On a cold June morning, more than 100 years ago a bushranger called Ned Kelly fought his final battle. He was an outlaw who rode a horse, put on a suit of armour and fought police. Today, Ned Kelly is an Australia legend.
Ned, the eldest of eight children, was born to Irish parents in Victoria in 1854. He was just twelve years of age when his ex-convict father died and his family settled near relatives at Greta, two hundred and forty kilometres northeast of Melbourne.
In Ned's time it was wild, rugged country and life was hard. The best land was held by a handful of wealthy so called squatters. But Ned's family was poor and the only opportunity they had to own land was as 'selectors'. Under the selection system families took up areas of land set aside by the government and paid them off bit by bit. As part of the scheme they also had to improve the property by clearing it, building a house, putting up fences and growing a crop. If they didn't the land could be taken away.
For many it was an impossible situation with the plots of land too small, and the soil too poor for them to make a living. Faced with poverty, selectors often stole horses and cattle from the wealthysquatters.
Ned was just aged sixteen, when he was convicted of receiving a stolen horse and served three years in gaol before being released in 1874.Whether or not he was set for a life of crime is hard to say, but one event had a dramatic effect on determining his future. In April 1878, a police officer called Fitzpatrick accused Ned's mother of attacking him and Ned of shooting him in the wrist. But whatever actually happened, the end result of Fitzpatrick's claims was that Mrs. Kelly was sent to prison for three years and a one hundred pound reward was offered for the capture of Ned. From that time on Ned and his brother Dan kept to the bush.
On the 26 October 1878, together with friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, they came across police camped at Stringy Bark Creek. Ned believed the police intended to kill him and Dan so he called on them to surrender. But three of the officers resisted, and in the fight which followed Kelly shot them dead. The reward for Kelly and his gang rose to two thousand pounds and would later rise to an amazing eight thousand pounds, the equivalent, today, of nearly two million dollars! But Ned had many supporters and for almost two years they helped the gang dodge police.
He called Constable Fitzpatrick a liar and explained his killing of police at Stringy Bark as self defense. He also called for justice for the poor, writing..."I have no intention of asking mercy for myself of any mortal man, or apologising, but I wish to give timely warning that if my people do not get justice and those innocents released from prison, I shall be forced to seek revenge of everything of the human race for the future."
In June 1880 Ned made his last stand. The Kelly gang was at the Glenrowan Hotel when they were surrounded by police. Prepared to fight, the four bushrangers wore suits of armour made from steel. During the battle, Ned escaped through the police lines. But rather than fleeing into the bush, he returned a number of times to fight police. He was trying to rescue his brother and friends. Eventually, he collapsed with more than twenty-eight bullet wounds to his arms, legs, feet, groin and hands. Beneath his armour a green sash he wore was stained with blood. It was a sash he'd been given many years earlier for saving a drowning boy.
Ned was the only survivor of the siege. In Melbourne gaol, on 11 November 1880 Ned Kelly was hanged. He was twenty-five years old. For many, the making of Ned Kelly the legend, raises questions about how Australians see themselves .For some he's no more than a criminal but for others he continues to be seen as brave and daring and , a bit of a larrikin, someone distinctly Australian.
Ned Kelly, New World Celt (1854 - 1880)