The Social Bandit

 “Tom Roberts – Bailed up – Google Art Project” by Tom Roberts 
McQuiltons 1979 book “The Kelly Outbreak” is subtitled “The geographical Dimension of Social Banditry” and it’s a truly fascinating book to read. He attempts not only to describe what happened in the Outbreak – as others had already done before – but also to develop a better explanation for it than the existing hopelessly simplistic notion that it was either because of the criminal nature of the Kelly Gang or else the corrupt nature of the Police.
McQuilton came to the view that the best way to understand the Outbreak was to see it as an example of ‘Social Banditry” a concept developed by a renowned, now dead British Historian called Eric Hobsbawm. The “social bandit”, according to Hobsbawms theory is a figure who at first glance might appear to be an ordinary criminal, but who, on closer examination proves to be something more: the social bandit  emerges from rural discontent and engages in lawbreaking as  a kind of  social protest, activities that attract considerable local support and approval, though it is at a primitive “pre-political” level. If I understand the theory correctly the Bandit is not regarded as a person who has a deliberately chosen “pre” or “semi” political agenda of any kind but rather is a product of his times and a particular mix of social and political conditions, one of which is poverty, another a society that is only marginally governable because of social unrest and division, and another, reduced respect for authority and inadequate or incompetent Policing. McQuilton believes the social conditions at the time of the Outbreak were exactly those Hobsbawm described as the pre-requisites for social banditry to emerge – in particular the deep divisions in the rural frontier community between squatters and selectors that made for widespread social unrest.
McQuiltons particular and intriguing insight however, is his belief that these divisions and unrest largely sprang from the peculiarities of local geography. He provides a detailed description of the geography of  “Kelly Country”, describing with the help of fascinating maps the river systems, the fertile river valleys and flood plains, the gold fields and the dense bush covered foothills and highlands, and describes how this all affected such things as the patterns of land settlement and land use, the physical constraints to communication and travel to markets in distant major centers, and the effects of its proximity to the NSW border.
The social bandit, according to the theory is never-the-less a criminal, rather than a revolutionary or social activist, and is preoccupied with a personal rebellion destined to fail. However though a criminal the bandit is supported by sections of society because he reflects their value system  and embodies valued personal qualities such as in the case of Ned Kelly physical prowess, skilled horsemanship, loyalty to family and personal courage. In life and even in failure he achieves the status of a hero and becomes part of legend and folklore, an Icon. However his purpose is not really political but personal and in any case he lacks the expertise to channel his discontent to a political end.
Inevitably there are  difficulties with this view, that Ned Kelly was a social bandit. The most important one, in my view is that to conform to the “Type”, and make Ned Kelly more of a social protestor and less of a criminal McQuilton is obliged to  present Ned Kellys lawless behviour as being directed solely at Authority and the Squatter, as being somewhat symbolic rather than purely criminal and wherever possible he prefers the explanation of events that leaves Kelly in the most favourable light. He says this for example
“The Outbreak was rooted in antagonisms between squatters and selectors ; its trigger cause was the arrest and jailing of Mrs Kelly which has stemmed from the squatter inspired crackdown on duffing and horse theft in 1877”
Indeed, as he says, the outbreak was rooted in antagonisms between squatters and selectors. On the contrary though, the trigger for the Outbreak was Ned Kellys theft of 11 horses, worth 50 to 100,000 dollars in todays money, a massive criminal undertaking known in Kelly history as the  “Whitty Larceny” but this trigger is ignored by McQuilton in preference for Police behavior, the arrest of Mrs Kelly. Rather than label it as a “squatter inspired crackdown” I would have thought it would be more accurate to describe it as a legitimate response to locally organized serious crime, and quite appropriate, even if handled badly.
In another place McQuilton says the Kellys victims were the squatters, but in fact what we know from Morrisseys work is that Kelly stole from squatters and selectors alike, though inevitably, as squatters had most of the stock they were the ones who were more often the victims. Furthermore we also know that Kelly traded with and worked with some of the squatters, and both he and other members of the greater Kelly clan had friendships and other complex personal relationships with Police. These facts muddy the “social bandit” thesis.
In discussing the Fitzpatrick incident McQuilton misquotes the Dr who treated his wound saying that the Doctor “refused to swear it had been caused by a bullet” The full quote of what Nicholson said is “I could not swear it was a bullet wound but it had all the appearance of one”. In his descriptions of the Gangs plans for Glenrowan McQuilton glosses over the brutal reality of what was planned for the train, merely mentioning that it was to be derailed and survivors would become hostages. He describes the Stringybark Creek debacle as the legacy of Neds pistol whipping by Constable Hall. He uncritically accepts Neds declaration that he didn’t recognize Lonigan before shooting him, though Ned was well known to have said that if he ever killed a man, it would be Lonigan.
Its clear to me that overall, McQuilton has a sympathetic view of Ned Kelly, and as a result I think he significantly underplays the role played by the manifest criminality of the Gang and of Ned Kelly in particular, in order to enhance and rehabilitate the image of Ned Kelly as more glamorous social bandit, rather than as a plain criminal. This I think was probably unnecessary, because as Hobsbawm writes in the first chapter of his book “Bandits”  their names and the details of their exploits hardly matter” This is because banditry is a social phenomenon, and whats important are not the precise historical details about the bandit but the way in which the bandit inspires, encourages and gives voice to and becomes a focus for dissatisfaction and the grievances of groups within society. Whats important is that whether or not what they come to believe about him is true, the bandit is  regarded as the champion to the poor and powerless, the disaffected and marginalized. He becomes a reflection of their concerns and disquiets about the society they are a part of, and becomes the repository of their hopes and inspiration for the future. This is how the Legend of Ned Kelly  functions even today for the dwindling few who regard him still as an icon.

So to say that the Kelly Outbreak is an example of social banditry is to say nothing much about what or who Ned Kelly really was. It is instead a statement about the use that was made of his reputation by people who admired what they believed he did and represented, and who created the Legend about him. The Outbreak was one thing, Ned Kelly is another and we are still left with the task of peeling back the Mythology to find the real Ned Kelly underneath. McQuilton has provided some wonderful analysis and insights into understanding his times and the origins of the Myth. 

As I have already written, this is a great read and a must for every serious Kelly enthusiast. 
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13 Replies to “The Social Bandit”

  1. I rarely disagree Dee, but I have spent the weekend reading Quadrant articles about early Aboriginal culture by modern 'scholars'. Aborigines had no written histories, and the first interpretations of their societies were by Europeans. I doubt modern interpretations of their cultures are accurate. Hobsbawm was espousing a European theory. It applied to the NE Victorian situation in only an indirect way. The struggle with squatters is a modern invention (like the Kelly Republic). The selectors battle was with the land which often would not support them, and not their neighbours. Ellen Kelly's lands file is missing from Public Record Office of Victoria's records. It would have shown, if it still existed, that her selection was not properly cultivated or maintained. This was hardly the fault of the squatters. Ned Kelly's criminality occurred in childhood, long before he would have understood the concept of 'social banditry'.

  2. Hobsbawm developed his theory out of the observation that in many different places around the world there were examples of outlaws who were celebrated as heroes by certain segments of the population. McQuilton made the same observation in relation to the Kelly Outbreak, and so tried to fit the Social bandit theory to it – I think quite convincingly, though of course no model is ever a perfect fit to any given real example. and as I said I think McQuilton underplayed the criminality of the Kellys to try to make it fit better.

    The point about “Social Banditry”is that the motivations and the ideology of the central figure are largely irrelevant. Whats relevant is the way in which segments of society perceive and make use of this persons image and how they make him a symbol and a focus for their own grievances and frustrations. Whether their perceptions of the bandit or of their own grievances are valid or accurate or justified is also irrelevant, the point is there is a social movement, an upheaval taking place that requires explanation.

    The problem we have is that no matter what you believe about the criminality of the Kelly Gang, there was an undeniable groundswell of public opinion that supported them, albeit mostly in a passive sense but also in relation to the much smaller number of genuine “Sympathisers”, quite active assistance. I am not convinced that the reason nobody stepped forward to claim the massive rewards offered was because of intimidation by the Kellys – theres not really much evidence to support that view. Instead, I agree with McQuilton, the explanation lies in the social phenomenon Hobsbawm identified and called “social banditry”, that sections of society felt that in some way the Gang was giving voice to their own concerns about what was not right in their world. It continued after his capture with massive crowds of support in Melbourne.

    I would like to know more about why you say that the struggle with squatters is a "modern invention”. Morrissey certainly documents plenty of evidence that there was ongoing tension between the two groups; the Whitty Larceny isn’t a modern invention ; Ned himself certainly railed against them “If they depend on the Police they will be drove to destruction"

  3. I agree there were tensions between selectors and squatters. But even Morrissey lists only sporadic examples of resulting disorder. Ellen Kelly did not do what was required to cling onto her selection. There was laziness in the Kelly family, although to be fair, Ellen claimed her land was exceedingly poor and not worth cultivating. Again, this was not the fault of the Squatters. The pro-Kelly books beat up the divisions for propaganda effect.

  4. Kelly fanatics also have this peculiar habit of expressing shock and outrage that the Squatters were occupying all the good land. Well yes of course they were – only a moron would go to the trouble of taking all the risks the squatters did in confronting all kinds of struggles breaking in the land – and then pick something other than the best land they could find. These people were pioneers risk takers, and entrepreneurs who worked their proverbials off breaking in the land and still sometime lost the lot – who would blame them for being intolerant of failed Gold miners and other newcomers ripping off their stock?

    To be fair to Ellen Kelly though, times were made even more tough for Selectors by droughts in the 1870’s. McQuilton describes how so many of the Selectors went elsewhere for work – especially in the shearing season – to get enough money to survive while trying to make something out of their selections. McQuilton highlights a high rate of failure in the short term, whereas Morrissey shows that in the long term the majority of Selectors pulled through., often with the sympathetic assistance of the Authorities who were not averse to bending the rules to help out. ( something which the Fanatics wouldn’t want to hear about because they like to demonise all Authority) I think even Ellen Kelly eventually got to keep her selection. – or am I confused?

  5. Ellen (Kelly) King must have retained her selection as it was sold to the Griffiths family after she had died 1923.

  6. I like to believe Ian Jones version where the whole Whitty affair and rivalry between the Quinn and Whitty clans was primarily the cause for the 'Kelly Outbreak'.

    See previous pages on the link by changing the page Nos

  7. Bill is right, although there were some close calls. The only cultivation, apparently, was a small veggie patch close to the Kelly house. According to what I have gleaned, Whitty was a quiet fellow who avoided quarrels. Stealing the Whitty horses didn't help. That was the start of the Baumgarten and Fitzpatrick incidents, which led directly to the police murders.

  8. Got the Morrissey book today. Very hard-hitting. The Kelly fanatics will scream loud and long.

  9. Oh no, not more oceans of tearies, cries and whimpers from Iron Outlaw and Ned Kelly Forum members.

    Your Kelly Legend is going right down the gurgler, folks!

    I'm downgrading cop-killer and career stock thief Ned as the national icon of Glrenrowan!

    Welll done Doug!

  10. I have read Morrisseys book. Yes, it is hard hitting in places but I expected more from it.. More depth, source notes. Picked up a few errors too. (but I will leave this to Sharon as she is good at this type of thing..) I lot of what Morrissey says is simply objective, logical thinking too based on just the facts at hand. What I do like is that he doesn't extrapolate. Interested to hear others opinion.

  11. I also found it rather fascinating just how well Hall and Fitzpatrick came out smelling after so many years of being the black hatted villains of the piece. Something I often forget was just how young Fitzpatrick was at the time. He was a kid. A kid with a few issues granted, especially in the sexual dept. I was also interested to read Morriseys interpretation of the Kelly and Police relationship prior to April 1878. It doesn't appear that it was the Black and White relationship as depicted prior. Lots of intertwining. Morrissey in my mind doesn't invalidate McQuiltons work but does take issue with it.

  12. I got my copy today! Haven’t had a chance to do more than flick through it so probably won’t be posting much about it till next week, then we can all share our impressions and thoughts. But Mals comment above has given me an idea so I might have something else ready to Post tomorrow. And I don’t think I have quite finished with McQuilton yet!

  13. Mark, I'm not sure Sharon, for obvious reasons, is the right person to critique Morrissey who gives rugby-great and journalistic hack FitzSimons a huge serve. On second thoughts, maybe she should try to dismantle him. I had forgotten Morrissey met most of the NE descendants including Tom Lloyd Jnr Jnr, among others, in his peregrinations. To that extent, Morrissey is probably the equal of Ian Jones. Moreover, he spent four full months at the State Archives going through the Kelly records including the lands records of their neighbours. I doubt there are any substancial mistakes in the book, which is a major new retake of career criminal Ned Kelly.

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