The Kelly Letter and the jousting historians behaving nobly

There was an interesting article in this morning’s Age written by historian Alex McDermott.  Titled ‘In the Kelly legend are our own lives writ large’ Alex describes the international interest that was attracted to the news that the State Library had acquired a letter that gave an eyewitness account of  Ned Kelly being taken into custody at Glenrowan.

The Sutherland letter, which can be seen at the State Library of Victoria website here was written in 1880 by young Donald Sutherland, a bank teller in Oxley in regional Victoria, to his parents back home in Caithness, Scotland.   On hearing of the news of the siege at Glenrowan he had travelled there, along with nearly everyone else in the vicinity, to rubberneck at this leader of the Kelly Gang who had terrorized the countryside for so long.  And there he saw him laid out wounded on a stretcher, his head cradled by Kate Kelly,  surrounded by his keening sisters.

Ned does not at all look like a murderer and bushranger- he is a very powerful man, aged about 27, black hair and beard with a soft mild looking face and eyes- his mouth being the only wicked portion of the face.

The bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were lying covered by a sheet.  The bystanders were frightened to look at them, but not so young Donald:

Thousands of people thronged to Glenrowan on receipt of the news and not one of the crowd there had the courage to lift the white sheet off the charred remains until I came up and struck a match- it being dark- pulling down the sheet and exposed all that remained of the two daring & murderous Bushrangers.

They “presented a horrible appearance being roasted to a skeleton” being “[b]lack and grim reminding me of old Knick himself”.

I must admit that the letter, to my completely inexpert eye and limited knowledge, seems almost too good to be true.  In his reaction to the letter in October 2013, as reported on the ABC website, McDermott himself expresses similar sentiments, while still marvelling at the letter and the unique perspective it gives:

“To take the siege of Glenrowan, one of the most scrutinised events in Australian history, one of the most researched events in Australian history and then have someone sort of tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Oh by the way, there is another account no-one knew about it, it just came up,’ it’s a gem,” he said.

“What we have here is an everyday bank teller from Oxley, a little town near Glenrowan, and he’s not on the side of the Kellys, and he’s not on the side of the police.

“[Sutherland is] able to give an account of how Kelly’s demeanour was, the sort of man he seemed to be.

Is it too good to be true? Admittedly, Sutherland enclosed newspaper reports in the letter to his parents which gave much of the factual background to the Kelly events, so he was left free to give his own eyewitness account as an adjunct to these reports.  Further, it is true that he is making the point that Kelly’s actual appearance did not reconcile with the images and rumours that were sweeping Victoria.  But to have a physical description like this, with such a novelistic eye, still surprises me.  Perhaps it’s jealousy that I’ve found no physical description at all of my own Judge, but from reading many letters of the time, I have found that people rarely commented on what people looked like.  In memoirs, years after events, yes- but not in letters.  I hope that the letter is authentic: surely research would have been undertaken into its provenance.  But, as the recent challenge to the authorship of the diary-formerly-known-as-the-Lazarus-Diary shows, things are not always what they seem.

You’ve probably seen Alex McDermott on recent television documentaries (e.g. SBS’ Immigration Nation)  He’s young (well, anyone under 50 is young as far as I’m concerned), extremely photogenic, articulate and interesting.  He’s been working on Ned Kelly for some years (for example, he wrote the introduction to the recent release of the Jerilderie Letter)  and questions the Irish Hero status that has been awarded him.  He sees Victorian society during the 1880s as still fluid and not marked by  entrenched divisions between rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic, Irish English or Scots.  As he says in the Age article:

To my mind, Kelly’s rebellion was fuelled by his extensive involvement in organised crime- namely, wholesale and retail horse stealing, which flourished in the region, especially in the circle of country that surrounded the Kelly homestead.  This crime wasn’t, as Kelly himself maintained, the result of a land war between poor men and rich squatters, it actually preyed on the smaller selector farmers as much as the big pastoralists.

In taking this stance, McDermott has been pitted against the doyen of Kelly Studies, Ian Jones, who takes the opposite view.  The final part of McDermott’s Age article reflects  on the relationship between historians who circle each other on contested ground.  They were thrown together during the filming of Tony Robinson’s 2008 Time Team- inspired documentary on the Glenrowan siege site.

He was the established lion of the field and I was the revisionist young Turk (in Tony’s excited narrative), who argued against some of the basic premises of Jones’ interpretation, which are also the popularly held ones- Kelly was victimised for being a poor Irish Catholic and suffered persecution from unreasoning tyrannical police bullies and an entrenched ethnic, economic and establishment elite.

On the first day of the shoot, Robinson told me how remarkable he considered the decency with which Jones was treating me.  Television is a dog-eat-pipsqueak world, as much as history wars.  He’d seen plenty of other established authorities dealing with revisionist young contenders on other programs he’d done, and assured me it wasn’t pretty. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are to be treated so kindly?” the amateur historian and actor asked me bluntly.

He then goes on to describe their interaction on the set of the documentary; staying the night in Beechworth with him; driving around Kelly sites  introducing him to amazed and rather derisive acquaintances.  It’s a  heartwarming story in a world of snarky Amazon reviews and vituperative partisan websites.

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4 responses to “The Kelly Letter and the jousting historians behaving nobly

  1. I was interested to read Tony Robinson’s remarks, in view of having recently witnessed an old Turk giving a young Turk a public basting. In fact, now I come to think of it, that’s the third time I’ve seen someone having a go at an historian – practically a blood sport. How good is Ian Jones?

  2. Your comment on the lack of personal descriptions is interesting. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but I think it’s true for letters amongst my own circle of subjects (c.1800-1850). I remember reading somewhere – where?? – that there were strict rules in letter writing that you should only discuss in your letters people who were known mutually, to both writer and recipient. That would eliminate the need for physical descriptions except for updates – ‘Mr Jones is looking older and now limps’. But I can’t see how that rule could apply to letters sent home from the colonies, and it sounds a very bourgeois rule anyway, not likely to apply universally.

  3. I’ve never heard that there was local sympathy for Kelly, which fits well with him also stealing from the less wealthy.

  4. Alex’s interpretation of Kelly’s motive puts an interesting slant on the Jerilderie holdup. The people there, (my great grandfather was one of them), would have had to keep their heads in a ticklish situation particularly when Ned threatened to kill someone. Perhaps they knew he was not bluffing?

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