|The part of the house still standing at Beveridge that Red Kelly built in 1859|
In this Post I am going to retell and re-interpret the story of Ned Kellys father John Kelly. My source is mostly Ian Jones, who I think is unrivalled when it comes to the research and discovery of the pure facts of Kelly history. Its his interpretations that I have difficulties with, though in relation to John, as Jones interprets it, he is very much a victim and theres an unwritten hint of injustice, of persecution and Police harassment that adds a flavor of Kelly myth to Johns story. The ‘Kelly Myth’ is of course what was presented in 1967 by Ian Jones as “A New View of Ned Kelly”, the notion that the Kelly Outbreak arose out of Police harassment and persecution of the Kellys, whose reaction against it was supposed to have grown into a revolution led by Ned who wanted to establish a Republic in north east Victoria. I have a ‘new view of Red Kelly’ to present, and will start with just the story:
Part One : The Life of John ‘Red’ Kelly
John Kelly was Ned Kellys father and as everyone knows, he was nicknamed ‘Red’ because he had red hair. Everyone also knows that ‘Red’ came from Ireland to Australia as a 21 year old convict, his crime having been the theft of two pigs, valued at £6.
The way this fact is usually presented, such as by Peter Fitzsimons in his recent book, and on Pro Kelly websites and in the Pro-Kelly literature generally, one is left with the impression this theft was the act of a poor Irishman who stole in desperation from a wealthy landowner. Max Brown says that at the time of the theft Red was working ‘as a Ranger on Lord Ormondes Killarney Estate’ – and that’s about as much as you usually hear of this incident. But its more complicated than that.
For a start, the person robbed of two pigs, James Cooney was a peasant landholder, the same as the Kellys were. Losing two pigs could well have been a devastating blow to these battlers. “Reds crime was stock theft, pure and simple, mean and ordinary” (Ian Jones : A Short Life)
But more shocking than having stolen from fellow peasants, Red had also been an informer against them. Even though he was described by the local Police as “a notorious character”, to further supplement his income he became a Police informer. A few weeks before stealing the pigs, Red had joined two others in the theft of several cows, but Reds involvement was as a secret informer and it was a Police sting. It went wrong and one of the thieves , Patrick Regan was shot and later died. When Red was convicted of stealing the pigs, the local newspaper identified him as a Police informer. “Already branded an informer, Red now had to live with the guilt of the betrayed mans death”. (Ian Jones A Short Life) Jones suggests that the Pig Stealing incident may have been a “set up to justify his disappearance from the District”
Apparently Red never talked about his criminal history, something which Ian Jones described as ‘odd’ because he says ‘Catholic Irish saw no shame in being exiled for breaking the laws of their British rulers’. But his silence makes sense in the context of his theft from fellow peasants, and his attempts to profit from informing on them. He had a guilty secret. Sufficient to drive a man to drink.
Red was sentenced and transported to Tasmania, arriving in January 1842, where he served his sentence with a more or less clean record, being reported to be ‘quiet and good’. He was given his “Ticket of Leave” in 1845, which meant he was free to live and work wherever he wanted to in the Colony (or in other words he was released on Parole. Until re-reading about Red for this Post I hadn’t realized that a convict could get such generous Parole – half his sentence. Also, I had thought the Ticket of Leave was issued at the end of the sentence.) During that time on Parole Reds only brush with the Law was an ominous portent for his future : a fine of 5 shillings for being drunk and disorderly in 1847. In January 1848 his time was up, he received his Certificate of Freedom and he headed for Melbourne with his recently acquired experience and skill as a bush carpenter.
A couple of years later, in early 1850, Red was working outside Melbourne as a fencer and splitter, and presented himself at the home of an acquaintance he had met in a Donnybrook pub a few months before, James Quinn an ambitious Wallan farmer, fellow Irishman and family man. Red had been trying to find a partner for a scheme to set up an illegal whisky still, but ‘in the hard sober light of this new day’ the scheme had lost its appeal to James. ‘He was probably suspicious of Reds curious evasiveness about his convict background, or his readiness to pursue get-rich-quick schemes and most all perhaps of his weakness for grog’
So, as fate would have it, Red, now 30, lost a potential business partner but instead found a partner in love, James’ 18 year old daughter Ellen, who within a few months was pregnant. Six months later Ellen and Red were married in Melbourne, and in February 1851 their child, a daughter named Mary Jane was born. Sadly, she died as an infant.
By this time Red and Ellen were living in a small hut that James allowed Red to build on his rented property at Wallan, and for a while he worked for James Quinn. However, always on the lookout for an opportunity to get ahead, in 1853 Red joined the rush to find gold at Bendigo, and though he didn’t strike it rich he returned before the end of the year with enough funds to buy his own small farm of 41 acres at Beveridge, a few miles closer to Melbourne where Ellens sister and her husband also lived. By this time Ellen had given birth to Anne
The following year, 1854 was the year of the Eureka Rebellion but ‘Red avoided trouble and those trying to overthrow it. As always he was averse to quarreling and ever prone to act the part of peacemaker whenever he saw others engaged in any altercation calculated to lead to violence’ Instead, he was working his farm, and he bought more land, a half-acre in the township and built a house on it for rent. Ellen was again pregnant, and at years end gave birth to Ned.
In 1855, Reds prospects began to falter, along with those of the town as traffic took better roads around Beveridge than the one which ran through it. Red took out a £200 mortgage on his farm but then in 1857 sold it – his £615 investment had shrunk to £252. He also sold half of his town block and built a shack on the remaining ¼ acre that became the Kelly home for a couple of years, and while there Ellen gave birth to Margaret . However Red may have been down but he was not out, and he bought yet more land – another town block in 1858 and in 1859 a smaller farm lot of 21 acres for £70, where yet again he built another house, and its still standing in Beveridge today.
By the end of 1863, there were three more children in the Kelly household : James, Dan and Catherine, and the eldest three had started attending the newly opened school in Beveridge. Ned was later described as “A tall and active lad and excelled all others at school games”However, for reasons that can only be speculated upon, in January 1864 Red sold his farm and the house for £80, and moved the family 50 miles north to the more prosperous town of Avenel where for £14 a year he rented a property of 40 acres. Ian Jones suggests the move was prompted by Reds concerns about Police attention, citing the fact that in 1862 Ellen and Ned had appeared in Court as witnesses for the defense in the case of Reds brother James who was charged with cattle stealing. One presumes Red hadn’t appeared on his brothers behalf because, as a former Convict he wanted to stay out of the Police limelight, and maybe also because he guessed correctly what the verdict would be : Guilty.
But Jones also suggests other reasons: “Perhaps she (Ellen) hoped that a fresh start might help her husband break the destructive cycle of worry and whisky that was blighting their lives here” He quotes Ellen as having said ‘he was a bit fond of whisky and at times took a drop too much’
At Avenel “The family had a struggle to make ends meet but every old resident spoke well of them” According to Peter Fitzsimons Reds struggle to make a living from the farm was supplemented by selling ‘sly grog’. Despite their declining fortunes, the three eldest children continued their education at Avenel School, paying fourpence each per week.
1865 was the year Ned rescued Dick Shelton from Hughes Creek, but it was also the year that the families continuing decline into poverty became so desperate that in May, Red helped himself to one of his neighbours calves, butchering it and trying to cover his tracks by removing the brand from its hide. He was arrested for cattle stealing, a charge which was later dropped, but he was found guilty of the lesser charge of “having illegally in his possession, one cow hide”. The punishment was 6 months hard labour because the alternative, a fine of £25 was beyond their reach. Red was locked up, but received a ‘generous remission of more than two months’ and was released in October. In December he was in court again, this time for being drunk and disorderly, and was fined 5 shillings.
1865 was Reds last; this is how Ian Jones put it ; “As the year rotted away, Ned helplessly watched his father destroy himself” A couple of days after Xmas, ravaged by alcoholism, Red died, leaving behind a penniless widow and seven children. He was only 45. It was a tragic loss.
Part Two : The Mythology of Red Kelly.
In the minds of Kelly sympathisers generally, the Kelly family were relentlessly persecuted by the Police. In ‘The Inner History of the Kelly Gang’ JJ Kenneally sets the tone with this “ John Kelly was continually hounded by the Police, who without the authority of a search warrant frequently searched his home without success” Justin Corfields entry on Red says “ At Avenel John Kelly was forced to rent land from Elizabeth Mutton. However it was not long before he was in trouble with the law again’. “Again” conveys the impression that Red was a serial offender. In regard to Reds death, Kenneally has this to say “Such was the treatment to which John Kelly was subjected in the Kilmore Jail that notwithstanding his good health and perfect physique when sentenced, he died shortly after his release. Broken in health he now sold his farm to conduct a Hotel at Avenel;. Shortly after his arrival at Avenel, John Kelly died”. Almost every statement in those two sentences is factually completely untrue.Pure myth.
The Kelly myth about Red is that he was a poor Irish peasant who was Transported for a petty crime, but we have seen that it was a lot more complicated than that. He stole from fellow peasants and informed against them. If he had remained in County Tipperary, Ireland he may well have been killed as a traitor.
The Kelly Myth is that in Van Diemans land where he was a convict, he endured 7 years of brutal deprivation and misery, but we have seen that for half of that time he was free to live and work wherever he liked.
The Kelly myth is that once Red gained his freedom both he and his family were monitored and constantly harassed because he was formerly a convict, but in fact there were no interactions between John Kelly, or Ellen and the police from the time Red gained his freedom till the last year of his life. By then, because of drought, and the failure of his farm because of his declining health that was in turn a result of the ravages of alcoholism he and his family were almost destitute and he was desperate.
The Kelly myth is that the Police were corrupt and treated John Kelly harshly, yet the charge of calf stealing was dropped even though it was plainly obvious the calf had been stolen by him, he was sentenced on a lesser charge and then given a “generous” remission of his sentence.
The Kelly myth is that Police mistreatment led to his premature death, but we have seen that from a young age he was a heavy drinker, he became an alcoholic and it was complications of alcoholism which ultimately killed him. So what should we say about Red?
The New View of Red
After disentangling the truth about Red Kelly from the strident anti-Police Kelly myths, a number of things are abundantly clear, and these are what I want to present as my ‘new view’ of Red.
The first is that Red Kelly and his family were NOT hounded and persecuted by Police. In fact they had very little to do with the Police during Reds lifetime, other than Ellen and Neds probably misguided attempt to provide an alibi for her brother, and Reds two arrests, 18 years apart for drunkenness. He was not a serial offender and the Police were NOT constantly searching his house. The same could not be said for Ellens family, the Quinns who were constantly before the courts on a variety of criminal charges, but its apparent that Red did his best to keep well out of their way and out of the way of the Police.
The second thing about Red that has to be said is that he was a hard working ‘battler’ who, once he gained his freedom, never ceased to look for an opportunity to make a better life for himself and his family. If one venture failed he moved on and tried again, if that failed he moved again, and right to the end he never gave up trying to provide for his ever growing family. He used his bush carpentry skills to get work, he went looking for gold, he bought and sold property, he built houses, he was a landlord, he moved from Wallan to Beveridge and when it was failing to Avenel when it was prospering, he farmed and fenced and felled trees, he seemed to use every legitimate resource he had at his disposal to try to get ahead.
It was only at the very end, in desperation after so many failures and when even his health was failing that he yielded to temptation and resorted to crime.
The other truth about Red Kelly, the truth that inserted itself into every corner of his life, was his addiction to alcohol. I sense that John ‘Red’ Kelly was at heart a good man whose entire adult life was blighted by a couple of disastrous choices he made as a younger man in Ireland and forever regretted. I sense that for all of his life after the conviction in Ireland he carried an enormous burden of guilt about what had happened to Patrick Regan, and a deep regretful shame for having been a Police informer. He hid it from everyone for ever after, and this guilty Catholic secret is what drove him to work for a better future , to try to make amends for his sins , to work hard and stay out of trouble, but it was also what drove him to drink. And so, as long as Red was alive, he kept the Kelly family together and made sure they stayed out of trouble. His children were liked at school, and were well behaved, and were getting an education. This was the time when Ned rescued Dick Shelton. Ellen was reported to be known as a great horsewoman and someone who would often ride out to help people in trouble. Red was obviously a man who wasn’t afraid of hard work. He was described as a peacemaker, and at Avenel ‘every old resident spoke well of them’. Its easy to understand why Ned would have believed of his father that ‘a better man never stepped in two shoes’
In remarkable contrast to Reds example of keeping out of the way of the Police, of being a peace maker, of working hard and trying to improve the lot of his family and getting his kids educated, Reds brother James, and Ellen’s siblings and their husbands and associates were accumulating convictions and prison sentences that were identifying themselves to police as a criminal network. Appendix 3 in McQuiltons book lists 18 charges that were laid against Quinns, Lloyds and James Kelly between 1860 and 1865 – but none against Red or Ellen.
And then Red died.
The peacemaker and family man, the battler who stayed out of trouble and battled demons to raise an honest family was only 45, and he left behind a penniless widow and 7 likeable children. Suddenly, with Red gone it became apparent what a great and positive influence his presence had been on them all. Within a year, Reds practice of avoiding anything to do with the Law had been abandoned by Ellen, as she took a sister-in-law to court for assault – and lost. A few months later she took her landlord to Court and lost again, and her son Ned, now 13 came under suspicion in relation to a missing horse in Avenel. Then, in a further but understandable break with her late husbands practice of keeping away from his criminal in-laws, Ellen left Avenel and moved to Greta to be near her sisters, who were by then married to Lloyds, and some of them were already behind bars. She and her children were moving into the circle of influence of the criminal Quinns and Lloyds, and only now did they start to become noticed by the Police. Ellen took to illegal selling of ‘sly grog’, and she received visits from undesirables whom Red would never have let in. The first was her brother-in-law James. Fresh out of prison for Cattle stealing, and drunk, his advances rejected by Ellen, he burned down the house Ellen and her sisters and children were living in and was sentenced to death ( Later commuted to 15 years) Not long after that, Harry Power came knocking on their door, and before long Ned was receiving his introduction to the easy money of the criminal life, the hypnotic power of a loaded gun, contempt for Police and disrespect for the rights of private citizens. Somehow I think if Red had still been there, the reception these two men received at that door would have been very different indeed, and the regrettable consequences of their visits on Kelly history altogether different. Neds influences as he entered puberty wouldn’t have been Harry and the notorious Quinns and Lloyds, and the antics of the Greta mob, but a peacemaker, a good man who in the end couldn’t overcome the demons that followed him from Ireland where, as a young man a couple of bad decisions would ultimately change Australian history forever.
So the New View of Red Kelly is this : he was a good man who made a couple of fatefully rotten decisions as a young man. He accepted responsibility for what he had done and never complained, instead battling all his life to make amends while at the same time trying to drown his guilt in drink. As long as he was alive, the trajectory his family were on was positive, and the Police had no interest in the Kellys. However once he had gone, the influence of the Quinns, the in-laws, overwhelmed the good example he had tried to set, the Kellys came to the attention of the Police and his sons and Ned in particular became people I am sure Red would never have approved of.
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