For 17 months after the Jerilderie robbery and escapade the gang stayed hidden.
The police disguised themselves as miners, prospectors, swagmen, horse dealers and commercial travellers but it made no difference, their moves were notified to the Kellys in advance each time.
Superintendent Hare stated in evidence to the 1881 Royal Commission “The Kelly family are the most prolific family I have ever met in my life . . . in every part of the colony the Kellys had a cousin or aunt or something.”
Kelly sympathisers provided the gang with information, food and safe houses.
The police used spies and informants but many were only pseudo-informants who were secretly assisting the Kellys with information about the police.
The fact that many of the police were Irish working for the wealthy squatters against the poorer settlers and labourers was commented upon by Kelly in scathing terms in the Jerilderie letter:
“. . . they know and acknowledge I have been wronged and my mother and four or five men lagged innocent and is my brothers and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also who has no alternative only to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splay-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as offices of justice or Victorian Police who some calls honest gentlemen but I would like to know what business an honest man would have in the Police as it is an old saying it takes a rogue to catch a rogue and a man that knows nothing about roguery would never enter the force and take an oath to arrest brother sister father or mother if required and to have a case and conviction if possible any man knows it is possible to swear a lie and if a policeman looses a conviction for the sake of swearing a lie he has broke his oath therefore he is a perjuror either ways, a Policeman is a disgrace to his country not alone to the mother that suckled him. . . “
The more that the police cracked down on Kelly sympathisers the more sympathy was created for the Kellys and the greater the resentment and hostility directed at the police.
There were numerous songs, ballads and theatrical plays written about them. In one play, The Vultures of the Wombat Ranges, Ned meets his end at the hands of the police, but the audience always cheered Ned and called out “Kelly”. A ballad at the time, sung to the tune of The Wild Colonial Boy, included the lines “But brave Kelly muttered sadly as he loaded up his gun ‘Oh, what a bloody pity the bastard had to run.’ “
When locking up sympathisers for months without charge failed to deliver information about the gang’s whereabouts, the police drew up a blacklist of associates, supporters and sympathisers who would not be entitled to take up land in North Eastern Victoria.
Kelly determined to fight back and to utilise Aaron Sheritt in those plans.
Sheritt was Joe Byrne’s closest friend, notwithstanding that Byrne’s family were Irish Catholics whereas Sheritt’s family were Orangmen from Belfast. Sheritt’s father had even been a member of the despised Constabulary in Ireland.
That Sheritt was paid by the police for information is not disputed. He had the code name “Tommy” and Superintendent Hare trusted him. He usually earned a pound or two for this information. Some now suggest that Sheritt was a double agent, feeding information to both the Kellys and the police whilst at the same time making sure that he did not expose the Kellys to any risk.
There is also no denying that Sheritt looked up to Ned. Hare told the Royal Commission that Sheritt had said to him “I look upon Ned Kelly as an extraordinary man. There is no man in the world like him. He is superhuman.”
Sheritt also happened to be engaged to Joe Byrne’s sister, Kate, although Mrs Byrne wasn’t too happy about it.
Traditionally Sheritt has been seen as the Judas who betrayed the Kelly Gang.
On one occasion Mrs Byrne knew that the police were watching her house, waiting for Joe to make an appearance. The police had a camp and a secret cave in the bush above the Byrne house.
Mrs Byrne used to go prowling in the scrub and one day she discovered the police camp. Sheritt was there asleep.
Superintendent Hare told Aaron Sheritt that Mrs Byrne had discovered the camp. Hare wrote in his memoirs “I told Aaron what happened and he turned deadly pale, and huge drops of perspiration broke out on his face. He could scarcely speak, and gasped ‘Now I am a dead man.’ “
Soon after this Sheritt broke off his engagement to Kate Byrne. He demanded back a horse he had given Kate as a present. Kate said that that was impossible, she had exchanged the horse for another. He said that he would have that one instead. There was an argument and Mrs Byrne told him to leave. A few days later the horse disappeared and Mrs Byrne reported Sheritt to the police. He was arrested and tried. Superintendent Hare had to sue all his influence to have him acquitted.
To make matters worse for himself, almost immediately after breaking off with Kate, Byrne married a local 15 year old girl.
As far as Ned was concerned, Sheritt’s death was going to be the event that triggered the outlaws’ fightback.