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Ned Kelly – The most famous Australian Bush Ranger

The legend of Ned Kelly remains a subject of debate, but one thing is certain ― this gun-wielding outlaw became and stayed a household name in Australia, as his notoriety grew into a folk tale that is remembered to this day. Son of John Kelly, who was deported from Ireland for stealing two pigs and sent to the island of Tasmania, Ned was bound for a life of hardship.

His father was a gold digger who managed to accumulate enough wealth to purchase a small farm north of Melbourne. After the gold rush, John Kelly turned to his old trade, cattle theft. The Kelly house became a meeting place for criminals, and this was the environment in which little Ned and seven of his brothers and sisters grew up.

Kelly’s boyhood home, built by his father in Beveridge in 1859; Photo Credit

His father was later imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor. As the labor penalty affected his health significantly, John Kelly died shortly after his release from prison in 1866. Ned grew up surrounded by the Australian bush, and he became acquainted with it from his early age. He was an excellent swimmer and a capable tracker, as these traits were common knowledge in the Australian countryside.

But still, his childhood wasn’t at all pastoral and idyllic as it sounds. Young Kelly witnessed harassment by the police, as members of his family were often targeted as usual suspects due to their known association with crime. His own personal journey into the life of crime began in 1869 when he was 14 years old.

Police mugshot of Kelly, aged 15Photo Credit

He was accused of a robbery of a Chinese merchant called Ah Fook. According to Fook, Kelly jumped him with a bamboo stick and stole 10 shillings from him. According to Kelly, his sister Anne and two other witnesses, Fook attacked Kelly, and the boy ran away. According to several historians, neither of the accounts are completely true, but Fook most probably did strike first, as Kelly most definitely responded twice as hard. The whole incident was dismissed due to lack of evidence, but Ned Kelly was noted as a troublemaker.

After this episode, Kelly turned to armed robberies, presenting himself as a bushranger, which was the term used for Australian renegades who used the uninhabited bush of Australia as their base of operations. His career as an outlaw began in the company of an another troublesome character called Harry Power.

Even though Kelly was often guilty of many crimes, there was a number of mishaps when he was just falsely accused. One such event involved a stolen mare which was given to Kelly by Isaiah “Wild” Wright, yet another petty criminal. When a police officer tried to apprehend Ned Kelly for possession of a stolen mare, a fight broke out, and Kelly was arrested and sentenced to three years of imprisonment. He was 16 at the time.

Kelly after defeating Isaiah “Wild” Wright in a 20-round bare-knuckle boxing match, August 1874; Photo Credit

After serving his prison sentence, Kelly challenged Wild Wright to a bare-knuckle boxing to settle the inconvenient fact that his stolen mare landed him in jail for three years. The match lasted for 20 rounds, after which Kelly came out triumphant. He was a genuine tough guy, destined to live the life of a renegade.

In 1878, he shot and wounded Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, who had attempted to apprehend Ned’s younger brother Dan for horse stealing. The Constable was shot in his left arm, and he lost consciousness briefly.

He was woken up by an unbearable pain, only to find Ned Kelly trying to remove the bullet from his arm with a knife so it would not be used as evidence against him.

Scenes from one of Kelly’s bank robberies; Photo Credit

Kelly was no stranger to various shootouts with police officers and bank robberies. After the shooting of Fitzpatrick, the accusations piled up. His brother had joined him in his war against law enforcement and together they formed a gang that garnered both notoriety and admiration from the settlers of Australia.

His downfall began with the arranged killing of a police informant called Aaron Sherritt. Joe Byrne, a respective member of the Kelly Gang, killed Sherritt at point blank range after he answered the door. Byrne and Sherritt were in fact childhood friends, but they chose separate paths in life. This crossing proved to be fatal for the most infamous police informant of the time.

The police pursuit was at its highest. The gang was considered to be the most dangerous in Australia. In order to protect themselves from a numerically superior enemy, the members of the gang designed special body armor weighing about 44 kg. The gang set out to Glenrowan, north-east of Melbourne, where they were to intercept a train carrying police reinforcements.

Murder of Sherritt;Photo Credit


The Kellys, the Glenrowan Quadrilles: 1880 illustration by George Gordon McCrae shows the gang dancing with hostages; Photo Credit

They had torn the tracks at one point and waited while drinking with laborers stationed nearby, who sang songs about the Kelly Gang. The laborers were, in fact, taken hostage by the gang, but they didn’t mind. By this time, the gang was well-known, and adored by many, for their war against the police was something with which people of those times could relate to, especially because the Australian police were often plagued with corrupted officers who only cared for their own wellbeing.

“A strange apparition”: when Kelly appeared out of the mist-shrouded bush, clad in armor, bewildered policemen took him to be a ghost; Photo Credit

The police were informed about the ambush and came in prepared. A raging battle occurred, in which Kelly and his armored crusaders fought back fiercely, but they were simply outnumbered. They decided to fall back into the nearby bush, where Kelly decided to single-handedly attack a detachment of policemen from the rear.

When he appeared wearing his iron mask, the policemen were in awe. The bullets simply bounced off him. But still, his legs were unprotected, so they concentrated their fire in order to knock Kelly off his feet. When he was shot two times in his legs, he surrendered.

Kelly goes to the scaffold; Photo Credit

After a brief trial, Ned Kelly was executed on 11 November 1880 at the Melbourne Gaol. It is believed that his last words were “Such is life.” He was calm and at peace with himself.

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To illustrate Kelly’s notoriety and popularity among common folk it is enough to note that the reward for his head was £8,000 (about $1.5 million in 2015 dollars) and that on the day of his execution 30,000 people allegedly signed a petition for a commutation of his sentence.

Nikola Budanovic

Nikola Budanovic is a freelance journalist who has worked for various media outlets such as Vice, War History Online,The Vintage News, Taste of Cinema,etc. He mostly deals with subjects such as military history and history in general, literature and film.