Almanac History – Ned Kelly the Fugitive: Three Newspaper Articles from 1880

 

‘Bourke Street (Allegro con brio)’, oil on canvas on composition board, 1886, by Tom Roberts. National Gallery of Australia. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

 

Ned Kelly the Fugitive: Three Newspaper Articles from 1880 – Ned Walking down Bourke Street, Melbourne? / Out and About in Beechworth and Melbourne? / In Women’s Clothing with Joe Byrne?

 

Historical writing often has highly interesting offshoots from what may be seen as the central narrative of the subject at hand, or, to put it another way, fascinating byways and nooks and crannies. The story of the Kelly Gang is no exception; for example, the detail regarding what the gang and its individual members got up to when on the run during the period from the October 1878 Stringybark Creek police murders through to their demise in 1880 – of which Ned Kelly’s hanging in November 1880 constitutes a stark end-point – connects to all sorts of stories. These range from well-known, obviously factual ones, including the gang’s bank robberies in Euroa and Jerilderie, to the lesser known but nevertheless factual, to those reported (or perhaps ‘alleged’ is a better word) events which have no solid foundation in terms of factual evidence. Even in the last instance, though, it is likely at least some of these events did occur, the point being that hard evidence does not exist concerning them.

 

As many Almanackers know, I often write about Australia’s bushranging history, usually in the form of narrative poetry; in this work, I try to be as historically accurate as possible. My research has as its foundation almost a lifetime of reading about the subject-matter concerned, and one of the most fascinating sources of information in recent years has been the National Library of Australia’s TROVE digital archive of newspapers, where one can examine contemporary news reports of all kinds of events, including the activities of bushrangers. In doing this, though, one has to be careful about assessing the validity of what is reported, as newspapers (as indeed do official documents like birth and death certificates) often contain errors of fact and various kinds of misrepresentations of what actually took place.

 

Regarding the activities of the Kelly Gang from 1878-1880 while on the run from police, one may, for example, view as credible a statement that during the height of his time as a fugitive, Joe Byrne drank in the back bars of certain Beechworth Hotels. This statement is made in my A Pictorial History of Australian Bushrangers (authors: Nunn, Prior and Wannan), to mention a modest source of information, though whether or not it is factual is another matter – one can argue that on the balance of probability it is, though, based on a range of material that it is possible to assemble, from places such as the newspapers of the time. It is all about weighing up the veracity of the material concerned in a reasonable manner, and arriving at a well-founded conclusion.

 

With issues like this in mind, I will put forward three items from 1880 Australian newspapers that I’ve recently come across in the TROVE online archive, which deal with the Kelly Gang (especially Ned), during their time on the run.

 

The first newspaper report, from The Ballarat Star of 27 May 1880, deals with a reported sighting of Ned Kelly in Bourke Street, Melbourne, in May of that year. The second, from the Mt Gambier Border Watch of 11 August 1880, contains fascinating material about Ned Kelly apparently being sighted in Beechworth and Melbourne earlier that year. The third, an extract from a lengthy article concerning Ned and the Kelly Gang, in The Ballarat Courier on the same day, puts forward the remarkable story that Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne were seen in Finch Street, Beechworth, dressed in women’s clothes two days after the gang’s Jerilderie bank robbery! Bear in mind that the second and third newspaper pieces date from little over a month after the Kelly Gang’s last stand at Glenrowan, 28-29 June, where three of the four gang members – Joe Byrne, Steve Hart and Dan Kelly died – and during which Ned Kelly was captured, after suffering numerous bullet wounds. (It is also worthwhile noting here that the three articles just referred to also appeared in other newspapers apart from the ones specifically mentioned, which was not uncommon at the time, and is something which still occurs today, of course.)

 

Ned Walking down Bourke Street, Melbourne?

 

The Ballarat Star (Vic. : 1865 – 1924) Thu 27 May 1880

[full article]

 

NED KELLY IN MELBOURNE.
— Herald, 26th May.
A startling statement has been made to us, and one that we can only give for what it is worth, simply vouching for the accuracy of the statement so far as it goes. On Wednesday last a gentleman who was formerly for a long time engaged in connection with railway works near Benalla, was standing outside the door of the Albion hotel, Bourke street, where he is at present staying. While talking to a friend and casually observing the passers-by, he was suddenly, on looking into the face of one of them, astounded to find himself in the immediate vicinity of no less a personage than the notorious outlaw, Ned Kelly. The recognition was mutual, and, simultaneous, for Kelly, on seeing the gentleman in question, hastily turned his face, and quickening his pace, disappeared in the direction of the Post-office so quickly that the person who had recognised him had not recovered from his astonishment before the bushranger was out of sight. Kelly was dressed in a monkey jacket and riding breeches, and carried a whip. In every respect he looked exactly like a stockrider, and might have walked through all the streets of Melbourne without attracting any attention, unless he happened to stumble across someone personally acquainted with him, as he did in this instance. Of course, the question of identity arises, but the gentleman who made the statement was personally acquainted with Ned Kelly when in the Benalla district, and frequently met him and had conversations with the now notorious outlaw. He asserts that he could not be mistaken, and he is quite certain that the man he saw was no other than Kelly; and the conduct of the man on seeing himself recognised bears this out, even if he was not so positive himself as to the identity. We are not prepared to say that it would be impossible for Ned Kelly to walk up Bourke street on any day. He has all the daring and assurance necessary to risk such a walk, but at the same time we think it highly improbable that he would venture to do so without some very strong inducement, and it is difficult to speculate as to the object he might have in view. Certain it is that he is not the man to stupidly undertake any foolhardy risks; and to venture into the principal streets of Melbourne without some very particular object would be foolhardinesss of an extreme character, for in Bourke street there are persons at almost any time from the Benalla district, or others well acquainted with Ned Kelly’s personal appearance, not to speak of police and detectives. At the same time the gentleman who tells the story is well acquainted with the bushranger, and is so positive as to his identity with the man he saw on Wednesday that it is difficult to doubt the correctness of his belief.

 

Out and About in Beechworth and Melbourne?

 

Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA : 1861 – 1954) Wed 11 Aug 1880

[full article]

The Beechworth correspondent of the Telegraph says—”There is a possibility of another
gang taking to the bush, but nothing is likely to be done till Ned Kelly is disposed of. A gentle-
man whose testimony I have every reason to believe, told me to-night that he saw Ned Kelly in
Myers’s hotel, Beechworth, several times about four months ago, but he did not know that he
was the outlaw till he saw him in the dock. Mr. Jacobs, boot warehouseman in Beechworth, states that on seeing Kelly in the dock he at once recognised him as a man who frequently visited his shop during the last six months, during the night time, and made purchases. I have ascertained that in the month of July, 1879, Ned Kelly visited the National hotel, Bourke-street, Melbourne, and slept there
during the night ; but on the landlord getting up in the morning, he was nowhere to be found. It
appears that shortly before midnight, Ned Kelly entered the hotel hurriedly, followed by a number of women of bad repute, who were at once turned out into the street. There were a number of gentlemen from the North-Eastern District in the little room behind the bar into which Kelly entered. He immediately asked then to have a drink with him. They did so. He then told them that he was from the North-Eastern District, and had heard a lot of talk about the Kellys. They asked him what he knew about them, but he shirked the question, and suspicion being aroused, information was at once conveyed to the detective-office. Detective Ward was told off to investigate the case, but on his arrival at the hotel, Mr. Cooper, the landlord, told him that the stranger had disappeared. Nothing more was heard of the stranger.”

 

In Women’s Clothing with Joe Byrne?

 

The Ballarat Courier (Vic. : 1869 – 1884; 1914 – 1918) Wed 11 Aug 1880

[excerpt from a much longer article]

NED KELLY.

[… ] I have ascertained from a source which is reliable that two days after the attack on the bank at Jerilderie two members of the gang were seen in Finch street, Beechworth, dressed in woman’s attire. A gentleman who has travelled through the Ovens district for the last twenty years, and knows the lay of the country as well as anybody that has ever travelled through it, was walking home from Dreyer’s hotel on the night in question, and on reaching Finch street, while walking in the middle of the road, he was accosted by two most awkwardly clad women. They asked about several streets and persons, and turned and walked away as soon as they had obtained the information which they desired. The gentleman stood looking after them, and concluded not only that they were not women, but that they were Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne; and after thinking over the manner and behaviour of the figures and remembering their disguised faces, he was perfectly satisfied that they were the two members of the gang mentioned. He reported the matter to the police but nothing came of it. […]

 

My point in putting forward these three articles is not to prove anything in particular in relation to the events concerned, but simply to indicate the range of contemporary material available concerning the Kelly Gang’s time on the run, and note that there is without doubt much more to discover and analyse about this particularly interesting period.

 

‘Steve Hart dressed as a girl’, enamel paint on composition board, 1947, by Sidney Nolan, National Gallery of Australia. (Source: National Gallery of Australia website.) Hart is reported to have sometimes done this during the Kelly Gang’s time on the run, to amuse himself and deceive onlookers as to his true identity.

 

Main References

 

Nunn, H., Prior, T.  and Wannan, B.  A Pictorial History of Australian Bushrangers. Paul Hamlyn, Sydney, 1968.

 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tom_Roberts_Bourke_Street.jpg

 

https://searchthecollection.nga.gov.au/object?uniqueId=28931 (‘Steve Hart dressed as a girl’)

 

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/202511813?searchTerm=On%20Wednesday%20last%20a%20gentleman%20who%20was%20formerly%20for%20a%20long%20time%20engaged%20in%20connection%20with%20railway-works%20near%20Benalla (The Ballarat Star article.)

 

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/77589025?searchTerm=in%20the%20month%20of%20July%2C%201879%2C%20Ned%20Kelly%20visited%20the%20National%20hotel (Border Watch article.)

 

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/250052563?searchTerm=NED%20KELLY. (The Ballarat Courier article.)

 

 

 

 

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About

Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, was published in late 2020 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.

Comments

  1. The outlaws in Beechworth two days after the raid on Jerilderie? They must have really pushed themselves. It’d be a day and a bit ride but in a hot summer would you push yourself to cover that distance in the heat?

    The nonsense about Steve Hart , or any of the four, dressed as a woman is reflection of police frustration with not being able to ‘control’ Maggie Skilling , nee Kelly. With two brothers outlawed, the other brother incarcerated, also her mother behind bars, Maggie became the head of the family. She was known to ride out with supplies for the outlaws, spy on police movements, outride the police, generally she outsmarted the police to their chagrin. It would not have looked good for Victoria’s finest.

    So rather than let the world know they’d been unable to cease the actions of this woman let’s claim it was an outlaw dressed as a woman. Victorian sensibilities would not allow for a woman to outsmart the police so these stories were created to let them save face.

    Glen!

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Glen!

    Thanks for your comments – I like reading your responses to material like this.

    Re the outlaws in Beechworth a couple of days after Jerilderie, let’s just say it was possible …

    Regarding gang members dressed as women, I’m keeping an open mind here – the notion crops up in a range of contexts. I can imagine a particularly fine horseman like Hart riding side-saddle in female attire for a lark, but neither you nor I (or anyone else we know) were there at the time, of course, so it’s a matter of looking at available relevant material with a careful eye.

    I’m also particularly interested (maybe moreso) in Kelly and maybe gang members possibly visiting the centre of Melbourne during the height of their time on the run – the report I put forward of Ned’s alleged overnight stay at the National Hotel in Bourke Street is particularly evocative.

  3. Kevin the quick ride from Jerilderie to Beechworth is certainly possible, as the four outlaws were great horseman.

    Re the dressed as woman stuff, I’m quite dismissive. I’m aware after the robbery in Euroa they changed clothes with clothes taken from the hawkers van. They burnt clothes, then when the police found the remnants there was a woman’s hat in the ashes. That just got mixed up in the clothes.

    Yes, they were seen in Melbourne a few times. All bar Dan were noticed frequenting Melbourne during the outbreak,( It doesn’t mean Dan wasn’t there.) I know Steve Hart had foot problems that were treated in Melbourne, Ned was seen near the market consuming an apple, then when he felt he was recognised he slipped away out of sight. Of course the sister Margaret Skilling, also the unofficial fifth member, the cousin Tom Lloyd were seen in Melbourne.

    I did a post a few years back re Ned & Joe being in Mildura for a heavyweight boxing bout.

    The period from the Jerilderie robbery in January 1879, until the end at Glenrowan in June 1880 will always be an issue of conjecture. All we can be certain of is that the four outlaws were safely outside of the police efforts to apprahennd them.,

    Glen!

  4. Sorry Kevin, typo.

    It was Echuca not Mildura the two outlaws saw world champion Jem Mace fight.

    Distracted by Mildura trots on the TV.

    Glen!

  5. Nicole Kelly says

    Only history knows if Ned Kelly walked down Bourke Street on that day, but I love the thought of anonymous city streets for one of the most well-known faces in Australian history, and then suddenly running into someone you know. Some things in life never change. Thanks for bringing the articles to our attention, Kevin! Isn’t Trove great!

  6. Kevin Densley says

    Hi again Glen!

    More interesting material on your part. What a range of detail has been put forward about the gang’s time on the run, eh? Steve Hart being in St Kilda for medical treatment, Ned and Joe attending a boxing match in Echuca, Ned being spotted eating an apple at a Melbourne market, Ned walking down Bourke Street, Tom Lloyd in Melbourne (possibly on gang business) – all of this kind of thing is worth examining closely, with an historian’s eye. Often, the factual and the fictional are mixed together in the same story.

  7. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Nicole!

    Thanks for your contribution here. I think you put it well very when you write that “only history knows if Ned Kelly walked down Bourke Street that day” though like you I find it fascinating that Ned Kelly on a particular day may simply have been wanted to be an anonymous face in the crowd – but ran into somebody he knew when he didn’t want to be recognised!

    And yes, Trove is brilliant – great for researching family history, too.

  8. Love this Kevin. The intrigue is magnificent. I wonder if Ned relished this stuff. I wonder if he peddled the stories and the nonsense for fun!?

  9. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Dips, for your response – interesting, as always.

    If only about a tenth of the detail reported about the Kelly Gang’s time on the run is true, then the factual narrative is even richer and more complex – in overall terms – than many currently believe.

    Fascinatingly, there is a lot of material in this context that is still to be closely analysed. I plan to put more of it in The Footy Almanac forum soon.

  10. Bill Hadden says

    Hi Kevin just looking at your site. I have a special edition Melbourne Heald 1880 headline the capture of Ned Kelly one page newspaper framed with brass plate that says the Kelly Gang and has been forensic authenticated as genuine also I have a copy taken from a glass plate a court photo of Neds first criminal history at the age of 16 for horse stealing from police archives as well as his full description I was told this Melbourne Herald was only in print for a very short time in that day of circulation that I believe are ver rare items . Forwarded for your thoughts regards Bill Hadden

  11. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Bill. Thank you for your response.

    The items you possess certainly sound like valuable ones – and interesting pieces of history, to boot.

    Have you heard of the NLA TROVE archives, an Australian online source of newspapers and similar items? – wonderful for professional researchers and those interested in history in a more general way.

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