by Doug Morrissey, Introduction by John Hirst
Connor Court, Redland Bay
Paperback: 280 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
All societies and cultures need heroes – they define key cultural beliefs and represent values and behaviours members of a society seek to emulate. Outlaw and bushranger Ned Kelly (1854–1880) is considered by many Australians as a hero.
In the popular consciousness, he stood up to a cabal consisting of a corrupt and oppressive police force who unjustly targeted the Kelly family; and rich and influential squatters who resented and marginalised selectors on smallholdings of land, such as the Kelly family. Furthermore, was a Robin Hood type figure, who took money from the rich and gave it to the poor.
However, in celebrating the anti-authoritarian, egalitarian, fair play ethic that characterises the Australian ethos, have Australians chosen the wrong person as a national hero? Doug Morrissey’s study thoroughly analyses and challenges the myth of Ned Kelly. Through his extensive historical study, he concludes that Ned Kelly was a notorious criminal who deserves to be reprobated, not celebrated.
Morrissey begins his study by placing the Kelly family in its socio-historical context. Drawing on his previous research into landholdings in northeast Victoria in the second half of the 19th century, Morrissey suggests that the squatter versus selector battle that lies at the heart of the Ned Kelly myth is a misreading of a more complex situation. Morrissey argues that the age of the squatters – who controlled vast tracts of crown land that they rented from the government – was coming to a close, and was being supplanted by selectors, who selected a portion of this crown land, and gradually paid it off.
Furthermore, Morrissey con-tends that the government was broadly supportive of selec-tors rather than squatters. For example, various pieces of legislation sought to curb attempts by squatters to obtain portions of land through front men and relatives. Morrissey places the Kelly family in the bottom 10 per cent of selectors who struggled to maintain crown payments.
Although he acknowledges that the parcel of land they chose was poor, Morrissey demonstrates that the Kellys – particularly sons Ned, Dan and Jim – made little attempt to work and improve their mother’s selection. The only significant improvement was replacing a dilapidated dwelling with an improved structure. The reason for this was so that they could maintain their primary income stream, namely the “shanty” run by Ned’s mother, Ellen Kelly King, that supplied illegal alcohol and sex for cash.
The Kellys were regarded as part of a broader criminal operation conducted by their relatives – the Quinns and the Lloyds – in the district, their main criminal activity being horse and cattle stealing. Their well-organised operation involved stealing livestock, removing the brand marks, and conveying them across the border into the Colony of New South Wales, where they were then sold. The return journey involved conveying similarly stolen livestock to the Colony of Victoria.
In response to the argument used by Kelly supporters that Ned Kelly was law abiding from his release from prison in 1874 till 1878, Morrissey argues that Kelly was an active member of this criminal operation run by his family. However, he was successful in evading detection and capture. The police regarded the activities of the Kellys, Quinns and Lloyds to be troublesome enough to warrant a police station being established at Greta.
Morrissey then analyses in great detail the altercation between the Kellys and Trooper Fitzpatrick, which led to Ned being a fugitive, as well as the shootout at Stringybark Creek, at which Ned shot three policemen dead. While Ned Kelly’s defence at his trial was that he acted in self-defence – and Kelly supporters assert he was obliged to do so as the police intended to shoot him dead – Morrissey argues that it was in fact a massacre.
The evidence suggests that Kelly, having perfected his shooting skills, ambushed the policemen. Those who argue that Kelly’s actions were in self-defence have difficulty in explaining why the Kelly gang robbed the dead bodies of their valuables.
Morrissey then explores the robberies of the banks at Euroa and Jerilderie. In the case of the Euroa holdup, Morrissey argues that the chief victims were selectors, as the main documents the gang destroyed were selectors’ title deeds taken from the bank’s safe.
Furthermore, contrary to the myth of Ned Kelly being a Robin Hood figure who distributed the money taken to poor people, the evidence suggests that the only people who received money from the Kelly gang were supporters, not the general public.
Chapter 8, appropriately entitled “Operation Massacre”, arguably presents the most damning por-trait of Kelly. In a carefully planned operation, Kelly’s intention – which fortunately failed to be realised – was to derail the special train full of policemen Kelly knew authorities would send when they became aware of his presence in Glenrowan at a curve in the track, and shoot dead the survivors.
Fortunately, the lives of dozens of people were spared when the train was stopped by the local schoolmaster, Thomas Curnow, who should be considered the true hero of the story.
In his criticism of accounts that are pro-Kelly, Morrissey argues that favourable interpretations of Ned Kelly tend to accept uncritically his version of events, particularly as recorded in his trial evidence and the Jerilderie Letter. The latter document, which is reprinted in its entirety as an appendix, is accompanied by a detailed commentary by Morrissey in which the misrepresentations of the truth therein are detailed extensively.
Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life is a welcome addition to scholarship and research on the Kellys. Given the nature of the crimes he committed, particularly the attempted massacre of the police at Glenrowan, it is time for Australians to re-assess this criminal more objectively, and to look for another hero, and perhaps arrive at a similar assessment most of his contemporaries accorded him: Kelly is a violent criminal, who deserves neither admiration nor sympathy.