Mr. Bulletproof

My last post covered the early history of Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, one of the most iconic figures of Australian (and, indeed, Irish) history, up until the Fitzpatrick affair of 1878 had landed his mother and two friends in jail. Not only that, but both he and his brother Dan were now wanted men; at his mother’s trial the prosecutor said that, had Kelly been there, he would have ‘given him twenty one years’ (some sources say 15, but that’s really a triviality). Seeing the situation was hopeless, and finally losing their tether at the injustice and aggression of the police, Ned and Dan fled the district and went into the bush, and here we pick up the story.

The police were anxious to finally and properly deal with the Kelly brothers and to close down their rustling racket (although they never had any evidence for it), and a £100 reward (a large sum in those days) was put on both their heads. Ned and Dan saw the need to lay low, and made their way to the Wombat Ranges, where they attempted to raise some cash by means of a whiskey distillery and gold panning. Their plan was not, for the moment, anything criminal, but all that changed in late October when the police learned of their whereabouts, and nine policemen set out to capture them. They aimed to execute a pincer movement, one group aiming to catch the gang as they ran away from the other, but this plan went swiftly awry. As they searched for the Kelly camp (the Wombat Ranges was a large area), one of the groups (comprising four men) made camp at Stringybark Creek, unknowingly less than a mile from the Kelly camp. Ned Kelly, who had presumably been keeping a watchful eye out for the police, saw the camp, gathered his brother, two associates who had joined them (Joe Byrne and Steve Hart) and made for it. At around 5pm, the four men (with five guns between them; Ned carried two rifles) surprised the two officers who remained at the camp (the other two having gone off to explore) and told them to lay down their arms. Although Constable McIntyre surrendered immediately (which was probably the sensible thing, given that he was unarmed), a Constable Lonigan, who Kelly had some history with, went for his gun. Ned Kelly immediately shot him in the head. When the other two officers returned they were presented with a similar demand to ‘bail up’, but instead chose to open fire. Both men were shot dead (one thanks to Kelly), but the ensuing chaos gave McIntyre the opportunity to escape on a horse. Upon his return to his home police station he told of Kelly’s ambush on their party, and the slaughter shocked the whole area. All four men were declared outlaws, to be taken dead or alive.

The police took this idea rather… enthusiastically, and gave themselves emergency powers to, basically, break in to anywhere they liked without a warrant and to arrest any suspected sympathisers. Needless to say this did not endear them to the common folk of Australia, particularly when even these tactics failed to find Kelly. Shock at the Kelly gang’s murders slowly turned to annoyance and resentment towards the police, and sympathy with the plight of the Kellys grew. However, the Kelly gang themselves were in dubious shape; without any money they were struggling to keep themselves going, or to help any of their sympathisers who found themselves in prison. The outlaws needed cash, and fast; and so Ned Kelly decided to rob a bank. What the hell, they could only hang him once.

This first raid, on the town of Euroa, was masterful in its execution; after taking over a building to act as a base and to rest their horses, they marched into the bank, weapons drawn, cut the telegraph lines to prevent any messages getting out, and walked out a few minutes later £2260 the richer, an enormous sum. Many of the hostages were, apparently, surprised and charmed by how dignified and polite their kidnappers were, nobody had to be killed and even the newspapers had to admit the robbery had been a veritable triumph. Some of the sympathy for the Kelly gang turned into veritable admiration as, once again, they disappeared into the bush and left the police floundering in their wake. Several months later, it was the turn of the Bank of New South Wales at Jerilderie, an equally slick and bloodless operation that also included, the next day, Ned reading out a weighty 7391-word manifesto/autobiography to the town’s populace. He intended it to be distributed across the country and the world but, as it was, ‘the Jerilderie letter’ went via a complex route into the government archives, and wasn’t published until the 1930s. It is, basically, the Kelly viewpoint on everything that had befallen them, and his views on why he felt his action was justified and the police were ‘cowards’, among other things; it’s phrasing makes it tricky to read, but it provides a shining insight into the mind of the famous outlaw. This letter is the reason beyond all others that Ned Kelly, more than all his compatriots, is remembered to this day.

After Jerilderie, the Kelly gang disappeared for 17 months, and the police pressure intensified. The price on their heads was upped to £4000, over $2 million in today’s money, and the whole ‘locking up friends and sympathisers’ plan ‘ went into overdrive; a select blacklist were banned from owning land in a certain area, for fear they might provide a safehouse for the Kelly gang. This angered the gang, who were incited to one final act of defiance. After shooting an informer (who the police had intended to use as bait), the gang took over the town of Glenrowan, subduing the occupants, and settled down to wait for the police to arrive. It was also here that the Kelly gang donned the outfits that would cement their reputation in history; home-made, 44kg suits of metal body armour, covering chest, back, head and groin, leaving only legs and arms unprotected. These were the first pieces of bulletproof armour, (sufficient to stop a bullet at ten paces), and must have made the outlaws seem mighty fearsome.

The police coming after them knew about the armour from their inquiries, and upon arrival (a released hostage prevented the gang’s attempt to sabotage the train line from being successful) began a shootout against the Kelly gang; 50 against four. During the 15 minute gunfight, Joe Byrne was hit once and Ned 3 times (it is a testament to their armour’s effectiveness that it wasn’t more), before they retreated to the hotel where their hostages were kept. Slowly, it became apparent that the Kelly gang were losing; some time later that night, Joe Byrne was killed thanks to a stray shot to the groin, and the terrified hostages began to escape to the police line. The next morning, Ned Kelly attempted to ambush the police from behind (or had already been out and went back to rescue his compatriots; stories differ), but they now knew to aim for the legs. After 28 shots to his flesh, and countless to his unpeirced armour, Kelly finally went down, somehow still alive despite horrific blood loss. When the police finally fought their way through into the hotel, they found Steve Hart and Dan Kelly dead. Both had almost certainly committed suicide rather than be captured.

Ned Kelly was hanged less than a month later, but his memory has survived long past that Australian November day more than a century ago. The British have had a long history of being brutally controlling to their possessions, both across the empire and in Ireland (indeed, if you go back far enough we can count Scotland and Wales too), and it was invariably the common people who suffered at the hand of harsh taxation, a near-total lack of care for the welfare of the poor and a brutal legal system. Many thousands of people have suffered at such injustices, but Ned Kelly is a rare example of a normal guy who stood up almost alone against the system- and won. His memory acts as a rallying point for all thoughts of freedom from control, of oppression, of having one’s destiny decided for you. He lived fast, he died young, he represented the fight against some of the worst aspects of Britain’s imperial age. And, even today, that means something.

Plus, a bulletproof suit of armour? SO GODDAMN COOL!!!

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