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Ned Kelly's bounty sought by trackers' descendants

The descendants of two Aboriginal trackers who helped police to capture the outlaw Ned Kelly more than a century ago are suing the Australian government, claiming their ancestors never received a promised reward of £50 apiece.

Kelly, whose deeds earned him a place in Australian folklore, went on the rampage in 1878 after shooting dead three police officers in Victoria and evaded the law for nearly two years. He and his gang of "bushrangers" hid out in the wilderness, emerging only to hold up banks and defy the authorities.

Not until police called in trackers, employed by the Queensland Native Police for their intimate knowledge of the outback landscape, were the fugitives - Kelly, his brother, Dan, and two other men - finally cornered. Kelly, who was wearing home-made armour, was the only one of the gang to survive a day-long gun battle with police in the Glenrowan Hotel in the wilds of Victoria in 1880. He was arrested, tried for murder and hanged in Melbourne, aged 25. According to contemporary accounts, Jack Noble and Gary Owens, who were among the team of fivetrackers, risked their lives and gave "a good account of themselves" under heavy fire. But they never received their £50 share of an £8,000 reward offered for Kelly's capture.

Yesterday two of their descendants, Kurt Noble and May McBride, went to the Queensland Supreme Court in Brisbane in the latest stage of a seven-year legal battle to recover the money, plus interest and compensation, a total claim of 84m Australian dollars (about £17m each). The money, if it is ever awarded, would be used to help Aboriginal communities.

Their case, against both the Victorian and Queensland state governments, was dismissed by many legal experts as doomed to fail when they launched it, but they won an important victory last year when the Queensland Court of Appeal ruled it was "neither useless nor futile". Documents before the courts show Noble and Owens applied for the reward shortly after Kelly was caught. The Victorian Police Rewards Board decided to withhold the £50 from the pair, whose Aboriginal names were Wannamutta and Weranabe, as "it would not be desirable to place any considerable sum of money in the hands of persons unable to use it".

The board recommended that the money go in trust to the state governments, "to be dealt with at their discretion". It was in those days a considerable sum that would, according to the trackers' descendants, have enabled the two men to retire with dignity. Instead, they and their families were incarcerated in an Aboriginal "confinement camp" because they had no means of support.

By contrast, a number of white police officers who were not even present at Glenrowan had no difficulties in obtaining their substantially larger shares of the reward.

In a rare gesture of solidarity, a Queensland police officer who was the "handler" for Noble and Owens, a fair-minded man called Sub-Inspector Stanhope O'Connor, refused to accept his £236 share of the reward in protest at the way that his Aboriginal colleagues had been treated.

The case is being fought in court by John Lee Jones, a 67-year-old Aboriginal electrician with no legal training, who has doggedly pursued it through six separate hearings, arguing legal points with a batch of senior barristers. The latest hearing is an attempt to force the authorities to disclose details of old bank accounts and other financial information that has so far been withheld.

Mr Jones said yesterday: "It is a fundamental injustice that these two men who risked their lives to help the Victorian police on the promise of a reward never received their money."

The chances of the case reaching a successful conclusion are regarded as slim. As a dissenting judge in the Court of Appeal said: "The facts are now so old that it is hard to establish them."