The Author Speaks

The Author Speaks: Regarding the story behind a moment of crude defiance

“Still, better than a wombat hole, hey, McIntyre?”

The morning of the committal hearing arrived quietly. Ned was nervous but made an effort to hide it. Roused by the guard, Ned stood in the doorway of his cell as it was opened. He walked forward and looked up to where McIntyre stood against the railing outside the condemned cell. Between them, the gallows loomed ominously.

“What a pity they should hang a fine fellow like Ned Kelly up there,” Ned mused aloud.
He returned his gaze to McIntyre who looked haggard and pale. Ned smirked.
“Still, better than a wombat hole, hey, McIntyre?”

Glenrowan, Chapter 15: The Rule of Law.

This photograph was taken in the exact spot described in the above extract from the book, and roughly from Ned Kelly’s view (I had to get a slightly lower angle in order for my camera to capture everything I wanted). This cell in Beechworth Gaol housed Ned Kelly as he was unable to ascend the staircase. It was here than he had his late-night interview with David Gaunson, his solicitor, who was still unsure of the details of the murder case upon which to build a defence.

Constable Thomas McIntyre had stayed in the condemned cell next to the gallows for his own protection, as it was believed Kelly Sympathisers would try to assassinate him prior to the trial as he was the main witness in the murder case. He was still suffering ill-health from his ordeal at Stringybark Creek, which would eventually lead to him leaving the police force. The bruising on his back following his incredible escape had been so bad that a doctor had to drain the blood to stop it going necrotic and killing him.

The gallows are to the right of the image, just out of shot. Ned Kelly had mistakenly believed that if he was to hang it would be in Beechworth, as that was the nearest gaol with a working gallows to where the crime took place. He did not anticipate the authorities moving him to Melbourne to avoid Sympathiser influence on the trial outcome, and to prevent any attempts to free Kelly or smuggle in a means of suicide. Indeed, the authorities had stopped Maggie Skillion from delivering Ned clean clothes for fear they would be used to smuggle in some means by which Kelly could commit suicide, thus cheating the hangman of his paycheque.

This moment was important in the book to demonstrate Ned’s character, particularly his questionable sense of humour and the inability to “read the room” which would frustrate his counsel’s attempts to prevent his condemnation in the eyes of the press as much as the jury. It was also important for contextualising McIntyre’s behaviour in court, as the head games Ned was playing with him pushed him to the point of near collapse while on the stand. McIntyre was not in a good way to be giving evidence, but he did so out of a sense of duty as a policeman and to avenge the slaying of Lonigan, Scanlan and Kennedy.

Part of the dialogue was taken from an anecdote about Ned being taken to his cell, though slightly reworded. As he would have had to walk under the gallows to reach his lodgings, no doubt it would have been weighing on him that he was likely to come through that very trap door. As it was reported at the time:

…on seeing the gallows, on entering the gaol, he said, “What a pity that a fine fellow like Ned Kelly should be hung up there.”

The Yass Courier, 13 August 1880, p.3

For the purposes of the book, I merged this moment with another anecdote, which appears in Peter FitzSimons’ book, wherein Kelly taunted McIntyre with that same comment about the wombat hole, knowing that it would shame the constable. It made sense to me to combine them in one defiant display of tastelessness from Ned as he would have been quite plucky ahead of his court appearance, and luckily for me, as an author, the novel allows a bit of creative licence.

By AJFPhelan56

Father, writer, artist and bushranging historian residing in Melbourne, Australia. Author of 'Glenrowan' and the popular website A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

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