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Useful Notes / Ned Kelly

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Kelly, photographed the day before his execution.

Let the hand of the law strike me down if it will, but I ask that my story might be heard and considered.

The greatest Folk Hero of Australia, Edward 'Ned' Kelly (December 1854 – 11 November 1880) was a bushranger in colonial Victoria and New South Wales. Of Irish descent and an impoverished background, he seems to have taken to a life of crime out of equal parts of a lack of better career options and revolutionary idealism. But unlike most poor Irish in Australia, Kelly aspired to something beyond merely petty crime (although that too had a place when money was tight).

The Kelly Gang, which consisted of Ned, his younger brother Dan, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, terrorised Victoria between 1878 and 1880. He and his gang first went on the run after Kelly supposedly shot a policeman who was making improper advances on one of his sisters. Shortly thereafter, they got into a shootout with the police pursuing them at Stringybark Creek. The gang escaped, killing three of the policemen, and were soon declared outlaws in the state of Victoria. After that, they mostly robbed banks, usually with relying on a mixture of fear and courtesy (Kelly in particular could really turn on the charm) to get the job done without violence.

In 1880, Kelly conceived of an audacious scheme to ambush the police and strike a blow against the authority they represented. Forging medieval-like armour out of stolen ploughs, Kelly and his gang captured the town of Glenrowan in north central Victoria, and took over the local pub as their headquarters. But the ambush was short circuited by an escaped hostage, who warned the police before the trap could be sprung. A tense siege lasting more than a day ensued. Kelly was captured after police shots brought him down (he had neglected to armour his legs), Byrne was killed by a stray bullet, and Steve and Dan chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the police.

Kelly was taken to Melbourne, where he was nursed back to health, and a trial date was set. The actual charges laid against him mostly concerned the killings at Stringybark Creek - since murder carried the death penalty, lesser charges were deemed irrelevant. He was found guilty, and hanged on November 11, 1880. His last words were reportedly "Such is life."

For a concise and entertaining summary of Kelly's life and career, Extra History did a 5-part series on him.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Improvised Armor: The Kelly Gang's armour was made from plough blades.
    • The whole thing was so impressive and iconic that the Kelly Gang were admired in military circles at the time and even Arthur Conan Doyle was impressed by the gang's ingenuity and thought the armor was badass enough that the British military would benefit from making more professional versions for their troops.
  • Just Like Robin Hood: He's often seen this way, but only one incident in his career really qualifies: Kelly's destruction of mortgage records during the Jerilderie bank robbery was deliberately intended to help the poor leaseholders of the area. Upon learning that Hart had stolen a watch from the bank manager, he made Hart return the watch personally to make a point, and bought his hostages drinks before riding off. They were also known for being generous wherever they went, and commissioned Glenrowan district blacksmith Joe Grigg with gold sovereigns to make their famous sets of armor (when Grigg told the police about it, he was told to keep the money as he had earned it honestly).
  • Last Stand: Glenrowan. Kelly repeatedly said that he was tired of running and wanted to end it one way or another during the siege.
  • Manly Facial Hair: He had a reputation as a badass and had a very impressive and manly beard to boot. Enough so that the term "Ned Kelly beard" has become shorthand for facial hair that looks similar to it.
  • Outlaw: After the killings at Stringybark Creek, all four members of the gang were declared outlaws by the Victorian government.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Kelly was fond of verbally tearing into the police for their corruption and laziness. He believed that most of them were worse criminals than him. Considering the reputation the Victoria Police had at the time, he had a point. A Victorian Royal Commission into police conduct in the aftermath of Ned's execution resulted in many members of the force being censured, reprimanded, demoted, suspended or dismissed.
  • Rule of Cool: Look at this armor!
  • See You in Hell: Said this to the judge who condemned him to the death penalty for believing that the judge was just as bad as himself. The judge died shortly thereafter.

Kelly in Popular Culture

  • Ned Kelly and His Gang, made in 1906 and one of the earliest full length films.
  • Ned Kelly, 1970 film with Mick Jagger as Ned.
  • In Mark of the Ninja, Corporal Kelly is loosely inspired by Ned Kelly, according to Word of God.
  • The Last Outlaw, iconic 1980s television miniseries
  • Reckless Kelly, 1993 'comedy' featuring Yahoo Serious as Kelly's grandson.
  • Ned Kelly, 2003 biopic starring Heath Ledger as Ned.
    • Adapted from the Robert Drewe novel Our Sunshine
  • Tinhead Ned in Terry Pratchett's The Last Continent is an obvious Expy of Kelly.
  • The Swagman from Batman (Grant Morrison) is visually based on Kelly.
  • When KISS first toured Australia, they did so in November 1980, a hundred years after Kelly's death when Australia was in the grip of Kelly fever. For the occasion, the band members forewent their usual bandanas, and instead wore cardboard version of Kelly's helmet to conceal their faces (they also amused themselves by firing cap guns at journalists. Aussie fans loved them for it).
  • Peter Carey's novel True History of the Kelly Gang is presented as Ned's autobiography, smuggled out of Glenrowan by one of his hostages. A film adaptation premiered in 2019 and was given a wider release in 2020.
  • Benny Hill Down Under, a special filmed in and for Australia, includes a longform sketch about "Benny Kelly, son of Ned Kelly."
  • Extra History: A detailed series exploring Ned Kelly in the sociopolitical context of his time.
  • A. Bertram Chandler wrote an Alternate History novel, Kelly Country in which the outlaw not only survives but starts a revolution that threw out the British.
  • The boss Red Belly in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! is named after and looks quite a bit like Kelly's iconic armour, and the lack of leg protection is even lampshaded in an in-game conversation.
  • The Victorian state cricket team is called the Bushrangers, and their logo is a cartoon version of Kelly, wielding a cricket bat.
  • The Bushranger mask on The Masked Singer Australia is directly based on Ned Kelly. The costume was even colour-matched to the real armour Ned Kelly wore.
  • Red Dead Redemption 2 used Kelly’s armor in one of the online missions and it referenced being from Australia.
  • Dragon Quest IX: The church in Upover features two plaques dedicated to Ned and Kelly, two local heroes that valiantly rebelled against the evil Gittish Empire several centuries prior to the events of the game.

Such is life.