Rethinking Ned Kelly

by Doug Morrissey

The Ned Kelly legend has, in fact, been wholly consumed the flesh and blood man. Ned has become a potent symbol of rebellion, a suit of armour brandishing a revolver or two. His famous last words, 'Such Is Life' are emblazoned on people’s minds and often on their bodies as well. Former AFL player Ben Cousins has Such Is Life tattooed across his midriff and the motif is a favourite with bikie gangs and other rebellious Australians.


The Kelly myth blames police harassment for Ned’s life of crime, bushranging and murder.

Corrupt police and nasty squatters are the villains of the piece making life intolerable for everybody. England has oppressed the Irish and needs to be punished. Ned takes up the gun in defence of his persecuted family. Constable Fitzpatrick molests Kate Kelly. Three policemen are murdered at Stringybark Creek.


Ned Kelly the Bushranger, SLV H2013.36/25

Two banks are robbed and, in true Robin Hood style, Ned destroys bank records to protect poor farmers. Ned’s rebellion soon becomes a grass roots movement with Ned, the people’s hero, morphing into a revolutionary leader. He begins his revolutionary struggle by planning to wreck a train and slaughter its passengers. Waiting in the wings is full scale insurrection and a Kelly Republic.


The truth is Ned and his relatives came to the attention of the police because of their horse and cattle stealing ways and rowdy shanty lifestyle. Ned’s mother Ellen ran a sly grog shanty and meeting place for ne’er do wells, welcoming into the Kelly household all manner of lawbreakers.

The Kellys at Euroa: Younghusbands station -- Demanding refreshments -- The prison -- A new rig out -- Cutting the telegraph wire -- The bank -- Prisoners from the bank -- Sticking up the bank. These engravings document the events which took place at Faithfull's Creek Station near Euroa owned by Younghusband and Lyell of Melbourne. The Kelly Gang locked 22 people in the station storeroom, described here as "The Prison", and then went on to rob the Euroa bank. SLV Image IAN27/12/78/216

Ned was the leader of the Greta Mob, a gang of professional horse thieves who wore distinctive larrikin clothes and ridiculed law abiding people as 'Mugs'. They called themselves 'Snobs' and spent most of their time drinking and fighting in pubs and shanties.

Ned and his horse and cattle stealing friends hated the police, who put a law and order curb on their reckless larrikin and criminal behaviour. The police harassment they complained of was police surveillance of known felons and came about because of their lawbreaking activities.

The Kellys' visit to the police station, Jerilderie, NSW. SLV IAN21/02/79/17

The 'Mugs' residing in the Greta and Glenrowan community were not habitual criminals nor were they Kelly sympathisers. They were a silent majority of honest, hardworking men and women with a strong belief in traditional values and a burning desire to make a bright future for their families on the land.

Like all pioneers they endured hard times and cash was in short supply. Nevertheless, these decent living farming families were not the despairing wretches and down and outs of popular myth. Most survived the harsh rigours of the pioneer life and went on to prosper. For the majority of Greta and Glenrowan farmers there was no widespread culture of poverty, no anger-filled alienation from the political process and no pervasive climate of fear and desperation advocated by the Kelly myth as contributing causes of the Kelly Outbreak.

Contrary to the colonial horror story of social and political dislocation portrayed by the Kelly myth, a cooperative spirit prevailed throughout the Greta/Glenrowan community. Without it schools, churches, clubs, ploughing matches, sports, picnics and the infrastructure of pioneer community life would not have flourished. The Greta and Glenrowan community divide was not between despotic policemen and evil squatters on one side and the rest of the community on the other. It was a community divide between a respectable law abiding majority and a predatory lawless criminal minority.

Things were different in the countryside than they were in sectarian Melbourne; race and religion played no part in this divide or in the Kelly Outbreak. Whitty and Byrne who Ned complains so bitterly about in the Jerilderie Letter (1879) were respected community leaders; staunchly Irish, staunchly Catholic and strong defenders of the rights of the very people Ned is supposed to have been fighting for.

Whether Catholic or Protestant, law-abiding Greta and Glenrowan residents saw their community through a different set of eyes than the lawless Kellys and their accomplices. The largest concentration of Primitive Methodists in the whole of the north east was located at Greta. These were strong minded religious people who neither drank alcohol, gambled, danced or used profanity. Every Sabbath was spent in collective prayer and Bible reading. Two or three times a week, many Greta Protestants travelled to adjoining communities to participate in religious services. Hardly, the type of people one would associate with horse and cattle stealing or expressing sympathy and support for criminals.

The Catholic community, less hardnosed in its attitude to pub drinking, gambling and the use of profanity, was just as disdainful of the Kelly family’s criminal ways. Liking a drink, gambling and sharing a common racial and religious heritage was not enough to make law-abiding Irish Catholics side with the Kelly Gang. Crime and participation in crime, was the decisive factor that separated respectable Irishmen from their shanty culture brethren. Unlike Ned whose Irish patriotism was rhetorical and bombastic, the Whitty and Byrne families organised public meetings and collected money for Irish charitable and political causes. Whitty and Byrne clearly walked the walk, whereas Ned and his relatives only talked the talk.

Murderous attack on Victorian police by Kelly and his gang: the attack on Sergeant Kennedy and Constables Lonigan and Scanlan by the Kelly gang in the Wombat Ranges in the King River district. SLV IAN28/11/78/193

The deeper one looks into the social and cultural life of the small rural community of Greta and Glenrowan, the more obvious it becomes that the Kelly myth version of the Ned Kelly story is a fabrication, a distortion of the truth of how people lived their lives.

Respectable law-abiding people - Ned’s victims - who daily suffered from his bullying threats and larrikin behaviour as a horse thief, would not look to Ned, an outlaw and murderer, to set them free from imaginary chains of oppression.

The capture of Ned Kelly: Shows Sergeant Steele of the Victorian Police and another man struggling with the fallen Ned Kelly, Glenrowan, 1880. SLV IAN03/07/80/105

It is time we put aside the Ned Kelly; time we acknowledged Ned for the career criminal and all-round bad guy he was; time we discarded unsubstantiated myths and looked elsewhere for our national heroes.


The Author: Dr Doug Morrisey has had a long-term interest in the Ned Kelly story, completing honours and PhD theses on aspects of the Kelly era, under the supervision of historian, the late Dr John Hirst, who also edited and introduced Dr Morrissey's recently published book, Ned Kelly: a lawless life.

Heritage News

Upcoming Events

Heritage Book Releases