Sunday, 19 January 2020

A Tour of Ned Kelly Country: Following the trail of Australia's most famous bushranger?

Ned Kelly
Edward ('Ned') Kelly was born at Beveridge in Victoria in December 1854¹. He died at the end of a hangman's noose in Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880. In his short life he gained an enduring place in Australia's history as our most famous bushranger (outlaw). David and I got struck by poor weather on a recent cycling trip to Victoria and had to find something else to occupy ourselves for a few days. As it happened I was in the middle of a biography of Ned Kelly and since we were not far from Kelly Country we decided to do a tour of the places whose fame still rests of the legend of Ned.

Like many Australians the main thing I knew about Ned Kelly was what he is most famous for - making a stand against police at Glenrowen. Vastly outnumbered, he donned a suit of armour made from ploughshares before shooting it out with Victoria Police. It made him look like a medieval knight and earned him a place in Australian folklore.


Life hadn't done Ned many favours until then. He was just 25 years old. The other members of the Kelly Gang were younger still. Joe Byrne and Steve Hart were 23 and 21 respectively, while Dan, Ned's brother was 19. All except Ned died during the siege. Ned was captured and sent to Melbourne Gaol where he was tried and hung.


A Tour of Kelly Country


Ned Kelly mural at Benalla
A mural of Ned Kelly on the wall outside the Benalla Historical Society Inc. Museum


Who was Ned Kelly?


Ned saw himself as a victim, held down in life by a system which perpetuated the wealth of the squatters (large land holders) and the poverty of selectors (small farmers). He was born Edward Kelly, the third child and eldest son of John (Red) Kelly and Ellen Quinn. John Kelly was an ex-convict sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing two pigs, while Ellen came to Australia as a child with her free settler parents.

Ned's father died in 1866 leaving Ellen to care for seven children. Ned was 12.

Ned Kelly Homestead
A reproduction of the Ned Kelly Homestead where the famous incident with Constable Fitzpatrick took place.

Ned's teenage years


From the time he was a young teenager Ned seems to have been on the wrong side of the law as often as he was on the right side. At 14 he was arrested for assault and a year later as an accomplice of the bushranger Harry Power.  Both charges were dismissed. However in 1870 Ned was sentenced to six months imprisonment after a fight over a horse and then in 1871 he was sentenced to three years for stealing a horse. Local police believed the Kelly family were at the centre of frequent problems with horse stealing and other crimes.


Murder at Stringybark Creek


In April 1878 Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick visited Ellen Kelly's home hoping to arrest Ned's brother Dan on a charge of horse stealing. He failed to take a warrant with him and may have been drunk when he reached the Kelly home. A fight broke out and Fitzpatrick claimed Ned shot him in the arm. Ned's mother and two neighbours were subsequently arrested and charged with aiding and abetting the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick. Ellen was sentenced to three years imprisonment.

There is real doubt over Fitzpatrick's account of what occurred. Ned claimed he wasn't there at the time and Fitzpatrick was later described as 'discreditable' by the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police.

Ned and Dan went into hiding in the Wombat Ranges near Mansfield where they were joined by two friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. Together the four made up what has become known as the Kelly Gang.

In October 1878 Sergeant Kennedy and Constables Lonigan, Scanlon and McIntyre were camped at Stringybark Creek while taking part in a police search for Ned and Dan. The Kelly Gang surprised them and Kennedy, Lonigan and Scanlon were killed - only McIntyre escaped. Ned later claimed to have been the one who shot all three men. He fired the fatal shot at Kennedy, a father of five, while the policeman was on the ground severely wounded.

Memorial to the policemen killed by Ned Kelly at Stringybark Creek


On the run


Ned, Dan, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart eluded police efforts to track them down for two years, notwithstanding an offer of £8,000 reward, a huge sum at the time, for their capture dead or alive.

In December 1878 the gang robbed the National Bank at Euroa of over £2,000 and in February 1879 they crossed the Murray River into New South Wales, a separate colony at the time, and held up the Bank of NSW at Jerilderie netting another £2,000. During both robberies they held large numbers of townspeople hostage in order to prevent word of their presence from getting out.

National Bank at Euroa


Siege at Glenrowen


In June 1880 the gang arrived at Glenrowen. Tired of hiding out, they hatched a plan to confront their pursuers. Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly were despatched to murder a police informant, Aaron Sherritt, near Beechworth. Although Sherritt was protected by a police guard only he was killed. After the murder, Joe and Dan rode through the night to join Ned and Steve at Glenrowen.

The gang expected Victoria police to dispatch a special 'police train' once news of the murder got out.  The train would pass through Glenrowen on its way to Beechworth.  The plan was to tear up train tracks on a curve overlooking a steep ravine just outside Glenrowen sending the train and its occupants to their deaths.

To stop anyone from warning the police, the gang took about 60 townspeople hostage, holding them at Ann Jones' Glenrowen Inn. Thomas Curnow, a local schoolmaster, managed to gain the gang's trust and was allowed to leave. He succeeded in warning the train before it reached the damaged rails.

Police and civilian volunteers eventually numbering about 30 men surrounded the Glenrowen Inn where a firefight began which would last through the night and well into the next day.  In the weeks leading up to the siege the gang had fashioned home-made armour from plough mouldboards. Protected by this they were able to withstand the police bullets.

Joe Byrne's armour
An exact replica of the armour worn by Joe Byrne. The gang wore long overcoats over the armour to disguise the vulnerability of their arms and legs. This replica is on display at the museum in Benalla.


Sometime during the night Ned slipped away from the inn into the surrounding bush. In the early dawn mist he reappeared, firing at police from behind their lines. Already wounded in the arm and foot he was unable to lift his arm high enough to fire effectively, but protected by his armour he couldn't be brought down either. Although he wore a long overcoat to disguise the fact that his arms and legs were unprotected he was eventually brought down by shotgun fire to his legs. Perhaps more than anything else it was this other-worldly apparition of Ned advancing through the morning mist toward police fire which made him most famous.

Inside the Glenrowen Inn, Joe Byrne bled to death after being hit in the groin. Dan and Steve eventually stopped shooting, and unwilling to risk his men by storming the hotel the Superintendent in charge ordered it be set alight. Most but not all of the hostages had escaped by then. Ironically it was the constant police fire which prevented them leaving rather than the gang themselves.

After the hotel burned to the ground Dan and Steve were found dead in its charred remains. It appeared they committed suicide but the exact cause of their deaths will never be known. Three hostages also died, two of whom were shot by police during the siege. The third was either shot by police, or may have been accidentally shot by Ned the day before.


Glenrowen Inn
The site of Anne Jones' Glenrowen Inn


Such is life


On 11 November 1880 Ned Kelly was hung at Melbourne Gaol. His last words were famously recorded to be 'such is life'.

Ned Kelly
Portrait of Ned Kelly

The Legend of Ned Kelly


The Kelly Gang had an extensive network of sympathisers during their years on the run. They earned a reputation for treating hostages well, especially women, and saw themselves as champions of the poor and downtrodden. In the days before Ned was hung more than 30,000² Victorians signed a petition pleading for clemency.



Kelly Country: Towns to Visit



Glenrowen


Famous as the site of the Kelly Gang's final stand Glenrowen is small enough to see on foot.  You can't miss the six metre high (19 feet) statute of armour-clad Ned in the town's main street. The main sites are well sign posted around town. Just follow the information markers.

Kelly sites include:-


  • The location of the Glenrowen Inn in the aptly named Siege Street. Now nothing more than a vacant block of land, it is still worth a glance. 
  • The site where Ned was captured is not far to the east of the Glenrowen Inn site between 9 and 13 Siege St. Access the site site through Church St.
  • Ned Kelly Museum & Kelly Homestead. The museum contains enough information and memorabilia to keep ardent Kelly aficionados occupied for hours. The highlight is a reproduction of the Kelly Homestead showing the level of extreme poverty in which the Kelly family lived. Entrance to the museum and homestead costs $10.00 for adults and $1.00 for children up to 16 years. Coach groups receive a significant discount.
  • Kellyland is an animatronic show of the Kelly Gang's last stand. We gave it the miss after reading reviews on TripAdvisor suggesting it was over-priced.

Kelly Homestead
A replica of the Kelly Homestead at the Ned Kelly Museum Glenrowen

Greta


Kelly lived in Greta from the time he was 12 years old. His mother continued to live there after Dan and Ned died. 

Greta sites include:-

  • Dan Kelly, Steve Hart, Ellen Kelly and other Kelly siblings were all buried in the tiny Greta Cemetery. Although their graves are unmarked there is a stone marker near the entrance gate. In 2011 Ned Kelly's body was exhumed from a grave site inside Melbourne Gaol. In January 2013 Ned joined his family when his remains were re-buried at Greta, also in an unmarked grave.
  • The Kelly's house is in ruins and not accessible to the public.

Ned Kelly's grave

Euroa


On 10 December 1878 the Kelly Gang robbed the National Bank at Euroa of £2,000.

Euroa sites include:-

  • The National Bank (Colonial Bank). The bank is fascinating not just for its place in the history of the Kelly Gang but also for a glimpse into the past. No doubt once a significant town building, today it looks tiny.
  • Farmers Arms Hotel and Museum. The museum is open between 1 and 4 pm on Wednesdays and Sundays. It was closed while we were in Euroa so I can't tell you if it's worth visiting.


Mansfield


The three policeman murdered at Stringybark Creek were from Mansfield. Standing in front of their graves in Mansfield cemetery you feel the darker side of Ned Kelly's story - the side where he is not so much popular hero but more thief and murderer.

Mansfield sites include:- 

  • An impressive marble memorial to the three murdered policemen stands in the centre of a roundabout at the western end of the main shopping area. Cross the road and walk up to it to read the inscriptions.
  • The Mansfield Courthouse, across the road from the Police Memorial, is where Ned was proclaimed an outlaw.
  • The graves of Sergeant Kennedy and Constables Lonigan and Scanlon are at Mansfield Cemetery on the left near the entrance.

Grave of one of Ned Kelly's police victims
Grave of Sergeant Michael Kennedy


Stringybark Creek Historic Reserve


The memorial site at Stringybark Creek is about 45 minutes by car from Mansfield and 50 minutes from Benalla. With daylight fading and several warnings about frequent large logging trucks on the dirt road to Stringybark Creek we gave up on the idea and filed it under 'next time' - an ever growing list in our travels. I have however read that the site is well worth visiting.


Benalla


The Commercial Hotel at Benalla was police headquarters during the two year search for the Kelly Gang.

Sites in the town include:-

  • Benalla Historical Society Museum inside Benalla Visitor Information Centre has a display of Kelly information and memorabilia including the original jail cell where Ned was once incarcerated and a blood stained sash Ned wore at Glenrowen. 
  • Benalla Cemetery contains the sad and lonely grave of Joe Byrne. Look for it in the far corner (diagonally left from the entrance) under a lone pine tree. Martin Cherry and Jack Jones, civilian casualties of the siege at Glenrowen are also buried here. There are little metal Ned Kelly signs pointing the way to Kelly associated graves but they are easy to miss.

Joe Byrne's grave
Joe Byrne's grave at Benalla Cemetery


Footnotes:

1.  I have taken this date from The Kelly Family Tree prepared by the Benalla Historical Society. There are other sources which have Kelly being born in June 1855. In either case he was about 25 when he died.

2. Source - The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 11 Nov 1880


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Other posts from our Victorian road trip


Other rail trails and cycle paths in Victoria


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4 comments:

  1. I heard a lot of people talk about Ned Kelly when I was in Australia recently but I didn't really know much about him and his history until I read this post. Thank you for filling me in.

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    Replies
    1. There are quite a few films about him and countless books. Something about his life touched the popular imagination.

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  2. What a fascinating life and legend!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And there is so much more to his life than I was able to put into one short blog post.

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