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Monday, June 6, 2011

Douglas Morrissey's Thesis - Chapter 4, Storekeepers, Millers and Farmers [Brian Stevenson]

 Note that this is the third 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

The fourth chapter of Douglas Morrissey's excellent 1987 thesis deals with the economic conditions faced by wheat farmers in the Kelly country, Greta, Glenrowan and Moyhu, during the 1870s, particularly after the arrival of the railway. While the subject matter is invariably a little dry compared to the usual colourful richness of the material surrounding the Kellys and their times, Morrissey is his usual thorough self with this chapter. He comes to some important conclusions which suggest that the lot of the wheat farmer, while never particularly easy, was bearable if said farmer was willing to take the bad seasons with the good, and work hard to overcome the problems.

The price of wheat fluctuated through the decade, of course, like every other commodity in every other decade. But because of the railway, farmers now had the important economic advantage of being able to sell directly, cash on delivery, meaning that they got their money more quickly than before. Lease mortgages were available for the farmers, but less than half of the farmers took up this option, and less than one-tenth needed another mortgage besides the lease mortgage option, suggesting that the times were no more or less benevolent than other decades.

A shadow was cast over the district by the bankruptcy of James Dixon, a Wangaratta councillor whose reckless trading in grain (and subsequent issuing of unsecured bills of exchange in place of cash to raise the wind) left him with many debtors and ruined many farmers. A meeting at the celebrated O'Brien's Hotel in Greta of Dixon's many creditors included the Whitty Family, Ned Kelly's Uncle Pat Quinn and some selector families who were later Kelly sympathisers. One unfortunate creditor, a very old resident named Jackson Orr, later drowned himself when he lost his life savings of three hundred pounds. The callous Dixon, on hearing the news, commented: 'Why when ... I lost nine thousand pounds a few years ago, I never thought of drowning myself.'

Many selectors, however, recovered, and besides Orr and two other selectors who also went insolvent, no other selector was fatally wounded economically by Dixon's rash business practices. One selector, James O'Brien, asked for more time to pay his rent, citing Dixon as the cause, but the government bailiff was unsympathetic, and suggested that he pay his arrears. Two years later, O'Brien was able to purchase the freehold to his property.

Ned Kelly's uncle, Pat Quinn sold his crop to Dixon on a three month bill of exchange that was never redeemed. He struggled for a time, defaulting on several rent payments prior to and immediately following his loss, but he almost doubled the area of his land that he had under cultivation between 1874 and 1877, obtaining the freehold to his selection in February 1879 - the month that his two nephews rode into Jerilderie.

Pat was not on his own. Seventy percent of selectors residing in the Greta and Glenrowan era eventually gained freehold title to their properties, suggesting that the Kelly family would have been better, in the very long term, to stick to farming rather than trading in the livestock, especially that of other people. (As it was, and this is just from memory, the surviving Kellys finally obtained the freehold to their land in 1892, with just one surviving son, who spent a few years of the years after 1880 in gaol instead of making the selection pay.)

Morrissey has an admiration for the selectors who he describes as 'on the whole, extremely hardy individuals, able physically and financially to withstand the trials and tribulations of farming life in the region.' To their own infinite cost, two of the Kelly brothers never joined that number, although a third one, eventually did so. That he survived them by over six and a half decades suggests that, even if it was a bit late, Jim Kelly had chosen the right path. It was one that Ned and Dan could so easily have followed.

The next installment in this series is now available at


  1. I am enjoying your "Cliff Notes" version of the Morrissey thesis. Even though I have it (courtesy of your good self) and have read the entire 250 plus pages of it, it is always nice to have someone summarize it and bring out points that I might have overlooked. I am sure others who have not been able to access the thesis are very grateful for the opportunity to find out what is in it, also. Oh, yes, for the record, you were very close with the year of 1892 as to when Ellen Kelly (in the words of John McQuilton) "alienated her selection," but it was actually 1893. Looking forward to future postings on Morrissey's thesis, lots of interesting stuff in there, such as in chapter 5 where we hear about Joseph Ashmead Junior (is this "our" Ashmead who wrote the narrative about the Kellys?) and his being "temporarily suspended from his preaching duties, until he had atoned for his 'sinful' ways" which are described therein!

  2. I need to retract that assertion that 1892 was not the year! I was going by what I read in McQuilton, but seems that Jones has it as "2 days before Christmas" of 1892. Well, it was close to '93! If I have learned anything about the Kellys it is that nearly every fact is different in different accounts! :)


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