Saturday, 12 August 2017

Ned Kelly wasn't a bad kid

The green sash incident - ( love the dog!)

In contrast to the wealth of information that we have about the second half of Ned Kellys life, there is very little about the first half. Also in contrast to the second half, which was characterised by criminality and violence, what little we know of the first half suggests Ned Kelly was a fine boy.

Neds exact birthdate and place are unrecorded, but it was thought to have happened near Beveridge.  Ian Jones says it happened in a rental house that Neds father had built on land he bought on the south side of Mt Fraser, aka “the Big Hill”, in December 1854. Many years later, when being taken south to Melbourne by train after his capture, Ned himself was reported to have directed his guards attention to a ‘little hill’ to the left and said “That was where I drew my first breath” As Bill Denheld has noted, heading south the “Big Hill” would have been to the right, meaning either Ned had his wires crossed or else he was born near the ‘little hill’ not the Big Hill. More than 10 years ago the indefatigable Bill Denheld explored the area around the ‘little hill’ with Gary Dean and they found unmistakable evidence of a building site. Bill wrote A proper archaeological dig will prove the dwelling configuration.” As far as I know this hasn’t been done, possibly because almost nobody ever dared question Ian Jones’ assertion that the birthplace was on the southern slopes of Mt Fraser. Bills interesting discussions and photo collection of this site can be viewed on his webpages HERE. The exact truth remains unknown, but clearly Ned Kelly was born near Beveridge.

As Ive previously written, while he was growing up Neds father worked hard to provide for his growing  family. However he carried a heavy burden of guilt for the betrayal that he was involved in prior to his deportation from Ireland, and this fuelled both his determination to stay clear of the Law, but also his increasing dependence on alcohol. Never-the-less he was a law abiding citizen who I believe tried to protect his family from the negative influences of his own and his wife’s wider families and their associates, criminals who were frequently in trouble with the law for assaults, theft and other crimes. In 1863 Ellen attempted to defend her brother-in-law James against a charge of cattle stealing, and took Ned to the court to be a witness for the defence, both of them swearing on oath that James was at home with them when he was supposed to be stealing  13 cattle from a local blacksmith, Thomas Flynn. “Ellen has either told the truth or coached Ned to lie under oath” (Grantlee Kieza in “Mrs Kelly”) James is convicted and sentenced to three years hard labour. One can only wonder at what effect the sombre environment of a Court and his mothers encouragement to tell lies under oath would have had on 8 year old Ned. It would at the least have been confusing.

When a catholic school opened later that year, Ned started school. His teachers, a husband and wife were influenced by non-violent Quaker philosophy and so corporal punishment was rare. Ned learned to read and write to “second class standard” in six months. I am not sure what ‘second class standard’ is but by all accounts this was a worthy achievement.

Early the following year, 1864, when Ned Kelly was nine his family sold up and moved from Beveridge to Avenel, possibly in an ongoing attempt by Red to put distance between his family and the families of  his criminal brother, brothers-in-law and their asociates. They were debt free but had almost no money. They rented land and began to work it, and again proving Reds intent that his children prosper, he sent them back to school at Avenel for 4d each per week. At Beveridge Ned was remembered by a class mate as being ‘a tall and active lad and excelled all others at school games’. At Avenel he was remembered as ‘well behaved’ and ‘a very quiet boy’ However, at Avenel the teacher was much more ‘old school’ and inclined to box students around the ears and use a leather strap to maintain discipline. Later that year when they were all assessed by a Board of Education inspector, Ned passed Reading and Writing but failed Arithmetic, Grammar and Geography. He was second equal with three others in the class of 13 children,and his interest and talent for writing was already becoming apparent! When he was examined again in March the following year he also passed in Arithmetic. His age was noted to be 10 years and three months, the basis for the view that Ned was born in December 1854. Ian Jones (ASL) writes “So the first year at Avenel passed happily and peacefully enough and in November Ellen became pregnant” 1865 however was going to be very different.

Firstly, this was the year that Ned saved Richard Shelton, from drowning. Ned was 10 and big for his age – Richard was 6 – or 7, or 5 depending on which resource you believe. ( Corfield says he was born in 1860) The story is that he had slipped into Hughes Creek trying to retrieve his hat and Ned rescued him. I am not sure what the original sources are for this story, but it is one that lends itself to hyperbole, the stream being described as ‘swollen by recent rain’ and ‘a boiling hole of turbulent water’ by Jones, a ‘swirling torrent’ by Kieza, ‘raging waters’ by Fitzsimons, ‘rushing brown waters’ by Paul Terry -  yet 1865 was known as a year of drought! Forgive  my scepticism but Ned had apparently scammed the Sheltons before, collecting a reward for returning to them a ‘lost’ horse whose disappearance they suspected Ned may have been involved in. The horse was in good condition suggesting it had been looked after by someone who was fond of horses – Ned perhaps ? Nobody seems entirely sure exactly when Neds rescue of Richard happened, except that it was a school day morning, so I wonder how they can so easily remember it had been raining,  but  in any event its clear Richards parents believed the story and were most grateful to Ned for pulling their son out of the water and possibly saving his life. They presented him with the famous green sash, said to be one of Neds most prized possessions and as is well known, he was wearing it when captured at Glenrowan some 15 years later. Its now preserved in the Pioneer Museum in Benalla. I have a vague recollection of reading somewhere that Richard, when he grew up never denied the detail of this story but seemed reluctant to discuss it. I wonder if we really know the full story?

The second event of importance to the story that year was Red Kellys theft of a neighbours calf, his arrest and eventual imprisonment for ‘having illegally in his possession one cow hide’ This was Reds first transgression for more than a decade, and it resulted from the pressure to provide for his family, provision that was made almost impossible by his failing health and the drought- an absence of water and an excess of alcohol. He was treated leniently by the Courts and the Prison and released early, ( take note, believers in the myth of Kelly persecution)  but at the end of the year was again before the Court, this time for being drunk and disorderly. The Kellys were poverty stricken, and in 1866 there was no more money to send the children to school.

Instead, as Ian Jones wrote “Red fought a losing battle with the farm and with booze. His liver and heart suffered. As the year rotted away Ned helplessly watched his father destroy himself.”   He died in December. Ned was now 12 and approaching puberty, and he had just lost the restraining hand and cautionary advice from his father at the very time boys need it most. From here on, without Red, everything was about to change - he fell under the influences of his volatile mother and her family, the desperation of poverty and testosterone : tragically,  the ‘well behaved’ boy was going to be transformed into a killer.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Book Review : The Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia

A Gatling gun - one of these was NOT taken by Police to Stringybark Creek

I’m going to make this weeks post a short one because frankly, Ive been very busy with work, and haven’t had as much free time as I usually have for writing Posts. This Post will be especially of interest I hope to people who own Justin Corfields “Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia”, one of the ‘must-have’ books for anyone seriously interested in the Kelly story. I would go so far as to say if you call yourself a Kelly fan and don’t have this book then you’re not serious. I use it all the time.

About a week ago there was a rather unpleasant debate on the True Story Facebook page regarding a Kelly fanciers assertion that the Police took a Gatling Gun to Stringybark Creek. That suggestion has never been made anywhere else anywhere at any time as far as I know, but the Kelly fancier refused to back down, and wouldn’t volunteer the evidence or his sources for his extraordinary claim. With the internet and Google being what they are, finding out  what a Gatling gun is and what it looks like is ridiculously easy, and anyone who bothered to do so would quickly realise the absurdity of the suggestion  that one was dragged into the rugged impenetrable Wombat Ranges in the hunt for Ned and Dan. Eventually, the person who made the suggestion disappeared, cursing and swearing in typical Kelly fancier style.

During this time, I looked at what Justin Corfield had to say about guns used in the outbreak, and though I realise that most Kelly fanciers would not need to own Corfields book – because they already know everything – the entry about Guns might please them but it surprised me, because I thought it created a picture not unlike the one Kelly fanciers believe and I often have seen them claim about SBC, that the Police were ‘armed to the teeth’. Ive never thought that was the case.

There’s much information that’s interesting in this entry, and Corfield writes “There has been much debate over the weapons used at Stringybark Creek”. He goes on to describe the weapons the Gang used and acquired during the holdup and subsequently, and recounts how they got each of them and what happened to them. By the time they got to Glenrowan Corfield says the Gang had ‘at least 15 revolvers, two double barrelled shot-guns, four single-shot rifles, three single-shot carbines,  four repeating rifles and the original sawn off carbine used at Stringybark Creek” Funny that nobody ever says the Gang was armed to the teeth, but of course they were! Corfield says that Neds carbine, the one he said could shoot round corners and that was held together with string, ended up at the Museum of Applied Science in the 1950’s ‘until it was thrown away’ !! What?? Thrown away? By whom? And why? Unfortunately here Corfield provides no further information about this appalling blunder!

Once the narrative documenting the Gangs armoury is completed he finally turns to the Police weaponry in a paragraph that begins:

“The Victoria Police were also heavily armed. The mounted troopers were armed with a Webley revolver and Colt revolvers were issued to foot police. There were also twenty-two .577 calibre single-shot  Enfield rifles distributed among the police of the region. With the shooting of the three Policemen at SBC the Police were issued with four more Spencer repeating rifles, eighty-six breech loading rifles, sixty two Martini-Henri rifles and 256 revolvers.”

All-in-all this does sound like the police were ‘armed to the teeth’, as Kelly sympathisers often say. However, when it comes to SBC this was most definitely not the case. The only additional arms police took to SBC in addition to their standard issue revolvers were a shotgun borrowed from a local Reverend, and a Spencer rifle borrowed from a gold escort the day before they left Mansfield. When the Kelly gang of four with two rifles and a revolver ambushed the two police remaining in the Camp, all the unsuspecting policemen had between them was Lonigans revolver – as near as they could be to being unarmed.  ( Ignorant Kelly fanciers usually say this was a fair fight for gods sake!)  Corfield listed carefully exactly what guns the Kelly’s took to SBC, but neglects to do the same thing with what the police had, and as I pointed out starts his descriptions of police arms with “The Victoria police were also heavily armed”.  In regard to what happened at SBC this is clearly a misrepresentation, and a serious one, given the contentious nature of that terrible incident. One has to assume this oversight wasn't deliberate but it was surely careless. 

In fact, the more I make use of Corfield’s encyclopaedia, the more I realise its author has a distinct pro-kelly bias, as indicated in this entry, where the Kelly  myth about police being armed to the teeth at SBC is perpetuated.

There’s a review of this encyclopdia  HERE. It was written by Alex McDermott, a Kelly scholar of yesteryear who has in the past debated Ian Jones and published a commentary of the Jerilderie letter. Sadly he seems to have dropped out of the Kelly debates ( though I suppose he could be Dee! ) Like me he thinks this encyclopedia ‘is a collection of marvels, built on significant flaws.’ By flaws he refers to the influence of Corfield’s Kelly-sympathetic upbringing on how he chooses to portray the events and people he includes and what he choses to ignore.  McDermott says “I challenge the reader to find in this extensive and voluminous work any one incriminating fact, moment, incident or detail that is not justified, explained away, interpreted with a sympathy that at times suggests prejudice.” 


Overall though, his review is positive, because much of what the encyclopedia covers isn’t in the least bit controversial. It’s the best reference book by a long way, but one has to be aware of its shortcomings. Copies can still be found at Abebooks for $60 - $70 , and I just saw a second hand one advertised on Amazon for $650!! 

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Exactly when did Ned Kelly stand up for his family?


On Facebook and elsewhere one of the often-repeated claims made about Ned Kelly was that he ‘stood up’ for his family. The idea seems to be that his family were victims of police persecution from well before Ned Kelly was even a kid, but once he approached adulthood he finally decided ‘enough is enough’, his loyalty and devotion to his family compelled him to take a stand against the corrupt system of policing and ‘justice’, a brave defiant stand that ultimately resulted in his death. The police and the authorities were the baddies, and the Kellys led by Ned were the goodies. Death was a kind of martyrdom.

This is a wonderfully romantic almost classic vision of a true hero, the brave fearless youth who rescued a drowning child, grows up to tackle the goliath of institutional oppression and corruption. Here was a man inspired by what are now claimed to be true Australian values, justice and a fair go for all, embarked on a quest for justice for his family. It is emotionally appealing at every level.

But is it actually true?

The first problem with this narrative, is that the 1881 Royal Commission investigated the claim that the Kellys were persecuted by the Police and most definitely concluded that they were NOT. This is what they wrote :

It may also be mentioned that the charge of persecution of the family by the members of the police force has been frequently urged in extenuation of the crimes of the outlaws; but, after careful examination, your Commissioners have arrived at the conclusion that the police, in their dealings with the Kellys and their relations, were simply desirous of discharging their duty conscientiously; and that no evidence has been adduced to support the allegation that either the outlaws or their friends were subjected to persecution or unnecessary annoyance at the hands of the police. 


Any Kelly supporter who knows that this is what the Commission found, but continues to claim the Kellys were persecuted needs to explain how the Commission got it so wrong. They took evidence from all kinds of people over many months  and even visited Ellen Kelly in her own home, and they concluded not that there was hardly any evidence or only weak evidence of Kelly persecution but that there was NO evidence. Kelly supporters never fail to mention and applaud adverse findings that the Commission made about various Police, but when it comes to this finding, the finding that there was no police persecution of the Kellys, the sympathisers turn a deaf ear, and pretend it was never said. Denial, in other words.

Either they accept the authority of the Commission and all its findings, or they dismiss the entire thing – theres nothing credible about cherry picking findings they like and disregarding ones they don’t.

The other awful problem the people have who believe Ned Kelly ‘stood up’ for his family, is that when you look at what he actually did for his family, very little of it seems to be about ‘standing up’ for them.
Take the incident between Ned and the McCormicks, that resulted in Ned Kellys first imprisonment, in 1871, when Ned was 15. Neds involvement in this dispute was entirely gratuitous, and it had nothing at all to do with sticking up for his family, but as a result of it he was sentenced to three months hard labour for ‘violent assault’ plus a £10 fine or three months hard labour for ‘sending indecent letters to a female’. He was also to provide three £20 sureties ‘to keep the peace towards McCormick and his wife’. After the sureties were paid, his family couldn’t find the last £10, so he ended up going inside for six months instead of three. So Neds support for his mother consisted of brawling in public that resulted in her entire savings being expended, and her oldest son locked up and of no use to her at all for six months. Great help indeed!

Ned was freed from Gaol five weeks early, an inconvenient fact for those who say he was relentlessly persecuted and oppressed by the ‘system’. But did he decide to stay out of trouble so he could help his poor mother? No, within a few weeks he was back inside, this time for ‘feloniously receiving’ and he was gone for nearly three years. Three years of not standing up for his family or being there to defend them. Well done Ned, your mother must have been proud  of you!

Ned Kelly was freed in early 1874, ( and, - another inconvenient fact -  once again received a generous remission of his sentence)  and supposedly for the next two years at least was going straight. So did he NOW demonstrate his devotion to his mother and stand up for his family? Well, by April 1877 , three years later Ned had admitted he had abandoned the straight life working for wages and was engaged in full time ‘wholesale and retail’ stock theft. He bragged about how much money he was making. He said he was living the life of a ‘rambling gambler’ and was apparently well known for dressing well and wearing fine boots. Ian Jones  ( A Short Life) wrote he was ‘ an enthusiastic gambler who spent his money freely on grog for his fellow workers” But during this time when he had regular paid work, and then eventually a very lucrative criminal enterprise, how exactly was he demonstrating his great affection for his mother? Helping her out on the farm? Fixing up the house?

At this exact time, Inspecting Superintendent  Nicolson visited the area and called in to see Mrs Kelly. This is his report from early 1877:

“I visited the notorious Mrs Kelly on the road from hence to Benalla. She lived on a piece of partly cleared and partly cultivated land on the roadside in an old wooden hut with a large bark roof. The dwelling was divided into five apartments by partitions of  blanketing, rags etc. There were no men in the house only children and two girls of about 14 years of age said to be her daughters. They all appeared to be living in poverty and squalor. She said her sons were out at work but did not indicate where and that their relatives seldom came near them.”

“Poverty and squalor” was his mother’s lot, whilst Neds was the life of a ‘rambling gambler’. Later that year when he was fined for being drunk and disorderly, for resisting arrest and for assaulting police in the execution of their duty, he paid the £4/6s himself. At least now he was paying his own fines, but there is little evidence of any particular devotion to his mother, or any evidence that he was ‘standing up’ for her.


However, to give Ned his due, at the end of the year his conscience must have got the better of him because  with the help of Joe Byrne, Williamson and Skillion, he replaced his mothers squalid old hut with a much more substantial place, with actual interior walls.  Morrissey wrote that the old hut was about to collapse and if it had done so, Mrs Kellys selection may have become forfeit. This act, albeit out of almost desperate necessity is about the only thing Ned did that could be said to be for his family. But what son wouldn’t have done that for his mother if he could? Frankly, I don’t see it as an exhibition of something exceptional in Ned Kellys character.  

Four months later, at the new Kelly home, Constable Fitzpatrick was injured , and arrest warrants were issued for Ned, his mother, Dan and two others on charges of attempted murder. Ned claimed he wasn’t there at the time, and was therefore innocent – so did he stand up for his family and demonstrate his devotion to his mother by defending her? Well, no he didn’t, because as he well knew those claims were lies and he disappeared with Dan into the Bush, leaving his mother alone to face the music with her newborn baby Alice.

Later, he tried to make some sort of deal with the police to get his mothers freedom, but it was an offer he knew couldn’t possibly be accepted – it was just grandstanding, a pretence at caring – there still isn’t a case anywhere in legal history that Ive heard of where a wanted suspect has negotiated his surrender on the basis that some other convicted criminal is released. And then of course Ned Kelly made it altogether impossible to do anything for anyone but himself by murdering three policemen at Stringybark Creek and being outlawed as a result. From then on it was all about his own survival.

He robbed two banks and obtained a huge amount of money. But he didn’t use the money to buy legal help for his mother -  he give the money to his supporters and family members who were soon paying off debts and seen wearing smart clothes and buying new saddles. The proceeds of either robbery would have bought some pretty  expensive Lawyers advice but he didn’t bother. And by the time he launched his ill-fated attack at Glenrowan, Mrs Kelly had less than a year to run on her sentence - but Glenrowan wasn’t about Mrs Kelly, it was about murder and revenge, and he was ready to sacrifice not only his own life, but his brothers as well.


So did Ned Kelly really stand up for his family? I think its pretty clear the answer is no -  he created more problems for them than he solved. When Mrs Kelly needed him he seemed to mostly be off having a good time, or else in Gaol, and then for the last two years of his life he was on the run. If he hadn’t built that house I would have said he never did anything but create trouble for his family.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

An Open Letter to the Wangaratta City Council

To All Councillors
Wangaratta City Council 
P.O.Box 238
Wangaratta
Victoria 3676

July 15th 2017

Dear Councillors

At your regular Council Meeting on June 20th 2017, after receiving a letter from Joanne Griffiths in regard to a proposed Ned Kelly Center in Glenrowan a recommendation was made that the Council:
1.   provide in-principal support to the Ned Kelly Centre and their endeavours.
2.   delay any decisions with regards to the requests submitted by the Ned Kelly Centre pending the outcomes of the Ned Kelly Alive reports recommendations.
It’s not apparent from material so far released that the outside agency employed to produce the Ned Kelly Alive report will be inviting submissions from the general public on the topic, so I respectfully ask  you to allow me to make one directly to you, in the hope you will take the matters raised in this letter into account when you make your final determinations.

1.   Clearly the Kelly outbreak is an integral, important and fascinating part of the history and collective memory of the North-East, and it cannot and should not be ignored. From a tourism perspective it provides many opportunities both in Glenrowan and elsewhere in the North-East to inform, fascinate and enrich the experience of visitors to the area.
2.   I believe that where the Council is contemplating spending ratepayer funds on public works or promotions, it ought to do it on projects the Public actually supports.
3.   My concern in relation to the proposal of Joanne Griffiths is that firstly, the Public aren’t behind her proposal. This was made very evident last year when she launched a crowdfunding exercise in an attempt to raise $2million dollars for the Kelly Center. She raised $1100 dollars from three donors.
4.   You may also be aware that Joanne Griffiths represents one small group of Kelly descendants, of whom there are many. The greater number of Kelly descendants have publicly announced they neither endorse nor support her proposals. Her project therefore is something more akin to a personal interest than something that results from any kind of consensus within the Kelly community.
5.   Just as importantly the evidence seems to be that interest in the Kelly story generally is in decline: As you will know the Ned Kelly weekend which was an annual fixture at Beechworth has now been removed from the Calendar. You will also be aware of the plight of the various Kelly tourist ventures in Glenrowan – they all seem to be in decline and have been perpetually on the market, with no interest from commercial enterprise. Nobody seemed interested in preserving the ruined chimney that marked the site of the Kelly homestead at Greta – and in recent weeks that has collapsed, gone for ever. A recent attempt to fund a ‘definitive’ Kelly movie to be shot in the north-east ended badly with barely 5% of the required money raised.
6.   For all the preceding reasons I don’t believe the Council ought to support Joanne Griffiths proposal. It is a personal project which the majority of Kelly descendants and the public have not supported.

I also believe one of the responsibilities of the Council, when it comes to the promotion of local history, is to insist that it be told accurately, and with balance. Whoever tells the story at Glenrowan must be sure to take into account the following facts:

1.   The Inn site is a crime scene, a place of awful violence that would have escalated to make it a synonym for massacre, a blood bath like Port Arthur, Columbine and Sandy Hook if Ned Kelly’s plans had not been thwarted.
2.   The reality is that the site at Siege street is a place where two innocent people - one a child -  were killed.
3.   Three gang members also died there, one from a police bullet, two by suicide
4.   It’s the place where a triple Police murderer was finally captured.
5.   The claim the Kelly gangs purpose for the siege was to establish a Republic of North East Victoria is highly contentious and not supported by modern Kelly writers.
6.   Ned Kellys own statements make it clear that Glenrowan was intended to be akin to a modern day terrorist attack, wherein dozens of Police would be slaughtered and hostages used as human shields in bank raids, and as currency to be exchanged for the release of his mother.

Despite the popular view that the siege was somehow a light-hearted romp with dancing and hop-skip-jump competitions, in fact the Seige was not an event that accurate and balanced renditions of its history would find much that was heroic or much to celebrate. A full and accurate understanding of Glenrowan, if that’s what Council felt tourists ought to be provided with, would leave them sombre and reflective. Its not a place that Kelly descendants ought to be able to promote their partisan views of what took place.


I believe the time has come for truth to be told about Ned Kelly and Glenrowan. Instead of continuing to promote unhistorical views of the Kelly outbreak that the public no longer support, and have seen through, there should be an acknowledgement that the man and his family and associates were criminals whose activities were viewed with alarm by the great majority of the areas inhabitants at the time. The 20th century revisionism of the Kelly story needs to be replaced by a 21st century historical accuracy. But understand this : death of the legend doesn't mean death of the story, the TRUE story of what happened, it doesn't mean the death of the intrigue and the fascination that remains around the Kelly outbreak, or the denial of historical places  and peoples connections to the events of the saga. The fact is that  human beings will forever be intrigued and fascinated by crime, by lawbreaker criminal families and gangs, by murder and bank robbery, by what makes and drives the criminal personality, by pioneer history, court-room drama, capital punishment and mystery and myth, all of which and more are so uniquely woven into the greater Kelly story. It will remain a great story of the north-east and continue to draw visitors to the area.

with thanks for your attention

yours sincerely

An Interested Observer.