Friday, 6 February 2015

The Police

Constable Thomas Longans grave at Mansfield.
A central  feature of Kelly mythology is a belief that began in the mind of Ned Kelly that the Kelly outbreak occurred because the Police of the time were profoundly corrupt, vengeful, immoral, lazy and untrustworthy. As a result, he and his family were unfairly targeted and persecuted and he was forced into a life of defiance and rebellion against all authority.

This element of the Kelly story, the defiance and hatred of Police, and authority in general is the feature that most appeals to Kelly Fanatics, forms the basis of their idolatry of Ned Kelly, and is reflected in their own expressions of hatred and negativity not only towards the 19th century Victorian Police but also to modern day Police. These sentiments can easily be found on the Facebook Pages of the Ned Kelly Forum and Ironoutlaw, the two self prolaimed main Kelly spaces on the internet, where Police are referred to as pigs and c*nts with not a single objection by all and sundry who post and “like” and share comments there.  On the Ironoutlaw site itself considerable space is devoted to cataloguing and commenting on negative Press reports about the modern day Australian Police Force.  People who for whatever reason hate the Police are almost universally drawn to the Kelly Mythology.

Personally I am revolted by this anti Police theme in the Kelly fanatics belief system, especially where it is extended to modern day Police, but I have never been sure that it wasn’t justified in respect of the Police in Ned Kellys time. The themes of Police corruption and incompetence and persecution of selectors is widespread throughout most of the Kelly literature that I have read. 

There is however a fascinating and very detailed chapter to be read in Ian MacFarlanes book, “The Kelly gang unmasked”, called “Victorian Police Actions Defended” in which the author dissects the Kelly Mythology in relation to various Police figures who are routinely villified and lampooned in the pro-kelly literature. The chapter starts: “With a few notable exceptions, Victoria Police during the Kelly hunt served with exemplary skill” a sentence that would make the head of the average Kelly fanatic explode, but MacFarlane proceeds case by case to demonstrate that there is at the very least, another side to the story, a side Kelly fanatics either don’t discuss or else misrepresent. He does of course allow that there were indeed “a few notable exceptions” but a balanced view of the evidence supports his positive view of the Police.

Ive just finished reading “The Kelly Outbreak” by John McQuilton, published in 1979. It is subtitled “The geographical Dimension of Social Banditry” and is a reworking of the authors PhD Thesis, so is a work  like Morrisseys of genuine authority and scholarship, that will have been subjected to professional scrutiny. I said of Morrisseys work, and its equally true of McQuiltons that “This doesn’t automatically mean that whatever his conclusions are, they must be correct, but it does mean that his findings and conclusions need to be taken serious note of.”

In fact I think this work is among the best, if it isn’t The Best of all the Kelly books I have read so far. For me at least, real academic scholarship is so much more satisfying to read than partisan story telling by amateur historians or even professional ones like Molony who adopted such an idiosyncratic approach to history telling as to make his account akin to fiction. This work however is exhaustive and detailed and analytical.There is much to discuss.

The feature of this work that impressed me most is the extent to which McQuilton describes and explains the broader social, political  and geographical conditions out of which the Outbreak sprang, putting it into its wider context. This, as I have now learned reflects an approach to understanding the lives of certain types of lawbreaker developed by a renowned, now dead British Historian called Eric Hobsbawm, who called them “social bandits”. I will write about this theory and other issues raised in this book some other time, but what I am interested in here is the picture McQuilton paints of the role of the Police in the outbreak. Whereas MacFarlane talks about  the contribution of individual police men - Fitzpatrick, McIntyre, Standish and Ward among others - and how they have mostly been inappropriately slandered in the pro Kelly stories, McQuilton discusses the effects of problems in the structure and the management of the police force and the organization itself.  

McQuilton begins by showing that stock theft  was much more common in North East Victoria than in other parts of Victoria – though he says that there was also a much higher rate of stock recovery there, implying that much of the stock theft was merely “borrowing”. In any event, he says this behavior by selectors was responsible for the alliance that was forged between squatters and Police. It was complicated by the offer by Squatters formed into Stock protection Societies, of rewards to Police whose work was particularly good, but it degenerated into an inducement to convict , and was abused by  “a minority of the Police”. The squatter- Police alliance “was not a deliberately formulated policy even at Officer level, but it must have seemed so to the selectors”

The North East was in fact a dynamic frontier where maturity and skilled Policing was required to maintain social cohesion in a challenging and rapidly changing social and political environment. Unfortunately though, according to McQuilton, rural postings were unpopular, and few Police of high quality, or personal ambition for advancement within the force were posted there. Instead, men used to working in the city, who knew nothing of the geography of the regions, very little about  agriculture and the rural way of life and were fearful of the bush were posted to rural areas without adequate training, and in insufficient numbers. Apparently even weapons training was so inadequate that “many men were unfamiliar with their weapons, particularly their rifles”. To make matters worse, Police force morale in general was low in the wake of highly publicized scandals in the 1850s and 1860,s, and within the force itself, the attitudes and behavior of the Chief  Commissioner Captain Standish created tensions and divisions between officers and rank and file.


As McQuilton says “The local Rank and File were placed in an invidious position” – they were not the cream of the force, they were not properly trained, resourced or supported, there were not enough of them, they were mostly inexperienced and yet they were expected to sensitively administer inflexible laws formulated without regard for the reality in the barely civilised frontier environment of the north east. For example he says there was no ability to differentiate between theft for food, “borrowing” and genuine criminal stealing - 

“Innocent horse traders and selectors who purchased stolen stock in good faith were jailed by Benches who refused to believe they had not known” 

“Easily lost and fearful of the bush the city men kept to the main roads refusing even to follow the bridle tracks” 

Unsurprisingly, Police cases were so poorly presented that local Benches were often forced to dismiss charges. 

And so what was the outcome ? : spiraling distrust growing into hatred by selectors of Police, demands from Squatters and the press that Police lift their game, and growing desperation by Police to control the mobs of “flash” youth and bring in criminals, gain convictions and redeem their reputations: invidious indeed!
Frustration went all the way to the top and prompted bitter divisions and criticisms within the Police hierarchy , arbitrary and sometimes counterproductive interventions and decision making, and of course it all sold newspapers and was stirred along by them.

Nothing written in any book or Blog will ever persuade Kelly fanatics that the police were ever anything other than pigs and c*nts, or that they still are. However a reasonable person who acquaints himself with the evidence presented in this terrific work by McQuilton would find a great deal of sympathy for these men and gain a much better understanding of the Kelly Outbreak.  Mostly, these Police were decent men doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances. And Ned kelly killed three of them.I doubt any Kelly fanatic would ever read it,  but every Kelly enthusiast must.  

4 and a half Stars.

6 comments:

  1. John McQuiltons Kelly Outbreak is magnificent. It was my first serious foray into the Kelly world back when I was a teenager. (I am 45 now.) I would have given it 5 stars though Dee. Until Morriseys book appears on my doorstep, it's the only work that really shows how the Police District of North Eastern Victoria transmuted into Kelly Country within the settlement framework of the region. . Contextual information on someone as convoluted as Ned Kelly is so important. Being a qualified Geographer, this is no mere biography of Ned. Whilst McQuilton, Jones and McMenomy are all singing from the same song book, McQuiltons work remains somewhat unique. Whilst he doesn't have the Ian Jones turn of phrase, in his own dry way, he makes a sentence sing. This one HAS to be in the collection. (and the original 1979 hard covered red dust jacketed version at that if you can..)

    Another one worth reading is The Peoples Force by Robert Haldane. A history of the Victoria Police. And on a connected subject whilst I think of it, I know to some in the Ned world I come across as anti Kelly but I'm not. Nor am I pro Kelly. I am the Fifty Shades of Grey Ned Kelly guy. As I go through life, my opinion of Ned and the Gang evolve. (or devolve some may think..) Yes, Ned Kelly had some good qualities. He was a blokey bloke. He was a first rate horseman and bushman. And he was probably a good son deep down. But he was also a murderer and a liar. And a lair and a skite in the words of Les Carlyon. And lazy. He rode the good time wave instead of following a better path. (I guess we are all glad he did though or we wouldn't have this blog, NKF or Brad Webbs Iron Outlaw) But I guess that's the nature of an icon. Endless opinions and colourful thinking.

    One thing I do have a problem with though is some peoples attitude toward the Police back then and now. McQuiltons book amply illustrates the absolute hardships regional police suffered. Apart from the odd rotten apple, there was no malice I don't think. (Nicolsons quote aside.) And why does that thought process extend into modern day policing? Granted, there are some issues in the upper echelon and rank and file but for every Fitzpatrick or Brooke-Smith, there is a Sadleir, Gascoigne, Kennedy or Graham.. I am a father of 2 teenage boys. I cannot present that negative attitude attitude about the police to them or to the world. I don't want my interest in the Kelly Outbreak to turn me into a bitter and twisted cop hater. 2 weeks ago, my 18 year old, Cameron, had a bad car accident. Thank God no one was hurt. (It was his fault.) The police attending the scene that night and at the station next day, could not have been better blokes. We were so gratified. But not surprised. That's their job right? They did it well.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That was a good post Mark, sure others will think so too. That's how we all need to think about that time.
    I think there is a three generation shift for being sympathetic to Ned, but lets not forget the other side as well.
    My little webpages were only ever meant to question written Kelly history, not drive home a dogma.
    Bill

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks Bill. It's all food for thought. I never wanna get up anyones arse and upset anyone with a particular point of view. That is never my intent. But I feel it's important we look at all aspects. I think as much of Ian Jones work as I do of McQuilton, McMenomy, Corfield, Seale, Passey, McFarlane, Kenneally, your own work, other websites. I think it's telling that all these years later Ned is such a hot potato. I don't know if the likes of McFarlane and Morriseys work can be considered revisionist or an absolute great use of overlooked source material from guys with fresh eyes. I am actually rather confused of late with all this and need to re-assess my thoughts on the Kellys. Could it be that at my age, in a more comfortable life style, in a house nearly paid off, good job and not struggling ;like in the early years, I am exhibiting an elitist, "look down from on high" attitude? I have thought about this long and hard as my evolving thoughts on the Gang are tending to co-incide with my "consolidation". An interesting but unwelcome thought. Keen to hear what others think. And another question: Whether Ned is a criminal or a hero, is he not still an icon? And isn't he an icon because of the armour and the helmet? Didn't the average aussie fall in ,love with an ideal rather than the flesh and blood behind the story? This is all very heavy. Going for a bourbon and coke and a smoke now.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Mark, Haldane's book was way too dry for me. I liked the overlooked "Ned Kelly: the larrikin years" by Graham Jones which deitaled most, but not all, of the Kelly run-ins with the law. The new Morrissey book is likely to be broadly based on his thesis, but includes reviews of modern books and the Jerilderie Letter. Like MacFarlane's book, it will be ignored by the Australian media which seems to think Ned belongs exclusively to them. Newspapers, particularly in NE Victoria feed off pro-Kelly propaganda and perpetuate the myths.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Mark you ask some interesting questions. I have been hoping people would reply and respond. I think its slowly dawning on me that there aren’t that many people with an ACTIVE interest in Ned Kelly. They have views about him but as with most things these are opinions based on little or no serious study or reflection. The NKF Key Master boasted he had hundreds of members but almost no body has posted there this year. They are content in their beliefs and not interested in defending them or examining them.

    But I think you have a valid point about how ones attitudes to things changes as one gets older - you will know the saying that if a person isn’t a socialist in their youth they havent a heart, but if they aren’t a capitalist in middle age they don’t have a brain But I think that may well be appropriate in relation to kelly as well - the things that appeal to youth are often rebellion and defiance of the adult world, freedom from convention and responsibility and they would see those ideals reflected in the kelly story and be drawn to it at an emotional level if at no other. A person coming to this subject later in life may be more understanding of the way in which passions of youth can be misleading, be more aware of the reasons society has various institutions like the Law and the Coutrs and Police, and how very few things that at first glance seem easy and straightforward are in fact uncomplicated. Things really DO have more than one side. I

    The other issue you raise is the idea that Ned is an Icon, and I agree with you, he most certainly is. Without a doubt for many people he is an Icon. But the way I see it like this - there is Ned Kelly the Icon - an almost mythical figure, a defiant legendary person that has evolved from the other Ned Kelly, the actual Ned Kelly, the man onto whom all the myths and legends have been added. One, the real Ned Kelly is the person I am most interested in finding; the other is the Myth, like Robin Hood, like William Tell, like many other figures in history who are Heroes borne out of an amalgam of fact, fantasy, hyperbole, desire and tradition to fill complex social needs in society.

    The problem is that people haven’t learned to differentiate between the two Ned Kellys, or understand the way myths are created and the roles they have in society.They think there is only one Ned Kelly but there are two - at least two!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Dee, you think you have problems - The Age newspaper today dubs actor Cary Grant "a complicated icon". His "suave leading man exterior concealed a complex, sensitive and often troubled individual away from the silver screen".

    Ned by comparison should be easy to disassemble...

    ReplyDelete

1. Moderation is back on. I haven’t got time to be constantly monitoring what comments are made and deleting the mindless rubbish that Kelly sympathisers have been posting lately. Please post polite sensible comments, avoid personal abuse and please use the same name whenever you Post, even if its a made-up name.


2. Do you want to provide an active Link in your Comment? The simplest way that I can suggest is to click HEREand follow the simple instructions. This site creates the Tag that you then copy and insert into your Comment.