For more information on Sharon Hollingsworth and Brian Stevenson please see the sidebar for the About Your Humble Bloggers link.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

(part 1) A Review of Ian MacFarlane's The Kelly Gang Unmasked [Brian Stevenson]

Ian MacFarlane, through the good offices of the Oxford University Press, has produced an important book, the first overt anti-Kelly monograph to appear for decades. Meticulously documented, the case against Ned Kelly and his cohorts is outlined in these pages, an antidote to the countless publications since 1929 that showed sympathy towards the outlaw. 
The creation of such a book was guaranteed to make the author unpopular, and it has. He has been slammed on several Kelly websites, with few voices raised in his defence. This book has been attacked in some quarters by people who boast – not that anyone should really care - that they have not read it and never will. Yet the same people admire Ned Kelly because he allegedly wanted a fair go for all! Such is the quality of the ‘debate’ and the tolerance of anti-Kelly viewpoints that prevails on some sites. Such is life, indeed.
Firstly, a note on methodology. After obtaining a copy of this book, I read it through quickly to get the broad picture. Then, I read it through very carefully a second time, making notes and checking reference sources as I went. My thoughts might not be of value to everyone, but I have done the author the courtesy of reading the volume. To those who feel compelled to comment, either with praise or condemnation, with authority on a book without reading it, I will quote the words of a famous judge and say: 'I will even give you credit for the skill that you assume.'

The author has been castigated for the book’s dependence on police and conservative newspaper sources. But the same level of vituperation is not levelled against pro-Kelly authors such as Ian Jones and Keith McMenomy, whose endnotes bristle with footnoting to the very same sources. It is insulting for lay people whose publishing efforts are meagre or non-existent to accuse MacFarlane of not knowing the limitations of archival sources when he has been working with those very same sources for over twenty years. It is similarly unfair to excoriate one writer for using police and newspaper sources and leave other writers who have done the same thing unscathed.

Here is some news for some people: not every police department document created in Victoria between 1869 and 1881 was concocted or doctored to discredit the Kellys. Have a look at the 1881 Royal Commission transcripts, readily available in a few places online, and you will see a government document largely consisting of the verbatim words of police, but aimed in half a dozen different and disparate directions at discrediting members of the police department. A key source, yes, but not a pro-police one, surely. 
Here is some more news: yes, the establishment newspapers (there were no other kind in 1878) were anti-Kelly. The Bulletin, not a newspaper but a somewhat anti-establishment weekly started in January 1880. While Kelly was alive they loathed him too. But it was not all one sided. As Ian Jones notes, the press were critical of the police as well. Some of the more liberal newspapers, while they never condoned the murder of police, were even capable of giving the Kellys a limited 'go' on occasion (see pages 152-154, 156-7 of A short life, 2003 edition.) After Euroa, the Age and, yes, even the ultra-conservative Argus, ‘reported, accurately enough, the glowing opinions [of the Euroa citizenry] of the Gang – especially of Ned, with high praise for his charm, good looks and horsemanship.’ (Jones, The friendship that destroyed Ned Kelly p 87.) And of course, in the weeks after Glenrowan the press applied the blowtorch to the police for their reckless endangerment of civilians during the siege. 

Further, the reportage of individuals such as Allen, McWhirter and Melvin at Glenrowan have left us with as detailed and interesting a description of any event in Australian history. We are forever in their debt. Would we really be without their work? Sure, police sources and newspapers tended to be weighted against the Kellys, but proficient researchers and historians realise this and take the subtleties (and the not-so-subtleties!) of the sources into account. They get on with the job and make judicious use of them without worrying about the sneers of those who appear incapable of similar discernment, let alone writing coherent and balanced sentences based on their research.

 This apart, MacFarlane, like other authors, makes much use of the words of Ned Kelly himself, both in his celebrated letters and his public utterances. Or, as the author puts it on page 231 ‘his blathering long-winded letters and occasional speeches that were filtered by his listeners and newspaper sub-editors.’
Now to the book! 
The Kelly Gang unmasked promises more than it delivers. While the publisher claims that within its pages, ‘the mythology created by pro-Kelly writers is critically explored, unravelled, and often found wanting’, and the author ‘spells out the case against Ned and his gang’, the end result, while impressive in some areas, is not a total success. I did learn some things from the book, however, and was reminded of the historian David McCullough’s recent comment that if you call yourself an expert on anything, sooner or later you will run into trouble. I also add that the book has left me, after nearly fifty years looking that this story, wanting to know still more. And is that not what all books are supposed to do? 

I will be looking at several aspects of this book in blog posts over the next few weeks, and the first one I want to cover is MacFarlane’s treatment of four key police identities who were involved with the Kelly pursuit, to all of their professional detriment. They are well known to most people who will be interested in reading this blog: Inspector Alexander Brooke Smith, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, Constable Thomas McIntyre and Constable Michael Ward. MacFarlane has tried to rehabilitate the reputations of all four, with varying degrees of success.
He states that the story that Brooke Smith confronted the Kelly girls with a threat to blow Ned ‘into pieces as small as the paper that is in our guns’ into paper is ‘easily disproved’ because the police of the time were then armed with Webleys that do not use paper cartridges. It disproves nothing of the sort: even if the threat was anachronistic it could still easily have been uttered. MacFarlane dispenses with the subject of Brooke Smith rather expeditiously in a couple of lines on page 157, leaving out any discussion of his well-documented procrastination, indecision and reticence-bordering-on-cowardice during the Kelly pursuit. You can read about them on pages 135 to 139 of A short life, 2003 edition. 
MacFarlane is not at all convincing when trying to get Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick off the hook. The usual litany of official attestations to Fitzpatrick’s generally poor qualities is recited here, with the suggestion that his experience at Eleven Mile Creek might have been a factor: ‘….who can say whether or not Fitzpatrick was traumatised by the attempt to murder him and whether later events flowed from such trauma? Any person shot at three times and surrounded by men with firearms would have found the experience unforgettable.’ Well, yes, but it is a pity that the shameful treatment of the very young Ned Kelly at the hands of the brutal Constable Edward Hall, well documented in police records, did not attract a similar level of compassion from the author. More than likely Ned felt that his experience was ‘unforgettable’ too, and it was certainly not one to endear members of the Victorian police force to him. Inconsistently, MacFarlane, while showing compassion of a sort to the execrable Fitzpatrick, does not even mention Hall’s physical attack on Ned, which resulted in severe physical trauma and subsequent incarceration, and was pretty close to attempted murder.  

                                                                                                                                                                                    MacFarlane seeks to bolster the case for Fitzpatrick by citing a 'hitherto unpublished document' from police archives which 'seems to support' the trooper's story. Fitzpatrick applied on 24 May 1878 for a new police jumper to replace the one damaged in the affray of 15 April and being held as evidence. MacFarlane reproduces his plaintive letter to the officer in charge at Beechworth. In his local paper, the Melton Weekly on 5 November 2012 he referred to the document as 'new evidence' but it is nothing of the sort. Ian Jones reproduced it in full in the 2003 edition of A short life (page 103, 2003 edition) and it is disappointing to see that this basic source was not consulted a little more carefully.
When Fitzpatrick was discharged from the force, he was, surprisingly, the subject of a petition from a hundred prominent citizens from the Lancefield district, where he was stationed and was said to be ‘zealous, diligent, obliging and universally liked.’ MacFarlane correctly records this inexplicable incident, which remains the only bright spot in a pretty sorry police career. Further evidence will have to emerge – from God knows where – and be utilized to convince me that Fitzpatrick’s conduct as a policeman could even be deemed satisfactory.
I have never had anything but pity and regard for Constable Thomas McIntyre, who despite a terrible and traumatic experience held himself together for long enough to endure innumerable questionings and to remain in the police force until his friends were avenged. But before I read this book, I was less than enamoured with the way in which his story, particularly with regard to the death of Lonigan apparently changed. MacFarlane uses examples to show the cautious way in which he gave his numerous accounts of the Stringybark tragedy, showing, again with examples, that in almost all respects they were much more consistent than inconsistent.

The major ‘inconsistency’ and the most controversial occurred when McIntyre told Sadleir that Lonigan had been behind a log preparing to fire at Ned when the trooper received his mortal wound. This was despite his previous and first account of 27 October 1878 that Lonigan never succeeded in getting his gun out. He adhered to this version every other time that he told it for the record, except for the time he told the story to Sadleir.

According to Sadleir’s 1913 account, he interviewed McIntyre on 28 October 1878, two days after the shootings. (Jones, however, implies that this meeting took place on 29 October on page 386 of A short life, 2003 edition.) But MacFarlane provides documentation for the movements of both men on 28 October showing that a meeting between the pair on this date was extremely unlikely. He further suggests that Sadleir made a grievous error in his reminiscences and used Ned’s account of Lonigan’s death instead of McIntyre’s. 

While the idea at first seems outrageous, the alternative is to accept that McIntyre told one version on 27 October, and then, for no apparent reason, gave Sadleir a second version on 28 (or maybe 29) October that placed Ned Kelly in a somewhat more favourable light. He then adhered to the first version every other time he told it. There seems no good reason for McIntyre to have given Sadleir, his superior officer, a version different from the one he gave to everyone else. Much more likely, it is entirely possible that Sadleir, thirty-five years after the event, simply used the account of the wrong man. I believe this is far more likely than Ian Jones's suggestion that Sadleir included this version of Lonigan's death in his 1913 reminiscences as a sop to his conscience and was relieved when no one noticed.
To my great surprise, Detective Ward, long regarded as one of the most odious and oleaginous characters in the Kelly saga, emerges from this book as the possible victim of some unfounded local scuttlebutt. To Kelly enthusiasts, Ward is well known as a serial seducer and impregnator of young country girls. We will never know for sure, and these oral traditions are pervasive, but the hard evidence is extremely weak. MacFarlane traces the stories to the original source – the testimony of that least trustworthy of police informers, James Wallace, who Standish described as a ‘treacherous pedagogue.’ Wallace gave evidence regarding Ward’s moral turpitude at the 1881 Royal Commission, stating that Ward had several illegitimate children. The statement was recycled by early Kelly supporter, J J Kenneally, in his book on the Gang, first published in 1929 and reprinted numerous times. Ward was questioning Wallace at the time Wallace made this declaration which Kenneally quoted. But Kenneally left out Ward’s subsequent questioning. Wallace, after repeated interrogation and challenges from Ward said that he was unable to give the name of one person who could substantiate the rumours. Whatever Ward was guilty of, the source of the rumours was unable or unwilling to provide substantiation, even though – or, perhaps, because he was – under oath. It is also interesting, albeit in the category of circumstantial evidence that the twice-married Ward never had any legitimate children. It is entirely possible that the rumours that he fathered illegitimate ones were, as MacFarlane terms them, ‘wicked lies.’ 

As I said at the onset of this review, this is an important book for Kelly Gang followers no matter what their take on the episode is. I will be examining MacFarlane's thoughts on the rumoured 'republic' in a further post on this blog.

Part 2 of this 3 part review has now been added at

Note: As a reminder, this review was written by my co-blogger Brian Stevenson. It  merely says "posted by Sharon Hollingsworth" because I loaded it for him as he has been having technical trouble on the site. Just wanted to head off any possible confusion.


  1. Great review. I look forward to reading more.


  2. An excellent start Brian. This is the sort of review the Book needs and of course there will be places where it will reflect the bias of the author - that is to be expected. I am really looking forward to your next few posts.

  3. Well done Brian, just what is needed, an impartial eye reviewing this book. I’m looking forward to the next parts.

    Brian McDonald

  4. Thank you Sharon for posting Brian Stevenson's excellent book review -NK Unmasked by Ian MacFarlane.

    I have said it before and will say it again, it is an important book for all Kelly people to read.


All comments will be reviewed by the administrator before being published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.