How Long Was Ned Kellys Last Stand?

(This is a guest post contributed by Stuart Dawson, who recently set out to investigate and tackle an unresolved question in the Ned Kelly commentary. It is posted here to encourage feedback for correction and improvement. It is intended to be part of a future, longer research article on Ned Kelly’s Last Stand.)


Did Ian Jones’ admiration for Kelly lead him to wrongly accept a statement that Kelly’s last stand lasted over twice as long as it actually had? According to Jones, “The Last Stand had lasted for half an hour”, from Constable Arthur’s challenge to Kelly as he advanced in armour from the bush towards the Glenrowan Inn, and the first exchange of fire, to Kelly’s capture (Short Life, 2003: 236, cf. 231-6). Peter FitzSimons followed Jones, as have many others, in accepting a half hour timeframe, while noting that “the timetable … varies wildly in most contemporary accounts, with only broad agreement that from first shot to last it took around thirty minutes” (Ned Kelly,2015: 777 n.2). This is a red flag that the timeline needs review, especially given Daily Telegraph reporter George Allen’s contemporary estimate that “the whole affair” lasted “about a quarter of an hour, I suppose, or 20 minutes” (RC,Q.10774). Clearly the gunfight itself did not last half an hour; but how long was it?

The Age text of 29 June 1880 is partially damaged in Trove, but is reprinted in Hare’s “Last of the Bushrangers”, ch. XII. It says of 28 June, “The morning broke beautiful and clear. The police were disposed all round the hotel, when they were beset by a danger from the rear. … It was nearly eight o’clock when [Kelly’s] tall figure was seen close behind the line of police. … For half an hour this strange contest was carried on”. In a different place it gushed, “About seven o’clock Ned Kelly was seen in the timber, where he fought valiantly for about half an hour” (Age, 29 June 1880, 2). This is the source of the half hour gunfight generalisation beloved of Kelly enthusiasts. But the Age’s first (8am) starting time is an hour out. All sources agree that Kelly rose from the bush at dawn and began his advance toward the Glenrowan Inn and the scattered police line (Q.10043 Carrington; Q.10345 McWhirter). On that day, civil twilight (dawn) at Glenrowan was 6:59am (Geoscience Australia), and Kelly’s appearance and advance began “about 7am or after” (Q.8229 S/C Kelly).

Before the gunfight, one must allow for Kelly walking some 50 yards in armour, from 150 yards out (S/C Kelly, Argus, 29 June 1880, 6; Dowsett, Argus, 1 July 1880, 6) before being challenged about 100 yards out by Arthur, himself some 80 yards from the Inn(Argus, 2 July 1880, 7). [Both Jones p. 231 and FitzSimons p. 548 wrongly placed Arthur 100 yards from the Inn.] Upon that challenge Kelly raised his revolver. Arthur then fired, and Kelly returned fire (Q.11161); although he told the Argus at the time that Kelly fired first. Either way, the gunfight had commenced. Kelly called out, “fire away you b—s, you can’t kill me, I’m in armour”, and called to the outlaws in the Inn, “Come out boys, we’ll lick the lot” (Q.9450 Dwyer). Regardless that Dwyer’s watch was perhaps half an hour out (Q.9490), he noted what are here two key timing points: the time he was at the Inn stockyard just before he went up to the station, from which place he saw Kelly in the bush and heard him call out the above challenge (Q.9448-50), and then the time Kelly was captured (Q.9490), about 8 minutes later. Kelly’s last stand was not an epic half-hour gun battle; it was over in less than 10 minutes.

Kelly was captured before or around 7:15am, in the presence of reporters who had rushed up and witnessed his capture: “The outlaw howled like a wild beast brought to bay, and swore at the police” (Argus, 30 June 1880, 2). A few minutes passed with exchanges of words, Dwyer giving Kelly a kick, and Bracken defending Kelly from other injudicious treatment including possible summary shooting by Steele as his armour was removed (Q.10345 McWhirter). Kelly was then supported (“carried”) and walked some 100 yards to the railway station, including being lifted over a fence, while under fire from the Inn, and placed in the guard’s van (Q.8269-70 S/C Kelly; Q.10355 McWhirter). It was not until shortly after Kelly was lodged at the station that the sun rose (Q.9232 Steele; cf. Q.9234). On 28 June 1880, sunrise at Glenrowan was at 7:27am, so Kelly was in there at latest by 7:25am.

The Age’s “half an hour … contest” is a gross exaggeration of the gunfight timeframe, likely the result of excitement and nerves on the day. If it is to be taken as a marker of anything, it would encompass the entire time from Kelly’s first appearance from the scrub at 7am, through to his lodgement in the guard’s van at the station around 7:25am; but this is much more than the event known as the last stand. That, as the quote from FitzSimons above makes clear, is universally understood to mean the timeframe from first shot to the last at his capture. At most it might include some of his first walk in.

Allen’s estimate of a little more than 15 minutes for “the whole affair” was correct, within which the gunfight occupied less than 10 minutes. Only a few of the 34 police then present at Glenrowan, and railway guard Dowsett, were involved in the gunfight with and capture of Kelly. (The civilian Rawlins also assisted in securing Kelly, but was not involved in the gunfight, Q.11740-7.) The rest of the police stayed at their posts surrounding the Inn to prevent the other outlaws’ escape. Despite Jones’comprehensive reading of the evidence surrounding the last stand (SL, 2003: 405), he wrongly accepted the Age journalist’s exaggerated statement of the gunfight timeframe, over clear evidence that shows that Ned Kelly’s last stand was barely 10 minutes. Truth is duller than fiction.

(Dr. Stuart Dawson is an Adjunct Research Fellow in History at Monash University.) 

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5 Replies to “How Long Was Ned Kellys Last Stand?”

  1. Re. how long was Ned’s last stand, there were several comments about this on the old Blogger blog which have not been moved to this new blog. To read them go to this URL,
    Then come back to this blog if you want to add more. It’s hard to believe that no-one out there had much to say about my demolition of the “half hour last stand” myth, which was barely 10 minutes. Still a gutsy effort, to be sure, but nothing like the often claimed half hour gunfight.

    1. Stuart, the people who claim to be interested in the Kelly story are all bunkered down in their echo-chambers, and aren’t really interested in discussing their mythology with anyone other than like-minded sympathisers. Once they’ve read your articles they realise the game is up, and they can only either retreat into their dogmas and carry on reciting them like a religious creed, or abandon their faith in Ned Kelly all together. They almost never make any attempt to defend their beliefs or challenge what you’ve written – same goes for whatI write. All we’ve had lately is sarcasm.

      Apart from a few score sympathisers just about everyone else in Australia already agrees with us. And most of them are not that interested in talking about the shameful advancement of a murderous psychopath as an Australian Icon.

      Did you know that next weekend at Stringybark Creek a further step back from the Kelly mythology takes place with the unveiling of new signage which greatly enhances and respects the memory of the good police slain there, and barely mentions their murderers?

      We are winning, slowly but surely!

  2. Hi Dee (or David?), I would not be too quick to agree that “just about everyone else in Australia already agrees with us”, by which I think you mean the we share a general scepticism about many Kelly stories and see them as highly embroidered history rather than factual historical narrative. There are quite a few topics where you and I have not agreed about some aspect or other of Kelly history, not because we are not sceptical of many of the same things, but because we are looking at something from quite different angles and reaching conclusions that sometimes disagree widely. The quartered bullets at Stringybark Creek is the .most obvious example of non-alignment while still agreeing that the two long Kelly letter descriptions of events are outright self-serving lies. But on the main point above, I think that when most students, journalists, government employees in tourism, etc, want to know something about Kelly, they typically turn to Ian Jones’ work, and are immediately fed a whole bunch of dated and disproved rubbish about Ned’s “quiet years”, Fitzpatrick, Stringybark Creek, Glenrowan, the Kelly republic fairy-tale, the last stand, and even Kelly’s last words. But because of his “sacred cow” status, the nonsense just gets repeated and repeated again. I am increasingly convinced it will remain like this until someone writes a genuinely true story of Kelly and he Kelly gang, that totally reconstructs and brings up to date the entire story covered in Jones’ “Short Life” book and reveals the actual true story for the first time since Kenneally classically distorted it and sent everyone including Jones off on entirely the wrong foot. You have much of the necessary content on this blog… Hint???

  3. Hi Stuart
    I bet if you asked 100 people in a shopping centre somewhere in Australia outside the northeast of Victoria if they knew who Alexander Fitzpatrick was, almost no-one would be able to tell you, but if you asked if they knew who Ned Kelly was, most would have heard of him. Their knowledge of the detail is scant. My point is that hardly anyone in Australia knows or cares about the detail of the Kelly story, and most would respond with some version of ‘cop killer’ and a very small number would express some sort of admiration. But neither admirers nor detractors would be able to back up their views with much in the way of accurate information.

    The thing is nowadays when people want to know something they turn to the Internet, and what they increasingly find when they do Google searches on Kelly related topics, are links to my Blog and your writings. Its not all Ian Jones mythology any more. There are great new books as well. The Facebook Kelly warriors don’t appear on those searches because Facebook cant be searched so all their ranting and raving and their attacks on me just disappear after a few days and nobody can ever be bothered trawling back to look for anything. I know youre not on Facebook but let me tell you all the Kelly FB sites are shrivelling up, the sympathisers are bunkering down inside their echo chambers and refusing to come out to defend anything, they’ve given up even abusing me and trying to make me go away. There becoming a kind of secretive cult.

    I hear what you’re saying about the rubbish thats still out there but its very clear : the pendulum is swinging back from mythology towards historical truth.

  4. Hi again, yes, I think that Ian MacFarlane’s “Kelly Gang Unmasked” book was the first big turning point, but I keep coming across relatively recent material that is totally under the sway of various disproved romanticisations by the big 3 Kelly authors, Jones, Molony and McQuilton. All three believed the Republic myth; all three endlessly and incorrectly claimed Fitzpatrick was drunk when he went to arrest Dan Kelly; and all three trotted out the factually incorrect persecution myth. Many of the recent Kelly authors typically haven’t done much PROV, TROVE, or other serious documentary research. They content themselves with framing their story as told by one of the big three, but mostly Jones, and quoting bits from the Royal Commission report. Having got the wrong end of the stick, they add further “evidence” that fits into their already-established perspective, and think that they have produced something new. Unfortunately all most of them have done is write yet another a poorly researched “poor man’s Jones”. So I’m not really convinced the pendulum is swinging from mythology to historical truth. I just think people are writing more of the same old ignorant guff and managing to sell it to a market of historically uncritical Kelly fans. Such is life…

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