The Actual True Story of Ned Kelly : XI : What was Glenrowan supposed to achieve?

In Part X of this series I described how the Kelly Outbreak came to an end at Glenrowan on the weekend of June 26th1880: the Kelly gang engineered but  completely botched a hostage crisis that began in the Woolshed valley with their murder of Aaron Sherritt. It ended disastrously at Glenrowan with the death of three of the four members of the Kelly gang, the death of two of the Kelly gang’s innocent hostages, the capture of Ned Kelly and the destruction of Ann Jones Inn which was burned to the ground. It was a dramatic and violent confrontation that left scores of people traumatised, the colony and the world aghast, and everyone asking why?  The Kelly Gang had obviously been preparing for this confrontation for months but what exactly had they been hoping to achieve?



For answers, the obvious sources are the words of the gang leader, Ned Kelly. Clearly, he was planning to wreck the train and to kill police: he told James Reardon, one of the platelayers he forced at gunpoint to lift the railway line, that he was doing it because he was expecting a train from Benalla “with a lot of police and blackfellas’ and “I’m going to kill all them buggers”. But was killing police in a train wreck the sole objective?


Before the siege, gang members kept quiet about what was planned for obvious reasons, but afterwards as three of them were killed, only Kelly was left to talk about it, and what he DID say was short on detail. From his prison cell in the OMG Ned Kelly wrote  that the attack was initially developed as an attempt to free his mother and two others by taking senior police as hostages:


 “This was my first intention, so as to capture the leaders of the police and take them into the bush and allow the superintendent to write to the head department and inform them if they sent any more Police after me or try to rescue him, I would shoot him, and that I intended to keep them prisoners till the release of my mother, Skillion and Williamson”


Think about this for a minute: does it make any sense whatsoever that in order to spare his mother the few months that remained of her sentence, Kelly would devise a plan for the mass killing of perhaps two dozen police in a train wreck?  How would any person in their right mind think mass killing and the taking of hostages was anywhere near reasonable and proportionate, quite apart from the likelihood that it would fail?  Any sane person would see it immediately as a gross, hyper-violent and repellent over-reaction. But there was more to it than that.


Kelly then wrote “But subsequently I varied my plans”. He doesn’t explain why he changed the plan, but declared that the new plan wouldn’t be about taking police hostage and negotiating the release of his mother and friends from gaol, but commandeering the train and using it go back down the line and rob banks:


“It was my intention then to take possession of the train, horses and everything and return along the line, leaving the police surrounding the barracks and Glenrowan, while I had the train and robbed the bank along the line”


Five days later, on November 10th he wrote his last letter, and returned to his plans for Glenrowan, restating them this time in a somewhat vague plan involving both hostage taking and bank robbing. He also rather ridiculously declared that the purpose of the armour was to make it unnecessary for him to kill anyone, because inside the armour he himself would be safe:


“The next thing I wish to mention is the Crown Prosecutor’s trying to point out my blood thirstiness in wearing steel armour. This is quite contrary, for without armour I could never have possibly robbed a guarded bank and disarmed Police without taking life, but with armour I had not occasion for taking life. I can solemnly swear now before God and man that it never was my intention to take life, and even at Glenrowan I was determined to capture Superintendent Hare, O’Connor and the blacks, for the purpose of exchange of prisoners. While I had them as hostages I would be safe. No police would follow me. And in lieu of taking them, I thought it might be as well to leave them surrounding their Police Barracks at Glenrowan and get possession of their train and horses without an encounter…”


He went on to make several other ridiculous claims  – such as that it was his idea that Curnow should go and stop the train so he could claim the reward! As for declaring that the purpose of the armour was to make it unnecessary to kill – this is the man who declared in the Jerilderie Letter that the consequence of defying him would be ‘a speedy dispatch to Kingdom Come’, and elsewhere warned that “If I hear any more of it I will not exactly show them what cold blooded murder is but wholesale and retail slaughter, something different to shooting three troopers in self-defence”.  This was the man who chased a fleeing policeman a half mile or more through the bush at Stringybark creek, wounded him, caught up to him and executed him on the spot. This was the man who ordered the tracks to be lifted at Glenrowan and told Reardon that when the train crashed he was going to ‘kill all them buggers’. The obvious lies and transparently silly attempts made by Kelly in these last desperate letters to completely re-write recent history make it hard to be certain if anything written in them should be taken at face value. They raise serious questions about his mental health.



However, these are the only direct statements he ever made about what he planned to do at Glenrowan, and why. They are stupidly optimistic, vague, unrealistic and bound to fail, with no apparent exit strategy or longer term vision for what would happen once Mrs Kelly was set free, or what move would follow the robbing of banks in armour. However, they quite clearly and consistently centre around the themes of mass murder, hostage taking, freeing his mother and robbing banks. These plans are quite mad, obviously, but like it or not those mad plans were what Glenrowan was all about and nearly fifty years later the only surviving member of the Gang, the so-called fifth member Tom Lloyd told J.J.Kenneally the same thing . Kenneally wrote (p136):

“The plan was to capture the leaders and hold Spt Hare and other leaders such as the blacktrackers, as prisoners of war and then request an exchange of prisoners. The Kellys would give up Hare and O’Connor upon the release of Mrs Kelly, Mr Skillion and Williamson…The alternative plan was to bail up everybody who happened to be in Glenrowan on Sunday and get the train stopped about a mile on the Benalla side of Glenrowan….and compel the engine driver to take the train back to Benalla and take the Kellys down the line to rob the banks. The police surrounding the barracks would be fairly stranded while the Kellys successfully carried out their plans”




Until Ian Jones came along in the 1960’s, those were the plans that everyone accepted as being the Kelly Gangs motivation for the Glenrowan attack. When he looked at those plans for Glenrowan Ian Jones saw a ‘criminal atrocity’  and along with almost everyone else recognised them as ‘madness’. The Kelly Gang weren’t regarded as heroes but as ultra-violent criminals, though some admired Kellys foolish courage and found his mad inventiveness amusing.The iron mask became a symbol of all this dark rebelliousness and disregard for the law.



However, Ian Jones was one of the people, like Max Brown, who simply couldn’t accept that Ned Kelly was actually just a crazy person. Jones wanted to see something heroic in Ned Kelly, he came to believe most of the lies that Kelly told about himself and his family being oppressed and persecuted, and so invented a new explanation for the Glenrowan campaign. He called it his  “New View”, and it was designed to elevate the image of Kelly from crazy person to heroic political visionary. Jones ‘new view’, set out at a Kelly symposium at Wangaratta in 1967 and recorded in ‘Ned Kelly Man and Myth’ was that the confrontation at Glenrowan was an attempt to overthrow local government and declare North east Victoria an independent republic.  Never mind that for more than fifty years after the Siege neither Kelly nor any member of his family or any sympathiser, informer, or police spy ever mentioned it, and even in his long speech after being sentenced to hang Kelly never mentioned any such thing : Jones was so convinced that Kelly couldn’t have been mad that he developed a conspiracy theory as good as any, directly claiming that the absence of any evidence to support the idea was proof it was real : it was such a well-kept secret that nobody ever mentioned it to anyone, ever. I am not making this up : Jones made that exact claim in his Kelly biography A Short Life: “One police agent broke the inner circle of sympathisers and head about the armour being made but failed to learn of the republic”



Though many were unconvinced, he was such a charismatic, persuasive and influential advocate for Kelly and the republic of NE Victoria that Ian Jones theory rapidly became incorporated into the Kelly legend, and went unchallenged for the next fifty years. However, when it finally was examined in forensic detail by Stuart Dawson in 2017, (Download his paper from the link at top right of this page) it fell apart, and with Jones no longer here, nobody, not even Kelly sympathisers are prepared to defend it.  In the 2020 publication ‘Glenrowan’ written by an avowed Kelly fan, there’s no mention of it.


So what’s left is what Jones himself realised at the very beginning: a criminal monstrosity,  with nothing to redeem it any way. Even if it was a plan to rescue his mother it was a stupid and shockingly violent and callous plan. However, Kelly devotees such as the hundreds of members of various Facebook Kelly support pages continue to venerate the man and his story as if Jones view is still tenable – but it’s not; it’s been debunked.  What Kelly planned for Glenrowan exposes him for all but the wilfully blind to see as a callous hyper-violent extremist and the fact that he was brought down before he could complete what he started at Glenrowan doesn’t lessen his culpability or the condemnation he deserves in the least. 


Heres my question for people who think Kelly was a hero ( and I will be shocked if any one of you pathetic denialists has the courage to answer) : Now that you can no longer hide behind the myth of the republic as an excuse for doing what he did, if Kelly had been successful at Glenrowan, the train had crashed and the Gang had murdered any of the two dozen people on board who had survived, would you still regard Kelly as  Aussie Icon hero and role model?

God help anybody who would say yes to that question..


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17 Replies to “The Actual True Story of Ned Kelly : XI : What was Glenrowan supposed to achieve?”

  1. Don’t forget poor old George Metcalf, whom Ned Kelly shot, albeit accidentally while playing with a stolen pistol. He died as a result of his wound.
    When one reads Ian Jones books, they wreak of fictional nonsense and should be removed to the fiction section of libraries. A very discredited man and one who has distorted the true nature of Ned Kelly beyond belief.
    The planning for Glenrowan could only be described as organised by a hopeless individual with no idea.

  2. Thomas Whiteside says: Reply

    Both Joe and Dan’s stupidity hanging around at Sherritt’s for two hours, and Curnow’s heroic escape aside, once the pilot train was put in front of the special was there any way the train could have been wrecked?

    It’s something I’ve wondered about for years.

    1. Yes great point Thomas. In reality Curnows brave escape may not have made much difference to the eventual outcome. As I understand it people on the train had an idea that something was up but not sure what, and proceeded from Benalla quite slowly. At worst perhaps the pilot engine might have tipped over…

      So yes Joe and Dans stupidity ruined everything – from the Gangs perspective anyway – because the delays they created gave time for important warnings to reach the police on their way up, hence the pilot train and even without Curnows warning there probably wouldn’t have been a catastrophic high speed derailment.

      1. One wonders where they got the idea that something was up and caution needed to be exercised for those on the train. I am yet to read anything that explains why the two trains were sent with the pilot train going first. Is there any reference that refers to why the two trains were sent? I have read that it was the railway authorities at Benalla that suggested that a pilot train precede the train carrying the police party, but the reason seems to hidden from us. Did they receive information, or were they just being very cautious?

  3. One wonders where they got the idea that something was up and caution needed to be exercised for those on the train. I am yet to read anything that explains why the two trains were sent with the pilot train going first. Is there any reference that refers to why the two trains were sent? I have read that it was the railway authorities at Benalla that suggested that a pilot train precede the train carrying the police party, but the reason seems to hidden from us. Did they receive information, or were they just being very cautious?

  4. Anonymous says: Reply

    At Benalla station, 211 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, when the train finally arrived after 1 am, there was widespread talk about the railway line being taken up further on. It was unclear where this information had come from. But Superintendent Hare took it seriously. In the end, he decided to use a pilot engine travelling ahead of the police train, which now contained twenty-four people. [KGU, 7]

    Cam West

  5. Kenneally was a mindless Kelly apologist who took his version of Kelly’s “plans” from the second Condemned Cell letter of 5 November. The pretence about the armour is ridiculous, even for Kenneally.

    The armour was made, as was clear to at least some of Kelly’s Glenrowan prisoners, so that the gang could stand at the top of the rail bend and shoot down at any survivors of the detailed train in the culvert.

    This is clearly explained and demonstrated by John McQuilton in the Lewis video “Outlawed” on YouTube, from the 37:30 minute mark until about the 39:40 minute mark. No excuses for anyone with any interest in the Kelly story not knowing this. Kelly was a psychopath, no too ways about it.

  6. Kenneally’s Inner History was the model for Jones’s selective presentation of the Kelly story. Once the perspective was in place, confirmation bias took over the selection and presentation of material. That’s why Jones’s narrative looks credible. But other narratives are possible using exactly the same source material. Further, Jones used selective and partial quotations from the source material, cherry-picking only those bits that fitted his view of Kelly. Once you start reading his references you see it again and again.

  7. “Confirmation bias isn’t an occasional bug in our human operating system. It IS the operating system.” – Scott Adams

  8. Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang has won best costume design, production design and hair and make-up in first stage of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards.


    Cam West

    1. I viewed the film and thought, as a film, it was atrocious. Here are a few notes taken from comments left on the IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) regarding this movie.
      Then it turns into absolute incoherent drivel,
      Not much to recommend it.
      How does a film like this get a green light
      It was confusingly un-entertaining.
      Don’t waste your time! This movie is slow and boring
      Worst ned kelly film ever! Wouldn’t recommend to anyone

      Yet this film wins awards? Was it the only film nominated?
      Frankly to anyone watching this film, it is exceedingly hard to follow, and really has a disjointed and incomprehensible story line.
      How it could even be nominated for an award defies logic.

    2. OMG, “best best costume design, production design, hair and make-up” says Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts….

      Strategic Sponsor: NSW Government.
      Major Government Sponsor: Screen Australia
      Your taxes at work…
      For this celluloid conflagration


  9. Kelly’s decision to execute his Glenrowan strategy may be an example of the ‘Peter Principle.’
    As a “bushman” Kelly had well developed skills and coupled with extended family support and the support that would have come from bank robberies – Kelly might have conceivably stayed on the run for a number of years. It is difficult to conceive that he would not have been eventually caught.

    But the Glenrowan strategy took Kelly beyond his skillset – hence the Peter Principle. That he could not conceive of the notion of a pilot train to protect the main transport train is an excellent example of this inability to both predict and plan for Glenrowan. He was out of his depth. Out of his skill set.

    ‘Planning for Glenrowan’ – the phrase assumes an exit strategy and I agree with the notion that Kelly did not appear to have none. Had the main train been derailed and a blood bath ensued, the follow up notion would have likely have been the use of the army, perhaps even the British Army to encircle Kelly country and then tighten the net. It was never going to work Edward Kelly.

    What interests me would be to have multiple independent psychiatrists, including those with military experience, examine the Kelly story. When I say examine the Kelly story, to look at the fact from both viewpoints.
    In making this statement, I don’t suggest that Kelly was a soldier but he was existing as a guerilla and military psychologists would have insight into this life-style.

    The intention would to see if they can determine the possibility of Kelly and other members of the gang developing neurosis (exacerbating an existing neurosis) which would have impacted on their concept of what Glenrowan might have been.

    To me Kelly’s mixed statements for what Glenrowan might have been (I prefer not to say achieved) suggest a man offering mixed intentions with a view to justifying a fatally flawed concept.

    Some Comments about Glenrowan being a pre-cursive act to establish a republic.
    That Kelly could have conceived such an outcome is evident of him being out of his depth. (The Peter Principle achieved).

    But why is the notion so readily ridiculed.

    1. Talk of this as an intention existed BEFORE Ian Jones. Learn to live with it – it is in black and white and appeared in a newspaper in the 1930s.

    2. Anti-Kelly writers such as such as Morrisey (Quadrant) confuse the anti-republican notion:
    “ There was no planned Kelly republic, and if there had been one, …” (Quadrant)
    Morrisey is a Kelly writer who cannot countenance grey areas. He undermines his own writing.

    3. Jones rationale for the Republic uses the notion that any formal evidence would have been destroyed.

    Jones is constantly ridiculed for this but I wonder if those who ridicule Jones appreciate Blainey’s ‘Tyranny of Distance’ concept for the settlement of Australia.

    Blainey argues that the two of the three reasons for settling Australia related to defence. His third reason was to beat the French in settling and claiming the east coast as British land.
    Blainey argues that there is no formal written evidence of this notion as there were spies in the British public service and the matter was only discussed in the highest and safest circles.
    Blainey offers the same rationale for the settlement of Norfolk Island and the belief at the time that the island could be a source of supply for replacement ship masts. The matter is mentioned in Phillip’ orders but the reason for settlement is not mentioned.

    Blainey’s hypothesis is the most eloquent settlement rationale ever written for this country. It has not been debunked.
    BUT THE POINT IS – Blainey asks us to believe what he cannot prove. As a nation we have. Two thirds of our (Blainey’s) foundation story does not have any written proof.

    Jones asked us to believe something that cannot be proved. He did not invent it, he adopted it.

    If you deny Jones, then you have to deny Blainey. You have to deny our foundation story. How can you not?

    I am prepared to let the matter of a republic fly (as a kite)

    WHY, because it may in fact show us the degree of mental degradation that being on the run impacted upon Kelly and his gang. The republic may have been something that Kelly developed out if his psychosis.

    Kelly was not the mastermind, he may have been the psychotic. The republic notion is needed to prove this. If you deny the republic concept you, by default, deny his psychosis.

    1. One concept you and the Kelly sympathiser mobs dont seem to have grasped is that what Ian Jones did was ignore the fact that these rare references to a Republic were not only mischievous and mocking, but baseless, and instead he pretended – or maybe somehow ended up convincing himself – that they were in some way evidence for an actual Republic scheme. He then went on to develop and relentlessly promote the idea against all the evidence, the main purpose being to rescue Kellys image from police killer to political victim and hero.

      How can you go past Kenneallys claim to have told the complete inn er history of the Kelly gang in 1928 and make NO mention of the Republic? And not only that, Tom Lloyd ( so called fifth Gang member ) and Jim Kelly ( Ned Kellys very own brother ) fully endorsed Kenneallys book and said the country was now in full possession of the truth? These FACTS are fatal to any Republic claims because the excuses used to explain the absence of any evidence earlier in the story – ie it was treason – no longer pertain – if they ever did.

  10. Hi David, I was going to reply to MB’s post but after due consideration I will just note a couple of points that stand out. First, his use of the term “Glenrowan strategy” reflects Ian Jones’ use of that term and, in a Kelly discussion, can be reasonable thought to have the same meaning, namely a strategy to derail a police special train, capture its occupants to demand the release of Mrs Kelly from gaol, and declare a republic. Outside of that a “Glenrowan strategy” means no more than a Euroa strategy or a Jerilderie strategy would, namely planning a bank robbery.

    So, working with Jones’ use of “Glenrowan strategy”, we have a plan to derail a police train triggered by murdering Aaron Sherritt. There is nothing here but a retrospective interpretation of events, that the best or only way to trigger a police train was to murder Byrne’s mate Sherritt. This is clearly nonsense, as a number of special trains had been despatched over time in efforts to catch the Kelly gang, and any confirmed sighting of them would have had the same effect of triggering the train. It certainly did not hang on murdering Sherritt; that suggestion is ludicrous.

    Next, Kelly’s bush survival skills were limited, as Macfarlane KGU pointed out; he depended on relatives and criminal associates for shelter and supplies, and at least the latter in turn expected a share of some booty. Disinterested partisans seem thin on the ground;’ rather, the gang ruled by fear and terror, as Curnow amongst others noted in the RC.

    The Peter Principal has nothing to do with this; that was a large organisational management satire book from 1969; but allowing the generalisation that it could be extrapolated to mean anyone reaching a level just above their level of competence and then becoming unstuck by their inability to perform, that still has nothing to do with MB’s claim that Kelly’s “skill set” didn’t enable to conceive of a pilot engine. This totally misses the point that there was never any Glenrowan strategy other than to derail a police train and murder its occupants. Suppose the pilot train had come through at speed. It would have gone over the embankment and the gang would have stood at the top and murdered its occupants. That was the strategy. MB seems to think that there was some other plan; but no. We know from what the captives at Jones Inn said that this was all then plan that existed; perhaps followed by a raid on a Benalla bank.

    MB then says, “ Had the main train been derailed and a blood bath ensued, the follow up notion would have likely have been the use of the army, perhaps even the British Army to encircle Kelly country and then tighten the net.” This is also derived from Jones and is entirely preposterous, stemming as it does from Jones imagining a republican battle in the north east. MB thinks he has found something significant in saying that the idea of a republic predated Jones, and mentions a 1930s newspaper. Clearly he hasn’t read my Republic Myth book where I trace the notion back to the 190 Bulleting spoof article, that reappeared in the 1930s and 1940s Believe it or Not stuff, from where Jones derived it in a somewhat naive or perhaps initially intellectually innocent way. Again this is all traced in my book.

    MB then introduces Blainey the historian about an unrelated topic and, after more contortions than a professional acrobat, claims that if one denies Jones’ Kelly republic tale you have to deny Blainey on some other part of history I think this is enough to make the main thing clear: MB is only responding to the post his comments appear under. He has not read my republic myth book and has no idea of what the debate involves.

    The minimum necessary reading background to be able to comment on the Kelly republic idea for the pro arguments is Jones’ ‘New View of Ned Kelly’ in the Man & Myth book and his Short Life and Fatal Friendship, Molony’s Ned Kelly, McQuilton’s Kelly Outbreak; and on the demolition side, Ian Macfarlane’s The Kelly Gang Unmasked, and my Ned Kelly and the Myth of a Republic of North Eastern Victoria, plus the ability and willingness to access and read primary source evidence in Trove, the VPRO and the Royal Commission (which are available free online). To bother posting from a basis of less than that background is just wasting everyone’s time.

  11. The other thing is that talk of psychosis etc and wondering if a miltary psychiatrist might give an opnion about it is just displaying no background in the area. See the article that tackled this nealy 10 years ago,
    Scott, Russ, and Ian MacFarlane. “Ned Kelly – Stock Thief, Bank Robber, Murderer – Psychopath”, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 21.5 (2014): 716-46.

  12. I gather there is some chatter about the chimneys at one of the old Kelly properties, and people saying they are not original to the Kelly days? I gather these chimneys have long disintegrated and the remains removed, most likely by the procession of Kelly enthusiasts that seek souveniers from Kelly sites.

    There were enough bullets sold to tourists in the days following the Glenrown Inn shootout to have armed an Indian expedition! Anyway, the picture below is the cover of a well-known book from 2001, and the cover photo is stated by McQuilton to be “Remains of the Kelly homestead, Greta.” The popular circulation of that photo well predates that book.

    Anyone who has encountered that photo over the last 40 years or so “knows” it is the Kelly homestead chimneys. Or do they?


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