The final public act of the Kelly gangs outlawry is often called The Siege, a showdown between the Gang and the police made especially famous by the heavy suits of armour that the gang had been making in secret over previous months in readiness for the confrontation. It took place 150 miles north of Melbourne in the small country town of Glenrowan over the mid-winter weekend of June 26th to 28th, 1880. Like most of the sentinel events of the Kelly story, the Siege is a topic of great controversy, not so much about what happened but why.
What happened is not that difficult to describe: in the darkness of Saturday night, June 26th at the Woolshed Valley north of Beechworth, Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly went to former mate Aaron Sherrit’s home and murdered him when he came to the front door. The gang had convinced themselves that Sherritt had become a police informer, and their expectation was that the authorities response to his execution would be to send a trainload of police to the north east from Melbourne – and that’s exactly what happened, though not as promptly as the Gang had imagined it would. Later that same night the other two members of the gang turned up at the Glenrowan train station, south of Beechworth, saw to it that some of the railway tracks were ripped up, and took a lot of people hostage in the Glenrowan Inn, across the road from the station.(Shown in the illustration above). In the early hours of Monday the train finally arrived, its load of police surrounded the Inn, there was a shootout, two hostages and three gang members were killed, Ned Kelly was captured and the Inn was burned to the ground. And that, ladies and gentlemen was the end of the Kelly Outbreak. There was huge relief and rejoicing throughout the colony.
Obviously, for the Kelly gang it hadn’t gone the way they wanted it to – in fact, apart from their success in murdering the unsuspecting Aaron Sheritt in cold blood – the easiest part of the plan – thereafter it had been a complete and unmitigated disaster, a total failure. Their plan had been to rip up the railway tracks without anyone finding out – but their inadequate preparations meant they were unable to destroy the tracks themselves so had to wake people up in the dead of night and force them to do it at gunpoint. The first few people they woke weren’t able to do it either, so eventually, once people who could rip up the tracks were found and the job was done, they had a collection of people who had to be prevented from alerting authorities to what was afoot in Glenrowan. It wasn’t part of the original plan but they had no choice but to take them all hostage and imprison them at the nearby Inn, along with its owner Ann Jones and her family.
The Gang then waited for the train to arrive, anticipating that it would derail at speed at the place where the tracks had been lifted, and then the Gang, protected in their armour would kill or take hostage any survivors. It was going to be a bloody massacre of a couple of dozen police, a dozen horses and anyone else on the train – the driver and engineer, several journalists, and a few women.
What they intended to do after the train had wrecked itself is still unclear. However, back at the Woolshed Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne lingered for some hours, taunting and threatening the four armed policemen who were inside the Sherritt house when Aaron was killed. The Gang members weren’t prepared to go into the house to get them and the policemen weren’t prepared to come out until they were sure it was safe and as a result they didn’t emerge to sound the alarm till Sunday morning. It took most of the rest of the day for the news to reach Melbourne and for a police train to be organised and finally head north late in the evening. As a result, as the day wore on the gang were obliged to add steadily to the numbers held hostage at the Inn, as unwary passers-by were rounded up and added to the growing crowd which eventually numbered over 60. One of the hostages was Thomas Curnow, a local school teacher who set about gaining the confidence of the garrulous Ned Kelly after learning what was planned, and successfully persuaded Kelly to let him go home well after midnight. However instead of going home to bed, in fear of his life Curnow set off down the line with a candle and red scarf just in time to alert the approaching train which stopped well short of the damaged track which was further on past the station. It was 2.30 am and pitch black outside. Effectively at that point it was game over for the Kelly Gang because the police quickly surrounded the Inn and cut off all escape routes. They called on the Gang to surrender, but the gang, now wearing their suits of armour responded with gunfire and so the Siege began.
Ned Kellys exposed legs and arms were soon injured, and he headed out of the rear of the Inn to the bushland behind where he collapsed and remained unseen for three or four hours. Inside the Inn, the other three gang members engaged the police who returned fire, and though the hostages all lay on the floor and the police aimed high, two of them were killed by police bullets as was Joe Byrne. Close to sunrise, the wounded and weakened Ned Kelly roused himself and advanced through the mist towards the police, firing as he went but hitting no-one. Police return fire found its mark but didn’t bring him down until it was realised his body was protected by armour but his legs weren’t. In less than fifteen minutes his immortalised and greatly exaggerated ‘Last Stand’ was over : he was arrested and taken to the railway station and administered the last rites because it was wrongly thought he wouldn’t survive.
Meanwhile, hostages had been fleeing the Inn in groups, braving the police guns in the dark and the chaos, and eventually by mid-morning they were all out. Sporadic fire continued from the Inn and then in the afternoon it was set alight to flush the remaining Gang members out. A passing priest, horrified at the prospect of two young men being burned to death rushed in, saw Joe Byrne’s corpse in one room and in another the bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart lying side by side, having earlier taken their own lives. A couple of policemen helped to drag out Joe Byrnes corpse and the wounded hostage Martin Cherry who died not long after receiving the last rites, but the rapidly advancing fire prevented them from getting back to the other two gang members. Two horribly burned bodies, presumed to be those of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were dragged out of the ruins after the fire had burned out: they were unrecognizable.
This nightmare weekend in 1880 had been a terrifying ordeal for scores of people and resulted in innocent deaths and injury. Ann Jones the Innkeeper lost her livelihood when the Inn was set alight but more tragically her son was one of the two innocent people killed. The other was Martin Cherry, one of the railway workers who died a lingering death. It was a tragedy for the Kelly family and no less a tragedy for the Sherrits the Byrnes and the Hart families who all lost sons in a weekend of almost unimaginable horror and violence. A few months later, after a trial that found Ned Kelly guilty of the murder of Lonigan at Stringybark Creek the final act of the Outbreak was the hanging of Ned Kelly at the Melbourne Gaol.
Part XI will tackle the challenge of explaining what this diabolical horror was supposed to be all about. Why, after successfully managing to evade capture for more than two years, and with the police hunt almost at a dead end did the gang decide to jeopardise their freedom by engineering a confrontation that quickly turned into a horror show that ended in 36 hours with the death of three of them and the capture of Ned Kelly? Was it suicide by cop? Was it a political insurgency that failed before it had started? Was it a criminal monstrosity or something else?