Ian Jones re-invented the Kelly story about fifty years ago by inserting into it the vision of a Republic of North East Victoria, transforming Ned Kellys life story and the history of the Outbreak from a murderous tale of colonial criminality into a much more appealing morality tale. This new view became the new orthodoxy, Ned Kelly was promoted as heroic and visionary, albeit misguided perhaps, and the story of a brave but failed attempt at Glenrowan to declare the North East a republic was written into all the history books. What people reading those books these days don’t seem realise is that the image of Kelly being a hero is a recent development – for much more of the 140 years since his death Ned Kelly was regarded by the majority of Australians as a violent and dangerous mass murderer who reaped his just desserts.
However, Jones was bang-on when he also said that unless the plan for Glenrowan was about establishing a Republic or some similar greater political ideal, the plan was just ‘mad’ and if it had been carried out successfully it would have been a ‘criminal atrocity of monstrous scale’. Jones didn’t seem to be able to entertain the possibility that Ned Kelly could have been that mad, or had it in him to plan a ‘criminal atrocity of monstrous scale’.
But Jones was wrong – Kelly had it in him alright! Read what the Royal Commissioners wrote about Ned Kellys killing of Sgt Michael Kennedy at Stringybark Creek:
“The cold-blooded despatch of the brave but ill-fated Kennedy, when wounded and hopeless of surviving he pleaded to be allowed to live to bid farewell to his wife and children, is one of the darkest stains upon the careers of the outlaws and would of itself apart from other crimes brand the name of his murderer, the leader of the gang, with infamy”
Well, sadly for Jones and the Kelly devotees the case for a Republic has collapsed. Thomas Patrick Lloyd, son of so-called Fifth Kelly Gang member Tom Lloyd and source of the ‘oral history’ that Jones relied on, has confessed that what he told Jones was made up. The Republic declaration and other documentation Jones and others went on a world-wide hunt for has not materialised, and the only person who claimed to have ever seen it has now retracted this claim. Finally, in 2018 Dr Stuart Dawson’s forensic examination of the origins of the Republic story showed it to have emerged out of a piece of satirical journalism in the twentieth century. Talk of a Republic has quietly been dropped by the few Kelly devotees interested in historical reality rather than conspiracy theory, with Kelly clan descendant Noeleen Lloyd recently describing Ned Kellys plan for Glenrowan as “a mad plan that went bad” – and she hasn’t been challenged by anyone. Less than ten years ago nobody in the pro-Kelly community would have ever said that, so times are certainly changing. Even so it will be a while yet I expect before the majority will accept the alternative to the republic that Jones offered, which is that Glenrowan would have been ‘a criminal atrocity of monstrous scale’ and by extension its architect a monstrous criminal without it. But monstrous criminal is what Ned Kelly has been regarded as for the greater proportion of the 140 years that have passed since his demise, and I have no doubt, now that Jones hypnotic influence is vanishing, it will be Kellys legacy into the future.
In the meantime, its interesting to look at some of the ancilliary arguments that were developed to support the Republic Theory. Nobody really examined them carefully till Dawson did in 2018, and careful scrutiny shows them to have been flimsy at best. One of them was the claim that there was a group of armed sympathisers waiting nearby for a signal to join and support the Kelly Gang at Glenrowan. Dawson exposed this claim as fantasy in his 2018 paper on the Republic,(See link at top right of this page) and I wrote about it in 2019 HERE. Dawson’s expose reduced to the level of farce the way in which Jones and others constructed the claims about a sympathiser army: Riderless police horses galloping about restlessly in the dark were instead said to be the army of mounted sympathisers; a third hand report that someone had seen four men on foot, one with a gun became four mounted and heavily armed sympathisers arriving to join the army; a man galloping on horseback towards Wangaratta – in other words in the wrong direction – was also included as a sympathiser but Dawson showed it was highly likely to have been Bracken heading off to get help!
Another of the ancillary arguments that was drawn into Jones view of what happened at Glenrowan was the firing of rockets :
“Sympathisers would rally when 14-year-old Jack Lloyd fired the signal rockets to announce the wrecking of the train” (Jones)
Here’s what others wrote :
“The sympathisers were told to look for the signal – one rocket for success two for danger” (Phelan)
“Suddenly the sky is filled with two enormous flashes, as from somewhere just behind McDonnell’s Hotel two Chinese rockets are fired – a signal perhaps to sympathisers to rush to the aid of the gang?” (Fitzsimons)
“Suddenly two Chinese rockets were fired from McDonnell’s Railway Tavern. These rockets were supposed to give signal to the sympathisers immediately after the train was derailed so they could gather together with the Gang to move on. ….Ned, seeing them, couldn’t understand what on earth possessed Jack Lloyd- entrusted with the task – to make such a fatal mistake and let the rockets off now.” (Balcarek and Dean ‘Ned and the others’)
‘As the gunfight continued, Neds fourteen-year-old cousin Jack Lloyd was in an agony of indecision. He had been given the job of firing the Chinese rockets to signal the start of the uprising when the train crashed but it was now clear the plot was failing. Crouched in the darkness at the front of McDonnell’s Hotel, Jack made his decision. He fired the rockets and bright green flares exploded in the night sky. Suddenly Ned was in an even more difficult position; the flares would send the sympathisers to a pre-arranged meeting point. Badly wounded he would have to leave the Inn to contact the sympathisers and warn them the revolt had collapsed.” (Paul Terry ‘The True Story of Ned Kellys last stand’)
The main elements of these descriptions are one or two rockets, let off by Jack Lloyd, from in front of or behind McDonnell’s Hotel after the train had crashed, and one or two enormous bright green flashes to signal success or failure, or the wrecking of the train.
The thing that’s remarkable about all this detail is that almost all of it is made up, just as the details about the phantom army were made up. But who would know unless they took the time to go and look at the historical record which is the source for the rocket claim?
The origin of these claims about rockets is the testimony given at the Royal Commission by Constable Arthur, the policeman Steele accused of cowardice, the one who heard Steele say things that nobody else reported hearing, the one whose yelling at Steele wasn’t heard by anyone else, the one who said that everyone who believed Steele had brought Ned Kelly down was mistaken because what he saw was Ned Kelly tripping over the branch of a fallen tree, the one who wrote Steele had fired twice at Mrs Reardon but when cross examined said it was only once .
Arthur was being asked about what happened at the Siege when Ned Kelly was brought down:
Q11187 : Did you form the impression he was wounded ?
Arthur -It seemed as if he could not lift his hand ; and after Montifort and Healey fired he shifted his hand, and held the right hand with the left.
11188: So as to steady it ?
-Yes. He was more dead than alive when he came out.
11189: Do you know where he came out of the house ?
-I could not tell.
11190: You do not know anything about how he got out ?
-No. After we were firing the second volley, there was a man came out from the yard, and as he came out there were two rockets let up between the railway station and McDonald’s, and I was looking round to where they went off, and there was some firing went on then, and as I turned round I saw this man going out. I do not know whether it was Ned Kelly.
11191:We never heard of rockets?
-Constable Gascoigne can tell about that. I think it was some sympathizers letting them know they were attacked by the police. One was very faint, and the other was a large one.
11192: Did you form any opinion about the taking of those men, whether the whole time of that night and day should have been spent on it ?
-Yes ; it could not have been done any other way, without the loss of life. If we had gone in we would have been shot.
What Arthur reported was this: sometime after shooting had started between the Gang and the Police, two rockets, one very faint and one large, were let up somewhere between the Railway station and McDonalds (McDonnell’s) Hotel. That’s all! He speculated it could have been sympathisers letting them off but how was he to know? He also said Gascoigne could tell the Commission about them, but Gascoigne had already been cross-examined and didn’t mention them, and as far as I know there is no record anywhere else of Gascoigne ever mentioning rockets. The other remarkable thing is that the Commissioners were taken by surprise by this claim, saying this was the first they had ever heard of rockets – and it was many months after the seige! Neither is there any record or report anywhere else of any journalist or any other person ever seeing rockets!
But let’s just say that two rockets really were fired and even though there were crowds of people there, Arthur was the only person there who actually saw them. All we know is that somewhere between the station and the hotel two rockets were fired, one weak and one bright. No other record exists to tell us who fired them or why, or what colour they were or even if they were anything at all to do with the siege. Perhaps local Chinese were celebrating something? Or maybe they fired them off to add a bit of colour and excitement to the proceedings? The truth is we simply dont know – but that doesn’t give us license to go off and invent stuff.
But not knowing didn’t stop the myth maker Ian Jones and others from making up stuff, adding in details made up from God-alone knows where, such as that they were a signal from sympathisers, and that it was Jack Jones who lit them, that they were green, that the whole night sky was lit up by them!. Incredibly they just ignored some of the details in Arthurs statement, such as that one rocket was very faint, and that they were let off between the Station and the Hotel! But making stuff up is routine in the Kelly world.
In fact, now that we know there never was a sympathiser army, and that the Gang was there on its own, it’s much more likely that those rockets, if they ever existed had nothing at all to do with the Outbreak.
Instead what the story of the rockets has become is another example of the disreputable way in which so much of the story of the Outbreak has been made up out of the flimsiest of evidences by people who are more interested in fabricating and perpetuating a myth than reporting the facts and following the evidence to its accurate conclusion. The army is not part of the Kelly story – it never existed. But the rockets? : they also might never have existed as only one person claimed to have seen them. But if they did exist, theres no special reason to believe they were part of the Kelly story. Speculate as much as you like but all we know is what Arthur said. And that wasn’t much.