In Part One I presented an overview of our current knowledge of the early years of Ned Kellys life.
The important message from Part one was that Red Kellys family was known as a poor but law abiding family, and they were not troubled in any way by police from the time Red was granted his freedom in 1848 until very near the end of his life. The old debunked version was that for all of his life Red Kelly and his family were victims of police harassment and persecution, but that’s not what happened – there’s no evidence of that in the records. The record shows that many members of their extended family were in constant trouble with the law, were in and out of courts and prison for stock theft, and violent assaults but of Red Kelly there is nothing until the very end. In fact, the thing that brought Red undone was his alcoholism, which caused the farm to fail and the family to sink deeper and deeper into poverty. In 1865 in despair Red stole a neighbours’ calf and ended up in prison for four months, and a few months after, in his second and only other brush with the law during Neds lifetime, he was fined for being drunk and disorderly. Finally, only one year later, just after Xmas in 1866 Red died of complications of his alcoholism, and at that point, everything changed for the worse: Mrs Kelly moved her family into the orbit of the criminal relations Red had been trying to avoid, and Neds formal education stopped.
At the conclusion of Part One I asked “What chance did Ned have?” and I suspect almost everyone would have thought ‘Not much’. What chance would any 12-year-old have, after just losing the guiding hand of his father, of resisting the negative influences of drunkenness, violence and criminality that now became his world, let alone of escaping desperate poverty, or of overcoming an incomplete education?
In the next part of the actual true story, I look at what became of Ned Kelly after his father died in 1866, and analyse what happened to the once good kid as he entered adolescence and grew up. In summary, what happened as anyone might have been able to predict, was a steady decline from acts of petty teenage delinquency to narrow escapes from criminal convictions, to actual convictions and gaol time for increasingly serious crimes. This led eventually to Ned Kellys self-confessed abandonment of any pretence at living a law-abiding life and the adoption of what he referred to as full time ‘wholesale and retail’ stock theft, with Ned Kelly the leader of a syndicate of professional large scale interstate horse thieves.
After Ned Kellys father died, Neds influences became the lawless relations, and whoever else dropped into his mother’s ‘shanty’, where ‘sly grog’, accommodation and rumours of other services were available. One of the people who dropped in early on, in 1868, was his fathers brother, Uncle James, a convicted stock thief not long out of gaol who was also a drunk. He demanded sex from Ellen Kelly but was kicked out of the house she was living in with her two sisters and their combined total of 13 children – he returned at 1am and set fire to the house and within an hour it was burned to the ground. In court, Ellen Kellys sister said that if a neighbour hadn’t bought some water “they would not have got the children out alive”. Ned Kellys family’s poverty was now absolute – brought about not by Police harassment but by Reds alcoholism and Jims drunken arson.
In 1869, aged 14 or 15 Ned Kellys first brush with the law followed a complaint by a Chinese traveller, Ah Fook that he had been beaten and robbed at the shanty by Ned Kelly. In Court there were no witnesses for Ah Fook and the witnesses for Ned were his sister, a future brother-in-law, and an employee of his mother – and so, unsurprisingly, the charges were dismissed. The newspapers reported Ned got off because of ‘the cunning of himself and his mates’, but there was never any doubt that Ned had quite viciously assaulted the man. The Court couldn’t decide whose fault it all was.
Another person who dropped into Mrs Kellys shanty was bushranger Harry Power, in 1870. He was on the run from Pentridge gaol, where before his escape he had met the husbands of Mrs Kellys sisters, serving time themselves for horse stealing. Before long, as the old story correctly records, Ned Kelly was Powers ‘apprentice’, learning the violent methods of highway robbery, using a gun to threaten innocent travellers at the age of 15, sadly with his mother’s approval. Inevitably perhaps, Ned was soon arrested for the second time and charged with two counts of highway robbery – people robbed by Harry Power at gunpoint had seen Ned Kelly, or someone very like him lurking in the background. Again, the charges were dropped – an eyewitness couldn’t swear it was Ned Kelly – but also its thought some sort of deal was reached in which Ned provided Police with information about Harry Powers whereabouts. Police also unsuccessfully tried to persuade Ned to take up honest regular work as a shearer in NSW, the papers lamenting that ‘the opportunity to save him from the career of crime upon which he subsequently entered was lost’. Eventually, Neds’ uncles Jimmy Quinn and Jack Lloyd betrayed Harry Power for the massive £500 reward. So much for clan solidarity against the police.
A few months later Ned Kellys luck in the courts finally ran out and he went to prison for three months for assault and indecency, after involving himself in a dispute between a couple of rival hawkers, Gould and McCormick. Ned Kelly denied he had misused McCormicks horse – though later, his friend Gould said that indeed he had – and Kelly also claimed the reason his fist came into contact with the victims face was because Mrs McCormick flicked Neds horse on the rump and it lunged forward! The Court didn’t believe him.
So, three years into his adolescence what we have seen is Ned Kelly getting mixed up in a fight with a Chinaman and in another fight with a hawker, a lucky acquittal on charges relating to armed highway robbery, and a three-month sentence for something Peter Fitzsimons says was a ‘grubby adolescent lark’. The old story, and the one told by Ned Kelly himself was that he was a ‘police made’ criminal, that the police drove good men mad by their bad treatment, but nothing about any of these incidents suggest police involvement was any sort of harassment or corruption. In fact, if police had been as corrupt as the old Kelly story made out, and were intent on persecuting him, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to find a ‘witness’ to corruptly swear it was Ned assaulting the Chinaman, or that it was definitely Ned in the company of Harry Power, and so put him away. Its quite clear that at least to this point , Ned Kellys decline was nothing to do with police harassment or persecution as he later claimed – in both those cases, not only was ‘evidence’ NOT manufactured, but in his second appearance, police went out of their way to provide him with an opportunity to make a better and law abiding future for himself, a chance that he chose not to take. It is evident from a careful look at the facts that because of the choices he made himself, Ned Kelly was drifting deeper and deeper into increasingly serious criminality.