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‘Have Pity on an Intelligent Young Man in an Awful Position’: Two Colonial Clergy Responses to Ned Kelly

Monday, 4 February 2013  | Glen O'Brien

‘Have Pity on an Intelligent Young Man in an Awful Position’[1]

‘Although I have been bushranging I have always believed that when I die I have a God to meet.’ - Ned Kelly on death row October 1880.

Australia’s most celebrated bushranger, Ned Kelly, was finally granted his dying request when he was buried, on 18 January 2013, near his mother Ellen and brother Dan, in the tiny Victorian town of Greta.[2] Prior to the burial, Monsignor John White had said a Requiem Mass over the mortal remains of Kelly at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Wangaratta in the heart of ‘Kelly Country.’ This brought to a fitting conclusions the finding of scientists from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, in September 2011, that remains exhumed two years earlier from the site of the former Pentridge Prison were those of Kelly.[3] The story has attracted considerable media attention, not surprisingly since Kelly is one of our most enduring cultural icons.

Bushrangers are often depicted as heroes and champions of the underdog, who, Robin Hood style, robbed from the rich to give to the poor or at least to unseat the rich from the arrogance of privilege. Even the word ‘bushranger’ has a more positive connotation for Australians than roughly equivalent American terms such as ‘outlaw.’  ‘It evokes bushcraft, daring, defiance, and freedom from convention, rather than crime or evil.  It touches an Australian nerve.’[4] On the other hand, bushrangers have also been seen as mad dogs, murderers, scoundrels, and rebels, deserving the full weight of civilization’s unbending justice. The 2011 Seven Network television series Wild Boys further glorified and romanticised the criminal behaviour of the colonial period.[5] Whatever one’s viewpoint, it’s clear that the bushranger mythology has always appealed to Australians and that our most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly, has generated both sets of sympathies.

At the popular level I think it would be fair to say that Kelly is viewed more sympathetically than not. This is not something read back anachronistically into a distorted past but began during his lifetime and has continued down to the present.  Many alienated small farmers and farm labourers became Kelly ‘sympathisers’ during the ‘Kelly Outbreak.’ John McQuilton’s study describes widespread agricultural ignorance, poverty, and disillusionment in north-east Victoria at this time.[6] Colin Holden’s history of the Diocese of Wangaratta, Church in a Landscape, states that the Kelly Gang enjoyed support in the local community because struggling farm workers saw Kelly’s plight as an exaggerated form of their own situation.  Rural newspapers of the day noted that the Kellys also enjoyed support among ‘the respectable and well-to-do’ people, including Anglicans, ‘who might in other circumstances appear as supporters of law and order.’[7] The Church of England Messenger said that bushrangers could always count on finding ‘punctual provisions and trusty spies among the settlers in the remote districts.’[8]

An interesting incident in Morna Sturrock’s biography of Bishop James Moorhouse brings the level of sympathy for the Kellys on the part of one particular clergyperson into focus.[9] The second Anglican Bishop of Melbourne, Moorhouse was visiting north-west Victoria in October-November 1878. The newspaper headlines spoke of the ‘Mansfield Outrage,’ Sgt. Michael Kennedy having been shot dead by Ned Kelly, along with three other constables, at Stringybark Creek.  Kennedy’s body was brought into Mansfield and Moorhouse was called upon to preach there. Consoling his grieving widow the bishop strongly advised her against viewing ‘the poor disfigured corpse’ of her husband.  Half his face had been shot off and a wild animal had chewed off his left ear sometime over the three days his body lay in the bush before it was discovered.      

Catholic priest Father Scanlan rode by night, ‘along the wild road from Benalla, with the reins in one hand, and a revolver in the other,’ to conduct the funeral service, from St. Francis Xavier’s Catholic Church.[10] It was quite an ecumenical occasion with Bishop Moorehouse walking at the head of the procession alongside, and at the invitation of, the Catholic priest Father Scanlan. Samuel Sandiford, the Anglican rector of Mansfield, and the local Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Reid also joined the procession.  For an age marked by fierce sectarianism this degree of cooperation is quite notable. 

While standing in solidarity with the victims of the crime and insisting that the perpetrators should be tracked down and arrested, at the same time Moorehouse showed remarkable sympathy for the Kelly Gang in a letter to Canon Harvey. ‘Poor wretches! One cannot help pitying them, crouching among the trees like wild beasts – afraid to sleep, afraid to speak, and only awaiting their execution.  But bushranging is so horrible, so ruthless, so utterly abominable a thing, that it must be stamped out at any cost.’[11]

Two days after the funeral while preaching in the church at Mansfield he repeated these remarks, prayed for the murderers and told the people they should ‘pity the poor wretches who caused us to mourn over these disasters.’[12] Not long after the funeral, Moorhouse and his wife stopped at an inn in Benalla for a meal and a change of horses. They were surprised to notice Chief Commissioner Standish, who was overseeing a yearlong search for the Kelly Gang, leave the inn without speaking with them.  As the Moorhouses moved on, they noticed a mounted policeman up ahead of them and others stationed here and there along their route as if keeping watch over them.  Upon returning to Melbourne he was informed that the Kellys were angry at the Bishop’s influencing of public opinion against them and had planned to kidnap him, spirit him away to the mountains and hold him for ransom.  While enjoying a smoke in the garden of the inn he had been in range of their rifles. However, some of the Kelly supporters thought such an action would damage their cause and so warned the police; hence the armed escort.[13] While Kelly scholar Ian Jones considers this story ‘terribly unlikely,’ it provides a tantalising possibility. [14]

Even closer encounters with Kelly are the death row visits of the Wesleyan Methodist preacher John Cowley Coles in September and October 1880.[15] Coles held services for the inmates of the Melbourne Gaol and members of his Band Meeting were keen to know if he would be visiting Kelly.  He applied to the governor of the gaol ‘as representing a Christian Church’ but the governor said, ‘No, Kelly is a Catholic and has his own minister.’ Not to be put off so easily Coles and his Methodist friends prayed that ‘the Lord would open the cell door’ in order that he might ‘enter and see Kelly, in order to talk with him about his soul.’ 

Soon after, at the conclusion of one of the prison services, a warder approached Coles and asked if he would like to see Kelly.  He said he would but that the governor would not allow it.  The warder told him there was a regulation that any prisoner who requested it could see the minister who had been conducting the service. The warder went to see if Kelly wanted to speak with Coles and was told that he did and that he had heard every word of the service from his prison cell. Coles gives a fascinating description of Kelly. ‘This man by no means looked a ruffian. He had rather a pleasant expression of countenance.  He was one of the most powerfully built and finest men that I ever saw. He treated me with great respect, listened to all I had to say, and knelt down by my side when I prayed.[16] 

As for Coles’ ministerial approach to Kelly here is how he describes his advice to the captive bushranger. 

 I refused to hear anything from him about his bushranging exploits, but I kept him to this – that we might die any moment.  I might not live another half-hour; but if he did not die before he was sure to be executed on a certain day, and that he was a sinner standing in need of a Saviour…He evidently wanted me to think that he did not care for his position, and that he would see it out like a man. [17] 

This was some time after 22 September, 1880.  He spoke with Kelly again, heavily ironed en route to the exercise yard, this time for only a minute or two, on 7 October, along with the Rev. R. Fitcher, who conducted the service that day. On the 20 October, after preaching at Kelly’s request, Coles accompanied Kelly to his cell.  Coles had preached from the text ‘Prepare to meet your God.’  Immediately he set the prisoner straight on his purpose in such visits.       

Do not think, Kelly, for one moment that it is out of any foolish curiosity to see you that I have sought these interviews with you; nothing of the sort.  Indeed, I wish I could be spared the pain of seeing an intelligent young man like you in such an awful position.  My sole object in speaking to you this morning is to impress on you the fact that you have a soul to be saved, or for ever lost; that Christ died for the chief of sinners, and if you will but be sorry for your sin and confess it to God and ask for mercy for Christ’s sake, He will have mercy on you.[18]   

Kelly’s response shows a remarkable openness and an exercised conscience as he reflected on his bushranging exploits. ‘I have heard all that you said this morning…I believe it all.  Although I have been bushranging I have always believed that when I die I have a God to meet…When I was in the bank at Jerilderie, taking the money, the thought came into my mind, if I am shot down this moment how can I meet God?[19]

Coles and Kelly then knelt side by side and prayed together. Upon standing Kelly crossed himself and thanked the preacher for his ministry.  This was the last time the two men spoke together and Kelly went to the gallows on 11 November.  Coles had no desire to attend the execution. ‘I could have done the man no good by doing so,’ he reflected, ‘and was saved the pain of seeing a fellow creature ushered into the presence of God.’[20] Here is a touching portrait of a little known instance of pastoral care in a moment of personal crisis. Kelly the penitent Catholic Christian kneels beside Coles the forthright Wesleyan preacher, the two men together calling upon God to grant mercy to a fallen sinner.  

In discussing the question of whether Kelly should be viewed as a violent psychopathic criminal or a hero of the people, more sinned against than sinner, one of my students asked whether a hundred years ago we would be remembering serial killer Ivan Milat as favourably as we remember Kelly today.  The answer to the question is ‘no’ for many reasons, but one of those reasons is that Kelly is a figure who has drawn wide popular support. Psychopaths who seem to kill for no reason and with no remorse do not develop a fan base, yet 38,000 people signed a petition for Kelly’s pardon.

Ned Kelly was a violent man enmeshed in the criminal underworld of north-east Victoria in age of widespread police brutality and corruption and it was ‘not easy to be an Irishman in Queen Victoria’s colony.’ Criminals are the result of both nature and nurture; they are not born criminal; communities produce them. People do not commit crimes simply because they are evil and the world is not a place made up of men and women who are unequivocally either good or evil. Life would be simpler if the good guys always wore white hats and the bad guys always wore black hats as in the old Hollywood westerns, but we are more complex creatures than that. I think Bishop Moorhouse understood this and so he prayed for the ‘poor wretches’ who made up the Kelly gang and he exhorted his flock to have pity on them, while at the same time seeing the need for the apprehension of such dangerous criminals. John Cowley Coles was able to admire a certain nobility in Kelly’s character while at the same time holding him to account for the criminality and violence of his actions. Monsignor White took a similar approach during his recent funeral homily, insisting that the focus of the service was on a merciful God. 

Of all Australians, Ned is no doubt the most famous although some would say infamous and therein lies a great divide. That divide is still simmering…We don't make the judgments. We don't know what goes on in people's hearts and souls and minds. God does that. Today we want to bring closure to what was denied his family and what was denied his mother, Ellen. Ours is a church of saints and sinners and we are not here to decide which side Ned falls on.[21] 

Public opinion about Ned Kelly is likely to remain polarised for the foreseeable future but the thoughtful views of colonial clergy such as Moorhouse and Coles continue to provide a model of careful Christian reflection on one of Australia’s wayward sons.  


Glen O’Brien is Senior Lecturer in Church History and Theology in the Sydney College of Divinity and Head of Humanities at Booth College, Sydney. He commutes there from his Melbourne home on a regular basis. A Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church, he is an Associate Member of the Yarra Yarra Presbytery with a placement to theological education in the Salvation Army. 

[1] The words in quotes are an imaginative conflation of the views of the two clergypersons discussed in this article.

[2] Martin Flanagan, ‘Saint or Sinner, Kelly’s Bones are Laid to Rest.’ The Age, 19 January 2013, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/saint-or-sinner-kellys-bones-are-laid-to-rest-20130118-2cyqz.html accessed 21 January, 2013.

[3] “Scientists Identify Ned Kelly’s Remains,” World News Australia, http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1583764/Ned-Kelly's-remains-found accessed 1 September 2011.

[4] Bill Gammage, ‘Kelly, Edward ‘Ned’’ in Graeme Davison, John Hirst, and Stuart Macintyre, eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 365.  Gammage points out that G. T. Dicks’ 1992 Bushranger Bibliography lists over 1200 books almost one hundred of which are about Ned Kelly. Among the most important works on Kelly are John McQuilton, The Kelly Outbreak 1887-1880: The Geographical Dimensions of Social Banditry, Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press, 1979; Max Brown, Australian Son: The Story of Ned Kelly, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980, first published 1948; John Moloney, I Am Ned Kelly, Ringwood, Penguin, 1980; Ian Jones, Ned Kelly: A Short Life. South Melbourne, Lothian Books, 2003.  Robert Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine, Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1991 was shortlisted for the 1992 Miles Franklin Award and formed the basis of Gregor Jordan’s 2003 film Ned Kelly. Another fascinating fictional account, based on the language of the Jerilderie Letter is Peter Carey’s Man Booker Prize-wining and cheekily named True History of the Kelly Gang, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 2000. Alex McDermotts’ essay ‘The Apocalyptic Chant of Ned Kelly’ forms the preface to Ned Kelly: The Jerilderie Letter, Text Publishing, 2001 and challenges what McDermott considers the more romanticised version of Kelly typical of authors such as Ian Jones.     

[5] Andrew Murfett, ‘A Duty to Protect and Serve,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September 2011,  http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/a-duty-to-protect-and-selfserve-20110831-1jkl8.html accessed 2 September 2011.

[6] McQuilton, The Kelly Outbreak, p. 27.

[7] Colin Holden, Church in a Landscape: A History of the Diocese of Wangaratta, Melbourne: Melbourne Publishing Group, 2002, p. 34. 

[8] Church of England Messenger, 18 November 1878, cited in Murna Sturrock, Bishop of Magnetic Power: James Moorehouse in Melbourne 1876-1886, Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2005, pp. 141-42.

[9] Sturrock, pp. 139-42. 

[10] Letter from James Moorehouse to Canon Harvey, cited in Edith C. Rickards, Bishop Moorehouse of Melbourne and Manchester, London: John Murray, 1920, p. 129.

[11] Moorehouse to Canon Harvey, cited in Rickards, p. 129.

[12] Frank Clune, The Kelly Hunters: The Authentic, Impartial History of the Life and Times of Edward Kelly, the Ironclad Outlaw, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1955, p. 174, cited in Sturrock, p. 141.

[13] Rickards, p. 130. 

[14] Cited in Sturrock, p. 283.

[15] The Life and Christian Experience of John Cowley Coles Giving the History of Twenty-seven Years of Evangelistic Work in the Colony of Victoria, Australia, and elsewhere, principally in connection with the Wesleyan Methodist Church; also Chapters on the Doctrine of Entire Sanctification by Faith, and the Enduement of Power; and an Account of the Social Condition and Mode of Life of the Diggers, in the early days of Gold Digging, in the same Colony; written (at the request of many friends) by Himself , London: Marshall Brothers and Melbourne: M. L. Hutchinson, 1893, pp. 136-38.   

[16] Coles, entry for Wednesday 22 September, 1880, p. 136.

[17] Coles, entry for Wednesday 22 September, 1880, p. 136.

[18] Coles, entry for 20th October, 1880, p. 137.

[19] Coles, entry for 20th October, 1880, p. 137.

[20] Coles, entry for 20th October, 1880, pp. 137-38.


[21] Martin Flanagan, ‘Saint or Sinner, Kelly’s Bones are Laid to Rest.’ The Age, 19 January 2013, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/saint-or-sinner-kellys-bones-are-laid-to-rest-20130118-2cyqz.html accessed 21 January, 2013.




Gordon Preece
February 5, 2013, 10:08AM
Thanks Glen for a very balanced, enlightening piece. May church leaders today cooperate ecumenically like Morehouse and Coles and have such a realistic but hopeful view of human natures in their pastoral work with the outsiders of society.
Glen O'Brien
March 6, 2013, 4:14PM
Thanks for your kind words Gordon. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I would like to write a book on "The Religious World of Ned Kelly." This is a dipping of the toe into the waters.

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