Most people in Australia know something about the bush ranger Ned Kelly and would recognise the suits of armour his Gang made for themselves, but how many of them would know that in the last ten years the story of the Outbreak has undergone a radical shake-up? In this essay I briefly review the way the story has changed over the 143 years since the Kelly gang was destroyed in June 1880 and bring readers up to date with where the last decade of research has taken it to.
It’s important to understand first of all that for most of the last 143 years, Ned Kelly and the Kelly gang were almost universally considered to be notorious criminals, and nothing else. Read what an Editorial in the Singleton Argus of July 7th 1880 had to say about it :
“The destruction of the Kelly gang is a great blessing. It has spread throughout the country a sense of relief hardly expressible in words. Had society been ridded of a horde of hyenas, wolves, and tigers, thirsting for human blood, the joy would scarcely have been greater than that felt at the hunting-down of this band of unmitigated ruffians and murderers.”
The Editorial concluded with these words: “We are sure our readers will join us in the congratulations we offer this colony on the destruction of this world-renowned gang of robbers and assassins”
It took almost 50 years for a different view of the Kelly gang to begin to emerge, when James Jerome Kenneally, Unionist, Labor party candidate, school teacher and friend of Ned Kellys brother Jim, wrote and published “The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and its pursuers” in March 1929. Kenneally described Ned Kelly in very positive terms, saying he was “strongly built, an excellent shot expert horseman and a good fighter”. Kenneallys narrative was that the Kellys were victims of police persecution: “It is very evident therefore that the police, metaphorically speaking intended to use LOADED DICE to rob the Kellys of their freedom”
Ned Kellys 70 year old brother Jim Kelly provided a ringing endorsement of this book, saying “You are the only author who has courage to do justice to the Kelly Gang….the people of Australia are now in full possession of the truth”
Kenneallys view of the Outbreak slowly infiltrated the discussion about the Outbreak, and awareness of it received an enormous boost from Sir Sydney Nolans famous 1948 Ned Kelly series of paintings, which still have their own special Gallery at the National Gallery in Canberra. At about the same time, author Max Brown published his influential and sympathetic “Australian Son”, other sympathetic authors followed in increasing numbers, and in 1970 Mick Jagger starred as Ned Kelly in the first colour movie about him. By the time of the centenary of Ned Kellys execution in 1980 a view was gaining ground that far from being a criminal, Kelly was in fact a ‘social bandit’, a man persecuted for challenging the way the poor and the working class were mistreated by the establishment, a man whose struggle for social justice for his family and community ended in his destruction but made him a hero. That year an enduringly popular, profoundly sympathetic and influential four-part TV miniseries called ‘The Last Outlaw’ was produced by Ian Jones and Bronwyn Binns. Genuine academic interest and historical research into this developing perspective on the Kelly story continued to grow, and the books kept coming. Writer Ian Jones emerged as ‘Australia’s foremost Kelly authority’, publishing his landmark biography “Ned Kelly: A short life” in 1995. In that work, he presented a claim about Ned Kelly that he had been developing since 1967, that at Glenrowan Kelly planned to overthrow local authorities by an act of war, and declare the North East a republic.
By the time of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, where dozens of representations of him on horseback, guns blazing were included in the opening ceremony, Ned Kellys status had been elevated to national icon, the exact reverse of what it had been a century before. In 2001 ‘Ned: The Exhibition’ opened and ran for nine months in Melbourne, and for the next decade it seemed as if Ned Kellys place in history as an Australian icon was assured. Annual commemorations in “Kelly country” were attended by hundreds, study materials were produced for school children, museums and galleries developed sympathetic displays and exhibitions, more films were made, more books written, web pages and Facebook pages sprang up, a Ned Kelly tourist trail was developed and almost all of it was devoted to the Legend of Ned Kelly, the new Australian hero and icon. The dominating influence of Ian Jones on all this can hardly be underestimated.
Enter Ian MacFarlane, archivist, broadcaster and writer.
His twenty-one year career as an archivist at the Victorian Public records office enabled him to become very familiar with the voluminous historical record collection relating to the Kelly Gang and the Outbreak. MacFarlane soon realised that much of the popular new mythology was directly contradicted by the archival records that he was looking at, it had moved way beyond what the evidence supported and was therefore unhistorical and needed to be corrected. In 2012, he published ‘The Kelly Gang Unmasked’ a highly praised and devastating rebuttal of the new view of Ned Kelly, that he was a hero. MacFarlane relied heavily on archival material to show convincingly that the view of him that had been overthrown 50 years earlier, that he was a violent criminal, was in fact the only view supported by the documentary evidence. This landmark book became a radical turning point in the Kelly history debates.
The tide of academic interest and of sympathetic publications stopped almost immediately, and then began to recede as piece by piece the Ian Jones inspired legend was dismantled and replaced by narratives based on the historical evidence. This process was greatly enhanced when the Public Records Office of Victoria digitised its vast collection and made it available online to everyone. A new wave of Kelly scholarship appeared, and over the next few years a dozen or more new publications appeared as the narrative was rewritten to make it faithful to the historical evidence, and the true story re-emerged.
The concept of social banditry as it had been applied to Ned Kelly was thrown out, the ‘Republic’ was shown to have been a 20th century creation that emerged out of a journalistic spoof, the ‘selector’ unrest said to have been the fertile soil out of which Kellys rebellion emerged was shown to have been vastly over-estimated, the Kelly claims of having been victims of police persecution were dismissed, Kelly clan criminality was once again exposed and a host of other components of the ‘Legend’ were modified or dismissed on the basis of what the original records showed.
At the same time as the Legend was unravelling, the cultural expressions of Kelly admiration were disappearing as well. The annual Kelly weekend at Beechworth, famous for its trial re-enactments and attended by thousands, received dwindling support, as did the elaborate Siege commemorations at Glenrowan and they both ceased. A Kelly museum was closed. Institutions like the National Museum reviewed and removed inaccurate representations of the Outbreak, the information provided to the public at Stringybark Creek was altered to better reflect the reality, the tourism model for the north-east was expanded and Kellys role in it de-emphasised. This process continues to this day.
Predictably perhaps, given the almost cult-like devotion to Ned Kelly that existed in certain quarters, these changes were resisted by a shrinking number of die-hard Kelly fans who retreated onto members only Facebook pages. Like the fringe who still believe the earth is flat, to this day they continue to attack and abuse anyone who supports the facts and the evidence based true story, rather than their now debunked claims about Kelly being a hero.
What we are left with in 2023 is a narrative that’s much closer to the true story of what happened, a story which despite the change which continues even now has nevertheless retained its colour and intrigue, a true crime story which remains fascinating and unique in the annals of the Australian story. In subsequent Posts, beginning with Kellys trial, I am going to explain why the bits that have been discarded were myths, and needed to go.