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He was an outlaw who wore a suit of armour, rode a horse, and challenged the law and its enforcers. Today, Ned Kelly is Australia’s greatest mythological character. Icon of the Australian imagination. But who was the man behind the mask? Was he a merciless killer who unforgivably chose to take up arms against society, or a national hero who was the embodiment of the Australian spirit.
To answer this question, one must first take a journey into the legend that is Ned Kelly.
Ned was born at Beveridge, Victoria, in December 1854. It was during his school years that he risked his life to save a drowning boy who was swept off the banks of the Hughes Creek and into raging waters. Ned valued all life and refused to look away when he came across someone in need.
At the age of 12, Ned had to leave school due to the sudden death of his father. The Kelly family moved to Eleven Mile Creek, not far from Benalla and halfway between Greta and Glenrowan, an area which was later to become known as Kelly Country.
The family, like many others in the area, was faced with poverty and Ned resorted to stealing and selling livestock.
At the age of 14, Ned was first brought before the Police Court on a charge of assault on a fowl and pig dealer, and secondly with aiding the bushranger Harry Power in some of his robberies. Fortunately, for Ned, he was found not guilty in both cases. But before the end of that year, he was sentenced to six months hard labour for assault and indecent behaviour, the result of a prank on a family friend.
Within three weeks of his release, Ned was arrested again, this time for receiving a stolen horse. He had no idea the horse was stolen but was given three years hard labor.
On his release from prison, Ned returned home a hardened but much more mature man. In his absence he discovered that all but one of his thirty-two horses had been stolen, and for a while his determination to stay out of prison kept him on the right side of the authorities. However, it wasn’t long before Ned’s feelings changed and, in partnership with numerous relatives and associates, he carried out large scale reprisals against those who they believed were persecuting them.
In April, 1878, a police officer accused Ned’s mother of attacking him and Ned of shooting him in the wrist.Whether this statement was true or not, the end result was the arrest of Ned’s mother’s and a one hundred pound reward was offered for the capture of Ned. From that time on Ned and his gang kept to the bush.
In October, 1878, they came across a police camp at Stringy Bark Creek. Ned believed the police intended to kill him so he called on them to surrender. Three of the officers resisted, and in the gun fight which followed, Kelly shot them dead.
The reward for Ned rose to two thousand pounds and would later rise to eight thousand pounds, the equivalent, today, of more than a million dollars. But the Kelly gang had many supporters and for two years they aided them in dodging the police. During this time the Kelly gang robbed two banks. The robberies were an important factor in the making of the Ned Kelly legend.
In defying authority, robbing livestock from the rich, and by not taking any more lives the gang fitted the image of brave and bold heroes from the bush. The robberies also give us an idea of how Ned saw himself. At each robbery he gave one of his hostages a letter in which he explained how he had been persecuted by the police. 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.”
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 gang 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 aid his gang. Eventually, he collapsed with more than twenty-eight bullet wounds.
Ned was the only surviving Kelly gang member from the siege. After he recovered he was convicted of countless crimes and, despite protests by thousands of supporters, was sentenced to death.
Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne on 11 November 1880.
For some, Ned is seen as nothing more than a notorious criminal. But for those who choose to look past his iron mask, Ned Kelly is the father of our national courage. Brave, daring, and a true Australian.
I conclude with this quote –
“Ned Kelly became a legend during his own life, and a contributor to the mythology of the bush – the bush as a cradle of mateship, equality, the emphasis on the masculine virtues of strength, and the belief that the bush life was the cradle of much that was different from other lands, the cradle of the Australian, the cradle of the yearning for the life of the fearless, the free and the bold.”
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