|Constable Thomas Longans grave at Mansfield.
A central feature of Kelly mythology is a belief that began in the mind of Ned Kelly that the Kelly outbreak occurred because the Police of the time were profoundly corrupt, vengeful, immoral, lazy and untrustworthy. As a result, he and his family were unfairly targeted and persecuted and he was forced into a life of defiance and rebellion against all authority.
This element of the Kelly story, the defiance and hatred of Police, and authority in general is the feature that most appeals to Kelly Fanatics, forms the basis of their idolatry of Ned Kelly, and is reflected in their own expressions of hatred and negativity not only towards the 19th century Victorian Police but also to modern day Police. These sentiments can easily be found on the Facebook Pages of the Ned Kelly Forum and Ironoutlaw, the two self prolaimed main Kelly spaces on the internet, where Police are referred to as pigs and c*nts with not a single objection by all and sundry who post and “like” and share comments there. On the Ironoutlaw site itself considerable space is devoted to cataloguing and commenting on negative Press reports about the modern day Australian Police Force. People who for whatever reason hate the Police are almost universally drawn to the Kelly Mythology.
Personally I am revolted by this anti Police theme in the Kelly fanatics belief system, especially where it is extended to modern day Police, but I have never been sure that it wasn’t justified in respect of the Police in Ned Kellys time. The themes of Police corruption and incompetence and persecution of selectors is widespread throughout most of the Kelly literature that I have read.
There is however a fascinating and very detailed chapter to be read in Ian MacFarlanes book, “The Kelly gang unmasked”, called “Victorian Police Actions Defended” in which the author dissects the Kelly Mythology in relation to various Police figures who are routinely villified and lampooned in the pro-kelly literature. The chapter starts: “With a few notable exceptions, Victoria Police during the Kelly hunt served with exemplary skill” a sentence that would make the head of the average Kelly fanatic explode, but MacFarlane proceeds case by case to demonstrate that there is at the very least, another side to the story, a side Kelly fanatics either don’t discuss or else misrepresent. He does of course allow that there were indeed “a few notable exceptions” but a balanced view of the evidence supports his positive view of the Police.
Ive just finished reading “The Kelly Outbreak” by John McQuilton, published in 1979. It is subtitled “The geographical Dimension of Social Banditry” and is a reworking of the authors PhD Thesis, so is a work like Morrisseys of genuine authority and scholarship, that will have been subjected to professional scrutiny. I said of Morrisseys work, and its equally true of McQuiltons that “This doesn’t automatically mean that whatever his conclusions are, they must be correct, but it does mean that his findings and conclusions need to be taken serious note of.”
In fact I think this work is among the best, if it isn’t The Best of all the Kelly books I have read so far. For me at least, real academic scholarship is so much more satisfying to read than partisan story telling by amateur historians or even professional ones like Molony who adopted such an idiosyncratic approach to history telling as to make his account akin to fiction. This work however is exhaustive and detailed and analytical.There is much to discuss.
The feature of this work that impressed me most is the extent to which McQuilton describes and explains the broader social, political and geographical conditions out of which the Outbreak sprang, putting it into its wider context. This, as I have now learned reflects an approach to understanding the lives of certain types of lawbreaker developed by a renowned, now dead British Historian called Eric Hobsbawm, who called them “social bandits”. I will write about this theory and other issues raised in this book some other time, but what I am interested in here is the picture McQuilton paints of the role of the Police in the outbreak. Whereas MacFarlane talks about the contribution of individual police men – Fitzpatrick, McIntyre, Standish and Ward among others – and how they have mostly been inappropriately slandered in the pro Kelly stories, McQuilton discusses the effects of problems in the structure and the management of the police force and the organization itself.
McQuilton begins by showing that stock theft was much more common in North East Victoria than in other parts of Victoria – though he says that there was also a much higher rate of stock recovery there, implying that much of the stock theft was merely “borrowing”. In any event, he says this behavior by selectors was responsible for the alliance that was forged between squatters and Police. It was complicated by the offer by Squatters formed into Stock protection Societies, of rewards to Police whose work was particularly good, but it degenerated into an inducement to convict , and was abused by “a minority of the Police”. The squatter- Police alliance “was not a deliberately formulated policy even at Officer level, but it must have seemed so to the selectors”
The North East was in fact a dynamic frontier where maturity and skilled Policing was required to maintain social cohesion in a challenging and rapidly changing social and political environment. Unfortunately though, according to McQuilton, rural postings were unpopular, and few Police of high quality, or personal ambition for advancement within the force were posted there. Instead, men used to working in the city, who knew nothing of the geography of the regions, very little about agriculture and the rural way of life and were fearful of the bush were posted to rural areas without adequate training, and in insufficient numbers. Apparently even weapons training was so inadequate that “many men were unfamiliar with their weapons, particularly their rifles”. To make matters worse, Police force morale in general was low in the wake of highly publicized scandals in the 1850s and 1860,s, and within the force itself, the attitudes and behavior of the Chief Commissioner Captain Standish created tensions and divisions between officers and rank and file.
As McQuilton says “The local Rank and File were placed in an invidious position” – they were not the cream of the force, they were not properly trained, resourced or supported, there were not enough of them, they were mostly inexperienced and yet they were expected to sensitively administer inflexible laws formulated without regard for the reality in the barely civilised frontier environment of the north east. For example he says there was no ability to differentiate between theft for food, “borrowing” and genuine criminal stealing –
“Innocent horse traders and selectors who purchased stolen stock in good faith were jailed by Benches who refused to believe they had not known”
“Easily lost and fearful of the bush the city men kept to the main roads refusing even to follow the bridle tracks”
Unsurprisingly, Police cases were so poorly presented that local Benches were often forced to dismiss charges.
And so what was the outcome ? : spiraling distrust growing into hatred by selectors of Police, demands from Squatters and the press that Police lift their game, and growing desperation by Police to control the mobs of “flash” youth and bring in criminals, gain convictions and redeem their reputations: invidious indeed!
Frustration went all the way to the top and prompted bitter divisions and criticisms within the Police hierarchy , arbitrary and sometimes counterproductive interventions and decision making, and of course it all sold newspapers and was stirred along by them.
Nothing written in any book or Blog will ever persuade Kelly fanatics that the police were ever anything other than pigs and c*nts, or that they still are. However a reasonable person who acquaints himself with the evidence presented in this terrific work by McQuilton would find a great deal of sympathy for these men and gain a much better understanding of the Kelly Outbreak. Mostly, these Police were decent men doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances. And Ned kelly killed three of them.I doubt any Kelly fanatic would ever read it, but every Kelly enthusiast must.
4 and a half Stars.
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