Chapter 19 [The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers, by J. J. Kenneally]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers (5th edition, 1946) by J. J. Kenneally.]



Very Rev. Dean Gibney gave evidence on oath before the Royal Commission on June 28, 1881, as follows:—

Question by the Commission: What are you? — I am the Vicar-General of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Australia.

Question: We just want the few things you know yourself at Glenrowan. — Yes.

Question: Do you remember the taking of the Kellys at Glenrowan? — I came there by train. I do not know the exact hour the train arrived, but I believe it was the first ordinary train from Melbourne. I was staying at Kilmore the previous night and started then with the train.

Question: It would be about twelve o’clock? — Coming on twelve, I think.

Bishop Mathew Gibney, who as Dean Gibney entered the burning hotel at Glenrowan and saved Martin Cherry from being burnt alive.

Bishop Mathew Gibney, who as Dean Gibney entered the burning hotel at Glenrowan and saved Martin Cherry from being burnt alive.

Question: Did you take any particular notice of what was going on at the time? — I had not heard previous to my getting into the train of the Kelly capture or that the police had found them, but when I came to Benalla I was told there that Kelly was taken, that he was wounded, that the others were stuck up at a place which I could not remember the name then — that was Glenrowan. I inquired myself if there was a Catholic clergyman there, and I was told no; and then I made up my mind if there was not I would stop to attend first to Kelly, and then to any others I might be called on to.

Question: You were a witness of what occurred after twelve o’clock? — I was a good deal of the time.

Question: Where were you principally stopping? — I made my way into where Ned Kelly was lying. I understood he was in a dying state at the time.

Question: That was in the station? — Yes.

Question: Did you notice anything that occurred at Mrs. Jones’ hotel? — I observed that the police stationed round were firing into the hotel just as the train came up; in fact, the firing seemed to be then vigorously carried on.

Question: All round? — All round. It took me some considerable time to get into where Ned Kelly was lying. There seemed to be a great press of people about the windows and door, curiously trying to see him; but I think one there was Dr. Nicholson, to whom I am very thankful for the manner in which he assisted me to get to Kelly, and attended to any call now and then when, as I thought, Kelly was in a dying condition — he was fainting. He was always ready to attend to any call to give me any assistance he could.

Question: Did you hear anything during the afternoon about the proceedings of the police with reference to the Kellys? — Well, just some few incidents came under my notice that I do not think were stated, as far as I could see, correctly. That is, I was told that Kelly’s sister was coming on the scene. It would be some considerable time after I had attended to Ned Kelly.

Question: Some time in the afternoon? — Yes, and I was then glad to find that, because I thought she could proceed to Mrs. Jones’ house safely to speak to the men. I stepped forward and asked her would she go to her brother and tell him there was a Catholic priest here who was anxious to come and see him, and to ask him would he let me in. She said, “Of course, I will go up and see my brother.” She was very excited. She started then for the house, but was stopped.

Question: By whom? — I could not say. I did not know any person on the scene. By some police authority, I suppose, so I was told. The officer in charge of the police was off in one direction of the semi-circle which the police formed, standing in different groups here and there behind trees. I was told he was off in that direction, so I went on from one group of police to another to find the officer in charge, and when I had gone to the extreme end there I was told he was not there, so I was directed then on to the other end, and when I came to the last body I was told that was he — I think Mr. Sadleir — and then I sent the girl to ask (I did not go myself) for permission for her to go up to the house, mentioning that I advised her to go; and she went and she was told she would not be allowed to go. I was strongly inclined to go myself prior to that, but when I had been with Ned Kelly, after I had attended to him, I asked him did he think it would be safe for me to go up to the house and get this man, his brother, I think, to surrender. “I would not advise you to go; they will certainly shoot you!” I said, “They would not shoot me if they knew I was a priest or a clergyman”; and he said, “They will not know who you are, and they will not take the time to think!” I saw that I could not justify myself in going up as long as I did not see the probability of doing any service. That alone was what kept me back during the course of the day. I was surprised a good deal that there seemed to be no sign of truce at any time offered; there was no signal given that the men might see, that they might have the idea their lives would be spared if they came out. I was rather surprised at that, and remarked it repeatedly, but still I did not know whether it was to anyone in authority or not, because there seemed to be an incessant feeling of anxiety in the minds of those men that were around.

Question: Did they (police) seem to be under any control? — I could not say that they were guided by any others. I could not make a statement on that subject.

Question: Did they seem to have the appearance of being guided by orders? — I do not think they had. I do not think really that there was any disciplinary order guiding them, as far as I could judge.

Question: In point of fact, that there was a want of generalship? — Oh, that was evident.

Question: They seemed just to be shooting away at random? — Firing at the house was the only thing that anyone could say there was any uniformity about.

Question: Just firing at the house? — Yes

Question: Did you hear any shots fired from the house after you arrived? — I repeatedly tried to ascertain for myself whether there were, and I could not. Sometimes there would be shots fired that I could not really say whether it would be from the house or not, but the reason of that was that sometimes, in my position, the police were above and beyond the house, and I could not really say then whence the sound came.

Question: So far as you know there was no further attempt made to communicate with them after Mrs. Skillion and the sister came? — No further attempt was made to communicate with them that I saw or heard of, only that until the house was set fire to.

Question: Did you feel it your duty to rush in to see them when the house was fired? — It was at that particular time that the crisis occurred that then buoyed me up to do what I did when the house was being set fire to. My feelings revolted very much from the appearance it had, and I was wishing in my heart that it might not take fire. That was my own feeling in the matter; and then I said to myself, “These men have not five minutes to live. If they stop in they will be burned, and if they come out they will be shot.” That was what decided me, and I thought then they will be very glad to get any service now — they will be glad to see anyone coming to them.

Question: Did you go in at the front door? — I was then close down to the gate at the railway crossing, and I started from there direct for the front of the house. I think I might have been about half the distance between where I started from and the house when I was called to. I was told afterwards it was Mr. Sadleir who called to me not to go there without orders, without consulting him — that I should not go there without consulting him.

Question: You were told afterwards it was Mr. Sadleir? — Yes; so I stopped then a few moments, and stepped towards him, perhaps two or three paces, to remonstrate with him. I said something to this effect, “I am not in the police service, I am going to my duty, and there is no time to lose.” So he did not interfere with me further, and I walked on. As I was going on towards the house there was a large number of people about. I am not a very good judge of numbers that way, but I thought there could not be less than 500 or 600 people.

Question: They had collected from all parts of the country about? — They were coming in from various directions.

Question: Did you see the two young men when you went in? — When I was going up towards the house the excitement of the people was very great, and they clapped their hands as if I was going on a stage, as their excitement was high at the time. I went in then on what I think was the room on the right-hand side, and it was quite vacant or empty. It was the other end of the house the fire was set to, and then when I came inside I called out to the men that I was a Catholic priest, and came to offer them their life, and asked them, for God’s sake, to speak to me. I got no answer, of course, but I thought to myself that they might be on their guard watching to see if I was what I said I was.

Then I found first the body of Byrne. There was a door leading out of this room towards the door. His body was lying there where he had fallen in a straggled kind of way. He seemed to have fallen on his back, like on his hip. He must have died soon, because he was just in the position as he fell; he was still lying, and his body was quite stiff.

Question: Did you see him fall? — No, he had fallen in the morning. I heard when I came there that he was shot, and that he could not have lived long after he fell. When I found this man’s body, that part of the house was blazing furiously just before me. I did not think that I would go in then if I got any other passages round, so I went to another back room that was off the one I entered first, and there was no exit out of that — no door — so I had to come back to the same spot again, and the place was blazing considerably. I was afraid at the time that I might be caught with the flame; I just blessed myself in the name of God and rushed through. Then when I came in the passage down from the bar towards the back of the house there was a little room to the left hand, and I spoke again to the men inside. I got no answer, of course, and I looked in upon the floor and found two corpses lying together.

Question: Both dead? — Both dead. The room was small.

Question: At the time you saw the two corpses lying in that room had the fire taken sufficient hold of the building to have destroyed those two corpses by fire, or are you under the impression they were dead prior to the fire? — Oh, I am certain they were dead.

Question: But we want your own impression whether their death was caused by the fire, or suffocation, or by any other means? — My impression is that they were certainly not killed by the fire — were not suffocated by the heat of the fire. I myself went in there and stopped there safely, and just when I came into their presence they were very composed looking, both lying at full stretch side by side, and bags rolled up under their heads, the armour on one side of them off. I concluded they lay in that position to let the police see when they found them that it was not by the police they died; that was my own conclusion.

Question: You concluded they committed suicide? — Yes, that is my own belief.

Question: At the present time? — Yes, I took hold of the hand of the one that was near me to see whether or not they had recently killed themselves — whether there was life in them, and I found it was quite lifeless. Then I looked at his eyes, and I found that his eyes showed unmistakable signs that he was dead for some time; and then I went to the other to touch him. I was satisfied that life was completely extinct in both of them before I left; and at that time in this little room they were in, the fire was just running through it. I saw that the roof itself was sufficiently safe, that I was in no immediate danger. It was very hot, but still I saw I was not in any immediate danger of being caught.

Question: At the time that you entered the little room at the back of the building where the two corpses were lying, had the two men been living there was sufficient time for them to have escaped with their lives from the fire? — Oh, yes there was, if there had been life in either of them. I would have had them out myself, and I was perfectly satisfied that they would be taken out. I looked upon it that my own purpose was realised, that I had satisfied myself that what I came to do was over, that it was too late, and then I said I would give word to the police, of course, as soon as I found how they were. I walked out of the back of the house, that was the nearest way then, and I called out to the police that the men were all dead inside.

Question: Did they (the police) rush to the building then? — There came two or three running up very soon after. The first man — I suppose he was a policeman — that came up, it appeared to me, was determined to have a shot into one of them. That was just the impression I had at the moment.

Question: He had his revolver ready? — Yes, he had his revolver ready, and especially so it appeared to me. I laid my hand upon his arm that way, and said, “Do not fear; they are both dead!” That was Byrne’s body; he could not see the other two from there. So then I believe it was the time they rushed in and pulled out the body of Byrne. Of course, the crowd came running then quickly, and I was certain they would have taken out the bodies. I was perfectly satisfied they would have done so, and there was plenty of time; but then I did not make sufficient allowances for appearances, or of the fact that I had an advantage over the police just then. I knew that the room had not been burnt through; though burning, it was not burnt through.

Question: Then from the way in which they were lying, with a pillow of bags under their heads, you came to the conclusion that it must have been arranged before? — That they laid it out, and that they could not have been laid in such a position except by design.

Question: Did you notice if they had any weapons in their hands? — I did not see any, and I cannot say that I saw any sign of blood; in fact, my impression was that they must have laid the pistol under their breasts and fired into their hearts; but that is only conjecture, for I did not see the wounds about them — about the bodies or on the bodies.

Question: I think you said you went in at the front door, that is the door facing the railway line? — Yes.

Question: And then you went out at the back door? — I went out the back after having found the three bodies.

Question: Did you come through again out of the front door? — No, I went into the room off the first room, and thence into a room off that, thinking I could get out that way without passing through the flames, because that was the end of the house fired first, and the fire was worst there, and the spirits might have caught fire, I thought; there was a sheet of fire.

Question: About how long were you in the house altogether? — I could not really say. Perhaps I might have been from eight to ten minutes; I think so.

Question: Would the time not seem to be longer than it really was? — It might appear to me to be longer, because all that I did, when I found Byrne was dead, was to pass on to get the others. I went into the back room, as I said, off the one that I entered first, thinking to go out that way.

Question: You could have done all that in five minutes? — I dare say I could.

Question: How far were the police from you when you came out and said the men were dead? — There were none of them I saw nearer, I should say, than between twenty or thirty paces.

Question: There was no effort made by them to come up until you told them? — No, there was no man that came up with me, or that I saw, till the first man that reached me after I came out of the back, and called out to them. He was the first man I saw come to the house. I think that there were three that ran up after that. That was after I came out. My great object is going, of course, was to see to get those men time for repentance; and I would have preferred much to have seen them executed rather than to have seen them destroyed in that manner.

Question: Although you saw no firearms about them, you still think they committed suicide? — I could not judge of anything except from the position in which they were lying. They lay so calm together, as if laid out by design.

Question: It had all the appearances of a prearrangement? — It had. I saw some time in the press different remarks about casting censure upon the Police Commission — that they had not given me any portion of the reward. Now I wish to make a statement on that matter. From the first I never intended to receive anything of that reward, though I might be considered entitled to it. I never thought myself for a moment that I would accept any portion thereof; and my reason for that is simply this — that it is better for society at large that we should be (the Catholic priesthood, I mean) free from any charge of taking any money that is offered as a reward, because we can more readily move in that matter; we can approach them with some amount of confidence on that account. Of course, I merely make the remark with your permission that it was my own determination; and if you had not given me the opportunity of saying so, of course, I would never make such a remark, because it might not be understood in the way I intend it.

Question: This is not the Commission that allocated the reward? — Indeed!

Question: That was a Board appointed for the purpose; but your object in stopping at Glenrowan that day was in your capacity as a Catholic priest? — As a priest.

Question: Your duties as a priest were paramount to all other considerations? — It was only that that kept me there and actuated me at all. There was another thing I thought I might as well remark. I thought it strange, as I was the principal witness in finding those bodies, that I had not been in any way consulted in the matter, that I had not been referred to at all as a witness. I did not see any reason at all why I should not be, at least so far, consulted in the matter, or spoken to, to hear what I had to say on that. Of course, I was the witness of the manner in which those bodies were found, and the first witness.

Question: We fully intended to call you, but we did not know at first you were in the colony? — I referred simply to the inquest.

Question: And you were on the ground at the time? — I went on to Albury.

Question: But they could have found you? — Yes. I think I might say, too, with your permission, that in order that it may not appear strange why I should be so far from my own place, my object in visiting Victoria has been collecting for the orphan institution of which I am the certified manager myself in my own colony. It might appear a strange thing for me to be away so far from my own duties.

Question: Did you tender any advice or suggestion to the police officers during the day in any way? — Well, I did not find or see any of them. I exposed myself very considerably in trying to find one of them, because in going from tree to tree, if the parties had been alive inside, as was supposed, they might have said, “He is one making himself very busy giving general directions, going from place to place, from one officer of police to another.” They might have picked me off; but still I was very intent on trying to have the sister go there, seeing no one else would be safe to go, and it was then I sought for the officer in charge.

Question: You did not find him on the scene of the fight? — He was with the party at the opposite end.

Question: Did you notice the blacktrackers there? — Well, as I was passing along in the front of the house, along by the railway line like — I was questioning myself afterwards about that — I think I saw some of them lift their heads and look up to me from a kind of gulf or hole they were in. I could not say for positive now; I did not pay any particular attention to that.

Question: You did not notice whether there was any particularly heavy shooting from there or not? — No.

Question: Is there anything further you wish to add? — I do not think there is.

J. J. Kenneally, The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers, Melbourne: J. Roy Stevens, 5th edition, 1946 [first published 1929], pages 241-253

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