Ned Kelly’s Words: mightier than Guns and Steel

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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28 Replies to “Ned Kelly’s Words: mightier than Guns and Steel”

  1. The Kelly bluster in the Jerilderie Letter and the letter to Sir Henry Parkes is really something isn't it! At a time when most were kowtowing to Britain, there is the self-professed Captain calling them out as "big, ugly, fat-necked, wombat-headed. big-bellied, magpie-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed sons of…" The adjectives just flow. Australiana at its best. I love it! But while you might say his public statements and letters were his greatest success, this was not the case at the time because, of course, the Jerilderie Letter, the Cameron Letter and the Parkes Letter were never published then. Kelly was of course big news at the time. The murder of the three police followed by the Euroa and Jerilderie robberies and the press-painted ineptitude at catching the Gang certainly captured the public attention. But you have to wonder about how much memory still be alive today had it not been for that armour. What would Nolan have had to stylistically depict had it not been for that? I have no doubt it is the armour that had made this the enduring story that it is. The subsequent release of the Jerilderie Letter (some 50 years after Kelly's death) has simply enhanced the legend. Whatever Kelly was or wan't in his day, it is a great story that has held my interest for most of my lifetime.

  2. Dee, you are a gifted writer. I thought for a while you were giving Ned some credit for same, but No.

    Fair enough, Ned did some stupid horrible things but he was no illiterate.

    Given Ned was in gaol, denied access to any of his family or friends or support for more than one month after capture, I am sure he had plenty time to write and re write his defence statements for the 'Press' , all finely tuned to get maximum effect.

    I think for you to denigrate Ned's nuances as coming from someone else like David Gaunson is to show no respect at all for Ned Kelly's ability to string words together. We understand the Jerilderie letter was dictated to Joe Byrne who it is said wrote the actual script.

    Why then do you not suggest the Jerilderie letter contents were that of Byrne's? You accept all or most of the surviving letters as coming from Ned, as you wrote-

    Quote " Ned writings however; in fact they could perhaps be seen as Ned's 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."

    I thought for a moment you would give praise to Ned's intellectual writings, but no.

    Its obvious from your point of view, Ned's ability to communicate is also under fire. I therefore wonder why you dedicate so much time to writing about Ned only to try finish him off because for the first time after his confinement, suddenly his words become those of his lawyer who failed to present his case.

    It’s the lawyers and the corrupt legal system of the time you should be aiming at.

  3. Thanks for the compliments Bill but I am not sure I agree that I am a gifted writer. I am just doing this because as you know when I tried to join a Kelly forum – not the NKF – and challenge the Kelly myths, I was kicked off. So I had to either give up, and let the bullies win and the Myths go unchallenged or try to do it myself on my own forum…hence this!

    In regard to Ned Kellys writing and statements, like most people I regard them as quite magnificent! He surely had the Irish gift – call it genius if you like – for stringing words together in passionate and imaginative and colourful ways to make his point. I am in no doubt Ned Kelly the actual man would have been a great communicator, and a captivating, charismatic and dominant personality – hence my dislike of the way he was initially portrayed in TLO.

    The reason I don’t think Joe Byrne wrote the Jerilderie Letter is because by all accounts the style and the content of the Letter is identical to the way it was reported that Ned actually spoke when he was lecturing the hostages during the Bank robberies and at Glenrowan. Equally, the style of the “I do not pretend to have led a blameless life” speech is so different from every other one of Neds I have to agree with Ian MacFarlane that “it is impossible not to conclude that Gaunson had a hand in it” and therefore those words are not Neds in the way that say “I am a widows son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed “ is.

    But I am not trying to finish Ned off. What I am trying to finish off is the mythological Ned – and reveal the real Ned, which one could argue shows more respect to the actual Ned than does mythologising him and making him out to be something that he wasn’t. For all we know he might be pretty pissed off to discover that Ian Jones et al have missed the point altogether, trying to make out that he wanted to found a republic of NE Victoria when he was actually just trying to look after his family and get revenge for what they did to his mother.

  4. Yes I agree its a great story, and Kellys writings are fascinating in their furious and uncompromising passion. I take your point about the writings not being available at the time, but I wrote that it was his writings AND his self promotion that gave rise to the Legend – he was a great self promoter, even a genius at it, so that the Legend was already growing even before Glenrowan and the armour was seen. You may be right that it is the armour that kept the dream alive, but I would argue that the Legend is more important because it could survive without the armour, but the armour would have no meaning without the legend. Robin Hood didnt need armour or a clever gimmick to propel his image into Legend because Its the person and the dream at the core of the Legend that gives it life, and Neds writings and speechmaking spoke to many of the person and the dream, and in a way that armour never could. Fascinating stuff indeed!

  5. Dee, one thing about the armour is that it is like the one recognizable focal point everybody latches on to, even small children who have never read any of Ned's words (or are too young to read) instantly identify it with him. I can imagine that those who don't even speak the English language but are into Ned first associated the armour with him.I am living proof that the armour is one of the biggest part of his legacy. I spent most of my life just knowing that some outlaw in Australia named Ned Kelly used armour and had no idea he left behind any letters or statements. But, when I was finally drawn in to the story, then the words of Ned Kelly helped to put flesh on the man beneath the metal. Yet, you are correct in that the armour would not mean as much without his words telling his version of the story, but the road to Ned Kelly's world might have been completely missed by many of us if not for the armour as a signpost.

  6. The Armour as a signpost – nice analogy Sharon. But I think if the road down which it was pointing was to a violent psychopath, it would quickly be forgotten about! The signpost remains because it points to an attractive heroic icon! Just my opinion!

  7. So, given your overall opinion of Ned, let's say that you lived back then and you were out alone one evening on a isolated bush path, would you be frightened if you actually came face to face with him?

  8. Wonderful question Sharon! My first thought was that no, I wouldn’t be afraid if I came face to face with Ned Kelly because he only ever shot at Policemen. But thats information we only know with hindsight. He certainly frightened lots of people at the time who didnt have the benefit of the knowledge we have today. All they knew for sure was that he had murdered three Policemen, was on the run and on meeting him were confronted by a dominating person who would threaten them with violence and worse at the point of his gun. The thought would surely be in the front of their minds that he might kill again at any minute unless they did exactly as they were told. Which is precisely what they DID do – So. I think if I came face to face with Ned Kelly and I was a squatter or a Policeman I would be nervous for sure, even a little afraid. Could any rational person not be afraid at a face to face meeting with a known murderer?

    How would you feel?

  9. Anonymous says: Reply

    Does anyone know somewhere that the Parkes letter is discussed in more depth?

    I know most over the years have suggested it was a forgery because it doesn't sound like Ned, but that Angela Baron thought it was definitely written by ned, and then a handwriting expert in Craig Cormick's book thought the identity of the author (as Ned) was inconclusive.

    So yeah, just wondered if anyone has discussed this previously online?

  10. Offhand, I don't recall any forum discussions about the Parkes letter, but Brian Stevenson had the following in one of his multi-part reviews of Ian McaFarlane's "The Kelly Gang Unmasked" at our Eleven Mile Creek blog –

    "Rather ingenuously, MacFarlane accuses Ned of having a ‘thick dab of racism’. He bases this on Ned's written complaint to New South Wales Premier Sir Henry Parkes about ‘an inundation of Mongolians [ie Chinese]’ on the labour market which, Ned cheekily informed the future Father of Federation, would lead to an increased incidence of highway robbery. Ned’s alleged boyhood assault on the hapless Chinese traveler Ah Fook was also brought up, along with a listing of Joe Byrne’s assaults on Chinese. MacFarlane neglects to put this into the proper context. The dislike of Chinese in nineteenth century Victoria was hardly restricted to Ned and was pervasive throughout all levels of migrant European society in all Australian colonies at the time, and for quite some time afterwards. Moreover Ian Jones has shown in A short life (page 158) there is evidence of some support for the Kelly Gang in the Chinese community. Finally, the authenticity of the Parkes letter has been questioned by at least one respected authority, Justin Corfield, in his Ned Kelly encyclopaedia."

    Back to me, looking in Corfield he does not give any references as to why he thinks it was faked or by whom.

    However, reading the letter now, it makes whomever wrote it to look like a prophet given the state of the entire world today, just insert your nationality of choice where it says "mongolians." –

    "…..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…"

  11. All good points. I guess I should have worded it a wee bit differently. Say that it was you yourself, Dee, as a female who time traveled back and knew what you know and feel and say about Ned Kelly – psychotic murderer, etc – who met up with him not some average male squatter or copper who would be his natural adversaries. And you have said no, you would not be afraid as you know he only shot the aforementioned squatters and coppers. I didn't mean to put you on the spot, I was just very curious.

    As for me, if I first met some big imposing man on the path, of course I would be very apprehensive and a bit fearful, but if I found out he was Ned, I would feel like that I was safer than I was before as he would gallantly escort me to my destination. This would be from the time travel scenario and the being born in that time. Ned was widely known to never harm a female even then and let's not start in about the indirect situation of the Inn where the traps showed up and the people were caught in the crossfire, we are talking about one man in one place. 🙂

  12. Well Sharon with the benefit of hindsight, if I travelled back in time and Ned offered to gallantly escort me through the bush, depending on what stage of the Outbreak we were at, I would take the opportunity to tell him not to go and confront the Police at SBC because that would end badly for everyone. I would also tell him that he needed to leave the hatreds and animosities between Irish and English back in Ireland, not to import them to the new Colony, to stop being a larrikin and show-off and not to hate and be jealous of Whittys success but learn from his example , that by hard work and determination you can succeed in Australia, even if you start with nothing as Whitty did.

    Somehow I don’t think he would have taken my advice though! He was too angry, too eager to look for others to blame for his problems and too willing to look for an easy solution. – stealing, robbing from Banks and threatening anyone who got in his way.

  13. It hadn’t occurred to me that the Parkes Letter was a forgery – I thought it sounded like Ned, and I regard it as VERY poor form for Justin Corfield to suggest it was a forgery but not say why, or provide any supporting information.

    Chapter 22 of Ned Kelly Under the Microscope is titled “Analysing the handwriting” . The result of comparisons between the handwriting in the Parkes Letter and the Babington letter – the letter Ned wrote to Sgt Babington in 1870 (the “Black Snake” letter) – is reported as “Similarities Observed. Inconclusive as to common authorship”. In fact of all the comparisons that were made, this was the only one where no dissimilarities were observed. The 8 year interval between the two documents limited the comparison, but I think it would be reasonable to say that the analysis provides no support to the idea that the Parkes letter is a forgery.

    Lastly, in defence of MacFarlane, a person is no less a racist by being among a society full of them, but in my Post I wrote that that racist remark of Neds was unexceptional for the times.

  14. Justin Corfield's suggestion is that the 'denigration of the Chinese is out of character with the Gang's friendly relations with the Chinese community.'

    I have a few thoughts on the Parkes, or Bathurst letter, which appears in John Meredith and Bill Scott's book, Ned Kelly: after a century of acrimony, page 77. There is a photo of the letter itself on pages 78 and 79 and Mr Meredith located it among the Parkes correspondence in the Mitchell Library.

    I believe it to be a forgery, but for other reasons than what Justin suggested.

    To take the Chinese question first, this is the only time Ned ever showed any interest in what was happening to the labour market, of which he knew he could never again participate. The writer refers to the desperation felt by the white man and warns of desperate times to come, but there is no mention of the police, squatters or any of the others that he was far, far more averse to than the Chinese. He even gives his respects to the Sydney police, something quite different to what the real Ned would have preferred to give them.

    The whole letter does not bear a trace of the mixture of self-justification, self-pity or really bloodcurdling threats characteristic of the Cameron and Jerilderie letters. A candid threat 'that I intend to rob Bathurst and particularly the bank' does not really compare with tying people to anthills and strewing brains on the grass. The other threats are vague and indirect: 'I do not intend to be taken alive.' 'Highway robbery is in its infancy.' Surely Ned, driven mad with rage and frustration at the non-publication of the Cameron and Jerilderie letters, would have come up with something better than that. There is no passion or colour in this letter, and without the threat to rob the bank,it's a pretty boring piece of work.

    The writer's own references to himself are a bit telling in my book too. 'Captain E Kelly' sounds pretty anemic indeed next to 'a widow's son outlawed [whose] orders must be obeyed', and 'a forced outlaw.' (Jerilderie and Cameron letters respectively.) There is something a bit comic opera about the self-designation as Captain, and we know Ned always took himself very seriously indeed. Incidentally, the E Kelly signature is a bit telling to me also. Of the nine letters transcribed in Meredith's book, this is the only one not signed 'Edward Kelly.' By March 1879, the date of the purported letter, Ned was a national, indeed an international celebrity, and signing off as E Kelly seems a bit subdued (for want of a better word) to me.

    Finally, the letter itself. I'll bow with respect to the handwriting expert,Tahnee Dewhurst,in the Cormick book that observed similarities between this and the Babington letter, albeit inconclusive ones. However, as Ms Dewhurst noted, she was working from 'limited material', and it was never part of her brief to assess the style or content of the letters. Although the content is a bit mundane, the letter reads pretty well and is easy to follow, no long sentences, no rambling and a virtual lack of spelling and grammatical errors. Compared to the other letters, the punctuation is more than passable. This further cements my belief that the Parkes-Bathurst letter was written by another hand (and a rather mischievous one, at that), for reasons we will probably never know.

  15. Ah, well, so much for murmuring of sweet nothings in the moonlight! 😉

  16. A masterful analysis from Brian Stevenson! What more is there to say? I hadn’t picked up on Neds respectful greeting to the Sydney Police, but agree that is an especially uncharacteristic departure for Ned. Thanks Brian.

  17. I am glad that we have been able to draw Brian into the conversation and back into the fold.
    The first thing I thought when the letter writer said "I present my respects to the Sydney police" was that he was being very sarcastic.

  18. The many missing Ned letters might have solved the puzzle.

  19. Are there allusions or references to letters or other wrtiings (besides the Republic of NE Victoria declaration that is still not proven to exist) by Ned that remain unseen? I know that we have heard of many things Joe Byrne penned that have been lost or stolen.

  20. I think there were fifty or sixty letters from the gang, according to police. A proportion were written by Ned.

  21. Hi Sharon. Regarding these lost or stolen Joe Byrne documents. What documents are these? Were they in public collections (library or public records office)? How do we know they existed? Were they actually seen by anyone? Joe we understand was the most literate of them, but apart from the Jerilderie and Cameron letters (written on behalf of Ned) I'm not aware of any other documents that could be attributed to him. There is talk of a diary of course, and wouldn't that be a find!

  22. Clive Rigden says: Reply

    Many of the missing archival documens are mentioned in "The Kelly Gang Unmasked" book. Those letters had illustrations showing the gang shooting at police, drawings of coffins, and funeral crepe. No wonder they have vanished!

  23. I agree that Joe's diary would be the find of a lifetime

    In McMenomy he has that Sadleir said "Joe Byrne was better educated than any of his companions…and was very fond of writing, and was a bit of a poet. A great deal of his writings fell into our hands. They were chiefly directed against the police.."

    Also in McMenomy it said that "Byrne went to great lengths to shatter the detective's [Ward] nerve, sending him a constant barrage of 'poison-pen' letters between 1878 and 1880. The most original were blank sheets with renderings of coffins and wreaths; other less subtle cartoons showed the outlaws despatching him and his comrades in a variety of ways. By far the most amusing was a pseudo-reward bill which Ward said 'was a counter-blast to the Government reward offering 8,0000[pounds]…for the apprehension and delivery in Strathbogie Ranges of Captain Standish, Senior Constable Mllane and myself…"

    In The Fatal Friendship it talks about Joe writing Kelly related ballads and said "while Joe's lyrics sank into folk culture, he also conducted and coordinated 'poison pen' campaigns against such prime targets as Detective Ward and Constable Mullane – even distributing mock reward posters and caricatures for posting up in public places."

    In the notes at the back it mentions that the saddler Kinnear had a copy of one of the Kelly ballads in Joe's handwriting but that it has since disappeared.

    I don't know if any of the letters or posters that allegedly fell into police hands ever made it to archives or if they were destroyed or souvenired long ago.

  24. McMenomy beat MacFarlane by about 30 years with that info, either they both were dipping into the same well or he dipped in McM's. Still, it is good to have the information out there in several places that interesting things have gone walkabout. We best not hold our collective breath ever expecting to see any of it, but it would be a wonderful surprise if something finally turned up.

  25. Please excuse my bronx cheers!

    Missing stuff can indeed turn up again:

    A recent case involving archival estrays related to the
    capture of bushranger Ned Kelly has ended happily, with
    the return of six valuable manuscript documents which
    have been missing from the official record since around
    1935. The documents include telegrams, a proclamation
    and letters from Sir Henry Parkes, all relating to the
    Kelly Gang and the siege by police at Glenrowan.

  26. Clive Rigden says: Reply

    MacFarlane listed other missing records not mentioned in McMenomy. I hope you can hear the raspberries I'm blowing!

  27. If something as good as the Joe Byrne stuff emerges I will give a rebel yell! 🙂

    Yes, I do remember about some Kelly related telegrams being put up for auction and everyone angrily saying that they should be given back to the archives rather than profited from. I don't remember all the details right now, but that could the case you are referring to, or is it another one?

  28. The two photographs taken the day before his execution helped the legend as well. The defiant stare of the man behind the armour!

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