For more information on Sharon Hollingsworth and Brian Stevenson please see the sidebar for the About Your Humble Bloggers link.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Great Colonial Baking Competition of 1878-1880 [Sharon Hollingsworth]

In modern day Beechworth you can go to the very popular Beechworth Bakery to sample some "Ned Kelly" pies and other assorted breads and pastries. Interestingly enough, back in Beechworth in the 1870s before the Kellys were out, Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt used to visit a pie shop that was at the same location of today's Beechworth Bakery.

Baking is a true art form that never goes out of style. Many strive to be awarded the coveted Blue Ribbon for their efforts in baking contests.

When the Kelly gang was on the run there was a great deal of baking going on in Victoria. It took a lot of loaves to fill the bellies of the gang and the police that were on their trail. I guess we can consider it as being the Great Colonial Baking Competition of 1878-1880.

Our first contender for the top prize is Constable Thomas McIntyre. On the Stringybark Creek expedition, just prior to the tragic events thereof, Mac did a bit of baking. In his manuscript he says:

"...we had plenty of flour to bake some bread; all the bread we had with us had proven to be sweet and was disagreeable when eaten with salt meat....and having cut a large sheet of bark off a white gum tree, out of which I improvised a table and a baking board I proceeded to bake some bread..."

Then after the gang had attacked the camp, some of the members sat down to eat..McIntyre said:

"Kelly then joined the others in feasting upon our cooked ham and the fresh bread that I had made....I feel pleased now, that they expressed so much approval of my bread that I believe I could have got a testimonial from them as a first class baker."

The next contender is Ned's sister, Maggie Skillion. She did a prodigious amount of baking. There was "bread baked in such quantities that it could not have been for the ordinary family." She would go out at night and make deliveries of this bread and other provisions.

Next, Mrs. Byrne, Joe Byrne's mother, also did a large amount of baking that was much more than for her immediate family's needs.

Next up for the title is Team Sherritt. Mrs. John Sherritt (Aaron Sherritt's mother) was in charge of doing all the baking for the cave parties of police. Mrs. Aaron Sherritt (Belle) did the baking for the police who were hiding in her and Aaron's hut (the four policemen went out each night with Aaron to watch Mrs. Byrne's place). She told the Royal Commission: "I was in danger myself, cooking bread for the police and staying in the house by myself at night till they came home in the morning."

We have to give honourable mention to Ned Kelly himself, who, was visiting the Sherritts (at Aaron's parents' home) while some bread was baking. He saw some dough left in the bowl and he then "took some of the dough up, and he flattened it on the table and pulled out the fire with his foot and cooked two or three pieces" all the while holding a baby in his arms!

I think our overall blue ribbon winner would be Maggie Skillion. To put it in baking terms, she is like the gluten that held the family together during the entire Kelly Outbreak. (According to the Prepared Pantry website "gluten is a substance made up of the proteins found in wheat flour that gives bread its structure, strength, and texture.") She went above and beyond to make sure that the gang were well provisioned and that everyone in her immediate circle was nurtured and cared for. She is truly the (literally) unsung heroine of the saga. (Any song cycles about her in the works?)

I think Constable McIntyre should get a special "Ingenuity in the Field" award for making quality bread in primitive conditions, sorta like a gastronomical McGyver! And he had the Kelly Gang seal of approval!

Of course, man does not live by bread alone. Sardines seemed to be a popular item for those going bush, the proverbial loaves and fishes if you will. Just after Stringybark Creek the gang stopped off at a store to purchase tins of sardines and a bottle of brandy. They also stopped by farmer Gideon Margery's place where he fed them bread, cheese and wine. There were other places that the gang would go to to liberate oranges from the groves (always good to have extra vitamin C to go along with all that vitamin B12 in sardines). Of course, friends and relatives would give aid and comfort by purchasing sardines, tinned fish, and hams, among other items which they would leave at pre-arranged places (sometimes inside a certain hollow log).  The gang must have used condiments such as mustard to season some of the German sausages that hawker Ben Gould was seen to purchase (along with corned beef). It was said Gould was never seen to eat or sell any of these purchases, so it was assumed it was for provisioning the gang. Ned Kelly even had a Keen's mustard tin that he used to hold extra ammunition in. That is the ultimate in recycling!

Once, in a very famous episode, Ned and the gang stopped by an inn on a rainy night where they were served hot stew by the owner's wife even though they did not have any money to pay for it. Weeks later Ned returned late one night to pay what was owed to the surprise of the Inn owner!

All of these folks who were helping out the gang risked their freedom. The Felons Apprehension Act stated that any person assisting the gang could receive up to fifteen years in gaol. This did not deter the sympathisers.

The gang were careful when eating and drinking at places where their identity was known. They always had the homeowner taste any food or drink before they would partake to avoid being poisoned or drugged. Constable McIntyre said that Ned asked if there was any poison around the police camp and he was made to sample the first sip of tea. They also had Mr. Scott taste the whiskey before they would take a drop during the Euroa holdup. 

The police in the Kelly chase bascially ate the same things that the gang did. Those in the cave party got their bread from Mrs. John Sherritt as mentioned above, and they had plenty of sardines. As it was reported to the Royal Commission the cave party lived on "bread and fish." Kelly author Ian Jones found some relics up at the police caves back in 1966 including two beef tins and a sardine tin. The Sherritts were supposed to have gone and cleaned the caves out once the cave parties ended but it seems they missed a few things. During the duration of the cave party an empty sardine tin that had rolled down hill and was reflecting sunlight, attracted the unwanted attention of Mrs. Byrne (whose place was being watched).

Superintendent Hare was part of the first cave party and he had this to say:

"We dared not make a fire for fear of the smoke being noticed, so we had to live on water, preserved beef, and bread. Our breakfast consisted of bread and sardines, and a drink of water, dinner and supper the same, varied with tinned beef."

On subsequent cave parties the police had jam, bread, tinned beef, sardines and "bottles of porter, ale and whiskey." There was one month's account that had 150 bottles of liquor on it, much to the consternation of the higher ups in the department (this was for a party of 5). Mrs. Sherritt had also mentioned sending up boiled bacon for them along with the bread.

Beechworth store owner Patrick Allen made a good living providing supplies for both sides in the Kelly hunt. He said of the police cave party that they "lived fat and cut it thick."

Later on after the cave parties ended, the police search parties lived on "potted beef, and biscuits and sardines." Guess there was no more bread being baked by Aaron's mother for them! Hare had said that when provisions ran out they went back to Benalla for more, but sometimes they would get meat and bread from local farmers. (I wonder if some of these same farmers had helped feed the Kellys, too?)

The Kellys were said to have played host to others while on the run. In the Otago Witness newspaper of May 3, 1879 a swagman gave an account of meeting the Kellys wherein "he said he was well treated, but he had no money, and was hungry, which may account for it. They produced cold corned beef, pickles, cheese, sardines, and a bottle of dark brandy."

There is an account by a European nobleman travelling in Australia in 1879 in which he tells of a  lunch in the bush he had (consisting of whiskey, cold meat, bread and butter and tea) with Ned and Dan.

In "The Kelly Gang From Within" series, B.W. Cookson had an installment by a man who was "Captured by the Bushrangers." Whether or not he really was bailed up by the Kellys or if it was merely someone with a flight of fancy his description of what he saw as concerns foodstuff at the outlaws' hut was not very appetizing:

"They now led me into the hut, and I was not impressed with the amount of comfort I might anticipate from the furnishings of the interior. In the centre stood what was used as a table. It was composed of a sheet of bark supported by four stakes driven into the ground. On it stood a billy and dirty pannikins, also an empty jam tin, evidently converted into a drinking vessel. Near the billy was what appeared to be the remains of a piece of meat - roast beef - burnt almost to a cinder on the outside, and nearly raw where it had been cut. There was also some kind of bread, which appeared like a cross between a damper and a johnny cake. A bottle about three-parts full of whiskey stood with the viands, and completing what appeared to be the remains of a not-distant meal."

If that is not mouth-watering enough for you, consider what he was later served to him by Joe Byrne...a tin of preserved sheep's tongue!


  1. I really enjoyed reading that, thanks Sharon!

  2. I definitely agree with giving Maggie first prize.What a wonderful strong lady! I love that story about Ned cooking the bread while holding the little baby.So sweet!


All comments will be reviewed by the administrator before being published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.