On the 11th of November 1880, a young man in his mid-twenties was hanged in Melbourne, Australia. Nothing particularly unusual about this; Australia was British-owned at the time and took a blunt approach to law enforcement, resulting in many a young man’s death. But this particular young man was something special, as indicated by some (not entirely authenticated) reports that a petition to save his life attracted 30,000 signatories. The man’s name was Ned Kelly, and his story was an extraordinary one.
Some reports claim it was a year later, but Edward Kelly was born in June 1854 to an Irish family in Beveridge, Victoria. He grew into a brave, boisterous boy; aged ten he jumped fully clothed into a river to save the life of a drowning seven year-old, and wore the green sash the family concerned gave him as a reward for much of the rest of his life. His father had been exported to Oz several years ago for theft, and had managed to do well enough for himself to buy a small bit of land; cheap as land was in Australia at the time, such an achievement wasn’t bad for an ex-con at the time. Not that this made life easy for him; the government view at the time was that, since a large proportion of Australians were former convicts, they must all be dirty stinking thieves who shouldn’t be given an inch. This was not conducive to a healthy state of living for Australia’s poor (ie almost everybody), and as such Ned’s father turned to cattle rustling in order to make life that little bit more comfortable. However, the law soon caught up with him, and he was sentenced to six months’ hard labour, which had a permanent effect on his health. Shortly after his return, he died, forcing young Ned to drop out of school to help his mother. His experience with the police during this escapade was not positive, and could be said to have affected the rest of his life.
Still, Ned’s mother Ellen, a famously spirited woman, was still around and moved the family to an area of uncultivated farmland (a lot cheaper than their former freehold home) at a place called Eleven Mile Creek. It was here that Kelly made his first notable forays into the lawless side of things; there was a sharp divide at the time between small landowners (such as the Kelly family) and the ‘big business’ landowners known as squatters. The latter had the police very much on their side and would vehemently ‘protect their interests’ against the hard-up small-time farmers, and a there was something of an undercurrent of resentment dividing the two camps, as there usually is between the rich and poor. The small men, like the Kellys, did what they could to keep their heads above water in this rather messy environment, and a little small-scale rustling was considered part and parcel of the whole business, horses and cattle being exchanged like an alternate currency. Illegality became a way of life for them, and in many ways it was a highly necessary one.
The police, of course, did not take this point of view; the rustlers were, to their mind, nothing more than the basest of thieves, and their patrols were determined to take them down. As ‘The Kelly Gang’ grew in reputation, the forces of law became determined to find some reason, any reason, to take them down, just to keep them under control. After several charges were (reluctantly) dismissed through lack of evidence, he was sent down twice within two years; firstly for assaulting a hawker and later for being caught in possession of a stolen horse. He was sentenced to three years whilst, bizarrely, the man who stole it received just a year and a half. A few years later, he was involved in a fight with police concerning his state of drunkenness (which many thought odd, given that he barely drank; some think his drink may have been spiked), and then came The Fitzpatrick Incident.
In 1878, Ned Kelly’s brother Dan found himself victim of an arrest warrant for horse rustling (the Kelly ring had now grown substantially) and a Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick went to the Kelly house in an attempt to arrest him. He found Dan with his mother and sisters, and agreed to let him finish dinner before coming with him. Some reports state that there had been a scuffle even before this, but what is known is that Ellen Kelly asked Fitzpatrick whether he had an arrest warrant. Fitzpatrick in fact only had a telegram telling him to take Dan in, and his mother (quite rightly, if my legal knowledge is anything to go by) said that Dan therefore had no obligation to go with Fitzpatrick unless he chose to. Fitzpatrick responded by pulling out a pistol and threatening to ‘blow her brains out’ if she continued to ‘interfere’, to which Ellen made some comment to the effect of ‘you wouldn’t be quite so brave if Ned were here’. Dan Kelly responded in possibly the most clichéd fashion imaginable; telling Fitzpatrick that his brother Ned was coming to get him to look out of the window before jumping up, grabbing him and forcing him to drop his weapon, before releasing him (unharmed, he later claimed).
This is generally agreed to be (at least approximately) the true version of events; however, Fitzpatrick then rode to Benalla and announced that he had been attacked by most of the Kelly clan armed with revolvers, and that Ned had shot him in the wrist. The wound was almost certainly not bullet-induced; it was probably made to look worse than it originally had with the use of Fitzpatrick’s penknife (indeed, Fitzpatrick was later labelled a liar and thrown out of the force), but that didn’t matter to the courts now that they had something to take down Ned Kelly for. Within a few hours the Kelly homestead was surrounded and all present were arrested (Dan had already left to try and find his brother in the bush). Punishments were harsh; based only on Fitzpatrick’s drunken testimony, Ellen Kelly received three years whilst two other men who’d been present in the house (Ned’s brother-in-law Bill Skillion and an associate named William ‘Brickey’ Williamson) got six years apiece. Ned Kelly was furious, and demanded vengeance; a story that we will pick up next time…