On Facebook and elsewhere one of the often-repeated claims made about Ned Kelly was that he ‘stood up’ for his family. The idea seems to be that his family were victims of police persecution from well before Ned Kelly was even a kid, but once he approached adulthood he finally decided ‘enough is enough’, his loyalty and devotion to his family compelled him to take a stand against the corrupt system of policing and ‘justice’, a brave defiant stand that ultimately resulted in his death. The police and the authorities were the baddies, and the Kellys led by Ned were the goodies. Death was a kind of martyrdom.
This is a wonderfully romantic almost classic vision of a true hero, the brave fearless youth who rescued a drowning child, grows up to tackle the goliath of institutional oppression and corruption. Here was a man inspired by what are now claimed to be true Australian values, justice and a fair go for all, embarked on a quest for justice for his family. It is emotionally appealing at every level.
But is it actually true?
The first problem with this narrative, is that the 1881 Royal Commission investigated the claim that the Kellys were persecuted by the Police and most definitely concluded that they were NOT. This is what they wrote :
“It may also be mentioned that the charge of persecution of the family by the members of the police force has been frequently urged in extenuation of the crimes of the outlaws; but, after careful examination, your Commissioners have arrived at the conclusion that the police, in their dealings with the Kellys and their relations, were simply desirous of discharging their duty conscientiously; and that no evidence has been adduced to support the allegation that either the outlaws or their friends were subjected to persecution or unnecessary annoyance at the hands of the police.’
Any Kelly supporter who knows that this is what the Commission found, but continues to claim the Kellys were persecuted needs to explain how the Commission got it so wrong. They took evidence from all kinds of people over many months and even visited Ellen Kelly in her own home, and they concluded not that there was hardly any evidence or only weak evidence of Kelly persecution but that there was NO evidence. Kelly supporters never fail to mention and applaud adverse findings that the Commission made about various Police, but when it comes to this finding, the finding that there was no police persecution of the Kellys, the sympathisers turn a deaf ear, and pretend it was never said. Denial, in other words.
Either they accept the authority of the Commission and all its findings, or they dismiss the entire thing – theres nothing credible about cherry picking findings they like and disregarding ones they don’t.
The other awful problem the people have who believe Ned Kelly ‘stood up’ for his family, is that when you look at what he actually did for his family, very little of it seems to be about ‘standing up’ for them.
Take the incident between Ned and the McCormicks, that resulted in Ned Kellys first imprisonment, in 1871, when Ned was 15. Neds involvement in this dispute was entirely gratuitous, and it had nothing at all to do with sticking up for his family, but as a result of it he was sentenced to three months hard labour for ‘violent assault’ plus a £10 fine or three months hard labour for ‘sending indecent letters to a female’. He was also to provide three £20 sureties ‘to keep the peace towards McCormick and his wife’. After the sureties were paid, his family couldn’t find the last £10, so he ended up going inside for six months instead of three. So Neds support for his mother consisted of brawling in public that resulted in her entire savings being expended, and her oldest son locked up and of no use to her at all for six months. Great help indeed!
Ned was freed from Gaol five weeks early, an inconvenient fact for those who say he was relentlessly persecuted and oppressed by the ‘system’. But did he decide to stay out of trouble so he could help his poor mother? No, within a few weeks he was back inside, this time for ‘feloniously receiving’ and he was gone for nearly three years. Three years of not standing up for his family or being there to defend them. Well done Ned, your mother must have been proud of you!
Ned Kelly was freed in early 1874, ( and, – another inconvenient fact – once again received a generous remission of his sentence) and supposedly for the next two years at least was going straight. So did he NOW demonstrate his devotion to his mother and stand up for his family? Well, by April 1877 , three years later Ned had admitted he had abandoned the straight life working for wages and was engaged in full time ‘wholesale and retail’ stock theft. He bragged about how much money he was making. He said he was living the life of a ‘rambling gambler’ and was apparently well known for dressing well and wearing fine boots. Ian Jones ( A Short Life) wrote he was ‘ an enthusiastic gambler who spent his money freely on grog for his fellow workers” But during this time when he had regular paid work, and then eventually a very lucrative criminal enterprise, how exactly was he demonstrating his great affection for his mother? Helping her out on the farm? Fixing up the house?
At this exact time, Inspecting Superintendent Nicolson visited the area and called in to see Mrs Kelly. This is his report from early 1877:
“I visited the notorious Mrs Kelly on the road from hence to Benalla. She lived on a piece of partly cleared and partly cultivated land on the roadside in an old wooden hut with a large bark roof. The dwelling was divided into five apartments by partitions of blanketing, rags 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 living in poverty and squalor. She said her sons were out at work but did not indicate where and that their relatives seldom came near them.”
“Poverty and squalor” was his mother’s lot, whilst Neds was the life of a ‘rambling gambler’. Later that year when he was fined for being drunk and disorderly, for resisting arrest and for assaulting police in the execution of their duty, he paid the £4/6s himself. At least now he was paying his own fines, but there is little evidence of any particular devotion to his mother, or any evidence that he was ‘standing up’ for her.
However, to give Ned his due, at the end of the year his conscience must have got the better of him because with the help of Joe Byrne, Williamson and Skillion, he replaced his mothers squalid old hut with a much more substantial place, with actual interior walls. Morrissey wrote that the old hut was about to collapse and if it had done so, Mrs Kellys selection may have become forfeit. This act, albeit out of almost desperate necessity is about the only thing Ned did that could be said to be for his family. But what son wouldn’t have done that for his mother if he could? Frankly, I don’t see it as an exhibition of something exceptional in Ned Kellys character.
Four months later, at the new Kelly home, Constable Fitzpatrick was injured , and arrest warrants were issued for Ned, his mother, Dan and two others on charges of attempted murder. Ned claimed he wasn’t there at the time, and was therefore innocent – so did he stand up for his family and demonstrate his devotion to his mother by defending her? Well, no he didn’t, because as he well knew those claims were lies and he disappeared with Dan into the Bush, leaving his mother alone to face the music with her newborn baby Alice.
Later, he tried to make some sort of deal with the police to get his mothers freedom, but it was an offer he knew couldn’t possibly be accepted – it was just grandstanding, a pretence at caring – there still isn’t a case anywhere in legal history that Ive heard of where a wanted suspect has negotiated his surrender on the basis that some other convicted criminal is released. And then of course Ned Kelly made it altogether impossible to do anything for anyone but himself by murdering three policemen at Stringybark Creek and being outlawed as a result. From then on it was all about his own survival.
He robbed two banks and obtained a huge amount of money. But he didn’t use the money to buy legal help for his mother – he give the money to his supporters and family members who were soon paying off debts and seen wearing smart clothes and buying new saddles. The proceeds of either robbery would have bought some pretty expensive Lawyers advice but he didn’t bother. And by the time he launched his ill-fated attack at Glenrowan, Mrs Kelly had less than a year to run on her sentence – but Glenrowan wasn’t about Mrs Kelly, it was about murder and revenge, and he was ready to sacrifice not only his own life, but his brothers as well.
So did Ned Kelly really stand up for his family? I think its pretty clear the answer is no – he created more problems for them than he solved. When Mrs Kelly needed him he seemed to mostly be off having a good time, or else in Gaol, and then for the last two years of his life he was on the run. If he hadn’t built that house I would have said he never did anything but create trouble for his family.
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