Kelly Was Their Captain
DESCRIPTION: The singer tells of the "famous outlaw band that roamed this country round. Ned Kelly was their captain...." Ordered arrested by the governor of Victoria, Kelly took to the bush. After long eluding the police, he was betrayed by Aaron Sherritt and taken
EARLIEST DATE: 1968
KEYWORDS: outlaw Australia betrayal
1855 - Birth of Ned Kelly
1880 - Execution of Kelly. His last words are reported to have been "Such is life."
FOUND IN: Australia
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Meredith/Anderson, pp. 203-204, "Kelly Was Their Captain" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Bill Wannan, _The Australians: Yarns, ballads and legends of the Australian tradition_, 1954 (page references are to the 1988 Penguin edition), pp. 20-21, "Kelly Was Their Captain" (1 text)
cf. "The Kelly Gang" (subject)
cf. "Ye Sons of Australia" (subject)
cf. "Kelly Song (Farewell Dan and Edward Kelly)" (subject)
cf. "My Name is Edward Kelly" (subject)
cf. "Ballad of the Kelly Gang" (subject)
cf. "Stringybark Creek" (subject)
cf. "The Kelly Gang Were Strong" (subject)
NOTES [2310 words]: Edward "Ned" Kelly and his gang are perhaps the most famous of all Australian bushrangers. Their history is not as pretty as the songs would imply. Clark, pp. 175-177, gives this account:
"[F]our policemen, Kennedy, Lonigan, Scanlon, and McIntyre, set out from Mansfield in north-eastern Victoria to capture Ned Kelly, Joe Byrne, Dan Kelly, and Steve Hart, for horse and cattle stealing. On 26 October 1878, when the police confronted the bushrangers on Stringybark Creek, Ned Kelly shot and killed Kennedy, Lonigan, and Scanlon. McIntyre escaped to Mansfield to give the alarm....
"From the day of the outrage a legend began to grow among... [those] who, like Ned, had tried but failed to make a living by lawful means in that hard and bitter country. It was said that Ned, like Robin Hood, was battling only to deprive the rich of their wealth and give it to the poor. So the man who killed three constables was apotheosized into a folk hero....
"After Ned and his gang robbed the National Bank of Benalla in December 1878, and the Bank of New South Wales at Jerlilderie... he boasted that his men had never harmed a woman or robbed a poor man. But by one of those ironies in human affairs it was one of the little men whom he had befriended who brought him down. In June 1880 the gang occupied the hotel at Glenrowan....
"Ned... had conceived the mad plan of destroying a train bringing the police and black-trackers to hunt for him. The gang tore up a stretch of track shortly before the train on which the police were travelling was due. While Ned and the other members of the gang were preparing a ghastly wake for their victims, a schoolteacher slipped into the hotel and stopped the train in time. The police surrounded the hotel and set fire to it. Steve Hart, Dan Kelly, and Joe Byrne were burnt to death, but Ned, mad as ever, put on his homemade armour and shot it out with the police till a bullet brought him down. He was brought to Melbourne, tried, and hanged on 11 November 1880, when, according to legend, his last words were 'Such is life.'" (According to Davey/Seal, p. 243, however, if he said any such thing, the actual words were "I suppose it had to come to this," but when Joseph Furphy wrote a book "Such Is Life," it firmly fixed those words in tradition).
Kelly was not, of course, the last Australian outlaw, but he really did prove to be the "last of the bushrangers" (Boxall, p. 345); indeed, Boxall suggests on p. 353 that this is a key reason for his fame: by his time, bushranging was rare.
He was just 25 years old when he was executed. According to Nunn, p. 143, his father John Kelly (born 1820) was a transportee who arrived in Australia in 1842; his mother Ellen Quinn had come to Australia with her parents in 1841. Ned was born at Wallan Wallan in 1854 (Davey/Seal, p. 168 says 1854/1855); Jim Kelly followed in 1856, and Ned's future companion in crime Dan Kelly was born in 1861 (Boxall, p. 3540. The family moved around a lot, and intermarried with some rather shady characters (Nunn, pp. 145-146). Kelly may have had some education, but in prison, he did not sign his name, using a mark and having it witnessed (Nunn, p. 146).
He apparently took to crime at a very early age, coming to the attention of the courts while still in his early teens, or perhaps even younger (Nunn, pp. 148-150); in 1870 he was brought up on charges but released when the witnesses could not identify him (Boxall, p. 354). In 1871, however, he was sentenced to a three year term. His brothers would also find themselves in trouble with the law. Apparently Ned made a brief attempt at reform (Nunn, p. 152), but soon returned to horse-stealing,
In 1877, Kelly was taken by police for being drunk and assaulting (or at least insulting) an officer (Nunn, p. 153). He was offered the choice of a three pound fine or three months in prison (Nunn, p. 154). But he promptly escaped.
Nunn, p. 154, quotes a police report which says that the "wholesale system of cattle duffing [changing brands] was carried out extensively. This appears to have culminated in the disturbance at Greta when Constable Fitzpatrick went out to serve a warrant on Dan Kelly for horse stealing." What happened next isn't entirely clear (one version, on p. 356 of Boxall, has the Kellys feeding him dinner and then assaulting him), but Fitzpatrick ended up with a bullet wound which he blamed on Ned Kelly -- although he also said that the Kellys treated him. (Nunn, pp. 154-155; Boxall, p. 357). Davey/Seal, p. 112, say that Fitzpatrick "allegedly attempted to molest Ned Kelly's sisters in the family home. Ned Kelly (probably) shot Fitzpatrick in the wrist, an act that precipitated the gaoling of Kelly's mother Ellen." Several Kelly associates ended up on trial as being accessories to attempted murder, although Fitzpatrick's was the only testimony against them. Ned and Dan Kelly apparently then went to the bush (Nunn, p. 158).
Their gang, like many gangs of bushrangers, was very young. Nunn, p. 161, says that at the time when Ned Kelly's age was 23 and Dan Kelly was 17, the third member of the gang, Steve Hart, "a local lad from Wangaratta," was not quite 18 and already a convicted horse thief, and Joe Byrne was a fatherless young man of 21.
The fight at Stringybark followed. According to Nunn, p. 161, the police were not wearing uniforms, although it is not clear how this affected the outcome. Nunn, p. 168, notes that their pockets were cleaned out, presumably by the Kelly Gang, after they died.
The pursuit that followed reportedly cost some 50,000 pounds (Nunn, p. 171).
The gang lived mostly in the bush, eventually moving to New South Wales, but there are reports of visits to family and a safe house at Greta (Nunn, p. 171). These visits presumably are at the heart of the song "Farewell to Greta." At first, they mostly lived off the locals, but after a couple of years, they robbed a small bank at Euroa, making off with about 2400 pounds (Nunn, p. 175; Boxall, p. 362, makes it 1942 pounds plus loose gold -- and tells of how they tricked the banker into letting them into the bank after hours).
This caused the price on each robber's head to be raised to 1000 pounds (Nunn, p. 176 -- an interesting economic decision, when you think about it). It also resulted in a new commander being placed in charge of the hunt, and new laws and procedures put in place to capture criminals. A number of Kelly relatives and friends were placed in custody as a result (Nunn, pp. 176-178).
In February 1879 they raided the bank at Jerilderie, capturing the two local constables and using their uniforms as a disguise (Nunn, p. 179; Boxall, pp. 365-366; Davey/Seal, p. 168). Having cut the telegraph wires, the outlaws occupied the town for three days (Boxall, p. 369), but robbed only the bank. This brought them more than 2000 pounds in cash (Boxall, p. 368). Kelly also tried to get a proclamation printed; this 8000 word self-justification came to be known as the "Jerilderie letter." According to Boxall, p. 370, "It was a long, rambling statement, in some parts quite incoherent, and much of it false."
Apparently the gang at this time decided to adopt armor to stop bullets (Nunn, p. 183). Nunn, p. 142, has a picture of Kelly's armor. It would be pretty useless for a knight -- it looks like three pieces of tin plate wrapped around into a cylinder and riveted. It would certainly restrict the wearer's movements, and I doubt it could stop a round from a serious weapon. Boxall, p. 380, says that Kelly "looked like a tall, stout man with a nail can over his head" while wearing it; he adds on p. 381 that it weighed 97 pounds. But there are dents in it which would seem to imply that it kept several pistol balls from penetrating.
As the war with the police escalated, the Kelly Gang became more violent. On June 26, 1880, they came out of the bush and used hostages as they attacked and executed an alleged informer Aaron Sheritt (Nunn, p. 185), the one-time brother-in-law of Joe Byrne (Boxall, pp. 373-374).
Nunn, p. 185, suggests that the strain of maintaining himself in the bush began to tell on Kelly after this. The motivation behind his final plan cannot be known, but it was both complex and fragile (Nunn, p. 186). The general idea was to lure in a police gang by tearing up a railroad track. This proved harder than anticipated; the gang was unable to break up the track themselves, and had to take platelayers prisoner and demand their aid (Nunn, p. 186). This meant that their schedule was badly off, plus many people knew about their acts (Nunn, p. 188).
They were forced to keep a great many hostages at the Glenrowan Inn. The goal of the operation was specifically to fight the police. The idea seems to have been to draw them to the area, crash the train, and attack the survivors. But the police superintendent Hare had been warned. He had his men surrounding the Glenrowan hotel as the Kelly Gang armed itself (Nunn, p. 193). Hare himself was at the forefront of the attack and took a wound in the right hand which forced him out of the battle.
The battle was long, and there were civilian as well as police and gang casualties, including the son of the innkeeper (Boxall, p. 380). Those who still idolize the Kelly Gang might want to take note of their behavior at this time: Even once they were surrounded, so that keeping prisoners did nothing to keep their position secret, they still kept the locals as hostages rather than let them go free.
It appears that Ned Kelly was outside when the attack came, while the other three gang members were guarding their prisoners. Early in the morning, Kelly, in his armor, attacked the police line from the rear. His armor does seem to have saved him from any fatal wounds, but it also slowed him down. He took wounds in the left leg, the arms, and perhaps other places (Nunn, p. 197; Boxall, p. 381).
Eventually, perhaps around 10:00 a.m., the police ceased firing and allowed ten minutes for the gang's hostages to leave or escape (Nunn, p. 199). Most did indeed flee; they were ordered to lie down, were examined to make sure they weren't outlaws, and were allowed through the police lines.
Five hours later, the police set fire to the building (Nunn, p. 199, although Davey/Seal, p. 168, says that gunfire ended the action). Joe Byrne, Steve Hart, and Dan Kelly are all believed to have died in the blaze -- at least, three bodies were found, and a Catholic priest who went in before the fires completely burned the building thought they were those of the three outlaws (Nunn, p. 199). After the fire, the bodies believed to be those of Hart and Dan Kelly were found to be burned beyond recognition and were buried without an inquest; Byrne (whose body had been hauled out by the priest; Boxall, p. 382) was buried, unclaimed by family (Nunn, p. 200).
It has been speculated, based on the positions of their burned bodies, that Hart and Dan Kelly killed themselves or each other rather than surrender (Boxall, p. 382).
Kelly's trial began on October 28 (Nunn, p. 202). There were two counts, for the murders of constables Lonigan and Scanlon. The second was never tried as the first resulted in a death sentence. The description of the trial in Nunn sounds completely unfair -- except for testimony from Constable McIntyre, it was all hearsay evidence -- but it's hard to believe there was any doubt about Kelly's guilt. The trial took only two days. The judge promptly sentenced Kelly to death.
Nunn, p. 205, says that were appeals for a change of sentence, based partly on legal grounds (the judge had refused to allow for the possibility of a conviction for manslaughter; the only options given the jury were conviction for murder or acquittal) and partly on a growing opposition to capital punishment. Neither made any difference.
Kelly was executed on November 11, 1880. Although folklore records his last words as "Such is life," Nunn, p. 205, gives his final statement as "Ah well, I suppose it had to come to this."
There was extended acrimony after Kelly's death, as various people sought reward money and investigations looked into police actions. Several reforms were instituted as a result (Nunn, pp. 205-210). In the aftermath, the bushranging impulse finally seemed to die (Nunn, p. 213). There were still robbers, of course, but they didn't go to the bush and they didn't have popular support.
The amount of folklore about Kelly is immense; Beatty, p. 123, cites Clive Turnbull as saying Kelly is Australia's only folk hero. Some examples:
(From Wannan, p. 21): When Kelly was sentenced to death, he was reputed to have told Sir Edmund Barry, the judge who sentenced him, "When I go to the Great Beyond, I will see you there." (Ward, p. 76, reports the words as "Yes, I will meet you there.") Three weeks after Kelly was executed, Barry died of pneumonia.
Nunn, p. 154, claims that when Kelly made his escape in 1877, he encountered officer Lonigan, who tried to stop the escape. Kelly declared, "I've never killed a man yet, Lonigan, but if I ever do, so help me God, you'll be the first." And Lonigan was indeed his first victim, and Kelly was hanged for it.
Davey/Seal, p. 231, say that Aaron Sherritt, mentioned in the ballad was a "Close sympathizer of the Kelly gang of bushrangers, murdered by Joe Byrne, once his best friend, on 26 June 1880 as a preluse to the Glenrowan Station incident. The gang suspected Sherritt, probably correctly, of being a double agent."
Often the folklore overwhelms the facts -- Boxall (p. 538, etc.) calls Lonigan, the constable Kelly killed, "Lonergan," and refers to Joe Byrne as "Joe Byrnes" (p. 360, etc.) or once "Joe Brynes" (p. 373).
Kelly has also become part of Australian language. Ward, p. 75, observes the common phrase "As game as Ned Kelly," and points out that the name "Glenrowan" still has great influence. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Beatty: Bill Beatty, A Treasury of Australian Folk Tales & Traditions, 1960 (I use the 1969 Walkabout Paperbacks edition)
- Boxall: George Boxall, The Story of the Australian Bushrangers, Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1899 (I use the 1974 Penguin facsimile edition)
- Clark: Manning Clark, A Short History of Australia, Penguin, 1963; fourth edition, 1995
- Davey/Seal: Gwenda Beed Davey and Graham Seal, A Guide to Australian Folklore, Kangaroo Press, 2003
- Nunn: Harry Nunn,Bushrangers: A Pictorial History, Ure Smith Press, 1979, 1992
- Wannan: Bill Wannan, The Australians: Yarns, ballads and legends of the Australian tradition, 1954 (page references are to the 1988 Penguin edition)
- Ward: Russel Ward, Australia, Prentice-Hall, 1965
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