One of the main reasons Ned Kelly stands apart from all the other bushrangers and outlaws is not just that he wrote letters, but that nine of them have survived to the present day. Just about everything the Gang did – rob banks, take hostages and shout them Beer and dances, pay off their network of supporters, cultivate an image as Gentlemen bushrangers – all these tactics were copied from Bushrangers who had gone before – but making Public statements and writing letters to the Authorities was something new, and was something Ned excelled at. These letters therefore provide a remarkable record and insight into the mind and the thinking of the Outlaw himself. However, even though he was supposed to be devoted to his mother and his family I have never heard mention anything about him writing letters to her when she was in Prison, or at any other time, or to any other family member. If he did I would be most interested to hear about it. No, Ned Kelly’s letters weren’t personal or intimate but were documents written for Public consumption, with a particular purpose in mind and contained the narratives that Ned Kelly wanted everyone to believe was the truth about the many dramas and controversies he was involved in. Ned Kelly stands out against all the other outlaws, above all as the great self-publicist
The other unique and memorable feature of the Kelly saga was of course the armor, but that innovation was a disastrous flop and a major contributor to the debacle at Glenrowan. The same cant be said of Ned writings however; in fact they could perhaps be seen as Neds greatest success because I would argue that it is his writings and self promotion, more than anything else that has resulted in the Legend that persists to this day. The Legend is essentially Ned’s version of his life as told in his writings, of an innocent hard done by farmer forced into a life of crime to defend his family and their honor from corrupt Police, squatters and the legal system. This version of the Kelly story, as we have been revealing Post by Post in this Blog is frequently at odds with reality and the facts of the situation, but it is, never-the-less Neds view, or at least the view he wants us to believe in, and he’s been remarkably successful in having it accepted.
The most important and well-known of Ned Kellys writings is the Jerilderie Letter, written in early 1879, one truly remarkable documentary piece of Australian history. The letter itself would be worth millions of dollars on the open market, but it is now in the possession of the State Library of Victoria. An earlier version, known as the Cameron Letter was written in December 1878. I discussed the Jerilderie letter in a series of Posts last year, starting here, but what of Ned Kelly’s 7 other letters? They are not so well known and not often the subject of discussion or analysis. The following are my thoughts about them.
In January 1879 Kelly wrote a brief letter to The Chief Secretary of Victoria, in which he protested that, in contrast to what “that rascal McIntyre” was saying, the Stringybark killings two months earlier were acts of self defense, and that “we are not the cold blooded murderers that people presume us to be”. He accused the authorities of “committing a grave injustice in imprisoning so many innocent people just because they are supposed to be friendly to us” and he called the Police “cowards, every one of them”. Lastly he warned that “within a week” the Gang will have taken “terrible revenge for the injustice and oppression we have been subjected to. Beware, for we are now desperate men” The following month, on February 10th the Gang raided the Bank at Jerilderie, which I presume was the threatened “terrible revenge”.
In March 1879, Ned’s next letter was to Sir Henry Parkes the NSW Premier. This letter was discovered relatively recently in the Mitchell Library in Sydney by a Kelly researcher named John Meredith when looking through Parkes personal papers. It was published for the first time ever, in 1980, in “Ned Kelly : After a Century of Acrimony”by John Meredith and Bill Scott, along with the Jerilderie letter and all the other letters written or dictated by Ned. It seems Ned was angered that the Jerilderie Bank Robbery prompted Parkes to offer a £4000 reward for the Gangs capture, and his response to Parkes was to warn him that “the man that takes I, Captain E Kelly will have to be a plucky man for I do not intend to be taken alive”
He goes on to write “I tell you candidly that I intend to rob Bathurst and particularly the Bank” a threat which he didn’t make good on. He also wrote this: “Now Sir Henry I tell you that Highway robbery is only in its infancy for the white population is been driven out of the labour market by an inundation of Mongolians and when the white man is driven to desperation there will be desperate times”
These two letters are typical Ned – menacing, posturing, abusive and self promoting. The racist attitude to “Mongolians” though offensive to modern ears was probably unexceptional for the times.
The five remaining letters originated from within the confines of the Melbourne Gaol, in 1880, and were dictated rather than hand written, and were signed with an “X” because his wounds prevented him from holding a pen. The first was a request that his sister and his mother be allowed to visit him.
The second, published in the Age newspaper on August 9th 1880 is perhaps his most famous statement, the one all Kelly buffs will recognize that begins:
“I don’t pretend to have lived a blameless life, or that one fault justifies another, but the Public, judging a case like mine should remember that the darkest life may have a bright side, and after the worst has been said against a man, he may, if he is heard, tell a story in his own rough way that will perhaps lead them to mitigate the harshness of their thoughts against him and find as many excuses for him as he would plead for himself”
It is a remarkably conciliatory and humble but articulate and uplifting statement devoid of the usual Kelly bluster and threats and angry hyperbole so apparent in all his previous statements. This is such a powerful and eloquent piece of oratory, and so different in tone and style from every other of Neds statements and letters that doubts were raised as soon as it was published that the words really are Neds. It was written before his trial and presented to the Age newspaper in the form of an interview with Ned, but the journalist was Ned’s attorney, David Gaunson. The Ovens and Murray Advertiser said this about it “It was very clumsily managed, that interview business. They put too many big words into Neds mouth. There was too much of the big language used in Parliament in the supposed interview” In A Short Life, Ian Jones describes the Advertiser as “anti Kelly”, but concedes “there is certainly some paraphrasing by Gaunson”. Ian MacFarlane writes “It is impossible not to conclude that Gaunson had a hand in this, carefully redrafting editing and embellishing Ned’s statements to him, transforming them into a powerful declaration” What all this means of course is that some of Kellys most famous words, words that are quite central to the image of Ned Kelly the icon and hero, words treasured and remembered by Kelly buffs as if they are scripture, weren’t Neds words at all!
Ian Jones believes that never-the-less they were “a genuine expression of his views” and that may be so. However that doesn’t mean Neds views were accurate or balanced or necessarily believable. Take these well known words from further on in this letter: “If my life teaches the Public that men are made mad by bad treatment and if the Police are taught that they may not exasperate to madness men they persecute and ill treat, my life will not be entirely thrown away” Here Ned Kelly is adopting the role of the martyr to gain public sympathy, claiming that all his troubles arose from “bad treatment” by the police who persecuted and ill-treated him. But this is simply untrue, as we have pointed out previously on this Blog. Ned was treated sympathetically by the courts and the police at first, their offers of help were rejected by him early on, he and others of his extended family had close and even intimate relationships with Police, and during the so-called “going straight” years, the Police took no interest in him. It was only when he returned to “wholesale and retail” stock theft that once again the Law became a problem for him. Its really quite absurd that Ned Kelly boasts about his life of crime and stock theft in the Jerilderie letter, but complains when Police take an interest in him whilst doing their job in response to legitimate complaints from stock owners. The idea that he was persecuted is nonsense.
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