Saturday 8 April 2017

It was 50 years ago today...

You wont find Ned Kelly in amongst all these famous people

The Beatles Sgt Peppers album, released in June 1967 is probably still at the top of the list of the greatest albums of all time, and the Album cover, itself a landmark in album design at the time remains an iconic image of the sixties and the hippie generation. 1967 was the year Rolling Stone Magazine was founded. In Australia 1967 was the year that Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared when swimming, TV was black and white, a referendum was held to decide if Aborigines would be included in the Census ( hard to believe isn't it? ) and that year Ronald Ryan was hanged for murdering a prison warder while escaping from Pentridge Prison, the very place where at that time Ned Kellys bones were buried. Ryan was the last criminal to be hanged in Australia : Capital punishment was abolished in 1985. 

There was also an event of particular interest to Kelly enthusiasts that year,  on the easter weekend which was at the end of March in 1967. It was the Symposium on Ned Kelly at Wangaratta, the aftermath of which was a great national awakening of interest in the Kelly story. The publication that resulted from the Symposium was the first of many books to follow, along with the development of Kelly history as a tourist attraction in Victoria, the creation of special museums and public and private Kelly touring routes and guides, and in general a great flourishing of interest and excitement about the discoveries and insights being made and yet to be made of a somewhat flawed and tragic figure who appeared to embody many of the values and ideals that Australians wanted to call their own.

However, 50 years later, I am sure to the disappointment of many, the Kelly Legend is in its twilight years. The great hopeful vision of the attendees and their teachers at the symposium, which for a long while appeared to be solidifying into a substantial truth has now been eroded to the point of near collapse, like a fantasy sand-castle, unable to withstand the incoming tide of scholarship and scrutiny. In spite of - or perhaps as a result of the advent of the Internet age, social media and mass communications, interest in, and acceptance of the Kelly legends as true history is on the decline. The Kelly descendants are at war with each other, and Iron Outlaw, the great monolithic internet site that dominated the on-line Kelly world for 15 or more years is a silent ruin, its once busy halls now only occasionally visited by its spent owner and the odd spectator passing through. The myriad of hopeful Kelly websites that sprang up in its shadow have been and gone, like the Glenrowan skyrockets which were supposed to be a call to arms, but fell to earth in 1880, burned out and were never seen again. Forums like the once buzzing Ned Kelly Forum disintegrated under the pressure of internal bullying, others have all closed their doors for good and disappeared without trace. There’s one that’s  just surviving, but only because they've pulled down the blinds so nobody can see in except the members who are nervously hunkered down inside with the doors locked, and they’re not letting anyone else in. All that’s left are Bill Denhelds amazing Iron Icon website, this Blog - which is growing rapidly -  and a few 'pro-Kelly' Facebook pages, desperately scanning the newspapers for something to talk about.

In the more traditional world of publishing, where new books about Ned Kelly were numerous and always referenced the legend and the hero, now the tide has turned and for five years, beginning with the 2012 landmark 'Kelly Gang Unmasked' by Ian MacFarlane,  the dominant themes have been sceptical. As a mark of how things have changed, in 2017 Kelly sympathisers are saying the latest work is a balanced book, and praising it, yet its author repeatedly described Ned Kelly as a dangerous criminal, said nothing about the Kelly republic, and rejected Ned Kellys explanations  about the Fitzpatrick affair, the killings at Stringybark creek, and many other once revered dogmas of the Kelly mythology.

But exactly fifty years ago this Easter, it was a different story altogether. In Wangaratta on Easter weekend 1967 the Adult Education Centre invited the general public to attend a Symposium to which noted Guest speakers came to discuss and to celebrate Kelly history. This was a landmark event in the Kelly story, being the first such event ever held, and it attracted huge interest. The Symposium was ‘designed to pare away the layer of myth and Legend, of lies and innuendo, of half remembered truths and remembered half-truths, of romance and sentiment that encloses the Kelly incident; and to get at the flesh of the case, the truth of the man and his times.” In addition to public lectures from academics like the famous historian Professor Manning Clark there were three from the up and coming Ian Jones and there was also an exhibition of Kelly  relics, documents  and photographs, and finally a guided Tour of Kelly country. I would have moved heaven and earth to get to such a Symposium myself, but sadly theres nowhere near the public enthusiasm or academic interest in the Kelly story now as there was then to enable such an event to ever be staged again.  In 1993, a 25th Anniversary symposium was held in Wangaratta but it was of much smaller scale, it was dominated by Ian Jones and no publications resulted.

In one sense though, it could be said that the 1967  weekend was a failure, because if it had successfully got to ‘the truth of the man and his times,’ as hoped, the debate would have ended right there. Instead what really happened was the symposium started the debate which has continued to this day. Following that weekend, interest in Kelly history blossomed over the next 40 or more years, and many new books were written, both fiction and non-fiction, other seminars and exhibitions were held, two full length feature films were produced, the Kelly Gang armour was reassembled and some went on permanent public display, the annual Beechworth Ned Kelly Weekend came into existence featuring such things as re-enactments of the Trials, the very influential TV Series  ‘The Last Outlaw’ was produced, Ned Kelly images were beamed around the world at the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 as a celebration of Australian larrikinism, and in 2012 Ned Kellys remains were dug up from the grounds of the Pentridge prison and reinterred in Greta, with great public fanfare - all that and so much more. Looking back we can see that The Wangaratta Symposium marked the beginning of a Golden Age of Ned Kelly.

“Ned Kelly : Man and Myth”, edited by Colin Cave was the book that emerged from the Wangaratta symposium and it was published in 1968. The book includes the text of seven lectures that were delivered. It also includes transcripts of the question and answer sessions that followed each lecture, wherein some of the most interesting material can be found, as members of the assembled audience brought their own contributions and questions and stimulated interesting debates about all sorts of related and sometimes almost unrelated topics.

Even the Bibliography of this book is fascinating to read, because  in 1967 “A Short Life” by Ian Jones, the essential reading of Kelly enthusiasts  today was yet to be written, as were the other standard texts of today such as those written by  Molony, McQuilton, McMenomy and Corfield. The main references were newspapers from the time of the Outbreak, JJKenneally, Max Brown and Frank Clune. Its not easy to imagine a time without the detail and insights of all these newer works.

It was  an important event in the history of the Kelly legend and I think it should be commemorated. In a series of Posts  to follow up to and after the Easter weekend in 2017, we will look back at those seven Lectures and analyse the arguments in light of all the new findings and undertandings that have been developed since. It will be interesting to discuss how much closer we have come to ‘the flesh of the case, the truth of the man and his times.' 


  1. I thought the 1967 police presentation was the poorest and tiredest of the lot. If ever a really strong police response was needed it was then. It needed a Leo Kennedy or other fiery descendant to talk about the consequences and costs of the SBC ambush.

    Actually, a lot of the presentations were mediocre. I thought the legal stuff was a bit thin and not altogether accurate. Barrister John Phillips's flawed 'Trial of Ned Kelly' was 20 years away, but he trod the ridiculous self defense line espoused at the symposium.

    Dee, I hope you will be able to find out what is being presented nowadays at the Beechworth court re-enactments.

    The Beechworth 'Kelly Weekend' allowed pro-Kelly activists to put on imaginative, far-fetched re-enactments that misled weekenders. The Council never intervened. They liked the income and thought the pro-Kelly people were on the level. They weren't.

  2. The unfortunate descendants of the police murdered at SBC have mostly been exceptionally quiet because of the lousy Kelly Legend that, as you have pointed out Dee, seemed to endlessly denigrate or besmirch their worthy ancestors. Its time for them to speak out loudly now for Justice and recognition so richly deserved as ambushed heroic victims.

  3. There was actually a set of papers done from the 1993 Symposium, but it was done informally and unpaginated, by the conference organiser. The papers were not formally published, however. I think it might have been done as a draft for a publication that didn't happen, but I'm not sure. It had about 5 papers, one by Jones, and an interesting one by an art historian about the Nolan Kelly paintings.

    1. " interesting one by an art historian about the Nolan Kelly paintings." Did he come to the conclusion that they were a fraud and that Nolan hadn't actually painted them but a kid from the Glenrowan pre-school?

    2. There was also a paper by McMenomy and one from McQuilton. I found the Jones one Kelly and Beechworth revisited interesting too. Ian admitted a few errors in the original in the 93 version. Would love to have seen it published..

    3. Ned Kelly Seminar Papers 1993

      Following your lead Stuart for free download, here is the 1993 Ned Kelly Seminar Papers that have always been available on request via the Two huts at Stringybark Creek webpages.

  4. They were about Nolan getting in touch with his inner bandit. He went AWOL late in WW2 and hung out with the Reeds at Heidi Park, after he walked out on his wife and child. He was inspired by Kenneally's and Turnbull's enthusiastic worship of the Kelly god. He had personal issues...

    1. "He went AWOL late in WW2...". While other Aussies were fighting and dying, Nolan was sitting around painting rubbish and contemplating his navel. Same with that other darling of the left, Manning Clark whose 'mild epilepsy' saw him teaching history in England during WW2, before scuttling back home in 1944. Don't know ow this pair could look at themselves in the mirror. White feathers in the mail for both!

    2. White feather?? Just for fun (well, to annoy people really), check this out: “Notwithstanding all Kelly's boasted pluck and bounce, how game he would die, &c., he was the only one who in any way showed the white feather. When the constables ran up to him after Steele had hold of him, he begged for mercy, and asked them to spare his life. There is no doubt that, had he been able to walk, he would have gone off, leaving his comrades behind him in the hotel. It was always said that Dan Kelly was the most bloodthirsty wretch of the whole gang, and that Ned had the greatest difficulty in restraining him from shooting every person he came across.” Francis Hare, ‘The Last of the Bushrangers’, 4th edn, 318-319.

  5. I reckon Sunday Reid had a hand in painting parts of at least some of the Kelly's at Heide. Apparently, the word is she did the red chequered floor in "The trial". While Sid had his arm around her. It was an odd set up. If anyone gets a chance, read "The Heart Garden". Worth it. Gives a great account of Nolan, the Reids and the bohemian, "loose" lifestyle at Heide. Where the original Kelly series was produced.


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.