Ned Kelly’s gang: The making and breaking of bushrangers [18 December 1920]

[Editor: This article on Ned Kelly and his gang was published in The Capricornian, 18 December 1920.]

Ned Kelly’s gang.

The making and breaking of bushrangers.

June 28, last was the fortieth anniversary of the capture of Ned Kelly, the notorious bushranger, at Glenrowan. The accompanying pictures and narrative have been supplied to us by Mr. W. R. Wilson, of Sydney, who has a wonderful store of knowledge of the doings of the gang, at Wangaratta. Mr. Wilson was a school-fellow of Ned Kelly and two of the other outlaws, and he was present at the capture of the chief ranger. So much romance has been wound round the career of the Kelly gang that Mr. Wilson feels compelled to tell the true story as he knows it.

The romance of the Kelly Gang will last as long as Australia itself. His name will live longer in the annals of Australian history than that of many much more worthy men.

On the 28th of June, 1880, the Kelly Gang of outlaws, consisting of Steve Hart, Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly, under the leadership of Ned Kelly, after committing a series of bushranging outrages, then unparalleled in the history of the Colonies, were done for at Glenrowan, a small Victorian township, about fifty miles from the New South Wales border, on the Sydney-Melbourne railway line.

After a siege extending over fourteen hours, Ned Kelly was captured wounded, and was, after trial, hanged.

Three of his companions met their death the same day at the hands of the besieging party of police, black trackers, and civilians, numbering over seventy who afterwards participated in the reward of £8000 jointly provided by the Victorian and New South Wales Governments.

The contributor of these memories was a schoolmate of three of the outlaws at Wangaratta nearly half a century ago, was an eye-witness of their capture, was familiarly acquainted with many others who figured conspicuously in the drama, and is in a position to record an authentic account of the stirring events of these men’s lives.

The writer feels compelled to write these memories as a protest against the many “faked” stories and plays of the gang’s exploits.

The writer first remembers Ned Kelly as a lad of eleven or twelve years old attending the Roman Catholic school at Wangaratta. Ned, in those days, was brown-haired with bright blue eyes, sturdy, reckless and daring, and possessed, even at that period, a somewhat magnetic personality which won for him the confidence of his less daring schoolmates when raids on orchards and Chinese watermelon patches were made.

Among the scholars attending another school in the town was a lad of humble parentage, afterwards destined to achieve distinction as the first Australian-born commandant of the Commonwealth Military Forcers — the late Major-General J. C. Hoad. He and Ned Kelly had many a bitter fight over the ownership of a derelict, ownerless billy-goat. In turn the goat was captured and re-captured by the rival boys of both schools led by Kelly and Hoad. One day the local policeman intervened with a shotgun. That was the end of the billygoat and the vendetta. The best of friendship afterwards prevailed between the youthful leaders, and the peace-making policeman became the common enemy of both.

Ned Kelly and his brothers were the sons of John Kelly, who was transported to Australia in 1841 from Tipperary, Ireland. He married a Miss Quinn, and took up a small selection at Wallan Wallan, Victoria, where Ned was born in 1853. Four other children were born, viz., Ellen (afterwards Mrs Gunn, since deceased), Mary afterwards Mrs. Skillion, since (deceased), Jim and Kate (deceased). Kate afterwards achieved notoriety in connection with the assistance she was known to render to the family bushrangers.

John Kelly, the father, was later awarded with a five years imprisonment for cattle stealing. Shortly after his release from Kilmore goal in 1865, the family removed to Three-mile Creek, near Wangaratta, where the two youngest members of the family, Dan and a sister named Grace were born. Some years later John Kelly took up a selection at Eleven-mile Creek, near Greta, in the vicinity of other selections held by his brothers-in-law, Quinn and Lloyd, in the midst of a desolate, unsettled, mountainous country.

The district had previously become notorious as the scene of the depredations of the notorious bushranger, Daniel Morgan (who was shot at Peechelba Station in April, 1865) and of Dan Power, who was captured by a party of police under Inspector Montgood at Bongamera Station, King River, in 1870.

In connection with the latter’s arrest it was stated at, the time that the police party was directed to Power’s hiding place by Ned Kelly, then a boy of sixteen in the disguise of a black tracker, for the sake of the £500 offered for Power’s capture.

In justice to Ned the writer believes this suspicion to be absolutely without foundation, the real informant being a member of another branch of the family long since deceased. As a matter of fact, Ned was at that time a trusted friend and ally of Power’s, and kept him well posted as to the movement of the police.

The Wangaratta district at that period had an unenviable reputation for cattle duffing and horse stealing, and among a certain class of residents the crimes seemed to meet with approval and encouragement.

The name of young Ned Kelly soon became associated with those openly suspected, and owing to the vigilance of Sergeant Steele. a shrewed zealous officer, who had been recently placed in charge of the district, he was at the age of 17 convicted and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for “receiving” a stolen horse. The effect of the sentence increased an inherent bitter hatred of the police in the lad’s heart, and he swore to be avenged for what he considered an unjust and undeserved sentence. Ned declared that the culprit was a local character known as Wild Wright, who, together with James Kelly (Ned’s brother), subsequently received a long sentence on another charge of horse stealing.

Ned Kelly soon became to be looked upon as leader of a well-organised gang of stock marauders, who operated with great success on both sides of the Murray river in N.S.W. and Victoria.

On reaching manhood he had developed into a tall, well-set up athletic young man, with a dark brown beard, aquiline nose, bright, flashing blue eyes, and pleasing personality. He was frequently to be teen at race meeting, sports gatherings, or country dances, accompanied by other young men of what was then known us the bush larrikin type.

Ned was always well mounted, flashly attired, after the style of the bushmen of those days.

His mother’s home at Eleven Mile Creek soon became to be known as the rendezvous of suspected cattle-duffers and other shady characters, and was constantly under police surveillance.

About this time Steve Hart and Joe Byrne were sentenced to six months for “illegally using” horses belonging to neighbouring squatters, and Dan Kelly got three months for pillaging a hawker’s waggon; but Sergeant Steele, despite his untiring zeal, could not get a case against Ned, although the latter subsequently confessed to being instrumental in stealing as many as 280 horses in one year and sending them to N.S.W. for disposal by accomplices on that side of the border.

Steve Hart, the second son of a respectable family of settlers at Wangaratta, was a proud-spirited, athletic lad, who took his sentence very much to heart, and on his discharge from gaol was heard to declare his anxiety to start out bushranging if he could get a suitable mate to join him, and have “a short life and a merry one.”

All these young men were noted for their marksmanship, horsemanship, and knowledge of the country, the fastnesses of which provided excellent cover for stolen stock. Their accomplices on the N.S.W. side of the river co-operated with them in transferring “lifted” horses and cattle to Victoria in exchange for those stolen on the Victorian side, and so many were engaged in the traffic, and so perfect in detail were the methods adopted that the crime merged into a recognised industry, which the police seemed powerless to check.

Eventually the vigilance of Sergeant Steele, of Wangaratta, was rewarded, and this brought about the beginning of the end. A valuable mare had been stolen from one Kennedy, a resident of Oxley, ten miles from Wangaratta, and Sergeant Steele traced the animal to the possession of Dan Kelly and Jack Lloyd, who had disposed of her to a resident of Porpunkyah, just over the Murray. With the assistance of the black-trackers, sufficient evidence was obtained to justify the arrest of the two men named, and with that object in view Constable Fitzpatrick, with a warrant, visited Mrs. Kelly’s hut at Eleven Mile Creek on April 15, 1878.

The story of what occurred on that occasion materially differs. Fitzpatrick alleged that he was attacked and assaulted by Mrs. Kelly, her son-in-law, Jas. Skillion, and a man named Williamson, who was present, and afterwards shot in the wrist by Ned Kelly in his attempt to bring about the arrest of Dan Kelly. Against that is was alleged that the constable brought the assault upon himself through an alleged impropriety towards Kate Kelly, then an attractive girl of about eighteen.

At all events, upon the constable returning to Benalla and reporting the incident, a party of police was despatched to affect the arrest of all concerned in the alleged assault. The police arrested Mrs. Kelly, Skillion, and Williamson, but Ned and Dan Kelly were not about the place.

Mrs. Kelly, Skillion, and Williamson each received long sentences for their part in the alleged assault, and the severity of the punishment was at the time adversely commented upon. It was freely said that the sentence was greately responsible for the subsequent developments that took place, popular sympathy being against the constable, who was known to bear a very indifferent character, and was subsequently discharged from the police by a commission appointed to inquire into the matter. The same commission concurred in the belief that “the incident formed one of the many causes that assisted to bring about the Kelly outrages.”

Jack Lloyd, who was implicated in the alleged case against Dan Kelly, was acquitted. The commission, however, sought to make it clear that there was no evidence to support the suggestion that the police had persecuted the Kelly family and their relatives. Constable Fitzpatrick’s conduct, “however justified by the rules of the service,” was considered by the commission as being unfortunate in its results.”

Afler the initial episode above related and the conviction of Mrs. Kelly, Williamson, and Skillion, nothing more was heard of Ned and Dan Kelly until about five months afterwards, when the first sensational episode in the history of the gang occurred.

On October 25, 1878, a party of police consisting of Sergeant Kennedy and Constable Lonigan, Scanlan, and McIntyre were despatched from Mansfield to establish a depot beyond the Wombat — if possible near Stringy Bark Creek — with a view of apprehending Ned and Dan Kelly for wounding Constable Fitzpatrick at the hut of the Kelly family at Greta.

The two Kellys were known to be in hiding somewhere in the ranges, but Kennedy had no knowledge of the immediate vicinity, or that the Kellys were accompanied by Steve Hart or Joe Byrne. He therefore took no precautionary measures against surprise. This neglect cost Sergeant Kennedy and Constables Scanlon and Lonigan their lives.

McIntyre, who had been left in charge of the camp, was suddenly surprised by Ned and Dan Kelly, Steve Hart, and Joe Byrne although the identity of the two latter was not discovered until some months afterwards. when the raid was made by the gang on the National Bank, at Euroa.

McIntyre had no alternative but to surrender, and the gang then awaited the return of the other three police. On their return about sundown, they were immediately fired upon from behind a fallen log by the gang, and a skirmish, lasting several minutes, took place, during which thirty or forty shoots were exchanged. Scanlan and Lonigan were killed, and Sergeant Kennedy was wounded.

Here is said to have occurred the incident involving the darkest stains on the gang’s career. The ill-fated Kennedy who had the reputation of being a good and brave man, pleaded hard with Ned Kelly, when wounded, not to be killed, but to be allowed to live to say goodbye to his wife and children. This request Ned Kelly refused, afterwards justifying himself on the ground that the sergeant was hopelessly wounded, and was better out of his misery.

During the excitement of the melee McIntyre managed to make his escape and give the alarm.

The two Kellys were declared outlaws, and a reward of £500 each was placed on their heads, and also on those of their accomplices who were at the time supposed to be identical with John King and Terence Bourke.

The opinion was just beginning to gain ground that the desperadoes had cleared the country when the community was startled with the news that the gang had stuck up Younghusband’s station, near Euroa, a flourishing township about 80 miles from Melbourne, on the North-Eastern railway line, and after conveying all the occupants in the station’s vehicles into the township had held up the local branch of the National Bank, and carried away upwards of £14,600 in notes, gold, and specie, together with other valuable loot, on pack-horses.

It was during the course of this visitation that the identity of Steve Hart and Joe Byrne was established by a servant girl at one of the hotels where the occupants of the town were bailed up by two of the outlaws — Hart and Dan Kelly — while the bank was raided by Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne. The township had over 200 inhabitants.

The writer happened to be at a bush race meeting at a small place called Whoronly on the Ovens river in January, 1880 in the very centre of what was then known as “the Kelly country.” Kate Kelly, her sister, Mrs. Skillion, Mrs. Ambrose, Miss Lloyd and another young woman took part in a ladies’ race, and the event was won by Mrs. Skillion on a roan horse entered as Chancellor, said to have been the mount of Dan Kelly at the time of the subsequent capture at Glenrowan. It was asserted that on that occasion the gang were present and that too of them, Hart and Byrne, actually attended a dance held at the local Shire Hall the same night in disguise under the very eyes of the police, of whom there were several present. It was also an open secret that the different members of the gang were, on occasions, known to visit their relatives and friends in both Benalla, Wangaratta and neighbouring town and that Ned Kelly and Byrne had on one occasion taken a trip to Melbourne to see the outsider Darriwell, win his Cup.

The lax methods of the police next led to the holding up of Jerilderie, a town containing about 300 inhabitants. This most audacious and daring feat was performed by the gang about eight months prior to their capture at Glenrowan. The desperadoes first visited the police station and locked up the sergeant and three constables in the watchhouse cells in broad daylight.

Commandeering the police uniforms, the gang proceeded to the bank and had no difficulty in securing the contents of Wales to supplement the reward of £4000 or £17,000. They then rounded up all the inhabitants of the town and made merry. They did not seem in the least anxious to make a departure until their horses were well fed and rested.

This escapade induced New South Wales to supplement the reward of £4000 by the Victorian Government for the gang’s capture by another £4000, making £8000 in all.

This had probably something to do in the matter of hastening the end. Rumours got about that there were traitors among those who had hitherto been sympathisers, and that even some of the outlaw’s relatives were not beyond suspicion.

In this respect I heard Ned Kelly tell Sergeant Steel, while under guard at the Glenrowan railway station, after his capture, that the man Aaron Sherritt, shot by Joe Byrne at the woolshed two days previously, was not the only one suspect ted of harbouring the police to effect their capture, and that several others had been marked out by the gang for a similar fate as that which befell Sheritt as an example to traitors.

No doubt from what Sergeant Steele subsequently told me Ned Kelly had good grounds for his suspicions, and had the gang remained any longer in the district, their ultimate capture was evidently close at hand.

After his conviction Ned made a statement of the final programme he had planned out. This was to first visit Aaron Sherritt’s place at The Woolshed near Beechworth, and shoot Sherritt and any constables found concealed in his house, and then proceed across country to Glenrowan, about twenty miles away, and wreck the train containing police and black-trackers, which they felt certain would be despatched from Melbourne to effect their arrest. Their next plan would have been to have proceeded to either Wangaratta or Benalla, close handy, and loot a bank, then break up and make an effort to leave Australia.

On Sunday, June 27, 1880, news reached Wangaratta from Beechworth that Aaron Sherritt, formerly a schoolmaster, and supposed confident of Joe Byrne’s, had been shot dead in his hut at The Woolshed, a deserted mining town, on the previous night by Joe Byrne, who was accompanied by another member of the Kelly gang.

There were four armed police constables in the house at the time, but instead of facing the situation, as one would have expected, they crawled under the bed and placed two females (one of them Sherritt’s wife) before them for protection. This earned them ignominious dismissal from the force.

The Kelly gang lost no time in making their way to Glenrowan, where they arrived with their firearms and armour about two o’clock on the Sunday morning. Their first act was to knock up Mrs. Ann Jones, the licensee of the Glenrowan Hotel adjoining the railway, unload and stable their horses, and retire for a few hours’ rest. Before daylight they were up and rounded up all the residents of the township, about forty in number, and placed them under guard at the hotel. They then forced the platelayers (the Reardons) (father and son) and Cherry, to pull up the railway lines for about forty yards at a point about 150 yards on the Wangaratta side of the line.

They then returned to the hotel and awaited the arrival of the expected train containing the police.

The writer, with —— Hart (Steve’s brother) and one or two other residents of Wangaratta arrived on the last scene before 8 o’clock on the Monday morning in time to witness the capture of Ned Kelly.

It was a beautiful clear, frosty morning when we arrived, and found the policemen firing volleys into the hotel from all angles — some ambushed behind trees, others lying down. Suddenly there was a of Morgan’s Look-out, and some members of the force were seen to suddenly spring up, throw away their rifles, and scamper for ambush.

Ned Kelly was the cause of the scamper.

It appears that he was the man who had shot Superintendent Hare, although himself wounded in the arm badly. When he appeared close behind the rear line of the police he was clad in a long light-coloured macintosh coat, covering his armour, and armed only with a revolver. After shooting Hare, he mounted his grey mare, to whom he was greatly attached, and got away towards Morgan’s Look-out ; but it was not his intention to desert his companions in the hotel, and he returned on foot to fight his way to them.

He walked up coolly and slowly towards the police. His head, chest, back and sides were all protected with heavy 1/2 in. armor, manufactured from plough mould boards.

When within easy distance of Contable Kelly he fired. The contest then

became one which almost baffles description. Nine police joined in the conflict, firing point blank at Kelly, and it was apparent from the way that he staggered that many of the shots found a mark. Tapping his breast Kelly laughed derisively at his opponents as he coolly returned the fire.

For fully half an hour this strange contest was carried on, and then Sergeant Steele suddenly closed in on Ned, and within a range of ten yards fired two shots of buckshot from a double-barrelled breach-loader gun into the lower part of the outlaw’s legs, which were unprotected. This brought Kelly down. Steele rushed in and the fight was at an end.

Shortly after 12 o’clock a young man named Reardon, wearing a white handkerchief, appeared at the rear of the hotel. Mistaking him for one of the outlaws one of the police party fired upon him and severely wounded him in the shoulder. This appeared to terrorise the occupants in the hotel, who refused to come out, although
repeatedly called upon by the police to do so.

About 2 o’clock, however, they suddenly rushed out of the front door, holding up their hands. The police ordered them to advance, but many of the unfortunate people were so terror-stricken that they ran hither and thither screaming for mercy. Finally they approached the police and threw themselves upon their faces. One by one they were called upon, and having been minutely searched, were allowed to depart.

After this the police kept up a constant fire on the hotel where the bushrangers still were, but the fire was not returned. It was believed that Dan Kelly and Hart intended lying quiet until night, and, under cover of darkness, to make an attempt to escape. With a view of preventing that Superintendent Sadlier decided to fire the hotel and force the outlaws into the open.

A cannon had been sent for from Melbourne earlier in the day, but it was feared that it would not arrive in time to be of use.

Just as the police ware about to put their newly-conceived plan of incendiarism into operation Mrs. Skillion and Kate Kelly, accompanied by Wild Wright, arrived on the scene. The females were attired in dark serge riding habits trimmed with scarlet, and jaunty hats adorned with conspicuous white feathers.

Father Gibney, of West Australia, who was present, tried to induce Kate to enter the hotel and ask her brother Dan and Hart to surrender. Kate spiritedly replied that, much as she would like to see her brother before he died, she would sooner see him burnt alive than ask him to surrender.

Under a barrage of heavy fire Constable Johnstone set fire to the hotel.

Father Gibney volunteered to induce Hart and Dan Kelly to surrender. He walked to the front of the door, crossing himself on the way, and a few moments afterwards was followed by two constables.

A shout of terror emanated from the onlookers as a mass of flame and smoke burst from the walls and roof of the building, and a few seconds afterwards the priest and police emerged bearing Martin Cherry, a railway platelayer, in a dying state, and the dead body of Byrne. The rescuers stated that when they entered the hotel they saw the bodes of Hart and Kelly lying in one of the bedrooms.

When the building was completely demolished, amongst the debris two charred bodies were discovered. They were buried two days afterwards in the Wangaratta Cemetery, the coffins bearing the inscriptions:

Died June 28, 1880,
Aged 21 years.

Died June 28, 1880.
Aged 19 years.

The inscription on Byrne’s coffin reads

Died June 28, 1880
Aged 23 years

The End of Ned.

Ned Kelly was removed to Benalla by special train, thence to Melbourne after an affectionate parting with his sister.

And that was the end of Ned. He was hanged on November 11, 1880.

The Capricornian (Rockhampton, Qld.), Saturday 18 December 1920, pages 4-5 (“The Capricornian illustrated Christmas supplement”), 45-46

Editor’s notes:
Darriwell = the horse who won the Melbourne Cup in 1879

greately = an older form of “greatly” (as “greate” is an older form of “great”)

Porpunkyah = no town named Porpunkyah has been able to be located in New South Wales; the spelling of the name of the town of Porepunkah (in Victoria, near Bright) is similar, but the context of the sentence places the town referred to in this article as being in NSW, near to the Murray River; assuming that a mistake has not been made in the article, there is a possibility that “Porpunkyah” may refer to one of the larger farms or stations in NSW near the Murray River

[Editor: Corrected “unparalled” to “unparalleled”; “afterwords destined” to “afterwards destined”; “vendatta” to “vendetta”; “distrist had” to “district had”; “Eventually the vigilence” to “Eventually the vigilance”; “occured on” to “occurred on”; “improperiety” to “impropriety”; “atttractive” to “attractive”; “precationary” to “precautionary”; “£400 by” to “£4000 by”; “oponest as he colly” to “opponents as he coolly”; “spirtedly” to “spiritedly”.]


  1. Angus says:

    Blogs like this demonstrate why Australians are confused about Ned Kelly. It is like von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods where there are so many mistakes it is hard to fethom the truth. Pro-Kelly people, like Ned himself, prefer to make things up rather than provide evidence for their claims.

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