Ned Kelly's AFL Connection
I wrote the following story in the round three edition, 11-13 April 2003, of the AFL Record. Due to space restrictions, the original story had to be cut in half. But for your benefit, I have included the extended version here:
Although Gregor Jordan’s movie Ned Kelly, starring Heath Ledger, premiered on the eve of the 2003 AFL premiership season, you could be forgiven for thinking that was the extent of the link between the notorious outlaw and our great game.
But it runs much deeper than that. Deeper than the fact that both are national icons… or that the latest big-screen Ned, Perth-born Ledger, is a keen West Coast Eagles supporter and co-star Peter Phelps is a Collingwood fan.
The connection runs so deep that a VFL/AFL champion and two other players would have been lost to football if it wasn’t for Ned Kelly. Sounds a bit far-fetched? Read on.
The ironclad bandit actually has several remarkable links with Australian Football and, in particular, former Essendon champion Ian ‘Bluey’ Shelton, Bomber coach Kevin Sheedy and Carlton’s 1945 premiership captain Bob Chitty.
Shelton, a star at centre half-back for the Bombers in 91 games, including the 1962 and 1965 premierships, says he actually owes his existence to Ned Kelly.
The entire Shelton clan could make the same claim. Two other Sheltons also played league football. One of ‘Bluey’s’ uncles – ie. one of Richard’s sons – Jack Shelton, played 28 games and kicked four goals for St Kilda from 1926-29 and managed a further seven games and two goals for South Melbourne in 1930. He was killed at Tobruk in 1941. Jack’s son – ie. ‘Bluey’s’ cousin – William Shelton played 12 games and kicked five goals for Hawthorn from 1957-59.
In 1865, ‘Bluey’ Shelton’s grandfather, Richard (‘Dick’) Shelton, who was seven at the time, slipped into the fast-flowing Hughes Creek, in Avenel, on his way to school. He was rescued by a 10-year-old Ned Kelly, who, without hesitation, jumped into the water fully clothed and paddled young Dick safely to the creek’s bank.
The shivering youngsters made their way to the nearby Royal Mail Hotel – which still stands today and is used as bed and breakfast accommodation – which was owned by Dick’s parents (and ‘Bluey’ Shelton’s great-grandparents), Esau and Elizabeth Shelton. The boys dried themselves by the fireplace and Esau lent Ned some clothes, while Dick told the story at school.
The Sheltons rewarded Ned with an elaborate 221-centimetre long, 14-centimetre wide green silk sash complete with gold bullion fringes at each end. The heroic deed, and the Sheltons, remained firmly in Ned’s memory throughout the remainder his life.
About 15 years later, he proudly wore the sash under his famous suit of armour in the shootout with police at Glenrowan. While Ned was captured after receiving 28 bullet wounds and executed less than five months later on November 11, 1880, the frayed, blood-stained sash still survives today, and is on display in a museum in Benalla.
“If Ned Kelly didn’t do what he did,” ‘Bluey’ Shelton, 63, says from his Avenel farm, “who knows? My grandfather might still have been able to get out (of the water) by himself. But then again, he might not have. It’s a big part of our family history because my grandfather ended up having 12 kids (eight sons and four daughters), including my father.”
One of Shelton’s biggest fans during his playing days was current Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy, who, in turn, has his own link with the bushranger. Sheedy’s maternal grandfather, Michael Cusack, was the first person to see the Kelly Gang on their way to rob the bank at Euroa.
Cusack, who was only a boy at the time, was trying to catch water rats in Faithfull’s Creek on the outskirts of Euroa when he saw the four gang members – Ned Kelly, his younger brother Dan, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart – ride by. The Kellys, with £500 pounds on each of their heads after killing three plain-clothes police just six weeks earlier, held 22 people hostage at a nearby sheepstation, which they used as a base for the £2260 bank heist. December 8 this year will mark the 125th anniversary of the sighting.
Sheedy, a history buff himself, told the AFL Record: “That’s the story that’s been passed down through the family… and I’m sticking to it.”
Sheedy has also been in contact with Kelly expert Brendan Pearse, the director of two Kelly exhibitions, to give the Bombers a motivational talk to focus on mateship and battling the odds – two elements that dominate the Kelly story.
A man well versed in mateship and battling odds was the late Carlton premiership captain, Bob Chitty, who, fittingly, starred as Ned Kelly in the 1951 film The Glenrowan Affair. Like Kelly, Chitty was a top horseman who grew up in north-eastern Victoria (Corryong, of ‘Man From Snowy River’ fame).
While Ned Kelly was a phenomenally tough bushman with a high tolerance for pain, a peerless bare-knuckle fighter and a commanding leader of his gang, Chitty was his equivalent in a football sense. He led the Blues to victory against South Melbourne in the infamous ‘Bloodbath’ Grand Final of 1945, after which he received an eight-match suspension for elbowing a South player.
Richmond great Jack Dyer, who tangled with Chitty on several occasions, was even moved to say: “Chitty never needed armour”.
While the movie was criticised for being “dreary” and “unimaginative”, and the acting was described as “petrified”, Chitty at least resembled Ned with his high cheekbones and piercing eyes. He was paid £25 a week for the part – he only got £4 a week as captain at Carlton – but he was too embarrassed to let his former teammates see him while he grew a beard for the role.
One of the founding members of Chitty’s beloved football club was the judge who condemned Ned Kelly’s to death for murder, long-time enemy of the Kelly family, Sir Redmond Barry. According to Chief Justice of the Victorian Supreme Court, John Phillips, Barry did not give Ned Kelly a fair trial.
Kelly and Barry had a remarkable exchange in the courtroom in which the primary school-educated bushman held his own against the learned judge. When Barry passed the death sentence upon him, Ned famously responded with: “I will see you there, where I go”. Ironically, Barry suffered a carbuncle on his neck and died 12 days after the outlaw was executed.
Also helping to keep the legend alive are VFL clubs Essendon and Williamstown, who battle each year for the Game As Ned Kelly Trophy. Essendon’s Shelton-Sheedy link is obvious, while Williamstown lays claim to Ned serving about six months there: three aboard the prison hulk Sacramento and another three ashore in an artillery battery.
But that’s not all. Brisbane’s triple premiership player Martin Pike has a Ned Kelly tattoo on his back. Former Collingwood premiership player and current player manager Craig Kelly has long carried the nickname “Ned”.
Attending the opening of The Legend of Ned Kelly exhibition at Melbourne’s Southgate last month were former Hawthorn superstar Dermott Brereton, the entire Cloke family, including former Richmond and Collingwood ruckman David Cloke and sons, current Magpies Jason and Cameron. Mike Brady, the voice behind such football anthems as Up There Cazaly and One Day In September, was also there.
Download: The Kelly Connection. Round 3, 2003, AFL Football Record.
InterNED featured regular instalments relating to people still involved in the Kelly story. Here you will read about experts, historians, authors, descendants, and others with interesting tales to tell about their connection with Ned. Compiled by Ben Collins, InterNED gave you an insight into the lives of people who were helping to keep the legend alive.
Ben Collins was the co-author of Jason McCartney: After Bali – the highest-selling non-fiction book by an Australian author in 2003 – which tells of Jason McCarthy’s recovery from horrific burns suffered in the Bali terrorist bombings and his quest to play one last game of AFL football. In 2004, Collins wrote The Book of Success – a series of interviews with Australian leaders in business, sport, politics, science and entertainment. In 2006, he wrote The Champions: Conversations with Great players & Coaches of Australian Football, which included in-depth interviews with the likes of Ron Barassi and Bob Skilton.
Collins started as a cadet journalist with The Courier in Ballarat in 1997 and worked with Fairfax Community Newspapers before becoming one of the original reporters with the Herald & Weekly Times’ free commuter publication, MX, in 2001. He is a full-time writer for The Slattery Media Group, which produces all AFL publications including the AFL Record. The Red Fox is his fourth book and his first biography.
A Byrne family who lived nearby – Ben likes to think they could be related to gang member Joe Byrne – introduced him to the Old Melbourne Gaol and Ned when he was five. One of Ben’s aunties is also a close friend of a woman who married into the Bartsch family, who are direct descendants of Aaron Sherritt’s sister, Julia.
Through this connection, Ben was shown around the Sherritt family property at Sheepstation Creek in the Woolshed Valley near Beechworth – a property that features prominently in Ian Jones’ book, The Friendship That Destroyed Ned Kelly: Joe Byrne & Aaron Sherritt. Ben and Ironoutlaw webmaster Brad Webb designed and edited the catalogue Ned: The Exhibition, written by Ian Jones.