Ned Kelly information sheet

Learn more about Ned Kelly's life and his legendary suit of armour.

The history

Quick facts

Ned Kelly:

  • was born sometime between December 1854 and June 1855, in Beveridge, Victoria. His precise birthdate is not known.
  • was the eldest son of eight children to John 'Red' Kelly and Ellen Quinn.
  • as a child saved another boy from drowning – the boy's family awarded him a green silk sash in recognition of his bravery.
  • was twice convicted and sentenced to prison in the 1870s, first for assault and then for receiving a stolen horse.
  • attacked Constable Fitzpatrick while he was attempting to arrest Dan Kelly in April 1878. Fitzpatrick was wounded by a pistol shot and warrants for the arrest of Ned and Dan Kelly were issued.
  • with his gang ambushed and killed three police officers at Stringybark Creek, Victoria in October 1878.
  • staged bank robberies at Euroa in 1878 and at Jerilderie in 1879.
  • composed a document written down by gang member Joe Byrne known as the ‘Jerilderie Letter’ in which Kelly tried to justify his crimes.
  • used suits of armour to protect himself and his gang members during a final battle with police at Glenrowan in June 1878.
  • was tried, convicted and then executed in Melbourne on 11 November 1880.

How it all began

Kelly’s criminal life started early. In 1869, when he was 14, he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a Chinese man. In 1870 he was arrested again, this time for being a suspected accomplice of bushranger Harry Power. The assault charge was dismissed and the accomplice charges with Power were also dropped after witnesses could not identify Kelly. Power was also of the belief that Kelly had given him up in exchange for his freedom. It was not long before Kelly was in trouble with the law again. In 1871 he served 3 months in prison for assault and later that year received a 3-year prison sentence for receiving a stolen horse.

The Fitzpatrick Incident

After his release from gaol Kelly worked as timber cutter and in other labouring jobs. In April 1878, a police officer named Fitzpatrick went to the Kelly home to arrest Kelly’s brother Dan for stealing horses. Fitzpatrick was shot in the wrist by Ned Kelly, and their mother Ellen was arrested for aiding and abetting an attempted murder.

Ellen was sentenced to three years' imprisonment by Judge Redmond Barry (who also sentenced Ned Kelly to death by hanging). Ned and Dan went into hiding, and were later joined by Ned's friend Joe Byrne, and Dan's friend Steve Hart.

Stringybark Creek

In October 1878, Ned, Dan, Joe and Steve headed for Bullock Creek, where they hoped to earn enough money to appeal Ellen Kelly’s sentence by running a whisky distillery.

Shortly after their arrival, they received a warning that four policemen were planning to track them down. Ned rode around the surrounding areas and found sets of horse tracks leading to Stringybark Creek, close to where the gang was camped.

The gang ambushed the police camp at Stringybark Creek and found two of the four policemen – Constables Lonigan and McIntyre – standing around a fire. The gang drew their guns and Ned shot Lonigan. McIntyre surrendered.

When the other two policemen Sergeant Kennedy and Constable Scanlan returned they were shot by the gang. From this moment on, these four men were officially outlaws: the notorious Kelly gang.

Ned Kelly's suit of armour

Prior to the Glenrowan siege and Ned's ultimate capture – the Kelly gang began constructing the suits of armour from mouldboards, the thick metal parts of a farmer's plough.

The suits allowed the gang to walk away unharmed from close-range shooting, but they also made the gang members – Ned in particular – seem larger, more intimidating; even ghostly. The shock factor of the metal-clad Kelly gave him some psychological advantage over his attackers during the confrontation with the police at Glenrowan. But the weight of the armour also greatly reduced his mobility which prevented any chance of escape.

A journalist present at the Glenrowan siege, Tom Carrington, described the metal-clad Kelly in this way:

‘there was no head visible and in the dim light of morning, 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 thick neck…. The figure continued gradually to advance, stopping every now and then and moving what looked like its headless neck mechanically round, and then raising one foot onto a log, and aiming and firing a revolver. Shot after shot was fired at it, but without effect’

Eventually under sustained police attack, Kelly was wounded several times in parts of his body not protected by the armour and brought down. The other gang members had been killed and Ned Kelly was captured. The police officers involved in the capture wanted to keep parts of the suits as souvenirs. Various pieces of the suits were separated, some making their way into private ownership.

In 2001, Allison Holland’s research into the four sets of armour revealed that the set held by the Library, previously believed to be the set worn by Steve Hart, was in fact that worn by Ned Kelly. Both shoulder pieces were reunited with the set at later dates – one owned by State Library Victoria, the other by Museums Victoria.

Trial and Execution

After his capture at Glenrowan Kelly was taken to Melbourne where he stood trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to execution by hanging by Judge Redmond Barry. He was hanged in the Old Melbourne Gaol on the 11 November 1880. His execution was witnessed by various prison and police officials and by a number of journalists. His final words were reported by most observers to be ‘ah well I suppose’ or ‘ah well I suppose it has come to this’. One observer reported Kelly’s final words as ‘such is life’, but these words are now strongly contested and dismissed as invented (Dawson, S. E. (2016). Ned Kelly's last words: 'Ah, well, I suppose'. Eras, 18(1), 38-50).

Kelly's death mask

In the 19th century, it was common for plaster 'death masks' to be made of the face and skull of executed criminals. At the time, these masks served several purposes.

Firstly, death masks were used for phrenological analysis, whereby the shape of a person's head was studied to determine their character traits. Secondly, they were often put on display in public places to serve as a reminder of the power of the police force.

After the execution of Ned Kelly several death masks were made of his skull.

One Kelly death mask was put on display at the Wax Museum in Bourke Street owned by Maximilian Kreitmayer the day after Kelly’s hanging. It was no doubt a source of fascination for the Victorian public. Another is now in the Library's collection.

The Jerilderie letter

There's no denying that Ned Kelly was a notorious criminal, feared around Victoria and beyond as a robber and murderer. However, while it is not known how many sympathisers Kelly had in his day, over time a national myth emerged that pitched Kelly as a victim of police harassment and an underdog with the courage to challenge the authorities.

This perception was no doubt fuelled by Kelly's Jerilderie letter, an 8000-word document in which he tried to justify his crimes and make a case for unfair police persecution of himself and his family. Kelly dictated the letter to Joe Byrne, who later rewrote it in clearer handwriting.

The letter was written in 1879, around the time that the gang robbed the Jerilderie Bank. Kelly gave the letter to the bank's accountant, Edward Living, and told him to have it published. Living, however, hopped on a train to Melbourne and passed the letter on to the police.

Despite its rough language and lack of grammar or punctuation, the Jerilderie letter offers a valuable insight into Ned Kelly's personality. It documents Kelly’s version of several incidents leading up to the Fitzpatrick incident and the murders of the police by the gang at Stringybark Creek. The language is at times very vivid and arguments are not always expressed coherently but Kelly’s chief belief that he was acting in self-defence is clearly evident. Also evident is his sense of aggrievement at what he saw as a long history of oppression of the Irish people by the British.

The events described in the letter, and in particular the colloquial language and passionate tone, also provided inspiration for Peter Carey's prize-winning novel, The true history of the Kelly gang (2000).

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This information sheet was updated on 11 March 2022.