Life Hero or mad, bad and dangerous to know? The battle over Ned Kelly rages 140 years on

Hero or mad, bad and dangerous to know? The battle over Ned Kelly rages 140 years on

Ned Kelly
What is it about Australia's most notorious outlaw that we keep coming back to? Photo: AAP
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The rusted iron bucket mask, complete with the narrow rectangular eye slit is an image burned into the cultural retinas of the Australian public.

June 28 marks 140 years since the infamous last stand of the Kelly gang in Glenrowan which killed three of his gang members, but the Kelly legend remains as contentious as ever.

Where some see Kelly as a violent, greedy criminal, others see a downtrodden underdog taking a stand against his colonial oppressors.

Ned Kelly
Hipsters have drawn inspiration from Ned Kelly’s beard. Photo: AAP

Historians and Kelly experts alike argue about whether he should be remembered as a villainous thief and cop-killer, or as a subversive anti-authoritarian symbol.

Christine Gerrett, owner of the Ned Kelly museum and homestead in Glenrowan, told The New Daily that Kelly had become an important figure for the people of his time.

“After he was hanged, a policeman said that even if he hadn’t done what did, he stood out in a crowd,” Ms Gerrett said.

“He was a lot taller than most people at the time – he was nearly six foot – he had charisma and he had the stance of a military man,”

“He had a presence about him and people listened to him and he verbalised a lot of the injustices that were happening at the time. A lot of the police were corrupt.

“There are over a thousand plays and books about Ned Kelly – that would be more than any other person in Australian history, and that is something in itself.”


Whether you think he should be celebrated or condemned, there is no denying Kelly is one of Australia’s most towering icons.

But what is it about the so-called Iron Outlaw that Aussies identify with?

Trevor Poultney, historian, Kelly enthusiast and tour guide at the Old Melbourne Gaol where Kelly was executed, said that although the story had taken on a life of its own, its core themes remain important to the Australian identity.

“I think it’s the romantic side of it that has made it a bit of a favourite story with people,” Mr Poultney told The New Daily. 

“The aspects of the story that have come through over the years that I think people identify with is the sentimental appreciation – they see him as a bit of a larrikin and a bit of an anti-authoritarian figure.

“And you can’t deny that he certainly was a criminal. But people see the romantic side of it – it’s one of the best known and most re-told early Australian stories of the derring-do of the bushranger.

“Lets face it – he put on a suit of armour and went and faced the police. So whatever you say about him, you can’t take away from the fact that he was brave and he showed a lot of courage.

“And I think that’s what they like.”

Defiant to the end, an unrepentant Ned Kelly goes to the gallows in Melbourne Jail.

The glamourised story of an underdog battling poverty, discrimination and institutional corruption is what Ms Gerrett thinks has held the public’s imagination for so long.

The Kellys were poor Irish Catholic farmers, discriminated against due to their history in the penal colonies and harassed by corrupt English Protestant police — that’s the legend.

“He is the epitome of the fight for the underdog, and Australians – we are fighters for the underdog.” Ms Gerrett said.

With the anniversary of the last stand rolling around once again, Mr Poultney is quick to note that whatever the Kelly legend has become, it’s important to recognise his place in Aussie history.

“There’s a difference between the story as it was, and the story as it’s perceived today,” he said.

“I don’t think we should celebrate him, I think we should remember him – it’s an interesting story and it tells us a lot about what things were like.

“It showed up a few weaknesses in the Victorian police situation. At the end of the Kelly outbreak they had a royal commission into the police and some good came of that.

“But ‘celebrate’ is a pretty strong term, isn’t it?”