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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Douglas Morrissey Thesis, Chapter 5, Part One [Brian Stevenson]

Note that this is the fourth installment in an ongoing series of chapter reviews of Doug Morrissey's 1987 thesis "Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves: A Social History of Kelly Country." The first part can be found at

This chapter of the wonderful Morrissey thesis is a long one, nearly fifty pages, so I will digest it in installments. I simply could not do it justice in one blog post.

Chapter 5 looks at the social order and authority in the Kelly country during the period of interest to us.

Of course, those in charge during this period were overwhelmingly British. Irish Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians and English and Welsh Protestants predominated in every way possible - in numbers, in influence and in authority. One angry 'representative' of a very small number of Irish Catholics would later make much of this in his so-called Jerilderie letter, but the overwhelming impression that Morrissey has is of harmony and homogeneity, based on the 'Britishness' of the residents of the district. English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish (of the Orange and the Green variety) all 'jealously guarded their respective identities, but had little difficulty in perceiving themselves as British.'

Curious as it may seem, many of the Irish in the district had no trouble reconciling the troubled past of their island with loyalty to the British Crown. As Morrissey puts it:

'Colonial Irishmen remembered Ireland's past vividly, and on purely tribal occasions ... denounced England's domination of their homeland. But they also saw themselves as loyal British subjects living in an enlightened age of human reform, and age which they believed would see the end of England's domination of Ireland and the eventual granting of Home Rule.'

Such denunciations, even though they were non-seditious, came from the most surprising of sources. Squatters James Whitty and Andrew Byrne (both mentioned by name in the Jerilderie letter, although Byrne - no relation to you-know-who - had his name rendered as 'Burns') had no trouble denouncing 'English landlords' before the meetings of the Irish National Land League, and dutifully pledging allegiance to the Crown on other occasions. It was simply what people have done many times before and since - not been satisfied with things as they were, but being respectful of the traditional institutions and realising that social change, no matter how desirable, was best implemented gradually and peacefully. And gradual the change it was, with Home Rule for Ireland eventually coming into being in 1921, a slow process but still within the lifetimes of many people who knew Ned Kelly.

British social homogeneity manifested itself in the most surprising forms in the Kelly Country during this period. Glasses were lifted to toast the Royal Family at the St Patrick's ball organised by the local Hibernian Society. Roman Catholics and Protestants helped each other with collecting funds for church buildings and schools. The Catholic Whitty children went to a school established by the Greta Primitive Methodist community. Jane Byrne and Kate Whitty - pleasant ladies, I am sure, but presumably not of the stuff of which the distaff side of fiery Irish nationalists were made - formed the Moyhu branch of the Victorian Native Ladies Land League, which quietly but firmly supported the Irish cause. The Whittys and the Byrnes, and numerous other families, squatter and selector, simply preferred to overlay their publicly declared loyalty to Ireland with due deference to the prevailing authority. As Morrissey puts it: 'Support for the Irish National Land League and Irish Home Rule were acceptable channels of protest, allowing colonial Irishmen to exercise their patriotism without losing their status as loyal British subjects.'

Where does the oft-mentioned but never really solidly evidenced Republic of Northeastern Victoria fit into all this? Nowhere, really. Morrissey tactfully puts the contention of those writers who accept the notion of a republic as 'being open to serious doubt.' Well aware of the perennial and inherent difficulty of proving a negative - ie that there were never any plans for a republic - Morrissey suggests that the aborted train wreck at Glenrowan was meant to be a prelude to a series of co-ordinated bank raids instead. Whatever the case, the 'strangely passive' group of sympathisers did not feel motivated enough, either by nationalism or financial gain, to assist the beleaguered Gang and instead stood by while it was destroyed. It's also worth noting that there was an absence of politically and/or racially motivated crime in the area which would be some sort of a vague bolster to the notion of a hypothesised republic.

I'll let Morrissey have the last word on the plans for a republic, which, if they ever had any existence at all, were:

'part of a local undercurrent which has left no trace ... The Kelly Outbreak and particularly its dramatic closing moments at Glenrowan, are not a sound basis upon which to assess thge loyalty and behaviour of the region's Irish settlers. The majority of Irish settlers, many of whom may have felt some sympathy for the outlaws, were not directly involved in Ned Kelly's rebellion. The Glenrowan episode represents a crisis in the Kelly Outbreak whch, if a republican conspiracy was being planned, indicates the extreme alienation of the Kelly Gang and its immediate sympathisers from their Irish Catholic neighbours in the region.'


  1. Just came across the blog - good to see it. My initial reaction is that if 70% of selectors achieved freehold then 30% didn't - which is a significant source of discontent in a community. It also needs to be pointed out that obtaining a freehold was in no way an indication that a selector had somehow 'arrived'. it gave some limited security - an asset to sell (but they could also sell their improvements when under licence), but if we look at their wills its obvious that they could still die very poor. The hard work of the selectors seems to have been of most benefit to their off-spring.
    Its also important to remember that in 1878 selectors didn't know that 70% were going to get their freehold. The undeniable active and tacit support for the Kellys - involving many very respectable members of the Lurg and Greta communities is best explained by some discontent with their situation.
    It seems to me important to identify what that discontent might have been

  2. What I don’t get is: if the explanation for the Kelly Outbreak is that the stock-theft industry threw up Kelly and supported him throughout his outlawry, and that this support was quite distinct from the sentiment of the broader selector class, then how-come no selector wanted to have a part of the enormous reward offered for information leading to Kelly’s capture? Only Jacob Wilson, Old Tom Lloyd’s neighbour comes forward. And Danish-born Jacob had all sorts of issues of his own. What of Owen Egan, the other neighbour of Old Tom Lloyd on the other side. Struggling to run a farm having lost his hand in an accident, unmarried with no ties, he could have returned to Ireland a prince with only a smidgen of the reward money. Instead, according to evidence in the Police Commission, he hid the Kellys’ harness in his barn when they visited the LLoyds and said nothing to the police. Why didn’t he take the money and run? Why didn’t any of the selectors in the Greta/Lurg district take the money and run? Everyone was terrified? I’ve never heard anyone quote any selector saying they feared being killed by the Kelly’s - except Jacob Wilson, and his testimony was poo-poohed by the police.The question still remains - why didn’t the anyone dob Kelly in?


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