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Thursday, October 20, 2011

James Dwyer: A Little Known First Hand Account of the Capture of Ned Kelly [Brian Stevenson]

James Dwyer, then a constable but later a sergeant in the Victorian police has a few claims to fame besides his mere presence at Glenrowan. It was he who aimed a kick at the prostrate Ned Kelly only to clownishly recoil from the armour, which, whatever its flaws, was still stronger than flesh. It was also he who saw enough of the corpses of Steve Hart and Dan Kelly in the Glenrowan Inn to give the 1881 Royal Commission convincing testimony, including a vivid description of Dan Kelly, that the young outlaw pair were indeed dead.

What I did not know was that Dwyer had also given an account, thirty years later, of the events of 1880 that he was associated with. His account was published in a magazine called Life (in production long before, and not to be confused with the celebrated American pictorial magazine) and reprinted in the Euroa Advertiser of 11 March 1910. The newspaper called him O’Dwyer for some reason. Dwyer raised quite a few points of interest in his take on the exciting events of three decades before.

Dwyer believed that the capture and destruction of the Kelly Gang arose directly from a remark made by Aaron Sherritt between 8 and 9 pm on Thursday 24 June 1880 to a mounted constable. While entering the bar of ‘a certain hotel on the Chiltern road, in the suburbs of Beechworth’, Sherritt noticed the barmaid talking to a miner, and, ‘stung by jealousy’, remarked to the constable that the girl met Joe Byrne every Saturday night. After Sherritt and the constable left, the constable went back again and questioned the girl, apparently named Maggie, about seeing Byrne. Maggie took about five seconds to figure it out. ‘The devil a man could have told you that but Sherritt.’ The constable denied it, but it was too late, and Maggie said that soon Joe Byrne would know it too.

[This is along the lines of what was portrayed in the Ian Jones TV miniseries 'The Last Outlaw', although it seems unlikely that there were only two days between the date that Dwyer gives and the actual death of Sherritt on 26 June. If this incident precipitating the slaying of Sherritt actually occurred, the time lag was almost certainly greater.]

Dwyer then diverts from his narrative a little by claiming that the hiding place of the Gang during their bushranging career was an old mining shaft, twenty-five feet deep, and about one hundred yards from the junction of three roads, to Chiltern, Yackandandah and Kiewa, about eleven miles from Beechworth. The location is pretty specific – perhaps someone with more knowledge of the area could check it out sometime and comment. Dwyer claimed that Ned told him of the subterranean hideout while he was on a seat beside the dock in the Supreme Court, while waiting for Redmond Barry to get back from his lunch. Dwyer asked Ned why he hadn’t told him of the existence of the shaft at Glenrowan. Ned’s answer was simple: ‘Because there was as much provision there as would do ten men, and I did not want you to have it.’

As was the case with Mrs Devine, wife of the policeman at Jerilderie, Dwyer dreamed of the Kelly Gang a couple of nights before the Glenrowan siege, even down to the detail of the armour Ned wore. He travelled from Wangaratta to Glenrowan on the pilot engine brought down from Beechworth, a distance of eleven miles that took 35 minutes. Jesse Dowsett, the heroic railwayman soon to earn himself a footnote in Australian history, was also aboard the train. Like the train famously stopped by schoolteacher Thomas Curnow, this train was also halted by a red light, this time held by the Benalla auctioneer Rawlings who would make himself very useful on that day.

At one stage, Superintendent Sadleir asked Dwyer to take a message to the station and wire to Benalla for more ammunition and refreshments for the men. As Dwyer rose to start his mission, ‘the whizz of a bullet knocked my hat off.’ Later, Reynolds, the Glenrowan postmaster, said that Joe Byrne had seen Dwyer leave the trench and fired at him from the window. It was Joe Byrne’s last shot – a stray police bullet killed him minutes later.

Dwyer got the message sent and returned in time to see Ned Kelly firing at the constables around him. ‘As I ran towards Ned, who was about sixty yards in front of me, I heard someone say, “Boys, let us rush him.” Someone behind me cried “Look out, Dwyer, he has you cornered” and, looking, I saw Ned Kelly with revolver pointed straight at my face. I turned my head to the left shoulder as the bullet whizzed past my right ear.’

Just then, Steele shot Ned in the thigh with ‘a charge of small swan-shot’ and Kelly fell to the ground as Steele, Senior Constable Kelly, Constable Mountiford, Dwyer and Dowsett were on him. As Ned struggled, Dwyer took the helmet from his head. Dwyer’s account of the conversation Ned now had with Steele is different to other accounts. Steele said: ‘Well, Kelly, I have got you at last.’ Ned replied: ‘Yes, Steele. Don’t let them kill me. I never shot or injured one of you.’ Dwyer chipped in ‘You tried hard to do so, just now: your last shot whizzed by my ear.’

Dwyer helped undo the leather straps holding Ned’s armour in place, and offered his captured enemy a nip of brandy. “Will you have a nip of brandy, Ned?”

“Yes, please, if you’ll give it to me.”

“Certainly, why shouldn’t I?” I answered.

“Put it to my lips, I cannot take it in my hand.”
As Dwyer took the glass from Kelly’s lips, some of the brandy fell on his beard.

And it was here that Dwyer’s account ended. It is interesting that he said nothing about helping to retrieve Joe Byrne’s body from the burning hotel, getting a good enough look at Dan and Steve to identify them after their deaths, or relieving his undoubted hatred of Ned Kelly by kicking the fallen outlaw chieftain. But few others were as close to the action on that terrible day as James Dwyer, and for this alone his first hand account must be, at the very least, very seriously taken into consideration. 

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