|The green sash incident – ( love the dog!)|
In contrast to the wealth of information that we have about the second half of Ned Kellys life, there is very little about the first half. Also in contrast to the second half, which was characterised by criminality and violence, what little we know of the first half suggests Ned Kelly was a fine boy.
Neds exact birthdate and place are unrecorded, but it was thought to have happened near Beveridge. Ian Jones says it happened in a rental house that Neds father had built on land he bought on the south side of Mt Fraser, aka “the Big Hill”, in December 1854. Many years later, when being taken south to Melbourne by train after his capture, Ned himself was reported to have directed his guards attention to a ‘little hill’ to the left and said “That was where I drew my first breath”As Bill Denheld has noted, heading south the “Big Hill” would have been to the right, meaning either Ned had his wires crossed or else he was born near the ‘little hill’ not the Big Hill. More than 10 years ago the indefatigable Bill Denheld explored the area around the ‘little hill’ with Gary Dean and they found unmistakable evidence of a building site. Bill wrote “A proper archaeological dig will prove the dwelling configuration.” As far as I know this hasn’t been done, possibly because almost nobody ever dared question Ian Jones’ assertion that the birthplace was on the southern slopes of Mt Fraser. Bills interesting discussions and photo collection of this site can be viewed on his webpages HERE. The exact truth remains unknown, but clearly Ned Kelly was born near Beveridge.
As Ive previously written, while he was growing up Neds father worked hard to provide for his growing family. However he carried a heavy burden of guilt for the betrayal that he was involved in prior to his deportation from Ireland, and this fuelled both his determination to stay clear of the Law, but also his increasing dependence on alcohol. Never-the-less he was a law abiding citizen who I believe tried to protect his family from the negative influences of his own and his wife’s wider families and their associates, criminals who were frequently in trouble with the law for assaults, theft and other crimes. In 1863 Ellen attempted to defend her brother-in-law James against a charge of cattle stealing, and took Ned to the court to be a witness for the defence, both of them swearing on oath that James was at home with them when he was supposed to be stealing 13 cattle from a local blacksmith, Thomas Flynn. “Ellen has either told the truth or coached Ned to lie under oath” (Grantlee Kieza in “Mrs Kelly”) James is convicted and sentenced to three years hard labour. One can only wonder at what effect the sombre environment of a Court and his mothers encouragement to tell lies under oath would have had on 8 year old Ned. It would at the least have been confusing.
When a catholic school opened later that year, Ned started school. His teachers, a husband and wife were influenced by non-violent Quaker philosophy and so corporal punishment was rare. Ned learned to read and write to “second class standard” in six months. I am not sure what ‘second class standard’ is but by all accounts this was a worthy achievement.
Early the following year, 1864, when Ned Kelly was nine his family sold up and moved from Beveridge to Avenel, possibly in an ongoing attempt by Red to put distance between his family and the families of his criminal brother, brothers-in-law and their asociates. They were debt free but had almost no money. They rented land and began to work it, and again proving Reds intent that his children prosper, he sent them back to school at Avenel for 4d each per week. At Beveridge Ned was remembered by a class mate as being ‘a tall and active lad and excelled all others at school games’. At Avenel he was remembered as ‘well behaved’ and ‘a very quiet boy’ However, at Avenel the teacher was much more ‘old school’ and inclined to box students around the ears and use a leather strap to maintain discipline. Later that year when they were all assessed by a Board of Education inspector, Ned passed Reading and Writing but failed Arithmetic, Grammar and Geography. He was second equal with three others in the class of 13 children,and his interest and talent for writing was already becoming apparent! When he was examined again in March the following year he also passed in Arithmetic. His age was noted to be 10 years and three months, the basis for the view that Ned was born in December 1854. Ian Jones (ASL) writes “So the first year at Avenel passed happily and peacefully enough and in November Ellen became pregnant” 1865 however was going to be very different.
Firstly, this was the year that Ned saved Richard Shelton, from drowning. Ned was 10 and big for his age – Richard was 6 – or 7, or 5 depending on which resource you believe. ( Corfield says he was born in 1860) The story is that he had slipped into Hughes Creek trying to retrieve his hat and Ned rescued him. I am not sure what the original sources are for this story, but it is one that lends itself to hyperbole, the stream being described as ‘swollen by recent rain’ and ‘a boiling hole of turbulent water’ by Jones, a ‘swirling torrent’ by Kieza, ‘raging waters’ by Fitzsimons, ‘rushing brown waters’ by Paul Terry – yet 1865 was known as a year of drought! Forgive my scepticism but Ned had apparently scammed the Sheltons before, collecting a reward for returning to them a ‘lost’ horse whose disappearance they suspected Ned may have been involved in. The horse was in good condition suggesting it had been looked after by someone who was fond of horses – Ned perhaps ? Nobody seems entirely sure exactly when Neds rescue of Richard happened, except that it was a school day morning, so I wonder how they can so easily remember it had been raining, but in any event its clear Richards parents believed the story and were most grateful to Ned for pulling their son out of the water and possibly saving his life. They presented him with the famous green sash, said to be one of Neds most prized possessions and as is well known, he was wearing it when captured at Glenrowan some 15 years later. Its now preserved in the Pioneer Museum in Benalla. I have a vague recollection of reading somewhere that Richard, when he grew up never denied the detail of this story but seemed reluctant to discuss it. I wonder if we really know the full story?
The second event of importance to the story that year was Red Kellys theft of a neighbours calf, his arrest and eventual imprisonment for ‘having illegally in his possession one cow hide’ This was Reds first transgression for more than a decade, and it resulted from the pressure to provide for his family, provision that was made almost impossible by his failing health and the drought- an absence of water and an excess of alcohol. He was treated leniently by the Courts and the Prison and released early, ( take note, believers in the myth of Kelly persecution) but at the end of the year was again before the Court, this time for being drunk and disorderly. The Kellys were poverty stricken, and in 1866 there was no more money to send the children to school.
Instead, as Ian Jones wrote “Red fought a losing battle with the farm and with booze. His liver and heart suffered. As the year rotted away Ned helplessly watched his father destroy himself.” He died in December. Ned was now 12 and approaching puberty, and he had just lost the restraining hand and cautionary advice from his father at the very time boys need it most. From here on, without Red, everything was about to change – he fell under the influences of his volatile mother and her family, the desperation of poverty and testosterone : tragically, the ‘well behaved’ boy was going to be transformed into a killer.
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