On this day: The Kelly Gang’s last stand

By Matt Ingles | June 27, 2014

On 27 June 1880 the Kelly Gang’s last desperate shoot-out echoed across Glenrowan, Victoria. It left three members of the Kelly Gang dead and their leader Ned Kelly in irons.

THE FINAL CHAPTER OF the infamous Kelly Gang began on 27 June 1880, when, after eluding the police for almost two years, their luck ran out in the small town of Glenrowan, Victoria. The Gang consisted of Ned Kelly, his brother Dan, Joseph Byrne and Steve Hart, and they had been on the run from the police after a number of incidents.

Prior to the Glenrown Dan and Joe had shot a police informant named Aaron Smith. A few days later, after a sizable police hunt, the desperate bushrangers held up the local railway station and then took 60 of the townspeople hostage at the Glenrowan Inn.

The hostages included the owner of the inn Ann Jones, her children, and other members of the town. Among them were about 20 Kelly sympathisers.

With police surrounding the building the Kelly Gang began firing, wearing armour made out of plough parts that Ned had been constructed in the aftermath of a three-day bank robbery. Joseph Byrne was soon shot in the groin and died of his wounds, while the other three continued to fight well into the night.

During a lull in the fighting, Dan Kelly and the police struck a bargain and the hostages were able to make their way to safety. With only the gang members left inside, the police then set fire to the building. When the smoke finally cleared the burnt bodies of Steve Hart and Dan were found in a back room.

The next morning Ned Kelly emerged from nearby bush behind the police blockade, injured but alive, after retreating there sometime during the night. As he walked out shooting his revolver, policemen aimed low at his legs, which were unprotected. And so, in a hail of bullets, Ned Kelly was finally captured.

History of the Kelly Gang

Ned had grown up in the town of Beveridge, roughly 50km north of Melbourne. Despite being known locally as a hero after saving seven-year-old Dick Shelton from drowning when he was 10, in later life he was known as something of a ruffian. By October 1878 Ned, who was on the run from assault charges, had teamed up with his younger brother Dan, and friends Joseph Byrne and Steve Hart to form the Kelly Gang.

In late 1878, after numerous smaller run-ins with police, things had come to a head near Stringybark Creek when an attempt to corner and apprehend the gang had ended in the death of three police officers (Sergeant Michael Kennedy, and Constables Michael Scanlon and Thomas Lonigan).

While hiding out in the bush, they went on to commit two major bank robberies at Euroa (Vic) and Jerilderie (NSW).

The almost two years later, on 25 June 1880, gang members Dan and Joe went to the valley where Aaron Sherritt, a friend possibly turned police informant, had a small farm. Reportedly, Dan and Joe had captured Anton Weekes, a neighbour, in order to lure Aaron outside.

When Aaron opened his door, Joe Byrne shot him point-blank in the chest in front of his wife and mother-in-law, whom they allowed to leave. The gang then held four police officers assigned to protect Aaron captive in the house for 12 hours before they stole back into the bush.

Siege of the Glenrowan Inn

After a lengthy hunt through bushlands roughly 200km north-east of Melbourne, the police finally cornered the gang at the Glenrowan Inn. Volleys of shots rang out from both sides. After the smoke and gunshots died down it became clear that a total of nine people had been killed during the siege (three gang members, three police, two bystanders and an informer). Another five were injured.

After his capture Ned Kelly was tried and eventually hanged for his crimes, on 11 November 1880 at Old Melbourne Gaol. He was only 25 years old. The owner of the Glenrowan Inn, Ann Jones, reportedly wanted to sue the government for £1050 as a result of the police burning down her inn during the siege (she only received £265, barely enough to cover the legal costs). Her 11-year-old son Jack was also accidentally shot by police during siege and later died in hospital.

The Kelly Gang legend

Ever since Kelly’s arrest there has been debate about his true nature. Today Dr Amanda Kaladelfos, a history researcher at Griffith University, compares him to Robin Hood. “Kelly articulated a struggle between rich and poor that resonated with many at a time when the Victorian government’s land policies disadvantaged small farmers,” Amanda says. Their actions are thought to have contributed to the “rise of the Australian labour tradition”, she adds.

According to Peter Norden, a history expert from RMIT University, Kelly “was a symbol of those early Australians who defied the authority of the Protestant English establishment”.

To the poor and disenfranchised underclass, the Kelly Gang seemed to be shrugging off the shackles of the day’s social structure.

However, Peter acknowledges many are sceptical. Who “would see it as justice that his victims – police officers Michael Scanlan, Michael Kennedy and Thomas Lonigan – have prominent tombstones and a large memorial in the Victorian mountain town of Mansfield, while Kelly lies in an unmarked grave,” he says. 

The Kelly Gang’s story still serves as a major tourist draw to Glenrowan. While none of the original buildings from the famous shootout remain, there are signs and plaques that indicate the site of the original Glenrowan Inn and the location where Ned Kelly was finally captured by police.