Lee Franklin with a picture of his grandfather who grabbed a key clue, a skull, dug up in the grounds of the Old Melbourne Gaol site.

HISTORY endures powerfully in blood, in bone, and in the secrets families keep, as the riddle of Ned Kelly's remains - finally laid to rest this week - testifies.

The keepers of three crucial morsels of the 130-year-old mystery were three disparate Melbourne men, connected by the stories of their ancestors.

The information they were able to provide to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine was critical to this stone-cold case being cracked by a multidisciplinary team of forensic specialists, legal experts and historians.

Kelly descendant Lee Olver's blood sample provided proof positive that the bones dug up at Pentridge were those of his notorious forebear, utlaw Ned Kelly. <i>DIGITALLY ALTERED IMAGE</i>.

Kelly descendant Lee Olver's blood sample provided proof positive that the bones dug up at Pentridge were those of his notorious forebear, outlaw Ned Kelly. DIGITALLY ALTERED IMAGE.

The keeper of the blood, and within it the DNA, is Leigh Olver, a quietly spoken high school art teacher from Melbourne's inner west. Flicking through the photographs of the women from whom he is descended, the wizened face of his great- great-grandmother as an old lady is familiar from the pages of history books. She is Ellen Kelly, matriarch of the Kelly clan - Ned's mother.

The story of his infamous ancestor, one that has intrigued Olver all his life, feels very close.

As a little girl his grandmother, Elsie Knight (later Elsie Pedifer) lived for a time with old Granny Kelly. Olver and his family would try to prise her memories from her, though for a long time she was reluctant to give them up.

She told Olver that when she was growing up, she was counselled by family lore to not speak of the Kelly connection - it was not something to boast of. Not so much shameful, but controversial - ''no good would come of it'' was the refrain.

''I see Ned as an important figure for the time,'' Olver says. ''I think the Kelly story did change the way we saw ourselves, and his multilayered character transcends time.''

Olver struggles with the polarising villain/hero representation of Kelly. Enduring grief at his crimes still resonates through time. He felt it profoundly when he went to Stringybark Creek to unveil a plaque for the police killed there. ''I really just wanted to say 'let's just let it rest, let it go in the past'.''

Olver is proud of his heritage, in all its hues. ''It's almost like this larger-than-life connection to me. It's special to have that connection to him. I do have a love for the family, for the strugglers.''

Out on the other side of Melbourne, in a brick veneer in Ringwood, Lee Franklin also keeps photographs of his heritage proudly displayed, together with heirlooms and documents that tell the extraordinary boom-and-bust story of his grandfather, Harry Lee, who made and lost two fortunes.

The first was as a celebrated builder whose work included the War Memorial Hall at Melbourne Grammar. He had almost completed a warehouse for Myer when the Depression hit and he was wiped out. He later started a chicken farm in Cheltenham, but was ruined when disease swept through the cages.

Harry Lee was the contractor who was commissioned to work on the Old Melbourne Gaol site in 1929, demolishing a section to make way for part of what is today RMIT.

The story passed down to Franklin is that Harry was deeply concerned at the prospect of digging up bodies in the prison yard, Ned Kelly among them, but was assured that there would be little left to find.

Nonetheless an expectant crowd gathered on the site when he moved his diggers in. When coffins and bones were unearthed, boys swarmed on the site and sped off with souvenirs.

Harry quickly grabbed the skull turned up where a marker indicated Kelly's grave, taking it home for safekeeping.

Lee Franklin's mother and aunt, small girls at the time, recalled being shown the skull sitting on their father's bedside table. Within a day or two, someone came from the government to collect it.

Franklin's account helped investigators fill a critical gap in the provenance of the skull, which many years later materialised in a display case, purporting to be Ned Kelly's.

Another piece in the puzzle fell into place when Chris Ott, a photographer from the inner city, handed over to investigators a tiny wooden box containing a single tooth.

It was, according to family legend and the oath of his grandfather, Michael Alexander Talbot - a carpenter and former mayor of South Melbourne - Ned Kelly's tooth. As a schoolboy, Ott had taken it to show and tell.

Talbot, as a young man, had been a labourer for Harry Lee, and had been on the prison site the day of the dig in 1929. An old photograph shows young Talbot holding aloft a skull - the picture was very likely taken by Lee before retrieving the skull and taking it home.

Talbot preserved the tooth with a full written account of its discovery. But after Talbot's death, the family relinquished it to institute investigators.

In the forensics laboratory the tooth was found to fit perfectly into the skull long believed to be that of Ned Kelly.

While this did not identify the skull as Ned's, it did provide investigators with proof that the so-called Baxter skull - the one displayed at Old Melbourne Gaol, and then acquired and secreted for 30 years by farmer Tom Baxter - was indeed the same one disinterred from the prison site that day in 1929.

Three clues, three men, three families with remarkable stories. Some rather more public than others.