Lachlan Strahan – ‘Justice in Kelly Country: The story of the cop who hunted Australia’s most notorious bushrangers’ – a review by Dr. Stuart Dawson

 

 

This is the second review of the excellent ‘Justice in Kelly Country’ to appear on this blog. For clarity in reading, this review will use ‘Strahan’ to refer to Senior-Constable Anthony Strahan (the author’s great-great-grandfather) who was deeply involved in the Kelly hunt, and ‘Lachlan’ to refer to Lachlan Strahan, the book’s author. From the first words of the prologue this book is engagingly written and the text flows well. It is an engrossing biography of one of the policemen who was active before, through and after the time of the last of the bushrangers. It provides a human, personal and police family context to help understand what life was like for a married Victorian rural policeman in the last quarter of the nineteenth century; thus is of general historical and sociological interest. However, it does contain some factual errors in respect of the treatment of the Kelly outbreak, and in particular of Constable Fitzpatrick, which will be noted in the course of this review.

 

The introduction launches with Ned Kelly’s claim in the Jerilderie letter that Strahan had said that if he encountered Kelly he would not ask him to stand but would shoot him first like a dog. Lachlan dates the utterance (which is claimed to have been said by Strahan to Kelly’s uncle Pat Quinn) to two or three days before the Stringybark Creek police murders of 26 October 1878. (In a typographical error on page xv the date is wrongly given as 25 October.) The alleged threat has become part of a widely held belief amongst Kelly enthusiasts of persecutory or even illegal police actions in the Kelly hunt. Lachlan addresses this belief in chapter 14, ‘A few words’.

 

Roughly the first half of the book is a biography of Strahan before the Kelly outbreak: his immigration from Ireland aged 20, and joining Victoria Police in the wake of his older brother, then a number of incidents from his policing and family life up to the Kelly outbreak which amply illustrate his dedication to duty and commitment to upholding the law. Lachlan concedes that Strahan could have a hot verbal temper and stood up for himself including against his superiors, but there is no indication after due consideration that he abused his legal authority in the course of his duties.

 

Along the way there are many observations that help understand the life of a Victorian police constable in the 1870s: they worked a 12 hour day, seven days a week, with 12 days leave per year. A constable’s pay had declined from 10s a day to 7s 6d by the time Strahan joined the force; similar to a semi-skilled tradesman who worked less hours; and they had to pay for their own uniform. There was no training program apart perhaps from some drill; constables had to learn their job by trial and error. Strahan had done 4 months initial training with the RIC before resigning to emigrate to Australia.

 

Police could if lucky supplement their pay with reward monies. Half of all fines were channelled into a Police Reward Fund established in 1849, and the monies used either to reward officers for meritorious conduct or compensate them for injuries or working excess hours. Some objected to the reward fund saying it could induce police to rack up convictions for pecuniary reasons (p. 34), but how much or little this may have occurred I don’t know. The comment appears often in Kelly authors’ railings against the Stock Protection Society; but none of them seem to have evidence of persons wrongly accused of stock theft for the reward.

 

Lachlan says that contemporary opinion about bushrangers was polarised as to whether they “were daring, even romantic, battling the colony’s rich and powerful, or violent criminals preying on rich and poor alike” (p. 81); “social bandits [versus] crude hoodlums” (p. 82). This may be true in a limited sense, but few had anything good to say about them. Boxall noted in his 1899 ‘Story of the Australian Bushrangers’ (p. 385) that far less sympathy was exhibited with [the Moonlite and Kelly gangs] than in the earlier epoch, and their deeds did not inspire so many young men with the desire to go and do likewise, as those of Gilbert and Hall had done”.

 

Suggestions of widespread sympathy were few: even a Herald article from 7 February 1879, in which some travellers reported a “deep feeling of sympathy with the outlaws”, was built on “the [Kellys’] story of the oppression of the family by the police, and the alleged outrages committed on some of the female members of it by members of the force”; by contrast, “where the alleged grievances of the Kellys were not known, they were regarded with the detestation usually attaching to cold-blooded murderers”, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/246225030#. The Royal Commission’s Second Progress Report expressly addressed the claim of police persecution of the Kellys and found nothing to support it, but it remains a popular Kelly myth.

 

Importantly, no one saw bushrangers as social bandits at that time. The social bandit theory did not exist in Australia until it was generated by McQuilton in his 1979 ‘The Kelly Outbreak’. McQuilton’s attempt to apply a British Marxist theory of third world social banditry to the Kelly gang in Australia was totally misfounded. It was exposed as such in Doug Morrissey’s 1987 Ph.D. thesis, written directly against McQuilton, but not well rebutted in print until Morrissey’s 2018 ‘Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves’. (Lachlan has Morrissey’s three excellent books in his bibliography.) I also discussed McQuilton’s failure to establish any claim for social banditry in colonial Australia in my 2017 book, ‘Ned Kelly and the myth of a republic of North-Eastern Victoria’. Tipping the hat to any suggestion of social banditry in relation to the Kelly gang is ludicrous.

 

Lachlan noted that Harry Power committed a string of robberies across north-eastern Victoria from 1869 after his escape from Pentridge until his recapture the next year. Clearly Power’s run in Victoria did not incite the Victorian Government to follow New South Wales’ 1865 Felons Apprehension Act with a similar Act of its own. That did not happen until the Kelly gang’s Stringybark Creek murders in October 1878. Victoria’s Felons Apprehension Act became law on 1 November 1878; under it the wanted men had until 12 November to surrender themselves at Mansfield Courthouse on pain of being outlawed. They did not do so, and were proclaimed outlaws on 16 November 1878. In respect of both outlawry acts, Lachlan says that outlawry “places wanted bushrangers beyond the protection of the law, allowing citizens to shoot them on sight” (p. 80). This is not correct as it stands, but follows Michael Eburn’s widely quoted 2005 summary generalisation which has led Lachlan and many others to far too broad an assumption of a right to shoot an outlaw without penalty, something that the Act was carefully worded to avoid.

 

My article ‘Ned Kelly Outlawed: The Victorian Felons Apprehension Act 1878’, Law & History 8.1 (2021) 134-157 (freely downloadable from Academia.edu), in the same journal that published Eburn 16 years earlier, corrects this overbroad generalisation. Eburn gave inadequate attention to Alfred Stephen CJ’s published comments on the drafting of the NSW Act as to the carefully prescribed circumstances under which an outlaw might be shot. “Shoot on sight” is not what it sought, nor what the resulting Act said or meant. Ian Jones in ‘Short Life’ also saw that this generalisation was not correct. As Jones is listed in Lachlan’s bibliography, he should have been aware of this and made the same qualification. (It was Jones’ comments that alerted me to the wrongness of the “shoot on sight” generalisation and launched my investigation into both it and the almost identical Victorian outlawry act.) Essentially, killing an outlaw outside of strictly prescribed circumstances would lead to the killer himself being guilty of murder and liable to being hung for it. Outlawry was never a licence to “shoot on sight” in Australia.

 

In chapter 6, while continuing to focus on the career of Strahan, Lachlan says of Judge Redmond Barry that Peter Ryan, in his 1969 entry for Barry in the Dictionary of Australian Biography, “rightly observes that Barry ‘valued the purely retributive elements of the criminal law’” which “reflected the hard standards of a frontier society” (p. 83). This dated opinion is not correct. See Alice Richardson’s chapter ‘Sir Redmond Barry and the trial of Ned Kelly’ in ‘Judgement in the Victorian Age’ (2018) in which Barry is shown to have been consistently regarded as a figure of wise judgement in the nineteenth century; not until the twentieth century was he transformed into the villain of the Kelly tale and his well-earned good reputation trashed mostly because of that. Unfortunately Lachlan has followed twentieth century leftist revisionism in his critical view of Barry. (John Hirst, late Reader in History at LaTrobe University wrote in 2005 that “the great majority of the historians of Australia over the last forty or fifty years have been left-leaning, progressive people” (amongst whom he numbers himself, ‘Sense and Nonsense in Australian History’, p. 1). “Progressive” in politics invariably means progress towards socialism of one form or another.

 

Lachlan has a number of bones to pick with colonialism (pp. 52-53) and seems to have run loose against the colonial legal system here, perhaps unaware that Barry was seen back then as a judge who correctly applied the law of his day as it was written (https://www.supremecourt.vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-05/Barry%20-%20Online%20Transcript.docx) and was one of the staunchest colonial defenders of justice for Aboriginals and an interested defender of their culture. He was, as historian James Parker put it, “almost a one man Aboriginal Legal Service 150 years before the event” (https://www.fortysouth.com.au/tasmanian-voices643/ned-kelly-peevay-and-maulboyheemer; see too https://latrobejournal.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal/issue/latrobe-73/t1-g-t12.html).

 

Lachlan next turns to a describe a case featuring a prosecutor who would figure later in Kelly’s trial; the prosecution of two armed robbers by Crown Prosecutor Charles Smyth. Lachlan gratuitously writes (with no source reference) that “Some thought his long nose and sharp style gave him a hawk-like appearance” (p. 85). Thank goodness Strahan had no physical features to make fun of… Continuing his campaign against Barry’s reputation, Lachlan singles out a case in which he sentenced Ah Wah, a Chinese ex-convict with five prior convictions, to eight years with hard labour after his conviction for housebreaking and receiving stolen property (p. 88-9). Lachlan asks whether Barry gave a harsher than average sentence because of racial prejudice against the Chinaman by contrasting that sentence with one he gave to two European defendants convicted of attempted highway robbery under arms (five and five and a half years respectively, both with the first year in irons). This will not do. Lachlan would need at least to provide references for typical sentences for each of those different charges while before jumping to any suggestion of racial prejudice. It is by such comparison of sentences that we know that Ned Kelly’s sentence of three years for feloniously receiving a stolen horse, i.e., receiving with proven intent to sell it on, was quite typical of sentences for that offence; whereas in that case Wild Wright received eighteen months for improperly using that horse; i.e. borrowing it without proven intent to keep it, again a typical sentence of its day.

 

Lachlan next asserts that “Barry was deficient, if not downright wrong, in not ensuring that Ah Wah was not properly defended” by legal representation (p. 89), again implying racism. Was it part of a 19th century judge’s role to ensure that a defendant had a legal defender? Lachlan doesn’t say; but it is glaringly obvious that presenting two instances of sentencing for very different crimes, circumstances, and criminal backgrounds is no basis for impugning Barry with racial prejudice, especially given his often unpaid work as a defender of accused Aboriginals. Perhaps Lachlan acquired a prejudice against Barry from McQuilton and Molony (p. 212) who saw Kelly as a hero and inevitably (and ham-fistedly) assailed Barry as his nemesis, a theme taken up by ex-judge Graham Fricke’s ‘Ned’s Nemesis’, also gratuitously anti-Barry. Barry-bashing is surprisingly common amongst legal eagles who as a profession have often taken a fancy to their bit of rough (e.g., in pro-Kelly “re-trials” of Kelly’s trial by leading silks with much insulting of McIntyre and sloppy historical work as par for the course). I am not implying any of this about Lachlan who seems to be aiming for balanced objectivity, but there is a broad context of Barry bashing that taints practically every mention of him in Kelly discussions and needs to be kept in mind, particularly when reading anything written by friends of the bar.

 

There is a slip on p. 95 where a robber a demanded a farmer’s shotgun and ammunition. Lachlan writes, “The farmer handed over a canister containing shot and a flask filled with powder, but he couldn’t find any caps (that is bullets)”. Caps were percussion caps needed for ignition.

 

In Chapter 7 Lachlan gives a well narrated tale of robbers and stick up men, noting that “policemen were often on necessarily close, even intimate terms with the shady and sometimes outright criminal members of society (p. 102). He shows there that Strahan made effective use of such crooked contacts himself in tracking a down pair of armed robbers. Despite this, Lachlan joins many in castigating Fitzpatrick for the shady connections that they claim he had with the Kellys, which apparently for any policeman other than Fitzpatrick were among the tools of effective policing.

 

Roughly halfway through the book Lachlan turns to focus on the Kelly outbreak. He begins with a concise summary of the background of the Kellys’ background and relationships with Quinn and the Lloyd families, the rise of the larrikin Greta mob, horse stealing, and police short staffing in the district. There is a good description of the Greta mob rioting in Benalla on p. 192, absent from most Kelly books. His account of the Fitzpatrick incident (pp. 186-88) is problematic. He quotes Peter FitzSimons’ incorrect claim that Fitzpatrick’s police record was a “litany of louche laxity, ill-disciplined drinking, slovenliness and being placed on official reports”. Did either author read Fitzpatrick’s record of service? Why Lachlan is referencing FitzSimon’s 2013 ‘Ned Kelly’ at all is a mystery, given FitzSimon’s constant mockery and lampooning of the police and his redundant disparagement of Fitzpatrick. The contrasting treatment Lachlan gives Strahan and Fitzpatrick is notable: he writes that “only twenty-one in 1878, Fitzpatrick was an inexperienced policeman who had managed to join the force largely because the Crown Prosecutor, Charles Smyth, had lobbied Standish on his behalf” (p. 186). Fitzpatrick did three months’ basic training at the police depot like every other recruit. Lachlan’s ancestor Strahan did four months’ basic training with the RIC; not much different. Lachlan joins the majority of Kelly writers in chorusing Kelly tales about Fitzpatrick having the hots for Kate Kelly. Lachlan is aware that Strahan himself clearly knew the Kelly girls “very well” (p. 191). Did it not occur to him to consider whether Strahan’s interest in the Kelly girls was entirely duty-bound? And if so, that there was nothing in the Kelly’s lies about Fitzpatrick either?

 

Lachlan quotes as fact Morrissey’s theory that Ned Kelly and Fitzpatrick “were occasional drinking buddies”. In the reference given, Morrissey ‘Lawless Life’ (2015, p. 184) claimed that Fitzpatrick had a “friendly larrikin relationship with Ned”; he based this on his unevidenced speculation that “Ned and Fitzpatrick were good friends; they drank together before the Benalla bootmaker’s shop fight” (220 n. 69), a claim built on Kelly’s lying denigration of Fitzpatrick in the Jerilderie letter. In his next note Morrissey took Kate Kelly’s claim in a newspaper interview as a truth, that “Fitzpatrick was on very intimate terms with the family” https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/246225030#, regardless that that early 1879 pre-Jerilderie robbery interview was a lie-ridden attempt to gain sympathy for Ned Kelly by turning public opinion against the police in general and Fitzpatrick in particular. It is one thing to say that police would engage casually with criminals e.g. as informants; it is another to stretch such associations into claims of drinking buddies and bent police. It is clear from the text of the Lancefield petitions to reinstate Fitzpatrick into the force after his dismissal that practically everything written to denigrate him is misfounded nonsense derived from the Kellys.

 

Lachlan writes that Fitzpatrick drank “at least one brandy and lemonade” en-route to Greta on 15 April 1878, upon which “suitably fortified, he decided to go alone to the Kellys’ hut … as he wanted to make a name for himself by arresting Dan and he was sweet on young Kate” (p. 186-7). That is, Lachlan claims as others have that Fitzpatrick made the decision to go to the Kellys spontaneously after a drink at Winton; that the reason was to enhance his reputation – not a word about him doing his sworn duty (which Lachlan spends dozens of pages illustrating about his ancestor Strahan) – and that he was enamoured of Kate. All of this is nonsense and might has well have been written by Jones, FitzSimons, Kenneally (1929), or any of a dozen pro-Kelly authors. Fitzpatrick’s trek via the Kelly hut that day was known and authorised by his sergeant before he left Benalla.

 

Worse, Lachlan says that “what happened in the Kelly hut on 15 April remains unclear” (p. 187). Given that he listed my 2015 ‘Redeeming Fitzpatrick’ article in his bibliography, I was stunned to read this. He quotes McQuilton from 40 years ago (1979) saying “it was a confused event”. That’s because neither McQuilton or his mentor Jones bothered to work through Fitzpatrick’s testimony and test it against what can be established to support or refute it. Having done that, I demonstrated in 2015 in great detail that Fitzpatrick’s testimony and related comments stand up to scrutiny and can be well-corroborated. What happened that day is not at all unclear or confused, except to people who haven’t read my article. A last example of Lachlan’s mistreatment of the Fitzpatrick incident: he says that Fitzpatrick gave “his account of the confrontation with the Kellys in a semi-inebriated state” (p. 188). In fact, the doctor who examined him upon his return to Benalla that night testified on oath in court that he “was certainly not drunk”, a point I emphasised in my article. Doug Morrissey read this book in draft and also corresponded with Lachlan about some matters (Ch. 15 n. 4). I can’t help wondering if he steered Lachlan away from my investigation of the Fitzpatrick incident, given that he followed Ashmead 1922 in envisioning a romance between Fitzpatrick and 14 year old Kate Kelly, spoke of Kate as Fitzpatrick’s “latest conquest”, and described Fitzpatrick as a scheming and deceitful larrikin (‘Lawless Life’ 2015, pp. 44; 46), all of which I rejected.

 

After my article came out later in 2015 Morrissey saw no reason to change his tune, writing in ‘Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves’ (2018, p. 272) that “a recent [un-named and unreferenced J] viewpoint countering the Kelly myth’s derogatory image of Fitzpatrick goes too far in trying to redeem him as a decent and honourable policeman. Fitzpatrick was neither decent nor honourable, but neither was he engaged in criminal activity. As a young man his motivation and behaviour were clearly linked to his larrikin view of the world and shanty friendship with the Kelly family. To state otherwise is to misinterpret how he and the Kellys perceived themselves and lived their daily lives.”

 

Ouch. That’s me done like toast… Unless…. Unless Ashmead’s purple prose about a romance with Kate was nonsense (as I discussed); unless perchance Fitzpatrick’s 7-days-a-week, 12-hours-a-day duty roster while housed in the Benalla police barracks hindered the envisaged romance with a minor against the wishes of her family (and Ned in particular after the Flood business with Annie Kelly) seven miles away in Ellen Kelly’s criminal-infested shanty; unless perhaps he had to account for every time he took a horse out of the police stable and where he rode to in the Diary of Duty and Occurrences maintained daily in every police station (see Haldane, People’s Force Ch. 3, fig.1); unless one ignores the character testimony of the two Lancefield petitions in his favour; unless one also ignores the statements he made about what happened in Sydney…. No, Morrissey seems stuck in a pre-Redeeming Fitzpatrick image of Bad Alexander from which there seems little hope of extraction. C’est la vie. McIntyre was not the only policeman who said he saw nothing wrong with Fitzpatrick; it is modern critics that struggle with this. Perhaps Morrissey decided to let the Kelly nuts have Fitzpatrick as a sacrificial bad copper. But for me it won’t do at all. I was not trying to turn Fitzpatrick into a colonial saint; just stating that he clearly did nothing with Kate and his testimony about the Fitzpatrick incident stands up to rigorous scrutiny. Also, Ian Jones still had all his marbles in 2015, and his silence in response to my article was deafening.

 

On p. 200 Lachlan repeats from serial Australiana writer but non-Kelly specialist Peter FitzSimons (‘Ned Kelly’, p. 154) as a fact that Justice Barry said to Ellen Kelly when sentencing her for abetting the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick “that he would have sent her son Ned away for twenty-one years had he appeared alongside her in the dock”. This dubious claim comes from G.W. Hall’s 1879 “Outlaws of the Wombat Ranges”. (For a free copy, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks19/1900581p.pdf.) FitzSimons at least acknowledged that this was “as legend would have it”, for there is no report anywhere from the court or the press of such an utterance, which suggests that Hall was misinformed. It is another anti-Barry rumour founded on air. Max Brown alternatively claimed in ‘Australian Son’ (1948) without any source that Barry had said 15 years. But suppose either of these claims were true: would either of such lengthy sentences be appropriate in 1878 for the attempted murder of a police officer by shooting in the circumstances described in court? Maybe. But none of Barry’s critics have discussed that.

 

Given the amount of vitriol Kelly enthusiasts hurl at the police, there is a great anecdote from Strahan oral history that Strahan’s wife Marion looked after Ellen Kelly and baby Alice when they were taken to the Greta lockup the night of her arrest; that she made Ellen as comfortable as possible in the cell, brought her food, and took Alice into their home overnight (p. 189). What is known from RC testimony is that one night Strahan and the much-vilified Detective Ward found a laden dray without a horse six miles from the Kelly house. They searched around in heavy rain and found Maggie and Kate sitting on a log, soaked through, and took them home to Maggie’s house (p. 191). We don’t hear about that kindness from Kelly nuts.

 

There is slip on p. 197 where Lachlan says that around May 1878 Victoria Police ditched the military style cylindrical Shako hat for the British Bobby style, referencing Kieza’s 2022 ‘Kelly Hunters’ p. 62 for the date. Keiza himself gave the date for the change as after Stringybark Creek, i.e. after October 1878. Both are wrong: Fitzpatrick posed with his Bobby hat in his fairly well-known early 1877 carte de visite photo, the year of its introduction, showing his pride in joining the force.

 

Chapter 14 examines Kelly’s claim in the Jerilderie letter (mid-February 1879) that he heard that Strahan had said that if he encountered Kelly he would not ask him to stand but would shoot him first like a dog. Interestingly, this claim does not appear in the Cameron letter of mid-December 1878. At Stringybark Creek, Kelly said to McIntyre that if he ever laid hands on Flood, Steele, Strahan, or Fitzpatrick, he would roast them on a fire (McIntyre ‘True Narrative’, p. 24). These four officers had long provoked Kelly’s ire: Fitzpatrick’s attempted arrest of Dan had led to Ellen Kelly’s gaoling. Steele and Strahan had performed her arrest, and Flood had consensually impregnated Kelly’s sister Annie, who had since died. Kelly didn’t say anything to McIntyre about Strahan’s threat that so outraged him, nor did any others of the gang mention any such provocative threat. Could that mean that the alleged threat was conveyed to Kelly at some point after SBC?

 

There is an unsworn affidavit by Kelly’s uncle Patrick Quinn, printed in the Argus, 10 November 1880, p. 6, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/5983081/257484#. Quinn claims that Strahan came to see him “about two or three days prior to the shooting of the police”, when the alleged threat was made. He says that Strahan said there was a 100 pound reward; when Quinn said he didn’t want it, Strahan allegedly said that he would like to keep some of it, impugning Strahan’s character. It was then that Quinn said the shoot like a dog threat was made; and further, that Strahan had said he would place a second revolver by Kelly’s side and swear that he had it on him when Strahan shot him. Quinn then said he wouldn’t help Strahan to find the Kellys. Quinn continues, “The next thing I heard was the shooting of the police at the Wombat.” He did not say anything about his conveying the threat to the Kellys before SBC. Quinn was no friend of the police and had done 4 years gaol for violently assaulting a constable with a stirrup iron. Lachlan thinks it probable that Strahan did make some form of threat to Quinn in the heat of an argument (p. 211), but there is nothing in Strahan’s history or character that indicates he would actually carry out such an act.

 

The third piece of evidence is an affidavit of Superintendent Frank James in a letter to John Sadleir of 24 June 1898 (H 2902, Sadleir papers, Latrobe Collection, State Library Victoria). James says that he is drawing on information given by Quinn to the Royal Commission; but it does not appear in the Minutes and Evidence or Progress Reports (unless anyone else can find it; I couldn’t, and neither did John Molony). James says he inferred from that that Quinn caused the Kellys to be informed of the search and that Strahan’s threat “would, in a measure, account for the murder of the police”. This is at odds with McIntyre’s observation that he didn’t think the Kellys were out to kill the police from the first; and with Kelly (or other gang members) saying nothing about Strahan’s threat even in the heat of the moment at SBC after he had killed Lonigan and Strahan was being discussed. James’s conclusion, that “Strahan’s ill-judged speech caused the mischief” at SBC, is simply a guess. Suppose now that the threat was made by Strahan two or three days before SBC, but that it was not conveyed to the Kellys until after SBC. That appears to fit best with the available evidence.

 

Lachlan errs in saying of the two search parties that went into the Wombat Ranges that, along with each constable having his standard-issue Webley revolver, “both parties also brought along two rifles, including a Spencer” (p. 220). There is no evidence for the second party having a Spencer rifle and none that I know of for it having more than service revolvers. Kennedy’s party borrowed their Spencer from the gold escort wagon at the last minute, and it was handed over with reluctance; the second long gun was not a rifle but, as Lachlan said on p. 221, a light shotgun borrowed from the local vicar. Had both parties carried Spencers or other rifles we would know all about it from Kelly enthusiasts; but it is not true. If it was, it would lend weight to claims that the police had formed hunting parties rather than search parties. Jones’ creative body straps fantasy is part of those ridiculous claims.

 

When Kennedy and Scanlan returned to the camp, McIntyre gave the call to surrender that he was forced to deliver; yet the gang started shooting almost immediately the two mounted police began to dismount. Scanlan was shot when he fell to the ground while dismounting and was then trying to stand up without having his weapon in hand. McIntyre subsequently believed that Kennedy had received his first wound in that first encounter which had caused him to drop his revolver (McIntyre, ‘True Narrative’ 1900, 24-25). Lachlan says that Ned “pursued Kennedy into the dense bush, the two men ducking behind trees as they traded shots (p. 225). This needs further exploration. First, McIntyre’s words suggest that Kennedy might have run into the bush already wounded and unarmed. Second, it seems that two of the gang chased Kennedy into the bush as two chased after McIntyre, and if Kennedy was armed his ability to trade shots was limited to the six bullets in his revolver. He was not as far as anyone has established carrying any extra ammunition on his person, and in any case had no time or chance to reload while being chased through the bush by at least one and likely two men armed with more than one weapon each.

 

The Kellys and their associates were not exactly pillars of the community. Lachlan notes that Richard Hart, Steve Hart’s older brother, aged 23, threatened to assault one John Meighan, aged 74, over a fencing dispute and throw him in the Ovens River. With Strahan giving evidence, Hart was summoned and bound over to keep the peace for 6 months with a £25 surety (p. 243).

 

Strahan had been posted to Rutherglen in March 1880 and so was not on hand for the Kelly gang’s Glenrowan finale. Lachlan concisely describes Kelly’s Glenrowan plan: to “lure as many police officers as possible into the northeast on a special train sent to capture him; set a trap for the train to kill a large number of these constables, blunting the forces’ ability to strike back; and then raid a bank in Benalla or another town, making off with the loot. Then and since, some have claimed Ned had wider political ambitions; Ian Jones claimed that Ned drew up a Declaration of the Republic of Northeastern Victoria and intended to fire off Chinese signal rockets to summon an army of sympathisers” (p. 245).

 

There are problems here: Lachlan provided no evidence to show that anyone in Kelly’s day thought back then that Kelly had any political ambitions. His two references are to the Argus and Jones. The Argus 30 October 1880 (referenced in endnote 1, which has strayed into the end of the Chapter 16 notes) says nothing that I could find about any Kelly political ambitions. (Nor did any other source of the day, other than in lampoon.) Jones’ Kelly Republic fantasy was derailed in Ian MacFarlane’s 2012 ‘Kelly Gang Unmasked’ and terminally demolished in my 2019 ‘Ned Kelly and the myth of a republic of North-Eastern Victoria’. Although Lachlan owns that the republic claim “seems misleading” to him, this seems far too diplomatic now that the Jones fantasy is well dead and buried. It was the cornerstone of Jones’ entire Kelly narrative and, under his personal sway, infected most non-fiction Kelly authors from 1968 (Jones’ ‘A new view of Ned Kelly’ in the Wangaratta Kelly seminar ‘Man & Myth’ book) onward; over 50 years of relentless drivel. It continues to infect many school curriculum resources and government websites, which explains how so many otherwise sensible people have swallowed it uncritically from Kelly’s perennially referenced “greatest biographer”.

 

The imaginary ‘declaration of a republic’ that fuelled Jones’ fantasy originated in a 1900 Bulletin spoof article twenty years after Kelly’s execution. It was recycled in 1940s ‘Believe-it-or-not’ books, sewn together by Kelly fan Max Brown in 1948 erroneously conflating old newspaper extracts, and then picked up by Jones as oral history from a Kelly-era descendant and ex-policeman who successfully set out to make a fool of him (and of John Molony) for considering it. Anyone who even mentions the Kelly republic myth now without reading both MacFarlane and me and dismissing it outright, or simply ignoring it altogether, is not doing history. David Dufty rightly dismissed the republic claim out of hand, and that should have happened here; not because I’m clever but because the claim always was ludicrous and wrong and has been well and truly busted.

 

There is a slip in Lachlan’s treatment of Glenrowan where he says “the gang fought the police for hours” (p. 247); the siege went for hours (3am into the following afternoon), but after the first half hour shooting became largely sporadic for much of the night, with long periods where not much happened. He also places Kelly in the Inn throughout the siege and says he “emerged from the bullet-riddled inn at 7am in his armour for one last stand” (p. 247). Kelly had slipped out of the Inn around 3:30am before the police had sealed off escape. He then collapsed in the bush, wounded, cold, alone, and stuck in his armour; then re-emerged from the bush at dawn, lurching towards the Inn and his ten minutes of glory. (See the timeline and commentary in my Republic myth book.)

 

Kelly’s Melbourne trial is covered in a page and a half. It is a relief to see that there is no Barry bashing in this section, in contrast with most treatments of Kelly’s trial. Even Alex Castle’s ‘Ned Kelly’s Last Days’ ludicrously claimed that with Barry in the chair “Gaunson’s hopes for a fair and unbiased judge were decisively crushed” and that “many were of the opinion that he would relish the opportunity to put the bushranger to death” (p. 177-8). The sum of these opinions is something to behold. Rebecca Wilson’s historically ridiculous, semi-fictional ‘Kate Kelly’ even nicknames him ‘Hanging Barry’. As James Parker correctly saw, “Any society with the rule of law would convict Kelly of murder, even though there had been an exchange of shots with Scanlon and Kennedy. And the penalty at the time in British law was death, with no alternative. How Redmond Barry can be blamed for Ned Kelly’s execution is beyond comprehension”, https://www.fortysouth.com.au/tasmanian-voices643/ned-kelly-peevay-and-maulboyheemer.

 

It is also good to see Lachlan affirm against a long history of Kelly enthusiast drivel that McIntyre’s lengthy testimony did not deviate “from what he had passed on to his colleagues in October 1878” (p. 248). This has always been obvious to anyone who read the prosecution file and McIntyre’s memoir. It was Jones followed by a swarm of dullard hornets who foully called McIntyre a perjurer based on Sadleir’s faulty recollection some thirty years after the event of what McIntyre had said to him back then. When McIntyre’s first statement was relocated after the Beechworth committal hearing and placed in the prosecution file, it was obvious both that McIntyre’s testimony was highly consistent over time and that Sadleir’s recollection of that first statement was flawed. It also ended whatever hopes Gaunson and Bindon might have had for mounting any self-defence argument for Kelly. That’s why they didn’t try; there was no case to mount. Lachlan quotes as many have Kelly’s remark after the death sentence was pronounced, “I will see you there where I go”, as though it was directed to Barry (p. 249). Alice Richardson (referenced above) examined the context and affirmed that the legendary remark was not a retort to Barry but was directed towards someone in the gallery. In discussing manoeuvres for a reprieve, to convert execution to imprisonment (supported more by opponents of capital punishment than proponents of Kelly), Lachlan observes that the Quinn affidavit was as Premier Berry said, unsworn, and in any case would need to have been presented in evidence during the trial when the allegations made in it could have been answered by the officer (Strahan) named (p. 250). Interestingly, Quinn never mentioned the affidavit or his allegations in his RC testimony, casting some doubt on its accuracy (p. 255).

 

Strahan was not called to testify before the Royal Commission and Lachlan says this is inexplicable given Strahan was a central figure in the first year of the outbreak (p. 255). Yet the purpose of the Commission was not to trace the Kelly hunt but to examine, as it said, the circumstances of the outbreak and the present state and organisation of the police force. Its third object was “to inquire into the action of the police authorities during the period the Kelly gang were at large”, but this must be understood as within the parameters of the above (numbers 1 and 5) objectives. As with so many other police involved in the hunt, Strahan was one who played his part well during his early involvement but his actions were not a focus of that enquiry. Why had it taken the police two years to catch the gang? That was the point of the enquiry.

 

Chapter 17 contains a useful overview and analysis of the Kelly Reward Board context and actions that illuminates how decisions were reached when splitting up the £8,000 with some seemingly bizarre and afterwards controversial results.

 

The last chapters of the book trace Strahan’s career after Kelly’s execution and the end of the Kelly gang. He served 14 years at Rutherglen and resigned in 1894 aged 54 after nearly 32 years of dedicated police service. This book is a valuable contribution to understanding the lives of those on the side of the law in those turbulent days and the impact on their families, as is Leo Kennedy’s ‘Black Snake: The real story of Ned Kelly’, and of course the memoirs of those directly involved: John Sadleir’s ‘Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer’, Thomas McIntyre’s ‘True Narrative of the Kelly Gang’, and Francis Hare’s ‘The Last of the Bushrangers’. The short (1 hr) movie ‘Stringybark’ is also highly recommended for its portrayal of the lives of the police in Kennedy’s party. I recommend Lachlan’s book as a worthwhile and enjoyable book about late nineteenth century rural Victorian policing as illustrated by Strahan’s life and career. Add it to your Kelly shelf, but exercise caution with his discussions of Fitzpatrick and Barry.

 

 

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6 Replies to “Lachlan Strahan – ‘Justice in Kelly Country: The story of the cop who hunted Australia’s most notorious bushrangers’ – a review by Dr. Stuart Dawson”

  1. Sharon Hollingsworth says: Reply

    Great job, Stuart! I knew your review would be much more scholarly and in depth than mine, and, of course, you always show your sources. I like it when authors do that, though, strangely, I don’t like to do it when I write something!

    1. Hi Sharon, being scholarly is not a competition! You add more to the Kelly story onlne than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Your Eleven Mile blog is full of gems too. I only put the page numbers and web links in because Kelly articles cop heaps if people can’t check the sources. Plus I can now reveal I went in depth because I got a review copy so had to earn it. The other thing is that if there’s a reprint they can easily fix some small slips I identified. It’s the sort of feedback I would have sent in if the author or publisher had asked me to comment on a draft. Not that I’m looking for that sort of thing, I don’t have much spare time and this took about a week!

      And guess what – my review is almost as long as the Jerilderie letter!!! That should make me a name in Kellyland, where all sorts of people carry on about what a genius Ned was with his 7,400-odd word letter (that Max Brown said was 8,000 words and people keep quoting that). But as our Jerilderie schoolteacher friend pointed out back in the day, it was barely two columns in a broadsheet newspaper. And half the JL was just wordy nonsense expanded from the remarkably similar base content of the Cameron letter. Masterpiece not!

  2. Looking through these reflections again, one of the most interesting discoveries was noticing what McIntyre said about Kelly’s encounter with Kennedy and Strahan upon their return to the camp at Stringybark Creek. The gang opened fire on them almost immediately upon McIntyre calling them to surrender as Kelly had instructed him on pain of death to do. McIntyre subsequently believed that Kennedy had received his first wound in that first encounter which had caused him to drop his revolver (McIntyre, ‘True Narrative’ 1900, 24-25).

    In his condemned cell letters Kelly blamed McIntyre for their deaths on the grounds that McIntyre had not instructed them correctly to surrender. Yet Kelly and his gang were the ones who shot them. Could this mean that to Kelly, the dismounted Kennedy was a dead man walking? Armed or not, he had failed to obey an outlaw’s order? Could a reading of what McIntyre be correct, that Kennedy received his first wound then and dropped his revolver, and was then pursued unarmed as he ran through the bush?

    We know Kennedy was shot while he was standing up with arms raised in the position of surrender from the position of a bullet wound described at autopsy. We know that Kelly interrogated him for close to two hours, from GW Hall’s account. We can get some idea of what that relentless interrogation would probably have been like from McIntyre’s description of his own interrogation by Kelly.

    I’m surprised that this possibility, that McIntyre was in practice unarmed through the whole encounter, has not been explored in more depth. After all, Lonigan was killed unarmed, as had had not time to extract his revolver from its buckle down holster. Yet Kelly invented a fantasy of Lonigan getting behind a log and firing back. How small a stretch it is to consider that Kelly entirely invented a tale of a gunfight with an unarmed Kennedy?

  3. Even other criminals don’t like Ned Kelly. One of Chopper Read’s paintings features Kelly with a woman’s breasts. He explained that “it relates to the fact that I think Kelly was a homosexual. … I’m not really a fan of his. I’m tired of people calling me the modern-day Ned Kelly.” – Richard Jinman, “Who’s going to tell Chopper his paintings are awful?”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 2006, https://www.smh.com.au/national/whos-going-to-tell-chopper-his-paintings-are-awful-20060204-gdmwln.html

  4. Lachlan Strahan says: Reply

    Hi Stuart,

    Thanks for your thorough comments on my book. You have picked up some slips on my part in relation to several issues, which I will correct in a revised edition. We will have to disagree on some points. I think I’m fair on Barry overall, though you are quite right that there isn’t enough evidence to establish that he made the comment about Ned at Ellen’s trial. I’ll chop that sentence altogether.

    I’m not sure that I’m wrong, however, about Anthony’s party leaving Greta with two long arms of some description. Anthony and his party reached Mansfield late on 31 October at the end of their first patrol. They left Mansfield the next morning (1 November) on a second patrol through the Wombat ranges. ‘They had only two guns’, reported the Herald on 6 November, ‘but Pewtress gave them the only two he had.’ This sentence indicates that Anthony and his companions arrived in Mansfield on 31 October with two guns and left with four on 1 November. At the end of their second patrol, Anthony and his contingent returned to Mansfield for a second time on 4 November. According to The Argus of 6 November, they returned with four rifles, ‘two borrowed ones and two belonging to the force’.

    I’m not aware of any other documents of the time which touch on this issue. The two newspaper reports above seem clear enough. In the absence of any contrary documentary evidence (please point me in the right direction if I am mistaken), I believe I’m right in saying Anthony and Shoebridge left Greta with two long arms. I don’t think this was unreasonable. Nor does it establish that the two ‘police hit squads’ were looking for the Kellys. It was entirely sensible and proper for both parties to carry long arms given they were pursuing armed and dangerous men. Indeed, it would have been foolhardy and unprofessional to ride out without any long arms.

    Best wishes Lachie

    1. Hi Lachlan, thanks for reading and replying. I did email my review to the publisher the day before this blog went up, to fiulfil my agreement for a review copy, so I hope they forwarded it to you back then and you haven’t just chanced upon this blog by some belated referral.

      You have pointed out with source evidence that “‘They had only two guns’, reported the Herald on 6 November, ‘but Pewtress gave them the only two he had.’ This sentence indicates that Anthony and his companions arrived in Mansfield on 31 October with two guns and left with four on 1 November. At the end of their second patrol, Anthony and his contingent returned to Mansfield for a second time on 4 November. According to The Argus of 6 November, they returned with four rifles, ‘two borrowed ones and two belonging to the force’.”

      This is convincing, and I was ignorant of those references regarding the Strahan patrol.

      In those days ‘guns’ invariably meant long guns and not revolvers. My quibble with the Kennedy patrol description was the words “both parties [Kennedy’s and Strahan’s] also brought along two rifles, including a Spencer” (p. 220).” Kennedy’s brought one rifle, the borrowed Spencer from the gold escort, and one borrowed shotgun (not a rifle) from the Mansfield vicar. Not two rifles, and it is important to be clear here given Kelly’s rants about heavily armed police out to summarily execute him.

      It is clear from your Argus article that the Strahan patrol had 4 rifles, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/5919989. But given the scarcity of the Spencer (and the difficulty of generally procuring ammunition for it) I would have doubts that a Spencer can be implied as one of the rifles carried by the Strahan patrol (if that was what was meant?). Rather, it seems there was one borrowed Spencer in one of the patrols. There would also be room to doubt whether Scanlon had ever fired one, even though he was the one to carry it.

      What that Argus article says is “Sub inspector Pewtress still complains, and with just cause, of the scarcity of rifles. The party that has just returned have only four, two borrowed ones and two belonging to the force”. We can rule out borrowing a Spencer from someone given that the gold escort had reluctantly lent theirs to the Kennedy party, and I submit that the two belonging to the force would be whatever they had up there then; not specialised Spencers.

      That’s good, clearing the rifles part up. I agree that “It was entirely sensible and proper for both parties to carry long arms given they were pursuing armed and dangerous men. Indeed, it would have been foolhardy and unprofessional to ride out without any long arms.” Yet that was the position the Kennedy patrol found itself in until not long before it was due to set out, such that its only two long guns were last minute borrows.

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