Ned Kelly is like Uluru. You can’t get past him. He stands in our national dreaming in gloriously inviolate isolation. The closer you get to him, the harder it is to separate myth from reality. Ned is an iconic landmark on our national roadmap; dead centre in our historical consciousness, reckoning left from right and high from low.
Controversy still rages as to whether he was a hero or a villain, a principled victim of oppression or a paranoid rebel with a criminal cause. Some have nailed their colours to the mast in spectacular fashion. Ben Cousins, ‘Such Is Life’ tattoo emblazoned across his taut abdomen, makes no bones that he is a wild boy with wicked ways and a healthy persecution complex. As the Iron Outlaw website (which gets 8.5 million hits a year and has pages such as NedTube, Ned in the News and Ned on Wheels) appraises the situation, ‘it’s doubtful whether the debate will ever end. Such is the emotional impact of the Kelly story.’ If Ned had not existed no-one would have dared to invent him.
No nation’s history can survive without myths. In his classic work The Golden Bough, Scottish anthropologist James Frazer wrote that ‘imagination acts upon man as really as gravitation’. But sometimes the pull of a familiar narrative can obscure facts that are, in their own right, more weird and wonderful than any make-believe.
So how do you take a detour past the myths? Defy the magnetism of a sacred story of Australian manhood and anti-authoritarian rebellion? What made Ned Kelly the man he really was before we converted him into a tourist attraction? We can start by enlarging the cast of characters usually allowed to take part in the passion-play. Let’s sneak some of Ned’s women into the frame.
Just as Hollywood has given us a Ned who looks awfully like Heath Ledger with mutton chops, so the dream factory has also taken care of his love life. Enter Naomi Watts: a golden-haired girl with nice dresses and an upturned button nose, daughter of a rich, much hated squatter. Thanks to the classic costume drama money shot, we have Ned and his fictitious lady lover in a passionate embrace, set against the backdrop of rugged bush terrain and a perpetually setting sun. Heath needs Naomi to sustain the prevalent fable of Australian eroticism: the refined, stuffy young aristocrat has her narrow existence, lonely heart and bridled libido liberated by the rough bushman nomad drover Irish-Aussie fair-dinkum hero type. Lady Chatterley’s lover transplanted to the Antipodes. History porn.
But how’s this for a dramatic set up? We’re inside the Glenrowan Inn, scene of the Kelly Gang’s ‘last stand’, with 25-year old Ned about to climb into his armour, having a dance and a cuddle with a woman old enough to be his mother. The woman Ned’s got in his arms has stopped the prisoners from escaping. ‘You can’t leave yet,’ she tells them at the door. ‘Ned’s going to give his lecture.’ Who’s running the hold-up here? The widow’s son outlawed or the tough old bird handing out the brandy and gin?
You might not get it past a Hollywood executive, but the truth of the matter is that no apocryphal squatter’s daughter is ever going to get near the surprising, sordid and subversive truth of what happened in the Glenrowan Inn on the night of 28 June 1880, of what made Ned Kelly and his world tick.
The significant women in this story were not refined, but rough. Not young, but old enough to bear the scars of thorny experience. Not lonely but swathed in community and kin (at times to their advantage, at other times to their great detriment). Not sexually repressed but sexually active, expressive and even aggressive.
Any truly gutsy Kelly story is going to want to do something pretty wild with Ann Jones, the pragmatic proprietress of the Glenrowan Inn, and Ellen Kelly, Ned’s beloved mother. Their origins may have been practically identical—illiterate, poor Irish Catholic girls—but their paths diverged radically. Their differing yet intersecting lives illustrate the extraordinary richness of colonial experience, where people might encounter crushing poverty or blinding opportunity, and commonly a violent amalgam of both.
Ellen Kelly was born a Quinn in 1832, in County Antrim, Ireland, and migrated to Australia with her parents and ten brothers and sisters in 1841. The Quinns would have considered it a lucky twist of fate—getting away from Ireland just five years before the potato blight hit. Ellen grew tall (5 feet 5 inches) and slender. With her black hair, grey eyes, rebellious spirit and remarkable horsemanship, she soon attracted the attention of John ‘Red’ Kelly, an ex-lag from Van Diemen’s Land. Ellen’s father, James, disapproved of the strapping Tipperary boy. She ignored him, got pregnant to Red and eloped. The couple were married in 1850. Over the next fourteen years, Ellen bore eight children to Red, the first dying in infancy.
Ann Jones was born Ann Kennedy in Tipperary in 1833. She spent her adolescence surviving the potato famine and then, like so many Irish girls of her generation, made the long journey to gold-rush Victoria on her own. She later claimed that she arrived in Melbourne in June 1854 aboard the Queen of the South, the same ship that delivered Sir Charles Hotham to his doomed governorship of Victoria, but given her talents for reinvention and attention-seeking, this means little. (She is not listed on the passenger log.) Ann married within months of her arrival, again mirroring the experience of many immigrant lasses fresh off the boat. In September 1854 she wed Owen Jones, a Welsh labourer, with Roman Catholic rites.
The newly married couple were in Victoria at the time of the Eureka Stockade in December 1854, as were Red and Ellen, who gave birth to Ned Kelly in the months after that watershed event. Ned was born in Beveridge where Red had settled after striking it lucky on the goldfields. Some historians suggest he moved his young family there because he feared the way the Quinns’ lives were going. An examination of the police files shows that James Quinn would have been better off worrying about his own brood than about Red Kelly. Ellen’s brothers, cousins and in-laws weren’t good company if you wanted to stay out of jail. James did his best to make a go of it in the colony and was never in trouble with the police, but Jim junior soon found himself mixed up with cattle- and horse-stealing, vicious assault and highway robbery.
The Jones family, meanwhile, had moved around the Victorian gold region—Forest Creek, Eaglehawk, Bendigo—until they settled in Wangaratta and set up a roadside tea room (a quaint euphemism—most goldfields refreshment rooms sold sly-grog as a matter of course). By 1875, despite Owen’s frequent absences and an itinerant lifestyle, Ann had borne him eleven children. Like Ellen, Ann’s first baby died in infancy. Another two children died before their second birthdays. When their hospitality business went broke, Owen got work on the railways down in Gippsland. Paul Kelly could sing it: They got married early / never had much money / then when he got laid off / it really hit the skids. Ann decided to go it alone in a new venture.
The colony was then in the middle of a long-boom that had begun with the great gold strikes of the 1850s. The sudden explosion in population had required massive new infrastructure—towns, railways, houses, warehouses, factories, telegraph lines, roads—which meant plenty of work if you followed the growth areas. Australia wasn’t attracting the moniker ‘the working man’s paradise’ for nothing.
Ann Jones decided to set up a hotel in nearby Glenrowan, where the north-east railway had recently gone through. She borrowed money from two local businessmen and relied on financial assistance from her eldest son and daughter. By choosing Glenrowan as the site of her enterprise, Ann rightly considered that this was where the smart money should be spent. The township had recently been shifted to bring it closer to the new railway line, and Ann paid £6 for the land that was right next to the new station’s platform. There was only one other pub in town, run by Mr and Mrs McDonnell—ordinary gold diggers who’d struck it rich. The grog market was wide open.
Ann set herself up as the more genteel of the hospitality options, attracting (ideally) a refined, reputable crowd, and getting (more realistically) anyone willing to pay, and everyone getting off the train. She fitted out the hotel with the finest of furnishings. Before long she was turning a profit of £30 a month. In the nineteenth century, to be a licensed female publican was to be a woman of substance. Hotels were the hub of the community, and their proprietors could attain a superior status unrivalled by any other female occupation. Hotel keeping was a tried and true route to social mobility, and Ann Jones was doing what she could to be on the fast track to success.
Meanwhile, a few miles away from the same railway line, things weren’t going so well for the Kelly clan. Red had died an alcoholic in 1866. He left Ellen a 34-year-old widow with seven children—Ned, her eldest son, was eleven. Although Victoria was enjoying a period of unparalleled growth, life was still perilous for a mother abandoned by a feckless husband or abruptly widowed. State welfare was non-existent. If you couldn’t rely on yourself and your neighbours for support then the next step, if available, was the wider kinship network. Unlike Ann, Ellen Kelly had that and used it. She moved further north-east and into the dangerous Quinn orbit.
In Greta, on a bald patch of dirt not big enough or fertile enough to sustain a livelihood, Ellen’s homestead soon became the local HQ of the cattle-stealing and sly-grogging types, plenty of whom were family. Ned grew up in a criminal subculture of defiant, ‘flash’ larrikins leading a shanty lifestyle of fast horses, free-flowing grog, kissing cousins, extramarital sex and poor women who were reliant on unreliable men for their security. Ellen’s eldest daughter, Annie, married at the age of sixteen. When the new husband was imprisoned for cattle-stealing soon after, Annie shacked up with the local constable. She died in childbirth with his daughter, Ellen’s first grandchild.
After Red died, Ellen became pregnant to a fly-by-night, who promised marriage but promptly abandoned her on learning of his impending offspring. Ellen sued the man for maintenance, utilising her canny familiarity with the court system. (She also brought charges against her sister-in-law for using insulting language—a common tactic of one-upmanship among the squabbling women of her ilk). But that daughter too died in infancy. In one of those local quirks of circumstance it was Ann Jones’ husband, Owen, who helped bury the infant.
Soon after, Ellen became pregnant to and subsequently married George King, a young Californian horse-thief who was no more than six years Ned’s senior. What did Ned think? Did he see George as an Oedipal rival for his mother’s loyalty and affection? Or was he happy to have a mate, a pseudo-elder brother? Ellen had three children by George. Incredibly, the last, Alice, was born when Ellen was forty-six years old. King bolted. He was never seen again.
By 1878 Ellen had lost three children and witnessed her second son, fourteen-year-old Jim, imprisoned for five years for cattle-stealing. Having borne twelve children in twenty-eight years, she was once again going it alone. Her daughter Maggie had married William Skillion as a sixteen year-old, and now had two babies. She would later marry her cousin Tom Lloyd and have eleven more children.
By the end of that fateful year, Ellen and William Skillion were in prison for the attempted murder of the drunken, perjuring Constable Fitzpatrick, three policemen lay dead at Stringybark Creek and Ned and Dan had become bona fide bank-robbing refugee outlaws. Ann Jones had established a thriving business at the Glenrowan Inn, but her sixteen-year-old daughter Ann was killed by a tree that she and younger sister Jane were felling. Eighteen months later, both women would lose sons in the deadly inferno of the Glenrowan siege.
Ned Kelly loudly and repeatedly blamed the police for his mother’s incarceration. ‘Fitzpatrick was the cause of all this,’ he protested to every captive audience he came across. There was a driving need, almost a desperation, in Kelly’s efforts to have this message heard. After he held up a pastoral station near Euroa, hostages later complained that Kelly had kept them up all night, raving about Fitzpatrick’s guilt and his mother’s innocence. But even Ned must have had moments of inner disquiet. His mother and infant sister were in jail because a policeman had come to their home to arrest Ned and brother Dan for horse-stealing. Some moral calculus was inevitable: Mum’s in jail because they came looking for me. For a boy who’d been the man about the house, the failure to protect his mother from harm was crushing.
Early the following year we get another indication of just how central and symbolic Ellen had become to Kelly’s private war with the authorities. In the NSW Riverina town of Jerilderie, Kelly and his gang held up the police, the bank, the pub and everyone passing through. As an outlaw it would remain his greatest triumph. While there he attempted to publish his self-justificatory manifesto, known to posterity as the Jerilderie Letter. Ned’s rage at the treatment of his sisters and mother feature prominently. Most revealing is the rhetorical twist at the very end of the lengthy epistle. Ned lets fly a series of bloodcurdling and visceral threats towards his detractors. Those who side with the police will be hunted down, killed and denied Christian burial. They will be staked on an ant-bed, their fat removed and rendered pure. The last line reads: ‘I do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning, but I am a widow’s son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed.’ No greater justification can be claimed. It’s all about Mother.
Nobody would have been more surprised than Ann Jones when Ned Kelly knocked on her door one cold winter night a year later. There was no elaborate hold-up plan in place for Glenrowan. He had come to tear up the railway tracks and derail a carriage full of coppers on their way to investigate the murder of Aaron Sherritt by the Kelly Gang. But damaging the tracks took far longer than Ned had expected, and in the meantime hostages had to be taken. Ned dragged more than sixty people into the Glenrowan Inn. She may have been hauled out of bed in the small freezing hours of Sunday night, but Ann had her wits about her. Eyes peeled for the next shrewd move to be made in response to the mercurial cards being dealt out by life, Ann quickly determined to come up trumps. Having the illustrious Kelly Gang and their prisoners back to her hotel for breakfast, she reckoned, would give her establishment the kind of glamour that could keep people talking for weeks, months if not years. Yes, that’s right, the outlaws themselves! Here at this very bar! Any savvy business mind would have been calculating the self-promotional possibilities.
Exactly what was going on in Ned’s mind when he decided to head back to Mother Jones’ Inn is of course a moot point. Doubtless he was cold and hungry. Doubtless all these hostages he’d been gathering in the last five hours were now a severe problem. Things were going awry—and the train still hadn’t come. Now it’s dawn. A man’s got to eat. And if he could steal some feminine comforts too, so much the better.
Better to embroil the Jones woman in the ambush than his friend McDonnell. All the more so considering that she was known to take full advantage of the influx of policemen in the vicinity during the Kelly Outbreak, giving them board and lodging. The local gossip had her down as a police spy. Then there was the fact that just a few years earlier she’d taken his mother, Ellen, a fellow grog-seller, an unlawful competitor, to court over the outstanding debt of a paltry £2. And now his mother was in jail with a babe at her breast and Ann Jones was here with this classy set-up and raking it in. Yes, why not go back to the Jones Inn, and take all the damn hostages there too. This would teach her. Is it possible to receive succour from the Mother while punishing her for her transgressions? You betcha.
Another intriguing issue arising from that raucous night is the behaviour of Ann Jones herself. Had she cowered or demurred, perhaps, her feminine vulnerability may have been pitied. But she didn’t faint; she flattered. She worked the room. Witnesses later claimed Ann and Ned danced quadrilles with Jane and Dan. Jane also sat with Steve Hart’s head in her lap, stroking his sweated brow. Jane was ‘making very free with them’, reported one hostage. Kisses were supplied along with the gin. Forty-seven-year-old Ann was seen ‘standing against a fence’ with Ned; Joe Byrne tugged playfully at her hair. The armed siege had become ‘a house of sport’, with Ann merrily presiding over the festivities.
Within a blood-soaked few hours, however, young John Jones would be fatally shot by police, daughter Jane injured by a flying bullet and Ann’s hotel burnt to the ground in front of a crowd of hundreds. Standing by were Kate Kelly and Maggie Skillion, who watched one brother’s charred remains dragged from the smouldering hotel, and another forever captured.
Ellen Kelly had lost two sons to violent deaths, but she was a convicted felon herself and hadn’t the moral authority to add public indignation to private grief. But Ann had also lost a son, and by 1882 would lose Jane to tuberculosis, an ailment Ann attributed to the siege. The Glenrowan Inn was completely destroyed when the police torched it, leaving Ann and her five children homeless. Ann felt she had every reason to be angry at the injustice done to her, and was determined to hold the authorities to account. Year upon year, Ann wrote letters so full of self-righteous outrage they could have been taken straight from the Jerilderie template.
There were further blows to endure. At 5.15 p.m. on 11 November 1880, the day of Ned Kelly’s execution, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Ann Jones. The charge: receiving, harbouring and maintaining outlaws. Ann was imprisoned in Beechworth to await trial. Both Ann and Ellen were now behind bars.
The ambiguity surrounding Ned and Ann’s relationship became a focal point of the trial, held in May 1881. A briefing note outlined Ann’s transgressions: ‘lends her daughter’, ‘endearments towards Ned, towards Byrne’, ‘in and out with the Kellys’, ‘locks the door’, ‘bit of a boss’. Yet the crown prosecutor argued that Ann had not ‘acted from motives of romance, sympathy or love for Kelly or his companions’. Rather, she’d committed an illegal act ‘for the sake of gain’. Ann Jones was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Hated by the selector sympathisers for being cosy with the police and pursued by the police for being an avaricious slut. No-one, it seems, entertained the idea that Ann was making the best of a bad lot, inspired by gun-wielding desperadoes to protect her children and her property through any available means.
The timing of Ann’s arrest would almost certainly have been strategically chosen by the government to distract the angry people of the north-east from Ned’s hanging. She was a classic patsy. Ann had also become a thorn in the side of the government, what with all the letter-writing. But Ann refused to be victimised. She was acquitted by jury at the trial, and promptly continued her campaign for justice. She wanted financial restitution for the destruction of the hotel, and compensation for the deaths of her children, whose lost labour amounted to a business deficit in addition to an emotional bereavement. Ann maintained that almost any one of the hostages could have taken the Kelly Gang at any time had they been so inclined, yet she was the only one to be prosecuted. The outlaws would have been caught, she argued, ‘if there was men as honest to the police as I was … this will show you what a cowardly affair the Glenrowan was’. Ann directed her point straight at the heart of the sexual politics of her era: ‘If my cowardly countrymen had the same pluck as me they would have been captured without any trouble.’
Ann was eventually awarded £265, barely enough to pay her legal expenses and debts on the hotel. She had sought £5000. She was never again issued a publican’s licence despite repeated applications. Her husband Owen died in 1890. Six of her children were dead before the age of eighteen. Ellen had seven children predecease her, but she had her honour and dignity defended by ‘a widow’s son outlawed’. On her release from prison in February 1881, Ellen returned to Greta and became a peace-making influence over the still volatile social and political landscape of north-east Victoria. She lived until 1923, long enough to sit in a motor car and watch her descendants prosper as respectable burghers. She was ninety-one. Ann died in 1910 at the age of seventy-seven. She has been all but written out of the history books.
Ned Kelly’s rapid ascension from hunted criminal to heroic archetype in the space of 100 years illustrates a turnaround in our historical sensibility. At the time of his outlawry and capture he was seen by the vast majority as a bush thug and career crim, albeit one gifted with real charisma and a powerful way with words. (As Germaine Greer once observed, Ned was the kind of bloke, with the kind of mates, who could really put the frisson into the Saturday night country hall dance.) Now, bolstered by the animal magnetism—and deep pathos—of the Heath Ledger legacy, we are more likely to think of Ned as a social bandit than a cold-blooded killer.
But what of Ned’s women? Is it possible that a revolution of equal magnitude could occur in our perception of the women whose lives were touched by Ned, and who so clearly touched him? Can we see them not as saintly maternal stereotype (Ellen) or conniving mole/moll (Ann) but as flesh-and-blood women leading bitterly hard lives on their own terms, caught in—but also shaping and sustaining—a complex web of social relations?
So in our money shot, which of course the Hollywood executives are stampeding to option, we have Ned and Ann Jones dancing a dangerous two-step of sin and deliverance. Naomi has been banished to the cutting-room floor of spurious history, and instead we have, say, Kerry Armstrong as Ann, looking haunted, desperate, powerful and every bit of her ravaged forty-seven years. The myth of Australian womanhood is no longer a tale of submission but of survival.
- Kelly Historical Collection, Public Record Office of Victoria: VPRS 4945/0000/5, VPRS 4965/0000/1, 4965/0000/2, 4965/0000/5, VPRS 4969/0000/1, VPRS 4967/0000/3, VPRS
- Spencer, John, A Kelly Family Tree, State Library of Victoria, Australian Manuscripts Collection, MS 10833
- Maitland Mercury, 3 July 1880, 11 November 1880, 12 May 1881
- Brisbane Courier, 19 July 1880
- The Sun (Sydney), 1 September 1911
- Digger: Index of Births, Deaths and Marriages
- Index to Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists to Victoria 1852-1923, Public Record Office Victoria
- Index to Assisted British Immigration 1839-1871, Public Record Office Victoria
- Bond, Geoffrey, Ned Kelly: The Armoured Outlaw, Arco, London 1961
- Clune, Frank, Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, Pacific Books, Sydney 1962
- Corfield, Justin, The Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia, Lothian, Melbourne 2003
- Dean, Gary and Balcarek, Dagmar, ‘Maggie Kelly’, www.nedkellysworld.com.au/history/familytree/maggiekelly.html, accessed 25 March 2009
- Douthie, Judith, I Was At the Kelly Gang Round-Up, Network Creative Services, Melbourne 2007
- Jones, Ian, Ned Kelly: A Short Life, Lothian, Melbourne 1995
- Lake, Marilyn, ‘The Trials of Ellen Kelly’, in Lake, Marilyn and Kelly, Farley, Double Time: Women in Victoria 150 Years, Penguin 1985, pp 86-95
- Moloney, John, I am Ned Kelly, Penguin, Melbourne 1980.
- Morrissey, Doug, Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves: a social history of Kelly Country (PhD La Trobe University, 1987)
- Morrissey, Doug, ‘Ned Kelly’s Sympathisers’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 18, no. 71, October 1978
- Wilson, Jacqueline Zara, ‘Ellen Kelly (c. 1832-1923)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, Melbourne University Press, 2005, pp 213-214
- White, Colin, Mastering Risk: Environment, markets and politics in Australian economic history 1992, Oxford University Press, Melbourne