07-21-18 Patricia Sargeant

Thursday, August 23, 2012


In colonial Australia the families of ex-convicts and poor Irish immigrants were often on the receiving end of an unfair English justice system, which favoured the rich and powerful.

Against this background, Ned Kelly, his brother Dan and their friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne formed a gang and became bushrangers (outlaws). They were hated by the authorities but revered and aided by many ordinary folk who thought Ned Kelly had been persecuted and forced into crime.

On the 26th October 1878 at Stringybark Creek, the Kelly gang stumbled into a police ambush. They ended up shooting and killing three police troopers and wounding a fourth. After this there was a price on Ned Kelly’s head.

Desperate to catch the bushrangers the government of the time revived a medieval law that had been obsolete in England for centuries.  They called it the Felon’s Apprehension Act of 1878.

This Act enabled the Kelly gang to be proclaimed as outlaws.  It was one of the most serious laws parliament could evoke.  It authorized any person to shoot the proclaimed dead like wild beasts, without demand for surrender, or any process of arrest or trial.
 On the ninth of December 1878, the Kelly gang came out of hiding in the ranges to hold up the bank in Euroa, their first public appearance since the Stringybark Creek murders.  They made their way to a sheep station on the Faithful Creek to spend the night, having first locked up the manager and his men in the storeroom.  The next day after a hearty meal they rode away.

On the day of the tenth, at the exact time the Licensing Court was in session and the town's only policeman otherwise occupied, the Kelly gang robbed the bank. They got away with more than nineteen hundred pounds as well as thirty or so ounces of gold. 

After a siege at the Glenrowan hotel, Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne were killed when the hotel was set alight. Ned, who had escaped, returned to save his brother. By this time he had donned a heavy suit of armour made from sheets of iron. The only part of his body exposed were his arms and legs. Because the armour was so heavy, although it repelled bullets, it restricted his movements and the police were able to bring him down when they shot at his legs.

Ned Kelly was subsequently put on trial, found guilty and hanged in what is now known as the Old Melbourne Jail.

There are many myths and legends about Ned Kelly and his gang. For years it was whispered that Dan Kelly actually escaped the hotel at the height of the siege, before the hotel was set alight. Even though three charred bodies were later found in the ruins, one did not belong to Dan. Rumour has it that a catholic priest who went into the hotel before it was sent on fire, to give the men the last rites, discovered that Dan wasn’t there, and that Joe Byrne and Steve Hart were already dead. Fact or fiction, the priest would never confirm it one way or the other.

The Old Melbourne Jail is now a tourist attraction and is open to the public and what a spooky place it is even in daylight.  Ned Kelly’s death mask is out on display and the scaffold still stands with the rope swinging over the trapdoor.

I visited there one day when I was researching one of my books.  The stone cells are small and icy cold, and there is an aura there that chilled me to the bone. At night time not a skerrick of light would come in through the tiny window up near the roof. Once the door of the cell was shut, I swear, you would have felt as if you had been entombed.

My novel, Savage Possession, is set during this period of time, and the Kelly gang have a cameo role in it.
A sweeping tale of love's triumph over tragedy and treachery in frontier Australia.
A mistaken identity opens the door for Martin Mulvaney to take his revenge on the granddaughter of his mortal enemy.
An old Scottish feud, a love that should never have happened, and a series of extraordinary coincidences traps two lovers in a family vendetta that threatens to destroy their love, if not their lives.


Judith Ashley said...


I learn so much about Australia in your posts. One of these days I hope to make a second trip along with my youngest granddaughter who has Australia as her #1 country to visit.

Not sure I want to go to the jail, though. Your description is so real I already have chills!

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Judith
It would be wonderful if you and your granddaughter did make the trip. Plenty to see over here.