The Story Of Ned Kelly, Australia’s Armored Outlaw

Published December 16, 2017
Updated September 27, 2021

The retaliation of the police and the inequality they were seen as upholding made many in Australian identify with Ned Kelly.

On June 28, 1880, the police thought they had finally caught the outlaw Ned Kelly. He was holed up at a hotel in the small town of Glenrowan, and though he had hostages, he was completely surrounded.

But Ned had one more trick up his sleeve, and though it wouldn’t save him from the law, it let him go out with a bang. Kelly had stolen a number of iron plowshares and had fashioned them into a makeshift suit of armor for his last stand.

Ned Kelly Attacks The Police

Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesIn his armor suit, Ned Kelly makes his final stand against police.

In the early hours of the morning, shrouded in fog, Kelly crept from the hotel to flank the police, and, armed only with a pistol, emerged from the woods and began firing on them.

The Australian newspaper The Age reported that “many shots hit him, yet he always recovered himself, and tapping his breast laughed derisively, as he coolly returned their fire.”

Police officers who witnessed the event thought they were seeing an apparition, a manifestation of the devil or the old bogeyman of the Australian bush, the Bunyip.

The police eventually realized his weakness, and shot him in his unprotected legs, but not before he got a chance to blow the helmet off the head of the commanding officer.

The story of the outlaw Ned Kelly may be common knowledge to most Australians, but to those of us in the rest of the world, the story of the so-called Australian Robin Hood is relatively unknown.

Ned Kelly’s family came to Australia much the way many immigrants ended up on the continent at the time. His father was sent to a prison colony in Australia in 1842 after he was convicted of stealing two pigs back in Ireland.

After earning his freedom, Kelly’s father settled in the state of Victoria and married his employer’s daughter. Ned Kelly was the third son of this union. The Kellys were a selector family, meaning they had traveled to Victoria to claim land given to them by the Crown.

However, by the 1850s, much of large tracts of land in many parts of Australia had already been claimed by squatters — settlers who had reached the land earlier and had made large profits off of the land they claimed.

The conflict between these two groups would define much of Australia’s social problems for the ensuing decades.

In Victoria, the Kelly family were heavily targeted by the police due to Ned’s father’s past, as well as their status as selectors.

Ned Kelly’s father was given six months hard labor in 1866 for unlawful possession of a bullock hide and drank himself to death shortly after he was released. After his father’s death, Kelly became the breadwinner of his family and quickly turned to a life of crime to support them.

He began a campaign of robbery and theft, which enraged law enforcement as they were consistently unable to convict him of his crimes.

Ned Kelly Mugshot

National Museum of Australia/Wikimedia CommonsA mugshot of Ned Kelly taken when he was 15.

When Ned Kelly was 16, he became the accomplice Harry Power, an already infamous bushranger and outlaw of the Australian bush.

Under Power’s tutelage, Kelly learned how to be an accomplished bushranger. However, he was eventually arrested with Powers and served a short stint in prison.

When Kelly was released, he went back to his old ways of crime.

He was finally forced to go on the run after he and his brother shot a police officer who had come to their house to arrest them for horse theft.

The two of them retreated into the hills around his family homestead in Victoria. While the brothers hid in the bush, the police searched for the outlaws but were unable to find them due to their superior knowledge of the region.

Three officers were ambushed by the brothers while searching for them in the dense forest. When one of the officers reached for his gun, Kelly shot him.

The brothers took one police officer hostage and happened upon another two who they killed when they would not surrender. Though during the melee, their hostage grabbed the horse of a fallen comrade and was able to flee the outlaw brothers.

The Stringybark Attack

Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesThe Stringybark Attack.

While in the bush, the brothers were joined by two friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, and the four of them formed a gang, later known as the Kelly Gang. With the gang assembled, the four of them began robbing banks and even held up a police station.

The police retaliated in kind, setting a £8,000 bounty on the gang and arresting 23 of their friends and sympathizers without cause. The retaliation of the police and the general attitude towards them at the time made many Australians identify with Ned Kelly.

Much of the population saw the police as corrupt thugs protecting the so-called “Squattocracy” of squatters and discriminating against the poor selectors.

This was furthered in 1879 when Ned Kelly published the “Jerilderie Letter,” a 56-page document where he justified his actions and identified his struggle with that of the oppressed Irish Catholic and poor of Victoria.

Ned Kelly's Last Stand

Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesNed Kelly’s last stand.

Through this document, Kelly earned his place as a folk hero, but he would not earn his mythical status until his final showdown the next year.

In 1880, Kelly was still on the run and had recently killed Aaron Sherritt, a police informant who he suspected of informing law enforcement on him. After this latest murder, he was sure the police would be sending reinforcements by train to apprehend him.

Anticipating this action, Kelly and his gang took over the small town of Glenrowan and forced local railroad workers to destroy the tracks near the town. The gang held the 62 inhabitants of Glenrowan hostage in the town’s hotel, where they let their captives drink and play games.

However one of the hostages alerted the police, who descended on the town and surrounded the hotel.

Ned Kelly Armor Suit

Wikimedia CommonsNed Kelly’s armor on display in the State Library of Victoria. The helmet, breastplate, backplate and shoulder plates show a total of 18 bullet marks. Also on display are Kelly’s Snider Enfield rifle and one of his boots.

Though the gang was surrounded, Kelly had one last trick up his sleeve: a metal suit of armor capable of deflecting bullets.

In the early hours of June 28, 1880, Kelly donned his suit of armor and in the morning mist, snuck behind the lines of the police. He then appeared behind them and began firing from two pistols.

He moved calmly, dodging from tree to tree as bullets deflected off of his armor plating.

He injured numerous officers before one noticed that his legs were unprotected by the armor. They shot him in the legs and groin until he fell to the ground, unable to move.

Ned Kelly Before Execution

National Archives of Australia/Wikimedia CommonsNed Kelly the day before his execution.

The officers then made a full assault on the hotel to capture or kill the other Kelly Gang members despite the presence of hostages still in the building. During the crossfire, police shot numerous civilians, wounding several and killing two, one of whom was an eleven-year-old child.

All the other members of the Kelly Gang were killed in the raid, and Ned Kelly was tried and hanged four months later.

Though he was killed, Ned Kelly became a folk hero for many of the oppressed rural farmers of Australia, who had little rights to land and lived in poverty.

He has since become one of the largest fixtures of Australian culture, and was even the subject of the first dramatic feature film ever released in Australia, The Story of the Kelly Gang as well as the 2012 film Besieged – The Ned Kelly Story.

After learning the story of famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, read the famous last words of historical great. Then, read about the living descendants of famous historical figures.

Gabe Paoletti
Gabe is a New York City-based writer and an Editorial Intern at All That Is Interesting.