Outlaw Ned Kelly Left Behind a Manifesto for the Ages

Ned Kelly is Australia’s most famous and beloved outlaw. He didn’t only defy the colonial police, he also left behind a revolutionary manifesto decrying oppression and poverty that demands to be read.

Nolan, Sidney, Ned Kelly, 1946, enamel paint on composition board. Melbourne, Australia. (National Gallery of Australia)

At 10:00 on the morning of November 11, 1880, Ned Kelly hanged from a rope until dead. His last words were “Such is life.” By some accounts, however, a journalist working to a tight word limit distilled this phrase from “Ah well, I suppose it has come to this.” Whatever the case, the laconic fatalism of Ned Kelly’s apocryphal final refrain resonated. He is Australia’s most loved bushranger, and his words and image are emblazoned on bumper stickers, stubby holders, and tattooed chests across the breadth of the nation.

Well before his young death behind the cold bluestone walls of the Old Melbourne Gaol, Kelly had begun cultivating a legend. And whenever Kelly supporters have found reality wanting, they haven’t hesitated to add to it — sometimes movingly, sometimes comically.

In 1995, for example, in the midst of growing republican sentiment, Ned Kelly historian Ian Jones published Ned Kelly: A Short Life. Then–Labor prime minister Paul Keating was a fan. Like many before him, Keating became thoroughly convinced that at his last stand, under his homemade armor, Ned Kelly carried a declaration of independence for the Republic of North-Eastern Victoria.

Ned Kelly the day before his execution, November 10, 1880. (National Archives of Australia)

There is no actual evidence that such a declaration existed. The first mention of it dates back to a satirical article in Bulletin Magazine, published in 1900. Nevertheless, the notion clearly held appeal. In 1947, the Western Australian newspaper Northern Times published an article claiming that Kelly had planned to establish a republic with Benalla as capital and himself as president. In 1969, Leonard Radic — a Melbourne journalist and theater critic — claimed to have seen a printed copy of the declaration in a public records office in London in 1962.

Radic’s oral testimony was enough for Ian Jones. And Ian Jones’s book was enough for Paul Keating, who petitioned the British government to return the declaration. Sadly, owing to the document’s nonexistence, Britain was unable to accommodate her loyal colony’s humble request.

Despite their sometimes absurd extremes, the myths surrounding Ned Kelly contain their own truths. His life combined messianism and fatalism in equal measure. And these extremes cast into stark relief an unjust reality against which the Kelly Gang took up arms. And while Kelly didn’t leave us a declaration of independence, he left behind something better. The Jerilderie Letter is his revolutionary manifesto.

“A Widow’s Son Outlawed”

“Dear Sir, I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present, past and future,” Ned Kelly begins, before launching into an account of the injustices he and his family had experienced at the hands of the colonial authorities.

Born in 1854 at Beveridge, a town about forty kilometers north of Melbourne, Ned Kelly was the eldest of eight. Red Kelly, his father, left Ireland in chains, transported as punishment for petty theft. The British made convicts into unwilling settlers in Australia, where they worked off their sentences in slave-like conditions. “More was transported to Van Dieman’s Land,” Kelly records, citing Tasmania’s old name, “to pine their young lives away in starvation and misery among tyrants worse than the promised hell itself.”

About 3,600 convicts were political prisoners. This number included Luddite rioters, Chartists, and Irish rebels transported for fighting the British occupation of their country. As Kelly recounts, many Irish were “doomed to Port McQuarie, Toweringabbie and Norfolk Island and Emu Plain. And in those places of tyranny and condemnation,” he continues, “rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke [they] were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains.”

The colonial government permitted poor migrants and convicts who survived their sentences to settle on small plots. Known as selectors, their land was frequently infertile and riddled with rocks, trees, and stumps. Harassed by wealthy British squatters, selectors often lived a semilegal existence.

As Kelly explains, “Not being satisfied with all the picked land . . . and the run of their stock on certificate free ground,” the squatters paid heavy rent for the remaining land. As a result, “a poor man could not keep his stock.” In league with the squatters, the colonial police “impounded every beast they could catch, even off Government roads. If a poor man happened to leave his horse or a bit of poddy calf outside his paddock, it would be impounded.”

The colonial authorities evidently regarded cattle and horse theft differently depending on whether they were dealing with squatters or selectors, Irish or British, Catholics or Protestants.

Ned’s denunciation was informed by bitter experience. In 1866, his father served six months of hard labor for having received a stolen hide. He died shortly after being released, just two days after Christmas. Ned Kelly signed the death certificate. He was twelve years old.

After his father’s death, Ned Kelly bore the brunt of police harassment. In 1869 and 1870, the police held him in custody twice without charge. Later, in 1970, he served six months hard labor over a fight with a local hawker. Just three weeks after being released in 1871, the police charged Ned again, this time with horse theft. Realizing that Ned had been in prison when the horse in question was stolen, they downgraded the charge to receiving a stolen horse. On the testimony of a constable who had been tried several times for perjury, the court sentenced Ned to three years that he served mainly in Pentridge Prison, in Melbourne’s north. After his release in 1874, he worked in the timber industry.

The police did not leave the Kelly family in peace. In April 1878, constable Alexander Fitzpatrick visited the Kelly household claiming to have come to arrest Dan Kelly — Ned’s brother — for stealing horses. By Fitzpatrick’s admission, he had no warrant. The Kelly family said that Fitzpatrick had come to demand sex with Ned’s sister, and drove him from their house. The humiliated constable brought charges against the Kelly family, alleging that Ned had shot him in the wrist.

Knowing by now to expect no justice from the police or courts, Ned took to the bush, accompanied by his brother, Dan, as well as his mates Joe Byrne and Steve Hart.

Accustomed to accepting the word of police officers, judge Redmond Barry sentenced Kelly’s mother, Ellen, to three years in jail. Barry said that had Ned Kelly been present for the trial, he would have received twenty-one years.

Both Barry and Fitzpatrick were of Irish descent. Perhaps this is why Ned Kelly reserved a special loathing for Irish Catholics who collaborated in the oppression of their own. Even the most servile Irishman, Kelly argues,

would be a king to a policeman who for a lazy loafing cowardly billet left the ash corner, deserted the Shamrock, the emblem of true wit and beauty to serve under a flag and nation that has destroyed, massacred and murdered their forefathers.

“Let Who Will Make Their Laws, So Long as I Make Their Ballads”

“The hills are steep, the woods pathless, and the gullies deep, dark, and winding; vast gorges, bounded by almost perpendicular ranges.” This is how the unknown author of an 1879 book, The Kelly Gang, described the bush — Kelly country — in which the gang hid. “A more admirably adapted retreat for fugitives from the grasp of the law could not be conceived,” the author continues, “provided the refugees were fortunate enough to have made arrangements with reliable and trustworthy friends.”

The Kelly Gang had no shortage of friends. When the colonial government sent Sergeant Kennedy and constables Lonigan, McIntyre, and Scanlan to track them down, word got to Ned Kelly well in advance. On Friday, October 25, 1878, the Kelly Gang silently surrounded the troopers as they camped next to Stringybark Creek. An infamous shootout ensured.

Joe Byrne immortalized the events in the “Ballad of Stringybark.” As his lyrics recount, Kennedy and Scanlan had left to explore the creek, leaving McIntyre and Lonigan alone. MacIntyre surrendered, but Lonegan made tracks and reached for his revolver — until “Ned Kelly pulled his trigger and dropped him like a rock.”

As McIntyre surrendered, the Kelly Gang spared him. Upon returning, Kennedy and Scanlan refused to surrender. In the ensuing firefight, Scanlan died instantly while Kennedy was mortally wounded. In the confusion, McIntyre escaped.

Whether it was justified self-defense, a massacre, or a minor strategic triumph, after Stringybark creek, the Victorian government stepped up the hunt for the Kelly Gang. Parliament offered £500 on each gang member and passed exceptional laws criminalizing support for the gang and making it legal for civilians to shoot gang members on sight.

The colonial police, however, did not find cooperation forthcoming from the poor of Kelly country or Melbourne. Although the newspapers cried blue murder, Joe Byrne’s ballad won the battle of public opinion. As the author of The Kelly Gang recounts, support for the outlaws was most noticeable among the “the youth in various large centers of population. . . . They congregate occasionally at street corners and elsewhere to sing ballads — hymns of triumph, as it were — in their [the Kelly Gang’s] praise.”

“There Never Was Such a Thing as Justice in the English Laws”

On 9 December 1878, the Kelly Gang held up the National Bank at Euroa and made off with £2000 in notes and gold. The colonial authorities doubled the reward.

They also sent a force of about two hundred Victorian police, supplemented by police from the Colony of New South Wales (NSW) to encircle the gang. They failed quite badly. In an 1879 article in the Argus, the author quotes a conversation with a police captain in charge of the force sent to encircle and capture the Kelly Gang. The captain explains that there was little that could be done to capture them because “from the Upper King River, and down to the Wombat Ranges . . . the whole country swarms with their connexions and friends.” At one point, the Victorian and NSW Police opened fire on each other in confusion.

In early 1879, the Kelly Gang slipped through the police cordon and crossed the Murray River into NSW. On Saturday, February 8, the Kelly Gang took the police at Jerilderie captive by surprise. Dressed in freshly requisitioned uniforms, they went to the Royal Hotel and requested rooms for two nights. They cut the telegraph wires to the town and then robbed the bank of £1450 pounds. Ned Kelly also insisted on burning mortgage deeds and the bank’s books. On their morning of elated departure, the townsfolk cheered the Kelly Gang.

During the stay, Ned Kelly dictated the Jerilderie Letter to Joe Byrne. Although at pains to protest his innocence, he did not expect a fair hearing from the police, the courts, or the press. “In every paper that is printed I am called the blackest and coldest blooded murderer ever on record.”

Instead, Ned wanted the letter to be printed and distributed as a pamphlet. Sadly, however, he entrusted it to an accountant who gave it to the Melbourne office of the Bank of New South Wales. The bank turned the Jerilderie Letter over to the police who ordered that it be suppressed, fearing it would incite rebellion. The full document was finally made public in 1930 and donated to the State Library of Victoria in 2000.

As Ned Kelly states, “There never was such a thing as justice in the English laws. But any amount of injustice to be had.”

“It Is Only Foolishness to Disobey an Outlaw”

The Jerilderie Letter was Ned Kelly’s second attempt to tell his side of the story. The first, known as the Cameron Letter, was also suppressed by the police. In both, we hear the voice of a man systematically denied peaceful redress. We also hear a man who refused to lay down and die. “If the public do not see justice done I will seek revenge for the name and character which has been given to me and my relations, while God gives me strength to pull a trigger.”

To this day, conservatives, police, and centrists affect righteous indignation over Ned Kelly’s challenge to their monopoly on violence. Doug Morrisey declares in the Herald Sun that “Ned’s crimes were of his own making. . . . They came about from personal choices he alone made to engage in crime.” In another article, Morrisey argues that the Kelly Gang’s “plundering lifestyle . . . disrupted and interfered with the smooth running of the [Greta] community.” At a 2013 ceremony honoring the police that died at Stringybark Creek, Police Association secretary Greg Davies concluded, “Thankfully, Kelly ended with a piece of rope around his neck.” The Age’s very own hard-boiled crime reporter, John Silvester, describes Kelly as a “psychotic knucklehead,” suggesting “Kelly wasn’t much of a worker, preferring life as a thief.”

Perhaps, however, the prize for the worst recent take should go to Melissa Fyfe. After a little digging, Fyfe discovered that according to reports in the Argus, the Kelly Gang shot a “native bear,” that is, a koala. “For me, this is the final straw,” Fyfe writes. “What sort of hard-hearted man shoots a koala?” It seems almost too obvious to point out that Aboriginal people happily hunted koalas for tens of thousands of years before the British invaded.

One thing is beyond dispute, however: Kelly had a better turn of phrase than his detractors, past and present. And when denied free speech, Ned Kelly’s deeds resonated deeply and broadly instead. As late as 1929, Jerome J. Kenneally, a neighbor of the Kelly family, wrote: “It is now generally admitted that the quickest way to get to the Wangaratta Hospital is to say something offensive about the Kellys in Kelly country.”

And anyway, when they made it legal for anyone to shoot Ned Kelly on sight, the colonial government forced him to choose between death and resistance. This is why Ned Kelly’s assertion that “there is not one drop of murderous blood in my veins” rings far truer than the indignance of his accusers. Their denunciation of his violence was always an entrée to celebrating the more violent reimposition of law and order.

Besides, the Kelly Gang were more than just outlaws. Kelly did not take up arms for self-enrichment but in the name of a higher, more universal justice. This is the fundamental distinction between a criminal and a revolutionary — the Bolsheviks also robbed banks.

Indeed, the Jerilderie Letter contains a program for social transformation. Granted, Ned might have developed it further by reading Marx. Even so, there are some points worth preserving. In place of the police, Kelly proposes popular justice. To those concerned with protecting their personal property, he writes:

I would advise them to subscribe a sum and give it to the poor of their district, as no man could steal their horse or cattle without the knowledge of the poor, and they would rise as one man and find it if it was on the face of the earth.

Kelly issued a further warning aimed at the colonial government. Fail to give his people “justice and liberty,” Kelly warned, and “I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victorian police and inhabitants but also the whole British army.” The letter concludes with an order directed at Victoria’s police officers. They must sell their property and give £10 out of every £100 to the widow and orphan fund, and then leave the colony in “as short a time as possible after reading this notice.”

Neglect this warning, Kelly warned, and the “consequences shall be worse than rust in wheat in Victoria or the drought of a dry season to the grasshoppers in New South Wales.” He concludes with the full force of revolutionary law: “I am a Widow’s Son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed.”

“Some Colonial Stratagem”

Although the reward on each gang member’s head had gone up to £8000 — about $3 million in today’s currency — by 1880, the police were no closer to catching the Kelly Gang.

After Jerilderie, Ned Kelly retreated to the Victorian bush for two years where he planned his colonial stratagem. The gang set to work manufacturing four heavy suits of armor, hammering out steel plowshares on a stringybark log.

The Victorian town of Glenrowan was Ned’s target. He planned to sabotage the train track into town and occupy the inn, provoking the authorities to send a train of police from Benalla. The police train would derail before reaching the station, giving Ned Kelly and his comrades an unassailable advantage in the ensuing firefight. From there, they would ride to Benalla to rob the bank and use the funds to support a wider rebellion.

Things didn’t go to plan. After capturing Glenrowan Inn, instead of hours, the Kelly Gang found themselves waiting days for the expected train, which came from Melbourne, not Benalla. Kelly allowed his captives to drink and organize games to pass the time. The gang joined them.

Eventually, Ned Kelly’s judgement was impaired, if not by drink or exhaustion, then by compassion. He allowed Thomas Curnow — Glenrowan’s schoolteacher — to go home, allegedly to take care of his sick wife.

Nolan, Sidney, Bush picnic, 1946, enamel paint on composition board. Melbourne, Australia, Ned Kelly Series. (National Gallery of Australia)

As the police train approached Glenrowan in the dark of the morning of Monday 28 June, the pilot saw Thomas Curnow on the line, waving a red handkerchief to signal danger. Forewarned, the troopers disembarked safely.

The Kelly Gang stood their ground, arrayed on the porch of Glenrowan Inn in their homemade armor. Police officers reported seeing groups of armed men moving in the countryside around Glenrowan. Two skyrockets let off by the gang illuminated the early morning — a signal whose meaning is still unknown.

Though the gang’s armor repelled the police’s bullets, their legs, feet, and arms remained unprotected. Having sustained injuries, Joe Byrne, Steve Hart, and Dan Kelly retreated inside. As Byrne reportedly commented, “I always said this bloody armor would bring us to grief.” Ned took to the bush under the cover of darkness. The police riddled the inn with bullets, with little regard for the lives of the townsfolk inside.

Joe Byrne poured himself a drink and toasted: “Here’s to many more days in the bush, boys!” He was then struck by a bullet and died of blood loss. Steve Hart and Dan Kelly held out. Ned Kelly, meanwhile, outflanked the police lines. Wearing close to 50 kg of steel armor and with less sleep and blood than he might have liked, he made his attack, laughing and taunting the police. As Kelly moved through the mist, seemingly impervious to gunfire, one trooper exclaimed that he was a bunyip, a deathless creature of Aboriginal mythology. A journalist wrote, “With the steam rising from the ground, it looked for all the world like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, with no head, only a very long, thin neck.”

Ned used up the ammunition in his revolvers before a Sergeant had the wherewithal to shoot him in the leg. When he was captured, Kelly had taken twenty-eight bullets in total. Although his armor deflected most, he was badly injured in his knee, hip, and arms. Under the armor, the doctor who treated him found a green sash Ned Kelly had been awarded when, as a twelve-year-old, he rescued a drowning boy. It is now on display at Benalla Museum.

Early on Monday morning, Dan and Steve took each other’s lives in a suicide pact. Fearing a “phantom army” of Kelly sympathizers, the police set fire to the Glenrowan Hotel. Dan and Steve’s bodies were burned beyond recognition, although their armor survived. The police took Joe Byrne’s body to Benalla and posed it for photographs and gawkers. Ned was taken to the Melbourne Gaol to recover in preparation for a trial.

“No Matter How Long a Man Lives He Is Bound to Come to Judgement Somewhere”

The Honorable Sir Redmond Barry was a hanging judge if ever there was one. Having already sentenced Ellen Kelly, he now presided over Ned’s trial. The charge was the murder of constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. Kelly claimed self-defense. Barry allowed the prosecution to introduce evidence unrelated to the charge at hand and refused to allow Ned Kelly to recount his version of the events or question the prosecution’s witnesses. He instructed the jury to rule out manslaughter, leaving them with a choice between acquittal or convicting Ned Kelly of murder. The jury found him guilty.

During sentencing, Ned Kelly interrupted Redmond Barry, and there followed a brief exchange in which the hanging judge reasserted Kelly’s guilt. Kelly replied:

I dare say; but a day will come at a bigger court than this when we shall see which is right and which is wrong. No matter how long a man lives he is bound to come to judgement somewhere.

When Redmond Barry sentenced Ned Kelly to death by hanging, he customarily concluded: “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” Ned replied: “I will go a little further than that and say I will see you where I go.”

In the lead-up to Ned Kelly’s execution, his supporters organized a mass meeting of eight thousand. The Age condemned it as “entirely without any value” and as attended by people whose “associations lead them to find palliation for crime and excuse for the criminal in the most unpromising material.” At least thirty-two thousand people signed a petition calling for clemency. The police refused to allow a demonstration of thousands to march on Government House. The authorities did allow Ned’s sister, Kate Kelly, to request an audience with the governor. The governor refused. Unnerved, the authorities banned songs and plays that praised bushrangers.

Ellen Kelly was also held at Melbourne Gaol. Prior to his execution, the authorities allowed Ned to see his mother a final time. It’s said she instructed him, “Mind you die like a Kelly.” On the day of Ned’s execution, a crowd of five thousand gathered outside.

Ned Kelly’s dying wish was to be given a proper burial. Instead, the authorities gave his body to the University of Melbourne for students to study. Coincidentally, Redmond Barry was also the university’s inaugural chancellor. Although this was illegal and the authorities denied it, a recent forensic investigation confirmed that Ned had been dissected. He was then buried in non-consecrated ground at the Melbourne Gaol and later reburied in a mass grave at Pentridge Prison.

In 2011, Ned Kelly’s remains were recovered and identified. In 2013, he was finally granted his last wish — he was laid to rest at last in a cemetery in Greta.

On November 15, 1880, four days after Ned’s hanging, Redmond Barry fell ill with a carbuncle on his neck. Already weakened by diabetes, he then caught a cold that led to a lung infection. Just twenty-five days after parting ways in this world, a smiling Ned Kelly greeted the breathless hanging judge in the next.

Since then, Sir Redmond Barry has lain underneath a substantial gray granite monument in Melbourne General Cemetery. Its undefaced surface is a testament to the strategic restraint and maturity of Melbourne’s labor movement.

Occurrences of the Present, Past, and Future

Myths imaginatively bridge the gap between an intolerable situation and an impossible goal. And precisely because Ned Kelly lived his myth to its final, self-annihilating conclusion, he ensured that it would live on beyond him.

We can only understand the past with perspectives born of our present. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Ned Kelly was twenty-six years old when he died. He lived most of his life in a state of emergency, an unwilling exile from justice. Whoever stands alongside striking essential workers will hear a friend’s words in Ned Kelly’s eloquent denunciation of squatters. Whoever marches for Indigenous people murdered in custody will know that Ned’s enemies are our own. And whoever disdains obsequiousness toward power will feel contempt for the coward Thomas Curnow — and for his present-day equivalents.

Informed by present injustices, leftist writers have typically presented Ned Kelly politically, as a Che Guevara in oilskins. The past, however, need not resemble us in order for us to learn from it. And anyway, shy of finding the fabled declaration of independence of the Republic of North-Eastern Victoria, the chances are slim that we’ll find a fully-fledged revolutionary program for socialism among Ned Kelly’s ephemera.

Poster for The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), the world’s first feature-length film.

By sidestepping historical accuracy, art can sometimes grasp realities — past and present — more clearly and movingly than history writing. The myths about Ned Kelly, and especially their artistic renderings, tell us as much about colonial Australia and its legacy than the historical facts do. This is why Ned Kelly has inspired many works of culture, including the world’s first feature-length film , The Story of the Kelly Gang, released in 1906.

Perhaps the most powerful artistic representation of the myth is Sidney Nolan’s series of Ned Kelly paintings. They are one part Marc Chagall, one part László Moholy-Nagy, and one part Henri Rousseau. Blue nymphs dance with black squares — amid red blossoms.

The most famous of the series — Ned Kelly (1946) — depicts Kelly on a diminutive horse riding into a vibrant desert under a strikingly blue sky. On arriving in Australia for the first time, Europeans and North Americans often comment that the sky is bluer here. Ned is depicted entirely in black, with sky and clouds visible through the visor in his helmet. He resembles Christ as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, seated backward on a donkey.

As Benjamin wrote, “Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.” The words bring to mind a passage from Peter Carey’s novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, in which a fictitious Ned Kelly recounts a fictitious picnic held to celebrate the fictitious birth of his daughter.

These was your own people girl I mean the good people of Greta & Moyhu & Euroa & Benalla who come drifting down the track all through the morn & afternoon & night. . . . Through the dusk & icy starbright night them visitors continued to rise form the earth like winter oats their cold faces was soon pressed through doorway and window and even when the grog wore out they wd. not leave they come to touch my sleeve or clap my back they hitched great logs to their horses’ tails to drag them outside beside the track. 6 fires these was your birthday candles shining in 200 eyes.

Although it’s sparser and more frugal, Nolan’s Bush Picnic (1946) captures something of this utopianism, including Ned’s mercy toward Constable McIntyre — if not the other traps who hounded him. But Ned’s visor is still empty and the faces of his friends indistinct. The same emptiness exists in every myth, historical and cultural. It’s an invitation to see ourselves in the past.

Justly, Ned Kelly wanted to negate an unjust law. This work is still unfinished. Australia is still a crime scene. Monuments celebrate Redmond Barry. The police still resentfully guard Dan Kelly’s armor. Until we carry out the orders of this widow’s son outlawed, the new, higher law that Ned Kelly dreamed of will remain unrealized. Until then, the Jerilderie Letter will remain a revolutionary manifesto.

And when his orders are fulfilled, at last we will be able to commence work of building a new, more universal law. On that day, Ned Kelly will live again and once more “spend many happy days fearless free and bold.”