Who Was Ned Kelly?

Sophie Gee

Victorian
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His life is the subject of Australian Folklore, the alternately armoured or cross-dressing bushranger stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

Ned Kelly has been the subject of a song by Johnny Cash and has been portrayed by Bob Chitty, Mick Jagger, Heath Ledger and George Mackay. But who was the man under the home-made armour?

1. He was a bushranger

A bandit. An outlaw. A bushranger is a criminal inhabiting the Australian bush. The term was coined early in the 19th century, when it was unique to the Australian colonies. Bushranging peaked between the 1850s and 1870s whilst gold was being transported by road during the Australian Gold Rush.

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The crimes of bushrangers varied between the highway robbery of this period and other acts such as murder, assault, theft, home invasion and arson. The Australian fascination with bushrangers in the past and the present, however, is fed by a national myth of Australians as rebels, larrikins. Bushrangers are regarded as Robin Hood type figures, fighting oppression, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

Ned Kelly is the most infamous bushranger, and his known crimes include cow and horse theft, alongside assault and murder. He became a bushranger under the mentoring of Harry Power, an absconding prisoner, in the late 1860s.

2. His Dad went to Australia as a convict

Chart of Basses Straight showing the location of Van Dieman’s Land to the south of New South Wales (Credit: Public Domain).

Ned Kelly’s father, John or ‘Red’, arrived in Van Diemen’s Land – now known as Tasmania – in 1842. ‘Red’ was transported aged 21 for pig theft in County Tipperary, Ireland. He moved to Victoria, on the mainland, in 1848.

John maintained that he was the victim of English imperialism in Ireland, a view which he imparted on his son. In his Jerilderie letter, Ned wrote of the convict system:

‘many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains, but true to the Shamrock and a credit to Paddy’s land.’

3. The rest of his family moved to Australia willingly

Ned’s mother, Ellen Kelly (nee. Quinn) arrived in Port Phillip, Victoria, in July 1841 with her family. From County Antrim, the ten Quinns were assisted passengers – they had their voyage subsidised by the colonial government.

The Quinns moved inland to Wallan, which is where Ellen caught the eye of ‘Red’ Kelly. The couple married in 1850 and bought land near Beveridge in 1853 with money that ‘Red’ made on the goldfields.

4. He was one of 7 children

Born Edward in June 1855, Ned was the third of eight children born to Ellen and ‘Red’, and the first boy.

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5. He was first arrested aged 14

In 1869, Ned was arrested for an alleged assault of Ah Fook, a Chinese salesman. According to the accusation, Kelly had initiated the altercation by declaring himself a bushranger, and had stolen 10 shillings.

According to Kelly, he had simply come to his sister’s defence, and had been beaten with a stick by the salesman. This version of events was corroborated by Ned’s sister and two others, and the charges were dropped.

6. He was a boxing champion

Ned was photographed by a Melbourne photographer in a boxing stance in 1874, after winning a bare-knuckle match at the Imperial Hotel, Beechworth.

He had been fighting Isaiah ‘Wild’ Wright, for whose crime of ‘borrowing’ a horse Ned had been imprisoned for 3 years with hard labour. This was his longest spell in prison until his final capture. As unofficial champion of the district, Ned’s boxing career was short-lived.

Ned Kelly after defeating Isaiah Wright, August 1874 (Credit: Public Domain).

7. His family were all under observation

Despite the Quinn’s being free immigrants, the entire extended family was subject to increasing attention by the police.

Ellen was notorious for her violent temper as she struggled to raise 7 children alone during her husband’s imprisonment for stealing a calf in 1865, and again after his death in 1866.

She was the defendant in several court appearances and was eventually sentenced to three years in prison for setting upon Constable Fitzpatrick in 1878, with a spade. The police constable had come to arrest the third of Ellen’s sons, Dan, for stealing horses.

Bushranger Dan Kelly, member of the Kelly gang (Credit: Public Domain).

Whether Ned was present or not has never been proven, but Dan and Ned went into hiding in the bush. A reward of £100 was offered for their capture. It was at this point that the brothers, with Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, became the Kelly Gang and their crimes escalated.

8. He dictated an 8,000 word statement to justify his actions

Ned Kelly’s ‘Jerilderie letter’ was written in 1879 during the Kelly Gang’s holding up of a bank in the town of Jerilderie. The original letter’s whereabouts are unknown, but copies were made by a Crown Law clerk. They begin:

‘I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present, past and future’

It details parts of his life going back as far as 1870, and ends:

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

“Ned Kelly in the Dock – A Scene from Life”. Wood engraving published in The Illustrated Australian News (Credit: Public Domain).

By the time Ned wrote this letter, there was a £1,000 reward for the capture of each member of the gang. On top of the injury to Constable Fitzpatrick, they were wanted for the murders of two constables at Stringybark Creek and the robbery of the National Bank at Euroa. The hold-up at Jerilderie raised the reward to £2,000 per head.

9. The Kelly Gang’s final job was undermined by a released hostage

During a plan to wreck a special police train on the 29 June 1880, the Kelly Gang took possession of a hotel at Glenrowan. The 60 people inside became hostages.

Ned allowed a schoolmaster, Thomas Curnow, to leave the hotel with his wife, child and sister. It was Curnow who alerted the police of the plan. As a result, the police were able to avoid coming off tracks which the gang had damaged, and instead surrounded the hotel.

Ned Kelly’s armour, from an illustration dated 1880 (Credit: Public Domain).

During the ensuing shootout, and possibly experiencing a feeling of indestructibility because of drunkenness and a lack of sleep, Dan, Byrne and Hart were killed. Only Ned survived. He was wearing a cylindrical headpiece, breast and back plates, and an apron weighing about 41kg, instead of his mates’ plough mould-board protection.

Ned was taken into custody and executed by hanging at Melbourne jail on 11 November. Ellen was granted leave from prison to visit Ned prior to his execution, she reminded him to ‘mind you die like a Kelly.’

10. His final words are subject to speculation

Famously, Ned Kelly’s final words were ‘such is life.’

Other accounts, however, suggest that he said ‘Ah, well, I suppose it has come to this’, or alternatively said nothing at all.

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Intrigue around Kelly did not stop with his death. A six month review into police conduct took place in 1881 and resulted in 36 reform recommendations, some of which would have appeased some of the demands in Kelly’s Jerilderie letter.

Further outbreaks of lawlessness amongst sympathisers for Kelly’s cause threatened for the next half a decade, in particular after news that his body had been dissected, illegally.

Kelly’s skull was exhumed during the demolition of Melbourne Jail in 1929 and sent to Canberra for research, where it was then lost, refound, sent back for display at the jail, and then stolen.

Sophie Gee