A letter written by an eyewitness to the Ned Kelly gang’s last stand at Glenrowan on June 18th, 1880, has been donated to the State Library of Victoria. Donald Gray Sutherland had left Scotland for Australia four years earlier. He got a job as a clerk at the Bank of Victoria in the town of Oxley which was just eight miles from Glenrowan. When news of the shootout between the outlaw Kellies and the police spread, Sutherland went to Glenrowan to witness the events.
He described what he saw in a letter to his family dated the 8th of July. It’s a fascinatingly detailed account of Ned, his famous homemade armour, the bullets he took, the grim fate of other gang members. (All creative spelling and grammar is original.)
On hearing of the affray I at once proceeded to Glenrowan to have a look at the desperados who caused me so many dreams and sleepless nights. I saw the lot of them. Ned the leader of the gang being the only one taken alive. He was lying on a stretcher quite calm and collected notwithstanding the great pain he must have been suffering from his wounds. He was wounded in 5 or 6 places. Only on the arms and legs. His body and head being encased in armour made from the moule 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.
Neds armour alone weighed 97 pounds. The police thought he was a fiend seeing their rifle bullets were 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 on the legs and arms that he reluctantly fell exclaiming as he did so I am done. I am done. [...]
Ned does not at all look like a murderer and Bushranger. He is a very powerful man aged about 27 black hair and beard with a soft mild looking face and eyes. His mouth being the only wicked portion of the face. After his capture he became very tame and conversed freely with those who knew him. Not having the pleasure of his acquaintance I did not speak to him although I should have liked very much to ask why he never stuck up the Bank of Victoria at Oxley. Well he had it down on his programme at one time but a Schoolmaster named Wallace and one who Banks with us put him off it – at least Wallace got the news conveyed through Byrne one of the Gang that he had some deeds and papers here which he did not wish destroyed as it would ruin him. Well Ned said I wont do it and he didnt do it and we were consequently saved from the presence of the Gang.
Poor Ned I was really sorry for him. To see him lying pierced by bullets and still showing no signs of pain. His 3 sisters were there also, Mrs Skillion Kate Kelly and a younger one. Kate was sitting at his head with her arms round his neck while the others were crying in a mournful strain at the state of one who but the night before was the terror of the whole Colony. The night that Byrne and Kelly shot Sherriff at the Woolshed they rode through Oxley on their way to Glenrowan. Some of the people in the Township heard the horses go bye but I didnt being sound asleep.
Byrne was shot in the groin early in the morning as he was drinking a glass of whiskey at the Bar. Then there remained only Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. Whether they shot themselves or whether they were shot by the police will ever remain a mystery. At about 2 PM a policeman named Johnstone whom I knew well at Murchison fired the house and it was only when no signs of life appeared that they rushed the place to find the charred remains of Dan and Steve Hart. They presented a horrible appearance being roasted to a skeleton. Black and grim reminding me of old Knick himself.
Thousands of people thronged to Glenrowan on receipt of the news and not one of the crowd there had the courage to lift the white sheet off the charred remains until I came up and struck a match – it being dark – pulling down the sheet and exposed all that remained of the two daring & murderous Bushrangers.
Dan and Steve are buried in the Greta Cemetery Byrne is buried at Benalla and Ned is now in the Hospital of the Melbourne Gaol treated with every care until he is strong and well enough to be hanged. Such then is Bushranging in Victoria so far.
He closed with a fabulous postscript in which he notes that he’s enclosed some hair plucked from the tail of Ned Kelly’s devoted mare who “followed him all around the trees during the firing. [Ned] said he wouldn’t care for himself if he thought his mare safe.”
Donald Gray Sutherland eventually moved to New South Wales where he died eight years after the shootout at the young age of 36. This exceptional letter has remained in the family until now. They decided to donate it to the State Library of Victoria which has an extensive collection of Ned Kelly-related artifacts, including his armour. Starting Monday, the letter will join the armour on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition, The Changing Face of Victoria.