Professor John McQuilton : Kelly apologist Part One

This week I’m going to start an examination of Professor John McQuilton’s contribution to the Kelly story. McQuilton is best known for “The Kelly Outbreak” a 1979 publication based  on his 1977 PhD thesis, subtitled ‘The Geographical Dimension of Social Banditry’. Following its publication well before Molony and Ian Jones were in print, McQuilton became one of the foremost authorities on the Kelly story.

Ive already reviewed his book (HERE) and wont be focussing on the book but on his other contributions, this week beginning with his central role in the ABC Documentary “Outlawed: The Real Ned Kelly”. This near hour long 2003 documentary features a number of well-known Australians and Kelly people both in its production and on screen. Noeleen Lloyd has a speaking part at the beginning and at the end, a Griffith family member and a Kennedy family descendant (not Leo this time) make a few comments, Matt Shore of the Beechworth Ned Kelly Vault is mentioned in the credits, and the whole thing is beautifully narrated by the wonderful Jack Thompson.( which ironically was also the fake name used by Ned Kelly when he was operating his stock thieving syndicate!) But the central authority onscreen is John McQuilton, duly identified as Professor and Kelly Historian from Wollongong University, and he appears at intervals throughout. Its quite a slick and very convincing production with suitable background music that’s jaunty Irish one minute and brooding the next, and its been viewed more than 80,000 times since 2014, so no doubt can be regarded as a significant influence on public understanding of the Kelly story.  I wrote a review of it in late 2015 (HERE)  

Unfortunately, the sad truth about this documentary is that it seriously misinforms its viewers, it supports and promotes lies and distortion over historical truth, and much of that misinformation comes from the mouth of Professor McQuilton, a man who should have known better.  How can ordinary readers be expected to have an accurate grasp of Kelly history when the supposed professional Kelly Historians are leading them astray?

Many of the distortions and misrepresentations are subtle, but here I will mention a couple of examples that are not at all subtle – they’re egregious misrepresentations of a kind that might be expected from an ignorant Kelly fanatic, but from a professional trained academic they’re outrageous. Heres an  example of McQuilton seriously misrepresenting Police policy  : at about the 9.30s mark in the documentary, McQuilton advances a claim that Standish, the police commissioner in 1877, had a plan designed to force the Kellys out of Victoria into NSW.  He then says

“Its phrased very curiously: it says without worrying or oppressing the people in any way, bust them on any charge you can”.

In fact he has not quoted the statement accurately and he has left out the part of it that completely undermines his claim. The actual words recorded from the time, an instruction given by Nicolson to Brooke-smith are “That without oppressing the people or worrying them in any way, he should endeavour, WHENEVER THEY COMMIT ANY PALTRY CRIME, to bring them to justice” (my caps)

McQuiltons deliberate misquote lends support to the idea that the innocent Kellys were being harassed by the Police, that the Police were instructed to ‘bust them on any charge you can’ but that is NOT what they were instructed to do. McQuilton ignores the fact that the police were quite specifically told NOT to harass the Kellys, to leave them alone and stay out of their way, UNLESS they committed a crime. The instruction was that if the Kellys DID happen to commit a crime, even a paltry crime, they were to be strictly dealt with according to the law. By 1877 when this instruction was issued the Kelly clan had racked up a long list of all manner of serious crimes that included theft, arson, domestic violence, drunkenness, and even animal cruelty. The police were no doubt fed up with them all, and the instruction was an entirely appropriate response to a situation of increasing lawlessness in the north east. But its very clear : any interaction between the Kellys and the police was entirely dependant on how the Kellys behaved : if they  didnt break the law they were NOT to be oppressed or worried “in any way”, but if they did, then they were not to be dealt with leniently. Theres is simply no way that this can be called harassment or persecution – which is what the Royal Commission found – and yet here the revered Kelly Historian is supporting fake history! 


The narrator then says, following on from McQuiltons misdirection about harassment:

“This police harassment would ultimately force Ned down a road that would leave men dead and the country in turmoil, for into the fray stumbled the disreputable Constable from Greta, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick.”

As readers of this Blog will know, the facts are that in 1878 Constable Fitzpatrick had an entirely unblemished record as a policeman and there is therefore no historical basis to describe him as a ‘disreputable constable’. Never-the-less at 9.59s McQuilton continues this baseless character assassination with further claims which are again, unsupported by any evidence from the time, saying:

 “He’s known for his penchant for drinking with the wrong sort of people in the district , not seen as particularly trustworthy by his immediate superiors, but Fitzpatrick gets it into his head that if he goes to the Kelly house and arrests Ned and his brother Dan, all his problems will be over”.

The facts are these : in 1878 Fitzpatrick was NOT known as a drinker or someone who associated with the wrong sort of person, he was NOT regarded as untrustworthy by his superiors and he went to the Kelly house to arrest Dan, not Ned and Dan.  McQuilton’s claim about what had got ‘into his head’ is pure speculation,  an invention to fit his made up  baseless narrative. Again, I ask, how can ordinary readers be expected to have an accurate grasp of Kelly history when the Kelly Historians are  getting it so wrong and deliberately leading them astray? This is really appalling stuff from a professor of history!


Now see what McQuilton does and says at the 20.15s mark. The police murders at Stringybark Creek are being discussed and the narrator says:

“For those who want Ned Kelly to go down in the history books as a hero, there has to be some evidence for his conviction that he only killed in self defence”

McQuilton moves into view and approaches a pack horse with a blanket covering its load, saying:

“According to Ned Kelly the police party at Stringybark Creek had but one purpose in mind”

McQuilton then dramatically pulls back the blanket to reveal the horses payload of rifles and says, pointing at them:

“They came heavily armed with Martini-Henry rifles – these are state of the art in modern weaponry. This is a clear indication that the police meant business”

Its a dramatic moment, but he continues, saying:

“But if that was not enough, far more insidiously were these innocent looking straps, what were called ‘undertakers’. The straps were made so they could pack a body across the length of a horse and bring it out of the bush after a man had  been killed, and were frequently used for  mining accidents and the like. But when a police party went into the bush carrying these straps, Kelly believed he would be brought in dead rather than alive”


This dramatic sequence and McQuiltons delivery create a very powerful sense that the police squad was a kind of hit squad, heavily armed and expecting to bring back bodies, but once again McQuilton has got his facts all wrong, completely wrong, and in ways that are hard to fathom. As you can see in the screenshot, there were at least five rifles on that packhorse, and yet the documentation from the time is very clear, unequivocal  and something McQuilton ought to have been very familiar with – in addition to thier standard issue revolvers the extra weapons the Police took with them were one shotgun – a ‘fowling piece’ loaned by the Mansfield vicar, and one rifle, not five, and the rifle was a Spencer Carbine, not a state of the art Martini-Henry as McQuilton claims. And the body straps? They are a twentieth century embellishment added by Ian Jones with not one single piece of evidence from that time or for at least 50 years afterwards that such things were ever part of the police kit. In fact, its well known that the police took handcuffs, which suggest they were hoping to be bringing back live fugitives for trial.


Later in the documentary McQuilton expresses his opinion on why the suits of armour offered no leg protection. He says the armour consisted of three pieces – the helmet, the breast plate and the apron, protecting the thighs. Looking up from the foot of the embankment down which the train was supposed to have plunged, he says the legs of gang members standing at the top wouldn’t need protection because from down there they cant be seen. In fact the armour had FOUR main pieces – McQuilton forgot the back plate, which if his theory made sense wouldn’t be needed as the Gang members backs also cannot be seen from the bottom of the embankment. But this error is the least of the many that McQuilton makes in this misleading documentary, most of which I think betray an approach to history that one would not expect from a professor of history. What one would expect from a history professor at the very least is accuracy when it came to verifiable facts, accuracy when it came to quoting the records of history, and objectivity when it came to offering an opinion about what it all means. In this documentary you see vey little of that when it comes to McQuiltons  contribution and I think it ought to seriously damage his reputation as an authority on the Kelly  story. I’ll have more to say on that topic next week.

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17 Replies to “Professor John McQuilton : Kelly apologist Part One”

  1. A message for all readers and especially for Bob and the various other anonymous Kelly apologists whose only contributions have been abuse and personal attacks : the topic for discussion is John Quiltons misrepresentations of Kelly history. If you don’t want to discuss it, dont bother posting anything but if you do, and you think I am going to post any more of your garbage : forget it! Nobody is banned but off-topic garbage is.

  2. In 1944 the poet E.J. Brady, expressed his attitude towards undeserved glamour bestowed upon the Kelly gang:

    “The Kellys were rotten, root and branch, not to be classed in criminology with light-hearted led-away riders like the Burkes and Johnny Vane. They were devoid of a humanity which Ben Hall and ‘Thunderbolt’ Ward retained. Old NSW troopers always conceded that the duel between Morgan and Sergeant McGinnerty had been a fair fight. They would never admit that the Kellys were anything more than cowardly murderers. Mistaken writers, dramatists and film producers have invested the Kellys and their deeds with a glamour they do not deserve.”

    E.J. Brady , Two Frontiers (1944), in With Malice Aforethought by Bill Wannan, pp. 122-3.

    We don’t hear about that from the Kelly nuts.

    1. The ‘Kelly nuts’ as you so charitably call them, are in deep denial about the truths of the Kelly story. Their capacity for denial and self-deception was no more ably illustrated than by Bob last week who kept asking to be shown lies that he had told, and then completely ignored the ones that were pointed out to him. Later he told the toadies I had closed the thread down because I did what I do every week, which is put up another post on the Blog. But nothing has been closed down – anyone can still comment on any of my Posts at any time – as long as they’re not abuse.

  3. Having immersed myself further into the history of 1870’s Victoria – through the continuing research into my own g.g. grandfathers role in the Kelly Affair – I cannot see how anyone can continue to claim that the police were acting in any way *other than* within the confines of the law.

    These were not brutal men. They were dedicated men, family men, men whose primary motivation was to uphold the law and keep the community safe.

    It is becoming clearer to me that these outdated narratives have to be challenged and contested vociferously.

    To David – I hope you are okay with me sharing a link here. I have moved my recent series of articles about my g.g. grandfather to a dedicated portal, which can be found at;


    Dean Mayes.

  4. Thanks Dean and putting the link to your Blog is much appreciated. Ive read some of the parts that interest me and will go back to it, but I am pleased to see how you seem to have sorted out the basics of the complicated story and identified where there are remaining controversies.

    I’m convinced that Fitzpatrick was made a scapegoat. The Lancefield petitions which obviously contradicted Joseph Ladds view of him, are a very powerful testimony to his ability and I think your suggestion is right that the hierarchy put him under Joseph Ladd knowing that he would get the job done! Theres an irony that its quite possible that the true victim of police harassment and persecution was Fitzpatrick!.

    And yes youre right the outdated Kelly narratives have to be contested and challenged , and that’s what we are trying to do here. Look forward to more from you Dean.

  5. Cheers David. I’m only to happy to keep tuning into your website. It’s easily the most compelling space in terms of Kelly discussion.

    The only thing I would say about the Lancefield petitions – which is confounding to me – is that Joseph Ladd remained in command at Lancefield for the next 15 years after Alexander’s departure (with a brief placement to Kyneton). If the community were so against the removal of Fitzpatrick, enough to warrant a petition, I’d have thought some bad blood would have persisted between the community and Joseph Ladd. A policeman wouldn’t have remained in the community for as long as Mayes did if the community hated him. It’s a perplexing one – but a mystery I’m keen to pursue.

    But I’ve gone a bit off topic here haven’t I…


  6. No Dean, nothing is off topic here!

    Actually the discussions almost always end up being about something that seems to have almost nothing to do with the post!

    My suggestion as to why there didn’t appear to be ‘bad blood’ between the citizens of Lancefield and Jospeh Ladd is that perhaps they liked him! And maybe the people who signed the petition were pragmatic in their approach to life, and felt that they did their duty in protesting the loss of a policeman they liked and didnt want to lose another, even if they did disagree with one of the decisions he made.!

    But really I have no idea!


  7. David,

    As you know I worked at Victoria’s State Archives for more than twenty years and got to know the Kelly gang records pretty well. One file that interested me was about people who had unfettered access to those records before they had been properly described archivally. Some even got to take them home. Perhaps this partly explains why there are so many missing records. Those records refer to a particular time-frame, but is obvious that Jones and McQuilton had access to them later. Molony utilised a staff member as a researcher who is acknowledged in his book. All these authors chose carefully to quote, misquote, or willfully ignore the records.

    The result was an abortion of the facts.

    Ian MacFarlane

  8. David

    Your’s was a major victory overnight against the Kelly recalcitrants using Facebook. Those idiots don’t realise they, alternatively, can be taken to court or to mediation. The results could be personally disasterous.

    They just don’t get it. The internet is not a place you can say anything you like. It is a place where you can suddenly end up in various legal difficulties if you are not careful,

    The loud-mouthed Kelly fans don’t have to believe me. But there is already a lot of case law which they can explore.

    Horrie and Alf

  9. They say in this documentary that it sounds like Fitzpatrick and Kelly were in partnership and their relationship went bad. Makes Fitzpatrick look really bad and it’s unproven fantasy.

  10. Jeremy Roberts says: Reply

    the so called misquote offers a distinction without a difference – Standish’s instructions gave the green light to target the Kelly’s to a level not applied to the rest of the area – implemented by corrupt and amateurish police, it led to disaster.

    The instruction was amateurish also.

    Standish was out of his depth – the story is a typical frontier story of abuse of power and push-back, in Kelly’s case, by a formidable, articulate and talented leader.

    The police ended up with egg all over its face. Standish was discredited by the Royal Commission to follow; Fitzpatrick was run out of the force before the end of 1880 and it took an exceptional police officer to reassert civil authority in Greta – by reaching out to the Kelly’s and demonstrating even-handedness – his name was Robert Graham – they should make a movie about him.

    1. The massive advantage Robert Graham had was the absence of the violent crime boss Ned Kelly. Once he had been removed from the scene it was almost inevitable that the north-east would return to normal.

      As for the ‘distinction without a difference’ it was Nicolson who made that order. Your argument is that whatever it was that he actually said, what he really meant was the opposite. In effect youre dismissing the evidence that contradicts your theory of police persecution by claiming to know that what was truly meant was something other than what was said. How do you know that?

      Regarding people who havent read much about Fitzpatrick I think it might be you Jeremy : can I ask if you’ve read Stewart Dawsons “Redeeming Fitzpatrick” ? Follow this link and get back to us once you’ve read it:

  11. Jeremy Roberts says: Reply

    Anyone here defending the Vic police of the area obviously haven’t read much about Fitzpatrick (dismissed for corruption); Flood (a horse thief) and Hall (tried to murder Kelly in the street while the then 17-year-old was unarmed). And these weren’t the only bad apples!

  12. Raven Hillier says: Reply

    Umm no, Fitzpatrick wasn’t dismissed for corruption. He was dismissed because of a few minor charges, such as laughing after lights out in hospital, being used by certain individuals who had a grudge against him that eventually led to him being removed from the force. And I must ask, Kelly, he wasn’t a talented, formidable leader at all, he was a thief and a murderer.

  13. Anonymous says: Reply

    Mr McQuilton is a director of Ned Kelly Centre Limited along with Joanne Griffiths, Anthony Griffiths (Joanne’s brother,), Viviane Paine and Alan Flint.

  14. Suspicious says: Reply

    Very interesting… I wonder what this Ned Kelly Centre Limited “registered charity” does…
    How does what looks like a private company become a registered charity that can do tax free fundraising?
    What charitable activities does it do to maintain its tax free registered charity status?
    Why are taxpayers supporting what looks like a free ride with tax breaks?
    What “Australian Cultural Heritage” programs does it run that entitle it to tax free charity status?
    Where does the money go?
    Lots of questions here…


    1. Anonymous says: Reply

      The Ned Kelly Centre project was announced TEN YEARS AGO this November.

      Happy anniversary Joanne and crew!

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