A widow's son outlawed: Ned Kelly versus the emptiness of Chopper Read


Call me old-fashioned, but as far as celebrity outlaws go, I’ll take Ned Kelly over Chopper Read any day.

The rise to fame of recently deceased Mark “Chopper” Read symbolised the emptiness of our celebrity culture. In a world governed by large-scale gangsters in control of big industry and finance, Read was a mere petty psychopath and opportunist who figured out how to turn a buck from the fact that, as he famously noted, “posh people love gangsters”.

Ned Kelly, on the other hand, achieved fame and notoriety for entirely different reasons. The son of an Irish convict, sent to Van Diemen’s Land by the British occupiers for stealing two pigs, Kelly represented a distinct social layer — the often Irish Catholic rural poor who represented one of the lowest rungs in the social order of the white colonisers.

Like many released convicts, Kelly’s father Red took a piece of land in rural north-east Victoria as a “selector”. However, the best land was already taken by the wealthy “squatters”, a key part of the colonial ruling elite. As well as poor land, the selectors were banned by law from farming livestock.

In the face of such restrictions, selectors inevitably turned to stealing cattle and horses from rich landowners. In turn, the squatters set the corrupt and brutal police force, essentially their private armed force, on the selectors.

The Kelly family suffered greatly from police persecution. Red was charged with stealing and cooking a cow. Cleared of theft, he was nonetheless found guilty of removing a brand from the cow’s hide and given a fine of 20 pounds or six months hard labour. Unable to pay the fine, he served his sentence. The hard labour destroyed his health and he died soon after release.

The police persecution of the Kelly family continued, culminating in the ridiculous incident that drove Kelly and his brother Dan into hiding. Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, an infamous drunkard and liar later sacked by police, was involved in an incident at the Kelly house where he was alleged to have threatened the family.

He later claimed to have been shot in the wrist by Ned. Not only did Ned insist he was nowhere near the house at the time, but the doctor who treated Fitzpatrick’s wrist said the constable was extremely drunk and the injury was not caused by a bullet.

Ignoring the doctor’s evidence, Judge Redmond Barry (who would later sentence Kelly to hang) sentenced his mother Ellen Kelly to three years in jail for aiding and abetting attempted murder. Two other men present for the incident were sentenced to six years. Barry said if Ned had been at the trial, he’d have gotten 15 years jail. A reward of 100 pounds was offered for the capture of Ned and Dan.

Hunted by police, Ned, Dan and two friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne, ended up in a shoot out with a police squad at Stringybark Creek in October 1878 that left three officers dead. In his famous “Jerilderie Letter”, Kelly disputes the police account of the shoot out, insisting he acted in self-defence.

Regardless, there was no turning back for the gang. Officially outlawed, Kelly could be shot by anyone on sight for an ever-growing reward. The path was set that led to what appears to have been an aborted uprising at Glenrowan more than two years later.

The story of the Kelly family is the story of thousands of the Irish poor. And, with the poor farmers often Irish and the squatters largely English Protestants, it is not surprising Kelly viewed his struggle against authorities in the British colonial outpost as a direct continuation of Ireland’s fight for national liberation — a view he set out in the “Jerilderie Letter”.

Often dismissed as just a bank robber and police killer, Kelly was widely viewed as a symbol of opposition to a corrupt and brutal justice system and social inequality. This was not just among the rural poor that protected the Kelly Gang. A horrified Age journalist, in November 1878, described the strong support from the city’s poor for Kelly as “more than astonishing — positively sickening”.

After Kelly’s trial in 1880, a mass meeting of 8000 people demanded a reprieve. More than 30,000 people signed a petition against Kelly’s execution.

The Kelly gang were also the spearhead of what seems to have been an aborted armed revolution, for which the siege at Glenrowan in 1880 appears to have been intended as a trigger.

Having robbed two banks (donating funds to supporters), the Kelly Gang had not carried out any public actions for 18 months. During this time, they evaded police capture despite the reward for Kelly having risen to an unprecedented 8000 pounds (about $3 million today).

The reward was combined with state repression, including the internment (jailing without trial) of dozens of suspected “Kelly sympathisers”. That the Kelly Gang remained at large despite this suggests highly organised networks of supporters.

The details remain unclear, but it appears the gang had been preparing for an uprising starting at Glenrowan. During the siege of Glenrowan, police reports contain sightings of groups of armed men in the surrounding district.

One report states that, after the attempt to derail a train filled with police was thwarted, Kelly addressed a crowd of 150 armed men on a nearby hill, calling off the planned uprising.

Unconfirmed reports also suggested Kelly was captured with a proclamation for a Republic of North-East Victoria on him, though such a document has never been published.

What is clear is that, whereas Chopper Read represented no challenge at all to the status quo, Ned Kelly directly threatened it. The authorities were terrified of what was known at the time as “the Kelly Outbreak”, and they lived in fear for years of a “second outbreak”.

To stave off a fresh rebellion, the authorities instigated reforms to the police and justice system, as well as to alleviate conditions for the rural poor sector Kelly came from. It may have ended in defeat, but the “Kelly Outbreak” led to direct improvement in people’s lives, something that could hardly be said for Read's exploits.

The clearest indication for how Kelly viewed his struggle came in the “Jerilderie Letter”. The gang had robbed a bank in the NSW town of Jerilderie in February 1879, but the main purpose of raiding the town was to give a newspaper editor a letter for publication in which Kelly sets out his point of view.

However, authorities feared its impact and suppressed its publication. It was finally published in full in 1930.

Dictated to Joe Byrne by the illiterate Kelly, the 8000-word letter was an explosive and furious rant that veers from detailing sustained police persecution, defending himself over the Stringybark Creek killings, expressing a desire for personal revenge and setting out an agenda for resolving far deeper social concerns.

Kelly saved his most inspired invective for the police, condemning the “brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big, ugly, fat-necked, wombat-headed, big-bellied, magpie-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as officers of Justice or Victorian Police”. He then wonders "what business any honest person would have in the police”.

In the letter, he advises the rich landowners to use their wealth to alleviate poverty, insisting this was the way to stop theft of livestock. He said: “I wish those men who joined the Stock Protection Society [an association of rich squatters] to withdraw their money and give it and as much more to the widows, and orphans and poor of Greta district”, where Kelly had grown up.

In the letter, Kelly explicitly threatened armed rebellion if justice was not served: “It will pay government to give those people who are suffering innocence, justice and liberty. If not, I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victoria police and inhabitants, but also the whole British army.”

Kelly warned the rich landowners in the region, if they were opposed to his proposals, “to sell out, and give 10 pounds out of every hundred towards the widow and orphan fund and do not attempt to reside in Victoria”.
Kelly concluded: “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.”

The line “But I am a widow’s son outlawed...” deserves to be a famous saying, rather than the defeatist “Such is life”, which evidence suggest Kelly did not even utter as his last words.

The power of the last line of the letter comes from the context. Kelly was a widow’s son because his father was dragged here in chains by Ireland’s occupiers, then persecuted to death. The reference to his mother was deliberate — having lost her husband she was then jailed, despite having small children to look after, for a “crime” that almost certainly never even occurred.

And now this widow’s son tells the rich and powerful that he “must be obeyed”. A representative of the lowest sector of white colonisers, pushed into rebellion, was seeking to turn the tables on his tormentors.

The letter is a wild and often unfocussed rant, and its political program incipient at best, but it expresses widely felt anger at the conditions of an entire social layer. In terms of literary comparison, there is no question Chopper Read’s books feature better grammar and spelling — but contain nothing of the passion, hatred of oppression or desire for justice found in Kelly's letter.

The rebellion Kelly tried to lead was defeated. As Australian folk band Redgum concluded in their 1978 song “Poor Ned”, “it's a thousand like Ned Kelly” needed to win deep-going social change. On the other hand, one hired killer and torturer like Chopper Read is probably one too many.

Above: "Our Sunshine", a 1999 song about Ned Kelly by Paul Kelly. The clip features quotes from Ned's Jerilderie Letter. Below: Redgum's 1978 song "Poor Ned".

Eighteen hundred and seventy eight
Was the year I remember so well
They put my father in an early grave
Slung my mother in gaol
Now I don't know what's right or wrong
But they hung Christ on nails
Six kids at home and two still on the breast
They wouldn't even give her bail

Poor Ned, you're better off dead
At least you'll get some peace of mind
You're out on the track
They're right on your back
Boy, they're ‘gonna hang you high

You know I wrote a letter
'Bout Stringy-Bark Creek
So they would understand
That I might be a bushranger
But I'm not a murdering man
I didn't want to shoot Kennedy
Or that copper Lonnigan
He alone could have saved his life
By throwing down his gun

Poor Ned, you're better off dead
At least you'll get some peace of mind
You're out on the track
They're right on your back
Boy, they're ‘gonna hang you high

You know they took Ned Kelly
And they hung him in the Melbourne gaol
He fought so very bravely
Dressed in iron mail
And no man single-handed
Can hope to break the bars
It's a thousand like Ned Kelly
Who'll hoist the flag of stars