To be described as “game as Ned Kelly” in Australia is to be known as someone who is both bold and principled. But how did an outlaw bushranger who robbed banks and killed police come to be known as an honourable folk hero and a symbol of rebellion?
The truth is Ned Kelly was never just an ordinary crim. While he was despised by the establishment, his affinity with the poor, and his stand against police harassment, saw him revered by huge swathes of the population.
Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born in 1854 to a family of Irish decent in the British colony of Victoria. This was the gold rush era and a period of rapid expansion. While a few people managed to strike it rich, high taxes and intense competition meant that many struggled to make ends meet. The tensions that developed led to an outbreak of struggles – most famously the Eureka rebellion of gold miners in Ballarat.
While the Eureka revolt was defeated, the struggle did lead to reforms being implemented such as new land laws and voting rights. The land laws, known as the selection acts, facilitated the distribution of small plots of land to ‘selectors’. The selectors were essentially small farmers, many were poor and from Irish backgrounds. These plots were to be used for small scale agricultural production.
At that time the vast bulk of land was occupied by squatters, usually wealthy British people who took up large tracts of land after colonisation and then gained usage rights. Mostly they used the land for large-scale livestock grazing. The squatters saw the selectors as encroaching on ‘their’ space and as a result many conflicts arose.
Selectors were not allowed to graze livestock and often their land was not even fertile enough to grow healthy crops. This meant that many were poverty stricken and some resorted to stealing livestock from the squatters as a way to get by.
The police cracked down on livestock theft in a heavy handed way. Often poor selector families suffered from police harassment and many were jailed for what were essentially petty economic crimes. As a result a widespread hatred of the police developed alongside the class tensions between the poor selectors and rich squatters.
The Kelly family themselves were no strangers to police harassment and state repression. Ned Kelly’s father ‘Red’ was an Irish convict transported to Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania) in 1841 for stealing pigs. He moved to Victoria after his release and in 1865 he was convicted of unlawfully possessing a bull hide. He was sentenced to six months hard labour and died shortly after. At this stage Ned was aged only 12.
After his father’s death Ned himself began to run afoul of the law. He began associating with bushrangers and was sentenced to three years prison at the age of 15 for crimes associated with stealing horses. After his time in prison Ned worked various odd jobs including as a timber worker, but in the 1870s the area where the Kelly family lived in north east Victoria hit hard times. Gold mining had begun to dry up and drought struck the region. This intensified the conflicts between the selectors and the squatters and police harassment increased.
On one occasion in 1878 a drunken policeman had come to the Kelly home and was harassing the family. A fight broke out and, after being forced to leave, the officer fabricated a story that Ned Kelly had shot him. Despite the police officers’ lack of evidence, Kelly had no faith in the biased court system so decided to go into hiding. He left with his brother Dan Kelly and friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. The foursome became known as the Kelly gang.
Kelly was wanted for attempted murder over the episode but unable to find him they instead arrested and jailed his mother for aiding and abetting. From then on Kelly vowed to take revenge for what he saw as a grave injustice against his family.
A huge manhunt was organised to apprehend the Kelly gang. In the course of the pursuit a shootout took place at Stringybark Creek. Three police officers were killed in the gun fight and the state responded by placing a bounty on the heads of the gang members. New laws were passed giving any citizen the authority to shoot the outlaws on sight.
Despite these incentives the gang stayed on the run for two years. The small famers that populated rural Victoria at the time were actually hugely sympathetic to the Kelly gang. For them the gang was an expression of their struggle against the rich landowners and the police who effectively acted as the squatters private security guards.
Poor farmers provided a support network for the gang. At the same time the gang robbed several banks and alongside using the money stolen to survive, they distributed cash to poor farmers who were in need. On occasion, after a bank heist, Kelly would burn the mortgage deeds that registered the debts of small farmers. It is for these reasons that Kelly is sometimes referred to as “Australia’s Robin Hood”.
Frustrated that the gang was developing a social base, the state introduced more new laws and rounded up anyone suspected of supporting the gang. All up 21 suspected supporters were locked up without charge at Beechworth Gaol. Many of Kelly’s relatives were also punished by being blacklisted from owning small selections of land and making a living.
In 1879 Kelly drafted a long manifesto known as the Jerilderie Letter. Written in Jerilderie, a town in New South Wales where the gang carried out a robbery, the colourful letter objects to the harassment of his family and rails against the police and the wealthy landowners. The letter denounced the role of the British Empire in Ireland and also proposed distributing wealth away from the rich land owners for the betterment of poor selector families.
The Kelly gang were eventually found in 1880 in the Victorian town of Glenrowan. Expecting a huge police mobilisation they conceived a plan to rip up the train tracks hoping to derail a train from Melbourne that was carrying police reinforcements. Their attempt at sabotage and ambush failed due to a tip off and subsequently a gun fight broke out at the local pub.
Reports state that the police officer in charge called upon Kelly to “surrender in the name of the Queen”. Kelly was heard to yell back “surrender be buggered”. In an act of defiance the gang came out of the pub wearing their now infamous metal armour and helmets. The huge police presence forced them to retreat back into the pub but a nine hour gun battle ensued.
Frustrated, the police eventually burnt the pub down killing Joe Byrne, Steve Hart and Dan Kelly. Ned Kelly managed to escape but was captured after another shoot out the next day.
Some argue that by the time of the Glenrowan siege Kelly and his supporters were actually on the verge of a more generalised armed uprising. According to some historians Kelly had a vision for a small farmer republic in the north east of Victoria that would have laid the basis for a more egalitarian way of life. While his intentions are somewhat unclear it’s possible that he saw the Glenrowan events as a type of trigger for a broader rebellion of the poor and oppressed.
Upon capture Ned Kelly was put on trial and found guilty of murder. At this stage he was still only 25 years old. Kelly was sentenced to death by hanging and was executed at the Melbourne Gaol on the 11th of November 1880. He was killed despite widespread public opposition which included a mass petition, protests and an 8000 strong public meeting in Melbourne.
The outpouring of anger at Kelly’s treatment was a reflection of the tough conditions faced by both poor selectors in the rural areas and the growing working class in places like Melbourne and Geelong. Kelly was seen as someone who stood on the side of the poor, and a champion of justice.
In this era workers in the cities were forming trade unions and winning shorter working hours. People were groping towards the idea of a better way of life. The establishment clearly feared that there was potential for the working class to coalesce around some of the rebellious ideals that Kelly was known for.
With this in mind they moved swiftly to quash Kelly and to make an example of him. By hanging him in the face of mass public opposition they hoped to send a message that any future acts of defiance would also be dealt with harshly.
While Kelly did not have a clear plan to affect social change by linking up with those radicalising in the urban centres, it must be remembered that Kelly lived in a period when Australian capitalism was still in its early stages of development. Trade unions were still relatively embryonic and workers had not yet moved towards creating their own independent political parties.
As has been seen elsewhere, in these types of conditions sometimes resistance to oppression and exploitation can take on a more individualistic form. Some have described this phenomena as ‘social banditry’. In the Australian context Ned Kelly the bushranger embodied a type of pre-historic social movement.
Kelly’s death really marked the end of the bushranging era in Australia and in the decades to follow trade unions developed further and the Labor Party was formed. Resistance to the established order took on a more powerful, and predominantly collective form. Basic socialist ideas and the conception that the urbanised working class could be the main agent of social change became more widely accepted.
Kelly was a man who was drawn into struggle by the oppressive circumstances his family faced. But rather than accepting his lot he chose to stand up and resist. While some of his ideas and methods were naive and confused, at base he saw himself as a fighter for the poor and oppressed.
Despite his shortcomings there is no doubt that Ned Kelly helped to set a tone in Australian working class culture. Many of the fighters for the poor and oppressed that came after him based themselves on his militancy and spirit of defiance. In many ways socialists today follow in the footsteps of Australia’s most famous rebel by continuing the fight for a society where the wealth created is used for the benefit the many rather than the few.
By Anthony Main
Excerpts from the Jerilderie letter
Making clear his opinions of the Victorian police:
“…the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed, big bellied, magpie legged, narrow hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police.”
On the question of wealth distribution:
“I would advise all those who joined the Stock Protection to withdraw their money and give it to the poor of Greta where, I have spent and will again spend many happy days fearless free and bold as it only aids the police to procure false witnesses to lag innocent men I would advise them to subscribe a sum and give it to the poor of their district…”
The final defiant lines of the letter state:
“Neglect this and abide by the consequences, which shall be worse than the rust in the wheat of Victoria or the druth of a dry season to the grasshoppers in New South Wales I do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning, but I am a Widow’s Son outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed.”