Updated April 20, 2004

Marian is an enthusiastic amateur historian whose obsession with the Kelly story began on 21st October 1980 - the evening the first episode of "The Last Outlaw" was screened. She has a simple ambition - to know everything about Ned.

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A day trip to the Dandenongs
by Marian Matta

In the autumn of 1879, while the police forces of two colonies were after them, it seems the Kelly Gang made a trip through the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne. At that time, the ranges consisted mostly of a dense and impenetrable forest reserve with a few settlements on its fringe. However in 1878 the Berry government had drawn a line through the southern slopes of the forest, roughly following the Monbulk Creek, and declared the hills south of this line open for selection.

One of the first to apply for a block was an Englishman, Henry Millard, and his Irish-born wife, Margaret. They chose a 77 acre block in the area now known as the Cotswold Valley, between present-day Selby and Menzies Creek, the selection sloping steeply down to a bend in the Monbulk Creek. As the hunt for the Kelly Gang got underway, the Millards moved onto their land.

By the autumn of 1879 the tiny settlement that would soon be called Menzies Creek still consisted of just a scattered handful of selectors and their families, isolated in a landscape dominated by the tallest mountain ash and superb treeferns. The main road from Narre Warren to Emerald swept well south of the little community and the few tracks through the bush were narrow, steep and so deep in mud they were better suited to the passage of sleds than wheeled vehicles. It was not the sort of country you'd expect strangers to negotiate with ease.

On the morning of Wednesday 7th May, Harry Millard was at work on his block. The day was cool and crisp, the ground underfoot wet from a heavy overnight dew. Over in the forest some timbergetters were working with axe and saw and if Harry had been listening, he might have heard them pause in their work for a minute or two then start again. They had been approached by a man who had enquired if they had seen a grey mare. Not getting a satisfactory answer, the stranger had moved on after mentioning by way of explanation that he had men camped on "the hill opposite" and that the mare had wandered off during the night.

Sometime later, the same respectably dressed man, this time accompanied by his mounted companions, came up to the Millard hut, perhaps attracted by the smoke from the chimney and the prospect of some hot grub. He asked Harry if they could have some food and Harry refused, whereupon the man opened his jacket to reveal a beltful of revolvers and suggested that Harry might like to reconsider. He did, and soon the whole gang was tucking into Maggie Millard's cooking.

By now Harry had "formed the opinion", as he later told police, that his guests were none other than Ned Kelly and the infamous Kelly Gang. If Ned was acting true to form, he would by now have introduced himself (he gained a peculiar pleasure out of teasing people along before finally revealing his true identity to those he came in contact with). If this had happened then Harry might have decided later that it was better not to admit to a definite knowledge of who the men actually were.

Bellies full and pipes packed, the men began to relax and yarn comfortably with their surprised hosts. Ned expanded further on the tale of the grey mare - she was a valuable beast belonging to a Mr Hutton on Clear Creek beyond Wangaratta and Ned cheerfully confessed they had stolen her. Perhaps it was the familiar Irish brogue of Maggie Millard which caused Ned to open up about his family because he chatted to her about his mother who was serving a three-year term behind bluestone walls in Melbourne for "aiding and abetting the attempted murder of a policeman". He spoke of his sisters too.

Finally the gang prepared to go. We can assume that Ned took Harry aside, out of earshot of his family, and ensured his silence. He may have threatened retribution if Harry talked to the police. He may have paid for the food and given a generous bribe for Harry to keep his mouth shut. Most likely it was a bit of both. Then he and the boys departed, with or without Mr Hutton's mare, we don't know. They vanished back into the forest, leaving a confused and relieved family behind.

Somehow the story made its way down to Narre Warren North by the following Sunday. Perhaps the Millards had taken this opportunity to visit old friends in the area and attend church because at 7p.m. that evening Harry related the details of the gang's visit to the head teacher of the local school, Mr William H. Wooster, saying he would have reported it earlier but he was afraid of getting shot. Wooster, who also acted as a lay Methodist preacher, promptly abandoned his congregation (who were feeling horrified by the news, according to the Argus reporter!) and galloped down to Dandenong where he gasped out his story to the local police. They immediately telegraphed Melbourne and the police there passed the news on to Benalla, headquarters of the Kelly Hunt.

Maybe it had been a slow Sunday, maybe the Superintendent in charge of the hunt was feeling a bit fed up with life in Benalla, maybe he really thought this was the best sighting of the gang since their spectacular and highly successful bank robberies at Euroa and Jerilderie the previous December and February. Whatever the reason, Supt. Francis Hare caught a goods train down to Melbourne (there being no passenger trains on a Sunday) and spent that night at the Richmond Depot. Next morning, accompanied by a farrier and a constable, he went by buggy to the ranges via Dandenong.

Supt. Hare was a formidable-looking character, very tall and portly and splendidly hirsute, although the effect was somewhat diminished when he spoke as his voice was rather high and squeaky. Faced with this impressive representative of the law of the land and with the embarrassment of explaining a five-day delay in passing on his news, Harry Millard changed his story a little - no, he had seen only one man who said his mates were camped on a hillside opposite and the number of revolvers shrank to two. When Hare showed him photos of the gang he didn't recognise them. Neither did the other timber workers who had also spoken to Ned. This was not surprising as the police possessed only heavily retouched photos which bore little resemblance to the gang members.
Supt. Hare then returned to Melbourne but left behind four constables and a senior constable who had travelled down from Richmond by train to search for the outlaws. In company with Constable Laurence Keegan from Dandenong, they spent two fruitless days combing the area. One of their number, young Constable William Phillips, was destined to face the Kelly Gang thirteen months later, exchanging shots in the cold moonlight at Glenrowan. And when moonlight gave way to grey, misty dawn he would play a part in the bizarre and brutal gunfight that would pass into history and legend as Ned Kelly's Last Stand. On this occasion, however, Phillips and his comrades searched the tangled autumn slopes of the Dandenongs in vain.

After such a disappointing result the newspapers and police declared the whole incident had been another wild goose chase but was it? False sightings of the Gang were frequent but this one seemed more reliable than others. The description of Ned as respectably dressed and with revolvers in his belt is accurate. Harry also mentioned his "swaggering gait", perhaps an unflattering way of viewing Ned's very straight, almost military bearing. His devotion to his mother and sisters was well known and as a last delightful touch, Harry reported that the grey mare had been taken from "Clare Creek", possibly as a result of Ned's faint Irish brogue.

It was not unusual for members of the gang to be so far from home - only a month earlier Ned himself, his pockets bulging with apples, had been spotted in Melbourne by a magistrate who knew him well. When he realised he had been recognised, Ned jumped in a cab, leaving the magistrate vainly looking for a policeman! The Gang rarely travelled as a group but there's a possibility they were heading to the coast, perhaps to Port Albert (Ned was familiar with Gippsland, having worked there in 1875) and one researcher has even suggested that at this time they went over to Tasmania where Ned and Dan had relatives. During the following winter, they would retire to the High Country, above the snowline, in an attempt to avoid the Aboriginal trackers.

At the time of the Millard incident a large group of their sympathisers had just been released from gaol after a few months of imprisonment under the Felons Apprehension Act. With these men back with their families and their farms, the Gang may have felt a lessening of their responsibilities in the North East, at least for a while. Also, earlier that week, the Kellys' cousin and chief support, Tom Lloyd, had been tried and acquitted of the manslaughter of his cousin Jack, a horrible accident which was an indirect result of the sympathisers' release. Under such circumstances, the police might well have assumed the gang would be staying close to home to hear the verdict. Who can say now what was in their minds?

On the balance of probabilities I'd say it was the Kelly Gang. Certainly, when I drive past the old Millard farm I usually think of that remarkable day in 1879, and in my mind's eye the leader of those mysterious visitors to the Dandenongs always looks suspiciously like Ned Kelly!

* * * * * * *

Note: As well as the initial tip-off from Ian Jones, I got pieces of the puzzle from the Lands Department records, Public Records Office; Parish of Narree Worran maps; Berwick Shire Council ratebooks; Bureau of Meteorology; Royal Commission On The Police Force Of Victoria 1881; Mrs Dot Salan; Gary Dean; the Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages; Dandenong Occurrence Book, Police Historical Unit; and the Melbourne newspapers the Age, Argus, Daily Telegraph and Herald. Any gaps in the story I have filled with educated guesses.

First Published 20th April, 2004

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