The Kelly gang, as they were known, came into existence by sheer misfortune. The men who were with Ned & Dan at Stringybark Creek at the time of the police shootings would become ‘the Kelly gang’. Up until this point they were merely four bush larrikins.
As a gang, they robbed two banks, whilst holding up entire towns in meticulously planned raids. The raid on Glenrowan was to be their downfall and see the destruction of the gang.
They were all young men and had been convicted of minor crimes prior to the police killings at Stringybark Creek.
HOW THE KELLY GANG WAS FORMED.
Mention has been made of the fact that Ned Kelly was at one time associated with Power in his horse stealing and bushranging exploits; but in the latter he appears to have served only as a scout and occasional assistant, merely holding Power’s horse during the time he was overhauling his victims on the road. As a horse “lifter,” however, he had even a greater reputation than Power; horse-stealing was the calling to which he had devoted his life, and he followed that calling with great gusto. He commenced his career by removing carriers’ and travellers horses during the night to a safe “plant,” where he would keep them until a reward was offered for their recovery, and then he would hand them over in the most innocent manner and claim the reward. Naturally, the next step was to full time horse-stealing pure and simple, any stray animal worth picking up being appropriated and kept in a secure place until an opportunity presented itself of turning it into money. Before he had fully grown a beard he became acquainted with prison life, and served several short sentences for horse-stealing, being recognised as a confirmed criminal by the authorities while yet in his teens—a circumstance which is not to be considered wonderful when the nature of his surroundings is taken into account. Although he was known to be connected with the escaped convict and bushranger who was causing such trouble, he was not called to account for any offence committed in Power’s company; and it was generally believed that the police had obtained from him the information which enabled them to track Power to his hiding place —Power himself at one time entertaining that opinion—the newspapers of the time blamed Ned for informing on Harry but it was his Uncle Jack Lloyd who was the traitor.
Power had been in gaol for about eight years, however, before what is known as the Kelly Gang of bushrangers was formed and began to operate openly, and although the influence and example of the older bushranger may have had something to do with shaping the subsequent career of the leader of that gang, it cannot be said that the one was the direct outcome of the other.
But before proceeding to narrate the extraordinary doings of the gang, it is necessary that I should give a brief sketch of the earlier life of the different members.
I have already mentioned that Ned Kelly had two brothers and four sisters—Dan, Jim (James), Mrs. Gunn, Mrs. Skillian, Kate, and Grace. Dan Kelly was seven years younger than Ned, having been born in 1861, but from the time he was able to sit upon a horse he was more or less associated with his elder brother in criminal pursuits. The boy “lifters” were the terror of carriers and drovers who had to pass through the district in which they resided, and it is said that persons in charge of stock not infrequently went many miles out of the direct course in order to avoid Greta, fearing that some of their cattle would miss their proper destination if they attempted to pass through the “Kelly Country.” Night and day young Dan would prowl about looking for “game,” and knowing the bush intimately, he could at any time get away with that “game” when he found it, to some spot where it would be beyond reach of the proper owners. It will thus be seen that he was well qualified to act as his brother’s lieutenant, and, indeed, it was through him that the outbreak occurred.
The third member of the gang was a young fellow named Steve Hart, a native of Wangaratta, who had also made a name for himself as a horse thief, indulging in night prowling in search of stray animals. He was born in 1860, and was therefore a year older than Dan Kelly, who was his closest “chum” during the campaign, and his companion in
The fourth member of the gang was Joe Byrne, who was born at the Woolshed, near Beechworth, in 1857. He was a splendid sample of a young Australian, and had received a fairly good education, but abandoning himself to criminal pursuits had joined the Kelly boys in several of their horse-stealing raids. He had served one sentence of six months in Beechworth Gaol before joining the gang. Byrne acted as scribe to the party, reducing to writing the plans for the attacks upon banks and other contemplated robberies, which were rigidly adhered to.
These four formed the gang, but there were others associated with them as scouts and “telegraphs” and harbourers, whose names will appear as occasion arises for mentioning the service rendered by them. Aaron Sherritt was one of the most active of these assistants during one part of the campaign. He had attended the same school as Joe Byrne, and the intimacy that had grown up there was continued after school days were over, the two engaging in horse-stealing raids together, and forming close criminal business relationships with the Kellys. Sherritt was a native of Beechworth, his parents being most respectable people.
In March, 1878, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Dan Kelly on a charge of cattle stealing; and as it became known that he was at his mother’s house at Greta, a constable named Fitzpatrick, stationed at Benalla, proceeded thither to arrest him. Fitzpatrick’s version of what took place was that when he got to the house he found Dan Kelly there, and arrested him in the presence of his mother and sisters. He was proceeding to take his prisoner to Benalla, when he was asked to permit him first to take a meal, with which request he complied. While the meal was in progress, Ned Kelly, with Skillian, his brother-in-law, and a man named Williamson, came in, and Ned at once demanded if Fitzpatrick had a warrant for the arrest of Dan. The constable replied in the negative, and then Ned drew a revolver and declared that his brother should not be taken without one. Fitzpatrick pulled out his revolver to protect himself, and ensure the safe custody of his prisoner, when Ned Kelly fired and wounded him in the wrist, the result being that the revolver fell out of his hand and was secured by the Kellys. Fitzpatrick was then, according to his account, secured, and it was proposed to shoot him; but upon his solemnly promising to say nothing of the affair, he was allowed to go. The wound in his wrist was very trivial, and the bullet had been picked out with a knife before he reached Benalla. His promise of silence was not kept, and warrants were immediately issued against Ned Kelly for shooting with intent to murder, and against Dan Kelly, Skillian, Williamson, and Mrs. Kelly for aiding and abetting. When it was attempted to enforce these warrants, it was found that the brothers Kelly had disappeared; but the others named were arrested, tried, and sentenced each to lengthy terms of imprisonment, Fitzpatrick’s version of the occurrence at the house being accepted as correct.
But the Kellys and their friends gave altogether different versions of the story; they emphatically denied the truth of Fitzpatrick’s statements, and complained very bitterly that their relations were unjustly cast into prison on his unsupported evidence. One version was that no shooting at all took place, but that Fitzpatrick had concocted the whole affair in a spirit of revenge, because certain improper advances which he had made to one of the female members of the family had been rejected with considerable warmth; another was that Fitzpatrick never had Dan Kelly in charge, and that the arrest was resisted because of the absence of a warrant, and in a scuffle Fitzpatrick slightly wounded himself with his own revolver; and a third was that Mrs. Kelly took no part whatever in the affair, not being in the house at the time—that Skillian and Williamson were miles away at the time, and that Dan and Ned Kelly were alone concerned in what took place.
After the disappearance of Ned and Dan from the home at Greta, nothing more was heard of them for some months, although the Government offered £100 reward for their apprehension, and every effort was made by the police to capture them. It was then known that they had “taken to the bush” and there was a general impression that they were concerned in several cases of road robbery that took place about that time in remote portions of the district; but, reckless and daring though they were known to be, it was never for a moment thought that they were capable of the fearful crimes by which they were shortly to make themselves notorious.