Squatters vs Selectors: Class war and the Kelly outbreak in Bill Denheld’s big new book : A Certain Truth


This post is Part 2 of a multi-part review of Bill Denheld’s ‘Ned Kelly – Australian Iron Icon: A Certain Truth’ (2024), by Stuart Dawson. As with Part 1, 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 book review. There will be approximately six posts in total, of which this is the longest as it examines the class struggle approach that underpins much of Bill’s perspective on the Kelly outbreak.


Bill contends that “The Kelly Outbreak was a class war between the Squatters and Selectors” (291): “the Kelly uprising of 1879-1880 was more about who controlled the land, and that fight threatened the stability of the Victorian government itself” (235). “[Most] modern interpretations of the Kelly story forget reasons for the Kelly outbreak, the main [one] being political unrest favouring the earlier land squatters who used the police for political advantage over poor land selectors. There was inequality that inevitably led to crime being committed as retaliation towards the controlling elite. Ned Kelly only ever wanted a fair deal for his class. That’s why he had thousands of sympathisers” (183).



In other words, Kelly is claimed to represent a disaffected ‘selector class’: “There was more to the Kelly story than bushrangers. In fact it became the ‘Kelly uprising’ or the Kelly outbreak as the Royal Commission would describe it” (14). This bundles a number of ideas that are incompatible.



The term ‘outbreak’ meaning an outbreak of bushranging was long in use in Australia, particularly with reference to NSW bushrangers of the 1860s (G. Boxall, History of the Australian Bushrangers, 1899). By contrast ‘uprising’ typically means ‘an act of opposition, sometimes using violence, by many people in one area of a country against those who are in power’ (Cambridge Dictionary) and implies a brief, limited, and often immediately ineffective rebellion, quickly put down’ (Mirriam-Webster). No such thing occurred in NE Victoria. Kelly’s comment to McIntyre, that he had wanted to ‘make a rise’,[1] had nothing to do with politics. As Julian Burnside noted in his article ‘Bushrangers’, Make a rise means to strike gold (Boldrewood, A Miner’s Right (1890); Idriess in Lightning Ridge (1940). In the more general sense of striking sudden good luck, Porter in Quarter Race in Kentucky (1836) …. At his fortified compound in the Wombat Ranges, Ned Kelly had been working for gold, as well as growing corn for whisky, and stealing horses”.[2] Striking it lucky fits; although not necessarily earning an honest living. In Boxall’s History p. 339, escapee Alpin Macpherson aimed to steal a horse to stick up a mail coach and “make a rise”. The expression ‘make a rise’ in either context refers to improving one’s personal circumstances. It has nothing to do with a political uprising.



Bill writes of people “having sympathetic support for the Kellys’ predicament”, and claims that “Many of the … neighbours [of those blacklisted from taking up selections by the Lands Department in May 1879] would have similar sentiments, if not just for the Kellys per se, but certainly regarding the inequity and hardships of living off the land without any government support” (259). This forgets that no-one got any government support. They moved onto the land for the same reason that the squatters took up land: to make a living for themselves on their own patch and, as Doug Morrissey showed, and also as Weston Bates told the 1967 Wangaratta Kelly Seminar, the majority succeeded. The idea of a disaffected selector class imposes a Marxist-style class framework on pre-industrialised rural Victoria. There were certainly some legitimate selector grievances: Bill notes that “Large lease-holders could do little to stop stock straying into bushland and onto small farmer’s vegetable crops that they might trample; so at first sight any stray cattle were quickly rounded up and locked away up any secluded gully to be later moved out and sold in another district for financial gain” (258).



Here the problem is not just that cattle and horses were branded making brand alteration necessary. What is being suggested is that stock theft was legitimate because of the damage done by strayed stock. But there was a legal solution to hand: impounding; the same process that Kelly moaned about in his Jerilderie letter, of large stockholders impounding poor farmer’s stray cattle. Why would a poor farmer risk three years’ gaol for feloniously taking stock when he could legally impound the offending beast at the government pound and inconvenience the owner by his having to bail it out? While some might have had sympathy for the Kelly’s predicament, such as favourable recollections of the family when they lived at Avenel,[3] that changed when Young Kelly came to fame as a larrikin. The only class the Kellys seem to have progressed to was the criminal class, not the selector class.



Bill claims that the 1881 Royal Commission “was not set up to question the cause of the Kelly outbreak but to question all those associated with the Kellys and their sympathetic followers” (240). This is a rather bold claim given that the first of its five objectives stated in the 1881 Second Progress Report was explicitly To inquire into the circumstances preceding and attending the Kelly outbreak”. Its other objectives have nothing to do with questioning those associated with the Kellys but rather to inquire “as to the efficiency of the police to deal with such possible occurrences; to inquire into the action of the police authorities during the period the Kelly gang were at large; the efficiency of the means employed for their capture; and generally to inquire into and report upon the present state and organization of the police force”. The entire focus of the Royal Commission was on the efficiency of the police or lack thereof; not the Kellys’ and friends’ comings and goings.



Perhaps the wildest pair of class-based claims are that “Ned Kelly was sentenced to death by hanging with the express purpose to show the lower classes of society that they should not meddle with the conservative controlling elite. There was already a rebellious uprising in north-eastern Victoria and the last thing they wanted was for the press to criticise the authorities who were their mates” (303); and that “Kelly should never have been classified as an outright criminal because he was fighting against inequality dished out by the self-appointed aristocrats intent on political control, and as a result they got rid of Ned and also any other opposition when there were no democratic elections and thereby reducing any opposition to their democratic government”(311).

Against this, first, Kelly was sentenced to death for the capital crime of wilful murder, a crime of his own choosing which he could have avoided by leading his gang away from Stringybark Creek and Bullock’s Creek up the stock theft route that ran along the Fifteen Mile Creek (illustrated at the front of Doug Morrissey’s Lawless Life), where, as Bill’s sympathiser pin map (257) shows, there were a number of friends and relations of the Kellys who could have aided their escape north through Lake Rowan and Yarrawonga into New South Wales. Up until Stringybark Creek the manhunt was sporadic and for the Kelly brothers alone, and leaving Victoria would have still been relatively easy for them.



Second, there was no rebellious uprising in north eastern (or any other part of) Victoria identified by Bill before or after Stringybark Creek or before or after Glenrowan. What he identified is a Victorian Land League movement founded in 1856 to campaign for the right of all Victorians to acquire up to 160 acres of public land,[4]. Bill links this with immigrant Irish activist John Walshe who was sponsored to Australia by  Joseph Winter, proprietor of the Catholic Advocate, to raise funds for the Irish Land League and who declared it non-revolutionary and non-communistic.[5] Bill says that “Walshe would establish the successful model for the Irish Land League in Australia. He travelled all over the place preaching land reform, while the ANA was opening hundreds of branches throughout Victoria and NSW” (236). This all seems irrelevant as Walshe arrived in 1881, well after Kelly’s death and 25 years after the Victorian Land League was founded. The hazy connection with Kelly seems to be that Winter had married David Gorman’s daughter, whose brother E. James Gorman had gone to primary school for 6 months with 8 year old Ned Kelly in 1863; and Winter’s brother Samuel was a foundation member of the ANA (chart, p. 21), which launched in 1871. In 1871 Ned was doing 3 months gaol for assault.



The second movement Bill identified was the Australian Natives Association which despite its having numerous branches did little before 1883, when it “came to the front with a rush … under Bendigo lawyer Jefferson Connelly. It may be fairly said that from 1883 onwards the growing influence of the ANA was never absent from consideration of Federal issues; and that the steady work done in its branches contributed in large degree to render the movement actual and persistent”,[6] noting that “the ANA was powerful only in Victoria”.[7] A colonial Federation movement drew on both prior movements and by almost a series of political accidents achieved Federation in 1901. None of this was rebellious or republican, nor was there any inevitability about it. Alfred Deakin, one of the leading protagonists of Federation, said in 1900, “Regarded as a whole it is safe to say that if anything ought to be styled ‘providential’ it is the extraordinary combination of circumstances, persons and their most intricate inter-relations of which the Commonwealth is about to become the crown. To say that it was fated to be, is to say nothing to the purpose: any one of a thousand minor incidents might have deferred it for years or generations. To those who watched its inner workings, followed its fortunes as if their own, and lived a life of devotion to it day by day, its actual accomplishment must always appear to have been secured by a series of miracles”.[8] There is nothing to show that the Kellys had any connection whatsoever with any of these political movements.



There was no separation movement in Victoria as it had already separated as a distinct colony in 1851, stemming from the New South Wales Constitution Act of 1842 which formally recognised the separate colony of Victoria.[9] Portland’s wish to separate from Victoria in the 1860s had a certain novelty but it did not contemplate rebellion from the Crown, and nor did the Riverina movement.



There is nothing anywhere to suggest that Kelly or his gang fought against aristocratically minded squatters or anyone else on a class basis. The vast majority of victims of their stock plundering were other small selectors and passing drovers.[10] To think of the Kelly gang as Robin Hoods after knowing that is impossible, although many have expressed that thought without any analysis of their larceny.



Bill suggests that the colonial government was intent on taking control of the ‘Kelly country’ at every opportunity “to quell any uprising and knowing that if they did not succeed, there could be a revolution instigated by the lower classes. To that end they needed to kill off any popular uprising primarily manifesting itself as ‘the Greta mob’ and amongst them the Kelly brothers and their mates, supporters and their class of disadvantaged settlers, families and friends” (98). This is a very long bow: Ned Kelly’s Sympathisers were analysed in an article of that name by Doug Morrissey in 1978,[11] with Greta Mob members identified. Of the 119 sympathisers listed, 14 are women; 46 are selectors. Within that 119 total, 37 are Greta Mob members, but only 5 were selectors; most were labourers. The Greta Mob were local larrikins known for dressing flash, pub fights and yahooing, not political rebels. There was not the slightest danger of any political uprising from these country layabouts. No such suggestions appear anywhere; not in the O&M or any other paper, and not in the police files.



Almost 6 pages of Bill’s book (91-97) are extracts from Ambrose Pratt’s 1911 fiction novel, Dan Kelly, Outlaw. Some lines are bolded, including one that reads, “The Victorian people hated the squatters very thoroughly. Cattle duffing was a serious crime, but it did not injuriously affect the masses. The cattle duffers preyed only on the squatters, and the squatters were ‘public enemies’” (95). This is preposterous nonsense easily countered by Doug Morrissey’s ‘Horse and Cattle Stealing’ article.[12] Morrissey also noted in regard to all this that “’Agrarian outrages’ committed against the property and livestock of squatters were crimes of passion rather than the outpourings of political discontent; agrarian crimes were committed in roughly equal measure against selectors, merchants, drovers, hawkers and, in fact, against anyone who happened to offend their neighbour”.[13]To see class war underpinning everything is to greatly overstate isolated examples of disharmony: “For much of the time relations between small and large landowners were amicable. On numerous social occasions both groups worked together for the common good, offering their properties as venues for ploughing matches, horse races, church picnics and a variety of other community festivities. … The experience of selectors in their country of origin and their own initially insecure economic position, together with the time consuming labour of establishing a farm, disposed selectors towards an acceptance of the legitimacy of community leadership by the rich and powerful”.[14]



Bill goes well beyond the evidence in claiming that “It must have been an important endeavour for Pratt to record the intricate political situation and to write what he did in the first person account of Dan Kelly Outlaw” (286). Pratt was a sensationalist writer cashing in with trash history woven around his whopper of a tale of Dan’s survival from the destruction of the gang at Glenrowan. Dean Gibney saw the bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart in the Glenrowan Inn before fire consumed them, and believed that they had committed suicide: “I did not see any [weapons in their hands], and I cannot say that I saw any sign of blood; in fact, my impression was that they must have laid the pistol upon their breasts and fired into their hearts; but that is only conjecture, for I did not see the wounds about them — about the bodies, or on the bodies” (RC, Q.12319, 12325). When asked,“Although you saw no firearms about them, you still think they committed suicide?”, he answered ,”From the position; I could not judge of anything except from the position in which they were lying. They lay so calm together, as if laid out by design (Q.12334). So: no sign of firearms on the two neatly lying bodies, and no sign of wounds or blood despite his theory that they must have “laid the pistol upon their breasts and fired into their hearts”. Yet we know a bag of poison was found on Byrne’s corpse. With no sign of wounds or blood on the bodies, poison is the logical, almost necessary, conclusion.



In another section Bill says “There is no doubt that most of the lower class children often found themselves in trouble with the law, as in one case Ned was charged with alleged ‘horse stealing’ and was locked up for three years even though he claimed the horse he was riding was lent to him. We can imagine no matter if his crime was true, 3 years in gaol was an unacceptable punishment for a young lad that would earn a lifelong hatred for the law makers” (62). We could test this class bias claim by tracing what happened to all of the children that attended Beveridge and Avenel primary schools between mid-1863 and mid 1865 when Ned was present. Most were the children of local farmers. I’d guess that none made the news later as criminals. The example here also misrepresents Ned’s case. To begin with, young men aged 16 were not then or now regarded as ‘children’. Yes, Kelly was charged with horse stealing, but the stealing charge was thrown out because he had been in gaol at the time the Mansfield postmaster’s horse was stolen. Instead a charge of Feloniously receiving (knowingly receiving stolen property with the intent to resell it) was proven beyond doubt, and three years was the typical sentence applied to that offence in that period, as a search of Trove newspapers shows. By then Ned was already a seasoned criminal having earlier been Harry Power’s accomplice in highway robbery and was then just released from gaol for assault. Ned made his three years far harder for himself than it needed to be by being transferred to Pentridge prison halfway through his sentence, and then to the hulk Sacremento. The hulks were designated penal establishments and were typically used for the least cooperative prisoners.[15] One can feel little sympathy for such an incorrigible malefactor who was already beyond redemption.



Bill wrote that in the Kelly era “there were no democratic elections” (311). He goes so far as to claim that “True democratic elections did not come about until after 1901 and prior to that the only option for change was a rebellious one” (265). This is simply and obviously not correct. Provision for election to the newly established Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly was enacted in 1856; the property qualification for the Legislative Assembly was abolished in 1857, and electoral registration established. In 1863 the Electoral Act extended the franchise to all ratepayers.[16] Had Ned decided to settle down on a little patch of his own, he too would have been enfranchised. Preferring the life of a “rambling gambler” (Jerilderie letter) meant he missed out. Too bad, so sad.


[1] Kelly said “that they had no money or horses, and wanted to make a rise”, Argus, 11 August 1880, 3.

[2] Julian Burnside, ‘Bushrangers’, https://www.ironoutlaw.com/writings/bushrangers/

[3] Amelia J. Burgoyne, Memories of Avenel (2nd edn, 1955), 38.

[4] Age, 29 December 1856, 5, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/154869754/18213599 (It is not clear if the newspaper text image says 100 or 160 acres. I have used 160 but that may be wrong.)

[5] Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March 1882, 3, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/13507957#

[6] Alfred Deakin, The Federal Story: The inner history of the Federal cause (Melbourne, 1944), 4.

[7] Deakin, The Federal Story, 5.

[8] Deakin, The Federal Story, 166.

[9] Ben Reid and Caleb Triscari, Visualising Victoria’s electoral history, Victorian Parliamentary Library and Information Service Research Note No. 12 (November 2022), 3.

[10] Doug Morrissey, ‘Ned Kelly and Horse and Cattle Stealing,’ Victorian Historical Journal 66.1 (1995), 40-41.

[11] Doug Morrissey, ‘Ned Kelly’ Sympathisers’, Historical Studies, 18 (October 1978), 288-296.

[12] Doug Morrissey, ‘Ned Kelly and Horse and Cattle Stealing,’ Victorian Historical Journal 66.1 (1995), 29-48.

[13] Doug Morrissey,’Selectors, Squatters And Stock Thieves’, LaTrobe University Ph.D. thesis (1987), 69.

[14] Doug Morrissey, ’Selectors, Squatters And Stock Thieves’, LaTrobe University Ph.D. thesis (1987), 71, 72.

[15] Penal and Prison Discipline Progress Report 1870 – 2nd Session, No. 18, Appendix A, “Prisoners of notoriously criminal habits, professional’ thieves, and men of incorrigibly bad conduct whilst in confinement … should be stationed in one of the hulks, as proposed in the Under Secretary’s communication, and employed at the defence works at the Williamstown batteries.”

[16] Ben Reid and Caleb Triscari, Visualising Victoria’s electoral history, Victorian Parliamentary Library and Information Service Research Note No. 12 (November 2022), 3.

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3 Replies to “Squatters vs Selectors: Class war and the Kelly outbreak in Bill Denheld’s big new book : A Certain Truth”

  1. Anonymous says: Reply

    geez Stuart these sympathisers are great at playing the blame game arent they, does this mean Fitzpatrick and the police are off the hook for the time being? lol.

  2. Karl Mucks says: Reply

    Class war?


  3. I’m intrigued that nearly 45 years after McQuilton wrote his class struggle based Kelly Outbreak book, and some 70 years after Jones first blathered about squatters vs selectors in Man & Myth as a sort of land war, that no one who has read these books has any response to make to the above challenge to a similar set of claims. And it’s most assuredly not because my critique is wrong. Jones’s part of it was demolished at the time in the Q&A at the end of his chapter; McQuilton’s was demolished in the appendix to Graham Jones’s The Kelly Years. It’s as though Kelly studies haven’t advanced all that much since the days of Kenneally.. Not mentally, and not critically. But maybe that’s not such a surprise when dealing with irrationally held myths.

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