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Jerilderie letter

Page 1 of a hand-written transcription of Ned Kelly's 56 page letter.
John Hanlon's transcription of Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter, 1879 - page 1. Photo: George Serras.

At a glance

  • Bushranger Ned Kelly (1854–1880)
  • 1880 Glenrowan siege
  • Detailed 'manifesto'
  • Publican John Hanlon's transcription

A bushranger's justification

Bushranger Ned Kelly is arguably Australia's best-known historical character.

The convicted murderer and self-confessed stock thief is also the only bushranger known to have left a detailed written justification of his actions.

Kelly attempted to have his 'manifesto' published when his gang held up the small New South Wales town of Jerilderie in 1879.

The National Museum holds publican John Hanlon's transcription of this letter. The original is part of the State Library of Victoria collection.

Hero or villain?

Ned Kelly was born at Beveridge, Victoria, in about December 1854.

He first came to public notice when, in 1865, he saved seven-year-old Richard Shelton from drowning in Hughes Creek at Avenel.

By 1866, his widowed mother had moved her family to north-eastern Victoria.

Ned had become the family breadwinner. He took on general bush labouring work, timber-cutting and even served a brief apprenticeship with bushranger Harry Power.

Kelly's trouble with the law quickly escalated through indecent behaviour, assault and stock theft to police killer.

1873 Prison portrait of Ned Kelly.
1873 prison portrait of Ned Kelly. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

Kelly Gang outlawed

Three policemen were shot dead at Stringybark Creek in October 1878. The Victorian Government responded by outlawing Ned and Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne. This meant they could be shot on sight by anybody at any time.

For two years the gang roamed freely through north-eastern Victoria and the Riverina, robbing the banks at Euroa in December 1878 and Jerilderie in February 1879.

Finally, at Glenrowan in June 1880, they donned suits of armour to make a dramatic but doomed stand against the Victorian police.

Dan Kelly, Hart and Byrne were killed and Ned Kelly was taken prisoner. Tried and found guilty for the murder of Constable Lonigan at Stringybark Creek, Ned Kelly was hanged at Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880.

A widow's son

Kelly's 'manifesto' is a 56-page document he tried to have published at Jerilderie in February 1879. It appears to be the final working document of one that was first circulated at Euroa in December 1878.

Plaster death mask of the head of bushranger Ned Kelly, including the neck and partial right shoulder.
Ned Kelly's death mask replica, around 1930s. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

It reflects the voice of a man who feels he has been deeply wronged. He admits to crimes but claims he was forced into them by a corrupt police force.

Kelly demands that squatters share their property with the poor. The document ends with a violent threat against all who oppose him:

'I am a Widow's Son, outlawed and my orders must be obeyed'.

Copies of the document were made by the police and by publican John Hanlon.

Hanlon's transcription of the Jerilderie letter was purchased by the National Museum at auction.

Kelly collection

The National Museum is developing a collection of 'Kellyana'.

This includes a plaster death mask, made soon after Kelly's body was taken down from the gallows, and a ceremonial sword awarded to a police officer after the Glenrowan siege.

This is an edited extract of an essay by Denis Shepherd from the Captivating and Curious publication.