Saturday, 3 November 2018

How long was Ned Kelly’s last stand?

This is a guest post contributed by Stuart Dawson, who recently set out to investigate and tackle an unresolved question in the Ned Kelly commentary. It is posted here to encourage feedback for correction and improvement. It is intended to be part of a future, longer research article on Ned Kelly’s Last Stand.

Did Ian Jones’ admiration for Kelly lead him to wrongly accept a statement that Kelly’s last stand lasted over twice as long as it actually had? According to Jones, “The Last Stand had lasted for half an hour”, from Constable Arthur’s challenge to Kelly as he advanced in armour from the bush towards the Glenrowan Inn, and the first exchange of fire, to Kelly’s capture (Short Life, 2003: 236, cf. 231-6). Peter FitzSimons followed Jones, as have many others, in accepting a half hour timeframe, while noting that “the timetable … varies wildly in most contemporary accounts, with only broad agreement that from first shot to last it took around thirty minutes” (Ned Kelly,2015: 777 n.2). This is a red flag that the timeline needs review, especially given Daily Telegraph reporter George Allen’s contemporary estimate that “the whole affair” lasted “about a quarter of an hour, I suppose, or 20 minutes” (RC,Q.10774). Clearly the gunfight itself did not last half an hour; but how long was it?
The Age text of 29 June 1880 is partially damaged in Trove, but is reprinted in Hare’s “Last of the Bushrangers”, ch. XII. It says of 28 June, “The morning broke beautiful and clear. The police were disposed all round the hotel, when they were beset by a danger from the rear. … It was nearly eight o’clock when [Kelly’s] tall figure was seen close behind the line of police. … For half an hour this strange contest was carried on”. In a different place it gushed, “About seven o'clock Ned Kelly was seen in the timber, where he fought valiantly for about half an hour” (Age, 29 June 1880, 2). This is the source of the half hour gunfight generalisation beloved of Kelly enthusiasts. But the Age’s first (8am) starting time is an hour out. All sources agree that Kelly rose from the bush at dawn and began his advance toward the Glenrowan Inn and the scattered police line (Q.10043 Carrington; Q.10345 McWhirter). On that day, civil twilight (dawn) at Glenrowan was 6:59am (Geoscience Australia), and Kelly’s appearance and advance began “about 7am or after” (Q.8229 S/C Kelly).
Before the gunfight, one must allow for Kelly walking some 50 yards in armour, from 150 yards out (S/C Kelly, Argus, 29 June 1880, 6; Dowsett, Argus, 1 July 1880, 6) before being challenged about 100 yards out by Arthur, himself some 80 yards from the Inn(Argus, 2 July 1880, 7). [Both Jones p. 231 and FitzSimons p. 548 wrongly placed Arthur 100 yards from the Inn.] Upon that challenge Kelly raised his revolver. Arthur then fired, and Kelly returned fire (Q.11161); although he told the Argus at the time that Kelly fired first. Either way, the gunfight had commenced. Kelly called out, “fire away you bs, you can’t kill me, I’m in armour”, and called to the outlaws in the Inn, “Come out boys, we’ll lick the lot” (Q.9450 Dwyer). Regardless that Dwyer’s watch was perhaps half an hour out (Q.9490), he noted what are here two key timing points: the time he was at the Inn stockyard just before he went up to the station, from which place he saw Kelly in the bush and heard him call out the above challenge (Q.9448-50), and then the time Kelly was captured (Q.9490), about 8 minutes later. Kelly’s last stand was not an epic half-hour gun battle; it was over in less than 10 minutes.
Kelly was captured before or around 7:15am, in the presence of reporters who had rushed up and witnessed his capture: “The outlaw howled like a wild beast brought to bay, and swore at the police” (Argus, 30 June 1880, 2). A few minutes passed with exchanges of words, Dwyer giving Kelly a kick, and Bracken defending Kelly from other injudicious treatment including possible summary shooting by Steele as his armour was removed (Q.10345 McWhirter). Kelly was then supported (“carried”) and walked some 100 yards to the railway station, including being lifted over a fence, while under fire from the Inn, and placed in the guard’s van (Q.8269-70 S/C Kelly; Q.10355 McWhirter). It was not until shortly after Kelly was lodged at the station that the sun rose (Q.9232 Steele; cf. Q.9234). On 28 June 1880, sunrise at Glenrowan was at 7:27am, so Kelly was in there at latest by 7:25am.
The Age’s “half an hour … contest” is a gross exaggeration of the gunfight timeframe, likely the result of excitement and nerves on the day. If it is to be taken as a marker of anything, it would encompass the entire time from Kelly’s first appearance from the scrub at 7am, through to his lodgement in the guard’s van at the station around 7:25am; but this is much more than the event known as the last stand. That, as the quote from FitzSimons above makes clear, is universally understood to mean the timeframe from first shot to the last at his capture. At most it might include some of his first walk in.
Allen’s estimate of a little more than 15 minutes for “the whole affair” was correct, within which the gunfight occupied less than 10 minutes. Only a few of the 34 police then present at Glenrowan, and railway guard Dowsett, were involved in the gunfight with and capture of Kelly. (The civilian Rawlins also assisted in securing Kelly, but was not involved in the gunfight, Q.11740-7.) The rest of the police stayed at their posts surrounding the Inn to prevent the other outlaws’ escape. Despite Jones’comprehensive reading of the evidence surrounding the last stand (SL, 2003: 405), he wrongly accepted the Age journalist’s exaggerated statement of the gunfight timeframe, over clear evidence that shows that Ned Kelly’s last stand was barely 10 minutes. Truth is duller than fiction. 
(Dr. Stuart Dawson is an Adjunct Research Fellow in History at Monash University.) 


  1. Just when I think I have cornered the market on out-of-the box lateral
    thinking along comes someone like Dr. Stuart Dawson who meets or
    exceeds my abilities! Amazing how we have all always heard and
    accepted that the "Last Stand" lasted half an hour without looking
    further to see if that was really the truth. Sort of like how all over
    the news a while back they were touting that 15,000 rounds were fired
    at the siege of Glenrowan and I dug deeper and proved it to be a
    fraction of that only to have someone disparage my efforts by saying
    "Now they are counting bullets!" Sigh. At least those of us who want
    our "facts" to be actually true appreciate the efforts of all who look
    deeper and challenge the status quo to get to the real heart and meat
    of the matter.

    Kudos to Stuart for all of his efforts. I look forward to an expanded version.

    Here is a link to the article I mentioned above about the 15,000
    rounds. I did it as a flashback at my blog.

    1. Ive just read your Blog post Sharon and I would encourage everyone to do the same. Its another wonderful example of what happens when someone decides to make a proper analysis of a claim to see how well the facts fit the claim. I hope the makers of the Glenrowan movie take the time to read what you and Stuart have written and adjust their movie accordingly.

    2. Well, if the "True history of the Kelly gang" movie follows Carey's book it will be a total historical shemozzle. According to Carey's rather creative Parcel 13 re the Glenrowan siege, Ned, after first leaving the Inn, limps back into it in time to see Joe Byrne shot, i.e. following Ian Jones' incorrect version of events, then "a voice in the darkness" says, "Your brother and his mate have left us. You must stop them cops, mate, you have to stop them now for they are murdering us." "I will." He stumbled out the back door and into the early dawn. Intending to draw the police fire onto himself, he mounted his horse.... As he rode down the police flank … he realised Dan had not left at all. … He began to swing down … but fell hard onto the ground. He walked painfully towards his brother, no longer deigning [one of the bigger words in this somewhat tortuous novel - ed.] to take cover or hide himself.... Etc., etc. OMG.

    3. here here - we're so lucky (?!) to have people like you 3

    4. Hi Phoebe, you're welcome. We have fun trying to sort out fact from myth, and there are many interesting puzzles to solve. And unlike Egyptology or something, there is a mass of historical evidence available to help solve them. A lot of it wasn't available until the police and law files became accessible in the 1960s, and in the last decade or so more has emerged from previously unexplored boxes in PROV, the Police Museum, and other places, that wasn't available to earlier researchers. So early historians were largely restricted to print copies of old newspapers, the Royal Commission reports, and a limited range of other material. Of course, you may be well aware of this, but many people with a casual interest aren't. So it stands to reason that a lot of old assumptions and stories are simply wrong. For those of us who still believe in facts, as distinct from interpretations, there is a goldmine of stuff to explore and get excited about. For those who prefer interpretation, like postmodernists, post-structuralists and other strange creatures, I think generally we wish them every happiness, but their theories have little to do with historical reality as normal people understand it. What do you think of the evidence that the last stand lasted less than 10 minutes? Surely that's exciting for someone visiting a Ned Kelly website? If you have evidence that suggest otherwise, please post it, as I and probably others would love to see it. I never mind being proved wrong in historical discussions.

    5. This is one of those times that the lack of "tone" of voice comes into play when words are typed on a page. Perhaps the question mark means the comment is dripping with sarcasm? (somebody grab a mop and a hazmat suit! cleanup on aisle 5!) Or am I just so battle weary that a true compliment feels like a backhanded one? No worries, regardless of what anyone thinks of us pro or con, there is no denying that "we three" have unearthed gems of truth that others have overlooked through the years. And, like Stuart said, we have fun doing it. So, I think that makes us the lucky ones.

  2. I am not sure if you realised it Stuart but Matthew Holmes, the Aussie director who made the Legend of Ben Hall is now trying to raise the money to make a movie called "Glenrowan" . He and his co-writer claim this will be 100% accurate, but they wont be depicting Ned Kelly as a hero OR a villain - which means to me it will be a sympathisers delight. However, once again he is having trouble getting proper funding so it may be some time before this one ever gets made.

    Meanwhile, as I understand it, the short Stringybark Creek movie has been filmed and will be released early next year.

    1. Hi Dee, I was thinking of the Carey film with Kiwi Russell Crowe playing Irishman Harry Power. For the Holmes film, they may like to know I did a timeline for the first half hour of the siege, with details of Ned and the police's movements; discussion of times of the orders to fire high so as not to hit civilians (as opposed to possible armed sympathisers) once it was known they were inside the Inn; Ned's long nap in the bushes and NOT re-entering the Inn after first leaving it, contrary to the near-universal Jones myth; and a bunch of other Glenrowan detail, which is fully documented in my free PDF book, "Ned Kelly and the myth of a republic of north-Eastern Victoria", which it would be foolish to ignore. Sharon's article demolishing the impossible claim of 15,000 police bullets fired is highly relevant, as is the evidence above that the last stand gunfight was a little under 10 minutes. A Glenrowan film also needs to show Ned stupidly shooting labourer Metcalf in the face before the siege then keeping him captive; Ned and the boys refusing to let the prisoners leave once they knew the police were arriving, but cowardly keeping them prisoner as human shields; Ned abandoning his mates around 3.30am instead of going out together in the fully armoured do-or-die style that he tried to attempt the next morning; Ned repeatedly announcing his plan to massacre the police plus any civilians and train crew, etc., if it is to be historically factual. Anyone with the slightest ability to read historical documents knows it is impossible not to portray the Kelly gang as among the most evil villains in Australia's history, exactly as they were seen in their day.

      I don't know anything about the content of the other film, "Stringybark", except what was in the papers, that it will focus on the ambush murder of the police at Stringybark Creek, and will be based on fully researched historical fact rather than the fanciful mythmaking that has beset most Kelly books for the last 100 years.

      Then we must consider that all three films are films, i.e. they need to keep an audience glued to the screen for as much of their total screen time as possible. That comes down to the director above all, so any or all of the three films might be fantastic regardless of historical accuracy. But given that only the Carey film purports to be historically-based fiction, the other two will fail miserably if they stray much from the path of documented historical truth to which they aspire. Hopefully both will do their best to tell it like it was; and we know enough of the facts now to know what that requires.

    Sorry but your sarcastic post went into recycling. Ive asked you before - or someone with the same name and style as you - to specify what claims made by Dr Dawson are the ones you think are wrong, to provide what you think are better arguments or better solutions to the ones Dawson proposes - but as before you have failed to even attempt to do so. All you've submitted, yet again is a tirade of hysterical abuse and sarcasm, and frankly, Ive read more than enough of that sort of crap from the Kelly mob.

    Fell free to submit an argument against something that Dawson has claimed that you believe is wrong, and we will look at it. None of us is afraid to be wrong or to admit it, but none of us is interested in engaging a troll.

    1. Hi Dee, with the last stand timeframe question, either someone can refute its being less than 10 minutes with precise references, or someone might be able to corroborate it with further references. Otherwise the 10 minutes stand on good evidence from sworn testimony at the Royal Commission. It's as simple as that. Otherwise they are just timewasting.


1. Moderation is back on. I haven’t got time to be constantly monitoring what comments are made and deleting the mindless rubbish that Kelly sympathisers have been posting lately. Please post polite sensible comments, avoid personal abuse and please use the same name whenever you Post, even if its a made-up name.