Another Kelly Myth Implodes!

The following is a story that promoters of the Kelly legends wouldn’t want you to read, even though it’s a true story about what happened to a family of poor Irish Catholic migrants to Australia in 1841. The  reason Kelly sympathisers wouldn’t want you to read this story is because it undermines the myth they want you to  believe  about poor Irish Catholics in Victoria at that time, that everything was stacked against them and that their lot was one of Police harassment and persecution, exploitation and poverty. What their myth teaches is that the Kellys were just another God fearing  Irish Catholic pioneer family, struggling not only against the elements,  but something far worse, a British colonial system that was actively prejudiced against all of them and determined to dominate and oppress them.  Heroically of course, Ned Kelly decided to fight back against this injustice  – and if they became ‘criminals’, they were ‘police-made criminals’ –  or so the Kelly’s would have us believe. This story shows otherwise.

So what would a poor Irishman, his wife and eight children, yes, a family of ten have to look forward to when they arrived almost penniless in Melbourne, in the winter of 1841? They had fled the Irish famine which killed a couple of million people, but arrived in Melbourne ‘at a disastrous time. Falling wool prices, a punctured land boom and rampant imports brought a four year depression…businesses crumbled with bankrupts paying as little as a farthing in the pound..”  And of course if we are to accept the Kelly legend, the whole ‘system’ was stacked against them. Had they leapt from the frying pan only to find themselves in the fire?

It simply MUST have been really hard going, to arrive with almost nothing and a large family, and to provide even the barest of the necessities of everyday life from day one. However, our poor Irish immigrant told his young family they had come to Australia to ‘improve their position’ so he set to work and took a job as a Porter. This work would have been poorly paid so perhaps he worked long hours, or had two jobs, but eventually he had enough to rent some land and buy some cows and bullocks. Now, his wife and the older children could help with the work, milking the cows while he carted goods and sold firewood in Melbourne. It seems they all worked incredibly hard so that by 1849 they were able to rent a bigger property 30 miles from Melbourne.

The following year, his eldest son tragically drowned, but in  Melbourne, his second eldest daughter married a man called John, a fellow Irishman with a convict background who had also arrived in Melbourne with nothing, but he knew bush carpentry and how to split logs and do fencing.  He was permitted to build a small dwelling on his father-in-laws property and worked for him in what by now had become a lucrative trade breeding and trading in cattle and horses.  John briefly joined the Gold rush and returned with enough money to leave the farm with his wife and baby daughter and buy land of his own, 41 acres, two miles away, at Beveridge. In 1859 he bought more land totaling 21 acres as well as two half-acre township allotments. He built a house, and things were really looking up.

The house red Built at Beveridge

John was of course  ‘Red’ Kelly, his wife was Ellen by now the mother of Ned, and her father, the Irish immigrant who had arrived penniless in 1841was James Quinn.  In 1856 James’ 15 long years of hard work paid off and he bought 422 acres of his own next to his rented land. Later James Quinn challenged the right of the Roads Board to cut his property in two with a new road, and won compensation, and then in 1864 paid  £2000 for a 20,000 acre lease on the King River, Glenmore Station. Another land owner not far away in the King Valley with a  quite similar story, was James Whitty. He also was an Irish catholic who arrived penniless and by dint of hard work and clever business deals also became a wealthy landowner.

This is the point at which its necessary to take stock, to look at the fortunes of the Quinns and of his daughter and son-in-law Red Kelly,  and of Whitty, and ask where is the tale of oppresson and persecution, of being deliberately kept poor, of harassment and provocation? These people were all poor Irish Catholics, penniless and powerless on their arrival in Melbourne, yet they went on to lead useful and comfortable lives and gained the respect of their communities, with no hint of hindrance or interference by colonial powers. The truth is, that up to this point the story is one of freedom to work, to travel, to buy and sell land, to marry and to come and go in pursuit of ones own dreams, and for people willing to work very hard, of reaping the rewards. Remarkably, James Quinn challenged the Government in the Courts and won compensation – something the Kelly myth would never have predicted was possible in a system they claimed was so loaded against them. This story is most definitely NOT a story of  ‘suffering innocents’ and persecution by a malign Police force and corrupt authorities.

The rest of the story unfortunately fails to live up to the promise of the early years, John Kelly dying in poverty only seven years after he bought his second property at Beveridge. However his tragic decline wasn’t a result of Police persecution; it was a direct result of his fondness for alcohol, and the effect this had on his farming ventures, and his ability to survive through a drought. The farms failed and as a result he sold up at a loss and moved even further north, to Avenel. He drifted deeper into poverty, and only then was there any involvement of the Law in his life, when he stole a calf and killed it for food in mid 1865. Here, rather than observing an example of what the Kelly myth would predict – harsh and unfair treatment by Police and the Judiciary –  we observe lenience as he was convicted of the lesser charge of being illegally in possession of a cow hide. The sentence was a fine of £25, or, if unable to pay the fine, six months in Gaol, which is where he went.  Ian Jones writes “he was probably released in the first week of October with a generous remission of more than two months” – that ‘generous remission’ once again disproving the Kelly myth of poor Irish Catholics, and the Kellys in particular as always being mistreated and discriminated against by the Authorities. In December he was fined 5 shillings for being drunk and disorderly, but that was the last time the law took any interest in him. In 1866 “Red fought a losing battle with the farm and with booze. His liver and heart suffered.  As the year rotted away Ned helplessly watched his father destroy himself” (Ian Jones A short Life 2008 Edition p30) He died on December 27th aged 45, a terribly sad and tragic end to a life that came so close to breaking the shackles of a convict past. But lets be very clear about this : Red Kellys demise, and the poverty and deprivation that Ellen Kelly found herself in by 1866 when Ned was 11, was NOT a result of Police persecution or harassment by authorities with a prejudice against Irish selectors : it was a result of Red Kellys alcoholism. – nothing to do with the Police, nothing to do with the Law , nothing to do with ’the system’.  The truth is that no matter how fervently Kelly sympathisers might want to look elsewhere and for someone else to blame for this tragedy, its the Kellys themselves that were responsible.  How different the history of North East Victoria might have been if he had beaten the drink and been there to provide a positive role-model for Ned and Dan as they grew up, and teach them the values of hard work and patience, and respect for law and order? We will never know.

James Quinn on the other hand continued to prosper, and wasn’t victimized by the Police, or brought before the Courts, but even though he set a fine example of the value of determination and hard work it seems these lessons were lost on some of his children. In 1856 his 15 year old son Jimmy (James Jnr) was charged with possession of stolen cattle but was discharged. In 1860 he was jailed for six weeks following a conviction for Assault, but on another assault charge and one of Horse stealing he received the benefit of the doubt and wasn’t convicted. The Kelly myths would have you believe the Police were picking on him; but as Ian Jones says (p18) ‘If this is true he also received the benefit of the doubt three times out of four – as he would in another Horse stealing  case almost as soon as he was released from Prison. Less lucky on a charge of Illegally using a Horse he served a four month sentence. Tall darkly good looking young Jimmy had begun a long career of crime, most of it generated by a volcanic temper that led him into a succession of brawls and sometime murderous assaults, punctuated by a few stock thefts. Cause and effect can be debated but he emerged as a dangerous unpredictable ratbag of a man, rarely out of trouble’ 

Some years later, another insight into the dark character of this man is provided by his readiness to assist the Kellys supposed  enemies, the Police to catch Harry Power. Working with Jack Lloyd, another of Neds uncles, he received a share of the Police reward of £500, but shortly after, when Ned was a meager £10 short of meeting the fines he was ordered to pay after his convictions in relation to the McCormick affair, neither of those two men was prepared to help him out. As a result Ned served an extra three months hard labour – so much for the Kelly clan solidarity!

Its interesting to compare Jimmy with his older brother Jack , who also seems to have flirted with a life of crime. In 1860 Jack was charged with Horse stealing and later in the year for cattle stealing, and the following year with Robbery under Arms but on every occasion he escaped a conviction. Many years later he was named as a sympathizer but wasn’t ever again before the Courts. Again we see another scenario that doesn’t match the Kelly myth of  Police-made-criminals, of oppression and unfair treatment in the Courts. Instead what actually happened was that the Law treated Jack Quinn correctly and even though there may have been smoke Police couldn’t find a fire and he was discharged every time. If  Jacks involvement with the Law was a result of a corrupt system and Police harassment, why was he never convicted of anything and why was he left alone from 1861?

As for Jimmy, which Kelly sympathizer then or now would be so foolish as to suggest that poverty and deprivation and a system biased against Irish Catholics was to blame for what he became, that Jimmy was a ‘police made criminal’?  The Kelly sympathisers own ‘doyen’, Ian Jones says Jimmy Quinns problem was his personality, his volcanic temper. Jones obviously doubts the “we were picked on” refrain of the Kellys and their supporters. 

What I am showing here, from historical facts and not  the conjecture and ‘family tradition’ which make up the Kelly myths, is that there was NOT widespread victimisation by the Police and by the Authorities generally, of poor irish immigrants.  In fact the evidence largely supports the exact opposite of the Kelly myth. This myth is an invention of the Kelly believers, an old trick of habitual criminals  world wide hoping to elicit sympathy and support by disingenuously claiming  they’re innocent and being picked on, singled out for no particular reason, other than prejudice and suspicion of anyone poor and Irish. 

The reality is that when the Police took an interest in the Kellys, it was for legitimate purposes related to maintaining Law and Order. That was one of the main findings of the ‘Royal Commission of enquiry into the Circumstances of the Kelly Outbreak’ 1881, an enquiry Sympathisers like to selectively quote from, but this finding, an answer to the first of the listed purposes of the Commissions Inquiry, is another thing they wouldn’t want you to read!

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18 Replies to “Another Kelly Myth Implodes!”

  1. Amy Adams says: Reply

    Dee, that is ultra worthwhile NEW research!

    The Croydon numbskull will regard this as heresy. He thinks all Selectors were mistreated. His historical views are, well, simplistic and inaccurate.

    Its a great pity the Ellen Kelly land records have disappeared or been stolen from the State Archives.

    Technically, it would be possible to reconstruct her file as original reports still exist. But her reactions won't be recoverable. Those are in the land files now lost.

  2. Bill may be a lot of things to a lot of people Amy but a numbskull he is not. Very harsh. I think his work on SBC shows he is NOT simplistic. Be nice. Good manners cost nothing. Love Mark.

  3. Mark I think Amy was referring to some other person who lives in Croydon. Why anyone would care about THAT persons opinion is beyond me!

    But I would rather hear if readers agree with me that this true story undermines the Kelly story about them being picked on and being oppressed by a system stacked against them. What do you think Mark?

  4. Anonymous says: Reply

    Dee, a very nice piece of research that certainly paints a picture of the circumstances which lead to the Kelly family and some of their extended family living as they did. And when you look at the evidence Doug Morrissey provides about other selectors in the Greta district, you see that much of the Kelly family's 'misfortune' was of their own making. In Ned Kelly – A Lawless Life, Morrissey points out that 79% of selectors in the area in the 'hungry seventies' not only survived but managed to obtain freehold on their land. Despite the challenges of working poor land, crop failures, mortgages, rent arrears and all that nature could throw at them, they prevailed. In fact there were only about 10% of selectors, including the hard-done-by Ellen Kelly, who could be described as struggling. Of these battlers, most were decent people who didn't resort to crime as the Kellys had chosen to do. Maybe if Ellen and her sons had put in a bit of an effort they too could have been successful selectors. However, when Supt Nicolson of the Victorian Police visited the Kelly selection in 1877 he made a damning report on the state of the property saying that there were no men present and that the occupants, females and children, were living in 'squalor'.

    Many Kelly supporters claim that much of the gang's criminal escapades were carried to help the poverty-stricken family. But as Morrissey points out, even after the bank robberies carried out by Ned and his mates, which netted over 4000 pounds, Ellen's selection was not paid off. So what did they do with the money? Seems none was directed at poor old mum's situation.

  5. Mark,
    I am glad you don't think I'm the numbskull from Croydon. That title may belongs to someone else, but I've been called far worse.

    I think Dee paints a perfectly accurate picture of the struggle by those early immigrants, but it helped a lot if you weren't Catholic Irish.

    I found it interesting that long after the Kelly outbreak, in 1929, J J Kenneally wrote his book 'The Inner History of the Kelly Gang', and Jim Kelly wrote a book review for it, he wrote –

    ""You have gone to a lot of trouble, and displayed great patience, judgement, and tact in collecting inside official police and judicial documents and information, in order to let the world at large see for themselves how the various members of my family have been hounded down by the heads, as well as by the rank and file, of the police force. "" Jim Kelly

    Here we can read how bitter even Ned's surviving brother fifty years on felt about his family and relatives being hounded, and I don't believe it was only because they happened to be in possession of lost or stolen live stock, everyone was in on that. It came down religious affiliations and politics of the day.

  6. Graeme Lee says: Reply

    Jim Kelly was another nobody in the Kelly legend.

  7. George Ashworth says: Reply

    Jim Kelly was hardly a book critic. He was a convict himself and had fired four shots when police cornered him in NSW.

    The J J Kenneally book in all its many editions was pretty ordinary too. He was doing a big whitewash. No wonder Jim liked it.

  8. JJ Keneally, Jim Kelly, his mother and the Kelly descendants to this day, have come to believe their own rhetoric. They cling to this idea that Ned Kelly and the Gang were ‘hounded’ by the Police – but what I have been pointing out not just in this post but in several others over the last 18 months, is that a) there is very little if any evidence to support this claim ( as I have just done with the story of Red) and b) there is an ABUNDANCE of evidence that in most cases the Police and the authorities actually treated them fairly.

    The Kelly legends are woven out of Ned Kellys lies and the wishful thinking of people who have been taken in by them. This is what I have been exposing on this Blog.

  9. Anonymous says: Reply

    The big problem with the Kelly Story is that the average punter has a mindset about what she/he believes depending on the extent of their own reading and research. Most of this is of course superficial and given the tone of most past publications on the subject, the average Joe believes and follows the Kelly-hero-persecuted by the authorities, rebel mantra. Obviously future generations will probably follow the same path as was recently pointed out by Dee. Unfortunately, the beat goes on!

  10. Spudee, if I can help it, future generations will NOT follow the same path. I’m not sure where you think I said that they would, but if I did then Ive changed my mind! What I hope will happen is that truth-telling books like MacFarlanes and Morrisseys – and any others that might get written that expose the Kelly stories for the myths that they are – will gradually become regarded as the standard works on the outbreak, and belief in the heroic “Robin Hood” of Australia will be relegated to a few crackpots and conspiracy theorists. Even the Kelly descendants will come to realise their ancestor was not the marvel they hoped he was.

  11. Anonymous says: Reply

    I was only thinking of your recent blog 'Lying to Children – Is this Neducation' where you wrote "With Kids books however, I don’t have to guess that they might not be getting a balanced and reasonable account of the outbreak – I can read what theyre being told for my self – and they aren’t! They’re being feed the syrupy fairy tale of the gallant Ned Kelly with the occasional token reference to his bad behaviour, or rhetorical question about his right to defend himself or stand up and fight for his rights. “Was he a victim of Police abuse or merely a villain?” asks Anna Purcell, placing before young minds that tedious false dichotomy and asking them to chose! The same old “Hero or Villain” nonsense."

  12. OK Spudee, thanks for that. Point taken! Maybe one day someone will write a kids book about Ned Kelly that tells the truth about him! In the meantime I suppose we just have to hope that as these mis-informed kids grow up, the curious ones will read a bit more widely and realise they’ve been fed a line of ‘whoppers’ about the Kelly outbreak.

  13. Every future Kelly Gang book and TV series will have to take on board the factual, important new findings of Macfarlane and Morrissey that seriously question every part of the Kelly Myth.

  14. Matt Lenten says: Reply

    Ned was a total DUD. He contributed nothing to his community during his lifetime. He stole from his neighbours. At Glenrowan he was planning the mass murder of more police. A worthless, squandered Life.

  15. And it was not just police on that train. There were the train crew, a number of newspaper reporters and at least one doctor. The gang was not only prepared to derail the train, but murder ANY survivors. But once again, this is very rarely mentioned by Kelly supporters.

  16. Who was "Amy" referring to then?

  17. My guess is that Amy was referring to the NKF Member whose promised explanation of the Lonigan killing is now 255 days late (See Top right of the Blog, below the Page Views Counter)

  18. Amy Adams says: Reply

    Is Mark being deliberately dumb? No one in their right mind would accuse Bill of being dumb. He discovered the exact location of the 1878 police camp at SBC. What a complete champion!

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