The Phantom Sympathiser Army

Here’s a thought that might have occurred to the odd Kelly Sympathiser searching for reasons to continue believing in the Republic of North East Victoria: if there was no plan for a Republic why would there have been a Sympathiser Army? Doesn’t the existence of the Sympathiser Army described by Ian Jones and all the other pro-Kelly authors prove that the Kelly Gang was advancing some sort of political agenda at Glenrowan?  What would be the point of having an Army unless they were planning to go to war, and be hoping to win? And if they won, why couldn’t there have been, as Ian Jones said, a plan to then declare the north East a Republic?

Well, leaving the army aside for a moment, there are many good reasons to reject the notion that Ned Kelly had a political agenda, and was planning a Revolution, not the least of them being the fact that despite being famous for his incessant speech making, lecturing and letter writing, Ned Kelly never ever said anything about such a thing to anyone. Not one word. Not ever.

Additionally, neither did any member of the supposed “Army” or anyone else involved in the outbreak at the time or in the next fifty years. Even the so-called ‘fifth member’ of the Kelly gang, Tom Lloyd had never heard of it, and neither had Ned Kellys brother Jim or his mother ever heard of it. At least until 1929 there was no oral history of a Republic or anything like it in the Kelly family.

In fact, after carefully tracing the Republic story backwards in time from its florid exposition by Ian Jones in 1967, Stuart Dawson showed last year that the Republic idea had its origins in a kind of spoof written for an entertainment column in the Bulletin magazine of June 1900. These musings about a Republic and ‘the Presidency of Edward Kelly Esq’ were repeated and elaborated at infrequent intervals over the next forty years, but clearly hadn’t reached the ears of the Kellys or J J Kenneally in 1929, when he wrote what he claimed was the ‘COMPLETE Inner History of the Kelly Gang” a work which was endorsed by Jim Kelly who said of Kenneallys book ‘Through your book the people of Australia are in full possession of the truth’ . James Ryan, a cousin of Ned Kelly also wrote to Mr Kenneally and said “Your book is indeed complete”. If the massive central theme of a republic had been part of the Kelly plan, these two would have known about it and would have seen a huge hole in Kenneallys narrative – but they didn’t!  Instead they said it was ‘complete’ and Australia was ‘in FULL possession of the truth’. These facts are insurmountable hurdles for any remaining proponents of revolution and the Kelly republic.


So, if there was no plan for a republic, what exactly was the purpose of the “Sympathiser Army”? Needless to say, Stuart Dawson thought of this and answered it in his book last year, but his conclusion is worth repeating, as well as explaining.  Simply put, the Sympathiser Army is a myth – it didnt exist; there never was an ‘army’, or even a small band of armed supporters on standby at Glenrowan, and the claim that Ned Kelly left the Inn to visit them, to confer, and then dismiss them as all was lost is a fable!


Dawsons exposure  of the claims for a Sympathiser Army  as  myth relies as usual on his meticulous scrutiny of the sources which Jones claimed in support of it. For example, as evidence for sympathiser activity Jones wrote in his acclaimed Kelly biography “A Short Life” that during the night of the siege there was ‘constant galloping between Greta and Glenrowan’. Dawson went to the source of that claim : it was Thomas Curnow who was asked  at the Royal Commission if he was aware of  any armed men in the area other than the Gang:

17626. By Mr. Sadleir.-Were there any other armed men about besides the Kellys ?

Curnow: I heard from my brother-in-law that Tom Cameron had told him that during the early morning there was constant galloping between the station and the ranges on the right hand side ; that is towards Kelly’s residence.

  1. Towards Greta ?

Curnow:  Yes, as we were on the road up, I heard a horse walking on the other side of the line, on the right hand side going to Wangaratta, and we stopped and listened, and then we heard it start into a trot, then a canter, and then a gallop. That was when I was going up to see who was victorious after the first volleys were fired.


Effectively , Thomas Curnows answer was “No” – he personally had not seen any armed men, but he did hear –  but not see –  a single horse galloping off towards Wangaratta! ONE horse – and going in the wrong direction!  Given that at about that time Constable Bracken was mounting up and rushing off to get assistance from Wangaratta,  its  very likley that it was the Policeman rather than a sympathiser that  Curnow heard. However, trying to be helpful to the Commission he passed on something that came to him third hand –  something his brother-in-law had heard from someone else about horses galloping between the station and ‘the ranges on the right’ a comment which Jones then took to be evidence of sympathisers on horseback riding between Greta and Glenrowan. John McQuilton expanded this interpretation to claim the galloping horses were being ridden by sympathisers gathering and then being dispersed – and wrongly says it was Curnows brother-in-law who heard them.


Do you see what Jones  and McQuilton have done here? They have turned Curnows “No” into a “Yes” by latching onto third hand information, and not thinking carefully, as Dawson has done, about what was actually reported. The third hand report was about galloping horses in the middle of the night,  and Jones and McQuilton have assumed – with absolutely nothing to justify such an assumption  – that  this meant horses being ridden by armed men. In fact these horses were actually the police horses that had been released from the train, and they werent being ridden by anyone.! The panicky behaviour of these horses was described by Francis Carrington the famous Illustrator who was present during the siege saying to the Royal Commission:

10039. That was McDonald’s hotel ?

Carrington: Yes ; and then the horses that had escaped into the paddock were galloping and very restive, as if somebody was coming from that end; and we were fearing something, not knowing what it was. There was a great scare at the time.

There’s a report from the Argus July 5th1880 quoted on the Iron Outlaw Website that also reports how the horses were released from the train and “left to themselves bolted pell-mell into a paddock at the Wangaratta end of the Platform”. Elsewhere it was reported that they were ‘very restive’ and ‘would break suddenly away and gallop furiously for a minute or two”. 

In fact four journalists witnessed the entire siege and none of them reported seeing or hearing anything about armed sympathisers. Kelly family members and relations and a few sympathisers were recorded to be at the siege, but armed and forming an army? It was never claimed by anyone at the time or for many decades afterwards.


At another point in his  attempt to create an argument for a Sympathiser Army in ‘A Short Life’, Ian Jones writes this:

“Meanwhile out on the Benalla side of Glenrowan ‘far outside the police lines’ Johnston encountered four armed men, not police. He was unarmed and after answering ‘ a few simple questions’ was allowed to continue. As Sadleir puts it, the four were ‘men…who were waiting to join the Kellys in further raids’. The phantom army was beginning to emerge”  (P 328 2008 Edition)


Peter Fitzsimons, quoting from the Argus of August 10th 1880 embellished this further saying Johnston was “ suddenly confronted  by four men on horseback, heavily armed with rifles revolvers and stares that could peel paint”  

In fact, as Dawson points out by reference to the actual statement of Johnton himself, both Sadleir – writing in 1913 – and the Argus got it wrong.Here is  Johnstons original report ( which you will find  at PRoV:  VPRS 4965, Unit 4, Item 276)


 It says ” Report of Senior Constable Johnston relative to a paragraph which appears in todays Argus:

“I beg to report for the information of  Supt Sadleir by way of Sub Inspector baker that I did see four men at the back of a log and brush fence on the day Jones hotel was burned down…one of them had a rifle or gun, I cannot say which, they were about half a mile from Jones Hotel”

On the back of Johnstons Report Standish wrote “had they horses with them?” and Johnston wrote in response ” …..they had no horses with them. I was speaking to the Argus reporter about the matter last night”

Men on foot become men on horseback; one possible rifle or gun becomes heavily armed!  By not looking for the source document Jones and Fitzsimons et al. have completely misinterpreted what happened to make it appear to support their  claim there was a ‘phantom army’. It doesnt. Four men on foot with a single gun who made no attempt to interfere with what  Senior Constable Johnston was doing is not an emerging or any other kind of ‘phantom army’


So heres what we are left with: not one of the four journalists covering the Siege at Glenrowan reported seeing or hearing anything about an army or anything like it. The ‘sympathisers’ galloping back and forth between Glenrowan and Greta was a fantasy that sprung from the sound of restless police horses; the person galloping off towards Wangaratta was a policeman and the four heavily armed men on horseback turned out to be four men on foot, one of whom probably had a gun of some sort.

There never was an army, and there never was a plan to declare the North east a Republic. Ned Kelly made it quite clear what his plan was for Glenrowan : kill police, take hostages, rob banks and maybe get his mother out of prison.

This is the sort of thing the Kelly Sympathisers in their Facebook Echochamber ought to be discussing : the fact that Ian Jones has tricked them into believing nonsense – but I bet they wont be. They’re not permitted to talk about Dawson, or me, or the fact that the Republic and the Sympathiser army is nonsense because that might upset some of them. But everyone else : a plan for a republic and an army of sympathisers never existed!

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4 Replies to “The Phantom Sympathiser Army”

  1. Hi Dee, I just saw your write-up, and want to reiterate that there is also nothing about any republic or sympathiser army in Clive Turnbull’s glowing and lengthy introduction to his 1942 book publication of the Cameron Letter, “Ned Kelly; Being his own story of his life and crimes”; nor in Max Brown’s 1948 first edition of “Australian Son”, except where he mentions a “legend” in passing in the introduction – a “legend” which as I showed in my short book, he invented himself – and neither did he mention anything more about it is his 1956 revised edition. He only arrived at it in his last 2005 revision, long after Jones claimed it. There is also nothing in Frank Clune’s 1954 “The Kelly Hunters”. In fact, there is nothing anywhere until Ian Jones’ “New view of Ned Kelly” chapter in the 1968 “man & Myth” book edited by Colin Cave. They might say PhD means piled high and deep, but nothing like as deep as that Kelly republic horse sh*t.

    What’s interesting, and examined in detail in my book, is how Jones, Molony, McQuilton, and most recently Fitzsimons, completely stuffed up and selectively interpreted the source evidence to manufacture a republic and sympathiser army, where the historical sources themselves don’t support it, and where many other sources, which I quoted and they variously ignored, directly contradict it. Meanwhile another generation of schoolkids are being taught total sh*t as history. Clever country anyone?

    And what about these historians coming clean and admitting they have allowed themselves to be led astray? Plenty of people are led astray in historical investigations. It’s no shame to have a go and get things wrong, but when the facts come out it’s time to fess up and admit you have had to change your mind, at least on that silly Kelly republic and sympathiser army point. And indeed are actually glad to, as historical knowledge has advanced beyond its earlier primeval state. Recant, repent, retract, re… re… repeat.

    BTW the green sash being a 7 foot cummerbund was just worn for padding under Ned’s armour. Any claimed mental connection between saving another kid from drowning in 1866-7 and attempting to massacre a trainload of troopers in 1880 is… well … mental.

  2. Your observation that the original edition of Max Browns book Australian Son didnt reference a Republic but the last one did, is highly instructive. It shows yet again the way the Myth of a republic was constructed in retrospect, how it wasn’t at all evident to anyone until Jones realised that the reality of Glenrowan was so destructive of his preferred view of Kelly that he needed to create something else to explain its ‘madness’, and rescue the image of Kelly from that of mad mass killer.

    And isn’t it incredible how only ONE person was seen at the Siege with a gun – and from that we end up with a small army!

  3. Hi David, the reference that Fitzsimons used for his four armed horsemen, from the Age, is actually from the Age as cited. But it is wrong! The reporter misunderstood, or got carried away, and invented horses. As you mentioned in your post above, and as I noted in my book, the actual statements given by Johnson etc say four men, of whom one was armed, and expressly states that they did not have horses. so what we have is half-assed research that grabs stuff from the newspaper of the day that suits the argument being pushed by modern writers, and either doesn’t bother to look at, or doesn’t acknowledge that, the actual statements contradict what the newspaper journo rushed into print. Considering that Fitzsimons had a research team of at least 3 people working on his book, and claimed it to be a reasonably accurate history of Kelly, serious retractions are in order on numerous statements about the republic myth since exposed as false. To review the invention of the “small army”, you have to go through what Jones and McQuilton wrote, and go back to all of their primary sources, to see how the idea lurched into being on a cluster of wrong-headed and mishandled evidence. And how the actual source evidence shows that the argument falls in a heap as an unsupportable fantasy. Now I don’t want to make unfairly harsh criticisms of MQuilton, as he did his PhD sometime in his mid-twenties and was heavily influenced and swayed by Jones. Mistakes are inevitable in a PhD thesis (which was basically the text that became his Outbreak book), and there is nothing wrong with a doctoral thesis that tests an argument or hypothesis for evaluation. That is a good and legitimate thing to do. But the republic and sympathiser army aspect always was horse sh*t, and it needs to now be abandoned like an old, holey, smelly sock. Anyone who can be bothered can check every reference I used, as each and every source document is cited, and nearly all of them are online. Anyone who doesn’t want to review the mountain of evidence against the republic crap, but still prattles on about the Kelly republic, is talking unsupportable nonsense. And another thing, there are a whole bunch of Kelly enthusiasts, including modern sympathisers, out there who don’t and never did believe in Jones’ republic myth, and who like the Kelly story for other reasons altogether. They need to be acknowledged too, as they are much more interesting and broad-minded.

  4. […] in his 2018 paper on the Republic,(See link at top right of this page) and I wrote about it in 2019 HERE. Dawson’s expose reduced to the level of farce the way in which Jones and others constructed the […]

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