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Kelly Gang folklore clanks ever onwards

By Ian MacFarlane

Bushranger Ned Kelly belongs to Australia, doesn’t he? You might think so, but Australians are surprised to find that there is interest in Ned Kelly far beyond our shores. There are quite a few UK titles from the past, and Australian volumes about him turn up on US book sites all the time.

Sidney Nolan’s popular caricatures of Ned have reinforced the heroic legend. Just last weekend the Canberra Times repeated the silliness that the Gang’s actions were political rather than criminal. The gang were part of an organised crime network stealing farm animals, including draught horses, from their neighbours.

Although born just outside Melbourne, the Irish saw and still see Ned as a revolutionary Irish spirit. I disagree. The gang shot five police (six if the police trooper from Queensland, one of the so-called blacktrackers wounded at Glenrowan, is included).

Melbourne artist David Milne’s Nolanesque portrait of Ned Kelly. Used with permission.
The US, Britain, and Australia had outlaws. The Kelly Gang stuck out in 1880 because of their use of medieval-style armour. This was weird stuff. They had tested the armour at ten metres with a Martini-Henry rifle, the most powerful police weapon of the day. Four desperate young men clad in armour battling society is a powerful image that has lingered in the national imagination.

Hardly a week goes by without another Kelly Gang story. Australian debate always boils down to heroes or villains. The last time the police case was detailed in a book was in 1968, fifty years ago. So today’s ‘facts’ tend to be from the vast pro-Kelly Gang folklore.

For me, writing about the gang was like treading on eggshells and broken glass. My book has hundreds of citations to archival documents. But that won’t guarantee immunity from criticism. Luckily for me, the pro-Kelly folk on internet forums nowadays are feuding among themselves.

My demographic ranges from people who know little, to experts in micro-details. One example is Bill Denheld who spent nine years identifying exactly where the Stringybark Creek murders of three police took place. Australia has a knack for losing its prime heritage sites. I devoted a chapter of Eureka: from the official records to discussing the lost location of the 1854 Eureka Stockade.

Best-selling author Ian Jones is the Kelly Gang’s staunchest champion. But I question his 2005 attack on Alex Castle’s posthumously published Ned Kelly’s Last Days as ‘poisonous’ and inaccurate. Jones’s reliance on 1960s interviews with descendants of people whose parents may have known the Kelly Gang is odd. This has skewed his portrayal of gang members. In his books they seem to be personable young men dogged by ill fortune.

The Ned Kelly I found in the official records and newspapers was forever waving a gun in people’s faces and threatening to ‘blow their brains out’.

I found several unpublished documents about the Kelly Gang. These included a plea from Constable Alex Fitzpatrick for a new police pullover. His had a bullet hole in the sleeve and other damage, and was being kept as evidence. Fitzpatrick’s claim that Ned Kelly shot at him three times at the Kelly home in 1878 has been hotly debated. Kelly said he was not there. The document seems to settle the matter. In a strange unpublished note from his prison cell, Ned requested the chief of police to return a saddle.

There are missing records too. The Kelly Gang sent between fifty and sixty letters as part of their hate campaign against police. There were drawings of coffins, the gang shooting at police, and a piece of funeral crepe. The letters were full of blood-curdling threats which would shock most Australians if revealed today. But they have strayed. So many pivotal archival documents are missing that I say in the book ‘there is a possibility that the records have been systematically plundered’ and, if so, ‘the nation itself has been robbed’.

Ned’s .32 pocket Colt revolver was stolen from the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry during the US Bicentennial in 1976. It had been lent by the State Library of Victoria. I believe there was something radically wrong with this revolver, and that it caused the superficial wounds suffered by Constables Fitzpatrick and Thomas Lonigan in 1878.

Ned’s execution took place 132 years ago at 10:00 a.m. on 11 November 1880. After the post-mortem a death mask was made. He was buried next morning in a rough wooden box. The executed prisoners were dug up in 1929 for transfer to grounds at Pentridge prison. Last year, DNA analysis proved the bones to be his. But his skull is still missing…

Ian MacFarlane is a former journalist, court reporter, archivist and historian. He is the author of The Kelly Gang Unmasked from Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand. With eminent historian Michael Cannon, he co-edited the Historical Records of Victoria series, a primary source in eight volumes documenting pioneer European settlement in Victoria, Australia. With Lt-Col Neil Smith in 2005, he wrote Victoria and Australia’s First War that dealt with the colony’s naval contribution to New Zealand’s First Taranaki War in 1860-1. MacFarlane was recently interviewed in Melton Weekly and the book was recently reviewed by The Police Association Victoria.

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Image: Melbourne artist David Milne’s Nolanesque portrait of Ned Kelly. Used with permission of Ian MacFarlane. Do not reproduce without permission.

Recent Comments

  1. Mick Fitzsimons

    “Luckily for me, the pro-Kelly folk on internet forums nowadays are feuding among themselves.”
    What a load of rubbish!

    “One example is Bill Denheld who spent nine years identifying exactly where the Stringybark Creek murders of three police took place.”
    If this is an indication of your depth of your research, your book would be very wanting. Bill’s site is not and has never been acknowledged as being the correct place except by Bill and yourself. Another furphy!

    A requisition for another piece of uniform does not prove anything. Find that article that is still in police hands and have it independently ‘forensically’ examined! It has never been released as it would prove Fitzpatrick was never shot and the whole police case against the Kelly’s was a lie.

  2. […] Ian MacFarlane suggests Kelly was not a hero […]

  3. Stuart Dawson

    “The Kelly Gang Unmasked” is a brilliant piece of historical research that overturns more than 100 years of heavily romanticised Kelly myth-making. It is meticulously referenced, and was the first of a wave of ground breaking 21st century critical approaches to Ned Kelly studies to reject naive folkloric hero-worship and replace it with meticulous factual documentary research. Often uncomfortable for those raised on the long-standing and simplistic “hero vs villain” dichotomy, it is a very useful reference source and remains a magnificent contribution to Australian historical studies of lasting value. It is a great pity that OUP have let it go out of print, as it is hard to find second hand. It would be good to see it come back as an e-book, as Kelly studies show no sign of slowing down. This book packs a huge amount of evidence, controversy and highly relevant argument into its 260 or so pages. An essential read, even for those who may disagree with the author’s perspective.

  4. Stuart Dawson

    I forgot to mention in my praise for “The Kelly Gang Unmasked”, that I am the author of the (free) book, “Ned Kelly and the myth of a republic of North-Eastern Victoria”, 2018, and several other academic publications. Ian MacFarlane’s book as I said continues to be a valuable resource for anyone involved in Australian history.
    Stuart Dawson, History, Monash University.

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