Thursday 4 August 2016

The truth about the Royal Commission

One thing about the Kelly era  that is still the same today is that the Press like to write sensationalist stories in order to sell newspapers. Thus, when the Kelly Gang had murdered three Policemen at SBC the Press became increasingly critical of Police performance and expressed and encouraged a rising sense of outrage in the community when the Gang was not immediately apprehended. With the robberies at Euroa and then Jerilderie the outrage increased even further, so that by the time the Gang had been destroyed and Kelly captured,  but with further loss of life at Glenrowan, the call for a Royal Commission of enquiry into the Police became too loud for the Government of the day to resist any longer, and a Royal Commission was established within a few months of Ned Kellys execution. (Click HERE to read all of the Reports of the Commission at Bills site : Thanks Bill!)

They say these days, somewhat cynically that  Politicians don’t launch Royal Commissions unless they know what the outcome is going to be, and for the Politician the outcome they seek is always some sort of advancement of their own political agenda, whether it be to undermine their Political opponents position, or  strengthen their own. The truth about the motivation behind the establishment of an RC might be better understood by looking at who the Government appoints as Members of the Commission or by its outcomes and at which of its recommendations the Government acts on.  Obvious contemporary examples of the politically motivated RC are the Governments RC into the Union movement, and the absence of the one into the Banking system proposed by the Opposition. There are also examples of RC’s that are less obviously inspired by purely political motive, but the politics becomes apparent afterwards, when the  Government of the day has to respond to the recommendations of the Commission.

So when it comes to the Royal Commission into the Kelly Outbreak we shouldn’t be so naïve as to imagine it wasn’t launched without a Political endpoint in mind, or that its enquiry was wholly objective and free of personal and political agendas.

Justin Corfield says in his Encyclopedia that Graham Berry, the Premier who established the RC was anxious to have the ‘Kelly business’ over by the time of the next state election. Thus at the very least, this RC was a clever way for the Government to delay having to respond to a difficult issue until a much later time, when they hoped the publics disquiet had settled and its attention had moved on to something else.

There was also an obvious anti-Police bias to the Commission: according to Ian Jones, the Chairman of the Commission Francis Longmore was “an enemy of Standish and the police since the days of Harry Power’. George Wilson Hall, another of the Commissioners was also known to be hostile to the Police in general and to Standish in particular; he was the publisher in 1878 of an anti-police booklet, a satirical parallel of the Kelly story called ‘The Book of Keli’ in which the Police were led by ‘Dishstand’ an obvious reference to Standish who was then mocked and ridiculed along with others whose names also were thinly disguised variations of the names of real people. Such partisan figures  as Hall and  Longmore would never be appointed to a modern Commission. These days we recognize that the appointment of people with known bias to a Commission weakens the authority of its findings, and provides an easy  excuse for them to be ignored or dismissed. In 1880 however such concerns dont seem to have been taken into consideration, but the truth remains, that having biased commissioners reduces the credibility of the Commission.

The full title of the Enquiry was
Royal Commission of Enquiry
into the circumstances of

Its terms of reference were

1. To inquire into the circumstances preceding and attending the Kelly outbreak.
2. As to the efficiency of the police to deal with such possible occurrences.
3. To inquire into the action of the police authorities during the period the Kelly gang were at large.
4. The efficiency of the means employed for their capture; and
5. Generally to inquire into and report upon the present state and organization of the police force.

A total of nine members were appointed to the Commission, and they conducted hearings in Melbourne and various towns in Kelly country, asking a total of 18289 questions of 65 witnesses, starting with Standish himself when the Enquiry began on March 23rd 1881.  The witnesses were denied the option of being supported at the commission by their own legal counsel.

From all this evidence the Commission produced ‘in lieu of the usual resume of the evidence’ what they called a ‘sketch of the antecedents pursuit and destruction of the Kelly Gang of Outlaws’  This ‘sketch’ was a detailed description of the entire outbreak, based on the evidence supplied by the witnesses, and it formed the basis of the two reports that the Commission produced.

The first report, issued on 6 July 1881 made four recommendations : 
  1. - Inspector O'Connor not be appointed as an officer in the Victoria Police
  2. - the permanent employment of black trackers as an auxiliary branch of the police service
  3. - a thorough system of police patrol shall be established throughout the colony, more especially in the North-Eastern district
  4. - that immediate steps be taken to arm the mounted police of the colony with the Regulation Pattern Martini-Henry carbine

The second report was issued at the end of the Royal Commission in October 1881, and contained 17 findings, the first of which was
“ That immediately prior to the outbreak and for some time previously the administration of the police in the North-Eastern District was not satisfactory; either as regards the numbers and distribution of the Constabulary  or the manner in which they were armed and mounted; and that a grave error was committed in abolishing the police station at Glenmore, and in reducing the number of men stationed at  Stanley, Yackandandah, Tallangatta Eldorado and Beechworth”

The next 14 recommendations were about the behavior of named individuals, almost all of them members of the Police force, beginning of course with Standish, then Nicolson, Hare, Sadleir, Brooke-Smith and so on down to a cluster of Constables, and included Curnow and Wallace. The last two findings were expressions of appreciation for assistance provided  by the press at Glenrowan and by the Queensland Government who supplied the Black trackers. They commended Senior Constables Kelly and Johnson, Constable Bracken, Thomas Curnow and Mr C.H Rawlings, but everyone else was rebuked to a greater or lesser degree and recommended for demotion dismissal censure or early retirement.

In summary therefore, of 21 findings and recommendations,  only 3 could be said to be about reform for the future, but six times as many, 18,  were judgments about the past, criticisms of the behavior of players in the Outbreak, or in other words as Sadleir is reported to have said of the Chairman “he went relentlessly for scalps”. And the three positive recommendations ? - establish colony-wide police patrols, arm mounted Police with Martini Henry rifles and employ black trackers!

And that was it! I was staggered! After all those days of hearings, all those questions, all that exposure of Police ‘dirty linen’ and detail about every aspect of the Outbreak  all they managed to  produce were three feeble recommendations about Police patrols , black trackers and rifles, and deal payback  and embarrassment to some of the factions in the force. Nothing to say about Fitzpatrick, and not a single mention of the Kelly Gang. Nothing about Police misbehavior towards selectors, harassment of ex convicts, drunkenness, extra-judicial killings or Police thuggery. Nothing.

I am still shaking my head when I think how thoroughly this Commission has been misrepresented by the Kelly mythmakers, who must be either deeply ignorant of  the Commissioners findngs and recommendations or else they deliberately lie about them.  I found myself having the same stunned reaction as I did after reading the Jerilderie Letter for the first time, realizing that the pro-Kelly brigade had misrepresented it entirely. The Jeriderie letter is claimed by them to be some sort of revolutionary manifesto about the republic of North east Victoria, but it is absolutely nothing of the sort. In a similar way the Kelly mythmakers have convinced themselves and try to convince everyone else that the Reports of the Royal Commission validated their position about Ned Kellys claim to be a Police-made criminal, that the Commission censured Police for the way they treated the Kellys, that  the Commission uncovered all the corruption and unwarranted persecution of  the Kellys and the selector class generally,  and as a result Policing changed in Victoria forever. In fact the Commissions final determinations, contained in its two Reports had absolutely nothing to say about any of that. Nothing. And to claim that any good that may have resulted from the RC, any future reforms of the Victoria Police were somehow thanks to Ned Kelly and are part of Ned Kellys legacy is about as absurd as saying that the changes  Prime Minister Howard made to Australias gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre are something we should be grateful to Martin Bryant for, and are part of his legacy. Ridiculous nonsense.

What the Commission criticized in its Reports were all related to the internal workings of the Police force. The Commission blamed the Outbreak on what they felt were the failures of leadership, of initiative, of decision making, of courage, and of respect in the Force, the factionalism, the petty jealousies and favoritism within the Force, the meddling and interference that in combination enabled the Kelly Gang to remain at large for far too long. And Standish was blamed for much of it.

When it came to responding to the first of their Terms of reference, ‘To inquire into the circumstances preceding and attending the Kelly outbreak’,  the Commissions view was that it resulted from ‘the unchecked aggregation of a large class of criminals in the North East’ exacerbated by the weakening of District policing by the removal of the Glenmore Police station, reductions in the number of Police and the employment of  inexperiened and inferior constables’. They reported ‘The incident, however, which seems to have more immediately precipitated the outbreak was the attempt of Constable Fitzpatrick to arrest Dan Kelly, at his mother's hut, on the 15th of April 1878’.

Later they wrote

‘There can be little doubt that Constable Fitzpatrick's conduct, however justified by the rules of the service, was unfortunate in its results. It may also be mentioned that the charge of persecution of the family by the members of the police force has been frequently urged in extenuation of the crimes of the outlaws; but, after careful examination, your Commissioners have arrived at the conclusion that the police, in their dealings with the Kellys and their relations, were simply desirous of discharging their duty conscientiously; and that no evidence has been adduced to support the allegation that either the outlaws or their friends were subjected to persecution or unnecessary annoyance at the hands of the police.’

It has to be said that for the Kelly sympathisers the Royal Commission was an absolute disaster. The Commission found no evidence that the outbreak was caused by ‘Police persecution or unnecessary annoyance’, as  Kelly himself tried to claim and as Kelly sympathisers still fondly like to pretend. The Commission exposed the extended Kelly family as a criminal gang, and in relation to Kennedys death described Ned Kelly as ‘cruel, wanton, and inhuman, and should of itself, apart from other crimes, brand the name of his murderer, the leader of the gang, with infamy.’

So another Kelly myth bites the dust. This time it’s the one that says thanks to Ned Kelly the corrupt Police who oppressed and persecuted innocent selectors were exposed and punished at the Royal Commission. In fact after looking into it all, the RC  branded the Kellys and their associates as a criminal gang and made not one criticism of the way the Police treated the Kellys, other than that they failed to catch them soon enough.


  1. Powerful new insights, Dee. Very valuable.

    How's your book about all this going?

    Your brilliant work needs to be published.

    1. Despite any outcomes from the Royal Commission into the Kelly Outbreak, I am glad that we have it because it gives us further information on what went on during the Kelly hunt and siege from different viewpoints and helps to show us the infighting and cattiness among the major player "brother officers." Too bad the technology did not exist then to videotape the proceedings. I would have loved to see their expressions and watch their eyes (after all they are the windows to the soul) while they answered questions. Body language can speak volumes. It would be must-see-tv!

    2. A great reminder that the Commission found no evidence that the outbreak was caused by ‘Police persecution or unnecessary annoyance’, and that it described Ned Kelly as ‘cruel, wanton, and inhuman, and should of itself, apart from other crimes, brand the name of his murderer, the leader of the gang, with infamy.’ The great part of the population was against, not for, the Kellys in their time, and most hoped they would be caught as soon as possible, just as the majority or people loathed bushrangers generally.

      Speaking of myths, there's a new musical production being developed about the alleged relationship between Ned Kelly and Etty Hart.

  2. As this thread started out as Dee's take on the Royal Commission into the Kelly Outbreak, I thought I'd create a direct link as above. Please be aware this file is 12 Mb all 721 pages in 'html' format suitable for search by 'name' and is hosted at courtesy of Gary Dean's files. .
    Seems someone is pee'd off with something on this Blog as this morning I got a phone call, I answered 'Hello Bill speaking' - The voice said - " You F- ing troll" and hung up.
    This person is upset by something? Maybe he thinks I'm Stuart or Anonymous.

    1. The word 'Troll' was the dead giveaway to your dumb caller... if it was him, you should have recognised the voice, Bill.

    2. The best response one can give to such a caller if they would wait for your response rather than just immediately hanging up is - "I know you are! But what am I?"
      That should maybe shut their gob for a moment as they ponder on that. Look at it this way, at least you are getting a taste of fame! If you were not so widely known and striking such a chord you would not elicit such a response from the peanut gallery.

    3. How do i find this link ? Thanks in advance.

    4. Greg to read the RC click on the blue highlighted 'Bill' at the very beginning of his comment, or on the blue highlighted 'HERE' in the first paragraph of my Post at the top of this page. Both are links to the same page, the entire RC reading material. Happy reading!

    5. Alternatively, if you are like me and always like to see images of original documents or news articles (and not what someone has re-typed or re-formatted, not that there is anything wrong with that) you can go to this site to see the Royal Commission in its full glory -

    6. Thanks to Sharon for the Trove link to the RC.
      The problem I found, the pages are scanned images which does not allow a name search function.

      Not sure why my link to the RC was not posted, so I try again,
      Royal Commission Kelly Outbreak 1881

    7. The two sites are best used in conjunction with one another. I totally agree, it is great to be able to use word find, but if I am going to quote something from the RC or any other news article or what have you I like to be able to make sure I am quoting it correctly with all of the punctuation in proper place. Thank God for Trove in that respect especially news articles. There used to be a site that had the text of the RC but has disappeared now and shall remain nameless, that was nerve wracking because when you compared with the hard copy of the RC (which someone special photocopied for me long before we had the trove scanned one) some punctuation and even some words were often wrong or out of place and you had to go page to page to page as they gave only small bits on one page, so it was time consuming. I am glad we have all of these better resources like Gary's and Trove's at our fingertips now.

  3. Bill thats shocking news to read that you have been abused in that way. The Police should probably be notified and the call traced - Its a criminal offence to use phone services to abuse and intimidate. Whoever rang was a cowardly kelly nut-job and I don’t for a minute believe Kelly sympathisers in general would condone that sort of thing, but certainly as I have seen over the last 2 or 3 years within their ranks there are a few seriously unpleasant bullies. I wonder if it could have come from one of the idiots who thinks Dee is Bill?

    But Thanks for posting that link to the entire RC . Ive now edited the Post so that people can click on it from there as well.

    1. I think people just have to accept that the Kelly saga is likely the most polarised area of any Australian history topic and it will continue to be heated for a range of reasons. most of which seem to have little to do with evidence. Even the school curriculum in several states encourage this either/or approach with their simplistic "was Ned a hero or a villain" division. In the Old Melbourne Gaol the same approach is used with a poster asking. "Was Ned Kelly a terrorist?", showing two photos of Ned - the first is his last days full-length up-against-the-wall gaol photo; the second is a photo-shopped version of that wearing a Guantanamo-bay orange overalls. Heavily polarised, and historically naïve.

      As I showed with my 'Redeeming Fitzpatrick' article last year, against Ian Jones' claims that 'no-one will ever know what happened that night', if anyone had bothered to do the hard yards and spadework in the last 100+ years they could have equally shown that Fitzpatrick's narrative can be corroborated quite well. Only a large volume of lazy, incompetent and half-baked excuses for research has allowed people to get away with a Keneally-based beat-up of Kelly the hero since the 1920s.

      As I said when that article was published, I couldn't care less about how the dice fall out in a historical investigation. The point is simply to have a good look at a given topic, review ALL the evidence as far as humanly possible, and see what emerges without letting personal bias skew the findings.

      Obviously there has been some heated debate about whether Ettie Hart and Ned Kelly were ever lovers. I have no interest in pursuing that one myself, but I spent a couple of days on it last year and saw nothing to support it. By the way I am not the Anonymous who gave the idea a serve earlier in this blog page. I either contribute something to a debate under my own name, or I don't bother. I also suggested a few blog pages ago, could people being Anonymous please consider giving themselves a nom-de-plume if they don't want to use their names, so us poor readers can at least follow the various contributions?

      If someone has some research that provides solid evidence for a relationship of between Ettie Hart and Ned K, could they please put it up somewhere for scrutiny, then we can all make up our minds objectively. If it was so, then fine. If it's just puffed up oral history, then we are no better off that the claims cited in Joy and Prior 1963 that nearly everyone they spoke to in Euroa seemed to have had a grandfather in the back the day it was robbed, or a grandmother in the homestead when the Kellys came to town.

    2. Any rebels wanting to live 'fearless, free and bold' and create a bit of disruption by complaining about me are welcome to call the Census paper form request line on 1300 214 531 and ask to speak to me or my supervisor. 15 minutes of fame coming...

  4. I think maybe what has happened is that Kelly enthusiasts have come to the Royal Commission reports, especially the short First Report before they tackle the big Minutes of Evidence, seriously biased by Keneally's 1920s "Inner History" which picks out all the anti-police bits and is a totally biased, Tom Lloyd Jr influenced, pro-Kelly approach to all matters about the Kelly gang. Inspired by Keneally, dozens of others have trolled through the Commission evidence and picked out more and more bits that focus on police failings, especially the relationships ate the top between Standish, Hare and Nicolson, and just ignored anything critical of the poor "persecuted" Kellys. As a result, a great deal of biased guff just keeps being recycled as historical fact when it is more like creative writing. That is why I think this blog is important, because it puts up and asks for evidence for claims, and doesn't just accept popular myths uncritically.

    I accept that these events all happened some 140 years ago and we can't know everything, but we still have a massive amount of evidence about the Kelly period from its day. This means for example that we can read the Royal Commission evidence ourselves and see what we make of it. And despite the police scalp-hunting bias of some of the Commissioners, the impression I have from reading the Commission evidence to date is that their view of the Kelly gang members and general crime in the NE district, including the terrorizing of other selectors under a climate of fear, was pretty objective.

    The general impression I get is that the Kellys were self-interested larrikins involved in a sophisticated horse stealing ring that preyed on anyone who fell within their grasp. This started early with young boy Ned and his siblings nicking horses from travellers and other people in the district, then "finding" them for a fee. It kept growing into a large scale cross-border operation interspersed with highway robbery of anyone who fell their way. All this makes it hard to see why people keep seeing them as somehow persecuted victims of police harassment, a fiction that is currently taught to unwitting schoolkids by hip and happening teachers under a weak-minded curriculum.

    Although we can't know everything about that period, we do have enough evidence to call out some of the more blatant myths. For example, there is a whole bunch of reasons that Dee has presented elsewhere in this blog for dismissing the NE Republic claim as bunkum. As that myth just keeps resurfacing, I hope to add something further to knocking it down sometime next year, based on the fact that there were a number of public separation movements in those days, which I am looking at as time allows. So the idea that nothing is known about Ned's alleged republican leanings because it was secret, because it would have been treason and a hanging offense, is just bunkum.

    The Royal Commission provides an enormous amount of material that is valuable partly because it exposes the motivations, personal antagonism and human failings of the people involved, that we could never know just from police reports and the press coverage of events from the day. Show me an organisation now that isn't impacted by the personal feelings, biases and various dysfunctionalities of its staff, whether permanent or temporary and I'll show you a miracle. In fact, show me any staff meeting and I'll show you a bunch of people who are often not on the same page regardless how many team-building exercises they do. Why do so many Kelly experts expect the police of the 1870 and 1880s to have been somehow better at it?

    1. Stuart, once again, you make some great points. Thanks for taking the time to share your wealth of experience and knowledge with us (and we are still looking forward to your newest Eras Journal article set to be published any day now.)
      I like where you said -
      "The Royal Commission provides an enormous amount of material that is valuable partly because it exposes the motivations, personal antagonism and human failings of the people involved, that we could never know just from police reports and the press coverage of events from the day."
      That resonates with what I said earlier about the infighting and cattiness of the brother officers. Also what you said about personal feelings, biases and various dysfunctions can apply to all of us who post here. It is true of any group of people, as you noted. It makes for interesting conversation on blogs and forums if nothing else.

    2. Is this post serious? Comparing the policing and criminal justice system to an everyday staff meeting?

      I stumbled across this site while doing some Kelly research. What a load of simplistic nit picking - and this post above just confirms that this type of site really has little of value to contribute to the complex themes and forces that fed into these events.

    3. Yeah, right! Thanks for that detailed analytical critique.

    4. I stand with Stuart Dawson on this. His reasoning was well thought out and well worded and it all makes perfect sense to me (as I readily agreed with him in the post following his where he made the staff meeting comparison).
      The way I see it is that police and lawyers/judges are not somehow super-human and above the rest of us just because they put on a badge or robe or wig. They are prone to the same shortcomings and prejudices and weaknesses/strengths that all the rest of the teeming mass of humanity are. His comparison about staff meetings is pretty spot on if you think of it that way! So, are you saying that the police in the Kelly era did not have staff meetings? Did they not confer amongst themselves in office or field? Were not myriad memos, telegrams and letters sent back and forth? Did some not huddle together and gossip about and plot against others (oh, those pesky humans, doing human things!)? Of course they did! (this can include the court folks, too) Didn't lots of small things happen that added up into big ones?

      I have to ask if you are serious when you say "this type of site really has little of value to contribute to the complex themes and forces that fed into these events."

      I say this to that- If you take the time to research and will open your mind, you will find that these "complex themes and forces" are really just made up of lots and lots of little things coming together as I stated above. It takes a whole lot of small everyday mundane (and, yes, simplistically nit picking!) things coming together (this could perhaps include - oh, the horror - a staff meeting at some point!) to make big outcomes happen like Royal Commissions or what-have-you.

      I am sorry that you find no value in this fabulous resource Dee has provided for us to share knowledge and opinions in. Why don't you do like the rest of us do which is take from it what you like and just leave the rest, sort of like a cyber buffet? If that is not to your liking, I want to wish you Godspeed and much luck in finding a Kelly forum or blog that is more in line with your sensibilities.

    5. Hi John, that part of the post was about the internal human dynamics and antagonisms in the top level of the force, especially between Standish, Nicolson and Hare, which were partly responsible for the protracted length of the Kelly hunt. These were the subject of explicit censure in the Royal Commission's Second Progress Report, which states amongst other similar comments that Nicolson "laboured under great difficulties through undue interference of the part of Captain Standish [CCP], and the jealousy occasioned by that officer's favouritism towards Superintendent Hare" (1881, iv). I observed that personal dysfunctionalities subvert the best intentions of many organisations - please see Matthew Stewart, 'The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong', NY: Norton, 2009. The criminal justice system was not mentioned, and neither system was compared to a staff meeting. It seems you are working at a substantially higher level than a humble blog can service, so just leave it to us amateur enthusiasts. Good luck with your research!

  5. Stuart and I did not confer before doing our respective comments and I didn't see his before doing mine. It is funny that both John and I took it to mean that shortcomings were compared to staff meetings! :) No worries, because I still believe that all of the human shortcomings (or strengths) apply in the workings and outcomes in any instance or capacity one wishes to name. And I still believe that a whole lot of small things add up to make up the big things, all as I stated. Am also loving the fact that Stuart and I had the same type of sentiment in the sign off!!! ;)


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.