28th of June 1880
Each time I read about the siege at Glenrowan on that fateful morning of the 28th of June 1880, I can’t help but think of what it would have been like to have been one of the hostages. One can only imagine their terror as those police bullets tore through the walls of the inn. When we read about the siege, we have the opportunity to also see what the police are doing, but what about those poor souls inside the inn who had no idea what the hell was going on? Now, you know from what I am about to write, Alan Crichton could not possibly have been present at the siege, he’s far too young. (With that in mind, could you please refrain from sending in any smart comments about my advanced years.) I have taken myself back to Glenrowan to Sunday the 27th of June 1880 to have a look for myself, and try to get just the slightest idea of what happened through the eyes of a hostage. What I have written could never explain how those poor people felt at the time, but you know me, I had to try.
It was close approaching half past ten on the Sunday morning when I finally entered the small town of Glenrowan. I had left Beechworth early that same morning and was on my way to my brother’s farm not more than five miles distant from Mansfield. As I am a young man of unmarried state, and had not laid eyes on my brother for several months, I thought to surprise him with a most unexpected visit. In my haste to commence my long journey earlier than I had planned, I had regrettably forgotten to include a substantial breakfast. With this in mind, I was in the process of dismounting my horse outside an establishment known as McDonnell’s Railway Tavern when something quite odd caught my eye at the railway crossing. Several people had for some unknown reason gathered around two riders. The tall man mounted on a rather handsome grey mare seemed to be talking most anxiously to a gentleman in a buggy, who also I might add was in the company of two women and what looked to me to be a baby. I remained in the saddle somewhat mesmerized by what was taking place.
While the tall rider continued his conversation with this fellow in the buggy, the other rider who was with him suddenly stood high in the stirrups and looked straight to my direction. Without a moments hesitation he had spurred on the large chestnut and was now quickly heading in my direction. I am not a man to run from confrontation, but the sight of this stranger closing in at the gallop with what I now believed to be revolvers in his belt I must confess nigh sent shivers down my back. Before I could think of taking flight, even though I am not a man to run from confrontation, the rider was soon upon me. He seemed rather well dressed and his facial appearance seemed that of a gentleman, but there was something about his steely blue eyes that stared back coldly into mine. A silence prevailed for a brief moment as he quickly sized me up, and then spoke to me in a rather calm and unnerving way. ‘I’m sorry my good fellow, but my friends and me will have to detain you. If you would be so kind as to accompany me to that inn on the other side of the railway tracks you will remain unharmed. At first thought I was very much tempted to give him a damn good piece of my mind, and would have but for the sight of the two menacing revolvers that were tucked loosely in his belt, one of which, to my surprise, was now pointed squarely at my nose.
He accompanied me to the railway crossing where I had for the first time the opportunity to take a good look at his tall and well formed mate. He too was rather well dressed, but unlike his companion whose beard was fair, his was of a reddish brown colour worn thick and long in the form of a bushman’s. He gave me but a moments glance and continued talking to the party in the buggy. As we approached the inn I could read the black and white sign that stood clearly at the front of the premises. THE GLENROWAN INN ANN JONES BEST ACCOMMODATION. My new but unwanted acquaintance led me through the front door of this establishment where I was met with a sight that quite took me by surprise. The dining room was filled with men women and children, all amounting in my quick calculations to some thirty people or more, not including those gathered at the crossing. It seemed I was not the only one summoned to this place. For whatever reason these armed men needed to hold so many people in the one place was still unbeknownst to me. As I looked slowly around the room, my eyes soon caught sight of another armed fellow, but this cove had his pistol holstered at his side. He looked younger than the other two but was equally well dressed. His hair was black and oily, and hung down across his high forehead in matted strands. My new found companion prompted me towards the bar with a hand that was placed quite firmly in my back. ‘Danny, pour this fellow a strong drink he shouted, and go easy on the brandy. Remember we need to keep a clear head old man.’ The young fellow laughed and proceeded to pour me a drink. He handed me a glass of brandy, but while doing so I could see that his dark eyes were cautiously watching all of those that were present in the room. I was about to ask him what their game was, but I was interrupted most abruptly by a voice from behind. Glancing over my shoulder I could see it was the cove who brought me to this place. He was now in the company of the fellow in the buggy who I had seen earlier at the railway crossing. ‘Dan, get a drink for Mr. Curnow; we can’t have the schoolmaster going without a drink now can we?’ As the two men approached the bar, I could now see the schoolmaster walked with a rather pronounced limp. The look on his face told me he was not at all impressed with the whole situation. ‘Don’t worry so Mr. Curnow; we won’t keep you long. We have done some shooting up at Beechworth and we are expecting a special train of inspectors and blacktrackers to pass by very shortly. We are then my dear fellow going to send the train and all on board straight to hell.’
I still had no idea who these fellows were, but what I had just heard now put me in a rather nervous state indeed. As I am a man not afraid of confrontation, I turned to the fair cove I had met earlier and asked him directly who they were. He looked at me with an inquisitive expression and smiled. ‘The man who gave you that drink my good fellow is Daniel Kelly, and I sir am Joseph Byrne. You are being detained by the Kelly gang.’ Upon hearing this unpleasant news I took a large mouthful of brandy and tried earnestly to compose myself. I had read of the Kelly gang in the newspapers, but never in the world would I have expected to end up in their company. From what I had read and heard, they had killed three troopers and robbed two banks. These fellows for every known reason to man were dangerous criminals. It now occurred to me that the tall well formed cove with the bushman’s beard must be non other than Ned Kelly himself.
It would not be for another two hours until I again laid eyes on the famous outlaw Ned Kelly. He stormed through the front door and immediately started shouting orders. ‘Clear the dining room you buggers; it’s time we had ourselves a dance.’ Men scrambled to clear the room of all furnishings as he strutted boldly to the bar. This man was clearly afraid of nothing. He brushed past me knocking my arm, causing the brandy from my glass to spill down the front of my near new shirt. As you are aware, I am not a man afraid of confrontation, but in this instance I thought it best to simply let it slide. To my complete astonishment, he turned to me, apologised profusely, and immediately poured me another drink. ‘My good fellow, please excuse me; my name is Ned Kelly, and who might you be?’ ‘Alan Mr Kelly sir, Alan Crichton.’ Before I could say another word, he abruptly cut me short; ‘Don’t call me mister, sonny; there is no need for station here.’ Before I could continue, he was already in the centre of the room, clapping his hands and stamping heavily on the floorboards. It had not occurred to me until now that the room consisted mainly of men and boys with only a few women to account for. The fellow who seemed to be a friend of the schoolmaster picked up a concertina and commenced playing it in the far corner of the dining room. The men soon formed buck sets, while the cove I knew to be Dan Kelly danced with I believe, the inns owner, Mrs. Jones. The other fellow, this Joe Byrne, seemed to be dancing with any person that happened to come within his grasp. A most amazing sight indeed.
The dust from the floorboards rose up as they shook with every step. It seemed to me at the time, that most of these people seemed to be quite cheerful about their predicament and not concerned in the least with the presence of the feared Kelly gang. It could have also been the free flow of brandy that had helped lift their spirits. After a few more brandies, I too was feeling in a rather cheerful mood and promptly joined in on the sets. While I was prancing quite merrily around the dining room, I could see Ned Kelly talking to several men in our company and seemed quite at ease with them. The thought did cross my mind that they were in fact confederates of the gang. Mr. Curnow the schoolmaster also seemed to be making quite friendly with Ned Kelly throughout the day. I saw him on several occasions having more than a quiet word in his ear. After having had enough dancing, I wandered out onto the verandah to catch a breath of fresh air. I could see people strolling about the grounds quite freely but always under the watchful eyes of one of the gang. The whole situation seemed rather strange to me. Men were making merry with strong drink and dancing, while the outlaws waited for a train that would eventually send people to their death. It made no sense, but what else could I do? If I tried to make good my escape, I would most certainly be shot down by one of the gang.
With this in mind, I wandered back to the crowded bar and indulged myself in yet another good glass of brandy.
By two o’clock in the afternoon I noticed a number of fellows had been making quite free with the grog, with some looking very unsteady on their feet to say the least. Ned Kelly had already gathered a crowd outside and were now participating in all manner of sporting games. People cheered and shouted as they competed against each other in what I believed to be the hop skip and jump. Even Ned Kelly could not contain himself as he jumped and laughed with the others. He looked to me to have not a worry in the world. By the late afternoon I thought we would have been allowed to leave, but it seemed we would remain confined until this blasted train arrives. I was aware by now that the outlaws had lifted the rails on a dangerous corner of the track, and it was hard to believe that these fellows were intent on killing all on board. The outlaws did not seem like murderers. They had been in high spirits all afternoon and seemed rather unconcerned if and when the train should ever arrive. As I looked out into the ever fading light of day, I heard the lively sound of the concertina once again and what seemed to be the beginning of even more dancing. Having had enough merry making, I walked to the rear of the inn and noticed that some coves had started a magnificent bonfire to keep the freezing night air at bay, which I thought was a jolly good idea. We huddled around the flames and chatted amongst ourselves about the unusual predicament we were now in.
When I returned to the dining room, I could see Ned Kelly sitting at a table talking to Mrs Jones. She too seemed more than friendly towards the four outlaws. In my opinion I considered her to be a most obnoxious and loud woman who happened to be carrying around a very large chip on her shoulder. She seemed to have a down on some of the townsfolk and was not in the least afraid to show it. She seemed to me to be giving out more orders than Ned Kelly himself. The young girl with her I found to be her daughter. She was a lass of about fourteen and was always making friendly with the outlaws. The only fellow I had not seen since I arrived was the other member of the gang, Steve Hart. I was informed he was at the station master’s house guarding the women and children. I had also noted that there were fellows I had seen earlier, who for some unexplained reason were allowed to take their leave. With this in mind, and me being one not afraid of confrontation, I approached Ned Kelly and asked if I could do the same. After asking him what I thought to be a fair and reasonable question, the transformation in his character was most remarkable. He jumped quickly to his feet, his eyes all crimson with rage and shouted not more than an inch from my face. ‘You will stay until I tell you to go! You are no more than a stranger to me and cannot be trusted! If I find you to be a detective I will shoot you right here and now’. Being a man not afraid of confrontation, I apologised profusely and quickly returned to the bar. I have never encountered a man whose anger could rise and fall so quickly as his. Helping myself to another brandy to steady my nerves, I decided it would be best if I retreated to the furthest corner of the dining room.
Later that evening, I sighted the schoolmaster and his family with some other coves leaving the inn with Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne. The two outlaws looked rather bulky in their long coats as if almost doubling in stature. When Ned Kelly returned to the inn much later, Mr. Curnow and his family were no longer in their company, which led me to believe the schoolmaster was indeed a friend of the outlaws all the time. There was however another stranger who had taken his place. After making certain enquiries I was told it was a Mr. Bracken, the local police constable. The other fellow who returned was the man who played the concertina, and before long the music commenced once more. The women who were being held at the stationmaster’s house during the day were now brought up to join in with the dancing. With very little to eat and with the indulgence of strong spirit and the heat from the raging fireplace, I was feeling I must confess a little worse for wear. I drifted to sleep for what I thought a brief moment when I was suddenly awoken by the sweet singing of a small boy standing alone in the centre of the room. After he had finished his song, the dancing again continued with Ned Kelly now joining in on the sets. It seemed that all present in the inn were having a jolly good time. When the clock struck twelve, the excitement of the evening started to subside. The small children were starting to cry, and the tired look on the womens’ faces told me they’d had quite enough of the whole situation. Pipe smoke filled the room, and the merry making I hoped, had finally come to an end.
It was not until about two o’clock in the morning when I heard Dan Kelly tell us that we could all go home very shortly. The sighs of relief and chatter could be heard around the room. At last, we were all going home. As we readied ourselves to take our long awaited leave, that terrible woman Mrs. Jones stopped us at the front door. She stood there with her hands on her hips and told us that none could leave until Ned Kelly gave us all a speech. I thought to myself that this wretched woman will be the death of us all. We waited until Ned Kelly finally came into the room and stepped up onto a chair. He was about to start, and then decided to step down, and then decides to step back up. He may have thought it quite funny, but many of us were not amused and I was about to tell him so. As I am a man who is unafraid of confrontation, just this once I decided to hear him out before I gave him a damned good piece of my mind. We listened while Ned Kelly made light with the policeman Bracken, and ranted about a cove by the name of Sullivan. It was just when we thought he had finally finished, that Joe Byrne came bursting into the room shouting most excitedly that the train was coming. Upon hearing this, I knew at once our freedom had again been taken from us.
Ned Kelly shouted at us to stay where we were, and ran into one of the back rooms with the other outlaws. The women and children started crying again, and a most apprehensive state filled the room. It was not long before Dan Kelly and Steve Hart appeared wearing what looked like iron plates around their bodies. They were also wearing what looked to me to be large nail cans on their heads. I knew it was these two fellows by the clothes they had been wearing since I arrived. Might I also note that they were very well armed with rifles and pistols. The sight of these two men running into the dining room brought not only apprehension but a heightened sense of fear to us all. To make matters even worse, Ned Kelly appeared from nowhere and told old Mrs. Jones to douse the fire and to extinguish our only other means of light; the kerosene lamps. For the first time since arriving at the inn, I now felt desperately in fear of my life. The smoke from the fireplace, and the smell of kerosene from the extinguished lamps transformed the once lively room into a most nightmarish place. We lay huddled on the cold floor in complete darkness except for the moonlight that barely illuminated the pane glass windows. I then heard a man’s voice telling us to lie as flat to the floor as possible, which for me seemed most impossible, even though I am a man not in the least afraid of confrontation. As we huddled like sardines in a can, I heard someone unlock the front door and run outside.
The cries and sobbing from the women and children increased as the fear of what was to happen to us next took hold. I could hear cursing and swearing coming from some of the more sober men, while the more inebriated fellows seemed to be making quite light of it all with laughter and tom foolery. The room became quiet as we listened anxiously to the sound of heavy boots walking on the verandah. Within seconds, the quiet was broken by frightening blasts of gunfire that rang out loud across the night sky, and with it came the screams and cursing from all inside. I could hear people rising from the floor and running and screaming around the inn. It was but seconds later when even more gunshots rang out, joining those that were coming from the verandah, but these shots were sending lead spraying at us through the walls. The place was transformed into a mad house. I could hear the shots hitting the walls and making strange sounds as they passed close to my ears. I tried desperately to push my body closer to the floor, not knowing if the next will find its mark. Then a blood curdling scream sent shivers down my spine, and my heart started pounding even faster against my chest. ‘Mother, mother, I’ve been shot mother! I’ve been shot!’ he screamed out. I could hear the pain and torture in his cries. Mrs. Jones started screaming and cursing at the police and the outlaws, with language I have not heard from a woman’s mouth ever before. It seemed to make no difference to those outside. In fact they seemed rather unconcerned, and continued to pour even more shot into the room. I could hear the young boy crying for what seemed an eternity, until some fellow carried him screaming to the back of the inn.
My face was now flattened against the floorboards and the small meal I had eaten during the day that had somehow found its way back from the pit of my stomach. Being a man who will not run from confrontation, I pressed my face ever closer to the floorboards. A man’s voice from outside suddenly shouted out. ‘Stop firing, there are women and children inside!’ To my disbelief and heartfelt disappointment, the firing continued. Later, I heard a woman screaming from outside the inn, followed quickly by the slamming of a door. I was unaware of what was going on, or if any other souls had been shot. It was hard to tell the difference between the screams of pain or fear. I could hear the outlaws running back and forth, swearing and cursing at the police as they fired off their rounds.
We lay there for what seemed like an eternity as the sound of glass shattered continuously from behind the bar. It had come to my attention that some of us had escaped, but the thought of making an escape at this point in time was not to be considered, even though as you may well know; I am a man who is not afraid of confrontation. The strangest thing happened while I was clinging to the floor. With lead shot still buzzing across the room, I heard the sound of heavy boots walk casually to where I believed the bar to be. A fellow who sounded very much like the cove who brought me to this god forsaken place, started laughing and cursing at the police like a madman. I do believe he was actually helping himself to a blasted drink. The next moment, he is making a toast while lead shot is all around. ‘Many more years in the bush for the Kelly gang!’ he shouts. The toast was then quickly followed by a loud crash as the iron plates he was wearing hit the floor. It was the last time I ever heard his voice.
The shooting between the outlaws and the police continued on and off throughout the morning. I had not heard or seen Ned Kelly for most of the night and did not much care. In the light of morning, the outlaws continued their fight with the police. It wasn’t until later in the morning that we heard a fellow bellowing from outside. ‘All those inside had better surrender he says. We will give you ten minutes and will commence firing’ he says. Dan Kelly had already told us we could leave, but he told us we would most probably be shot down by the police. Some cove had already held out a white shirt earlier, only to have it riddled with police bullets for his effort. After we had heard the call from outside, we struggled to our feet and made for the front door. The shooting had stopped and we were too tired to care either way. If the police were to shoot us, then so be it. As we walked into the daylight we were abruptly told to lay on the ground. We were then pushed and shoved as the police checked to make sure the outlaws were not amongst us.
After we had been shepherded away from the battleground, we were asked our names and questioned about what we were doing in Glenrowan. When the police were satisfied, we were allowed to go on our merry way. Being a man unafraid of confrontation, I chose to stay to tell my story to the many spectators who had gathered at the railway station. It was only then that I was informed that Ned Kelly had been captured, and that Mr. Curnow, the cove I thought was in league with Ned Kelly, was in fact the fellow who warned the train. Late that afternoon I saw police set fire to the inn, hoping to drive the rest of the gang out into the open. The police seemed too scared to do a thing, even when the place was well alight. The only one who seemed to have the pluck was a priest. He marched straight up to the burning building and walked inside. It was only then that the police found the courage to follow. It wasn’t long before they dragged out one of the outlaws who I gathered to be the fellow who was shot at the bar. The other two coves could have possibly got away. After the flames had died down, we were to learn of the fate of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. The police pulled their charred bodies from the ruins and laid them out on a piece of bark for all to see. It was believed that they took their own lives rather than be taken by the police. I felt sorry for the two women who were crying over the bodies.
After all that I had been through, I must admit that we were not once harmed by the outlaws, which is more than I can say for the police.
I would not continue my trip to Mansfield. With my poor horse shot dead in the back paddock, I chose to return to Beechworth on the next available train. It would be another month before I would see my brother again, but on that occasion, I found my trip, might I say, quite ordinary. If the whole affair happened again, I would not be the slightest bit concerned, for as you may be aware, I am a man who has never run from confrontation.