A Review of a ‘Myth-busting book’

I have just received this from ‘ Horrie’, an anonymous but regular contributor to this Blog and other debates, who submitted it as a comment for one of the existing discussions. However I thought it such an important review that it would be better to make it into a Post, so I hope he won’t object to it getting the Star treatment. Ive also received a submission from Anonymous about an upcoming Exhibition which will go up as a Post after this one in a few more days. I am still waiting for Marks promised article on Sir Redmond Barry – these contributions are much appreciated. The interest in Peter Newmans article about the Photo has generated more interest than ANY of the Posts Ive ever made, which is actually fantastic, knowing that clever people interested in the Kelly story want to contribute and participate in the Blog and support me: 

A pal sent me a partial review of the Morrissey book, which is I think from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria journal or maybe The Age:

Doug Morrissey, Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life, Connor Court, Ballarat, 2015, pbk, ISBN
9781925138481, xv + 256 pp, $32.95.

‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’ was Lady Caroline Lamb’s pithy description of Lord Byron but, as Doug Morrissey shows, the words might be even more appropriately applied to Ned Kelly. With irrational delusions that merged into paranoia Kelly was a career criminal, in an organised network of criminals, for whom extreme violence was simply part of his stock in trade. He lived A Lawless Life — as the subtitle indicates — but the scale and nature of his violent criminality is all too often either ignored or excused by his biographers. Ned’s modern equivalent in organised crime might be the leader of an outlaw motor-cycle gang,with fingers in many criminal pies (but especially in the re-birthing of stolen cars),ready to use extreme violence including murder to advance his plans or evade arrest, and generally indifferent to the mores of society at large. 
It is hard to imagine that such a figure, whose behaviour would be condemned by all except his fellow gang-members and, perhaps, their families, could ever have a sympathetic and romantic mythology develop around his activities. But Ned Kelly,with his bloodthirsty gang whose behaviour outraged the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries, has generated a literature and framed a popular perception that, most often, places him somewhere on the martyrdom spectrum. This sentiment is at the heart of Peter FitzSimons’ Ned Kelly: The Story of Australia’s Most Notorious Legend (2013) and is merely the latest reworking of the popular myths.
Morrissey’s book is more than a simple account of A Lawless Life. It is an important revisionary attack on the dominant historiography with its ‘old cliches and metaphors’ and he highlights the limited research and repetition of multiple errors that are characteristic of most Kelly biographies.
This myth-busting book, assisted by John Hirst’s valuable editing, reflects Morrissey’s deep knowledge of Kelly Country and its people and provides an important counterweight to the familiar, generally sympathetic and overly romantic accounts of Kelly’s life and exploits. 

In the popular imagination, fostered it must be said by some fairly indifferently researched accounts, Ned Kelly’s criminal history and murderous activities are whitewashed and transformed into several enduring and endearing myths that present him as a precursor of ‘the little Aussie battler’. Among other things, he was the victim of police persecution who fought back; he was pushed into crime by circumstances beyond his control; he was a latter-day Robin Hood who stood up for the peasant selectors in their land war against the squatters; he was an Australian-born Irish patriot and a native republican. Morrissey exposes the foolishness of these, and several other myths associated with Australia’s most notorious bushranger. 
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27 Replies to “A Review of a ‘Myth-busting book’”

  1. I have been waiting for someone else to report on this! It was just in the news a few days ago that Doug Morrissey's "Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life" has been shortlisted for the 2016 Prime Minister's Literary Awards in the Prize for Australian History category. The overall winner in each category gets $80,000 and the others shortlisted get $5,000 each.


  2. Sharon Hollingsworth says: Reply

    Just saw this article where Doug Morrissey weighs in with his thoughts on the funding for saving the Beveridge house and, of course, Ian Jones gives his which is polar opposite to Morrissey's. Also, this is the first time I have ever seen a photo of him!


  3. Anonymous says: Reply

    I tend to agree with Doug's thoughts on this that public money should not be used to fund the restoration. But once again it seems that Kelly supporters still have some clout with the Victorian Government. And of course there are vested commercial interests in expanding the 'Kelly Heritage Trail'. However, I am pleased to note that Ian Jones has emerged from his apparent exile to comment. Now if only he would pay a visit to this blog!

  4. Anonymous says: Reply

    That's terrific news Sharon and even the fact that the book is short-listed, may well give it some public prominence and consequently more readers. As we have discussed here before, the problem with much of the Kelly mythology is that anything published which is contradictory to its chiseled-in-stone rote is generally unknown. Well done Doug and best of luck.

  5. The Border Mail is not well known for its balanced reporting of Ned Kelly stories. At least this one gave Doug Morrissey a tiny go. Jones's "baddie school" label for Morrissey's book is laughable nonsense. Jones had access to the archival records earlier but was very choosy about which ones he would include in his books. Morrissey took the publish and be damned approach. History will decide who was right.

  6. I do hope Doug Morrissey wins the PM's literary award. I met him decades ago when he was doing his groundbreaking PhD research at PRO Laverton. He impressed me then and all the more so now with his wonderful book.

  7. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    Neither Kelly nor any of the other bushrangers remotely resembled Robin Hood, as Boxhall’s 1899 “Australian Bushrangers” directly stated, and Hobsbawm’s third world ‘social bandits’ have never existed in Australia.

    Alex McDermott commented that Morrissey’s work “shows conclusively that the wide-scale stock theft then current in the region was largely specific to a close-knit group of people who were not representative of the local selector population.” In other words, there was nothing to separate the Kelly gang from any other group of organised marauders who preyed on their nearby poor selector neighbours’ stock as readily and more frequently as any raids on the squatters.

    Morrissey’s work is also a balanced treatment of history; what offends the pro-Kelly lobby is that he doesn’t worship at the altar of Ned as they think any proper historian should.

  8. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    It is great to see Doug Morrissey’s “Lawless Life” book shortlisted for the Australian History prize. His original 1987 PhD thesis, "Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves: A Social History of the Kelly Country", was a brilliant and minutely detailed examination of the human geography of Kelly-era stock theft in NE Victoria, supported by extensive fieldwork and interviews, and resulted in some first rate published articles.

    He was encouraged to revisit the topic with a view to a book by his old supervisor, John Hirst, one of Australia’s best known and respected historians. Morrissey’s recent “Lawless Life” is wider ranging than his thesis, but the core chapters review that original investigation and present its findings in readable plain English.

    His thesis was a response to John McQuilton’s 1979 book, “The Kelly Outbreak 1788–1880; the geographical dimension of social banditry”, itself a revamp of McQuilton’s own PhD. McQuilton applied Eric Hobsbawm’s Marxist theory of social banditry to the Kelly outbreak. As a thesis topic it was I suppose innovative, testing a theory in an Australian context, and so he became Dr McQuilton.

    At that time humanities in most Australian universities was dominated by Marxism, and I remember doing ‘Revolutionary Theories and Movements’ as a Monash undergraduate a few years later. But even in its day the relevance of Hobsbawn’s theory was disputed by many anthropologists and sociologists. It was an ideological, not an observational construction, and, as Morrissey’s work shows, it is not applicable to the social structures here.

    His research demolished the basis for the ‘social bandit’ view promulgated by McQuilton, which has nevertheless persisted due to longstanding biases about squatters vs. selectors, underpinned by the left-leaning Manning Clark and another extraordinarily influential Australian socialist historian, Russel Ward. I have no problem with socialist historians, but ideology does not excuse selective evidence and wilful misrepresentation of demonstrable facts to fit a theory.

  9. Anonymous says: Reply

    Wonderful to see the ever-brightening light of truth at last.

  10. Google Alert Ned Kelly says: Reply

    The Courier – reporter Anthony Bunn
    Big Ned Kelly ‘should be demolished’ -Leo Kennedy

  11. Jesse Gray says: Reply

    Its possible – even likely – that the Beveridge Kelly family home will become a shrine because there are so many dimwits in Australia that mistakenly admire the Kelly Gang of cop killers.

    When I visited the Eleven Mile Creek Kelly home years ago, the owner told me that these fools had been stealing bricks from the chimneys of the former Kelly home. But these brick chimneys were added by a later owner and had nothing to do with when the Kelly family occupied the building.

    The Victorian government should ensure there are plenty of CCTV cameras at the Beveridge site to prevent petty pilfering by the dumb Kelly Gang souvenir hunters.

  12. Anonymous says: Reply

    With Gerard Henderson as chair of the judging of the History Prize and Institute of Public Affairs warrior and Redmond Barry fanboy Peter Coleman and Dr Ida Lichter from the Sydney Institute – run by Gerard Henderson, The Windschuttlean theories of Morrissey are guaranteed the gong. No partisan academics here, well no Marxist partisan academics at least. ( "What's a Marxist mummy?" )

    Love to all from Captain Jack.

    Before you accuse me of bias, I'm wearing my Redmond Barry T shirt which is emblazoned with his portrait and the famous quote "You will be hanged by the neck until you be dead"

    Too right Red!

  13. Following on from Sharon's links – 1 Million $ for Ned Kelly's home-

    I wonder if there is any proof the Kelly family actually lived in that house?

    I have copy of land conveyances signed by John Kelly concerning seven (7) house blocks in the township of Beveridge, Parish of Merriang, County of Bourke, all land purchases around Jan through April 1854.

    They are blocks 10, 11, 12 in section nine, blocks 38, 39 and 41 on section fourteen.
    No 41 being the existing 'Kelly' house site.

    There was also a forty acre block just north of the township being a portion of the 640 acre ( 1 Sqr Mile) allotment No 22, – and keeping in mind diagonally opposite adjoining to the N East was the Arrowsmith Sqr Mile block No 28, rented by Ellen Quinn's father James, and on which John Kelly had built a snug little hut for himself and his new bride Ellen. It was here that Mary Jane was (probably) born in 1851, Anne 1853 and most likely Edward (Ned) as well in 1854/5

    Do we know anything of the other houses John Kelly built on those 6 other blocks as a 'speck builder' it is therefore unlikely Ned was born at No 41 or that he ever lived there.

    If there is anyone out there that has better information to the contrary please make a comment here or contact me at http://www.ironicon.com.au

    Please see 2005 report Where was Ned Kelly Born

  14. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    If Redmond Barry was here I'd give him fifteen years

  15. Jimmy Forster says: Reply

    I hate to mention this, but Lady Caroline Lamb was Lord Melbourne's wife who dawdled with Lord Byron. She sent him a snippet of hair from her privates which eventually ended up in a London institution. From there, the snippet was stolen and has never been recovered. True story.

    This leads me to the many missing archival documents about the Ned Kelly case detailed in "The Kelly Gang Unmasked" book, which the author suggests might have been part of a systematic pilfering of the records and leaving us today unable to ever know the whole Kelly story.

    The Australian nation has been robbed!

  16. Kev Tyson says: Reply

    Get off the grog, Captain! More baloney.

    Historical dabbler Windschuttle generally is a denier of atrocities against the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, who have all but vanished. I don't think Windschuttle has ever mentioned Ned – but please correct me if I am wrong

  17. Redmond Barry defended Truganini and other Aborigines of murder charges in the early 1840s in Melbourne. You'll have to read "1842: The Public Executions at Melbourne" for details…

  18. In the Herald Sun Doug Morrissey has done an op-ed piece entitled "Author Says Celebrating Ned Kelly Insults Law Abiding People." Can't do a link to it as the first time I was able to get to it but the second time it was behind a subscriber paywall. In it he starts out saying that the government is spending money to refurbish the house the bushranger was born in at Beveridge. It goes down hill from there.

    Ok, nowhere did the government say that Ned was born in that house, did they? It was allegedly his childhood home, having probably moved in there when he was around 4 years old.

    I am not going to get into that whole quagmire of the exact coordinates of where (or when) Ned was born, but will try to address the allegations that he and his family ever actually lived in the house in question. Some time ago Marian Matta sent me a large envelope full of printouts regarding the house and the various submissions and reports to trusts and councils. There is a great deal of material in it to wade through, but Marian's "SUBMISSION TO THE HISTORIC BUILDINGS COUNCIL RE. THE KELLY HOUSE AT BEVERIDGE" which was part of the packet seems to neatly summarize things.

    excerpt from the letter-

    "The Memorial Records show that between 1854 and 1864 John Kelly owned various pieces of land at various times in the Beveridge area. A comparison of the signatures on these land transactions and those on the Kelly children birth certificates show that we are dealing with the right John Kelly. The block upon which the house in question is situated was purchased on 10 February 1859 from Charles McDougall (refer Memorial Record Book 82 #806, Annex A) and thus would not have been the place where Ned was born. The block was sold on 16 January 1864 to James Stewart (refer Memorial Record Book 235 #645 Annex B). In March 1864 Ned and Margaret Kelly were recorded as being pupils at Avenel School. Thus, taking property, birth, and school records into consideration, it would be safe to assume that the Kelly family occupied Lot 41 for the majority of the period February 1859 to January 1864, when Ned would have been approximately four to nine years old.
    To establish whether the actual building was owned by the Kellys I must use oral evidence. In his book "Ned Kelly", Keith McMenomy states that in the 1960s he interviewed Miss Patience Stewart, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. James Stewart, and purchaser of the block in 1958. Miss Stewart related to him her mother's account of moving into the house when it was first bought and her description as it was in 1864. Local historian J.W. Payne interviewed a daughter-in-law of James Stewart for his book "A History of Beveridge". In his book Payne states "The small house John (Kelly) built for his bride still stands as a nucleus of larger additions…"

  19. Anonymous says: Reply

    Have to be a subscriber to open it.

  20. Jimmy Nelson says: Reply

    There are workarounds, Spudee, Herald Sun just want to load a snooping cookie. Turn off your cookie barrier and you will see the article.

    I'm betting that Doug has belatedly discovered that interest in Ned Kelly is almost non-existent nowadays, which of course affects book sales.

    His research deserves much better than this. I wanna see his vols 2 & 3 of the trilogy. Buy his book!

  21. Thanks Jimmy, I tried that but still no luck. Not too worry.

  22. Jimmy Nelson says: Reply

    Read the HS article today from yesterday's paper. Not a lot different to the article in the Border Mail. Doug, like you, doesn't want Ned remembered at all. Given all his extensive research among the archival documents, his opinion needs careful thought!!!

    Aussies are good at making history disappear. Nowdays you have to really hunt to find the historical sites.

  23. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    The Beveridge restoration idea is obviously divisive. That is why it was let fall into disrepair, as the property owners were well aware that any restoration would cause sparks. I agree with Doug and Spudee, government money should not be put into this. Leave it to a private venture. Should we do state heritage restorations of the childhood homes of Mad Dog Morgan and Pierce the cannibal bushranger? It’s hard to tell much difference between one mass murderer and another.

    I have no issues with privately funded tourist attractions whatever the cause, and have enjoyed repeat visits to some on the Kelly trail myself. The faithful reproduction of the Kelly hut behind the Kate’s Cottage Museum in Glenrowan is brilliant. In December 2014 the owners advised me that, “The previous owner, Nannette Green who is now dead, had the hut built about 35-37 years ago. … About 16 years ago we had the roof redone in the old Stringybark slabs. It took three years for the timber cutter to collect enough to cover it. Unfortunately we are no longer able to get the bark because those trees are rare and protected now. We would love it to be redone now but with what???” [Note from me: can anyone help here?] “Re the dimensions of the building, back 29 years ago, a descendant of the Kelly's told me that the previous owner whom she knew well had come out and taken meticulous measurements of the original site out at Glenrowan West ( Greta) before building the replica. This same lady had commented on the deep fireplace and stated that as a child she had sat in there with her sister reading. She said that Mrs Kelly, her Grandmother, was not house proud, they were very poor and struggled to make a living and that the hut was VERY basic. She said "don't try and tizzy it up because it was not like that". It’s a great private venture, and that’s as it should be.

    There have been a couple of past mentions of crowd funding to create a Ned Kelly museum, and that’s fine if people want to do it. It’s their money and they can do what they like with it. But not a cent of state government funds should be put into it. The heritage people need a reality check and some broader historical awareness than reading popular simplistic Kelly myths.

    I recently visited the Wild Colonial Boys exhibition at the Treasury Buildings – on until mid-2017 – to photograph Dan Kelly’s armour, and the State Library for Ned Kelly’s armour. Both suits were designed for top frontal body protection only, so the angels of death could stand on top of a culvert indiscriminately shooting down at any survivors of a derailed train. Only the courage of the limping teacher Curnow prevented that disaster.

    Anyone silly enough to think the Kelly gang armour indicates bravery should watch the ABC video, “Outlawed: The Real Ned Kelly” (2014) on YouTube. At the section from 37:40 – 39:33 minutes on the video, John McQuilton shows Judith Douthie at the Glenrowan rail bend how the armour would have worked in the planned derailment massacre.

    It was a sickening deliberate plan from a homicidal psychopath. No matter what bizarre cultural appeal he might have, Kelly is not a suitable subject for public funding. Build a Curnow monument instead.

  24. RE Google Alert Doug Morrissey article says: Reply

    Yeh, I see that’s what they now do.
    Just Google ' celebrating Ned Kelly insults law-abiding people ' and click on the link

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