These two shorter lectures featured the rising star of the modern Kelly phenomenon, Ian Jones, aged 36 at the time, described as ‘a former journalist and a television producer-director’ who had by then been a student of Kelly history for twenty-five years.
In the first Lecture, ‘The Kellys and Beechworth’, Jones mostly recounts the relationship between Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt, who first met when at the Woolshed School, not far from Beechworth. Later Aaron bought land and Joe helped him work it, but ‘they got into all sorts of scraps’. Jones says he spoke to Joes sister shortly before her death in 1964, and she told him that Joe met Jim Kelly when they were both serving time, and it was through Jim that Joe met Ned, and they then became close friends. He says that they were ‘particulary good looking, well dressed young men’ who could easily pass themselves off as young squatters, a fact which they made use of when stealing horses. The two of them, along with Aaron Sherritt and Dan Kelly and possibly also Steve Hart would take stolen horses to an unknown property perhaps in NSW and trick the owner into signing a transaction whereby Joe, arriving later and pretending not to know Ned, would ’buy’ one or two of the stolen horses from Ned. This created a legal document on the landholder’s notepaper which would then facilitate the sale of the animals for a handsome price in Melbourne. ‘This was a spectacularly successful ruse which the Kellys pulled off many times’.
Jones discusses Aarons admiration, almost hero-worship of Ned, who Aaron said was the only person he was ever afraid of. By chance it would seem Aaron was absent when the Stringybark Creek police murders took place, so Aaron was never identified as a gang member, though he scouted for the Gang when they fled the scene and headed for the Murray. On another occasion, according to Ian Jones, Aaron helped Joe Byrne escape capture by the police and in so doing ‘he let the £2000 reward slip happily through his fingers’ Later, Aaron entered into an ambiguous relationship with the Police, and later still when Police moved in to Aarons hut everyone supposed it was to protect Aaron because it was thought he was about to betray the gang. Ian Jones said that Aaron was still regarded as a traitor in 1967, even by Sherritt descendants still living in the area, an attitude that he thought was ‘strange’ – the suggestion that Aaron did NOT betray the Gang ‘has already proved unpopular’ he said. However, rather tentatively he then declared that ‘a critical evaluation of all available evidence fails to prove that Sherritt ever did one thing to bring the police pursuit any closer to the Kelly Gang.’
Aarons murder is described as ‘the keystone of the Glenrowan campaign.’
In the rather brief discussion following the lecture, Aarons relationships with various local women were discussed. At one time, after his engagement to Joes sister Kate was called off, Aaron had been pursuing Neds sister Kate. Jones mentioned ‘an unpublished manuscript in my possession’ that contained suggestions of a ‘mild flirtation’ between Kate Kelly and Fitzpatrick. In reference to the Fitzpatrick incident, supposedly triggered by Fitzpatrick making some sort of a pass at Kate, he says it ‘may not have offended Kate terribly’ and reports that a Kelly descendant showed him ‘the exact spot’ in the Kelly family home – which was still standing and intact in the 1950’s – where Fitzpatrick was sitting when it all happened.
The next lecture in the Symposium was described as ‘Kelly – the Folk-Hero. A Recital by Ian Jones and Glen Tomasetti.’ I had never heard of Glen Tomasetti, and was surprised to learn Glen was a woman, a popular folk musician of the time, and an influential political activist and writer. In 1967, apart from appearing at the Symposium in Wangaratta, according to Wikipedia she went to court for withholding one sixth of her Tax bill, saying that this was the proportion of Government income that was spent on the war in Vietnam, and as she didn’t support the war so she was withholding it! It appears that Ian Jones lecture included performances by Glen of several of the popular Kelly folk songs of the time, the words of which are included in the book along with a few lines of written music. Both presenters were focussed on portrayals of the heroic character of Ned Kelly the folk-hero, and the popular imagery of Legend, though at the start Ian Jones expresses a view that the Legend, the Folk-hero is close to being the truth about him: ‘the Kelly story itself has the quality and stature of Legend’. Its obvious by the words that Ian Jones spoke, and the words of the songs sung by Glen Tomasetti that this lecture was not an appeal to the minds of the audience but to their hearts, with long quotes from Max Brown, from the Jerilderie letter and this from Jon Clow “No matter what his faults were he is the father of our national courage and the heart of our literature” He also recounted from a series of letters the effect on the Police of the hunt for Ned Kelly, saying “I have here some letters written by a most remarkable Policeman, Robert Graham of whom you have probably never heard” They were love letters detailing the frustrations of courting a young woman far away whilst engaged in the hunt for the dangerous Kelly Gang of Police Killers. Graham wrote “ I must certainly say that I feel very lonely up here. I have to thank you very much for the wave of the handkerchief on the day I left Camperdown. Although I have not written to you I have by no means forgot to think of you. In fact you are always uppermost in my mind”.
The lecture ends with Ian Jones reading a long account of Neds execution, so that I imagine by the end of it, the audience would have been emotionally exhausted and keen to get out of the Hall and have a cup of tea and a scone!
There are three fascinating things that particularly caught my attention, in relation to these two lectures. The first was to realise that for many in the audience, and later reading the Book that resulted, much of this information is new and exciting. In 2017 for example we’re all very familiar with ‘The Fatal Friendship’ and the notion that Aaron probably didn’t betray the Gang, but in 1967 that book hadn’t been written and that idea was new and challenging. We’ve all heard of Robert Graham and his later role in bringing peace to the North East, but in 1967 Ian Jones said to the audience “you’ve probably never heard of him”. So much would have been new that the Symposium must have been an exciting revelation to many.
The second thing that became apparent to me was how deeply Ian Jones had involved himself in the search for the true story, how extensively he had probed and hunted about for people and documents and places, tracking down leads and oral history and artefacts with intense focus. It must have been then, and still is today quite astonishing to read his casual announcement of being in possession of this or that document or manuscript, or managing to track down at almost the last minute survivors from that very time such as Joe Byrnes sister, and making public thoughts and details and insights never before known.
And this leads to my third observation : Ian Jones, because of the depth of his knowledge and the obvious passion and the integrity of his search, was absolutely dominant at this symposium. His voice was already the most authoritative one in every discussion after each lecture, and his opinion was rarely challenged. And yet, it was clear after having been studying and doing Kelly history research for 15 years by then, Jones had the very firm opinion of Ned Kelly, that he was indeed heroic and almost superhuman, that the truth about him ‘had the quality and stature of legend’. Looking back, we can see he has never wavered from that conviction, and all his lifes Kelly work has been focussed on building and sustaining that image.
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