Australian folk heroes tend to sit well outside of the established norms of acceptable behaviour. By far, our best known is Ned Kelly. Does this culturally ever-present bushranger even need introducing? To some, he’s a thief and a murderer; to others, a rebel who fought against a corrupt administration determined to dominate the poor and oppressed.
Kelly, born in 1854 or 1855, was the third of 12 children from immigrant Irish parents. His father was a transported convict who died shortly after completing a six-month jail sentence when Ned was about 12, leaving him as the oldest male in a very paternalistic society. Like many of their neighbours and the Irish in general, the Kellys saw themselves as downtrodden by the wealthy squattocracy and their allies, the often corrupt police and judicial system.
LIFE ON THE RUN
Ned had a number of run-ins with police, including a three-year prison sentence for receiving a stolen horse, before a fight with a police officer in his home in 1878 saw him flee into the bush, vowing revenge for the arrest and incarceration of his mother for her part in the incident.
On October 26, 1878, a police search party set out looking for the Kelly gang in the Wombat Ranges near the head of the King River. The gang ambushed the party and an ensuing fight saw Kelly and his gang shoot three of the police officers dead as doornails. In the wake of this confrontation, parliament declared that the Kellys could be shot on sight by anyone.
Over the following two years, the Kelly gang evaded police with the assistance of an extensive network of sympathisers, all the while robbing banks and individuals, though often with apologies and offers to pay for goods. The police and government lost public favour when they arrested 23 “sympathisers”, many of whom proclaimed their innocence, and held them for three months before release.
In June 1880, Kelly’s gang captured the small town of Glenrowan after having shot dead informer Aaron Sherritt. Expecting the police to send up a train load of reinforcements, they sabotaged the rail line and waited, but a resident managed to stop the train before it reached the damaged tracks. A shootout with police then took place at the local inn. All three of Kelly’s gang died in the crossfire and Kelly, famously clad in his home-made steel armour, was wounded and captured. He was later hanged at Melbourne Gaol on November 11, 1880.
His reported last words were “such is life”.
FOLLOWING IN KELLY’S FOOTSTEPS
The scenes of Kelly’s exploits are still largely present and well-marked. In fact, they have spawned a thriving industry, varying from the kitsch to well-assembled re-creations of the bushranger’s life. Tracing Kelly’s career makes for a relatively easy and highly informative camping trip.
Today, north-east Victoria is a place of steep mountain country and beautiful old gold mining towns with a deep connection to Kelly and his memory. Every village seems to want to claim an association to his name, from his earliest years through to his capture.
You can follow the Kelly story quite effortlessly. Most of it is arrayed either side of the Hume Freeway, heading north out of Melbourne. The driving is easy and there are many readily available campgrounds or free camps throughout the region. The surrounding towns range from tiny villages to beautifully preserved examples of Victorian era settlements.
Kelly’s childhood home is at Beveridge, just 42km up the Hume Freeway from Melbourne, in, of course, Kelly Street. But the real interest lies further north and east, where life was easier for the struggling family.
Following his father’s death, Ned and his family moved north to Benalla, where his more violent history would initiate. Remnants are still there: the old bootmaker’s shop, where Ned hid as a boy after being charged with drunkenness and riding a horse on a footpath; the old courthouse where he was charged, with its cell where he was held (open to the public); and the Costume and Pioneer Museum featuring some notable artifacts, including the bloodstained sash Kelly wore under his armour in his final shootout with police (a childhood present from a family for rescuing their child from a creek, an obviously potent and significant talisman that Kelly felt fulfilled his self-image as a hero).
The Benalla Regional Art Gallery has some significant art pieces reflecting images of Ned, and the local cemetery is the resting place for a number of notable people in the Kelly story.
Greta is a small village 15km south-east of Wangaratta. There you will find the remains of another Kelly home where police came to arrest Dan Kelly for horse theft. It was here that Ned and his mother had a confrontation with a police officer, which culminated in Ned escaping into the nearby bush and his mother knocking out the police officer with a shovel. Two Kelly associates were sentenced to six years in goal, and Ned’s mother received three years on charges of attempted murder, despite many holes in the prosecution case. Access to this site is prohibited, as it sits on private land and there are many no-trespassing signs. You’ll need binoculars or an excellent telephoto lens on your camera to inspect the now crumbling remains. At the Greta cemetery rest the graves of many participants in the Kelly saga, including Kelly’s mother.
Heading to the old gold mining town of Beechworth requires that you drive past Glenrowan, but it keeps things in a chronological sequence. This is where Ned, his mother and many sympathisers were tried. You can see the outside of the Beechworth Gaol, once a place of incarceration for so many of those players in the Kelly saga, now ringed with razor wire. The Beechworth Historical and Cultural Precinct includes the Courthouse, Telegraph Station, Powder Magazine and Burke Museum, where a Ned Kelly death mask is on display.
Beechworth, and its nearby towns of Yackandandah, Chiltern and Rutherglen, are attractive centres. They retain their Victorian and Edwardian charm with many old buildings, plus plenty of good cafes, antique shops and attractive streetscapes. If you want to make your Kelly trip a lazier affair without rushing from point to point, plan to spend a few days around here. It’s well worth it.
REDISCOVERING THE KELLY STORY
If you try to keep things in a proper sequence, the next port of call should be the Kelly Tree. This lies about 10km out of Tolmie, almost as far south as Mansfield. This marks the spot where Kelly’s gang surprised the police camp and shot dead constables Lonigan, Kennedy and Scanlon. It’s a place to which people have continually made pilgrimages since just a few days after Kelly was hanged. These days, it’s a well-developed site, yet still holds its natural atmosphere. Stand still and it is perfectly silent, with just the soft sounds of the ribbon gum forest around.
It’s obviously a very emotive place for many different groups and for very different reasons. There’s currently a memorial to the three policemen; but previous memorials, as well as signage about Kelly, have been damaged or stolen in the past. The 'tree' is supposed to mark the site of the Kelly-police shootout but is in fact on the wrong side of the creek and several hundred metres from the actual site.
In 1878, a tree was found marked by a stray bullet from the shootout and it became known as the Kelly Tree. But it was cut down by loggers in 1908. A dead tree nearby became a marker for the site, but it fell into decay in the 1940s. A local landowner selected a replacement tree — the one that we currently see — which became known as the Kelly Tree. In 1985, a metal plaque bearing the name of the three dead policemen and shaped in the image of Kelly’s famous head armour was attached to that tree. The tree is slowly growing around that plaque but it stands as a silent marker to that day of death in the Wombat Ranges.
For the true Ned Kelly fans, no road trip pursuing the bushranger’s story would be complete without a visit to Powers Lookout, overlooking the King Valley. Even without Kelly’s connection to this locality, it’s a breathtaking view over amazingly picturesque country. It does require a little climbing and descending of well-built stairways, but the result is worth it.
The site is named after bushranger Harry Power and sits above Kelly’s grandparents’ old farm, and it was here that Kelly and Power met. In his teenage years, Kelly assisted Power in several robberies, and he was taught much of bush survival and police evasion skills by the experienced old hand. When the reward for Power’s capture was increased to 500 pounds, one of Ned’s uncles, who lived nearby and had been a prison mate of Power’s, dobbed him in to the police.
THE LAST STAND
No matter which way you approach Kelly country, Glenrowan should be your final calling place. It is the scene of the final police shootout and Ned’s capture, and it is saturated with Kelly imagery, from the giant 6m Ned statue in the main street to the tacky tourist souvenir shops.
The local tourist centre has an animatronic recreation of Ned’s last stand at the Glenrowan Inn and his hanging that runs every half hour from 10am to 4.30pm daily (at $31 per head, with a $2 discount for pensioners). The original Glenrowan Inn, which was the scene of the shootout, was burnt to the ground during the siege and is now just an empty site, but you can either join an organised walking tour at the Tourist Centre in Gladstone Street, or pick up a leaflet directing you on a self-guided tour.
The Ned Kelly Memorial Museum is a little less hyped about the Kelly legend and has some interesting recreations of the old Kelly home and the recreated blacksmith’s shop in Siege Street. After all this, head to one of the tourist souvenir shops to stock up on some of the Kelly postcards, tea towels, caps and T-shirts.
Ned Kelly’s legacy is a complex one, no matter which side you’re on. Typically, Victorian police and descendants of the police involved all regard Ned to be little more than a murderer, thug and thief who deserved what he got. Yet many others approve of Ned’s lifestyle and his fight for the little guy, whether by low level sympathy or more vociferous support.
Regardless of your moral standing on Kelly’s place in Australian history, these relatively condensed historical travels alongside Australia’s alpine country make for a great camping tour.
WHY IS NEW KELLY A HERO?
All societies draw upon their past to define their present, and Australia is no different. Yet, when we dip into the legend of Ned Kelly — for that’s what it is, a mix of known facts thrown in with a lot of myth — there is enough wriggle room to draw from this story pretty much whatever conclusions you want.
Kelly is seen by many as the archetypical Australian: brave, strong, masculine and always the underdog. At the time of Kelly’s birth, Australia was only just out of the days of transported convicts. In fact, his father had been transported for theft. There were many in the community who could remember those days and who carried the prejudices against a system that typically imposed harsh conditions upon the poor, especially the Irish. In Ned Kelly, they saw someone who was willing to stand up against “the system” of establishment justice and who dared to face down the executors of that system —the police and the judiciary.
Similar tales exist in many countries. In Britain, for example, you have Robin Hood, who stood up against the oppression of a corrupt ruler to benefit the poor. However, the two tales vary in one crucial way. Robin Hood was rescued from his outlaw status by the return of a true and just ruler, while Kelly was simply overwhelmed by the power of a criminal and justice system that was, in the end, always going to win. But this just gives Kelly a cloak of the martyr.
Kelly was seen as a hero even before his death, with a petition to have his death sentence at least commuted to life in prison signed by 32,000 people. He was the subject of the world’s first feature length movie (according to the United Nations Memory of the World Register in 2007) which was made in 1906, and the ANZACs made famous the phrase “as game as Ned Kelly” during the First World War. In the century since, Kelly has become the subject of more biographies than any other Australian.
Kelly’s apparent “curse” onto his final judge, Sir Redmond Barry, that “a day will come at a bigger court than this when we shall see which is right and which is wrong”, and Barry’s subsequent death within two weeks, just added to the air of mystique surrounding Kelly.
Some may argue that Kelly was nothing more than a delinquent thug and murderer, but you won’t find many who will agree with you.