Twenty years ago “Ned : the Exhibition” had just opened in Melbourne, and it ran for nine months. It was the year after a flood of Ned Kelly images were broadcast around the world from the Olympic Games opening Ceremony in Sydney, and Ned Kelly had never looked so good. A souvenir booklet was published with photos of many of the exhibits, (read it for free HERE), and the text was written by ‘the expert on everything Kelly, renowned author and historian Ian Jones’. He wrote “I have seen enormous changes in attitudes to Neds perceived role in our history. But at no time has there been a greater change than that seen in the last 12 months.’ Jones believed the Exhibition signalled the end of what he called the preceding century of ‘institutional apathy’ about Ned Kelly and completed the transformation of perceptions of him from an ‘often resented folk hero into a major historical figure’.
Jones believed this massive transformation from villain to hero, largely wrought by his own efforts, would endure, likening attempts to return to the old view of Kelly as a villain, to attempts to destroy Uluru by flying a Tiger moth airplane into it “There might be a big bang and a great ball of flame, but there’s not going to be any Tiger Moth left. It’ll leave a little mark that will wither away in no time and Uluru will still be there.”
Jones also expressed excitement that the State Library and the Public Records Office of Victoria was to ‘enlarge consolidate and conserve its massive collection of Kelly material’, no doubt imagining that the records would consolidate and reinforce the heroic view of Kelly that had only quite recently replaced the earlier belief that Kelly was some sort of villain.
In fact, in an ironic twist of fate, over the next twenty years and especially in the last ten, public scrutiny of those records has resulted in an almost complete reversal of the great change that Jones was celebrating – there was indeed not just one but several great ‘bangs’ and several great balls of flame, but when the smoke cleared, Ned Kelly the Uluru of Jones metaphor had crumbled like the chimneys at 11-mile creek, and only rubble and broken dreams remain.
So now, twenty years after ‘Ned : The Exhibition’ what we have recently come to realise is that Jones took the Kelly story and most of Australia on a pointless little detour into a fantasy land about a Hero. He tried to remake the history of the Outbreak but failed because the facts, once we knew what they all were, didn’t support many of the central features of Jones claims of what it was all about. Now, making use of all the new insights and understandings gained from the material that’s become available at PROV and the SLV and elsewhere, it’s time to set the record straight again, and tell the Kelly story that the evidence and the facts support, and leave behind the fantasies, the lies, the fables, the myths and the legends.
In this and the next Post I will outline what I think the new story should contain, and should no longer contain, as we return to a more complete understanding of the original story, the story that should finally be cemented into the history books.
The biggest change that needs to happen now is an acceptance that the story of the Outbreak is not an heroic story about battlers fighting for justice against corrupt authorities, but a colonial story about an extended network of violent thieves and criminals living on the edges of society, the worst of whom was the murderer Ned Kelly.
The other great change that needs to happen is to realise that this true story is one of the great Australian crime stories and it has absolutely everything. As a crime story, the story of the outbreak is a much more complicated and intriguing story than it ever was as the story of a downtrodden misunderstood and victimised selector family. It’s a fascinating multidimensional tale that once released from the straightjacket of having to make it a story about a downtrodden hero becomes electric with a cast of complex flawed human characters, and action and plot and subplot twists and turns that you wouldn’t be able to invent if you tried. Now that the false heroic Kelly story has been dispensed with all the gruesome and fascinating detail that had to be hidden can be revealed, nobody has to feel forced to defend the Police or the reputation of the Kellys at all costs and in the face of contradicting facts. Instead the entire outbreak from start to finish can be examined openly and honestly. There is no reason why North East tourism cant tell the true story and make just as much money as it has off the old tame one. Additionally there is also the fascinating saga of what Australia made of the story over the following decades, that great mass of kitsch and monetising of the story known as Kellyana, and how the story was transformed, distorted and manipulated to suit various purposes.
The Kelly story will have to start with the entire story of Ned Kellys father Red. It’s a lot more complex than Red just being shipped out from Ireland as a convict for stealing two pigs. His story involves famine and poverty, betrayal, theft, spying and dobbing in of mates, one of whom ends up dead. It’s ironic but highly likely that Transportation as a convict to Tasmania saved Reds life, but it was alcoholism that ended it prematurely. In Australia, after serving his time he struggled admirably to make a new life for himself and his family, he started well, he was honest and hardworking but the drink won in the end, and tragically he eventually lost everything to it. He wasn’t hounded by police – it was only at the end, in desperation that he lapsed once into crime. Reds story is the sad and tragic one of a man I have a lot of sympathy for, a very human story of an ultimately failed struggle to overcome the negative consequences of some very bad choices.
Then we have to tell the whole story of Ned Kellys other parent, Ellen Quinn who arrived in Victoria with her parents from Ireland with almost nothing. Her father James, by hard work and perhaps some good luck and a few shrewd moves ended up doing rather well for himself – a fact which like so many facts in the true story doesn’t fit with the old line that Irish poor were oppressed and kept underfoot by the colonial authorities. This poor but eventually materially succesful man raised a brood of children – Ned Kellys mother, his aunts and uncles – who didn’t seem impressed by James example of getting ahead by hard work and they gravitated towards crime and drunkenness, violence and antisocial behaviour. Their criminal records are an awful litany of brutal violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, animal cruelty, dishonesty and theft, a litany almost never mentioned in the vast libraries of Kelly veneration, but in my book would be fully exposed . Ellen Kelly matured into a volatile head-strong woman whose temper and lax moral compass got her into trouble many times, quite apart from conceiving her first child out of wedlock at 18, but especially once the calming influence of Red was gone. My book would report all the detail of the Quinns interactions with police and the courts and reveal many occasions where if the police had been corrupt they could easily have put them away but instead Neds uncles and other relations not infrequently narrowly escaped convictions because of the police and court officer’s scrupulous adherence to the rules. Later on, Ned Kelly himself was also the beneficiary of that belief in strict application of legal principles, but of course he never mentioned it and neither do his sympathisers. They’re inconvenient facts. There were of course numerous successful prosecutions and sentences of various kinds, including time inside for many of them, but most of the details of this great litany of criminality has been suppressed by the Kelly biographers till now, because it ruined the narrative they preferred of the Kellys and their sympathisers being hard-done-by good selector folk hounded and persecuted by corrupt police. All these shocking facts will finally be set out and the true context of the outbreak made clear.
What my book would also show is that while Red Kelly was alive he protected his wife and children from the criminal influence of the Quinn family, he didn’t break the law and though a poor family they were respected in the communities of Beveridge and Avenel. That was when Ned Kelly rescued Dick Shelton and was rewarded with the famous green sash, and when Red had them going to school.
It all fell apart though, once Red died in 1866. That was the moment when the Quinn influence began turning the arc of Ned Kellys life sharply towards crime. Unlike Red Kelly none of the Quinns seemed to have any guiding ethical principles other than survival by whatever it took. Mrs Kelly never expressed any kind of remorse or offered any kind of apology to anyone at the deaths and human costs and suffering that her son inflicted on so many in his short life, right to the very end of her own long life blaming everything on the Police.
While alive, Red Kelly kept a low profile and kept his family out of the eye of the law, but not long after Red died his widow changed all that and took a sister and a landlord to court. In 1868 Ellen and her seven children moved to Greta to live with two of her sisters – their husbands were in gaol for stock theft. Soon after, everything they owned apart from the clothes on their backs was lost when another of Ned Kellys uncles set fire to their accommodation and burned it to the ground. He was drunk and angry that Ellen had rebuffed his attempt to seduce her : arson was his revenge. No lives were lost but it was a close thing. The Kellys poverty was now absolute – but note carefully, it wasn’t brought about by police harassment and persecution but by Red Kellys alcoholism and then by his brothers drunken rage : alcoholism, immorality and arson : what a dangerous mix! This horrifying incident is barely mentioned in the Kelly myths and legends – it reflects too badly on the character and the quality of the people and the influences Ned Kelly was surrounded by as he grew up.
Next, Ellen made the near inexcusable and fateful decision to apprentice her 14-year-old son Ned to Harry Power, a notorious prison escapee on the run under whose guidance the adolescent and impressionable Ned Kelly learned even greater disrespect for the law, contempt for honest hard work, the lure of easy money and the power of a gun. Note carefully again, Ned Kellys life of serious crime began not as a response to police harassment or corruption or oppression but because of his own mothers urging, no doubt motivated by the poverty that was entirely their own making. Eventually, Ned Kelly and one of his Uncles betrayed Harry Power for police rewards : dropping of serious charges in Ned Kellys case, and £500 cash for his unsavoury uncle Jack Lloyd. These facts are dreadfully embarrassing to Kelly sympathisers because they show again what a feral mob the greater Kelly clan was, betraying each other for police rewards while hypocritically claiming the police to be their mortal enemy. What a great chapter of revelations that will be in my book.
From here, we are in much more familiar territory, cataloguing Ned Kellys series of increasingly serious interactions with the Law, a couple of early acquittals demonstrating the exact opposite of the allegations Kelly and Kelly sympathiser later made of relentless persecution and mistreatment. Eventually though his larrikin behaviour put him in gaol – for assault and indecency the first time, and in 1871 when aged 16, for ‘feloniously receiving’ a horse he was sentenced to three years in prison. Ian Jones, writing in “Ned The Exhibition” claimed Ned Kelly ‘innocently‘ received this ‘stolen horse’ – but as the court record shows, and as I would point out in my book, Jones got that wrong too : the horse wasn’t stolen, and Kelly didn’t receive it ‘innocently’.
PART TWO TO FOLLOW: