Ned Kelly responsible for innocent man’s death, according to new study

By AG Staff October 19, 2017
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In his last days, cooped up in a jail cell, Ned Kelly wrote that he had never killed an innocent man. But a new study refutes this, arguing that Kelly was directly responsible for the death of an innocent quarryman.

Since Ned Kelly was hanged on 11 November 1880 at Old Melbourne Gaol his true character has been brought into question. And now a new analysis by Stuart Dawson, a historian from Monash University, is seeking to set the record straight.

According to Stuart’s recent paper, published today in Eras Journal, a core component of the Ned Kelly myth—that he had never taken an innocent life—isn’t an accurate portrayal of Ned Kelly, or the final siege at Glenrowan Inn on the 27-28 June 1880 where he was eventually captured.

The 6m statue of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly stands guard on the main street of Glenrowan, Victoria,
The 6m statue of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly stands guard on the main street of Glenrowan, Victoria, near the site of the 1880 Kelly gang shootout with police. Image credit: Shutterstock

Stuart claims that Kelly was responsible for the death of a quarryman, George Metcalf, who Kelly had taken hostage in Ann Jones’ Glenrowan Inn during the siege.

“Metcalf, who could not afford medical treatment, stated that his injury occurred while he was sheltering in a fireplace during the shooting, and his surgical and related costs were paid by the police,” he says.

“However, subsequent enquiries by a detective found that the injury was caused by Ned Kelly on the afternoon before the siege, when he accidentally shot Metcalf in the face while fiddling with a revolver he had taken from a gravel contractor that morning.”

Stuart explains that the Metcalf story has been overlooked and disregarded by other historians for over a hundred years because it disrupts the idea of Kelly as a victim of police persecution rather than a criminal.

Related: Ned Kelly: Hero or hell raiser?

Stuart explained that because Metcalf’s medical costs were paid by the police, historians critical of police action throughout the siege, viewed this as an admission of fault and liability by the police.

“The case of Metcalf illustrates how ready pro-Kelly historians have been to blame the police for every misadventure in the Kelly saga. In fact, however, Metcalf’s death must be laid squarely on Ned Kelly’s hands,” the paper reads.

Kate Darian-Smith, Professor of Australian Studies and History at the University of Melbourne, says that there is no end to fresh interpretations of Ned Kelly’s life.

“Stuart Dawson adds to these, re-reading the archive and re-assesses the evidence to argue that Kelly – rather than the police – were responsible for the gunshot wound suffered by George Metcalf at the Glenrowan siege. This is a small detail in the larger Kelly legend, but it demonstrates how history can be  contentious and the importance of archives  in examining the past.”

On the other hand, Peter Norden, a criminologist from RMIT says that the evidence provided in the study isn’t significant enough to deem Kelly guilty of the crime.

“The best that could be concluded is that Metcalf died as a result of an accidental misfiring of a firearm at a time of extraordinary circumstances where the Kelly Gang were being hunted down by members of the Victorian constabulary.”

Related: Ned Kelly timeline