Having received my copy of Doug Morrissey’s latest work later than some of the other readers of this Blog, I understand now, having read it, why none of them volunteered to write a review of it for me. “Selector Squatters and Stock thieves” is not an easy book to read. It’s not so much an exciting tale of bushranging, the police chase, personalities and persecution, like most other Kelly books – Morrissey’s earlier one included – but instead is a very much drier and detailed examination of the entire social and economic environment of the time, the actual times and the actual place and the actual context in which the outbreak sits.
There was a discussion about this context as far back as the landmark Kelly symposium in Wangaratta in 1967, where Ian Jones set out a view which has remained mostly unchallenged inside the Kelly mythology till now, that the difficult and divisive social and economic conditions at the time, and particularly selector poverty and the land wars between selectors and squatters were the seed bed for the Outbreak. From the floor at the symposium Jones view WAS challenged – by Weston Bate, an actual historian – but Jones brushed Bates objections aside saying “We are in happy disagreement”. McQuilton developed Jones idea further with his 1979 book The Kelly Outbreak in which he advanced the idea that Ned Kelly was a ‘social bandit’ – an almost accidental popular leader who emerges out of the sort of poverty and widespread social and political unrest Jones postulated was afflicting the north East during that era.
In 1987 Doug Morrissey completed his doctoral thesis “Selectors squatters and Stock Thieves : A Social history of Kelly Country” at Latrobe University. It remains unpublished but ‘extensively revised and brought up to date with new research’ it forms the basis for this new book. In this book, Morrissey challenges the orthodox ‘Kelly legend’ view and offers a much wider overview of the district and its political, economic and social history than the very narrow and focussed perspective usually seen in the Kelly literature. According to the Kelly legend the north east was divided along strict ethnic, class and religious lines: Irish settlers were patriots and opposed the British, Catholics and protestants shunned one another, the poor selectors were at war with the wealthy squatters over land rights, police were the mercenary enforcers of squatter rights, and Ned Kelly emerged from a typical poor Irish selector background to become the people’s hero. This portrait, according to Morrissey is supported by a highly selective narrative which ignores the historical realities that he documents extensively in this book. Catholic Ellen Kelly, for example, married a protestant and so did her daughters Maggie and Annie – and Annie later had an affair with a policeman. The reality was vastly more complex than the Kelly legend and its proponents would have us believe. The Kelly scenario of widespread selector failure, poverty and disquiet, the sense of being under siege and oppression by police and squatter, the idea of the north east being a seething politically volatile hothouse ripe for revolution that was rescued by Ned Kelly – Morrissey shows that’s all a fantasy. Yes, there were disputes, there was drought, there was crop failure and individual failures – but in the main the place was going forward, people were making their way ahead by hard work and community support of its varied constituents. The Kelly outbreak was pure criminality that emerged out of a fringe of larrikins and shanty dwellers who repelled the majority of the population of the north east.
The book of over 350 pages is divided into three parts: Social order and authority, Land settlement, and Crime and Policing. With respect to the prevailing social order Morrissey makes it very clear that the Lloyd/Quinn/Kelly clan were not in the least bit representative of the typical inhabitants of the north east: “Notions of respectability and decent public behaviour were taken seriously by the majority of the regions inhabitants”. They would not have approved of what Morrissey terms the ‘shanty culture’ of the Kelly clan, a life that revolved around the ‘shanty’, a communal meeting place that was the focus for a life centred around drinking, riotous living and larrikinism, and was associated with criminality of varying kinds – petty crime, sly grog selling, prostitution, stock theft.
Instead the majority of selectors were extremely hard working and stoic in the face of the physical challenges, including drought that faced them all out on the isolated borders of settlement. The typical selector was a hardworking, upstanding church-going member of local communities who respected the rule of law and traditional values. Even the ones who identified as Irish, and supported home rule for the Irish back home upheld the rule of British law in the colony. Selectors were noble folk in the main, breaking in the land and for many attempting a profession they had no prior experience of: according to Morisseys figures 37% of selectors in the districts that he studied described themselves as labourers and another 21% were such things as school teachers, miners and carpenters. Morrissey’s discussion of land acquisition under the constantly evolving legislation shows how selectors took advantage of the opportunities, and how frequently they were successful – he challenges a claim that only 37% of selectors in the north east were successful, with his own figures derived from an analysis of 265 selections made between 1868 and 1880 showing that ten years later 78% were still on their selections and 72% eventually acquired the titles to their land. All things considered, these are noteworthy outcomes.
In the third section of the book Morrissey reviews the criminal history of the clan, and discusses the complex relationships between police, the criminals and their informers. The full story of the Kelly ‘villains’ Hall and Flood is detailed, and was news to me, but Morrisseys view of Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, is a view which he elaborated in his first book, and is wrong. I think he is close to the truth in portraying Fitzpatrick in some way as a ‘mate’ of Ned, but he fell into the trap of accepting Corfields entirely erroneous claim that Fitzpatrick died of cirrhosis of the liver. This trap has the effect of making the earlier and otherwise entirely unsupported claims about Fitzpatrick being a drunk easier to accept, and this then leads on to an acceptance of other equally unsubstantiated claims about Fitzpatrick, such as that he was a womaniser. Consequently Morrissey’s view of Fitzpatrick as a ‘scheming policeman’ is not one supported by the evidence.
That however is not my sole or even my main criticism of this otherwise very detailed comprehensive and informative book. My main criticism is that once again Morrissey has dispensed with even the slightest attempt at a bibliography or referencing, instead alerting us by italicising the words taken from elsewhere, but not providing even the slightest hint about where from. Morrissey simply expects us to take his word as gospel. He hasn’t provided us with the opportunity to explore further or to check up on what he claims is the case. This failure borders on contempt for his readers, and is a huge pity. Surely Morrissey knows that this book contains material that will be highly contentious in certain quarters, and the Kelly myth-makers will be desperate to discredit it. Unfortunately, by not providing any references he has given them the excuse they want, an excuse to reject everything he says in the book that they don’t like as just his opinion – and that will be almost all of it!
This is in fact a really good book. It’s another step forward in the deconstruction of the mythology about life in the North East in the 1870’s, and further erodes what little remains of the case for Ned Kelly being the people’s hero from the north east. He was in fact a clever, violent and vengeful criminal whose support was non-existent once the money ran out, as is evidenced by the families inability to obtain the excellent services of barrister Mr Hickman Molesworth to defend him in Melbourne.
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