I have to admit until a few days ago I hadn’t known there was“a local tradition of commemorating the 1880 Siege at Glenrowan, when Ned Kelly made his last stand” but this year the commemoration is going to be a fund-raising dinner for the proposed Joanne Griffiths Ned Kelly Center at Glenrowan. Its going to be called ‘The Ned Kelly Siege Dinner’.
For a hundred bucks you’re not only going to get fine (but hearty!) food and great local wine, but entertainment from singer songwriter Damian Howard, a ‘Hard Quiz’ “prepared by historians which will challenge the fiercest aficionados” and “a Silent Auction will give you the chance to bid for bargain holidays, art works, memorabilia and more…” I’d be tempted to go myself if I lived nearby, and if I had a hundred bucks to spare and if I didn’t think I would be lynched if I went! But I’d be hated even more once I got the prize for winning the quiz…so I guess I’ll stay home.
But, seriously I would like to know exactly what part of Ned Kellys last stand at Glenrowan is worth a commemorative dinner, good food, wine and song?
The truth about the “Last Stand” is that it was the place where Ned Kellys true character was fully exposed and shown to be dark and as angry, ruthless and murderous as any of the other known mass killers. Ned Kellys plan was no spur of the moment brain-snap but a very deliberate and calculated scheme that was many months in the making, and which very nearly succeeded. Glenrowan was an attempt to murder up to a couple of dozen police by causing a train to derail at high speed. Ned Kelly was so determined to do this that he made four suits of bullet–proof armour, murdered a former friend, and then risked his own life, the lives of the other gang members, and the lives of more than 60 hostages as well. This was a monumentally violent and ruthless scheme that if successfully carried out would have eternally embedded the name of Ned Kelly into the annals of history’s most sickening killers, . There wouldn’t have been one word of debate from any sane reasonable person about anything other than that Ned Kelly was a monster. Absolutely no doubt about it.
My question to the Siege commemorators is this: do you not realise that Ned Kelly is no less a monster just because he was stopped from carrying out this plan? What is it that you want to commemorate?
Maybe you are planning on commemorating the claim that Glenrowan was the place where Ned Kelly displayed the skills and strategic genius that would have made him a brilliant military man. If so, you need to keep reading because that claim doesn’t withstand the slightest analysis. To start with, the centrepiece of his brilliant plan was the home-made armour – it turned out to be hopelessly impractical – it was so heavy they could barely move in it, it was impossible for the gang to use their rifles while wearing it, it greatly restricted their vision and as Ned Kelly discovered to his horror, the unprotected legs left the wearer fatally vulnerable. That was the supposed great Generals first blunder. His next blunder was about poor Aaron Sherrit – everyone now accepts that Kelly was wrong about him – he didn’t betray the Gang , but the deranged Kelly gang killed him anyway, as police bait! Next, Kellys plan relied on word about Aaron Sheritts murder getting quickly to Melbourne – so what did his ‘troops’ do? After killing Sheritt they hung about his house for hours and hours taunting and threatening the policemen trapped inside, so they didn’t emerge till the next morning – blunder #3. Kellys plan relied on the railway line being ripped up – but the tools he bought were the wrong ones and he and Steve Hart couldn’t do it – dumb planning (#4) Kelly then woke up railway workers in tents nearby thinking they would be able to rip up the tracks – they couldn’t (#5). And neither could Stanistreet, the Stationmaster they woke next (#6). Now, because his plan required secrecy, he had to make hostages of everyone in the Ann Jones Inn, but because he couldn’t keep his own boastful mouth shut Ned Kellys secret got out (#7). Outsmarted by Thomas Curnow’s flattery, the vain Ned Kelly released the brave Curnow (#8), who stopped the train by an act of bravery that’s universally acknowledged.
At this point the plan was in tatters, but at least no harm had been done, other than the cold-blooded murder of Aaron Sherritt. A wise General would have considered a hasty retreat with all his men, and lived to fight another day, but not Mr Kelly. (#9) He chose to stay and shoot it out with police, against odds that were so hopelessly impossible even Custer wouldn’t have thought about staying.
The outcome of his hateful and ill-conceived plan, fortunately, was total failure for the Kelly Gang. Not a single one of the gangs objectives was realised, but the Gang was completely destroyed – Ned Kellys own brother and Steve Hart committed suicide, Joe Byrne was shot by police and bled to death, Ned Kelly was captured and in a few months hanged, two innocent hostages were killed, and Ann Jones livelihood was destroyed. The entire incident was a horrendous and traumatic weekend of terror and death and injury, a mesmerising horror show of drunken violence and chaos. Why on earth would anyone want to commemorate that?
And yet, despite the shameful behaviour of the Kelly Gang, there was a hero at Glenrowan, and his bravery certainly does deserve to be commemorated. One man with a conscience was brave enough to stand up against wrong, and do whatever it took to stop the murder of innocent people in a train crash : Thomas Curnow. There can be no mistake – what Curnow did required extraordinary bravery, and he later admitted he expected to be killed in the attempt, but even his own wife’s pleas couldn’t dissuade him.
Read what he wrote a mere three weeks after the event, in his Statement to the Police:
“In overcoming Mrs Curnow’s opposition to my going for she was in a state of the utmost terror and dread, and declared that both I and all belonging to me would get shot if I persisted in going, and in securing the safety of my wife, child and sister while being away time passed, and just as I was about to start I heard the train coming in the distance. I immediately caught up the scarf, candle and matches and ran down the line to meet the train. On reaching a straight part of the line where those in the train would be able to see the danger signal for some distance, I lit the candle and held it behind the red scarf. While I was holding up the danger signal I was in great fear of being shot before those in the train would be able to see the red light, and of thus uselessly sacrificing my life.”
This man is the true hero of Glenrowan, and its about time his bravery was given the recognition that it deserves. Compare his bravery, going alone and unarmed with only a candle and a scarf, with the “bravery” of Ned Kelly, armed to the teeth after weeks of target practice, enclosed in armour, protected by human shields, and a member of a gang….an extraordinary comparison!
The Commemorative Dinner shouldn’t be called the Ned Kelly siege dinner. Ned Kelly did nothing at Glenrowan that any decent and fair-minded person would ever want to commemorate. Instead it should be renamed the Thomas Curnow memorial Dinner. That would make it honourable, because when it comes to Glenrowan, Thomas Curnow is the only person and his were the only deeds that deserve commemoration.
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