North-eastern Victoria in the 1870s
“ We are assured by the police that the Kelly’s, Quinns, Wrights, Baumgartens and numbers of others who pollute the surrounding country have long been known to them as the most villanous nest in the colony”
- The Age, November 2, 1878
Some of the small towns in the north-east of Victoria, such as Greta and Mansfield, had only existed a mere twenty years before the infamous Kelly Gang outbreak in 1878. Despite being relatively young and small in population, the communities in the district had established a strong sheep and cattle farming industry since the decline of gold mining in the 1860s.
In many of the towns in the North-Eastern District there could be as few as one or two officers to a station. Local police were generally under-resourced and struggled when crime in the area escalated as it did in 1878. The majority of police in Victoria in the 1800s were Irish immigrants. Therefore, very few stationed in the north-east had the skills to effectively work in the remote and rugged landscape surrounding their local district. In contrast, criminals, who had often grown up in the area, used the inhospitable environment to their advantage: using it as a hiding place and to smuggle stolen cattle across the New South Wales border.
The major crime in the north-east in the 1860s and 70s was horse stealing and cattle duffing (changing the brands on stolen cattle). In places such as Greta, reports of thefts occurred almost weekly. The Kelly family were by no means the only family involved in this crime: numerous other people appear in the police Watch-house books charged with related offences.