878 a warrant was issued for his arrest for stealing horses.
On 15 April a police trooper named Fitzpatrick went to Mrs Kelly's home, allegedly to arrest Dan. Fitzpatrick, a worthless and unreliable fellow, claimed that Ned Kelly shot him; although Ned was possibly not there, the true facts have never been satisfactorily established. Dan went into hiding; Mrs Kelly, her son-in-law, William Skillion, and a neighbour, William Williamson, were arrested and charged with aiding and abetting the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick. In October they were tried at Beechworth and convicted. The judge, Sir Redmond Barry, sentenced her to imprisonment for three years and the two males for six. Rewards of £100 were offered for the apprehension of Ned and Dan Kelly, who went into hiding in the Wombat Ranges near Mansfield. They were joined by Joe Byrne (b.1857) from Beechworth, and Steve Hart (b.1860), a daring horseman from Wangaratta.
Soon afterwards Sergeant Kennedy and Constables Lonigan, Scanlon and McIntyre set out to capture Ned and Dan, and on 25 October camped at Stringybark Creek where they were seen by Ned. Next day Kennedy and Scanlon went out on patrol, leaving Lonigan and McIntyre at the camp. The Kelly gang surprised the camp and when Lonigan drew his revolver Ned shot him dead. McIntyre surrendered. When Kennedy and Scanlon returned, they did not surrender when called on, and in an exchange of shots Ned killed Scanlon and mortally wounded Kennedy. Ned later shot him in the heart, claiming it was an act of mercy. McIntyre escaped to Mansfield and reported the killings.
On 15 November the Victorian government issued a proclamation of outlawry and offered rewards of £500 for each of the gang, alive or dead. Police were mobilized but their methods of pursuit and of obtaining information were crude and inept. On 9 December the Kelly gang took possession of a sheep station at Faithfull's Creek, about four miles (6.4 km) out of Euroa, locking up twenty-two persons in a store-room. While Byrne guarded the captives, the other three went to Euroa where they held up the National Bank, taking £2000 in notes and gold. This crime resulted in a doubling of the reward, but on Saturday, 8 February 1879, the gang struck again, this time at Jerilderie, a town about thirty miles (48 km) north of the Murray River. They locked up two policemen and took possession of the police station, remaining there until Monday morning. Wearing police uniforms, they held up the Bank of New South Wales for £2141 in notes and coin, and rounded up sixty persons in the Royal Hotel next door. Ned had given a written statement of over 8000 words to a bank-teller. What became of the original and of an earlier statement which Kelly sent to Donald Cameron, M.L.A. (1877-1880) is not known but, long after Kelly's death, copies made by a clerk in the Crown Law department became available. Known as the 'Cameron letter' and the 'Jerilderie letter', they are Kelly's explanation and justification of his conduct.
The reward for the outlaws was increased to £2000 a head and black trackers were brought from Queensland. Aaron Sherritt, a friend of Joe Byrne's, became an agent for the police, and on Saturday, 27 June 1880, was shot dead by Byrne in his own doorway near Beechworth, while the four constables assigned to guard Sherritt hid in a bedroom. Byrne and Dan then joined Ned and Hart at Glenrowan, where they took possession of the hotel run by Mrs Ann Jones and detained about sixty people. The outlaws foresaw that a special train would be sent from Melbourne on Sunday night, and would arrive at Glenrowan early on Monday, 29 June, and with the intention of wrecking it they compelled two railway workers to tear up some of the rails. The scheme came to nothing because a schoolmaster, Thomas Curnow, whom Ned had allowed to leave the hotel with his wife, child and sister, gave warning to the train crew. The other outlaws were equipped with armour made from plough mould-boards and Ned was protected by a cylindrical headpiece, breast and back plates and apron weighing about 90 lbs (41 kg). Little sleep and much consumption of alcohol affected their judgement and, although the armour limited their movements and use of firearms, it gave them a false sense of invulnerability. Under Superintendent Hare, the police surrounded the hotel and shooting began. Hare was shot in the arm and Ned wounded in the foot, hand and arm. Dan, Byrne and Hart took refuge in the hotel and Ned went into the bush. The police continued to fire; Byrne was shot in the thigh as he stood at the hotel bar, and bled to death. About 5 a.m. Ned returned, still clad in armour, looking huge and grotesque in the early mist. He was brought down by bullet wounds in the legs.
Most of the captives in the hotel had succeeded in leaving the building, the last of them emerging about 10 a.m. An old man named Cherry was in a detached kitchen, fatally wounded by a police bullet; young John Jones, son of the hotel-keeper, was similarly shot in the abdomen and died in hospital. With Ned captured and Byrne dead, only Dan and Hart were not accounted for, but the police continued to fire sporadically until 3 p.m., when a policeman set the building on fire. Father Matthew Gibney went into the burning building to administer the last rites and reported three dead bodies were inside. One, Byrne's, was brought out by police. The other two were those of Dan and Hart, who had apparently taken poison and were burned beyond recognition. On 28-29 October 1880 at Melbourne Kelly was tried for the murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. He was found guilty and the judge, Redmond Barry, sentenced him to death.
Despite strong agitation for a reprieve Kelly was hanged at the Melbourne gaol on 11 November. He met his end without fear. His last words were 'Ah well, I suppose it has come to this', and by another version, 'Such is life'.
Henry Turner described Ned Kelly as 'a shabby skulker', but observed 'It was a humiliating reflection … that the whole machinery of Government, the apparent zeal of a well-disciplined and costly police service, the stimulus of enormous rewards, and an expenditure of fully £100,000 were, for two whole years, insufficient to check the predatory career of these four reckless dare-devil boys'.
Beside Ned his three companions are shadowy figures and would have been soon forgotten without him. In the Bulletin, 31 December 1966, Malcolm Ellis described Ned Kelly as 'one of the most cold-blooded, egotistical, and utterly self-centred criminals who ever decorated the end of a rope in an Australian jail'. As the outlaws were undoubtedly murderers and robbers, they should have excited public detestation. Yet it did not turn out that way, and the hold the Kelly legend has on Australian imagination is too clearly established to be disregarded. However deplorable, the popular estimate of Kelly's killings of the police at Stringybark Creek accords with his statement, 'I could not help shooting them, or else let them shoot me, which they would have done if their bullets had been directed as they intended', while elements of farce surrounding the bank robberies at Euroa and Jerilderie distract attention from the gravity of the crimes.
Clive Turnbull claims that 'Ned Kelly is the best known Australian, our only folk hero … Popular instinct has found in Kelly a type of manliness much to be esteemed—to reiterate: courage, resolution, independence, sympathy with the under-dog'. The legend brought into being the phrase, 'As game as Ned Kelly', for describing the ultimate in bravery, inspired numberless imaginative tales and folk-ballads, and has taken new life in Sidney Nolan's series of Kelly-gang paintings. The legend still persists and seemingly has a compelling quality that appeals to something deeply rooted in the character of the 'average' Australian.
John V. Barry, 'Kelly, Edward (Ned) (1855–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kelly-edward-ned-3933/text6187, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 March 2017.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974