10 October 2013

Eyewitness Letter to the Capture of Ned Kelly Surfaces After 133 Years

The Victorian bushranger Edward 'Ned' Kelly is one of nineteenth-century Australia's most well known and controversial figures. His exploits in Victoria and southern New South Wales, which culminated in the siege at Glenrowan (late June 1880) where Kelly and members of his gang donned make-shift body armour to deflect police bullets, have seen Kelly labelled an outlaw and murderer by some and folk hero by others.

Now, after 133 years, a letter containing an eyewitness account of Kelly's dramatic capture during the siege has been donated to the State Library of Victoria by the descendants of its author – Scotsman, Donald Gray Sutherland.

What makes this letter particularly interesting is that it offers a new perspective. According to the historian Alex McDermott, unlike previous accounts, which were written either by government officials or Kelly sympathisers, Sutherland was 'an everyday bank teller from Oxley, a little town near Glenrowan, and [was] not on the side of the Kellys and ... not on the side of the police'.

[From the State Library of Victoria website]

The letter addressed to Sutherland’s family on 8 July 1880 proclaims ‘… the Kelly’s are annihilated. The gang is completely destroyed…’. It continues describing Kelly’s famous armour and the gunshot wounds that finally brought him down.

‘He was wounded in 5 or 6 places, only in the arms and legs – His body and head being encased in armour made from the moule (sic) boards of a lot of ploughs. Now the farmers about here, have been getting their moule boards taken off their ploughs at night for a long time but who ever dreamed it was the Kellys and that they would be used for such a purpose. Ned’s armour alone weighed 97 pounds. The police thought he was a fiend seeing their rifle bullets mere sliding off him like hail. They were firing into him at about 10 yards in the grim light of the morning without the slightest effect. The force of the rifle bullets made him stagger when hit but it was only when they got him in the legs and arms that he reluctantly fell exclaiming as he did so I am done I am done.’

Sutherland enclosed a lock of hair from Kelly’s horse with the letter, noting in the postscript, ‘The hair enclosed is from the tail of Ned Kelly the famous murderer and bushranger’s mare. His favourite mare who followed him all around the trees during the firing. He said he wouldn’t care for himself if he thought his mare safe.’

Sue Roberts, CEO and State Librarian described the donation of the letter as extremely generous and a significant addition to the Kelly story.

‘This letter is a very personal account of events that have become part of Australia’s folklore. We are delighted that Mr Sutherland’s family chose the State Library of Victoria as caretaker for this remarkable document. It will join Ned's armour, Jerilderie Letter and other important items in our Kelly collection – one of the largest and most significant in the world.’

The letter will be on display in the State Library’s Changing Face of Victoria exhibition from Monday (14 October). It is also available online with a full transcript via the State Library website.

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