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Ned Kelly – a criminal or hero? Meet the Australian Robin Hood!

Every country has its legends and stories. People enjoy telling them and listening to them because they explain what they otherwise cannot understand, give them hope, educate them, entertain them. Some of them are purely fictional, others are based on a true story but might more or less change after being transmitted through too many story tellers. I have heard one such Australian legend when I was visiting Melbourne. As some of you might have already guessed it is about the most famous Australian bushranger and bandit Ned Kelly.

Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born in June 1855 as the first-born son of an Irish Catholic couple. His father, John ‘Red’ Kelly, was an ex-convict (transported from Ireland for the theft of two pigs). After his sentence expired he married eighteen years old Ellen Quinn. The Kellys settled in the Victorian ranges north of Melbourne and had five daughters and three sons.

Ned’s father died when Ned was only nine years old and since then Ned had to stop studying, was often in conflicts with police and was arrested many times. He was mainly accused from stealing cattle and horses. People still debate about which of the crimes he really committed and which he was just accused from because his family was not favoured by police officers. This probably never has been and never will be known with certainty. The real troubles started after so called Fitzpatrick incident. Although Constable Fitzpatrick was warned to stay away from Kellys, he decided to arrest Ned’s brother Dan that had just returned home from prison. It is said that he was quite drunk when he came to Kellys’ hut and assaulted Kate, Ned’s older sister. Ellen Kelly shot Fitzpatrick in the wrist to protect Kate but because she wanted to avoid any repercussions, tended Fitzpatrick’s wounds, fed him, gave him something to drink and sent him on his way, with an understanding that no more would be said. Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick testified he was attacked by Kellys and their sympathisers and shot at three times by Ned (who was probably not even present during the whole incident). After that Ned’s mother was sentenced to prison for three years with a breast feeding baby. Ned and Dan went into hiding in the Wombat Ranges and were soon joined by their mates Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. The foursome became known as the Kelly Gang. The gang did not try to break into the jail to rescue Ned’s mother as expected, instead they offered an ultimatum to the government which started a real war:

“…to give those people who are suffering innocence, justice and liberty. if not I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagems which will open the eyes of not only the Victoria Police and inhabitants but also the whole British Army…”

Consequently, the Kelly Gang committed two large-scale bank robberies to support themselves and to help their supporters and the poor. Therefore, many say Ned was an Australian Robin Hood. The police were determined to hunt down the Kelly Gang. In October 1878 a party of four fully armed police were sent out to find them. The Gang, however, surprised them at Stringybark Creek and three policemen were killed which even increased the price set on Ned’s head.

After more bank robberies, in 1880 the Gang took 60 hostages in the Glenrowan Inn and planned to negotiate the release of Ned’s mother Ellen and others jailed after the Fitzpatrick incident. 46 policemen arrived, surrounded the Glenrowan Inn and fired at the Kelly Gang for seven hours. Although all four were wearing homemade metal armour; Dan, Joe and Steve were killed. Ned was shot into both unprotected legs and arrested.

Ned was imprisoned in the Melbourne Gaol in order to recover. There he wrote a long letter to the authorities demonstrating the discrimination against poor Irish settlers. Then he was trialled and despite public protests sentenced to death. On his sentencing Ned reacted with famous words: “The day will come when we will all have to go to a bigger court than this.”

Ned Kelly died by hanging on 11th November 1880 at Melbourne Gaol. His last words “Such is life” as well as legends about his life became immortal.

Many years have passed but people did not forget Ned Kelly and his Gang. The criminal hated by police and authorities became one of Australia’s greatest folk heroes. His story inspired painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers. Therefore, for those interested in Ned Kelly’s Gang, or better say more or less real stories about it, there are plenty of resources to follow!

Photo of Ned Kelly taken the day before his execution

Photo of Ned Kelly taken the day before his execution

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