Even before Ned Kelly became widely known, folklore and ballads were popularizing the free-ranging bush outlaws as potent symbols of freedom and resistance to authority. Born in 1855, Ned Kelly was the son of an alcoholic rustler and a mother who sold illicit liquor. By the time he was 11 he was already in constant trouble with the police, who considered the whole family troublemakers. Constables in the area were instructed to “endeavour, whenever the Kellys commit any paltry crime, to bring them to justice… the object [is] to take their prestige away from them”.
Ned became the accomplice of the established bushranger Harry Power, and by his mid-teens had a string of warrants to his name. Ned’s brother, Dan, was also wanted by the police, and on one fateful occasion, hearing that he had turned up at his mother’s, a policeman set out, drunk and without a warrant, to arrest him. A scuffle ensued and the unsteady constable fell to the floor, hitting his head and allowing Dan to escape. The following day warrants were issued for the arrest of Ned (who was in New South Wales at the time) and Dan for attempted murder, and their mother was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
On the run
From this point on, the Kelly gang’s crime spree accelerated and, following the death of three constables in a shoot-out at Stringybark Creek, the biggest manhunt in Australia’s history began, with a £1000 reward offered for the gang’s apprehension. On December 9, 1878, they robbed the bank at Euroa, taking £2000, before moving on to Jerilderie in New South Wales, where another bank was robbed and Kelly penned the famous Jerilderie Letter, describing the “big, ugly, fat-necked, wombat-headed, big-bellied, magpie-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victoria Police” who had forced him onto the wrong side of the law.
After a year on the run, the gang formulated a grand plan: they executed Aaron Sherritt, a police informer, in Sebastopol, thus luring a trainbound posse of armed troopers from nearby Beechworth. This train was intended to be derailed at Glenrowan, with as much bloodshed as possible, before the gang moved on to rob the bank at Benalla and barter hostages for the release of Kelly’s mother. In the event, having already sabotaged the tracks, the gang commandeered the Glenrowan Inn and, in a moment of drunken candour, Kelly detailed his ambush to a schoolteacher who escaped, managing to save the special train. As the troopers approached the inn, the gang donned the home-made iron armour that has since become their motif. In the ensuing gunfight Kelly’s comrades were either killed or committed suicide as the inn was torched, while Ned himself was wounded 28 times but taken alive, tried by the same judge who had incarcerated his mother, and sentenced to hang.
Public sympathies lay strongly with Ned Kelly, and a crowd of five thousand gathered outside Melbourne Gaol on November 11, 1880, for his execution, believing that the 25-year-old bushranger would “die game”. True to form, his last words are said to have been “Such is life”. His extraordinary life and rebel spirit are best captured in Peter Carey’s bravura True History of the Kelly Gang.