Jerilderie seems to be one of those towns you pass through on the way to somewhere else. It is 674 kilometres from Sydney, 328 km from Melbourne and 735 km from Adelaide. We have passed through with our caravan many times on the way to or from South Australia. Sometimes we have stopped for fuel or to eat lunch in our van. Rarely have we taken the time to look at the town because we are always on the way to somewhere else or in a hurry to get home.
Jerilderie is probably an approximation of the Jeithi Aboriginal word ‘Djirrildhuray’ which is thought to mean ‘with reeds’ or ‘reedy place’ and probably referred to the banks of Billabong Creek. The first squatters brought their cattle and settled along the creek in the 1840s. From there the town slowly grew, with a few stores, an inn, a post office, school and most importantly for this story, the Bank of New South Wales.
The gang – comprising Ned and Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne – arrived in Jerilderie with £1,000 on their heads. They had killed three policemen and successfully robbed a bank. The date was on Saturday 8 February 1879.
During the evening, after dining at the Woolshed Inn, the gang went to the local police station. Ned yelled out that there had been a murder at the inn. The two officers on duty, Sergeant Devine and Constable Richards, rushed out and were grabbed by the gang and locked up in their own cells.
The robbery took place on the Monday. Around 10.00 am Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne rode to the Royal Hotel. At one end of the building, the Bank of New South Wales had its premises. There were about 30 people in the building and they were all herded at gunpoint into the hotel. Kelly managed to steal £2,140. He also burned records of the mortgages and planned to return the deeds to the locals.
It was while holding up the bank that Kelly passed the famous “Jerilderie Letter” to the teller. It explains his actions and recounts his deep hatred for the Victorian police. It can be read in its entirety at http://www.nma.gov.au/interactives/jerilderie/home.html. Its most famous quote is:
And are all my brothers and sisters, and my mother, not to be pitied also, who have no alternative but to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat necked wombat headed, big-bellied, magpie legged, narrow hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords, known as ‘officers of justice’ or ‘Victorian Police’?
Samuel Gill, who owned the local printery and newspaper office, managed to escape and headed off to raise the alarm. Steve Hart rode to the post and telegraph office where he tried to cut the wires preventing the robbery being reported outside the town. Kelly and Hart headed south into the bush. The reward for the capture of the two Kellys, Byrne and Hart was raised to £2000 per individual. £8,000 for all four.
Many of the buildings which existed in 1879 are still standing. You can still see the Royal Mail Hotel where the Bank of NSW used to occupy one end. The Jerilderie Courthouse stands opposite the police station where Kelly locked up the two policemen. The tiny Post and Telegraph Station is still there where Hart tried to sever the wires. The Blacksmith Shop, where the gang had their horses shod, charging it to the police department, is still much as it was 140 years ago.
What of Ned Kelly and his gang? They all came to a violent end, which is to be expected, and Ned himself was hanged on 11th November 1880. He was considered a “Robin Hood” character by many and a cold-blooded murderer by others. An Australian cultural icon, he has inspired the artistic world in every imaginable way. Next time I pass through Jerilderie I am going to stop a while and recall that fateful weekend in 1879.