Ned Kelly’s Devotion To His Mother: Another Myth

Ned Kelly, according to the Mythology, was devoted to his family and particularly his mother. He is reported to have said of his father “Red” Kelly that, “a finer man never put his feet in two shoes” a commendably loyal, but wildly inaccurate sentiment from a son who lost his father to alcoholism at the age of 11. Ned was said to have then become the dominant male in the household, forced into assuming responsibilities beyond his years, a not too uncommon arrangement in families even today. But his mother seemed to have no trouble forming new relationships with adult males, such as the Englishman Bill Frost (when Ned was 13 or 14) and then with the mysterious American George King. So one wonders just how much truth there is in this image of Ned being a de facto head of the house. In any event, though modern sympathisers like to gush and sentimentalise Ned’s role in the household, there was nothing especially remarkable about it.

I was prompted to think a little more about Ned Kelly’s devotion to his mother and his family after my last post, wherein I quoted Nicolson’s famous line about endeavouring to convict “whenever they commit any paltry crime”.

Immediately before this statement, Nicolson describes visiting the Kelly household as:
“… an old wooden hut with a large bark roof. The dwelling was divided into five apartments by partitions of blanketing, rugs etc. There were no men in the house, only children and two girls of about 14 years of age said to be her daughters. They all appeared to be existing in poverty and squalor.”

Now this was in 1877, when Ned was 22 and at the end of several years in which he was supposed to have been going straight, working at a sawmill (among other places). But now he was engaged in what was evidently a very lucrative trade his self-declared “wholesale and retail horse and cattle dealing”.

He had been part of the so called “Greta Mob”, who were known for their “flashness”, their fine horses, their larrikin behaviour and their trendy clothing. Indeed, Ned Kelly was always reported to be wearing tailor made boots and fine clothes. In A New View of Ned Kelly, Ian Jones wrote, “He dressed well – he was proud of his personal appearance”.

Contrast Ned Kelly’s glamorous well-dressed life in 1877 with that of his mother and sisters he was living it up, not at home doing the much needed hard yards on his mother’s  selection. But rather travelling the countryside with mates, stealing horses and cattle and dressing (and no doubt eating and drinking) well, while his mother and sisters were living in squalor in an old hut on a selection that only Ellen was working on.

In fact, because insufficient work was being done to improve the selection, according to Dr. Doug Morrissey, Ellen Kelly came close to losing it that year, prompting Ned to finally do something by building a better place for her in the summer of 1877-78. But this act was not performed out of devotion to his mother, rather her desperation. Ian Jones wrote that in early 1878, after the house was built, “With Ned indulging his habit for gambling, he and Joe enjoyed a few footloose months of vagabonding – across the Riverina, up to the Murrumbidgee Valley and Wagga Wagga, where one of Joe’s uncles had settled, and then on to the Darling”.

With a mother and sisters living in poverty and squalor, this is hardly the behaviour of a devoted elder son. So whilst Ned Kelly may have claimed to be dedicated to his mother and family, as with many of his claims, his actions provide little evidence of these intentions. Actions speak much louder than words another myth bites the dust!
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10 Replies to “Ned Kelly’s Devotion To His Mother: Another Myth”

  1. One thing in Ned's favor is that he and Dan offered to turn themselves in to the authorities after the Fitzpatrick affair and before the Stringybark Creek tragedy in exchange for their mother's release from gaol. No guarantees or promises could be made, however, so the surrender never took place.

  2. Brian Rowe says: Reply

    No private Kelly family correspondence has ever been published.

    There are no "Love youse Mum" letters.

    Maybe correspondence ended up in the fireplace in case of police raids – but you'd think some of it would have survived.

    Perhaps Sharon can come up with evidence Ned and his mother had a normal, loving relationship?

    Ned and Dan were away shearing sheep in NSW for extended periods. Maybe Mum got an occasional money order. I don't know.

  3. Anonymous says: Reply

    At every juncture in the story with two or more possible explanations, you invariably choose the one that paints Ned in the ugliest light. According to you, this is not only the most likely version of events, but the correct one. This is extreme bias, and the zeal with which you flaunt this bias makes this blog very difficult to take seriously. I'm not some unhinged Kelly supporter here to troll you – you're clearly very learned on the Kelly story and write with clarity – but I would ask you to take a more nuanced approach when assessing areas for which there is scant and often conflicting evidence.

  4. Sam McClennan says: Reply

    I'm not sure the Ned and Dan offer to exchange themselves for Ellen Kelly holds much water. Dan disarmed Fitzpatrick. Ned shot him in the wrist. Ellen just dented his helmet with a shovel. Ned was most at risk, wasn't he. Ellen was doing a three year sentence. Go figure.

  5. Dolf Brookes says: Reply

    Russ Scott and Ian MacFarlane in their 2014 paper about Ned's psychopathy thought there was something badly amiss in the mother-son relationship. MacFarlane in his 2012 Kelly Gang Unmasked book warned that there were too many parts missing from the story for it to be fully told. His list of missing archival documents is shocking. He wondered whether the documents have been systematically pilfered. One of the missing set of documents is Ellen Kelly's lands file which would have answered a few of your questions, Dee!

  6. Considering family correspondence, Ellen could read but not write, so there would be no letters from her unless they were dictated. Also, allegedly, post (no pun intended) SBC letters to/from some sympathisers (including Maggie) were intercepted and examined by postal authorities per the police. I have not looked into that aspect too deeply, but Greg Young had long ago spoke of it to me.

  7. In A.N. Baron's "Blood in the Dust" wherein she analyses Ned Kelly's handwriting (both adolescent and adult samples) there is some very interesting supposition on Ned's relationship with his mother. It talks of his preoccupation with his mother and how "he had formed a deep emotional attachment to her, which remained undiminished in adulthood." Of course, some would say that if one already knew of the history of someone that any analysis would reflect said foreknowledge. That might even be said of those who are doing psychoanalysis who approach it from either a pro or con direction.

    Also, yes, it is a shame that so many vital records of historical significance have gone walkabout.

  8. Sam McClennan says: Reply

    There is plenty of ugly light in the plan to wreck the police train, the murders of the three police at SBC. Creepy.

  9. Ken Brown says: Reply

    Handwriting analysis is still in the realms of unscientific rubbish. I must confess I haven't read that book, That's because handwriting analysis is like reading Tarot Cards and numerology. Kelly mythology thrives on this stuff.

  10. I guess graphology is somewhat akin to phrenology in the minds of some folks. 🙂

    As I said above, if someone knows something about the case beforehand, there is no way to be objective, no matter what the process is.

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