In February 1880 puzzling reports came to the police of the thefts of mouldboards from ploughs. Although the Kellys were suspected, the police could not work out why the thefts were being committed.
Superintendent Nicholson, now in charge of the hunt for Kelly, believed that Kelly was using them to line a hut where he and the gang intended to make a last stand.
Even when an informant, codenamed “Diseased Stock”, advised that the Kellys were fashioning armour, Nicholson responded “Rubbish”.
The truth was beyond the imaginings of both the police and the government officials seeking to bring the Kellys to either justice or to a fatal end. With police in two States hunting them and with a reward of £8,000 still on offer, Ned and the Kelly Gang had decided to go on the offensive.
In June 1880 old Mrs Byrne had made a remark that the outlaws “are going to do something which will astonish the world.”
Ned himself had forewarned of his intentions:
“. . . if I get justice I will cry a go. For I need no lead or powder to revenge my cause. and if words be louder, I will oppose your laws. With no offence. (Remember your Railroads), and a sweet good bye from Edward Kelly, a forced outlaw.” (The Cameron letter).
“I give fair warning to all those who has reason to fear me to sell out, and give 10 pounds out of every hundred towards the widow and orphan fund and do not attempt to reside in Victoria but as short a time as possible after reading this notice, neglect this and abide by the consequences, which shall be worse than the rust in the wheat in Victoria or the druth of a dry season to the grasshoppers in New South Wales. I do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning, but I am a widow's son outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed. Edward Kelly.” (The Jerilderie letter).
“It will pay the government to give those people who are suffering innocence justice and liberty if not I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victorian Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army.” (The Jerilderie letter)
The plan devised by Ned Kelly was for the discontented, oppressed, police-hating settlers and the Kelly supporters to rise up and create an independent republic in north-east Victoria. A diversion would be created which would bring the police to Beechworth by train. Having removed the rails at Glenrowan on the edge of a steep incline, the speeding train would topple over the side. Kelly would then release two flares, which would be the signal to supporters to rise up, commencing with the robbing of banks.
The rebellion, to start at Glenrowan, would start with the murder of numerous police officers. Ned had made plain in the Jerilderie letter that he held the police in contempt, Irishmen who had “deserted the Shamrock” and now worked for the English Government, which had tortured and murdered their kin. For Ned, the consequences of failure to heed his warnings was tantamount to war.
The incident planned to bring the police rushing from Beechworth would be the murder of Aaron Sheritt. As previously noted, there is no doubt that Sheritt provided information to the police about the Kellys, but it has also been argued, persuasively, that police manipulated events and rumour to make Sheritt look much worse than he really was, the intent being to draw Kelly from cover.
Sheritt and his 15 year old bride were protected by four police officers staying at the Sheritt house.
On Friday, 26 June 1880 there was a knock at the door at the house. When asked who was there, Anton Wicks, a neighbour and local drunk, answered that he had lost his way. Sheritt opened the back door to reveal Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly holding Wicks at gunpoint. Byrne shot Sheritt, his former closest friend, with both barrels of a shotgun.
Byrne and Kelly called for the police to come out but the police declined. The standoff lasted an hour, during which two of the officers pushed Aaron Sheritt’s newly widowed wife under the bed and then went under themselves, wedging her against the wall so that she would not be able to escape and reduce the protection. Byrne and Kelly finally rode off.
The 1881 Royal Commission commented on the police behaviour: “Never was there a more conspicuous instance of arrant cowardice.”
It is interesting to note that on the same day that Sheritt was killed, the Felons' Apprehension Act 612 had expired, with the result that not only was the gang's outlaw status no longer in effect but that their arrest warrants also expired. Ned and Dan could still be arrested on the outstanding prior warrants for the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick, but technically Hart and Byrne were free men. The police retained the right to re-issue the murder warrants
Sheritt’s death was intended to be the bait to lure the police from Melbourne. Ned assumed that the police in Melbourne would learn of the murder that same night but such news was considerably delayed because the constables at Sheritt’s house did not venture out until mid morning the following day. Further delay was caused by inability to locate senior police officers in Melbourne for instructions and the need to stoke up a cold steam train. The result was that the police train did not leave Melbourne until 10.15pm the following Sunday night.
Ned had arrived in Glenrowan on the evening of Saturday, 27 June 1880. He immediately had platelayers remove the train rails, telling one that he expected a train full of police to arrive at any time. He told one platelayer, Reardon, “Old man, you are a long time breaking up this road. If you don’t look sharp I’ll tickle you with this revolver.”
Joe and Dan arrived at about 2.00am on Sunday. The outlaws took over the Glenrowan Inn owned by Ann Jones. By Sunday night there were 62 prisoners, with the outlaws organising dances, songs and games in which most took part. The local police officer, Constable Bracken, was also made part of the group of prisoners. He and Ned had some friendly chats.
When the special police train failed to arrive as expected, Dan Kelly suggested that they leave. Ned replied “No, I’m tired of running. We’ll stand and fight.”
The local schoolteacher, Thomas Curnow, won himself into Ned’s good graces by telling Ned that the stationmaster had a pistol, which Ned should claim.
In a written statement later given by Curnow to the police, he wrote "They [the outlaws] stated that they would shoot down all those who escaped death from the wrecked train, and that if any civilians were in the train, they should share the same fate as they had no business accompanying the Police. The outlaws affirmed that they were justified in doing this. On hearing their intentions I determined that if I could by any means whatever baulk their designs and prevent such a sacrifice of human life, I would do so."
When Curnow asked to be allowed to take his wife, brother in law and sister in law home. Ned granted his request but cautioned him “Go quietly to bed and don’t dream too loud.”
Once freed he took his companions home and, notwithstanding a crippled leg, made his way along the tracks to the approaching train. Superintendent Hare had had the forethought to put a pilot train in front of the police special, which also contained train operators, blacktrackers and reporters. Using his wife’s red scarf held over a candle, he pulled the front train over. The pilot train signalled the train behind with its whistle.
Curnow warns the approaching police pilot train
In Glenrowan Inn, Ned heard the whistle and exclaimed “Christ, that bastard Curnow has tricked us.”
The police alighted at the station and immediately began firing at the Inn. The outlaws fired back and a 15 minute exchange in the darkness saw Superintendent Hare the first casualty with a slight bullet wound to the wrist. He was bandaged by the artist from The Australian Sketcher. The wounding of Hare would be the only significant injury to any police officers. Hare left the scene and would later be suspended from the Victorian Police Force for his cowardice at Glenrowan.
With Superintendent Hare gone, the police troopers at the scene virtually did what they wanted, without adequate command, direction, planning or tactics.
The siege at Glenrowan and the final battle had begun.