Until recently it was common to have the Kelly story presented as a dilemma that couldn’t be resolved. Wherever you looked, whenever the Kelly story was mentioned, the question would almost always be asked “Ned Kelly: hero or villain?” If you wanted to believe he was a hero, you could make a case for it that was as convincing as the case for the view that he wasn’t. In recent times though, and especially in the last ten years, the arguments that supported the claim that Kelly was a hero have collapsed, most of the mysteries have been solved and the argument that he was a hero has been lost. Its over! Just as it is now no longer sensible or reasonable for an educated person to ask if the world is flat, the time has now arrived where it is no longer sensible or reasonable for an educated person to ask “Ned Kelly: hero or villain?” That’s because all the pillars that once supported the idea that Kelly was a hero have collapsed under the weight of new research, by new insights and wider access to the historical data base. What’s left is the inescapable truth: he was a villain. The idea that he was a villain makes perfect sense of course : think seriously for a minute about what kind of man would plan to murder two dozen police by wrecking a train? “Villain” is almost too mild a term to describe someone who could plan such a thing. The only other plausible explanation for such a horrendous scheme would be that the man was off his rocker. You would certainly need some pretty substantial arguments backed up by some very robust facts to make the opposite case.
So, what were those arguments and why have they collapsed? There are four central ones :
PILLAR ONE: Police persecution and harassment of the Kellys was the ultimate cause of the Outbreak.
It is impossible for supporters to deny Kelly was a major local crime figure, a stock thief, a bank robber and a triple police murderer, so they claim – as did Ned Kelly himself – that his life of crime was justified as a reaction to unwarranted and unjust harassment and persecution of a poor innocent Irish selector family and this forced him to take up arms. Given the enormity of Kelly’s crimes, you would have to expect this harassment and persecution to have been equally enormous.
In fact, when you look for evidence what you find is almost nothing to support that claim, but an overwhelming body of evidence that contradicts it in not one but many places. The record shows for example that as far back as when Ned Kelly was still a child his extended family was developing a serious habit of attracting police attention to themselves by their own unquestionably criminal behaviour. The list of crimes committed by various members of Kellys extended family is long: it includes domestic violence and rape, arson, drunkenness, animal cruelty, violent assaults and of course stock theft. You won’t find them listed in any of the usual Kelly story books or being discussed in any of the Kelly Sympathiser Facebook pages, for obvious reasons but you can read about some of these awful crimes right here and here. These were not trumped up charges invented by corrupt police but very serious real crimes with real victims as you will see. It’s all there in the records of the day.
Ned Kelly himself when asked to cite an example of police persecution was only able to describe the incident where he had his testicles squeezed when he violently resisted re-arrest after attempting to escape police custody. The other horror Ned Kelly complained of in the Jerilderie letter was of having their eggs milk and flour tipped onto the floor! This reveals how unbalanced Kelly was : how on earth would having your balls squeezed or milk spilled justify killing three policemen and then planning to kill two dozen more?
One of the multitude of proofs Kelly interactions with police were nothing to do with persecution or corruption of innocent selector farmers is demonstrated yet again by what happened to Jim Kelly when he changed his name to James Wilson and moved to New South Wales. Here, in NSW one would imagine if Victoria police interest in the Kellys was based on their name and identity rather than their behaviour, he would have lived a quiet law-abiding life right? In fact he very soon found himself violently resisting arrest for horse theft and ended up convicted and sentenced to four years in Sydneys Darlinghurst Gaol under a false name. After the Outbreak was over, Jim once again was caught stealing horses, and was put away for another five years in 1881. Who discusses that on Kelly sympathiser pages? Read more HERE.
Also in 1881, Royal Commission specifically addressed this issue and made a clear finding that there was no evidence of the persecution the Kellys complained of. Undeniably though, instances of police misbehaviour certainly occurred – bashing Kelly over the head for resisting arrest for example (Read about it HERE) – but nothing the police ever did was of a scale to in any way justify the killings that Kelly committed and planned.
So, the pillar of police persecution against an innocent Irish selector family fails – no evidence of persecution, and the Kellys were far from innocent selectors minding their own business and being randomly harassed by police. It was just the tired old usual excuse used by criminals everywhere when caught out, that they’re being picked on. Not true.
PILLAR TWO: The massacre planned for Glenrowan was an act of war, an attempt to establish a Republic of NE Victoria.
As I wrote at the beginning, no normal person would plan to murder two dozen police, no matter how serious their grievance was, so, because Ian Jones wouldn’t consider the possibility that Kelly could actually have been crazy, he had to devise a sane explanation for Ned Kellys murderous plans for Glenrowan. What Jones claimed to have found was a plan to declare the North East a Republic. This interpretation cast what was planned for Glenrowan in a completely different light: it became an act of war rather than what Jones quite correctly said would otherwise have been ‘madness’ and a ‘criminal atrocity of monstrous scale” for the absurd practically trivial purpose of freeing Mrs Kelly from prison a few months early, and robbing a bank. The Republic plan converted the plan for Glenrowan into a high-minded if misdirected and extreme political act that elevated Kelly from mad killer to the status of freedom fighter.
A claim fifty or so years ago to have seen in London, England, an old document prepared by Kelly in anticipation of declaring the North east of Victoria a Republic gave additional hope to Jones theory which was quickly and widely accepted. Several exhaustive searches failed to re-discover this document but it remained a hope of Kelly sympathizers that one day it would re-emerge and the theory would be proved, but it never did.
Jones theory about the republic included his claim that at the time the North east was riven by widespread social political and economic unease and selector farmer distress, making it ripe for rebellion. According to Jones this was the fertile soil from which Kellys ideas of a Republic sprang, and that unrest accounts for what Jones claimed was widespread support for him. Actual historians disagreed with Jones at the time, but Jones wasn’t deterred and widespread selector unrest became an important component of the republic argument.
In fact, Jones was the victim of a hoax perpetrated by his main informant about this Republic plan, Kelly gang descendant Thomas Lloyd who later confessed he deliberately fed Jones a line of false information he said was his family’s oral history. There never was a plan for a Republic but Jones fell for it, believed it without reservation, writing that it was such a well kept secret that nobody, not even Jim Kelly ever discussed or mentioned it anywhere. He elaborated on the basic idea quite extensively, for example postulating the existence of a sympathiser ‘Army’, and promoted it aggressively and extremely successfully for the rest of his life, never conceding he had been the victim of a hoax. Moreover, the man who made the original claim about having seen a Republic Declaration in London much later withdrew the claim altogether, admitting he had made a mistake.
Subsequently, Doug Morrissey wrote a PhD thesis on the topic of selector unrest in the North East, and more recently published a book that incorporated all his research findings. The historical record was found to agree with the historians who originally disputed Jones assertions: the North East was not in turmoil, selectors were not mostly failing and the Kelly clan wasn’t in the least representative of selector families in the north east. The Kelly clan were part of an outlying fringe on the edges of society whose habits and activities were unsupported by the huge majority of regular citizens. Morrissey showed that most selectors, even the Irish ones who believed in Home rule for Ireland, supported the Victorian Government, obeyed the law, went regularly to Church and in the main, though often not without a difficult struggle, were successful. They mostly reviled criminals like the Kellys.
Finally, the entire republic Myth was analysed and debunked in meticulous fashion by Stuart Dawson in 2018. His brilliant expose is linked top right of this page. Its essential reading, and nobody has ever been able to refute it.
So, with the Republic idea gone, the merciless slaughter Kelly planned for Glenrowan lies exposed as “a criminal atrocity on a monstrous scale”, and Ned Kelly as a monstrous criminal. There is no other possible interpretation, and none has ever been offered. The entire Kelly sympathiser community is in deep denial of this reality.
PART TWO TO FOLLOW :