This is part two of a three part review by Brian Stevenson of Ian MacFarlane's 'The Kelly Gang Unmasked.' Part one can be read at
THOUGHTS ON THE REPUBLIC FROM IAN MACFARLANE'S 'THE KELLY GANG UNMASKED' AND FROM ME TOO
Although we are a young country in terms of European settlement, tantalizing myths that are unverified (but not unverifiable) abound and there is always much speculation surrounding them. The Mahogany Ship is one, Lasseter’s Reef is another, but the one keen followers of this blog are most concerned with is the suggestion that Ned Kelly had the dream of establishing a Republic of North-eastern Victoria.
Ian MacFarlane has produced the most convincing refutation of all in his work The Kelly Gang unmasked. It won’t set the myth to rest, but he advances several arguments which combined make a strong case against Kelly ever having such an aim, or even an idea. Although his book is imperfect in many other ways, his arguments in this section of the book are compelling. In this blog post, I will be outlining MacFarlane’s arguments here and supplementing them with more than a few thoughts of my own.
I do not know where the story of the proposed Republic originated, although in a lecture on the Republic the late John Phillips says it is mentioned in a 1920s issue of the ‘magazine’, Irish times. The Irish times is actually a newspaper, but the point is moot because Phillips does not give a date or elaborate on what it says. The lecture, ‘The North-Eastern Republican Movement–Myth or Reality?’ is available online. Phillips, who wrote a book on Ned’s trial, admits the documentary evidence is ‘sparse’ and says that interested parties should draw their own conclusions. Somehow Max Brown, author of the 1948 biography of Ned, Australian son, picked up the story and claimed, without giving his source, that the police had found a declaration of said Republic in Ned’s pocket when he was captured. But even he referred to it, on page x (ie, Roman numeral x) of the 1986 edition of his book, as part of the legend.
MacFarlane is sceptical of all aspects of the proposed republic. Had the ‘declaration’ ever been produced the point would have been settled beyond all possible doubt, but it never has, beyond an alleged sighting in 1962, discussed below. It was not that MacFarlane believes, as one forum participant has suggested, that ‘Ned wouldn’t be smart enough to understand something like that.’ It is just that MacFarlane shows understandable reluctance to believe in a document that was not even mentioned till at least forty years after it was supposedly created, and has never been produced for examination.
Ian Jones is, of course, the most enthusiastic advocate of the republic thesis, first in a seminar paper in 1967 and then in A short life and The friendship that destroyed Ned Kelly. His primary source was Tom Lloyd Junior, who Jones interviewed in 1964. Mr Lloyd claimed that minutes of meetings discussing the republic were recorded in exercise books. MacFarlane commented (p 208): ‘His boyhood memories were of a superior kind if he understood what a republic and minutes of meetings were.’ But the point is made also that although their continued existence is alluded to up to this day (even in a 2007 private email to the present writer), no one has ever produced the exercise books. Further, as MacFarlane says (p 12) of Jones’s interviews with Lloyd and others: ‘[W]e do not know what has said at the interviews. They have never been published or even quoted to support any of the assertions made.’ Jones himself (The friendship that destroyed Ned Kelly: Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt, p 224) admits that the other interviewees on the republic ‘confirmed some details, [and] challenged others’ so even from this highly respected source there is no cohesive and consistent story, let alone documentation of same.
This apart, I’m wondering why anyone felt the need to record these meetings much in the same way as those of the local cricket club. Did the fugitives have a chairman to keep the meetings in order, a secretary to handle correspondence as well? Were motions moved and disallowed, rejected or carried? I can’t imagine the horse-mad, slow speaking Steve Hart, the quarrelsome ruffian Wild Wright and the quiet Dan Kelly, (who like Hart never lived to be old enough to vote) contributing too much to discussions aimed at creating a new political system. I’m also remembering that in one of his accounts of Stringybark Creek, McIntyre noted with Victorian delicacy that words like ‘fellow’ and ‘man’ did not seem to be in the vocabulary of his captors, so let us hope that the minutes were not verbatim. In his biography of Ned, John Molony carried it even further by saying that David Gaunson, a member of the Victorian parliament, and later Ned’s counsel attended some meetings. Even Ian Jones, in the discussion after John McQuilton’s paper ‘Ned Kelly: Social Bandit or Rural Criminal?’ at the 1993 Ned Kelly: man and myth symposium said of Gaunson’s possible involvement: ‘I find that hard to accept, frankly.’
Jones sees the presence of armed groups of men at Glenrowan as some kind of verification that an armed rebellion with a republic in mind was in the offing. He grandiosely refers to Ned as ‘the man who brought an unimaginable concept so close to reality’ (A short life, 2003 edition, p 192.) Actually, it missed by miles – like nearly all unimaginable concepts. MacFarlane also notes the reported sightings of the armed men, but says of the vagueness and disparate nature of such reports:‘[I]f there were sympathizers present or nearby, they were not an organized force.’ The oral traditions that Jones heard over eighty years after the events were very vague, even with regard to numerical estimates, which ranged from 30 to 150 though Jones somehow settled on around 50 (The friendship that destroyed Ned Kelly, p 229). We will never know exactly who showed up to Glenrowan with weapons or why, so MacFarlane’s suggestion that some of them were there in the hope of doing something or other that would entitle them to a share of the reward can’t be ruled out. Or perhaps they were, as he also suggests, ‘rubberneckers’ (his word.)
What we do know is that unless you count the aid of James Kershaw and others, who helped Ned to put on his armour, no sympathiser provided assistance once the firing started, seriously calling their commitment to the proposed republic into question. Jones tells us that in the last minutes of Joe Byrne’s life he called to the McAuliffe brothers, also in the Glenrowan Hotel, to help him. One of them replied, but no help came (Jones, A short life p 228.) The two McAuliffes were briefly handcuffed and held after they left the hotel, but even on that impassioned day, the police had no interest in detaining them, although the Chief Commissioner of Police, Frederick Standish had identified one of them as the most dangerous of the sympathisers (MacFarlane, p 14.) If a republic was mooted clearly it does not seem that the McAuliffes were keen on helping with its establishment. Nor did the police view them as incendiaries or potential revolutionaries.
All this rather begs the question of why, if armed men had assembled for the purpose, not one of them came to Ned’s aid. According to Mr Lloyd Jr, Ned turned away the sympathisers who waited a distance from the hotel. Ian Jones explained his action: ‘a true revolutionary would always be prepared to sacrifice lives, but Ned lacked the ruthlessness to follow such a path, even if it led to victory’ (A short life, p 225.) Jones forgets that if Glenrowan had been a victory for Ned and there had subsequently been an armed rebellion, the lives of sympathisers engaging in confrontation would be at risk too. Further, he benevolently overlooks Ned’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of railway personnel with whom he had no quarrel. Many people would see this as collateral damage in a ‘war’ with the police and use this as an excuse. But an indication of Ned Kelly’s unalloyed viciousness comes from the unlikely source of John Stanistreet, the Glenrowan station master. At 4:30 pm on the Sunday afternoon, when the police train was hours overdue and looked as if it would not come, Stanistreet asked Ned if the rails could be replaced so that the normal Monday morning passenger train would not be wrecked and ordinary civilians and railway personnel would not be killed. Kelly refused (Ian W Shaw, Glenrowan p 95.) Kelly lacked many things, but ruthlessness was not one of them. It is hard to see how allowing a civilian train to be wrecked would win adherents for his republican cause. One of his close friends, Jack McMonigle, had been appalled by the Stringybark Creek murders and had sent word to the Kelly family that he wanted nothing to do with them (A short life p 160.) We can only wonder how the good-hearted rural folk of north-eastern Victoria would have reacted to the wholesale and random slaughter of innocents that Ned Kelly was willing to let take place.
Apart from the lack of documentary evidence, and the inaction of armed sympathisers (if that was what they were) at Glenrowan, MacFarlane also argues that Kelly’s actions, writings and orations showed no interest in a republic.
Kelly expended a great deal of energy in writing to parliamentarian Donald Cameron after Cameron asked a question in Parliament about the ‘scandalous’ conduct of the police pursuit. Although it was, as Ian Jones noted ‘a routine attempt to embarrass the government’ Kelly was naïve and probably egotistical enough to see Cameron as a likely sympathetic channel for his views, and perhaps even a possible ally. As we all know, Cameron could not distance himself from Kelly and his manifesto quickly enough. Kelly simply did not grasp that Parliament, then as now, is the venue for those opposed to the government to call its competence into question on any issue whatsoever, and that a great many parliamentary questions are asked for no reason other than this. This fundamental point was lost on Ned. As MacFarlane puts it: ‘None of Ned’s letters– including the one he sent to Cameron – indicate that he had the faintest grasp of political shenanigans (p 211.)
Nor did, in MacFarlane’s view, Ned’s writings indicate anything in the way of a republican sentiment. The Cameron and Jerilderie letters ‘were floods of words– of invective, hatred, excuses and threats. But there was no mention of a republican outcome … there is no mention in any of his letters of a platform of reforms and initiatives to better the lives of the inhabitants of Victoria’s north-east (pp 208-209.’
Years before MacFarlane wrote his book, Ian Jones stated explicitly (A short lifep 200-201) that Ned and Joe Byrne ‘drew up a Declaration of the Republic of Victoria’ describing it as a ‘manifesto foreshadowed in the Jerilderie Letter and probably incorporating some of its wild rhetoric.’ But Jones continues that, although some copies ‘were printed in the form of handbills’ none can be traced. A printed one may or may not have been displayed in the Public Record Office in London in 1962 but defied all efforts to find it seven years later, and a handwritten copy is hidden away with ‘some letters from a girl and a handkerchief.’ Hard historical evidence this is not and it seems that Jones has never seen the Declaration.
As he could not quote directly from the ‘Declaration’ Jones (p 201) quoted some of Ned’s purported republican sentiments from the Jerilderie letter. But there is little republicanism, or any political ideology (except a sort of rustic, blunt and in places brutal totalitarianism) in these extracts. Anybody assisting the police ‘in any way whatever’ is to be ‘declared unfit to be allowed human burial.’ People who have joined the Stock Protection Society (formed by those who had the temerity to organise against the depredations of stock thieves such as Kelly) are to be compelled to give all their money to the poor. Anyone who has reason to fear Ned is to leave Victoria or ‘abide by the consequences, which shall be worse than the rust in the wheat in Victoria or the druth of a dry season to the grasshoppers in New South Wales.’ Best of all, the well known final touch ‘I am a widow’s son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed.’
One is left to wonder how much of this Ned expected to be taken seriously. I suspect he would be highly amused that all these years later people with ten times his education are in awe of his writings, even though the republican sentiments are less in line with those of Thomas Jefferson and more in line with those of the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea.
MacFarlane also picks up the point that no republican themes or sentiments emerged in the speeches Ned made that have been recorded. ‘He was an indiscreet and chatty speaker, yet he never once mentioned a republic as being among his plans (p 210).’ In his last speech at Glenrowan before the arrival of the police train, quoted copiously in the Argus of 30 June 1880, Ned ranged far and wide with his captive audience but said nothing about his ambitions for a republic. He talked about how Aaron Sherritt had been shot as a traitor and he wanted Ward, the trackers, O’Connor and Hare killed after which, in his words: ‘I would feel easy and contented.’ He added menacingly: ‘And if I ever hear of any of you giving the police any information about us I will shoot you down like dogs.’
As MacFarlane notes (pages 15 to 17) the last part of Ned Kelly’s last oration was a curious one and did not touch on the subject of a republic. Prompted by the sight of a platelayer named Denis Sullivan, Kelly went into a strange and obsessive tirade about his hatred for Joseph Sullivan, a New Zealand murderer who had cheated the gallows by informing on his companions some years before. The munificent Ned offered eight thousand pounds for information on where Sullivan could be found, and a similar amount for the whereabouts of Quinlan, who had shot bushranger Dan Morgan at Peechelba Station over fifteen years before. He then went on with a rambling tale about how the Gang took over Jerilderie almost on impulse after pursuing trails leading to Sullivan in Rutherglen, Uralla and then Wagga before coming to Jerilderie. Ned concluded his anti-Sullivan tirade by saying ‘I’d follow him to England if I thought he was there, because –‘: but whatever reason or reason he was going to advance was lost to posterity forever when the train arrived.
If the fracas at Glenrowan was meant as a preliminary to an armed rebellion aimed at forming a republic, its leader did not mention this in the last speech that he made as a free man. Rather, his words dripped with hatred and venom at his enemies, as well as Joseph Sullivan, who, deplorable creature as he was, had never done Ned any harm. Strange choices of topic indeed.
Naturally, nothing came out about the republic at Kelly’s trial. Ned spent his last days dictating letters to the Governor. His letter of 5 November said that he hoped to ‘take possession of the train Horses and every thing [sic]’ and rob the banks along the train line. He also claimed that he wanted Curnow to claim the reward as he(Ned) had heard it was to be done away with in three days ‘so you can see from the above it was not my intention of upsetting the Train for the Purpose of killing the Police.’ Ian Jones, ever charitable, sees this letter as‘an aberration of the moment’ (A short life pp 280-281.) Kelly’s last letter on 10 November is just as out of touch with the real world, saying once more that if a civilian claimed the reward in the circumstances the police ‘would not interfere with me until such times as there was another Reward issued and if they did not give the Reward to the man that Claimed it no person would inform on me again.’ Jones, stretching a long bow yet again, suggested that Kelly ‘may have concocted it to divert attention from the true strategy and intention of the Glenrowan campaign and so protect those loyal followers who, knowingly or not, had prepared to join the Gang in Murder and High Treason (A short life p 284.) But it seems far more likely to have been aimed at convincing the authorities that his plan was to capture the train, not wreck it. It is hard to see this in turn as anything but an attempt at improving his non-existent chances of at least having his sentence commuted.
So there we have it, an examination of the reasons why some believe that an armed conflict at Glenrowan, which went so hideously wrong for the provokers, was meant to be the first act in a series of events that, it was hoped, to culminate in the establishment of an Australian republic. But I’ll ask those who sincerely believe to ask themselves a couple of questions.
If there were written materials on the establishment of a republic why have they never been published, produced, quoted from or otherwise shown to exist anywhere except in the sparsely outlined reminiscences of several old-timers which don’t even tally with each other? If the armed men at Glenrowan were there in preparation for the rebellion, why did they not intervene? At almost any stage of the battle, thirty men could have made a big difference to the final outcome, and there were allegedly any number up to 150 there. Yet they were not even organized enough to watch for the arrival of the train, let alone to stop teacher Thomas Curnow from warning it.
If Ned Kelly was interested in the establishment of a republic, why is there no mention of it in either of his letters or any of his speeches, including the final ‘lecture’ at Glenrowan at a time when the Ned of Ian Jones’s creation would surely have felt that the actualization of his dream was imminent? In his last days, with his letters to the Governor of Victoria, his ‘interview’ with his legal representative David Gaunson in the Age of 9 August 1880, and even his argument with Judge Barry as the sentence of death was pronounced, Ned tried tirelessly to give himself and his life some sort of credibility, some sort of legitimacy and probably even some sort of respectability. He seemed hopeful of an enduring place in our history, and said ‘If my life teaches the public that men are made mad by bad treatment … my life will not be entirely thrown away.’ Yet he never once mentioned or even hinted at his supposed plans for a republic which could have provided at least some mitigation for his actions. Even the greatest of Kelly biographers, and the greatest proponent of the republic theory Ian Jones concedes that Ned’s ‘clearest reference to his vision for the north-east’ came with his remark to Constable Bracken: ‘They are all damned fools to bother their heads about Parliament for this is our country (A short life p 219.)’ Hardly an unambiguous indication of republican ambition, methinks, and an echo of his remark to Scott, the bank manager at Euroa: ‘Oh, the country belongs to us. We can go where we like (A short life p 153.)’
One further question that no one seems to have asked: why there no mention of republican plans in the first major pro-Kelly Gang work by James Jerome Kenneally, The complete and inner history of the Kelly Gang and their pursuers? In the course of his research Kenneally, a journalist, Labor party activist and union organizer gained the confidence of many in the north-east of Victoria, notably Tom Lloyd Senior. The book was first published in 1929, two years after Tom Lloyd’s death. Ian Jones correctly describes the work as ‘combining deft use of Royal Commission evidence with oral tradition, much of it drawn from Tom Lloyd.’ The book is fervently pro-Kelly, but there is no mention of any republican plan, surely something that Kenneally, given his political leanings, would have utilized to the maximum to legitimize the actions of his hero. On republican matters, this book is silent. The book went through seven or so editions and stayed in print for fifty years. Kenneally died in 1949, three years after the last major participant in the drama, Jim Kelly and long after anyone could possibly have gotten into trouble for seditious actions nearly seventy years before. But still, no republic.
MacFarlane does, however, have a suggestion as to why the republican theory has gained such credence in recent decades. Unlikely as it may seem, his line of thought parallels that of Ian Jones, but only for a short distance. According to MacFarlane (p 210) ‘the madness of Glenrowan needs all the recent dressing-up and republican inventions to explain it away.’ Jones phrases it much more temperately and provides a rationale: ‘The Glenrowan campaign is inexplicable without the central, carefully obscured fact of the republic (p 202.)’ With the moves towards a republic (stalled, however, in recent years) Australians searched in the 1970s and 1980s for iconic symbols of the past which could be first seen, and then adopted and adapted as proponents of republicanism. The Eureka Stockade (together with its flag) was one: Ned was another. Ned Kelly had charisma to burn, and some qualities of leadership, but he failed spectacularly in his efforts against the conservative and ‘natural’ order of things. His travails during his life made him ideally suited for the role as a republican symbol. But a careful examination of his travails and his anti-establishment efforts does not yield anything remotely resembling proof that he wished to establish a republic. As Kelly famously said: ‘Such is life.’