This isn’t a review, but a response to one.
Dr Stuart Dawson wrote a scathing review of Kate Kelly by Rebecca Wilson, firing within me the primordial defence mechanism of one author seeing another author under attack. I wrote a long response to that review, which grew so long that I’ve asked the proprietor of this website to post it as a standalone article, which you’re now reading.
I’m not mounting a full-throated defence of Wilson. Our perspectives differ too much for that, and anyway much of what Dawson says is valid. It’s more of a call for balance. Dawson is right on many points, but overall his review of Kate Kelly is too harsh.
Many of his criticisms can be boiled down to one core problem: Wilson accepted the mainstream view of Ned Kelly as canonical. Ian Jones was neither the first, nor last, author to promote the Kelly myth, but as he was the most significant, we could call this Kelly-hero view of history the Jones Version. Wilson was clearly unaware of works by Dawson such as Ned Kelly and the Myth of a Republic of North-Eastern Victoria, Redeeming Fitzpatrick, and others, which attack the Kelly mythology head-on. It must be frustrating to have painstakingly dismantled the Republic myth, only to see it pop up unscathed in yet another book.
Dawson is right on numerous points of issue in Kate Kelly when it comes to Ned and the gang. For example, I agree with him that Constable Fitzpatrick was not drunk when he visited the Kelly home on that fateful day in 1878, and that Kate had nothing to do with his reasons for visiting. I agree that Constable McIntyre’s testimony was not unreliable, and that Ned Kelly’s aspirations to found a Republic of North Eastern Victoria are a fiction. All of these ‘facts’ – Fitzpatrick being drunk, and so on – are part of the standard Jones Version, repeated and propagated by numerous writers, Wilson included.
I didn’t address it in my book, Nabbing Ned Kelly, but, like Dawson, I also consider the standard portrayal of Justice Redmond Barry to be wide of the mark. Contrary to popular opinion, Barry didn’t railroad Ned’s trial toward a guilty verdict, nor did he have a grudge against Ned or his family. What is almost never mentioned is that, for his time, Barry had progressive credentials. He was the judge who, a quarter of a century earlier, dismissed the treason charges against the Eureka rebels, and who worked pro bono for aboriginal defendants. His heart was not entirely of stone.
Yet Ian Jones put much effort into caricaturing Justice Barry as a pompous, sadistic villain. He had to, because a pillar of the mythology is that Ned Kelly shot Constable Lonigan in self- defence, so Jones needed to explain the ‘guilty’ verdict. If Ned hadn’t committed murder, why did the jury think he had? Because of the evil Kelly-hating judge, that’s why! It’s full of holes, but Jones’ take on Justice Barry has stuck. Here again, Wilson has gone with the Jones Version, and I agree with Dawson that it’s wrong.
On the other hand, she’s far from alone in this: almost all books on the topic present a jaundiced view of the judge, including Grantlee Kieza’s Mrs Kelly (which I don’t mean to single out; I mention it only because Dawson contrasts it favourably with Kate Kelly in his review). On page 370, Kieza cites the opinion of no less than Queens Counsel Julian Burnside that Ned “was inadequately represented, the only eye-witness was not adequately challenged [and] a viable case of self-defence was not properly developed”. The Barry-bashing view has some serious heft, but I’m with Dawson on this. The jury found Ned guilty because it was patently obvious that he was.
Wilson said in her preface that she had been researching Kate Kelly for ‘over a decade’ – and perhaps here’s the issue. That would explain much, because if so, she began researching in 2010 or before, when John Moloney and Ian Jones were both still alive, Peter Fitzsimons’ Ned Kelly was yet to be released, and the Kelly myth was ascendant. The ground has shifted since then.
But Wilson was primarily interested in reconstructing Kate’s story, not Ned’s. On this she did much better, piecing together a picture of someone who has not previously received much attention.
I don’t agree with Dawson’s criticism of the portrayal of Hugh McDougall, a fringe character in the Kelly drama about whom little is known. Wilson claims to have discovered original source material to back up her account, and I understand that she has connections in the Forbes area. She is therefore entitled to make these claims, which don’t impact the wider Kelly narrative or provide questionable support for Kelly myths.
Wilson’s description of the Kelly family home irritated Dawson but it seemed okay to me. After all, the building was most likely ‘ramshackle’ and we know that it was frequented by insalubrious types. Wilsons claim that local police were paid off is also reasonable. Ned himself tried to bribe Constable Fitzpatrick, suggesting that he had done it before.
The first generation of Victorian police was replete with incompetent, corrupt alcoholics, many of whom were either former convict guards or former convicts. There were efforts to reform the force from the early 1850s onwards, efforts which accelerated following public outrage about the Eureka Rebellion, and the appalling police actions there. By the time of the Kelly Gang, most of the rotten old guard had either retired or had been pushed out, and the force was in much better shape (though still with ongoing problems, as became evident). The Kellys and their associates understood the old guard, and for them, back in the early days, bribing a constable might have been standard practice.
But back to Kate Kelly.
Dawson lambasts Wilson’s writing style in various ways, but I can’t get on board with that at all. It’s not helpful to do a ‘reading level’ calculation for a passage unless you’re a school librarian. There is huge variation in complexity between books, and in different sections of a book. This comes down to stylistic decisions that might depend on pacing, target audience, and content.
Personally, I enjoyed her easy-flowing, whimsical style. For example, this passage was nice:
“When she was older, Kate would take off on her horse at a moment’s notice, flying into the surrounding dense green bushland, dodging wide trees, racing through the low-lying scrub, dispersing kangaroos and wallabies. Escaping into the wild mountains, riding up hillsides and investigating caves, travelling across creeks and plunging into clear-water rivers to cool her horse were a constant joy. She would climb to granite lookouts through precarious ranges and admire the landscape below her. Breathing in the fresh air, she worked with her horseas one to navigate and traverse the land.”
On the matter of whether Kate Kelly is fiction, apparently it is ‘fictionalised biography’, a category of nonfiction that includes fictional dialogue, plausible description, and filling in of minor gaps that don’t impact the factual underpinning.
There is one more issue that I want to address, and that is the parentage of the baby Alice. My views on this are complex and not fully formed, but in sum, everyone is wrong.
Kate’s mother Ellen Kelly was arrested in April 1878 for her role in the Fitzpatrick incident, specifically for assaulting the constable with a shovel, and was locked up in Beechworth gaol for a few months. Ellen had a baby named Alice in her cell with her. Wilson claims that Alice was really Kate’s baby, and that Constable Fitzpatrick was the father.
Dawson has countered with several reasons why that could not be the case. These are strong counterarguments, although not knockout blows: the baby could have been premature, for example. We could engage in freewheeling speculation about all kinds of possibilities, including whether prostitution was still occurring under Ellen Kelly’s roof; whether Kate’s older, deceased sister Annie had previously been used as a honeytrap for Constable Flood; or whether Fitzpatrick believed, as is often asserted, that he was ‘working’ the Kelly family, and what that might entail. But mentioning these things, even in passing, is guaranteed to gettempers flared up in all directions. So let’s not go there…
The Kate-and-the-constable theory is undermined by the overblown nature of the accounts themselves. The press promoted this anonymously-sourced claim in sensational stories, culminating with Fitzpatrick’s revolver discharging during the heat of passion. It was ridiculous, but the public believed it, and Fitzpatrick’s reputation was irretrievably tarnished.
But Wilson is at least half-right. Alice was probably Kate’s baby, not Ellen’s.
The strongest contender for the father is Brickey Williamson. While informing on the gang from his prison cell in Melbourne, Brickey told a detective that he was the baby’s father.
There is also a news report claiming that Brickey was engaged to Kate. (It doesn’t seem to have ever been cited by anyone else, so I suppose I’m the first to stumble across this). Of course, that isn’t conclusive either, because in one sense, it’s just a news report that contradicts other news reports. But on the other hand, it appeared in the regional newspaper, the Ovens & Murray Advertiser (still in print a century and a half later, by the way), which had stronger local knowledge than the Melbourne city papers. It is also matter-of-fact, and more credible than the lurid confabulations about Fitzpatrick printed elsewhere.
I don’t know for sure if Alice’s parents were Kate Kelly and Brickey Williamson, but it seems to fit. But if so, why would Ellen keep another’s baby in her prison cell?
Two possibilities spring to mind: First, the women’s section of Beechworth gaol had one cell that was better than the rest. It was larger, and it had access to a private garden. That was the cell for inmates with babies. Because she had Alice with her, Ellen was placed in that nice, large cell with a garden, instead of the squalid little airless cells with the other inmates. Second, according to news reports, the baby was a factor in Ellen making bail. You may retort that the Kellys surely wouldn’t put a baby in prison with Ellen just so she could get the nice cell then make bail. Maybe not, but I wouldn’t rule it out. This is all conjecture.
The claim about Baby Alice is Wilson’s biggest departure from Kelly orthodoxy. My complaint is that she didn’t go far enough. Clearly, questions about the child bothered her, and satisfactory answers were nowhere to be found, so she developed her own theory.
But what do we know, anyway? I would like someone to provide solid evidence that the baby was on the premises during the Fitzpatrick Incident, or the subsequent arrests? Constable Fitzpatrick made no mention of a baby, and Sergeant Steele testified at the Royal Commission that Ellen had no baby with her when he arrested her. He was asked specifically about the baby, and he replied that there was no baby.
Another thing: Wilson – and literally everyone else in Kelly world – asserts that Alice was “three days old” on the day of Fitzpatrick’s visit. What’s the source for that claim? I’m genuinely curious. I have a copy of the birth registration for Alice May King (the only name that seems to match in the Victorian records), but it states that she was born in Melbourne on 16 September 1878, six months later, so it’s not the same person. I can’t find a matching birth record anywhere.
The facts surrounding baby Alice are murky and questionable, like so much in the world of Ned Kelly. I side-stepped the issue in Nabbing Ned Kelly, viewing it as a distraction (for my work at least; obviously, it was more central for Wilson). There were already more than enough inconsistencies and mysteries surrounding the Kelly Gang. It astounds me that, for one of the most chronicled events in Australian history, it is still so hard to find bedrock.