Ned Kelly – an Australian icon, and Victoria's favourite son. Has anyone captured the national imagination in the same way since he was hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol?
Despite our ongoing love affair with charming criminals, Ned Kelly is still the first and the best of our folk heroes on the wrong side of the law. Our very own Robin Hood, he represented the indignation of the poor who were often ripped off by those in authority.
For years Ned has been immortalised at both Glenrowan, the site of his famous last stand, and the Old Melbourne Gaol where he was hanged and his head was misplaced.
Now, a collaboration between the municipalities of the Rural City of Wangaratta, Benalla Rural City, Mansfield, Strathbogie, Indigo and Jerilderie (NSW) Shire Councils, has resulted in a huge amount of work being done to develop other key locations for tourists' consumption. Visitors to these locations will see the results of this work in new signage with Ned's familiar helmet, improved walking trails, and picnic facilities.
This collaboration has also produced a website called "The Ned Kelly Touring Route" but it's not terribly helpful in locating the key sites and understanding their significance.
A better guide is a website called The Ned Kelly Trail, which appears to be a curriculum resource produced by the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD).
It's an excellent site that steps you through a comprehensive tour starting in Melbourne and travelling to Beveridge to see Ned's parents' house, on to Avenel where they moved, and so on to Euroa, Benalla, Glenrowan, Beechworth, Greta, Power's Lookout, Stringybark Creek, Mansfield, then back to Melbourne and Ned's final destination at the Old Melbourne Gaol. Maps of each location are also provided.
Clearly this is a trip that would take a couple of days to do properly, so we picked two locations to visit: the Mansfield Cemetery, and Stringbark Creek.
Mansfield Cemetery Mansfield Cemetery is the where the unfortunate policemen Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Mounted Constables Scanlon and Lonigan are buried. The cemetery is well sign-posted so is easy to find, but you have to wander around to find the graves. Fortunately, they're in the front left section of the cemetery, so are fairly easy to find. In addition, the gravestones have been maintained in excellent condition so are easy to read.
If you're into local history, it's worth allowing some time for a walk around to read other gravestones, which as usual paint a graphic if slightly morbid picture of the challenges facing people 130 or so years ago.
A more interesting and picturesque location is Stringybark Creek, where Ned and his gang ambushed a group of policemen including the three gentlemen buried in Mansfield Cemetery. As a result of these murders, Ned was marked for the noose and it was only a matter of time before the resources thrown at the search for him would end up capturing him in Glenrowan.
The memorial to the slain policemen at Stringybark Creek
The Ned Kelly Trail website provides detailed directions to this location, which would be difficult to find if you weren't already familiar with it. When you get there, it's a revelation: the investment by the Ned Kelly Touring Route collaboration is evident in the lovely picnic area, the well-maintained tracks, and the informative signposting.
Shaded by towering gums, the picnic area has picnic tables and public toilets, though no BBQ facilities. This is really a 'picnic' area – bring a packed lunch! While we munched our sandwiches, we read the excellent information board which included a map, pictures of the events, and lots of historical information.
Once we'd finished, we set off along the track, arriving first at the Kelly Tree, a huge gum that is supposed to mark the site of the showdown between the policemen and the Kelly gang. Unfortunately, in reality the original tree was cut down and used for firewood, but this one had the names of the dead policemen carved into it around the mid 1900s.
In 1985 a metal plaque representing Ned's armour replaced the carved names; the tree has grown around it, but you can still see the outline of his helmet , some faint writing and the date of the shootout - '1878'.
Next stop was the policemen's camp and the site of the shootout on the bank of the creek. The topography of the site has changed significantly due to the extensive gold mining in the area, but it's still possible to walk around and imagine the events unfolding. Just watch where you're walking when you venture off the track; there are still overgrown mine shafts everywhere, and in this area there are big parts of the bank that have been dug away.
Warning: There are signs like the one below everywhere, and they are not joking – there are old mineshafts and unstable ground everywhere, so great care should be taken when walking off the track. Parents MUST supervise their kids. Apart from the picnic ground, this is not an area where kids can run off and explore by themselves.
That warning aside, this is a great spot. We were the only ones there when we visited, so it's hard to know whether it gets crowded, but it's off the beaten track so probably is fairly quiet most of the time.
It's hard to believe this very pleasant spot was the location of one of the most notorious killings in Victorian history, and equally hard to imagine what a hard life the gold miners must have had along the banks of the creek. It's well worth a visit to bring our local history alive just that little bit more.
New book (November 2012) The Kelly Gang Unmasked can be googled. The author worked at Victorian State Archives, where most of the official records are, There is a Youtube of WIN-TV news interview with author, article in Melton Weekly, and a review in the Police Association Victoria Journal (November 2012). The Kelly apologists won't like it.
Thank you Fred - I will look that up. It's easy to romanticise Ned Kelly but he did rob banks, take hostages and shoot people! I'm sure it's a discussion that will continue to polarise people for a long time.