Dawson vs Denhelds ‘Certain Truth’ : Chapter 12 : Republic or Myth

This post is Part 1 of a review of Bill Denheld’s Ned Kelly – Australian Iron Icon: A Certain Truth (2024), by Stuart Dawson.

Bill has written a complex book that tackles a wide range of topics of interest, as can be seen in his introductory overview. This review will only look at the chapters that challenge topics that I addressed in my Republic Myth book, as I think that while Bill has an interesting perspective on these topics, his arguments are not persuasive. In order, I will cover Bill’s view of alleged colonial republican sentiments, Kelly links to political movements, the Fitzpatrick incident and its aftermath, the ‘class war’ approach to what he sees as a land war between squatters and selectors in the Kelly era, a question of reward monies and politics in the Kelly hunt, and claims about large sympathiser numbers. I will then review Bill’s sections on the Land League and ANA, his suggestion that school teacher James Wallace may have been “the brains” (scribe) behind the Kelly gang, a few points about Stringybark Creek and the police, the fragmentary nature of the claims for proto-republican sympathies, and the issue of why Kelly’s trial was moved to Melbourne.

 

Bracketed numbers, e.g., (xx), refers to pages in Bill’s book. When my series of review posts is completed, they will be put up for download as a single PDF review article. It is important to note that Bill tackles a range of topics that overlap, but they are not presented in chronological order. This means that information and opinions about a particular topic, e.g., colonial republicanism, or Stringybark Creek, are found in different chapters and have to be assembled into discrete topics in order to be reviewed. I am starting with the biggest topic, republicanism, and will move through the rest over coming weeks or fortnights depending on the volume of responses. This first part of my review looks at Bill’s presentation of alleged colonial republican sentiments.

 

I was intrigued to learn a while back (from Bill himself) that his Certain Truth book would include some critique of my Ned Kelly and the Myth of a Republic of North-Eastern Victoria (2018). It is an interesting take on the Kelly outbreak, essentially arguing that I (following Doug Morrissey) greatly underestimated the number of Kelly sympathisers in N.E. Victoria and missed a key connection between Hurdle Hut schoolteacher James Wallace (who was at school with and remained friends with Joe Byrne), and other links between Kelly sympathisers and various people in the Victoria Land League and the Australian Natives Association which led the push for Federation, achieved in 1901.

 

Bill asks, was this Federal agenda pushed forward in North-East Victoria by an undercurrent of Irish immigrant republicanism interwoven with sympathy for Kelly in his self-proclaimed role of standing up for the underdog, as seen, for example, in his Jerilderie letter? There is much to unpack here, and unpack it I must, as my book gets a whole chapter titled ‘Dr. Stuart Dawson’s Republic Myth’. To be clear, Bill agrees up front that “there is no concrete proof of a Republic for North East Victoria led by Kelly sympathisers” (7), and in this he is well away from Ian Jones’ Kelly republican dreamland. Bill’s view is rather of “a high possibility that a Republic was pending via a political revolution towards self-government” (7), from which I gather he is suggesting that republican (anti-monarchical) sentiments were intertwined with a broader desire to separate from the mother country (England).

 

Indeed, Victorian Premier Graham Berry appeared to promote this kind of republican end-state view back in 1879. One newspaper wrote that while visiting England “he has taken flight into those realms of Republican space which have been somewhat wittily described as ‘The day after to-morrow.’ He expected ultimately, said Mr. Berry to the Chelsea Liberals, to see Australia independent, for even now the colonies were more like a Republic than England was like a Monarchy”. As the newspaper challenged, however, “how are the Australian colonies going to be a Republic, when as yet they have not formulated the rudimentary system of a federal Government, which ought, we should suppose, to precede a declaration of independence?”.[1]This review will explore this and other related issues.

 

Bill claims that “there had been two previous attempts at a republic in Victoria, one in Portland and another around the Riverina in the late 1860s” (249), but this is not correct. These were separation movements aiming to become distinct separate colonies but still under the British Crown, and both are discussed in my Republic Myth book. There was nothing republican about them. This means that discussion needs to be quite clear about the terms used: republic, vs separation, vs federation, and ensure that these are not blurred together. It also needs to be clear about the perspective here.

 

Were there any significant colonial republican sentiments in North-East Victoria?

 

Bill claims with no source references that “It has often been contended that among the many poorer family communities in NE Victoria, the majority are said to have Republican sentiments” (20). He claims a link existed between the pro-Federation Gorman family and their Kelly neighbours at Beveridge in which the Gorman’s political leanings might have influenced Ned. He says for example that “The Gormans [were] always fighting for better land deals that the Kelly ‘uprising’ later represented to its widely spread sympathisers in North Eastern Victoria” (90). There is no evidence offered that the Kellys or the Kelly gang ever said anything about land deals. Bill relates that the Gormans were Irish immigrants with Republican sentiments and their children went to school with the Kelly and Quinn children for six months after the Beveridge Catholic school opened in mid-1863. Gorman senior spoilt a salute to Prince Alfred’s October 1867 Royal Visit by burning out a royalist bonfire early, before the young Duke would be sailing past to see it. Bill claims that “this ties in with Ned Kelly’s support for republican causes” (52), although it is hard to see how Gorman’s sabotage that Ned probably never heard about, as his family had already moved north to Avenel around mid-1867, ties in with an alleged republican cause that Ned never mentioned. In any case the Duke’s visit was massively popular with some 10,000 people going out on steamers to escort the Duke’s ship in to Melbourne, and at night “There were bonfires at Hawthorn, Kew, Woodend, and Tannagulla, and on the principal hill tops for many miles round Melbourne. One of these bonfires contained 500 tons of wood, and was visible for thirty miles round”.[2] No-one would notice the absence of one bonfire.

 

There are several problematic statements about social relations. Bill says that “in those days women on their own could not acquire (own) land in their own right, and that this was part of the class structure of colonial Victorian British rule” (37), and “women could not even own land titles in those days” (67). Against this, Ellen Kelly acquired her selection on the Eleven Mile with the right to buy it in time if the selection conditions were met. Bill’s own map shows that Bridie Kelly held an allotment (lot 58) “in her name” (69), and his map show a second allotment 88A also in her name (80). Bill later admitted that some women could acquire land despite the patriarchy: “the whole system of land tenure depended upon male applicants as few women could take up land in their own right (74).

 

Bill claims that “During the 1870s Ned Kelly determined to draw a line in the sand against those social prejudices dished out to his class” (18). But the social prejudices of the English class system were not as rigid in the new country. Bill noted that the son of Chief Justice William A’Beckett married the daughter of a convict, and that “such a social divide could not have been imagined in England” (85). He insists that Kelly “was made an example of to anyone wishing to go against the controlling elite” (11) and that “Both the Cameron and Jerilderie letters were an explanation of why Ned and his family rebelled against an unfair political system” (22). Against this, first, there is no political content at all in the Cameron letter. Not one Kelly author, not even Jones or McQuilton who were adamant that the Jerilderie letter was some kind of ‘manifesto’, have ever claimed anything political about the Cameron letter, and Bill provides no reasons why it might indicate anything political. What we get is only Bill’s opinion or interpretation of what the Cameron letter is about.

 

Second, as I discussed in detail in my Republic Myth book, the Jerilderie letter is just a longer and more ranting version of the Cameron letter. Whole paragraphs are nearly identical. It is obvious that it was written out with the Cameron letter (of which Kelly sent at least two copies, to Donald Cameron MP and Superintendent John Sadleir) on the table as its template. The most likely thing that Kelly had on him when captured, described back in the day as “a pocket book, containing a number of letters, implicating persons in good positions, and the name of one Member of Parliament is mentioned”,[3] was a pocket book with the original ‘Cameron’ letter and perhaps further copies. As I also discussed, there is nothing to support Jones’ opinion that the few vague threatening statements in the Jerilderie letter, quoted by Bill (244-5), can be taken to represent a political manifesto. Bill does not put up a new case for that; he just repeats points that have already been reviewed and rejected in my book.

 

Because Bill wants to see the Kelly gang as some kind of political rebels, he asks “Can we imagine how many people at that time would have been reading the newspapers and gossip about the Kelly gang’s growing fame for standing up to the authorities, the arrest warrants issued being a witch hunt, a warning to anyone who had thoughts of support?” (265). Imagination is the operative word here. Not only is there nothing to support the idea of the Kelly gang “standing up to the authorities” in any sense except by not wanting to be caught for a long list of crimes that they committed before and on the run, and taunting the police at the failure to catch them, they made no political demands. And in what sense did anyone back in the day see the arrest warrants being issued as a witch hunt? Even the 23 sympathisers arrested in early 1879 were not linked by anyone to a political witch hunt.

 

My Republic Myth book did not deny that there may have been some disaffected Irish immigrants who brought anti-British or Republican sentiments with them. Rather, it denied that there was any north-east Victorian republican movement of any kind, and certainly not one led by Ned Kelly. There is no written evidence of any north-east republican sympathy or claim, and Bill agrees there is none (7). Rather he suggests that  “Perhaps a Kelly led ‘republic’ for NE Victoria never reached a climax, except perhaps as a notional ideal during land reform meetings by local activists throughout Victoria in the 1880s” (249). There are two propositions here: first, that republicanism was raised by some local land reform activists in the 1880s, and second, that this happened throughout Victoria. To the first, the suggestion requires some evidence that anyone in the land reform movement mentioned republicanism as a notional ideal as distinct from separation (a breakaway state) in land reform meetings in the north-east, and second, that such mentions occurred throughout Victoria. Bill puts forward no evidence to show that either happened. Separation movements arose in the 1860s in Portland and the Riverina as Bill notes, and there was interest in a colonial Federation under the Crown after separate colonies had been established; but that is different from being a federated Australia independent of England. Against arguments from people like me who demand evidence, Bill replies that I have “little regard for century old sentiments carried on from one generation to the next. The poor end of town never had many journalists prepared to record their version of history” (59). That may be true but it does not explain why there are no diaries, journals, notebooks, letters, mentions in police files, etc., such as there are from the time of the Eureka Stockade 30 years earlier.

 

The other problem is that oral history is notoriously unreliable and changes with the wind. Where in the days of the Kelly gang outlawry popular sentiment was overwhelmingly against them and hoping they were caught before any further outrages were committed, by the 1930s a romantic view of the iron outlaws had begun to grow especially in the wake of Kenneally’s Inner History. Tall tales grew of parents and grandparents having had some past links with the gang (and especially with Ned Kelly). Farmers all over the north-east claimed that Kelly had helped build one of their barns or sheds. Joy and Prior in their 1963 Bushrangers wrote that when they visited Euroa in 1960, numerous residents claimed to have had a grandmother who happened to have been in Younghusbands kitchen, or a grandfather who happened to be in the bank, the day the Kellys came to town and passed by them “as close as I am to you now”. There are plenty of fourth and fifth generation descendants of people in the north east eager to claim that their ancestors were Kelly sympathisers or assisted the gang on the run.[4] It is obvious that many of these are poorly remembered leg-pulls from old folks – “Ned Kelly built that shed!” “Wow!”. Then 20 years on, “My Grandpa/Grandma said X, so it must be true”.

 

Bill also wants to make much of antagonism between Protestants and Catholics, and Irish hatred for the Crown, ignoring that Ellen Kelly remarried to a Protestant, as did her daughter Annie (to the Protestant Bill Gunn), and that Ashmead’s The Thorns and the Briars ends with noting Ellen Kelly’s mantelpiece portrait loyalty to King and Queen.

The whole idea of a republican Ned is a giant furphy.

 

[1] Queenslander, ‘Mr. Berry and Republicanism’, 10 May 1879, 593, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/19780691

[2] Illustrated Sydney News, 16 December 1867, 1; https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/63513754/5408952#

[3] Evening News (Syd.), Friday 2 July 1880, 2. For the full quote and discussion see my Republic Myth book, 2.

[4] Eugenie Navarre’s Knight in Aussie Armour is packed with examples of creative “true” tales from ancestors.

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26 Replies to “Dawson vs Denhelds ‘Certain Truth’ : Chapter 12 : Republic or Myth”

  1. Good post. I haven’t read Bill’s book yet, the whole protestant/catholic and ‘political rebels’ thing bores me and seems very far fetched, so I probably won’t bother unless it gets posted online for free. But I have read your Republic Myth book, and know how good that is, no ‘supposing’ , just facts. I agree about it being a myth that Ned Kelly was all for leading a republic. Sure he made some remarks about the Irish troubles in his letters, but so what? Most of his comments seemed to be tongue in cheek stuff and having a laugh at the police. He didn’t seem to care less where people were from or what so called religion they were. I doubt he would have bothered with anything beyond some comments in letters. Like you pointed out, the Kelly’s had plenty of non Catholic friends and in- laws.

    Some people just seem to want to believe Ned Kelly was Australia’s version of Brian Boru. I have no doubt he would laugh at 99% of the stuff that has been written about him.

  2. Chris Smith says: Reply

    This review provides a thorough and critical analysis of Bill Denheld’s claims about republican sentiments in colonial Victoria and Ned Kelly’s alleged political motivations. You have systematically examined and refuted key arguments, highlighting the lack of evidence for a Kelly-led republican movement while acknowledging the complexities of colonial politics and social dynamics.
    Well done and thanks for a great read.

  3. Thanks JT and Chris. There’s a lot more to come; the next part will be along look at the claimed class struggle between squatters and selectors which underpins a lot of the book but I think has been greatly overstated for the Kelly outbreak years 1878-1880. Still tidying it up.

  4. Very informative.
    I still bought Bills book but at this rate won’t need to open it.
    It is a shame if as you say his book is not in order. That would certainly help.
    I will have to look up that business about women and land etc. I am sure that I see women named all the time when researching my home town.
    Looking forward to further posts.

    1. Hi Dave, I like Bill and enjoyed reading his book (even though he said I wouldn’t!!), and there is very interesting stuff about the Kelly houses at Wallan, the mysterious Borrin allegedly murdered by Ned, and lots of other things especially his work on the Stringybark Creek campsite location. The topics I’m reviewing are where he went along the path of linking Ned Kelly and associates to political or republican activism and in particular his chapter 12 critique of my Republic Myth book. Class struggle is the next big one, as even the Fitzpatrick incident gets a write up as class related. But all in good time…

  5. Enjoy your research Stuart, especially that it’s available for all to read.

    1. Hi Dave, I have sent Part 2 on the class struggle approach to David and I gather it will go up later this week. It is a lot of work doing this review but I can’t ignore that a whole section of Bill’s book is critiquing topics addressed in my Republic Myth book, so I just have to do it.

  6. The Glenrowan Kelly Hub is run by clueless muppets who have no idea about the outbreak beyond Jones’s dated fairytales and are too busy waxing lyrical about the evils of colonialism to have even one panel dedicated to the fallen police.

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    1. Hi Stuart,

      Yes, so much for all the talk about both sides being represented fairly. The Hub just turned out to be a P.C. monument.

      It’s almost as laughable as the current petty insults on a couple of the Kelly pages. This is to do with ‘Perry v Phelan’. Was anyone else online to see the two posts/comments before they were deleted? Perry is peeved that he didn’t get an invite to Mrs Phelan’s book launch in Beechworth. A post was made on the “Kellyland” page by Jesse Roy about the book launch, and Zita Heywood posted a comment pretty much saying that she thought it was tasteless that Mrs P had her book launched on the anniversary of the Glenrowan siege, saying it was disrespectful etc. Her comment was of course deleted a while later, I’m guessing not by Zita herself. I don’t see a problem with a book launch about a member of the Kelly Gang being held on the anniversary of the siege, and his (Byrne’s) death, but Zita Heywood is entitled to her opinion, and her post was well written and should not have been deleted.

      A while later, Mrs Phelan made a post of her own on her Joseph Byrne page saying it was brought to her attention that she had been accused of being ‘disrespectful’ etc, etc, about holding her book launch on the sacred date. She mentioned that at least she didn’t use the Kelly Gang as an excuse to drink and party, obviously having a thinly veiled jab at the BBM, and no doubt Zita Heywood. Then a while later the entire post was deleted by her. Why do they even bother?

      I don’t know what was written on each post between the next time I looked, but later Perry made his own thinly veiled post taking a jab at the Phelan’s, after previously telling them to ‘pull your heads in’, he made a big post saying how offended he was at the person who said their BBM get together was just an excuse to drink and party. Also telling a member he was ‘f cking furious’. But of course not furious enough to name names. I guess hoping he will one day again be able to suck up to the Phelan’s after stabbing them in the back, after all, he needs her new book for his collection.

      Looks like most BBM-ers think the person who said that about their get together, is none other than someone from this page. But no, it was Georgina Phelan who said it. After she was PO’d by Zita Heywood’s comment re her book launch being ‘disrespectful’.

      Perry is too piss weak to mention names, but there it is. It’s been the most interesting thing to come out of the double whammy Glenrowan weekend. I almost feel sorry for them. *wink*

      1. Anonymous says: Reply

        Good Afternoon JT. Thank you for your views and judgement. BBM is well aware the criticism did not come from this page. (except for this post anyway.) Please refer to me as Mark or Mark Perry. Not Perry. Cheers. Thank you.

        1. ‘Anonymous’ Perry,

          I’ll refer to you however I want. Could have fooled me you were well aware, why don’t you just come straight out and name the people you are referring to on the BBM? You’re too gutless, that’s why. Of course you and the others on BBM are deathly silent re the Phelan’s, or about Zita Heywood’s comment regarding Mrs P’s book launch being disrespectful. But then, choosing to ignore facts is what you lot are all about, so it’s no surprise. I wonder who is more secretly devastated to finally learn what the Phelan’s really think about you all. You? Bob ‘the bigot’ McGarrigle? or Neal Carney? The Phelan’s think you are all nothing but yobbo trash, but they have books to sell after all.

          Don’t sulk too much that they are now bff’s with the Lynch woman, the Phelan’s know how to ‘play the game’. Scoring an extra kick in the guts to you is just a bonus to them. Throwing a couple of exclusive invites to some bogans on the NKS, and pretending to slum it with them, equals more book sales.

          You are on the ‘out’ more and more Perry. You have obviously forgotten the old saying ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. The Phelan’s haven’t though. *wink*

          1. Perry himself knows his fiefdom is comprised almost entirely of tattooed, Kelly man/woman cave dwelling bogans and uninformed bigots who cant spell and have only the most superficial knowledge of the story. I know this because he told me on many occasions what his opinion was of various individuals on the page – for them he coined the term ‘ming mongs’. Theres something of a greek tragedy in the fact that hes now locked in with the very people he looks down on, the tattooed Kelly idolators, and has alienated the ones whose company he would rather be in, the people with knowledge, intelligence, integrity and a non-idolatrous perspective on the Outbreak. Being in bed with the likes of such repulsive people as Fitzsimons and McGarrigle, the extremist anti-woke crusader and incoherent babbler Stuart Rowsell, Craig Barton, Steve Smith….the list goes on. He used to claim he was on the fence…but he jumped off on the wrong side.

            I see he has announced he is taking a break — this is just attention seeking, the poor Mark card he plays whenever he feels he needs reassurance that BBM rocks and he is the top Rocker….the break will barely last 24 hours…

            But heres a suggestion for you mark : hand over to PJ snd join the winning team at NKTTS!

            1. A Greek tragedy is a fitting description David. It’s confusing and genuinely sad to see.

  7. Hi JT, I don’t have Fakebook, it’s a cesspit with massive data leaks from what everyone tells me, but it’s funny to hear that other Kelly sites are blaming this site for their problems when I for one don’t go there and have no idea what they’re up to unless someone tells me or sends me a screenshot. Screenshots are great for when people make fools of themselves, BTW for the future!

    1. Hi Stuart,

      Yes, I regret not taking screenshots of the posts and comments, I only thought of doing so afterwards, but by then they had been deleted. The people who saw the posts and commented will at least know now who these people were actually talking about, as they definitely are too gutless to say it.

      btw, great letter to the editor. Seems like John Suta will do anything for a free meal.

      The photos of Perry’s BBM meet up just get more and more embarrassing. Marilyn Platt thinks ‘orbs’ were there with them, is that bogan for old ridiculous bloated slobs? if it is, then yes they were! LOL !

      1. Hi J.T., I’m not sure who some of these people are TBH, and couldn’t care less. If any of them want to post a reply to anything I’ve posted they need to come to David’s blog here as I don’t go anywhere else in Kellyland (apart from Bill’s Iron-Icon site now and then).

        1. Hi Stuart,

          Fair enough. I only put the first post on here about Perry and the Phelan’s bs because this page seemed to be getting the blame for it all, as usual. Plus I was surprised that it hadn’t already been commented about on here, as David McFarlane is usually first on to exposing all their lies , but the posts and comments were deleted soon after, so maybe many missed it.

          Anyway, they can now know they should have been looking much closer to home, as it was all said by some of ‘their own’ showing their true colours about each other. Too funny.

          Over and out.

        2. I should add that there’s another site in Kellyland well worth visiting, which is Sharon Hollingsworth’s Eleven Mile Creek blog with Brian Stevenson, https://elevenmilecreek.blogspot.com/

          It has lots of great articles going back to 2010. Can you believe it? 14 years of interesting stuff!

      2. Anonymous says: Reply

        “Old, ridiculous, bloated slobs”? Wow. Thank you very little.

        1. You’re welcome. 🙂

  8. I guess I have John Suta to thank for his letter about the Glenrowan seige in the Border Mail last week that resulted in my reply which is now promoting my free ‘Ned Kelly and the Myth of a Republic of North-Eastern Victoria’ PDF book to a whole new readership in the Border Mail 🙂 Clown emoji…

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    1. In case anyone was wondering, here is John Suta’s Border Mail letter 🙂 🙂

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  9. NKS are carrying themselves with dignity and respect, as they always do. That Lynch woman runs a tight ship. No churlish remarks, no sniping, no shit stirring, no baiting, and no harassing. Plus they are promoting quality events, research, collaboration and respectful connections. What’s not to love?

    1. Dignity and Respect? who would know _ its all in secret! So whats the point? Every possible contributor with an alternative point of view is excluded from entry, which is why their membership has barely increased over several years, and if that Page functions in the same way as every other Facebook page does, 90% of the contributions will be from 3 or 4 members, “that Lynch woman” being the most prominent I would guess. They contribute NOTHING to the wider debate about the Kelly story, not even memorabilia or the recitation of myth, as it all takes place behind closed doors. Isnt it just a tiny mutual admiration society?

      TBH closeting themselves away from the Public eye suits me : The fewer places where the sickening promotion of Kelly admiration is promoted , the better. Dont forget ‘that Lynch woman’ openly declared her love for Ned Kelly a few years back, I doubt that has changed.

  10. It’s a very well run page. Quality over quantity will always win. I’m sure David youd agree you can’t just open the floodgates in order to boost your numbers or it becomes a Ming Mong free for all.

    1. What do you mean by ‘well run’? Do you mean they dont permit anyone to post things they dont like? …. and thereby, ensure there are never any disagreements or disputes that rub people up the wrong way ?

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