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Ned Kelly: Villain or Victim?

·         Saturday, 08 November 2014 19:49

·         Written by  Steve Hodder


Ned Kelly armour at Old Melbourne Gaol. Kelly wrote in his “Jerilderie Letter” following the deaths of three Victorian
 “Certainly their wives and children are to be pitied but they must remember those men came after
us with the intention of scattering pieces of me and my brother all over the bush.”
Photo: created by David Johns, Andrew Chapman, Peter Eve.

Steve Hodder


It will be 134 years this week since notorious bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged in a Victorian prison for the murder of police constable Thomas Lonigan. At recent police remembrance services, Kelly has again been branded a psychopath but who, asks STEVE HODDER, were the real villains in the tale of Australian history’s most famous outlaw?

In a recent editorial highlighting National Police Remembrance Day, Victorian Police Association secretary Greg Davies referred to Australian bushranger Ned Kelly as a “psychopathic criminal misfit” for murdering three police officers at Stringybark Creek in 1878.

NSW Police commissioner Andrew Scipione spoke to the media on the day saying: “Our thoughts are with the extended police family of all those we have loved and lost. They will never be forgotten.” 

Many Australians would have empathised with the commissioner given the cold-blooded killing of police officer and father of six David Rixon at Tamworth in 2012. But that is now, not the 19th century when Ned Kelly lived and died and relations between the general population and the law were markedly different. 

It will be 134 years this week since the Victorian authorities hanged Ned Kelly for the murder of police constable Thomas Lonigan. 

Kelly, 23, his brother Dan, 17, and their companions Steve Hart, 19, and Joe Byrne, 21, were also responsible for the deaths of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constable Michael Scanlon, and later a former friend turned police informer Aaron Sherritt.

Greg Davies reckons Kelly and his cohort were psychotic killers, but who were the real psychopaths in this case and where did the seeds of this calamity germinate?  

In essence, the unrest in northern Victoria at the time of the Kelly Outbreak was due in large part to centuries old hostilities between English authorities and Irish peasants. 

The extent of ill-feeling between the English ruling class and the Irish poor is revealed with a quick history tour of Ireland going back almost a thousand years, when the impact of the English was first felt with the Norman Invasion of Ireland in 1177. The English presence has remained to this day and been resisted and resented ever since.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the Crown implemented its ‘Plantation’ policy allowing thousands of English and Scottish Protestants to take over property previously owned and worked by Irish Catholics for centuries.

In 1613, the Irish Parliament was overrun by a gerrymander system allowing Protestant new settlers to take control. By the end of the 17th century Irish Catholics were banned from the Parliament even though they represented 85 per cent of the population. The Irish fought back in 1641 and 1689 but were roundly defeated; suffering extensive casualties and further dispossession. Estimates indicate a third of the population were exterminated or exiled under the authority of English ruler Oliver Cromwell, who governed Ireland from 1649-53.

The exiling of Ireland’s dispossessed was instigated in the early 1600s by English kings James II and Charles I, who sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to British settlers in ‘New World’ colonies.  Cromwell ramped up the slave trade during his tenure as Protector of Ireland; selling more than 100,000 Irish children aged between 10 and 14 to plantation owners and settlers in the West Indies and America. This system of human trafficking was conducted under the guise of ‘indentured servitude’; a system to which the defenceless and illiterate Irish had no recourse.

The African slave trade; started by the English at the same time, became a lucrative venture, but it had its pros and cons. The Africans were larger in physique and free of the stain of Catholicism, but were much more expensive than the Irish. To overcome the high cost of purchasing large numbers of African slaves the plantation owners bred the male Africans with the Irish girls to produce highly prized ‘mulatto’ offspring, which increased their labour force and brought premium prices on the open market.

The practice of crossbreeding Africans and Irish became so widespread that legislation was passed in 1681 to ban it; however this only came about due to pressure from the English shipping owners, whose profits from the slave trade were being impacted.


Ned Kelly at age 15. Photo taken by police at Kyneton. Image courtesy Keith McMenomy's book Ned Kelly.

Another black episode in English-Irish relations occurred in 1845-49 with Ireland’s potato famine that caused about one million deaths from starvation and disease and forced another million to migrate to America, Canada and Australia.  

The famine was caused by phytophthora blight in the nation’s potato crop; the potato being the staple food product for about 85 per cent of the population. Many Irish were tenant famers on land owned by English landlords. These Irish farmers produced abundant cereal crops and other food products; most of which was shipped to England.

To compensate for the loss of the potatoes the English initially imported large quantities of cheap Indian corn as a food substitute for the Irish, which caused widespread dysentery and more deaths from disease. In 1846, Charles Trevelyan was installed as overseer of famine relief in Ireland. Trevelyan was a staunch advocate of laissez-faire, believing the free market would sort things out; it didn’t. 

A fundamental protestant and fastidious note taker, Trevelyan documented many of his thoughts including his belief that it was God’s will for the Irish to starve and be forced to leave the country. In England his efforts were deemed of the highest calibre resulting in a knighthood from Queen Victoria.      

Trevelyan’s role in letting a million Irish die of starvation may have dissipated in the fog of time, had it not been for the popular folk song Fields of Athenry. The song details the plight of a young Irishman, who stole a bit of food to feed his starving children, but ends up getting caught and shipped to Botany Bay. 

The next wave of Irish deaths at the hands of the English came about with the 1798 Rebellion. Hostility toward the English had fomented for many years with groups of Irish rebels across the nation primed to take on their oppressors and liberate the country.  

However the poorly armed Irish were bloodily defeated by the superior strength and armoury of the English. Some of the more renowned battles occurred at Carlow, Vinegar Hill and Antrim. The latter being the birthplace of Ned Kelly’s mother Ellen Quinn in 1832.     

One of the great leaders of the 1798 Rebellion, Michael Dwyer carried out a guerrilla campaign against the English for several years from the Wicklow Mountains before surrendering and being exiled to Australia. Dwyer died in Liverpool, New South Wales in 1825. His final resting place is in the Tomb of the Irish Martyrs in the centre of Waverley Cemetery.

England’s retaliation for the Rebellion was swift and uncompromising. Many across the country suspected of involvement in the uprising were disembowelled and burned alive; their heads placed on spikes in the village squares. Catholic priest, Father John Murphy, who opposed the English at Enniscorthy was stripped, flogged, hanged and beheaded; his corpse burned in a barrel and his spiked head placed at the entrance of his church. Towns and villages the length and breadth of Ireland bear markers in their cemeteries commemorating those killed in 1798, about 25,000 in total.    

The next round of punitive measures against the Irish occurred when slavery was abolished in England in 1807. This brought about a corresponding rise in the number of Irish convicted of petty offences and transported to Australia for a minimum of seven years. A quarter of the 162,000 convicts sent to Australia between 1788 and 1868, were Irish.

Ned Kelly’s father, John ‘Red’ Kelly was one of those; transported to Australia from his home in Tipperary in 1841. Aged 21, Red Kelly was sentenced to seven years hard labour in Van Diemen’s Land for the crime of stealing two pigs.

On completion of his sentence in 1848, Red Kelly moved to the district of Wallan about 30 miles from Melbourne, where he met Ellen Quinn; they married in 1850. Their son, Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born in December 1854.

The Kellys were a poor family, like many of the freed convicts and labouring class immigrants in Australia at the time. And, like many of the poor of that era they were not averse to helping themselves to the wealthy squatters’ stock.

Kelly’s father, Red, died from heart failure aged 46 in December 1866.

At age 15, Kelly was sentenced to three years hard labour for “receiving” a stolen horse. Kelly recounted in his Jerilderie Letter how he was hogtied and bashed by the police during his arrest. It is true that the Kellys and many of their friends were thieves, but the actions of the police and the judiciary throughout the period remain questionable at least.  It is not clearly understood what motivated the police to act so harshly toward the Kellys and the underclass to which they belonged, but the Jerilderie Letter provides some evidence of how the lower classes felt.

Kelly penned the letter with the assistance of fellow outlaw Joe Byrne while on the run from police in 1879. Kelly wanted the letter published to inform Australians what was happening to the poor in Northern Victoria. The authorities suppressed its publication; it was not released until 1930. The 8300 word document outlines the reason he went to war against the authorities. He took full responsibility for the deaths of the police officers at Stringybark Creek and gave his version of the events of the night Constable Fitzpatrick accosted his family at their home at Greta.

Kelly declared the Queen of England was as guilty as the Victorian Police, and proclaimed: “There was never such a thing as justice in English laws, but any amount of injustice.” He spoke of Ireland’s blight under British rule and the torture of the convicts, “all of true blood, bone and beauty,” he argued; banished to Australia where, “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”.

Reward poster for the Kelly Gang. Image by Keith McMenomy.

Much has been written about the Kelly Outbreak; the rights and wrongs of those on either side, but nearly all including the police, identify the actions of Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick on April 15, 1878 as the probable cause of the war that erupted.

A known womaniser, Fitzpatrick had his eye on Kelly’s 14 year-old sister Kate even though he had a fiancé at Frankston and had left another girl pregnant at Meredith.

Fitzpatrick was ambitious and keen to make a name for himself. He was advised by his superiors never to go near the Kelly homestead alone but on this day he ignored those commands in a bold attempt to arrest Dan Kelly for horse stealing.

The truth of what occurred at the Kelly homestead that day remains open to conjecture but the outcome was clear; Kelly and his brother Dan were declared outlaws and their mother and two neighbours sent to prison, charged with the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick.       

Fitzpatrick claimed he was shot in the arm by Ned, who was aided and abetted by his brother Dan, their mother Ellen and their neighbours Bill Skilling and William Williamson. The Kellys claim Fitzpatrick arrived at the home late in the afternoon, drunk and abusive, wanting to arrest Dan. At some stage Fitzpatrick was said to have made indecent advances towards Kate, which resulted in an assault from Dan and Ellen.  Fitzpatrick sustained a minor injury to his forearm that a doctor later reported might have been caused by a bullet.

Ned and Dan Kelly cleared out, along with their friend Joe Byrne, who was also at the homestead at the time of the Fitzpatrick incident. The trio were later joined by another friend Steve Hart. 

In the Jerilderie Letter, Kelly defended the killings at Stringybark Creek as a result of the outrages committed by the police against his mother and Skilling and Williamson, whom he claimed were wrongfully imprisoned on the false testimony of Fitzpatrick. 

About 18 months after his fateful visit to the Kellys, Fitzpatrick was dismissed from the Victorian Police for ongoing laziness, incompetence and lies.

Ellen Kelly, with a new born baby on her breast, was jailed for three years; Skilling and Williamson were given six years each.  

Sergeant Michael Kennedy and constables Thomas Lonigan, Michael Scanlon and Thomas McIntyre set out to track down and capture Kelly and his cohort, dead or alive. McIntyre survived the battle at Stringybark Creek and fled on horseback.

“I was compelled to shoot them or lie down and let them shoot me,” Kelly argued in the Jerilderie Letter. “They would have got great praise and a promotion but I am reckoned a brute because I had not been cowardly enough to lie down for them. Certainly their wives and children are to be pitied but they must remember those men came after us with the intention of scattering pieces of me and my brother all over the bush.”  

A significant amount of community support was behind Ned Kelly, which enabled the outlaws to evade the police for a further two years. But finally Kelly became tired of hiding and decided to take on the police in a bold attack at Glenrowan. Kelly was not alone; historians believe he had as many as 350 armed supporters ready to fight for a republic of Northern Victoria.

On June 27 1880, after the murder of police informant Aaron Sherritt, a special train was sent from Melbourne to Glenrowan with a contingent of heavily armed troopers and four journalists to prosecute and capture the downfall of Ned Kelly. 

Some months before, Kelly and his companions (with the support of sympathisers) fashioned suits of armour out of plough shares, in readiness for their final showdown with the police.

On the night the police train was due the four outlaws rounded up Glenrowan’s 62 residents, many of them women and children, and herded them into the village’s small inn to prevent anyone warning the police.

When the train arrived Kelly, dressed in armour, left the inn to investigate, leaving his armoured comrades inside. Kelly could not get back inside before the police attacked. He was caught in a hail of gunfire and wounded twice in the left arm and once in the right foot and collapsed in the scrub from loss of blood; he was not seen in the dark. 

The police surrounded the small weatherboard Inn and opened fire, killing 13 year-old Jack Jones, son of the innkeeper Ann Jones. Two other civilians were fatally wounded by police, quarryman George Metcalf and fettler Martin Cherry. After a lull in firing, the women and children in the inn tried to leave but were driven back by police fire.

Kelly regained consciousness a short while later and went to warn off the group of armed sympathisers waiting in the scrub ready to attack the police. Kelly declared it was his fight and did not want them involved.  

During the next round of firing, a police bullet passed through the apron slit in Joe Byrne’s armour hitting him in the groin and severing his femoral artery; he died soon after. Kelly witnessed Byrne’s death then went back outside to single-handedly take on the police – his brother Dan and Steve Hart remained inside.    

In the breaking dawn light, clad in armour, Kelly took on the police in a final showdown. After a blazing gun battle with bullets flying off his armour Kelly was finally brought down with a shotgun blast to the legs.      

In the daylight, the police allowed the civilians to leave the inn without firing on them; Dan Kelly and Steve Hart remained inside. The standoff dragged into the afternoon. Impatient to capture the outlaws the police set fire to the inn to burn them out.         

Catholic priest, Dean Gibney rushed into the burning building to save Dan Kelly and Steve Hart but found them dead on the floor. Historians believe they had suicided well before the fire was set.  

Ned Kelly was tried and convicted of murdering police Constable Thomas Lonigan and was hanged at Melbourne Gaol on November 11, 1880. His mother was housed in the same complex and visited her son on the night before his execution. She was not given the courtesy of spending a moment alone with him. Her parting words were reported as being: “Mind you die like a Kelly.”

Ellen Kelly was held in jail for the duration of her sentence and not released until February 1881.

Final photo (left) Ned Kelly taken at old Melbourne Gaol on the day before his execution. Photo by Charles Nettleton. Image courtesy Keith McMenomy's book Ned Kelly.

The Royal Commission on the Police Force of Victoria 1881 identified numerous faults with policing in northern Victoria during the Kelly era, but ultimately exonerated them from any wrongdoing.

The British led authorities may have managed to get rid of another Irish rebel in the form of Ned Kelly but the greater Australian population retained a significant disrespect and distrust of the nation’s police. This was evident in the popularity of the poetic works of C J Dennis, who regularly wrote of his characters stoushing johns and spending time in quad. The expression ‘stoushing johns’ is taken from the rhyming slang ‘john hops’ (cops) and quad, the slang term for jail (the quadrangle). Dennis’ books sold more than 300,000 copies during the war years from 1914-18.

This was equivalent to about one in every third household in the country; bought by people who identified with fighting the police and being on the wrong side of the law.

Distrust of the police in Australia has been an enduring reality from the time of settlement to more recent history with the likes of the Lindy Chamberlain case, Queensland’s 1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry, Roger Rogerson and his cronies in NSW, and the widespread practice of “verballing” and charging people with the “trifecta”. 

Until 1984 when the Police and Criminal Evidence Act was introduced, police could say a suspect had admitted guilt for a crime when no such admission had occurred; this was commonly known among the law fraternity as “verballing”. Police must now conduct formal recorded interviews to gather evidence for the court. Suspects’ copping “the trifecta” was also a common experience in years past. This involved charges of offensive language, resist arrest, assault police. The first of these charges was always questionable given the police’s own propensity for foul language, evident in the ages old expression “swear like a trooper”.

So to the events of 1878 and Ned Kelly:  Was he a psychopath? Or a young petty thief caught up in an ongoing war between those in positions of authority and power and those without either?




#1 Ian Mack 2014-11-10 00:37

Most Irish families avoided police attention altogether by being law-abiding and mixing-in as part of Team Australia . For the 134th anniversary of Ned's execution, I'll be remembering the descendants of the police killed at Stringybark Creek, whose families were destroyed by the mad hatred of police of the Kelly Gang of career criminals.



#2 Dee 2014-11-10 06:56

Why haven't you mentioned that the Kelly poverty, and the reason they moved further and further north, and the reason Neds father died at a young age was because of alcoholism? or the fact that virtually every Kelly biographer believes Neds claim not to have been 400 miles away when Fitzpatrick called at the house WAS A LIE and that Fitzpatrick has been framed and made a scapegoat for the "outbreak" - it started because the kellys stole horses? Ned Kelly boasted that he was the MOST SUCCESSFUL HORSE THIEF in the district? Why have you barely mentioned their cold blooded killing of Aaron Sherrit, a close friend of the gang who tried to keep the police running round in circles with false information? Why haven't you mentioned that the plan for Glenrowan was a massive train wreck, and that the armour was made so the gang could stride about among the survivors of the wreck and shoot them dead?
The Kelly myth lives on because of this sort of worshipful journalistic nonsense




#3 Dee 2014-11-10 07:56

The deification of Ned kelly is a sickening distortion of the truth.
To suggest he was either "a psychopath? Or a young petty thief caught up in an ongoing war between those in positions of authority and power and those without either " is an absurd and false dichotomy - a flimsy "straw man" invented by lazy journalist who wants to perpetuate the kelly mythmaking. From a young age he was violent, a liar and thief, and in adulthood a murderer bank robber and architect of a - thankfully failed - railway massacre that would have been the equal of any number of acts of terror currently reported with appropriate outrage from the middle east. Kellys brilliance was in selling himself and promoting his delusional beliefs about who was to blame for the mess he made of his life. When is Australia going to wake up to the confidence trick of the century and start recognising true heroes, people like Thomas Curnow who saved the lives of all those people on the train?