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Topic

The Ned Kelly saga was more than a story about a single outlaw; rather it needs to be seen as a social phenomenon involving the participation of a large number of supporters and sympathisers. What explanations can be given for the 'Kelly outbreak'?

Essay

The Kelly outbreak is a famous phenomenon in Australia's colonial history. Whilst some people prefer to see the outbreak as a simple criminal incident between an outlaw and the police, most historians view it as a broader sociological phenomenon, involving conflict between a larger rural community and the colonial authorities.

An important issue for historians has been to understand the underlying causes of this criminal outbreak, whether it was mainly due to personal, ethnic or socio-economic factors. This essay will critically examine each of these explanations and argue that the actions of the Kellys and their supporters, and the reactions of the police can best be understood in terms of broad socio-economic developments in rural Victoria at the time.

In his article, Ned Kelly's Sympathisers, Doug Morrissey suggests that Kelly's Irish heritage was largely responsible for the Kelly outbreak 1. To support his claim, he points to the intense emotional relationships in the Quinn/Kelly clan and the high percentage of Irish sympathisers among Ned's supporters 2.

Ned Kelly was clearly imbued with a sense of his Irish heritage, but the evidence does not suggest that this was a major contributing factor in the outbreak. Public sympathy, it seemed, crossed social and ethnic barriers 3 and was quite widespread, especially after the Euroa National Bank robbery, where the efficiency, lack of violence and manner of the gang were well noted 4. Furthermore, Ned once stated that he considered himself an Australian rather than an Irishman, and his lifestyle, and his concern with local issues shown in his letters lend credence to this statement 5.

Angus McIntyre, another Kelly historian, suggests two causes for the outbreak: vengeance for the harsh sentence given to Ned's mother on a charge of aiding and abetting an attempted murder, and Ned's self-centredness 6. According to McIntyre, Ned had delusions of grandeur and considered himself capable of any feat. McIntyr attributes the great loyalties Ned inspired as well as his eventual downfall to this 'grandiose' image he had of himself 7.

There appears to be some merit in this interpretation. After his father's death in 1866, Ned Kelly became the male head of the family, at the age of twelve 8. He would surely have had a great understanding of his mother's problems in coping with a large and poor family, and this may explain his reverence for her. The Kelly brothers were also members of the Greta Mob. The mobs were gangs of native-born youths from various areas in the north-east region, most of whom migrated seasonally to the Riverina, earning good money from shearing. They were, according to contemporary observers, 'flash', 'larrikin' and 'displayed a disregard for authority' 9. Ned Kelly was held in high esteem by his fellows as he excelled in most of their activities - marksmanship, bushcraft, fighting and perhaps the most important pursuit of all lampooning authority. This may have been the basis for Ned's alleged 'elevated conception of his powers' 10.

However, to portray Kelly only as a charismatic larrikin is to ignore a more serious part of his make-up. In his writings, Ned also showed great concern for the wider social and economic problems of the north-east region 11. I am not sure that the man Dr. McIntyre describes would have shown such concern. Mrs. Kelly's arrest, conviction and sentence - based on, at best very confusing evidence - may have provided the impetus for the outbreak, but there appear to be more substantial reasons why a significant part of the community lent its support to the Kelly cause. McIntyre's analysis may help to explain why it was Ned himself who led the uprising - and not somebody else - but fails to take account of the fact that it was such a widespread social phenomenon.

John McQuilton argues that the outbreak was the result of economic and social ills prevalent in the region and that given such conditions was virtually inevitable 12. In particular McQuilton focuses on the dramatic changes in technology, in land use systems and in social systems that occurred during this period. These changes, he argues, could not fail to produce 'profound results', one of which was an outbreak of social banditry 13 . Evidence from the period strongly supports such a view.

The region was first occupied by squatters during the late 1830s and 1840s, and was largely settled by 1847. By 1850, several villages were established, there were good seasons and high wool prices .... 14

Between 1860 and 1880 several land reform laws were introduced, intended to halt the monopoly of the squatters by creating a new rural class from the diggers - now experiencing diminishing returns on the goldfields. These laws made available small freeholds of pastoral land for 'selection' by any man or (single) woman over the age of eighteen.... 15

This effort to make land available to the new rural classes proved a failure however. The government's and the selectors' knowledge of agriculture, shaped by the European experience, proved largely to be inapplicable to Australia .. 16

In addition, selection was opposed and obstructed by the squatters who used their superior knowledge of land conditions, political and financial influence, and evasion of certain regulations of the Land Acts to amass large holdings of premium land, leaving poorer land to selectors. ... 17

This situation caused hardship and poverty among selectors, and stock theft became an increasing problem as the selectors sought to supplement meagre food supplies and income with stock stolen from squatters ...

Police inefficiency, corruption and harassment of selectors, and harsh treatment from magistrates, who were often themselves squatters heightened the antagonism ... 18

The social atmosphere in the district at the time of the Kelly outbreak was one of bitternes and turbulence ... As McQuilton 19 argues, the outbreak needs to be seen as an extreme manifestation of the squatter/selector conflict based on unequal distribution of rural resources. ...

To conclude, the Kelly outbreak cannot be understood without examining the social and political events which preceded it. The land acts of the 1860s, the reaction of the squatters, the Government's and selectors' ignorance of the regional landscape caused widespread poverty among the selectors. The new set of mores that emerged, in which the stealing and borrowing of squatters' stock was accepted and even condoned, brought the selectors into direct conflict with the police, who often acted as the squatters' men. This produced a social structure in which the squatters and selectors were directly opposed. These events can be seen as the underlying cause of the Kelly outbreak.


1Doug Morrisey: 'Ned Kelly's Sympathisers', Historical Studies, Vol 18, no 71 October 1978, pp. 290- 291.

2Ibid, p.295

3The Age , 19 November, 1878.

4McQuilton, J. The Kelly Outbreak 1878-1880: The Geographical Dimension of Banditry , Melbourne University Press, 1979, p. 188.

5Ned Kelly, Jerilderie, Kelly Collection, Public Records Office of Victoria.

6Angus McIntyre, 'Ned Kelly, A Folk Hero', in John Carroll, ed. Intruders in the Bush, Melbourne, Oxford University Press. 1982, pp 38-53.

7Ibid, p. 38.

8McQuilton, op. cit. p. 75.

9Ibid, p55.

10McIntyre, op.cit. p38.

11Ned Kelly, Jerilderie, Kelly Collection, Public Records Office of Victoria.

12McQuilton, op.cit.

13Ibid, p. 4.

14Ibid p. 11.

15Geoffrey Searle, The Golden Age, Melbourne University Press 1963, ch. 9.

16I.D. McNaughton, 'Colonial Liberalism 1852-92', in Gordon Greenwood, ed. Austral , Angus and Robertson, Sydney., 1955, pp 118-119.

17Searle op.cit. ch. 10.

18McQuilton, op. cit. ch. 3

19Ibid

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