Glenrowan, the tiny township that grew up by accident beside the Melbourne-Albury railway line, was created by that line and gained its place in history because of it.
Most Australians can tell you that the Kelly Gang came to grief in the police siege of the Glenrowan Inn, that Ned Kelly was captured here in his iconic suit of home-made armour and that the other three members of the Gang died in the pub (although a few insist that two members of the Gang escaped from Glenrowan; there are even claims that the man captured here, and later executed, wasn’t even Ned Kelly!) All in all, the town has achieved – and deserves – legendary status.
Glenrowan, nestled on a high saddle of the Warby Ranges, between Morgan’s Lookout and Mount Ruffy, was always a stopping place for travelers after a long, steady climb from the Winton flats to the south or the Oxley flats to the north.
When the railway was routed through the Glenrowan Gap, a train station and town were planned two kilometres to the south west. But the slope there was too steep for the handling of freight trucks in the siding and, while town blocks were sold there, a new station site was selected up where the railway line levelled across the Gap. Two pubs and a stationmaster’s house were built here even though the little settlement to the south west remained the site of the police station and post office.
Everything made this the perfect place for Ned Kelly’s showdown with the police.
Ned Kelly, his brother Dan, his mate Joe Byrne and Dan’s mate Steve had been outlawed in November 1878 after the gunfight at Stringybark Creek in which three police were killed.
Within three months of being outlawed, the Gang carried out two superb bank holdups – at Euroa and Jerilderie – then disappeared. The police careered around in futile pursuit, looking up Kelly sympathisers without trial. The Gang carried out a clever public relations campaign, spreading proceeds of the holdups throughout the north east with the message that they had never set out to be bushrangers and that the police killed at Stringybark had intended to kill the Kelly brothers.
A new police strategy – denying land to friends and relatives of the Gang – pushed the Kelly Country to rebellion.
Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne put together a fantastic plan to set up a Republic of North Eastern Victoria. They would decoy a police special train to the district, break the line on a dangerous, high bend just past Glenrowan, wreck the train, then gather a little army of supporters, move on Benalla and proclaim the Republic.
The scheme sounds impossible, but, piece by piece, its details fell into place. Joe Byrne had become convinced that his lifelong mate, Aaron Sherritt, had betrayed the Gang. Aaron’s murder, on a Saturday evening, would bring a police train to Wangaratta and the Beechworth branch line. No other trains would operate on a Sunday.
While Joe and Dan killed Aaron, Ned and Steve would occupy Glenrowan, round up hostages, then break the line. When the train was wrecked, probably in the early hours of Sunday morning, a Kelly cousin – teenage Jack Lloyd – would fire two signal rockets to gather the little army. They would advance on Benalla, blow up the railway line there with a keg of blasting powder and led by the four Gang members in their suits of home-made armour, rob the Bank of New South Wales. The Republic would be born.
But even as the plan was launched, on Saturday 28 June 1880, this ambitious strategy started to unravel.
Aaron Sherritt was killed soon after 6 on the Saturday evening, but word did not reach Beechworth – only 10 kilometers away – until 1pm the next day.
In Melbourne, the Chief Commissioner of Police did not learn of the shooting until after 5pm on the Sunday. A special train eventually set out for the north east at 10pm. Meanwhile, Ned Kelly and Steve Hart had moved on Glenrowan soon after midnight on the Saturday, broke the line before dawn and, joined by Joe and Dan, gathered some 62 locals in Ann Jones’s Glenrowan Inn. Then they waited. And waited.
As the day wore on, the Gang released 21 of their prisoners – including the local school teacher, Thomas Curnow, who had determined to thwart the Kelly plan.
While Curnow was about to warn the approaching police special with a candle and red scarf, the Gang were preparing to release the rest of their prisoners. It was 2.30 on the Monday morning.
Curnow halted a pilot loco travelling ahead of the police train. It signaled the special with a series of staccato whistle blasts that were heard in Glenrowan.
When the police train arrived at the Glenrowan station, the Gang were in armour, waiting for them. As the police charged towards the pub in bright moonlight, the Gang opened fire.
The siege of Glenrowan had begun.
In a scene of almost indescribable chaos, police fire riddled the flimsy weatherboard building as 40 civilians cowered on the floor, three of them to be mortally wounded. The police leader, Superintendent Hare, was shot in the wrist. Joe Byrne and Ned Kelly were both wounded, Ned seriously.
Young Jack Lloyd panicked and fired the signal rockets. The Gang’s supporters would ride into a pitched gun battle.
With a crippled left arm and right foot, Ned Kelly left the pub to turn them back from the fight. As police reinforcements started arriving, he returned to see Joe Byrne killed. He left again, believing that Dan and Steve were following. But in the confusion they stayed in the pub.
At dawn, helped by his cousin, the loyal Tom Lloyd, Ned prepared for another attempt to rescue the two youngest members of the Gang. As the sun was rising, he attacked the 34 police now surrounding the Glenrowan Inn. After a 20-minute gun battle, he fell with 28 gunshot wounds, near death from loss of blood. It was about 7.45am on Monday 28 June.
While Ned hovered between life and death in the stationmaster’s office, Dan and Steve released the remaining prisoners and the siege lapsed into stalemate.
Eventually, soon after 3 in the afternoon, with 1000 onlookers, the pub was set alight. As it burnt, a brave priest, Father Gibney, saw the bodies of Dan and Steve in the back room, pillows of sacking under their heads, a dead greyhound beside them. Police dragged out the body of Joe Byrne and the pub burnt to the ground.
The siege of Glenrowan was over; Ned Kelly was a prisoner, to be nursed back to health, tried and executed.
For a time the Kelly rebellion continued; new armour was made. But, thanks to brilliant police work by Senior Constable Robert Graham stationed at nearby Greta, the threat was defused. Glenrowan and the Kelly Country were eventually at peace, never to escape the remarkable legacy of the events that had detonated there in 1880.
Glenrowan provides a hotel, motel, cafes, two small museums, an animated theatre, playground and toilets.
Self-guided tours are facilitated by a walking trail that guides visitors through a series of informative signs marking the major sites of the siege.
The original all-star cast of the classic 1980 Australian miniseries, The Last Outlaw, will reunite in Beechworth for the first time as a highlight of this year’s sensational Ned Kelly Weekend program from Friday 6 to Sunday 8 August.
Sigrid Thornton, John Jarratt, Steve Bisley, Gerard Kennedy and Lewis Fitzgerald are among the 12 members of the original line-up of this acclaimed TV production reuniting in Beechworth for the weekend celebrations. The Last Outlaw was written and co-produced by Beechworth local and Ned Kelly expert, Ian Jones.
Visitors to the annual Ned Kelly Weekend – this year commemorating the 130th anniversary of the committal hearing of the bushranger at the Beechworth courthouse – will have a chance to mingle with the cast at a gala cocktail party at La Trobe at Beechworth on Saturday 7 August from 7:30pm.
Some of the actors including John Jarratt who played Ned Kelly will also take part in the Friday evening opening event at the Nicholas Hotel at 7:30pm - 'Fiddles, Fisticuffs, Food and Fashions'.
And to celebrate The Last Outlaw reunion in Beechworth, an exhibition of memorabilia from the production will be displayed at the Burke Museum in Loch Street, including the armour worn by John Jarratt, scripts, posters, costumes and much more. Visitors will be able to browse the museum’s other Kelly exhibits which are part of its permanent collection. The exhibition will be launched at a special opening event at the Burke Museum on Friday 6 August at 5pm.
The events are part of a packed three day program of re-enactments, talks by expert historians, theatre, a hypothetical and the exhibition of all four suits of original Kelly Gang armour, on loan from the State Library of Victoria and the Victoria Police Museum.
The Ned Kelly Weekend, organised by the Beechworth Historical Re-enactment Group (BHRG), is in its seventh year in 2010. Tickets for many events are selling fast so Ned Kelly Weekend enthusiasts are urged to book quickly to avoid missing out.
Full program details and bookings at www.beechworthonline.com.au
The Ned Kelly Weekend Organising Committee are grateful for the support of the Beechworth Bakery, Beechworth Emporium, Beechworth Gold and La Trobe at Beechworth in bringing the actors to Beechworth.
Rare Kelly artefacts to go on show in Beechworth
A hand-drawn map of the site of the Stringybark Creek ambush by the sole surviving police officer and Ned Kelly’s bloodstained cartridge bag recovered in the aftermath of the Glenrowan siege are two of the precious Victoria Police Museum objects to be displayed in Beechworth during this year’s Ned Kelly Weekend from 6 to 8 August.
The artefacts, several of which have been on public display for the first time, are part of the Museum’s fascinating Ambushed exhibition which has enjoyed a successful run in Melbourne since January.
The Beechworth exhibition, which will be mounted in the Sub Treasury Building of the Historic & Cultural Precinct, is a coup for this year’s Ned Kelly Weekend, with the first display of the Ambushed objects outside Melbourne.
Event organisers, the Beechworth Historical Re-enactment Group (BHRG) are pleased to have secured the exhibition as it offers another perspective on the Kelly saga: “We are very mindful of providing a balanced program of events that tell the Kelly story from all sides,” says BHRG president, Adam Wynne-Jenkins.
One hundred and thirty years after his trial and hanging in Melbourne, Australia’s most notorious bushranger still provokes passionate debate. Acknowledging this wide spectrum of opinion in the Australian community, the BHRG have this year made a concerted effort to examine events from a range of different perspectives.
“The 2010 program also features an exhibition of all four suits of armour worn by the Kelly Gang, as well as talks about Ned’s life and family and a theatrical staging of The Jerilderie Letter,” Adam Wynne-Jenkins said. “The Ambushed exhibition offers a police perspective on events of the time, a re-reading of the first Kerferd Oration provides a community perspective and a talk focusing on judge Sir Redmond Barry who sentenced Ned Kelly to hang, completes the story from all sides.”
This year is the seventh Ned Kelly Weekend, marking the 130th anniversary of the committal hearing of Ned Kelly in the Beechworth Courthouse in August 1880.