Ned Kelly: The Infamous Outlaw of Australia’s “Wild West”

Read on for the story of Ned Kelly, Australia’s most famous bushranger outlaw.

Feb 11, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
story of ned kelly infamous outlaw australia
Right Ned Kelly in 1880, from TROVE, via Bendigo Advertiser

 

In the mid-19th century, Australia had a huge problem with outlaws roaming the lawless bush. Escaped convicts turned to a life of crime to make their fortune as “bushrangers,” and as Australia was a penal colony, there was no shortage of convicts, nor was there a shortage of the mindset needed to become an outlaw in this new land.

 

This era for Australia was very similar in nature to the Wild West era in the United States, and it produced many notorious outlaws such as Ben Hall, Dan Morgan, the Clarke Brothers, Bluecap, Captain Thunderbolt, and the most famous of them all, Ned Kelly. This is the story of the latter and how he terrorized southeastern Australia.

 

The Early Life of Ned Kelly

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The green sash that was given to Ned Kelly as a boy, via visitvictoria.com

 

Edward “Ned” Kelly was born in December 1854 to John Kelly and Ellen Quinn in Australia. His father was an Irish convict transported to Australia for stealing two pigs. His family struggled, and his father drank heavily.

 

As a child, Ned Kelly risked his life to save a boy from drowning in a river. The boy’s family gave Ned a green sash, which Ned kept his whole life and wore under his arm during his final fight against the law.

 

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Life was tough for the Kelly family, and his father turned to crime once again. With a serious alcohol problem, Ned’s father died in 1866. Ned’s uncle was also convicted of arson and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Ellen worked hard for the family, providing accommodations and making ends meet by selling illegal alcohol.

 

At the age of 14, Ned Kelly was arrested for the assault of a Chinese salesman, Ah Fook. The salesman claimed that Kelly had started the fight, but Ned claimed that he was defending his sister, a story that was corroborated by Ned’s sister and two other witnesses, and the charges were dropped.

 

A Life of Crime Begins

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Ned Kelly in 1873, via National Museum Australia, Canberra

 

At the age of 14, Ned Kelly met an Irish convict named Harry Power, who inducted him into the life of a bushranger. Their first attempt at a criminal act together was to steal horses from a farm, but their presence was discovered, and after being shot at, they abandoned the attempt. Kelly briefly broke off contact with Powers. In 1870, the pair reconciled and went on a spree of robberies.

 

Kelly was caught by police and put on trial, but the prosecution botched the evidence, leaving Ned Kelly to walk free. In June 1870, Harry Power was arrested by the police. Rumors flew that Ned Kelly had informed on him, and Harry Power believed these rumors too. The truth was that Ned Kelly’s uncle had, in fact, been the informant.

 

In October 1870, Kelly was convicted and sentenced to six months of hard labor for assault. Shortly after being released in March of the following year, Kelly was involved in an incident regarding a stolen horse. The horse had been stolen by Isaiah “Wild” Wright, a friend of the husband of Ned Kelly’s older sister. Kelly was riding the horse when he was spotted by a policeman who suspected the horse was stolen. Kelly resisted arrest, and a fight ensued in which he was almost shot, but the policeman’s pistol misfired three times.

 

It took seven people to subdue Kelly. Kelly claimed he did not know the horse was stolen. He and his brother-in-law were sentenced to three years imprisonment, while Wright was sentenced to 18 months. After Kelly had served his sentence, he challenged Wright to a bare-knuckle boxing match to settle the score. Kelly won after 20 rounds.

 

australian outlaw dan kelly
Ned’s younger brother, Dan, via ironoutlaw.com

 

Ned Kelly worked at a sawmill, but the lure of crime, as well as all the bushrangers he had contact with, made it hard for him to resist the temptation of easy riches. He began life as a bushranger again, working with his brothers, his cousins, and even his former nemesis, Isaiah Wright.

 

His lifestyle led him directly into conflict with the police. He had been in several altercations that had turned violent, and the police harassed him as they knew he was a criminal. Ned’s gang had been stealing horses, and the police were out to catch Ned Kelly as soon as they had evidence.

 

In April 1878, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick went to the Kelly residence to arrest Ned’s brother, Dan, for horse thievery. The policeman did not have a warrant and was allegedly drunk at the time. A fight broke out, and there were conflicting reports of what happened. In the end, Ned’s mother, Ellen, ended up in prison while Ned and Dan ended up on the run.

 

Gunfighting

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The Kelly Gang involved in a shootout with the police, via a Guide to Australian Bushranging

 

The Kelly brothers were joined by two others, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, while on the run, and the gang hid in Bullock Creek in the Wombat Ranges where they sluiced gold and distilled whiskey. They had contacts who supplied them with the necessary goods for survival, but it was only a matter of time before the police discovered their location. In October 1878, they were discovered by a police search party, and a gunfight erupted in which Ned Kelly shot and killed a policeman. Three others were taken prisoner but tried to escape. Two more policemen died at the hands of Ned Kelly. Only one of them managed to escape. Immediately a reward was put on the heads of the four members of Kelly’s gang. The Kelly Gang were given two weeks to surrender themselves, after which they would be declared outlaws and could be shot dead by anyone who suspected them of being armed.

 

Ned Kelly and his three partners refused to give themselves up and ended up on the wrong side of a manhunt. This, however, did not stop them from pursuing criminal acts.

 

Euroa & Jerilderie

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Ned Kelly in his unique armor, via Victorian Collections

 

On December 8, 1878, Ned Kelly and his gang robbed the bank in the small town of Euroa. A number of hostages were taken, and the gang entertained them with trick riding until the robbery was finished. Newspapers reported that the gang had been courteous and commended the efficiency of the robbery while chiding the police for their inability to catch the gang of outlaws.

 

In need of money again, the gang’s next heist would be in the town of Jerilderie. Many sympathizers knew of the plan and moved into the town to help the Kelly Gang carry out the robbery. The plan was complex and evolved over the course of two days. They tied up the police at the police barracks, held up a hotel, from where they entered the bank from the rear, robbed the bank, then robbed the post office. They cut down telegraph poles and ensured no police backup could be called. In the end, the robbery was another complete success.

 

Ned Kelly’s Last Stand

 

In June 1880, the Kelly Gang laid siege to a hut that contained an informant and some police officers. The Kelly Gang managed to kill the informant while leaving the police officers alive. Ned surmised that police reinforcements would be sent up from Melbourne. He decided that they should derail the train, kill the survivors, and cause havoc in the nearby town of Glenrowan.

 

ned kelly australian outlaw glenrowan siege
The siege of Glenrowan, via David Cook, Camper Australia

 

The attempt to damage the track took a long time, and police were tipped off about the attempt at derailment. When the train arrived, the police were ready, and the Kelly Gang holed up in a hotel in the town. Ned Kelly and his gang were wearing armor that they had made from metal plates taken from old farm equipment and, from the waist up, were almost impervious to gunfire. Nevertheless, three of the Kelly Gang received injuries in the following siege at the hotel. Several hostages were killed, as the police did not realize their presence, and the weatherboard walls offered little protection against gunfire.

 

At 3:30 in the morning, Ned Kelly, bleeding from his wounds, escaped via the back of the hotel into the bush. A number of hostages escaped as well. Soon after, Joe Byrne was shot in the groin and killed. By 7:00, more police arrived from nearby towns, and about 40 police surrounded the hotel.

 

At about 7:00, Ned Kelly emerged from hiding and attacked the police from the rear. He was heavily wounded and struggled in his heavy armor. After about half an hour, he was caught in the legs by a shotgun blast and finally captured.

 

After a ceasefire, the hostages were released. Hundreds of spectators had gathered while Dan and Hart continued resisting. Eventually, the police chief decided to set fire to the hotel, but neither member of the Kelly Gang escaped the building. It is unclear whether they died in the fire or succumbed to wounds beforehand.

 

Ned Kelly was sentenced to death by hanging. Thousands demanded a reprieve, and a petition was submitted containing 32,000 signatures. The authorities were unmoved and continued with the execution. On November 11, 1880, Ned Kelly’s execution was carried out.

 

ned death mask
A casting of Ned Kelly’s face after he died, from State Library Victoria via Victorian Collections

 

Easily recognizable by the vision of his armor, Ned Kelly has entered the history books as one of Australia’s most well-known criminals, and his gang’s exploits, although criminal in nature, have added to the rich cultural history of the country.

 

ned kelly australian outlaw statue
A 6-meter (20-foot) tall statue of Ned Kelly in Glenrowan, via National Geographic

 

Despite being a criminal, he is a folk hero in Australia. He had many thousands of sympathizers when he was alive, and today he is still a symbol of resistance against crooked authority. After his death, investigations around the police force found widespread misconduct, and many law enforcers lost their jobs as a result.

 

In January 2019, a movie, The True History of the Kelly Gang, starring George Mackay and Russell Crowe, was released and well received by audiences across the globe.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.