True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey

Beechworth Victoria

Peter Carey's fictional version of Ned Kelly speaks of white Australians' collective memory of oppression stemming from their beginnings as a penal colony. He raises questions of fairness and justice that are core to the book.

And here is the thing about them men they was Australians they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS were in their blood and a man might be a bank clerk or an overseer he might never have been lagged for nothing but still he knew in his heart what it were to be forced to wear the white hood in prison he knew what it were to be lashed for looking a warder in the eye and even a posh fellow like the Moth had breathed that air so the knowledge of unfairness were deep in his bone and marrow.

In 1964, 21 year-old Peter Carey was taken to see the see Sidney Nolan’s series of paintings of the Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. This legendary figure of Irish descent had come to symbolise, for many, the struggle of the oppressed white people of Australia. Nolan had found a way to portray him that was stark and original: Kelly in his suit of armour as a slotted black square astride a horse in a barren, sun drenched landscape.

‘All of art was new to me and nothing was not interesting’, said Carey. He became obsessed with Nolan, whose powerful paintings led him to the letter dictated to Joe Byrne by Ned Kelly in 1879, just before they robbed the bank in Jerilderie, a town in southern New South Wales. Known as the Jerilderie Letter, it is one of Australia’s most powerful documents: an 8,000-word manifesto in which Ned Kelly describes his life and explains how he came to kill three policeman at Stringybark Creek and was outlawed. In it he denounces the police and demands justice for his family and for the rural poor. It begins:

In or about the spring of 1870 the ground was very soft a hawker named Mr Gould got his wagon bogged between Greta and my mother’s house on the eleven mile creek, the ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places so Mr Gould had to abandon his wagon for fear of loosing his horses in the spewy ground.

‘Why had no one told me about this?’ asked Carey. ‘Had no one else seen what I saw, that the famous bushranger was an avant-garde artist with hardly a comma to his name?’


Carey came across the Jerilderie Letter just as he was discovering literature, midway through a unique education. School had done nothing to spark a literary interest for him, although it did influence a later choice of theme. When he turned eleven Carey’s hard working parents sent him to board at the elite Geelong Grammar School. He found the sudden dislocation from his former working-class school traumatic; years later, he realised that his fictional preoccupation with orphans had stemmed from this experience. In a Paris Review interview he reflected that in some respects, this is also the story of Australia:

Our first fleet was cast out from “home.” Nobody really wanted to be there. Convicts, soldiers were all going to starve or survive together. Later, the state created orphans among the Aboriginal population through racial policies, stealing indigenous kids from their communities and trying to breed out their blackness.

These school years possibly also ignited his sensitivity to those living on the margins of society; his own strange and disturbing fictional worlds are populated by misfits and hybrid characters.

At Monash University Carey studied chemistry and zoology but he dropped out after failing his first year following a car accident in which he was nearly scalped. He began working as a copywriter for an advertising agency in Melbourne, an eccentric place full of writers and artists, run by former communists. He met Morris Lurie and an ex English teacher, Barry Oakley. Both both were writing fiction, and this is where his real education began.

Carey used to give Oakley a lift to work. Being ‘a mean bastard’, instead of paying towards the cost of petrol Oakley bartered the novels he had just read. He passed on works by Bellow, Nabokov, Kerouac, Beckett and Faulkner which Carey read ‘haphazardly and with great passion’. Soon he was writing every night and all weekend.

It didn’t occur to me that, having read nothing and knowing nothing, I was in no position to write a book. I wish I could say I was the last person to suffer from this misunderstanding.

Oakley and Lurie, bemused by this young pup, largely encouraged him, Oakley also infuriating him by telling him when his writing was not working. But when Carey’s short stories were good, he helped to get them published in magazines and soon they were winning prizes. It was Barry Oakley who introduced Carey to the Nolan paintings, which in turn led him to the Jerilderie Letter.

Carey had been raised in the Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh, near what is known as ‘Kelly country’, and had grown up with the legend. He recognised aspects of Kelly’s voice from his schoolyard and felt confident and easy with it. Reading James Joyce, he was struck by its similar Irishness in the way his ‘language came in a great, furious rush’. By turns funny, intelligent and angry, it seemed as though this voice was in ‘the character’s DNA and one could really hope to inhabit the character’ by accessing him this way. It further suggested to Carey the ‘possibility of creating a poetic voice that grows out of Australian soil, that is true to its place and hasn’t existed before.’

Fiery, rough, and unpunctuated, it is alert to injustice and determined to be heard:

It will pay Government to give those people who are suffering innocence, justice and liberty. If not I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victorian Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army and now doubt they will acknowledge their hounds were barking at the wrong stump.

Carey transcribed the Jerilderie Letter and carried it about with him like some precious religious relic. He was ‘fired with ignorant ambition’, dreaming of writing a novel that would transform our understanding of the man. Yet by the time he wrote his first novel, he had left his transcript in a pub, and Samuel Beckett had replaced Ned Kelly as an influence.

Nine novels later, Carey had left Australia for New York. But on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there they were, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. In a city where often the focus is on fashion or theory, he was struck by how deeply unfashionable these paintings were. Awkward, artless, and yet ‘illuminated by enormous grace,’ they were as fresh and wonderful to him as they had been in his youth.

One by one, I brought my new Manhattan friends uptown and walked them around the 27 paintings as if they were the stations of the cross. I explained why, while we had no Thomas Jefferson, our imaginary founding father was a convicted murderer named Ned Kelly.

How Ned Kelly became a bushranger

Ned Kelly was born in Beveridge, Victoria, in 1855 to a convict father and an immigrant mother. His parents were Irish Catholics (the lowest in the pecking order among white settlers) and Ned was raised on the love of Irish tradition and tales of ruthless British rule.

His father, John ‘Red’ Kelly, was once a wild man who had tired of prison. He wanted a quiet life but he married Ellen Quinn, a strong and spirited woman from a family of stock thieves and brawlers. They brought the Kellys unwelcome police attention. The Victorian police at that time were a quasi-military force based on the detested Constabulary of Ireland; they were loathed by many Irish Catholics.

Ned, or ‘our sunshine’ as Red called him, was the oldest boy of the eight Kelly children. He was enterprising and made a little money by hiding local horses and waiting until a reward would be posted. He brought back one valuable stallion that had been ‘missing’ for weeks, telling the owner he had found it in the bush. The horse was well fed and impeccably groomed, which caused some amusement; Ned was obviously too much of a horse lover to return it in the rough condition that would have made his story more believable.

When Red killed and butchered a stray calf belonging to a local land owner he was sentenced to six months hard labour. During his incarceration he suffered a physical and mental decline which, combined with his consumption of grog, led to an early death the following year.

Ned’s grudge against the police began to fester. Ellen Kelly was left a widow at thirty-three, with seven children under the age of thirteen. Ned, now twelve, became the man of the family. He left school to hone his frontier bush skills, earning money by shearing sheep.

Ellen moved to an eighty-eight acre landholding along the bank of Eleven Mile Creek in the small settlement of Greta. This made her a selector, who came under the provisions of the Grant Act of 1865. The land came with conditions: she had to fence the property, put a house on it, cultivate at least ten per cent of the land, and pay rent. If unable to meet these conditions they would lose their property. The land granted to selectors was mostly poor in quality; the premium parts, with access to fresh water, had already been claimed by the wealthier squatters. Ellen’s selection, on which stood only a shanty with a roof of bark, kept them poor and struggling to survive. She supplemented their income by offering accommodation to travellers and illegally selling alcohol.

Criminal Career

At fourteen, Ned became an apprentice to the Irish bushranger Harry Power. This unlikely outlaw was dumpy and middle-aged; he suffered from a serious bowel complaint and agonising bunions that caused him to wear boots several sizes too large. But he was courageous, a consummate horseman who could travel through trackless bushland at great speed. He loved the ranges of north-eastern Victoria and passed on his knowledge to his apprentice. As Ned’s biographer Ian Jones writes:

For Ned, these ranges came to represent a mother tongue – key to the mystic art of true bushmanship in which navigation and tracking were not just a matter of what you saw, but what you felt and sensed, what the landscape told you.

Harry taught Ned the value of a broad network of friends and sympathisers for protection while on the run, and the usefulness of bluff and bluster to intimidate the victims of hold-ups without resorting to the use of a shotgun.

Ned came before the courts a couple of times, first on a charge of assault, then for highway robbery in his role as apprentice to Harry Power, but was let off on both charges. His association with Harry Power turned him into a minor criminal celebrity as bushrangers were popular with the rural poor, seen as champions of the underdogs. But Ned’s notoriety led to greater police scrutiny of the Kelly family. He complained that the minute anyone lost a bullock, the police would turn up at his mother’s place, often in the middle of the night, and if the women were alone, they would ‘destroy provisions’ and herd them ‘like dogs’.

At sixteen, Ned rode into Greta on a horse that he believed belonged to his friend. A policeman called Edward Hall rightly suspected the horse to be stolen. When the lad resisted arrest, Hall tried to shoot him at point-blank range three times, but his revolver misfired. In the Jerilderie letter, Ned takes up the story:

I knew he would pull the trigger before he would be game to put his hand on me so I duped and jumped at him caught the revolver with one hand and Hall by the collar with the other. I dare not strike him or my sureties would loose the bond money I used to trip him and let him take a mouthful of dust now and again as he was as helpless as a big guano after leaving a dead bullock or a horse…I threw big cowardly Hall on his belly I straddled him and rooted both spurs into his thighs he roared like a big calf attacked by dogs…

With the assistance of two bystanders, Ned was finally tied up, and Hall beat him about the head with his revolver until his forehead, according to the police report, became ‘a mass of raw and bleeding flesh’. The next day, Ellen could trace the trail of her son’s blood to the police barracks, where Ned said it ‘spoiled the lustre of the paint on the gatepost’.

Ned was given twice the sentence of the man who had stolen the horse. Three years of breaking rocks at Beechworth Gaol’s quarry turned him hard and seething, but at Pentridge Gaol near Melbourne he met the Catholic Irish priest who had baptised him. Dean Charles O’Hea’s ability to accommodate English rule, his humour and his natural storytelling skills, were an important influence on Ned, helping to counteract his mounting bitterness.

On his release, Ned went twenty bare-knuckled rounds with the ferocious bully Isiah ‘Wild’ Wright, the ‘friend’ who had stolen the horse. A bloodied Wild conceded defeat and swore allegiance to Ned. That night Ned gained a gained a valuable ally, a formidable reputation as the region’s champion fighter, and a status that by now was almost mythic.

For the next three years he made an honest living as a tree feller, farm hand and horse breaker. He was remembered by workers at the saw mill as quiet, unobtrusive and warm-hearted, a ‘rather impulsive young fellow’ who ‘would almost do anything to serve a friend’. But he often struck a lonely figure at home where some people were intimidated and gave him a wide berth.

By the middle of 1877, despite regular police surveillance, Ned emerged as a leader of ‘the Greta Mob’, a loose group of accomplices who became known as ‘the most perfect horse-stealing organisation that ever existed in Australia’, according to Beechworth’s Advertiser. They knew this country and its trackless terrain intimately and drove horses and cattle through remote stock routes to the paddocks of colluding squatters. After a spell, and once the brands of the beasts had been altered, they would sell them on. It was a resumption, in more sophisticated form, of Ned’s original horse trade as a lad.

In his Jerilderie letter, Ned refers to this horse stealing as a political act, part of an ongoing fight against the pastoralists who had locked up the land, keeping settlers like the Kelly’s poor and powerless. Wealthy landowners near Greta had begun impounding animals that strayed onto their lands from the unfenced roads. As Ned explained:

I have known 60 head of horses impounded in one day by Whitty and Burns all belonging to poor farmers. They would have to leave their ploughing or harvest or other employment to go to Oxley. when they would get there perhaps they would not have money to release them and have to give a bill of sale or borrow money which is no easy matter.

Real Trouble Starts

In April 1878, Police Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, a known drunkard and womaniser, claimed that while trying to arrest Ned’s brother Dan for horse stealing at the Kelly home, he had been shot and wounded in the hand by Ned and struck on the head by Ellen.

In the Jerilderie letter, Ned’s assessment of Fitzpatrick, a man he had once counted as a friend, is withering:

He looks a young, strapping, rather genteel man more fit to be a starcher to a laundress than a policemen for to the keen observer he has the wrong appearance…The deceit and cowardice is too plain to be seen in the puny cabbage hearted looking face.

There were conflicting accounts about what had occurred during Fitzpatrick’s visit. Ned denied being home at the time and the doctor who tended Fitzpatrick would not confirm whether the wound on Fitzpatrick’s hand was made by a gunshot. Thirty years later, Ellen told a journalist:

Fitzpatrick started the trouble. He had no business there at all, they tell me – no warrant or anything. If he had he should have done his business and gone. He tried to kiss my daughter Kate. She was a fine, good-looking girl, Kate; and the boys tried to stop him. He was a fool. They were only trying to protect their sister. He was drunk and they were sober…Why did he want to interfere with my girl? He stayed there to make trouble; and there was trouble.

Ellen was accused of being an accomplice, and arrested for attempted murder. She was allowed to take her newborn baby, Alice, with her, but being unable to pay her rent, she lost her house and her land. Sentenced to three years hard labour, she told a sympathiser that her boys ‘would play up, that there would be murder now.’

With a bounty on his head, and vowing to avenge his mother, Ned had taken off with his brother Dan for the Wombat Ranges, known to him from his days with Harry Power. They were joined by friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. The police were in hot pursuit and a few weeks later, Ned and his men surprised a patrol of policemen on their trail at a place called Stringybark Creek, near their hideout in the Wombat Ranges. There are disputes about what occurred but a few hours later, Sergeant Kennedy and Constables Lonigan and Scanlan were dead. Only one officer, Constable McIntyre, survived.

Ned claimed he had shot the three policemen in self defence. The ‘Kelly Gang’ were outlawed and a large reward put on their heads, dead or alive. They began a 26-month stint as fugitives, evading the efforts of increasing numbers of police to capture them. For the most part they hid around the north-east of Victoria, where as one contemporary put it,

Every object was familiar; anywhere and everywhere they were perfectly safe, quite at home…they could for years resist with impunity all efforts to effect their capture.

Writing of True History of the Kelly Gang

At the age of fifty-six, thirty years after first reading the Jerilderie Letter, Peter Carey began ‘what my younger self would not have managed.’ Ned’s voice, that had captivated Carey as a young man, led him into the story.

I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.

From the opening paragraph and the ‘True History’ of the book’s title, we are led to question where the line between truth and fiction lies. Who can be trusted with the story? Much of this narration is driven by Ned’s intent on setting the record straight but why should we trust his history to be ‘truer’ than other versions? Alternatively, can we trust the historians, who continue to argue amongst themselves about the many contradictions of his story? Ned never had a daughter, so from the first page Carey calls out the fictional nature of the novel. In essence, this is an imaginative construction that is based in fact.

The Man inside the Armour

Carey’s friends had asked him why he would write a story that Australians already knew so well, yet early into his research he realised that we know a lot less about Ned Kelly than we think we do. He told Robert McCrum in The Observer:

The Kelly story is like a great, dark plain on which, here and there, passionate or violent scenes are played. All around these bright scenes are black seas of unseen incident and unknown feeling. We Australians had not even begun to imagine the emotional life of the characters in our great story.

Carey felt that over the years attention had focused on the famous armour he wore in his last stand, and Ned Kelly as a man had been reduced to a largely symbolic, masculine persona. He unearthed stories about him, not widely known, that reveal the person.

For example, when he was ten, Ned saved a life. He dived into a swollen creek to rescue seven-year-old Dick Shelton, the son of an influential Protestant family who had fallen into the turbulent waters. Eternally grateful, the Sheltons presented Ned, the boy from one of the poorest, most downtrodden families in the region, with a seven foot long silk and woollen sash in Irish green, with a bullion fringe at each end. As Carey observes, ‘….this is the day I think that he is seen as a good citizen. His courage is recognised and he’s included in the community.’ The sash became one of Ned’s most precious possessions. Fifteen years later he wore it under his armour at the final siege of Glenrowan, when he had needed all his strength and courage. Carey notes that the significance he attached to this piece of fabric tells something more nuanced about Ned than the armour. At a literary lunch in Melbourne for True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey noticed three tall broad shouldered men: they were Sheltons, descendants of the boy whose life Ned had saved.

The more Carey read Ned’s story, the more questions he had. For instance, we know Ned had a close emotional bond with his mother. She was a constant, sometimes daunting presence in his life. One of the last things he did before becoming an outlaw was to build her a house. She features in the last sentence of the Jerilderie Letter when Ned gives the final warning to heed his words: ‘I am a widow’s son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed.’ He was desperate to get her out of prison, at one point offering to surrender on a capital charge in exchange for her release. Carey wondered what that relationship would have looked like? How did it play out through the many ups and downs and hardships of their lives?

We know, too, that Constable Fitzpatrick had initially been a friend of Ned’s. How would this seemingly unlikely friendship have formed? Was it related to Ellen’s sly grog shop? He kept asking questions and found that ‘this big national story was very thinly imagined.’

Carey stretched his imagination in the gaps and shadows of the Kelly story. All the characters are there. They say those things we know they said. But in the shadows, they might have different motivations for saying them, and it is in the ‘unimagined dark’ that the fiction emerges.

In a play between public versus private realms, the novel is presented as ‘parcels’ of text conserved in a library for public consumption, yet much of the text is in the form of Ned’s private journal, addressed to an unseen daughter. Carey has referred to memoir and autobiography as the province of the wealthy and educated; the poor are remembered less well, their stories usually coming to us in fragmentary form from institutional records, which in Ned’s case are those of the police. But we are fortunate to have two extraordinary letters (one, called the Cameron Letter, was written earlier than the Jerilderie Letter). Ned’s plan to explain his actions in the hope that he would be widely read and understood was stymied by police. Neither letter was published in his lifetime. Carey brings Kelly’s voice back, fleshing out his emotional and inner life with a mixture of archival sources and imaginative possibility. He told McCrum that from his different perspective in New York:

…it gave me immense pleasure to take possession of my home again, to see it as strange, new and yet familiar, to draw on something very deep from my place and my experience and write in a language I felt was deeply mine.

He confessed to having pilfered little excerpts from Ned’s Jerilderie Letter which appear throughout the novel. There were occasions when Carey felt Kelly was the better writer, often in those parts when he was full of anger.

Kelly Country

Two thirds into the writing of the novel, Carey spent a week in Kelly Country with a couple of friends, sleeping in swags under the stars. They walked the land and talked to farmers and horse handlers. In the little museum in Benalla they found the display of Ned’s green sash ‘very, very, very moving’. Carey met relatives of Ned Kelly, who were helpful to him, and he saw that the story is still very alive in that country.

In the novel Carey documents the geography covered by Ned as he grows into an expert bushman, fine horseman and a crack shot. Harry Power, the bushranger, teaches him the land beyond the limits of his world: the thick snarl of timbered hills, and the big skies of the Wombat ranges where his bush boltholes groan with supplies of tallow candles, tinned sardines and gunpowder.

While working on his mother’s selection at Greta, Ned dreams of ‘trees and stumps without end’. In a bid to convert some of her eighty-eight acres of bush into a farm, he wages war with his axe on mighty ironbarks until the light is ‘sucked from the sky’.

If you have felled a tree you know that sound it is the hinge of life before the door is slammed.

He traverses country that is baked bone hard in summer but when the rains come, leaden and torrential, the ‘world’ is ‘walled & ripped apart by water.’ There is little that is soft or yielding about this land.

Why Kelly Matters

In a BBC ‘Bookclub’ interview, Carey was asked why Kelly was a hero? Why did he still matter? Carey mentioned Australia’s beginnings as a penal colony. He spoke of the anxiety that existed about the ‘convict seed’, a degree of shame about convict origins. People had wondered whether it was possible to breed from such stock and produce ‘something worthwhile’. And so here was Ned, the son of a convict, child of a ‘criminal underclass’. He was living in the rural version of public housing. He kills three policemen and is portrayed in the press as an out of control monster, fulfilling the expected stereotype. Then the bank robberies happen, and people start to change their minds. All of a sudden, the most surprising people are speaking with admiration of Ned Kelly and his Gang.

Here is why:

The Euroa Bank Robbery

Ned and his Gang needed money and also a chance to display themselves publicly as the sort of outlaws never before seen in Australia. They targeted the sleepy little settlement of Euroa near Benalla, with its branch of the National Bank sitting beside the railway just outside the town. As the bank could be seen from the station, they would need to wear town clothes so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Three miles away, close to the Strathbogie Ranges, sat Faithfull’s Creek homestead, owned by absent landlords. It was perfect for the Gang to rendezvous and keep hostages. Ned organised a sympathiser, the hawker James Gloster, to deliver their town outfits to the homestead in a cart; the Gang would pretend to take him hostage to protect him from later arrest. Gloster’s cart was well known to the people of Euroa and would not arouse suspicion when it carried the Gang to the bank and brought back hostages after the robbery.

At around noon on Monday, 9 December 1878, the Gang rode up to the homestead: Ned’s young brother Dan, wiry and assertive, wearer of flash outfits; Ned’s best friend the handsome Joe Byrne, lover of whisky and women, song writer and opium addict, and Dan’s friend Steve Hart, ex jockey, small, decent and a little brooding.

Ned strolled over to the station groom. ‘Do you know who I am?’ he asked him, pipe between his teeth. ‘Perhaps you’re Ned Kelly’, he volunteered, having noticed the holstered revolvers on their belts and their magnificent horses. They took fourteen male prisoners (some of them sympathisers) and that night Ned joined them in the store shed, answered their questions and yarned for hours.

He said that his mother had seen better days and had struggled up with a large family and he felt very keenly her being sent to gaol with a baby at the breast by the perjured statements of Fitzpatrick.

Ned told them he took full responsibility for the three police killings at Stringybark Creek; and it seemed as if he wanted to protect others in the Gang. His audience was captive and captivated, some of the men staying up all night with him, and a few even offering him money.

The next morning, the Gang cut the telegraph wires and bailed up the train station, taking another eight men hostage. Once the hostages were secured back at the homestead, the Gang changed into their new outfits, with a flourish of white handkerchiefs in breast pockets and splashes of perfume.

Just after four that afternoon they reached the bank. Ned took the front door and Steve the back. To Steve’s surprise, the family’s maid was a schoolfriend of his, a girl called Fanny Shaw. They had a chat before Steve mentioned that he had some business with her boss.

The bank manager, Robert Scott, was a stubborn man, hugely irritated by the intruders. His wife, Susan Scott, was still quite young, with seven children under thirteen. She found Euroa boring but not on this day, telling a superintendent later that she had said to Ned ‘he was a far more handsome and well dressed man than she had expected and by no means the ferocious ruffian she imagined him to be.’ She found the keys to the safe in the strong room for them, as her husband was not obliging. Mrs Scott’s mother was impressed and charmed when Ned told her, ‘Don’t be frightened, nothing will happen to you. I have a mother of my own.’

Robert Scott observed later that his family had taken the event remarkably calmly. For the trip to the homestead, his wife surprised everyone by changing into a flamboyant outfit with ribbons and lace and a ‘shearers hat all covered with tulle and flowers’.

Realising that the fourteen people from the bank would be too many for the cart, Ned asked the bank manager to harness his own buggy for the trip. Scott said grumpily, ‘Do it yourself’. Unusually for Ned, who was quick to anger, he smiled and said he would. This softened Scott and when Ned returned, he offered the Gang a whisky.

They all piled into the vehicles: kids, babies, bank staff, outlaws, the loot. The stationmaster’s wife saw them setting out and told her husband ‘she had seen the bank people with a lot of friends going off for a picnic.’ On the way to the homestead they all hit it off and the bank manager later would tell the police very little of what had been said. At Ned’s trial, Scott was an unsatisfactory witness for the prosecution, telling the court that Ned ‘treated me personally very well’ and ‘did not say a single rude word to Mrs Scott’.

After a meal, the Gang prepared to leave but not before entertaining the thirty-seven hostages with a display of trick riding. Ned’s performance on a magnificent horse ‘quite excited the admiration of the station hands’, according to the official report. There was a full moon that night as the dashing outlaws took off ‘at full gallop…in a perfect cloud of dust.’

The papers had a field day, collectively admiring the skilfulness and audacity of the operation. Reporters were told that the Gang had been ‘perfect Gentlemen’. The Melbourne Herald  described how ‘The bushrangers played with the children and boys and treated everyone with the greatest civility.’ They further noted Ned had said that, had they passed a pub on the way back from the bank, he would have bought everybody a drink.

Changing Minds

As Carey says to McCrum, Ned Kelly was not downtrodden or brutalised by his history. He rose above his circumstances, inspiring others with his courage, his ‘wit and decency’.

He was proof that our dismal history need not be read pessimistically. As Dame Mabel Brooks later said: ‘If a cog had slipped in time, the Kelly boys would have been on Gallipoli, one probably a VC winner.’

Former police constable Fitzpatrick, he of the ‘puny cabbage hearted looking face’, was sacked from the force for his incompetence over the Kelly incident. Thirty years after claiming to have been shot by Ned and starting all the trouble, he told a journalist:

Ned Kelly rises before me as I speak. Considering his environment, he was a superior man. He possessed great natural ability, and under favourable circumstances would probably have become a leader of men in good society, instead of the head of a Gang of outlaws.

Towards the end of his time as an outlaw Ned increasingly came to be seen as a hero of the people. They hid, fed and supported him and his men. In the novel Carey writes that they did so because

we was them and they was us and we had showed the world what convict blood could do. We proved there were no taint we was of true bone blood and beauty born…

Nightmare Territory

The Jerilderie Letter, despite its amusing invective, gives us insight into a man about to explode. Ten months of living on the run and the years preceding it of feuds with landowners, police and the criminal justice system, and finally the incarceration of his mother, have led to mounting rage which pours forth in a passionate torrent of words. As Alex McDermott writes in the introduction to the Jerilderie Letter:

This builds, and builds, until by the closing passages the letter has become a lethal thing. It shoots to kill. It occupies an imagined universe where there will be no hostages exchanged, and no survivors.

It presages some very dark territory. Ned and his friends could have escaped a grisly end. James, Ned’s older brother came back from prison with a good plan. He suggested they substitute gang members one by one, affording each a chance to leave the country, until finally the group would be ‘disappeared’. But Ned chose to stay, Carey believes because he could not bring himself to leave his mother.

There was another successful bank robbery in Jerilderie (with similar, almost slapstick elements to the one in Euroa). Ned made sure to burn the debt papers of the poor on both occasions. The proceeds of both robberies were distributed amongst the Gang’s family supporters and friends, and Ned shouted the bar at Jerilderie, which duly enhanced his reputation.

In efforts to halt the Gang’s source of support, police began locking up alleged sympathisers under the Felons Apprehension Act 1878.  Many were farm hands, without land of their own. Not only did they face months of imprisonment without trial, often based on the faintest suspicion, but they were also denied the right to take up land in the country they had grown up in. The arrests would occur in the midst of drought, recession and a growing conflict between the wealthy landowners (squatters) and selectors.

This police strategy backfired badly, serving to swell the ranks of sympathisers and nudging the outbreak towards rebellion. Ned, feeling responsible for his sympathisers’ plight, felt the need to help them. This is when he came up with his ill-conceived idea of starting a republic, and wearing the armour.

The gang had become increasingly suspicious of their friend and associate Aaron Sherritt who they suspected had turned police informant. Ned was always ready to trust a man and opposed the idea of his murder for a long time. But Aaron was playing a strange game, and eventually he agreed with Joe that it had to be done. His murder would become part of their plan to launch a republic. Once Aaron had been killed, they counted on the fact that a train load of police would be sent to capture them.  On a high curve of line running along a steep embankment, they would break the train lines. Once the train had crashed over the embankment, they planned to shoot survivors or take them prisoner. Chinese rockets would alert their small army of sympathisers, and the little army would move on to the Bank of New South Wales.

The day after Aaron’s murder, the Gang took over Glenrowan, tearing up the train line after the last trains had passed through for the night. They held over sixty people hostage in a weatherboard pub, the Glenrowan Inn, which was owned by an Irish born battler, Mrs Jones. While they were waiting for the train there was a party-like atmosphere and Ned took the opportunity to give a lecture, taking his usual potshots at the police.

One of the hostages, Thomas Curnow, the local schoolmaster, overheard the Gang’s plans and escaped, warning train crew who in turn alerted police. The party quickly turned into a bloodbath as thirty-four policemen surrounded the pub. Initially their armour protected the Gang, who stood mocking the police from the verandah. But stray bullets went straight through the pub’s thin walls, and in Carey’s words, ‘offered no more protection than a Sunday dress’. There was mass panic and mounting casualties inside.

Soon Ned was hit by a bullet in the foot, and another in his left elbow. Retreating inside the pub, Joe Byrne was shot in the groin by a stray bullet, just after having offered a dark, sarcastic toast at the bar: ‘Here’s to many more years in the bush, boys’. As Joe’s life slowly ebbs away in the dark, chaotic pub, Carey imagines his last words to Ned:

We’ve done these poor b––––rs an awful harm.

Well, we ain’t lost yet.

Joe Byrne did not answer.

Where are you? Ned began to kneel and then his leg collapsed, he fell heavily. Immediately he began to crawl forward, scraping the heavy steel cock-plate noisily along the floor. —Here, load my rifle. Joe?

With his good right hand he found Joe Byrne’s hand but it was limp and bloody as a freshly skinned beast.


He pulled himself closer and propped himself against the wall. In the darkness he located his friend’s nose and mouth, then placed his hand across them. The beard was soft and wet, the lips were warm against the palm but all that fretful breath was still.

Oh Joe, I’m so sorry, old man.

Another hail of bullets ripped through the dark hotel, splintering wood and breaking glass and causing the hostages to raise their voices in shouts of anger.

Shoot them, Ned. Stop the b––––rs!

I will, I will.

Ned managed to make his way into the bush and disappeared for a few hours. Some suspect he passed out for a while. At sunrise, instead of escaping, he turned back, dressed in his armour, to face the police in open combat in a last ditch attempt to rescue Dan and Steve who were still holed up in the pub. One eyewitness wrote:

With the steam rising from the ground, it looked for all the world like the ghost of Hamlet’s father with no head, only a very long thick neck…It was the most extraordinary sight I ever saw or read of in my life, and I felt fairly spellbound with wonder, and I could not stir or speak.

Staggering for half an hour from his injuries and exhaustion, while his armour was pummelled with bullets, he was given a last chance of escape. The grey mare, Music, belonging to Joe and Ned, appeared among the misty trees. Braving the rain of bullets, she approached him, but Ned allowed the horse to pass. With more than twenty injuries, he finally fell by a fallen tree.

Dan and his friend Steve were found shot dead in the hotel before it was burned to the ground. Three hostages were fatally wounded, including a boy who earlier that night had sung them all a touching rendition of ‘Colleen das cruitha na mo’.

Ned Kelly was put in the prison hospital in Melbourne until he recovered enough to stand trial. He was sentenced by the same man who had sentenced his mother. Despite a petition of 32,000 signatures for clemency, Ned was executed on 11 November in Melbourne Gaol. The priest who had baptised him, and who offered him comfort when he was a young man in prison, gave him his last rites. Again there is a dispute about what finally happened. He is reported to have said either ‘Such is Life’, or ‘Ah well, I suppose it has come to this’, before the rope was placed around his neck.

‘True’ History

Carey is in his element with such material. He is drawn to writing about worlds that appear to be normal, but then spill into darkness, and teeter on the bizarre. He says:

People often live in nightmares without knowing it. The nightmare creeps up on them and even when it’s at its most intense it feels quite normal to them. Not nice, but normal.

One of the books Barry Oakley had given Peter Carey all those years ago was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. This novel had a huge impact on him, and nearly every novel he has written bears the stamp of its influence: the short chapters, multiple perspectives, conflicting viewpoints. When he finished True History of the Kelly Gang, the book with a thirty year gestation,, Carey saw that the other aspect he had loved about As I Lay Dying was ‘the way it gave rich voices to the poor’, and he realised Faulkner ‘had not lost his power over me.’


Moreton Bay, Bernard Fanning

Ned Kelly quoted some lines from this convict ballad (circa 1830) in his Jerilderie Letter.

More were transported to Van Diemand’s Land to pine their young lives away in starvation and misery among tyrants worse than the promised hell itself. All of true blood, bone, and beauty that were not murdered on their own soil or had fled to America or other countries to bloom again another day, were doomed to Port Mcquarie, Toweringabbie, Norfolk Island, and Emu Plains, and in those places of tyranny and condemnation many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddy’s land.

It is likely that he learned the song from his father John (‘Red’) Kelly of county Tipperary, who was sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing two pigs – a ‘native of Erin’s island but banished now to the fatal shore’.

The penal colony of Queensland’s Moreton Bay was a destination for repeat offenders. The song refers to the brutal treatment of convicts under the command of Patrick Logan, and their joy on hearing the news that he had been killed by a ‘native’.

Fellow prisoners, be exhilarated, that all such monsters such a death may find!
And when from bondage we are liberated, our former sufferings shall fade from mind.

This version sung by Bernard Fanning, former lead singer of Powderfinger, was featured in the 2003 film Ned Kelly, starring Heath Ledger.


On the National Museum of Australia website are pages of the original Jerilderee Letter written Joe Byrne’s neat hand, and a reading of the letter.

The Story Of The Kelly Gang is regarded as the first ever feature-length motion picture in the world. It was made in Melbourne in 1906, just 26 years after Kelly’s death. The film was so successful that it was banned six years later, because authorities were afraid that it would inspire criminality. Only about 20 minutes of its hour-long running time survives today.

A trailer for Ned Kelly (2003), starring Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom and Geoffrey Rush.

The trailer for the adaptation of Carey’s novel, True History of the Kelly Gang (2020) directed by Justin Kurzel, starring George MacKay, Essie Davis and Russell Crowe.

This Quadrant article expresses a very different view of the Kellys.

Clare Wright and Alex McDermott have written a piece in Meanjin about Ned Kelly’s women.

The Ned Kelly Touring Route covers the sites where Ned Kelly and his Gang made their mark from Melbourne, north-east Victoria and southern New South Wales. Maps and information about the route can be found at the tourist information centres in the towns of Wangaratta, Beechworth, Stringybark Creek, Euroa, Mansfield and Avenel.

The Benalla Art Gallery where you can see Sidney Nolan’s ‘Glenrowan’ tapestry.

Most of Sidney Nolan’s Kelly series can be seen at the National Gallery of Australia.

Tourism North East Victoria.


Beechworth area

Many of the landscape photographs were taken in regions surrounding Beechworth and Chiltern in the foothills of the Victorian alps, a country of rolling hills, national parks, big skies and distant purple ranges. The images of rockier terrain were taken in the Woolshed Valley, between Beechworth and Wangaratta, on the edge of the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park. The Kelly Gang frequently hid out in the caves here. Joe Byrne was born and raised in the nearby gold mining settlement of El Dorado. He learned Cantonese and developed an opium habit from Chinese gold miners who were panning for gold in these creeks.

The country was looking unusually lush due to Australia’s recent La Nina weather pattern which had brought unprecedented amounts of rain, so I included a couple of dryer summer versions with Nolanesque palettes, taken on an earlier trip.

Chiltern and Beechworth came of age after the discovery of gold in the 1850s. The little village of Chiltern has a beautifully preserved nineteenth century streetscape that feels like it is straight out of a film set.

The honey-coloured Beechworth courthouse hosted over forty trials involving the Kelly family. Guided Ned Kelly walking tours depart daily from the Visitor Information Centre opposite.

On a Saturday night I went to the Hibernian Hotel in Beechworth, where it is rumoured that Gang members were provided with accommodation from time to time. Some of Ned’s most loyal sympathisers, including Tom Lloyd stayed here during Ned’s committal hearing for murder in August 1880. While I was waiting for an order at the bar, two policemen walked in and one asked the publican if everyone was behaving themselves. The pub was busy but there was no trouble. The other officer was new to town and introduced himself to the publican. I thought how difficult it must have been to be a policeman here in the 1870s when the police were so hated. I remembered the curator of the town’s museum (sadly closed only recently) telling me how zealous Beechworth police had been in rounding up so many local men suspected of being sympathisers. They had been locked up for weeks at a time. He showed me some photographs; they were a handsome lot, mostly with Irish names, some with the dreaded surname of Quinn.

I sat at an outdoor table, near a group of men with weather beaten faces and bushman’s beards. They were swearing loudly as they knocked back their beers and bragged about their mates in gaol. Not much had changed around here, or so it seemed.


One of my last stops before making my way to Melbourne was at Greta, where the Kellys had their land. I read that after Ellen was released from prison, she was allowed to return to her holding. She met with the new police officer posted to the area who was skilled at bringing people together. They were able to settle their grievances to some extent and she lived peacefully in the community, dying at the ripe old age of 95, and outliving seven of her children. Her land and the site of her house is still owned by descendants of the Kellys and is not open to the public. Greta feels remote even now, and I imagine it must have felt a million miles away from anywhere when Ellen, her young son Ned, who was all of twelve, first arrived here with the rest of the family.

Near the front entrance of the cemetery in Greta stands a headstone marking the fact that Ned Kelly, his mother Ellen and his siblings Margaret, Grace, James, Daniel and Anne lie buried there, in unmarked graves.

I noticed a couple of people standing in a far corner of the cemetery and called out to ask them if they’d found Ned’s grave? The father and son (as it turned out) shouted back that they had, so I rushed over to join them.

The father was a tall, strongly built man with tattoos creeping up his neck and onto his face. His son, a slender, excitable boy, was on the cusp of gangly. They had a large book about Ned Kelly with lots of pictures, maps and documents, and said they were visiting the Kelly sites, reconstructing the scenes, and finding the places where events had occurred. They had just come from Glenrowan, where they had located the exact spot where the Gang had wrecked the train line.

The father explained that he lived nearby and was divorced from his son’s mother. His son was on a visit (it was the school holidays). They knew a great deal about the story and the boy’s words spilled over themselves in his rush to tell me what he knew.

The cracked earth you can see in the final photograph is where they are sure Ned is finally buried. Why? Because you can just manage to see a layer of concrete under the cracks. Why concrete? Because the descendants of Kelly wanted a barrier poured over the top of Ned’s grave to protect his remains from souvenir hunters.

They told me that Ned’s remains were only discovered in 2011. His body, missing most of its skull, had been put in a wooden box and was found in a mass grave with other prisoners in the grounds of Pentridge Prison. They were identified by a DNA sample matched with a Kelly descendent.

After Ned’s execution, his body had been carved up. Parts were doled out to various personages, and apparently displayed in curiosity cabinets all over Melbourne. His skull was last seen on the desk of a detective in the 1920s. The green sash had also been souvenired and had only recently come to light. So his descendants were not taking any chances with Ned’s remains. More than 130 years after his execution, on 20 January, 2013, they were finally able to lay Ned Kelly to rest beside his mother.

I mentioned how sad it was that such an iconic figure in Australia’s history was, even after all these years, not allowed some type of memorial at the cemetery. But then I remembered how he continues to polarise people. Some say he was a cold blooded murderer and of course he is no hero to the descendants of the policemen who were shot and killed. I mentioned a story of my belated partner’s family and their belief that they are related to Ned Kelly through the Quinn matriarchal line. My partner’s mother had happened to mention this to a man in casual conversation. He told her he was related to one of the policemen Ned Kelly had shot dead at Stringybark Creek and he promptly stood up, turned his back and refused to have anything more to do with her.

We ranged around the cemetery as they showed me the graves of other key members in the story. Tom Lloyd is buried here. He was Ned and Dan’s cousin and a kindred spirit whose unstinting support of the gang made him virtually a fifth member. They told me the Kelly land, bordered by Fifteen Mile creek, can be seen from the road, but the old chimney that once stood there as a marker has recently fallen down.

Playing the devil’s advocate a little, I said Ned had been a murderer. ‘Yes, but in self defence,’ they gently countered. ‘But Joe Byrne had shot Aaron Sherritt in cold blood.’ ‘Yes, but he’d been a traitor.’ They saw Ned and his Gang as great egalitarian heroes and I was certainly not going to disabuse them of that.

There is a rotunda in the cemetery where you can sign a visitors book and join thousands of people around the world who have left a message. I wrote something about the legend living on, and it’s ‘true’, isn’t it? And I remembered Peter Carey’s comment that the Ned Kelly story was still very much alive in the country of north-east Victoria. Well it sure was: tender and glowing in a far corner of Greta cemetery.


‘Bookclub’, Peter Carey, BBC Sounds, 1 February, 2004

Carey, Peter. ‘Peter Carey on True History of the Kelly Gang: ‘At 56, I wrote what my younger self could not have managed’’, The Guardian, 9 February, 2020

Carey, Peter. True history of the Kelly Gang, Penguin, 2000

Imagining Ned Kelly:  Interview with Peter Carey’, State Library of Victoria, June 10, 2015

Jones, Ian. Ned Kelly: A Short Life, Lothian,1996

Jones, Radhika. ‘The Art of Fiction No. 188: Peter Carey’, The Paris Review, Issue 177, Summer 2006

Kelly, Ned. The Jerilderie Letter, Text, 2001

Kieza Grantlee. The Kelly Hunters, Harper Collins, 2022

McCrum, Robert. ‘Reawakening Ned‘, The Observer, 7 January, 2001

‘Meridian’, Peter Carey on the appeal of Ned Kelly, interview with Harriet Gilbert, BBC Sounds, 1 August, 2001

Woodcock, Bruce. Peter Carey: Contemporary World Writers, Manchester University Press, 1996

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    • Jo Wing on

      Yes, painful wasn’t it? What a story! I only new bits of it before. Now I know why when you type Ned Kelly’s name into Google, you get 10.5 million hits!