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The True Story of Ned Kelly's Last Stand
New Revelations Unearthed About the Bloody Siege at Glenrowan
By Paul Terry
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Paul Terry
All rights reserved.
A FOUNDATION MYTH
'Contact with the Kelly Gang'
On a bright but blustery day in May 2008, a battered green Land Rover eased to a halt at an unremarkable vacant block in a small town in north-eastern Victoria. At the wheel was a thirty-eight-year-old Englishman named Adam Ford. He was there to meet local media and show them a vacant lot — a long and somewhat tangled strip of trees, vines and rubble contained within an ordinary farm fence. Ford was an archaeologist who had worked in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. It was his hope, and the hope of many others, that the narrow corner block could reveal more about one of the most defining events in Australian history. The town was Glenrowan and the overgrown field was the site of the Glenrowan Inn, where Ned Kelly fought his Last Stand. Adam Ford was there to dig it up.
Ford had been given the formidable task of conducting the first-ever scientific excavation of the bush pub where the Kelly Gang took a town hostage and declared war on the government. When the Last Stand was over, five people were dead, including a child, and the pub had burnt to the ground. But even as the ruins smouldered, the inn became the heart of a story that would fascinate, infuriate and delight Australians for generations. The site was burnt again, repeatedly looted and redeveloped before finally — a century after the first settlers built there — it was sealed off from development and disturbance. Adam Ford and a team of archaeologists were about to sift through it layer by layer, in the hope of getting back to its very beginnings.
Not only an experienced archaeologist, Ford was also a natural communicator with a lively sense of humour and an ability to translate complex scientific data into language that anyone could understand. These were useful skills because the work he was about to do at the Glenrowan Inn would attract more interest and debate than perhaps any other archaeological project in Australian history. Although he did not say so at the time, he was worried about the risk of failure. There was no way of telling what lay beneath the ground — if anything — and when it came to public expectations he was taking a professional gamble that could do a service to science and history, or collapse into irrelevance.
The Wangaratta Council had appointed Ford to lead the dig as part of their plans to establish the siege precinct as a more substantial tourist destination. Under a grandly named marketing plan to make the town the 'Keeping Place of the Kelly Legend', the council hoped to develop a Kelly interpretive centre of national significance. There was no definite proposal for the future of the privately owned inn site, but it was felt that the archaeological survey would provide some of the data needed to make the right decision.
Ford had cut his archaeological teeth on ancient historical sites and like many archaeologists from the Old World he was never particularly interested in Australia. As a student in London, Ford had briefly thought of digging in Australia but concluded it would be 'like a tree surgeon moving to the Sahara'. After meeting an Australian girl in the United Kingdom, marrying and moving to Victoria to raise a family, however, he gained a better understanding of what Australia could offer a young archaeologist. Ford was aware that humans had occupied the land for at least 40,000 years and soon came to understand that, while Australia's colonial history was relatively short, it was just as colourful as that of older countries. Based at Ocean Grove on Victoria's south-west coast, he was building up a successful business called Dig International. Like many Englishmen, he was already well aware of the Kelly story and, when the chance came to excavate the Glenrowan site, he seized it with delight. He had briefly wondered whether some Australians might resent an Englishman digging up this 'holy' place but he need not have worried. It has been a long time since the English were regarded with mistrust in Kelly Country.
The archaeological team was there to search for new evidence of those thirty-six turbulent hours in and around the tiny pub. The dig would seek physical and historical remains of the pub in the hope of reconstructing the gunbattle and learning more about what went on there as the fighting raged. And with the help of the Kelly scholars Ian Jones and Alex McDermott, the archaeologists would find new insights into the lives of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary moment.
Jones had been studying the Kelly story for more than sixty years and had a forensic knowledge of its details, both great and small. He would use this knowledge to link discoveries from the site to the historical events, bringing alive the people who were there. McDermott was the official dig historian, a slightly controversial choice given his revisionist approach to Kelly history. McDermott would provide an insight into the life and times of Victoria during the Kelly years and a counterpoint to rethink some of the accepted versions of the story. The historians and archaeologists would be supported by descendants of the Kellys, their hostages and the police. They would provide family lore and local history to add a personal dimension to the investigation. Over the course of a month, the site of the Kelly Gang's Last Stand would be stripped bare, revealing a very human story of both heroism and frailty.
When Ned Kelly and his gang held Glenrowan hostage in June 1880, they were committing more than a crime. They were trying to start an uprising, perhaps even a full-blooded revolution, to create a republic of north-eastern Victoria. It was grandly ambitious and doomed to fail but it rode on a wave of support from a horde of poor and oppressed sympathisers clamouring for change. It is not known exactly how many sympathisers there were but they were numerous enough, and discontented enough, to fuel a movement for reform with twenty-five-year-old Ned at its head. And Ned — famously clad in iron armour — eventually did play a part in bringing a fairer go to the masses. Along the way he helped to define what it means to be Australian. For Ned, however, the victory was a Pyrrhic one.
The Kellys were already a sensation when they came to Glenrowan on the cold winter's night of 26 June 1880. It had been just twenty spectacular months since they had slain three policemen at Stringybark Creek and now Ned, his nineteen-year-old brother Dan, Joe Byrne, twenty-three, and Steve Hart, twenty, were the most wanted men in the land. The deaths of the three policemen had launched the Kelly outbreak. Outlawed, with prices on their heads, the Kellys were striking back in what they believed was a legitimate war against oppression. Like the striking miners at Eureka twenty-five years earlier and the diggers at Gallipoli thirty-five years later, the Kelly Gang's final battle would form a foundation myth for the new nation.
The town of Glenrowan has kept very little of the landscape that made it part of the myth. None of the buildings that were there in 1880 have survived in their original locations. Some were demolished or burnt down and others were relocated or recycled into newer buildings. As a result, Glenrowan is a town with a rich history but little to show for it in a physical sense. The topography has not changed, though. The rail line from Melbourne still climbs a long path up to the town before cresting a rise and curving away steeply downhill to the north. It was because of the rail line — in particular that high point on the track just out of town — that Ned Kelly fought his Last Stand there.
For countless generations the area was home to the Yorta Yorta people. In the 1840s, Scottish brothers James and George Rowen took up a pastoral run there and adopted its Yorta Yorta name, 'Peechelba'. But by the 1870s, the town was known as Glenrowan. It boasted a schoolhouse and a police barracks, as well as the railway station and a scattering of houses along the gravel streets. It was a stopover point for Cobb & Co coaches for a time but it was the arrival of the rail line in 1874 that opened up new opportunities for growth. Foreseeing the changes that rail would bring, Ann Jones built her pub on the northern side of the tracks in the summer of 1878–79. The kitchen and residence behind the inn had been built about two years earlier. At the foot of a steep conical hill and surrounded by straggly eucalypts, Ann's hotel stood close enough to the station to catch passengers alighting and departing. On the other side of the rails, even more isolated in the rough scrub, was McDonnell's Hotel — an Irishman's pub and a stronghold for the Kellys and their friends. Although they sometimes shared the same customers —'mostly the working sort'— Ann liked to think her pub was more refined.
Visitors to Glenrowan today arrive to find a town that knows not only where its bread and butter come from, but also its jam and cream. Now with a population approaching a thousand, the locals are proud of their community and the Kelly story is genuinely celebrated. There was a time when invasive questioning might have earned you a punch in the nose in Glenrowan but those days are gone and the people are now friendly and welcoming. Today, Ned Kelly is good for business. In Glenrowan you can buy a Ned pie, a stuffed Ned, a painting of Ned, Ned on a mirror or Ned soap on a rope. There are Kelly Gang tea towels, stubby holders, T-shirts, calendars, books and movies. There are Ned pens, Ned posters and Ned key rings. And, of course, there are suits of armour. They range from plastic trinkets to tin reproductions small enough to carry in one hand to solid steel copies of the real thing. There are suits for all tastes; they even come in pastel pink. In the main street, speakers play ballads of Ned's war with the law and an animated theatre re-enacts the siege, on the half-hour, complete with tinny gunshots. You can be in no doubt as to this town's claim to fame.
In the best Australian tradition, there's even a Big Ned. Six metres tall and authentically clad in raincoat and armour, this fibreglass Ned clutches his revolving rifle and watches over the main street as buses disgorge throngs of tourists. They snap up the books and postcards, tea towels and trinkets — all emblazoned with images of the iconic outlaws. Few of the souvenirs celebrate the police who fought Ned to a standstill, nor the judge who sent him to the gallows. It says much about the marketability of Ned Kelly as an icon.
One of the town's main visitor drawcards is the animated theatre whose recorded gunshots provide the soundtrack for the passing tourist trade. A sign on the outer wall ominously warns, 'This attraction can and does frighten people of all ages!' Inside, the viewer walks from scene to scene, starting with the hunt for the Kellys amid a Halloween setting of giant spiders, snakes and a huge pumpkin. The next scene is the Glenrowan Inn, where Ned issues a call to arms, a drunk sleeps in a chandelier and someone is trying to escape from a cellar. Ann stands silently at the bar while rats scurry about and two dogs sit at a table with a small boy. Then the gang and police shoot it out — at a cemetery — and visitors re-enter the burning hotel before passing through the Old Melbourne Gaol where Ned meets his end. Things go crash and bang, lights flash and gunfire crackles. It is pantomime fun that entertains the kids, but if you are looking for an authentic insight into the Glenrowan siege then the town's theatre is not the place you need.
You can get a look inside the life of Glenrowan in 1880 thanks to two museums, Kate's Cottage and the Cobb & Co Museum. Named for Ned's sister, Kate's Cottage includes a convincing replica of the Kelly family homestead at Greta. It has a rustic, rugged kitchen and three small bedrooms. It gives an idea of some of the hardships faced by people who lived in homes just like it. A cabinet in the kitchen once belonged to Kate and a wooden trunk in a bedroom was owned by Ned's brother Jim. There is also a museum with artefacts, press reports and photographs. You can find similar relics a few doors away at the Cobb & Co Museum. Owned by local Kelly researcher and author Gary Dean, the museum is in the basement of a shop that sells souvenirs and trinkets. Downstairs there is replica armour, photos, documents and some artefacts from the old town of Greta. The museum also has a Ned death mask and some meticulous research on family trees, as well as original press reports and weaponry with reputed links to the Kelly outbreak.
In a geographical sense, the outbreak was a very Victorian story. Most of the action took place in a wedge of mountains, hills and plains that would become known as 'Kelly Country'. But people come to Glenrowan from all points. Schoolteachers from Sydney, painters from Perth or doctors from Darwin, they all share the heritage that Ned left in the town in 1880. After they have eaten or shopped, the tourists usually find their way across the railway bridge and down to the long, narrow block of land on its quiet street corner. There is not much to see — just the strip of dirt and grass, bordered on three sides by roads, and by a house with incongruous tropical trees and ferns on the fourth. Until the dig took place, the paddock was home to a small pony, a historically important fig tree and a huge peppercorn tree, some forty years old. The peppercorn tree is now gone but the pony has returned after a lengthy absence and the fig is still there. Totem figures of bushrangers stand at the front fence and a sign reveals the empty field to be the site of the Glenrowan Inn. The visitors take a moment to gaze at this vacant block, contained by its ordinary wire fence. As they look, those with good imaginations might close their eyes and sense the gunshots and screams echoing through the years. Others might shrug and ask: Is this all there is?
Diagonally opposite the vacant block is a flat piece of land leading to a replica of the original train station. This is the railway reserve, once a battleground studded with gum trees and scored with creeks and ditches. It was here that the police first laid siege to the inn, sheltering in the ditches and behind the trees as the Kelly bullets whistled overhead. But in June 2006, the battleground was lost. In a decision described by the Kelly historian Ian Jones as an 'act of historical vandalism' the reserve was bulldozed, the ditches concreted and the battlefield replaced by native shrubs and ordered rose gardens. It is neat and tidy but somehow inappropriate. The story of the Last Stand was anything but neat, and definitely not tidy.
Jones is the author of the definitive biography, Ned Kelly: A Short Life, and the producer of the television mini-series, The Last Outlaw. He had spent a lifetime examining minute details about the Kelly Gang and was thrilled at the chance to learn more about the siege. He hoped Ford's archaeological excavation would make up for some of the damage to the site. For him, the dig was also:
a chance to make contact with the Kelly Gang and God knows we've lost contact with it at Glenrowan as it is now. I used to be able to walk around Glenrowan and feel what had happened there. I can't now. It would be wonderful to regain contact with the lives and deaths of members of the Kelly Gang.
Re-establishing those lost links would not be easy. The Kellys were only in Glenrowan for a few days and it was hard to say whether they left anything behind that could give any new clues to their actions before and during the siege. On the other hand, their time at the inn was both violent and momentous, and there were reasonable hopes that traces of what happened there might somehow have escaped the effects of time, looting and fire. If those traces existed it was Adam Ford's job to find them.
Excerpted from The True Story of Ned Kelly's Last Stand by Paul Terry. Copyright © 2012 Paul Terry. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
Kelly Country map,
Timeline: Ned Kelly,
1 A foundation myth,
2 Kelly Country,
3 Beneath the siege,
4 Murder in the valley,
5 Ann Jones,
6 In search of the inn,
7 At war with the law,
8 Caught in a trap,
10 A date with destiny,
11 Cellar mystery,
12 The House of Sport,
13 Buried treasures,
14 The battle,
15 Men of steel,
16 The Last Stand,
17 Anatomy of a gunfight,
19 Trial and retribution,
20 The healing,
About the author,