Glenrowan was about revenge : no republic and no revolution

Last Saturday there was a seminar in Greta that focussed on the Kelly armour. There was discussion about the controversy surrounding where it was made: in a bush forge by amateurs ? – like the Kelly gang itself, who would have been able to heat it to a dull red glow but not more than 700 degrees – or by a professional blacksmith whose forge can heat the steel to over 1000 degrees when it becomes white hot and much easier to shape?  An ABC Science documentary about the armour was shown at the seminar, and in it prominent Kelly experts like Ian Jones, Gary Dean and Anthony Griffiths all asserted it couldn’t possibly have been made on a bush forge, but the lone dissenting voice, a Lloyd descendant recounted his family’s oral history that it was. I’m told the star of the day was a local blacksmith who demonstrated traditional blacksmithing techniques, spoke about how he produced exact replicas of Kelly gang armour, and of how very difficult it would have been to make it without a proper blacksmiths forge.


Attendees all received a copy of a 2004 paper written by scientists who tested the suit of armour worn by Joe Byrne. They showed that there were none of the crystalline changes  you would expect to find in the steel if it had been heated to 1000 degrees, and quite confidently concluded that Joes armour had been made on a bush forge by amateurs, thus verifying the Lloyds oral history over the opinion of modern day experts! And of course, at the same time it disproved other families oral history – which is why oral history is such a trap – both can’t be correct!


So, it’s clear therefore that despite the difficulty, Joe Byrnes suit of armour was made on a bush forge, and given the similarity between his suit and the others, it’s probable they were all made on a bush forge. Was this because the Gang wanted to minimise the risk that the police would find out what they were up to? Could it have been because there were no blacksmiths willing to help them? We can only guess at the answers to those questions but one thing was clear: the Gang invested an enormous amount of time and effort into the making of those suits. And this brings me to the topic of this weeks post: the argument that the Gang wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble, and a whole lot of other trouble as well if all they planned for Glenrowan was to murder a few police.


I had a discussion with someone on Facebook recently who was of the same opinion, and that was also Ian Jones argument –  such an outrageous scheme, months in the planning, the laborious construction of the suits of armour, the plan for the brutal murder of a former friend, for a train wreck and innumerable police deaths couldn’t have been mounted for something trivial. To explain it all away Jones devised the theory of the Republic of North East Victoria, but that has now been revealed to be a hoax, a twentieth century invention that has no basis in fact. So, are the Kelly apologists going to agree with Ian Jones that if it wasn’t about something big like a Republic, then Kellys plan for Glenrowan was nothing but ‘a criminal monstrosity’?


The answer seems to be no they are not!


Certainly, prominent bushranger enthusiast and Blog writer Aidan Phelan is clinging to the idea that Glenrowan was about something big, something he calls a revolution, even though at the same time he has dismissed the Jones republic theory as unsupportable. The synopsis for the Glenrowan movie he and Matthew Holmes have written says Glenrowan was about starting ‘a revolution’. In a video he made the other day, in answer to an online question from me about this ‘revolution’ he said this:

“When you look at what they were doing there at Glenrowan with their armour, with their blasting powder in big kegs and fireworks to set off as signals you’ve got to consider the fact that there was something much bigger on the horizon than just killing a bunch of cops.  It’s a lot of effort to go to, to just commit a murder, so its got to have been something much bigger”


Its GOT to have been something much bigger! Really? Says who?


What he means by saying there must have been something bigger, is that police hate, a desire for revenge, Mrs Kellys imprisonment and the need for funds to maintain their networks and sustain their fugitive lifestyle couldn’t possibly be sufficient motivation for all that the Gang planned for Glenrowan. The irony that Kelly supporters don’t seem to have realised is that when they assert that Glenrowan must have been about something big like a republic or a revolution, they are dismissing Ned Kellys own explanations of what it was all about!  Kelly never claimed anything other than it was going to be an attempt to strike back at police, to kill many, to take some of them hostage, to try to free his mother and to rob banks. Nothing that Ned Kelly ever did  is inconsistent with those statements of his, so why must anyone insist there was something more?

In response to my request for the evidence that supported his idea that Kelly planned a revolution, it seems from his responses that Phelan and Holmes base their belief in something ‘much bigger’ than mere criminal madness on three sources of evidence : the physical evidence in the form of armour, gunpowder and skyrockets, the evidence of Ned Kellys words taken from the Jerilderie letter and elsewhere, and thirdly on their own analysis of  the character of Ned Kelly.


In relation to what we might call the documentary evidence Phelan said this:

‘Ned had these kind of bits of rhetoric in the Jerilderie letter and stuff which indicated that he was trying to do something much bigger than simply murder – on top of which there’s the fact that it wasn’t his modus operandi. He didn’t go around killing people willy-nilly, it had to be part of something much bigger’


In regard to what he regards as the evidence of Ned Kellys character Aidan Phelan said that he and Holmes had made an analysis of Ned Kellys character, in an attempt to ‘understand his perspective and understand what it was that drove him to do what he did, and what it came down to was this was obviously an act of war of some kind. If it was a revolution it would not have been a very good one because the plan didn’t  seem it would go much further than what it was at Glenrowan – it was revenge that motivated Ned, pretty much, rather than thinking, you know, he was going to be president of the republic’


It is true that Ned Kellys modus operandi wasn’t about random killing –  but whoever said it was? I certainly haven’t. In fact Ned Kellys killing was very specifically directed at police, as were thousands of hateful words in the Jerilderie letter, words which betray an intense and obsessional loathing of police and anyone who might assist them. Those words very clearly express Ned Kellys view and vastly outnumber the scattered few ambiguous words and phrases which some – Phelan and Holmes included it would appear – have attempted to ascribe ‘republican’ or ‘revolutionary’ meanings to. Why would they attach immense significance to a few ambiguous words that could only at a stretch be counted as supporting their theory but ignore the clear unambiguous meaning of numerous entire paragraphs which dont? And why do they attach such importance to one or two skyrockets? –  nobody knows who fired them or why, and to enlist them in support of a theory of ‘something bigger’ is at best hopeful opinion, something which these two writers have said they wont be relying on when they get around to making their movie. In fact if their movie is based on the reasoning expressed by Aidan Phelan on his Faceboook page video message the other day, the movie will be a violation of the principle he and Holmes have been making a great fuss about for a couple of years – that unlike everyone else’s their movie won’t be based on opinion but on facts and evidence. But given the content of Aidan Phelans video post it won’t be – it will be based his won and Mathew Holmes opinions and speculations, and their deliberate disregard of the intentions and motivations clearly expressed by Kelly himself!


The fact is that every available piece of their so-called ‘evidence’ – armour, dynamite, fireworks, Kellys words and character – is entirely consistent with what for decades everyone accepted Ned Kelly said Glenrowan was about: Revenge and incandescent anger, an obsessional hatred of police, robbery, hostage taking pure and simple. Its instructive to recognise that none of this ‘evidence’ is new, it’s all been known about since 1880 and for over a century nobody thought it pointed to something ‘much bigger’. Everyone thought it all pointed to exactly what Ned Kelly had said he was about at Glenrowan, something, strangely enough even Phelan and Holmes recognised: revenge!


There is simply no need to postulate something ‘much bigger’ but people do because they  want to believe Ned Kelly was a hero. He wasn’t! They also do it becasue its almost impossible to believe anyone could be so full of police hate that they would go to such lengths. But Ned Kelly was, and he did. Thats exactly what the evidence shows, and there is no need to postulate there was something ‘much bigger’ behind it all.


What has to get bigger is the ability of Kelly apologists to understand the lengths obsession and hatred can drive people to. Ned Kelly himself admitted he had been driven mad – and blamed the police for it!  And so, to bring me back to the beginning of this post, just as the Kelly experts had to accept that their belief that the Kelly gang couldn’t possibly have made the armour on a bush forge was wrong, so they now are going to have to accept that their belief that Ned Kelly couldn’t possibly have planned the Glenrowan atrocity out of something as base as revenge and hatred is also wrong. They are simply going to have to accept what Ned Kelly said Glenrowan was about, and agree with Ian Jones point that if thats what Glenrowan was about then, if there was nothing bigger to explain it, it was an outrage of monstrous criminality.


There isn’t and it was.

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3 Replies to “Glenrowan was about revenge : no republic and no revolution”

  1. Ned was a bigtime”No Hoper”. Nearly everything he did turned to excrement.

    I thought Glenrowan the movie was supposed to be ultra-accurate. But the writers seem to relying on their opinions rather than facts.

    That’s a real disappointment.


  2. The Kelly gang armour was pretty primitive. Can’t think of anything remotely similar they could easily steal other than mouldboards. Thick enough but heavy.

    Bush forge makes sense.

    They also created an armoured door to their fortified Bullock Creek hut. It was made from an iron tank I think.

    Cam West

  3. Hi Dee/David, I have just been re-reading Thomas McIntyre’s “True Narrative of the Kelly Gang”, a free download from the police museum website, and it has a narrative about Glenrowan provided to McIntyre by Senior-constable John Kelly, which I had forgotten all about and didn’t reference in my republic myth book. Anyway, on page 91 it corroborates his finding Ned Kelly’s rifle and cap at 3.30am, and discusses that fact that by then the Glenrowan Inn was adequately surrounded, with himself and the other constable completing the surrounding as they took up positions covering the rear of the Inn. After that, even though they were relatively few on the ground, no-one could pass the police line unseen.

    The idiotic theory that Ned walked twice through the police line much later, in and out of the Inn in his armour, after that time is just idiotic. And yet people love it. I blew the crap out of that theory in the book, with plenty of referenced evidence. Now I can add John Kelly’s narrative in McIntyre’s book to the evidence if I ever do a second edition, which I can’t be bothered doing actually, as the book totally blows that crap out of the whole republic myth as it is. I suggest not spending too much more time on it. My book has been read and endorsed by four professional historians who are among the best in the country in Australian history. I hate boasting (!), but there we are. I’m not making any money out of it after all, so might as well have some laughs at the Kelly republicans’ expense after 70 years of silly nonsense. There are still lots of interesting topics that can be looked at with puzzles to solve. For example, what type of claret did he get for his last meal, and how much quantity did he get to drink?

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