It’s probably because of Australia’s convict heritage that a bushranger who was hanged for murder sits atop its pantheon of folk heroes. Ned Kelly is remembered as an under-dog who took on authority and, in his signature iron helmet, he remains as instantly recognisable today as a symbol of Australia as does the kangaroo and emu which have long featured on the national Coat of Arms.
Kelly, was a convicted petty criminal and horse rustler who escaped into the bush in 1878 accused of the attempted murder of a police trooper named Fitzpatrick who had called at his home to arrest his brother Dan.
Ned, Dan and two likely lads, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, formed the ‘Kelly Gang’ and while on the run for the next two years thumbed their noses at the police as they took hostages and held up banks while the bounty on their heads steadily grew.
At Stringybark Creek, Ned and his gang ambushed a police patrol led by Sergeant Kennedy, and in the exchanges of fire Kelly fatally shot Constables Lonigan & Scalon before delivering a coup de grace on Kennedy with a shot to the heart supposedly to put him out of his misery. The fourth member of the patrol, Constable McIntyre, managed to escape to nearby Mansfield and his account of the slayings prompted the Government to substantially raise the reward for the capture dead or alive of the now notorious ‘Kelly Gang’. The stakes were high enough to sway the turncoat Arron Skerrit who while under police guard was taken out by his former friend Joe Byrne as he stood in the doorway of his home.
The final showdown occurred at Glenrowan where Kelly and his gang commandeered the local hotel and took its patrons hostage while plotting a daring ambush of the train from Melbourne. It was not an ideal place to plan an attack as their alcohol fuelled bravado surely affected their judgement. As an act of chivalry Ned released the local schoolmaster and his family, and with the alarm soon raised it wasn’t long before the police surrounded the hotel.
When the shooting commenced Byrne was shot in the thigh and bled out. Ned was able to escape into the bush despite nursing wounds to his foot, hand and arm. However, probably realizing defeat and seeking a ‘glorious’ end, he re-emerged from the mist early the next morning still dressed in his helmet and armour and with guns blazing. He was brought down with shots to his exposed legs thus denying him a quick death but his attempted act of martyrdom gave rise to the Kelly legend and the phrase “as game as Ned Kelly.”
With Dan Kelly and Steve Hart still holed up in the hotel the police set the building alight to smoke them out and their charred bodies along with Byrne’s were later recovered from the smouldering ruins.
Ned was sentenced to death for the murder of Constable Lonigan and was hanged at Melbourne’s Pentridge Gaol on the 11th November 1880. According to reports “’he met his end without fear. His last words were ‘Ah well, I suppose it has come to this’, and by another version, ‘Such is life’” (ADB).
The ‘scrimshaw’ in our sale tells the tale of the ‘Kelly Gang’ and is incised on a single bull horn featuring the bearded Ned Kelly above his horse ‘Daylight’ as well as other gang members and sympathisers. The top character is Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor who led the black-trackers in pursuit of Kelly.
The horn is believed to have been carved by the American George King, Ned Kelly’s stepfather (see accompanying photograph which is associated with the horn), who saw an opportunity to trade on the notoriety of his step-son drawing inspiration for his carvings from the woodcuts published in the July 1880 edition of the Illustrated Sydney News.
A similarly executed scrimshaw horn sold at Noble Numismatics Auction in July 2001 for $192,225 when it was thought to be unique. Since then a few other examples have come to light, including the one on offer. It remains an important piece of Australiana that celebrates the life of Australia’s ‘Robin Hood’.