Book Review : The Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia

A Gatling gun – one of these was NOT taken by Police to Stringybark Creek

I’m going to make this weeks post a short one because frankly, Ive been very busy with work, and haven’t had as much free time as I usually have for writing Posts. This Post will be especially of interest I hope to people who own Justin Corfields “Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia”, one of the ‘must-have’ books for anyone seriously interested in the Kelly story. I would go so far as to say if you call yourself a Kelly fan and don’t have this book then you’re not serious. I use it all the time.
About a week ago there was a rather unpleasant debate on the True Story Facebook page regarding a Kelly fanciers assertion that the Police took a Gatling Gun to Stringybark Creek. That suggestion has never been made anywhere else anywhere at any time as far as I know, but the Kelly fancier refused to back down, and wouldn’t volunteer the evidence or his sources for his extraordinary claim. With the internet and Google being what they are, finding out  what a Gatling gun is and what it looks like is ridiculously easy, and anyone who bothered to do so would quickly realise the absurdity of the suggestion  that one was dragged into the rugged impenetrable Wombat Ranges in the hunt for Ned and Dan. Eventually, the person who made the suggestion disappeared, cursing and swearing in typical Kelly fancier style.
During this time, I looked at what Justin Corfield had to say about guns used in the outbreak, and though I realise that most Kelly fanciers would not need to own Corfields book – because they already know everything – the entry about Guns might please them but it surprised me, because I thought it created a picture not unlike the one Kelly fanciers believe and I often have seen them claim about SBC, that the Police were ‘armed to the teeth’. Ive never thought that was the case.
There’s much information that’s interesting in this entry, and Corfield writes “There has been much debate over the weapons used at Stringybark Creek”. He goes on to describe the weapons the Gang used and acquired during the holdup and subsequently, and recounts how they got each of them and what happened to them. By the time they got to Glenrowan Corfield says the Gang had ‘at least 15 revolvers, two double barrelled shot-guns, four single-shot rifles, three single-shot carbines,  four repeating rifles and the original sawn off carbine used at Stringybark Creek” Funny that nobody ever says the Gang was armed to the teeth, but of course they were! Corfield says that Neds carbine, the one he said could shoot round corners and that was held together with string, ended up at the Museum of Applied Science in the 1950’s ‘until it was thrown away’ !! What?? Thrown away? By whom? And why? Unfortunately here Corfield provides no further information about this appalling blunder!
Once the narrative documenting the Gangs armoury is completed he finally turns to the Police weaponry in a paragraph that begins:
“The Victoria Police were also heavily armed. The mounted troopers were armed with a Webley revolver and Colt revolvers were issued to foot police. There were also twenty-two .577 calibre single-shot  Enfield rifles distributed among the police of the region. With the shooting of the three Policemen at SBC the Police were issued with four more Spencer repeating rifles, eighty-six breech loading rifles, sixty two Martini-Henri rifles and 256 revolvers.”
All-in-all this does sound like the police were ‘armed to the teeth’, as Kelly sympathisers often say. However, when it comes to SBC this was most definitely not the case. The only additional arms police took to SBC in addition to their standard issue revolvers were a shotgun borrowed from a local Reverend, and a Spencer rifle borrowed from a gold escort the day before they left Mansfield. When the Kelly gang of four with two rifles and a revolver ambushed the two police remaining in the Camp, all the unsuspecting policemen had between them was Lonigans revolver – as near as they could be to being unarmed.  ( Ignorant Kelly fanciers usually say this was a fair fight for gods sake!)  Corfield listed carefully exactly what guns the Kelly’s took to SBC, but neglects to do the same thing with what the police had, and as I pointed out starts his descriptions of police arms with “The Victoria police were also heavily armed”.  In regard to what happened at SBC this is clearly a misrepresentation, and a serious one, given the contentious nature of that terrible incident. One has to assume this oversight wasn’t deliberate but it was surely careless. 
In fact, the more I make use of Corfield’s encyclopaedia, the more I realise its author has a distinct pro-kelly bias, as indicated in this entry, where the Kelly  myth about police being armed to the teeth at SBC is perpetuated.
There’s a review of this encyclopdia  HERE. It was written by Alex McDermott, a Kelly scholar of yesteryear who has in the past debated Ian Jones and published a commentary of the Jerilderie letter. Sadly he seems to have dropped out of the Kelly debates ( though I suppose he could be Dee! ) Like me he thinks this encyclopedia ‘is a collection of marvels, built on significant flaws.’ By flaws he refers to the influence of Corfield’s Kelly-sympathetic upbringing on how he chooses to portray the events and people he includes and what he choses to ignore.  McDermott says “I challenge the reader to find in this extensive and voluminous work any one incriminating fact, moment, incident or detail that is not justified, explained away, interpreted with a sympathy that at times suggests prejudice.” 

Overall though, his review is positive, because much of what the encyclopedia covers isn’t in the least bit controversial. It’s the best reference book by a long way, but one has to be aware of its shortcomings. Copies can still be found at Abebooks for $60 – $70 , and I just saw a second hand one advertised on Amazon for $650!! 
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17 Replies to “Book Review : The Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia”

  1. Alex McDermott said in that review, "Corfield has been bewitched, at an early age I think. This depth of awe and affection has structured the project accordingly. Kelly was a prominent member of this network of clan, friends and professional associates who derived the bulk of their ready cash from thieving, rebranding, transporting and selling horses and cattle. It is vital to any proper understanding of the Kelly phenomenon. You will not find it in this book." You can say that again. It is the sort of Encyclopaedia Jones can gloat over. It only has what he approved of. A lot of its references quote him. It is another pro-Kelly book for Kelly fanatics. It usually goes for $35-50 on eBay but sometimes less. It is NOT "the best reference book by a long way." Put it on the half-fiction shelf.

  2. If its not the best reference book, which one would you say is a better one?

    Whenever I want to know who someone was or who married whom and when, and any of the basic facts of geography and personality thats where I go, and it saves a lot of time!

  3. OK Dee, it may be CONVENIENT but it is not RELIABLE. You have to double check everything in case he's made it up. Look at the drivel under "Republic of North-Eastern Victoria" presented as facts about "Ned Kelly's idea". How many little twerps did he indoctrinate with that while he was a history teacher at Geelong Grammar School? It's cover to cover Kelly myths with a few facts thrown in.

  4. Corfield's is the ONLY Kelly encyclopedia.

    Despite its merits/flaws I use it infrequently.

    I like:

    Meredith, John and Bill Scott. Ned Kelly: After a Century of Acrimony, Lansdowne Press, Sydney, 1980.

    Jones, Graham. Ned Kelly: The Larrikin Years, Charquin Hill Publishing, Victoria, 1990.

    Meredith and Scott cover the Ned letters and Police Royal Commission rather well. Graham Jones covers Ned's criminality in detail and from original sources.

    But commendable Corfield covers a lot more ground, but without the detail provided by the areas of the books I mention.

  5. Dave Blake says: Reply

    Hey Dee —– you've forgotten that "Historian Brad Webb has written the essential guide the Kelly legacy, with wonderful quotes and rely seen images to accompany his text and trivia. This book is a must for any library, and has plenty to offer those who think they know the full story of the Kelly Gang".


  6. Ive got Meredith and Scotts book, which I agree is rather good because it has all those transcripts. I should do a review of it one of these days. As for Graham Jones , I've yet to see a copy of that, so will start looking! ( So many Jones' in the Kelly story – Ann Jones, Johnny Jones, Ian Jones, Graham and of course Barry who went looking for the "Declaration'!)

  7. Anonymous says: Reply

    Ok. So the Ryan's have come back to comment.

    The Ned Kelly Encyclopedia by Mr Corfield has a good Chronology.
    And,on an occasion when some of us chatted with the friendly and enthusiastic guides at the Beechworth Museum Court house complex we were shown a very well used copy of this book, that we were told, at the time, was used constantly.
    The copy that we have utilised is dated published at 2003, which doesn't really matter, as many of the raw materials that we are looking into date way back to 1865, or later. These raw materials from the past have less of the opinions and interpretations of authors which has good and bad aspects. We see a number of opinions of the time frames we are reading about though.
    Modern family research does illuminate a greater amount of data and information via electronic resources that would have been less available to Mr. Corfield in 2002/3.

    From this book, we have gained much information about people of the period, and locations. A couple of people have popped up in later years of our family research study, so this has been fascinating to trace back where such people may have been in 1879/ 1880 etc, or earlier.
    Naturally, we have viewed the Ryan family members that we have been researching.
    And again, Lake Rowan, Glenrowan appear like Lake Rowan was a suburb of Glenrowan, when it was much closer to St James, Bungeet, Devenish, Thoona.
    Again, we see the author's liberty at blending time frames and putting the Ryan's a t Avenel, then moving to Lake Rowan to suit the story, when in text above he had recorded the births of the Ryan children during these time frames as being born at Beveridge.
    We have some different records about the life details of John Ryan junior, than recorded in this encyclopedia, though date of death and resting place the same.


    B. T and T. Ryan

  8. It was a nice touch by the Ryans (above) to say: "Modern family research does illuminate a greater amount of data and information via electronic resources that would have been less available to Mr. Corfield in 2002/3".

    I've found complications, as Dee has, with genealogy as some of the Kelly family associations included people with the same name but unclear as to their exact relationships.

    It seems likely, thanks to the later Ryans, that their family history will be lots more transparent.

    Thanks Ryans!

  9. In Justin Corfield's 'Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia' it has under the Joe Byrne entry that in 1848 his grandfather in Australia had sent for his sons (including Joe's father-to-be Patrick) to come join him, thus seemingly confirming the 1849 arrival date given by Ian Jones in "The Fatal Friendship," but a couple of pages later in the Margret (White) Byrne entry Corfield says about her 1855 wedding to Patrick that he had arrived in Australia "eleven" years earlier! That would have been 1844!

    Another clunker is where under the Rev J.B. Gribble entry he says that the biography "A Terribly Wild Man" was about him. WRONG! It was about his son Ernest Gribble. I remember Brian Stevenson pointing that out to me years ago.

    Have found numerous other names, dates, and other information wrong through the years. Should have put post-it notes between the pages with the corrections, but did not do so.
    In total agreement with someone else above regarding the reliability of it, I can say that the book is a good jumping off point for Kelly research but you best (double)check your harness before doing that swan dive.

  10. Who married whom and when ?

    Actually Dee, much of what is in Corfield's piece of work is controversial. However, I will only comment on the main part that caused me to dislike this work so much.

    When this first hit the bookshelves I was first disappointed and then appalled, as were a large number of other descendants – from all sides of the story. The inaccuracies are legion; the information on families and their attached ancestor/descendant trees are glaringly wrong in more than number of entries. The issues are not simply with spelling a name incorrectly or mixing up a "Tom" or "John" or a generation – they are just plain wrong and could easily have been corrected by checking the Births, Deaths & Marriages records. Some families have two combined, others have completely unrelated people attached. There are many unexplained entries that left families bemused.

    Mr Corfield made the mistake of not checking his primary sources and talking to those families who could easily have corrected him. These mistakes have NOTHING to do with being able to access online records or records that were not available to him at the time. Every person I spoke to was one of the “family custodians” so to speak, someone who has researched and made it their business to use primary source documents – at great expense pre online days.

    There are many many instances of "but it's in Corfield's book….." I have had so many conversations with people who have built their whole family history around information in this book. Some have been gracious, others not so, when I have produced primary sources that dispute his work.

    This book may be on my bookshelf, but it not one I use to for referencing.
    I wrote to both Lothian and Mr Corfield, as did a number of other people. No one received a response.

    I wish I had waited until it had been in the bargain bin and not paid the original asking price – but that's what serious collectors do don't they? They buy books for good or bad.

  11. Well I have to admit I am now very glad I made this post about that encyclopaedia because with Noeleens contribution its clear my faith in the "Encyclopaedia" was seriously misplaced. Your voice is much appreciated Noeleen – thanks for your comments. How disappointing that the Author didn't even bother to respond to your attempts to correct some of the mistakes – Maybe one day someone will issues a revised version?

    I'm not sure where we go from here with this Encyclopaedia – I suppose as others have already said, we use it with caution.

  12. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    I try and use it only as a starting point, as Sharon said above, but am always worried about being give a totally wrong steer. The main problem is that Corfield often doesn't give any proper source references, as I found when looking up Fitzpatrick and Metcalf, and he gets plenty of things wrong because he never challenged the Jones perspective. If it fits the narrative, he puts it in. If is doesn't, it goes unmentioned, so you never get any sign of alternative voices. What would be great is if someone had the skills to set up a Ned Kelly wiki, that people could add facts to as they came across them while pursuing their own interests. But I suppose that would just become another battleground of disputed opinions that pro and anti Kelly factions would try to take over. So no answers from me, apart from hoping someone might do a new encyclopaedia one day that checks its facts and keeps its opinions to a minimum, and acknowledges that a lot of interpretation is disputed.

  13. Brian Tate says: Reply

    I am also very grateful for your comments on Corfield's book as I was tossing up whether or not I should spend good money on it. I will now decline. Thank you Noleen.

  14. Appreciate all the comments here.
    We don't really talk to descendants (apart from our own little network), so all these comments (from descendants, researchers, writers, history buffs etc.), are all beneficial to us.
    We confirm that it does dent into the budget to source information from a range of sources (i.e. public and historical records, locations, historical societies, technical resources, other etc.).

    It's a reflective choice.

    B. T and T. Ryan

  15. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    Hi Brian, I got mine for $20 in reasonable nick; you can probably get it on interlibrary loan if your local library hasn't go it, just to look something up. The reason I got it was that so many people quote it (as Noeleen said), so I think it needs to be pointed out when it goes wrong in anything important.

  16. Brian Knight says: Reply


    Thanks very much for posting here. Appreciated.

    If relying on published sources we (individually) think are correct (but are wrong) we wear it Big Time. The families are understandably annoyed. But connecting with Kelly and other families is less than easy, and there is always the worry that questions won't be welcome.

    Is there a smart way around this, Noeleen?

  17. Josh Ellis says: Reply

    Justin's encyclopaedia at the time (2002) was groundbreaking stuff. Fifteen years later, of course, the cracks are showing up.

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