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1880: Ned Kelly’s last stand at Glenrowan, Victoria
On 28 June 1880, Victorian Police captured bushranger Ned Kelly after a siege at the Glenrowan Inn. The other members of the Kelly Gang – Dan Kelly, Joseph Byrne and Steve Hart – were killed in the siege.
The gang had been outlawed for the murders of three police officers at Stringybark Creek in 1878.
Ned was tried and executed in Melbourne in November 1880.
The Kelly Gang’s last stand has become an Australian folk legend.
More on Ned Kelly
The Herald (Fremantle), 24 July 1880:
Glenrowan, Monday Night. At last the Kelly gang and the police have come within shooting distance, and the adventure has been the most tragic of any in the bushranging annals of the colony. Most people will say that it is high time, too, for the murders of the police near Mansfield occurred as long ago as the 26th of October, 1878, the Euroa outrage on the 9th December of the same year, and the Jerilderie affair on the 8th and 9th February, 1879.
Gold rush in Victoria
The Port Phillip District of New South Wales separated from the rest of the colony in July 1851, becoming the colony of Victoria, named for the reigning British queen.
Gold was also discovered that year: first at Ophir in New South Wales, and then at Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria. The gold rushes raised the population of Victoria from 80,000 in 1851 to 540,000 in 1861.
This huge influx of migrants was a problem for the colony as there were not enough police to maintain law and order. The small force was held in low esteem by the public, and was widely thought to be corrupt.
Prejudice and the Victorian police
To quickly increase its numbers, the Victorian force recruited police from the United Kingdom, most of whom were Protestant. Many bought with them their homeland’s prejudice against Catholics, which led them to target Irish migrant settlers.
The Catholic Irish were often poor and resented the wealthy squatters, who had seized most of the productive Victorian farmland. These squatters used their money and influence over the police and government to maintain their large estates at the expense of poorer migrants despite legislation meant to improve access to land.
Born to Irish parents, Ned Kelly grew up experiencing firsthand the prejudice of the Victorian police. Ned was born in Beveridge, a small town north of Melbourne, probably in 1854, to Ellen and John ‘Red’ Kelly. Transported to Australia for stealing pigs, Red Kelly had married Ellen, a migrant, at the completion of his sentence.
The Kelly family moved to Avenel where they were implicated in stock and horse theft (often targeted against squatters). Red Kelly died after serving a six-month prison sentence for unlawful possession of a bullock hide. At age 16 Ned served three years prison with hard labour for his involvement in a horse theft. On his release, along with friends from other poor families in the area, Ned formed the Kelly Gang.
While membership of the gang fluctuated, Ned, his brother Dan and their friends Joseph Byrne and Steve Hart were reputedly the main members. All four had criminal records.
Dan Kelly’s arrest
In 1878, a warrant was issued for the arrest of 17-year-old Dan Kelly for horse theft. On 15 April, Constable Fitzpatrick from the Greta police attempted to arrest Dan at the Kelly home while drunk. While there he also reportedly made offensive sexual remarks to 15-year-old Kate Kelly.
This behaviour towards Kate outraged the Kellys and in the ensuing brawl Ned allegedly shot Fitzpatrick through the wrist. However, the identity of the shooter was never properly established as Fitzpatrick’s account was widely discredited because of his drunkenness. The Kelly brothers, joined by Byrne and Hart, fled into the dense scrub of the Wombat Ranges in central Victoria.
Unable to arrest them, the police instead arrested Ellen Kelly for helping her sons. Ellen was convicted and given a three-year jail sentence. The Kellys and other settlers in the area were outraged at Ellen’s harsh treatment.
On 26 October 1878, Victorian police Sergeant Kennedy and constables McIntyre, Lonigan and Scanlon camped at Stringybark Creek while searching for Ned and his gang.
The gang came upon the police camp and intent on thwarting plans to track and arrest them held up Scanlon and McIntyre who were waiting for Lonigan and Kennedy to return from hunting. Scanlon went to shoot Ned who returned fire, killing the officer.
The gang then planned to use McIntyre as a hostage when the other policemen reached camp. However, a firefight broke out on their return, during which both Lonigan and Kennedy were killed. McIntyre managed to escape, reaching Mansfield and alerting the local forces.
After the deaths at Stringybark Creek, Victorian Police ordered the Kelly Gang to turn themselves in.
On 15 November 1878, when they failed to comply, the gang were declared outlaws under the recently introduced Felons Apprehension Act.
Under the Act, outlaws were stripped of all basic rights. They could be shot on sight and could be handed to police ‘dead or alive’ for a large reward. When captured, outlaws could be put to death without a trial.
Sympathy for the Kelly gang
Despite their status as murderers and outlaws, the Kelly Gang enjoyed the support of much of the public, especially poor settlers who were often treated unfairly by police and squatters.
Sympathisers saw the Kelly Gang as standing up for the rights of the common man, confronting the injustices of Victorian society, including government and police corruption.
The drama surrounding the Kelly Gang and the humiliation of local police, who were unable to find or arrest them, added to their public profile and notoriety.
Euroa and Jerilderie
The Kelly Gang was furious at being outlawed, especially as they believed the Victorian police were in large part responsible for each of the crimes the gang had committed following Fitzpatrick’s attempt to arrest Dan.
Over the next three months, the gang robbed banks in Euroa and Jerilderie. Ned tried unsuccessfully to arrange for local newspapers to publish his letters justifying the gang’s actions and presenting their point of view, including the famous Jerilderie letter.
Frustrated by their inability to be heard, the gang retreated to the bush for nearly two years. They laid low and relied on the support of sympathisers for food, lodging and warnings about police movements.
In 1880, fed up with life on the run and intent on striking a blow against the authorities, the Kelly Gang organised an attack on Victorian police at the town of Glenrowan.
Their plan involved murdering Aaron Sherritt, an old associate whom they believed had become a police informant. Sherrit’s death would provoke a response from authorities and the gang would then derail and ambush the train bringing police reinforcements to Glenrowan.
The gang then planned to ride to Benalla and rob the bank, using funds from the robbery to finance a local rebellion by Kelly sympathisers.
On the night of 26 June, the gang rode to Glenrowan. Ned and Steve Hart rounded up labourers and forced them to destroy the rail line. Meanwhile Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly shot Aaron Sherritt.
Sherritt’s protective detail of four police officers was so scared of the gang they supposedly remained hidden in his house for hours after the shooting. After a long delay, the officers finally escaped and alerted their colleagues.
In the early hours of 27 June, the gang forced townspeople from their homes at gunpoint and took them to the Glenrowan Inn where they waited for the train carrying police reinforcements from Melbourne.
During the night, Ned released the Curnow family, as Mrs Curnow was ill. Thomas, her husband, immediately flagged down the approaching police train with a red scarf, warning them of the planned derailment and thwarting the gang’s plans.
At around 3am on 28 June, officers from the train surrounded the Glenrowan Inn. Hearing them outside, the gang realised their original plan had failed. They put on their homemade armour and prepared to fight.
As the gang stepped out of the inn, the massed police opened fire. Stray bullets injured many of the captives inside the building. Eventually, the gang released the women and children hostages.
The siege continued, and Joe Byrne was shot and killed. Having sustained minor injuries, Ned retreated to bushland behind the hotel, intending to circle behind police and wait for an opportune moment to attack. Dan Kelly and Steve Hart continued shooting at troopers from inside the inn, creating a diversion for Ned.
Suit of armour
At dawn on 28 June, Ned began shooting, approaching police out of bushland behind their lines while wearing his armour. After a brief skirmish, officers shot Ned in his unprotected legs. Badly injured, he was captured and taken into town. The siege continued with Dan and Steve still holding about 30 hostages.
The last hostages were released in the afternoon and, following this, police set fire to the inn to flush out the remaining outlaws. Dan Kelly and Hart died in the last hour of the siege. It is unclear if they were shot by police, or took their own lives to avoid surrendering or being burned alive.
The destruction of the Kelly Gang was widely publicised. Police lashed Joe Byrne’s dead body upright to a door to allow photographs to be taken by reporters who also took pictures of the burnt remains of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart.
Ned’s wounds were treated and he was taken to Melbourne.
Ned Kelly’s trial and execution
As an outlaw, Ned Kelly could have been executed without trial but due to his notoriety he was tried in Melbourne in October 1880. Authorities hoped to quiet any negative public opinion against them by allowing Kelly the chance to defend himself against the murder charge.
The judge presiding over the trial was Redmond Barry who had sentenced Ellen after the Fitzpatrick incident. Constable McIntyre was a prosecution witness and he testified that the Kelly Gang, rather than acting in self-defence, had prior intent to shoot and kill the police officers at Stringybark Creek. Ned was found guilty of the murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan and sentenced to death by hanging.
Ned Kelly was executed at Melbourne Gaol at 10am on 11 November 1880.
Kelly Gang's legacy
Despite their crimes, Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang became Australian folklore heroes. Today, Kelly’s defence of his family and his stance against corrupt officials is to some extent celebrated. However, many contemporaries of Kelly, including police, government officers and members of the wider Victorian public, knew him as a thief and a murderer.
The story of the Kelly Gang has featured in Australian cinema, art, music and poetry, and is a firmly established part of Australia’s colonial history. Australia’s first feature length film in 1906 was the ‘Story of the Kelly Gang’.
Ned himself appears as a major mythic figure in the paintings of Australian artist Sidney Nolan, and literature about the gang continues to be published more than a century after Ned’s trial.
Actor Heath Ledger starred in a major international film in 2003, and Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones, was controversially cast as Ned in the 1970 movie.
The towns at the heart of the Kelly story, including Glenrowan, continue to attract tourists fascinated by the Kelly Gang.
In our collection
Alex C Castles, Ned Kelly’s Last Days: Setting the record straight on the death of an outlaw, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005
Justin Corfield, The Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia, Thomas C Lothian Pty Ltd, South Melbourne, 2003
Ned Kelly (introduced and edited by Alex McDermott), The Jerilderie Letter, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2001