14 May 2019

Ned Kelly collections in Victoria

The Victorian architecture in rural Beechworth is beautiful. Visitors should see the Burke Memorial Museum, opened in 1857 and later named in honour of explorer Robert O’Hara Burke (1821-61). After his death at Coopers Creek in 1861 during the famous Burke & Wills Exp­ed­it­ion, Burke’s bible, inscribed revolver and the saddle­bags used in his tragic expedition were immediately added to the collection. 

The Museum holds 30,000+ individual items, and includes a sig­nif­icant collection of Aboriginal weapons and tools, many C19th native animal and birdlife taxidermy, significant Gold Rush era artefects, and the Street of Shops that is a recreation of Gold Era Beechworth.

Now I am interested in a newer section of the museum, the Ned Kelly Vault, opened in the former Sub Treasury building of the Beechworth Historic and Cultural Precinct in 2014. This collection is the most comprehensive of its type in regional Australia and includes the original death mask of Ned Kelly and many original items relating to the bushranger and his Gang.

Glenrowan Inn

This is one of the most famous parts of rural Victoria. The Siege at Glen­rowan on 28th June 1880, was the result of a plan by the notor­ious Kelly Gang to derail a Police Special Train carry­ing Indig­en­ous trackers into a deep gully next to the railway line. The plan was launched two days earlier with the murder near Beech­worth of police inf­ormant Aaron Sherritt. The idea was to draw the Police Special Train through the town­ship of Glenrowan, an area the local Kelly family knew intimately. After the day ended, the Kelly Gang planned to ride on to Benalla, blow up the under-manned police station and rob some banks. But Ned misjudged.

In the early morning darkness of Monday, June 28th, the Police Spec­ial train pulled into Glenrowan Railway Station, and the police contingent disembarked. The Glenrowan Inn was burnt to the ground by police in their attempt to flush out members of the Kelly Gang, sparking a tragic chain of events for the owner Mrs Ann Jones. Her business was destroyed, and her 13-year-old son was killed in the siege after he was hit in the hip by a police bullet. By afternoon the siege of the Glenrowan Inn ended when three of the Kelly Gang members - Joe Byrne, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart – died, and Ned Kelly was captured behind the Inn.

He was hanged at the Melbourne Gaol on 11th Nov 1880. Kelly was, and remains Australia’s best known figure of folk law, partially be­cause of the iconic armour donned by his gang in the Siege at Glen­rowan. The Kelly story became famous because it showed impoverished work­ing class lads standing up against tough authority figures. And in­fam­ous because it focused on an era when guns were allowed in priv­ate hands in Australia.

Now Ashlee Aldridge has written about some precious artefacts salvaged from Ned Kelly's last stand at Glenrowan. The Fire at the Glenrowan Inn in 1880 was a tragic story, and after almost 140 years, surviving items from the blaze now are being dis­play­ed. A small brass box given to the proprietor of the inn, Ann Jones, has been acquired by Beechworth's Burke Museum. Matt Shaw, the founder and co-creator of the Ned Kelly Vault, said "It is handmade, made of brass and would have been an extravagant gift. It has Ann Jones, Glenrowan Inn, Glenrowan 1876 eng­raved on the top. So it was obviously a gift from one of her loved ones, on the com­mencement of this new, exciting business venture."

Kelly Vault, Beechworth

One display cabinet in
the Kelly Vault, Beechworth

The brass box was taken as a souvenir by loc­als the day after the fire. There was no real trace of it until it turned up at an auct­ion in the early 2000s. An antique dealer noticed it was listed in a lot and knowing its significance, bought it and put it on display in Melbourne’s Police Museum. Original objects and documents in the Melbourne collection include Dan Kelly’s and Steve Hart’s armour. 

This programme complements the history of Ned Kelly at the Old Melbourne Gaol. And it complements the State Library of Victoria collection; see the Jer­ilderie letter, Ned’s armour and death mask, family photos, police telegrams and photographs, newspaper reports, letters, minutes from the 1880 Kelly Royal Com­mission and books written about the bushranger.

Also from that horrible moment in history, a bullet-ridden table was salvaged. Burke Museum manager Cameron Auty said "the table was taken out of the inn by the Kelly Gang when their plans didn't go as well as they'd hoped, and police didn't turn up as quickly as they'd liked, so people started to get a bit bored. They decided to have a dance inside the inn, they cleared the table out to make some space. The table has bullet holes and other damage from the siege, so it is amazing to see that still in existence."

The table has been on display at the Ned Kelly Vault since it open­ed and for the next two months, it will form part of an exhibition about Mrs Jones at the Burke Museum. Mr Auty noted that "they're the only two large objects remaining from the siege. There are oth­er small things like scraps and bullets, but no more large objects".

Leather cartridge bag, with two metal buckles and broken straps
taken from Ned Kelly by Sergeant Steele at Glenrowan
Victoria Police Museum

Kelly Gang helmet, with bullet hole

Despite it being 130 years since that siege, interest in the Ned Kel­ly story has continued. Auty added that "the response has been huge, especially in the local community and there has been a lot of media interest. Every­body loves a Ned Kelly story, espec­ial­ly the siege at Glenrowan. It was one of the most significant ev­ents in Austral­ian history. Beechworth has a strong link to the Kelly fam­il­y. Ned grew-up in Greta just around the corner, the Beechworth courthouse hosted 40 trials for the Kelly fam­ily, and Ned and his mother Ellen were in and out of Beechworth Gaol."

And as Benalla is the heart of Kelly country, the Kelly story has emphasis in The Costume and Kelly Museum. In the museum is a transportable cell in which Ned was once imprisoned; it contains Ned's bloodstained sash worn at Glenrowan, his bridle and many letters/documents about Ned's family and Gang.


Ex Pat said...

I always thought Ned Kelly was mostly a petty criminal and rustler, then later a murderer. So where did the notion of him being a peoples hero come from?

Hels said...

Ex Pat

I don't know either. So I will quote IronOutlaw:

Ned Kelly’s family were Irish, and historically the Catholic Irish had had a very hard time at the hands of the Protestant English. Many Irish people had emigrated to Australia because the English had destroyed their homes and forced them out of England. The Kelly family was further looked down upon because father Red Kelly was also a convict.

Ned Kelly was only seen as a villain by the upper classes. His sympathisers in the lower classes were treated very badly, being held without charges or trial. They weren’t allowed to take up land holdings in the region, to get them out of N-E Victoria. The police were trying to discourage support of Ned Kelly within the lower classes. Their efforts weren’t successful, as 30,000 Victorians signed a petition sympathetic to Ned, to stop him from being hanged. Note that the majority of people receiving a share of the reward money for the capture of the Kelly Gang were either in the police force, railways employees or native trackers hired by the police.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I love gold-rush era artifacts and information from any place, and I think this museum looks like a lot of fun, although perhaps a bit of a tourist trap. Australia certainly had its days of excitement, fully equal to the U.S.'s "Old West". I am a little suspicious of the engraved box--I hope that it has been professionally examined to rule out an added inscription. Also, are there similar boxes known that were given on equivalent occasions?

mem said...

I am a bit ambivalent about Ned and his family . In reading the biography of his mother entitled Mr Kelly you realize how badly the Irish Catholics were regarded and I guess when you treat people with contempt and they have limited opportunity this is what can be the result .
I certainly don't see him as heroic in the sense that he was a criminal but his awareness and his ability t articulate his rage is unusual in a local yokel . I think that is the things that makes him difference . His Jerilderie letter is quite a document for someone who cam from such a deprived background . On another note, a distant relative of mine Samuel Lazarus, was foreman of the jury at his trial and a direct appeal to him by Mrs Kelly was treated with contempt by him . Again mixed feelings :( . Makes you realize what a small place victoria was in those days.

Hels said...


I love gold-rush history as well. However the Gold Rush literally started in 1851 and was all over bar the shouting by the late 1860s. Thus the only connection to the Kelly Gang was the creation of the Ned Kelly Vault next to the Burke Memorial Museum in Beechworth. By the late 1860s, all the gold diggers had changed careers or left central Victoria. Ned Kelly (1855-80)'s short career was only as a bush ranger.

While the brass box looks authentic, you might be correct about the dating of the engraving. I will chase it up.

Hels said...


Thank you. I am glad you mentioned the Jerilderie letter because, when Ned Kelly dictated it in 1879, it became the most eloquent expression of his anger and his betrayed sense of justice. Wayyy too long to copy into a blog post, the letter focused on the gang's innocence and the terrible conditions of the poor Irish selectors in rural Victoria.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I have never been to Beechworth, OR Glenrowan, but I’d like to. I wonder if you can get to Beechworth by train? Must look it up. I’ve only seen the display at the State Library - which, incidentally, was founded by Redmond Barry, Ned’s judge. From all I’ve read, Barry was not the villain he has been painted. He gave a large chunk of his salary to the poor.

Some years ago, I had a Year 8 student who was related to Ned Kelly, not sure what the exact relationship was, but when we took the kids on an excursion to the State Library, he was very excited about the armour.

I think a while back they got some lawyers to run the original Ned Kelly trial and concluded that his trial had been unfair. On the other hand, there are still descendants of the police he killed, who are angry that he has been made a hero. Who knows?

Personally, I’m hoping his missing skull will turn up!

Hels said...


Capital punishment was an obscenity. Yet the Kelly family had been denied access to Ned and couldn't help with his defence. So sister Maggie Skillion had difficulty in raising the money to pay Ned's lawyer. He was tried for the murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek on 29th Oct 1880, found guilty, sentenced to death and hanged at the Melbourne Gaol on 11th Nov 1880. Worst of all, Ned Kelly's counsel had no right of appeal!

On the other side, a shoot-out in 1878 between the gang and police saw three policemen killed. Later that year, the Kelly gang ran major robberies of the National Banks at Euroa and Jerilderie where they terrorised the police and civilian hostages. In June 1880 a friend-turned-police informer was shot and killed. And 70 civilians were held hostage at the Glenrowan Inn. Everyone was heartbroken for the widows and orphans of those policemen etc.

Andrew said...

I thought I knew it all about Kelly, but I did not. There is always something new to learn. Thank you.

Hels said...


That is always true for a subject we know so well that we don't even question our knowledge-base *nod*. The British, for example, believe they know everything there is to know about Churchill.

Now I have new questions about the widow Ann Jones and her eight children. Which side were they on - the Kelly Gang's or the police's? How many policemen lived in the Inn? Of the eight Jones children, how many died during the Glenrowan In Fire or in the year after? etc etc

Parnassus said...

Hi Hels, Ha, ha--that is a good one: "I will chase up the engraving." This is why I love art historians who write blogs! --Jim

Hels said...

Very cute, Parnassus :)

Two days before this post was scheduled to appear, I noticed the Ashlee Aldridge article in the ABC News, a very reputable news outlet. There was no reason to doubt the story's validity, so I very pleased to add it into the "Ned Kelly collections in Victoria" post.

Many thanks for your long email which I will forward to Aldridge. I will remove the photo of the brass box, until confirmation of the object arrives or otherwise.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels ... my ignorance is pretty huge - I suspect I'd have said Ned Kelly was American ... but then I'd have been guessing and wondering. I knew nothing about his history - so have learnt a lot here. I too would like to visit the Beechworth and its museums, Glenrowan and the area surrounding the two towns. I'm glad he's been reburied back in the family plot - ghastly times, yet we're 'lucky' we can find out what happened (mainly) ... thanks for this - cheers Hilary

Hels said...


That is true for all of us.. and the older I get, the less I remember. Just of well all my old lecture notes are still intact.

Talking of thinking that Ned Kelly was probably an American, mistakes like that also happen all the time. My closest American friend, a very educated woman, believed that Florence Nightingale was an American who worked with soldiers in the American Civil War. And another friend wrote about Emperor Napoleon being French but living out the last few years of his life imprisoned in the USA.