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How does a common criminal come to symbolize a nation?
Blu Astbury
Blu is an Australian attending university in the United States. He recently researched and wrote a paper on Ned Kelly as an Australian National Icon which in turn won an award.

My friends and I whiled away many childhood hours in the outback of Australia, role-playing national heroes and icons such as the bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly. Outfitted with upturned buckets on our heads with slits cut out for eyes, we imagined ourselves as Ned Kelly in his infamous iron helmet and armor, fighting against injustice. This unlikely Australian hero fired our childish imaginations. Rather than adults admonishing us for our adulation of a common criminal, they encouraged it as a continued tradition from their own childhoods.

Those childhood games were the result of oral accounts of Ned Kelly handed down through the generations and preserved unconsciously as a natural product of Australian folklore. One indication of how integrated with group consciousness oral traditions of Ned Kelly have become is the Australian colloquialism “as game as Ned Kelly,” which is now a part of common, everyday speech. Australians’ national identity is created through collective oral traditions about cultural symbols such as Ned Kelly, and is the product of communal consensus of what it means to be a part of the group, as much as the soil on which Australians abide.

In the last forty years, oral traditions of Ned Kelly have been co-opted by the Australian government, and used as a deliberate tool in the formation of national identity. Riding on the coat tails of heightened public interest in Ned Kelly books and documentaries, the government has made “Ned” the focus of tourism and a mascot to the world in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Some question the authenticity of Ned as a cultural icon in light of the government’s blatant, propagandistic use of his image.

Australia is a young country. The deliberate and unconscious participation in oral traditions of this common criminal-turned-hero, represent an ongoing process of reconciling the group’s burgeoning identity with its shaky birth in 1788 as a storehouse for England’s unwanted criminals. Most academics do not dispute the power of oral traditions in forming national identity. Rather, what is often disputed is whether Ned Kelly, the icon, is a product of the group’s collective memory or merely a creation of the ruling power to further its own political agenda.

This paper contends that not only is Ned a product of the group’s collective memory but that he is deeply embedded in Australian’s unconscious and can be traced back to the group’s convict heritage and growing affinity for oral traditions of the “anti-hero.” Ned Kelly’s own life story of rebelling against oppression reflects that of an entire nation’s search for identity in the aftermath of the British Empire’s decline and waning influence. Unknown to many, the government was originally opposed to representing Australia as a country of questionable, convict origins. It was the majority’s overwhelming affinity for this particular anti-hero that swayed the government towards repositioning Ned Kelly in popular culture as an “official” national hero.

Collective memory versus propaganda as explanations for national identity

The scholarly work of sociologist Robert Prus lays the foundation for how oral traditions, such as Ned Kelly, are a product of Australians’ collective memory. The logic laid out by Prus is simple. Storage of information in memory is dependent on the individual and occurs in “increments” over the individual’s lifetime. However, those memories only assume meaningful context to the individual because of the “historical accumulation of concepts, comparisons and inferences” within the group’s communal memory, which can span beyond the lifetime of the individual (Prus 398, 401, 408).

Consequently, outsiders to the group may hear “as game as Ned Kelly” and understand its connection to the story of Ned Kelly’s life. However, they would most likely lack the accompanying feelings of pride and implicit identification with rebelling against authority that insiders have learned from members of the collective group. The reason for such implicit associations with Ned by Australians will be discussed shortly.

Professor of Commonwealth and Post Colonial Literatures Graham Huggan supports Prus’s perspective on collective memory’s crucial role in forming group identity. Huggan perceives the all-pervasive nature of collective memory as likely to “supersede state-sanctioned attempts to regulate it,” although ruling powers may influence collective memory for their own political agendas (Huggan 151). On the other extreme, some scholars view perpetuated myths such as Ned Kelly as a blatant manipulation of memory to serve the powerful in authority and further the agenda of nationalism of the state. Specialists in Australian studies and history, Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton, go so far as to describe mythic narratives as simply being “the wellspring of nationalism” that are “constantly mobilized to serve differing ideological and political interests” (2).

The adoption of Ned by the Australian government in national initiatives would appear to support this propaganda based theory of nationalism. However, closer examination of Australian history supports Huggan’s collective memory based theory of nationalism. The Australian government has simply taken an already existent foundation myth—namely that of the dual legends of convict and bushranger—that were conveniently embodied in the popular oral traditions of Ned Kelly.

Australia’s convict and colonial heritage fostered affinity for the “anti-hero”

Archaeologist Eleanor Conlin Casella and Anthropologist Clayton Fredericksen point out that the reason Australia’s convict past is the “dominant narrative” in oral traditions is that unlike other penal colonies, Australia is the only case in which forced convict migration was carried out with the intention of establishing a self-sustaining colony (104). The transportation of women and children as convicts as well as men fostered the birth of an entire generation of criminal origins. To offset the mounting expenditures associated with establishing a colony, most convicts roamed free as indentured laborers for the free settlers (104-106). Thus, convicts constituted the majority of the founding population of Australia and were the originators for many founding oral traditions.

Per an Australian government web site, many convicts and subsequent settlers were illiterate therefore folksongs and oral traditions were central to preserving information. Over the centuries, a folk-identity of Australians as “resilient people who laugh in the face of adversity,” “face up to great difficulties and deliberately go against authority and establishment,” and who value “egalitarianism” and “mate-ship” became embedded in many oral traditions (Australian Folklore).

The horrors of the penal colony that engendered these qualities were well publicized in ballads throughout the British Empire with lines describing the distant land as “a wretched life in chains, upon a distant shore” and pamphlets entitled, “The Horrors of Transportation, The Suffering Convict” (White 19). The drive for survival in a harsh, alien land served as an effective equalizer of social classes. Describing the equalizing nature of Australia for fresh immigrants of different classes, famous Australian poet Henry Lawson (1867-1922) wrote:

But the curse of class distinctions from our shoulders shall be hurled. . .
There’ll be higher education for the toilin’ starvin’ clown,
An’ the rich an’ educated shall be educated down. . .
(Appendix A)

By the 1850s, transportation to most of the colonies had ceased. Australian studies specialist Elaine Thompson attributes the beginnings of the “strong cult of egalitarianism” in Australia to the elevation of many ex-convicts to authoritative positions where their past was deliberately forgotten (Thompson 27, 215-248). Australians’ high esteem of mate-ship, outwardly manifest in the famous colloquial endearment “mate,” is also viewed by Thompson as an outgrowth of that egalitarianism and the idea that people “make judgments about a person without reference to birth, class or reputation” (152). Here, we gain the beginnings of understanding as to how Ned Kelly could be revered like Australian nobility without the usual stain of a convict heritage.

Further insight into why Ned’s crimes of livestock theft and murder of colonial police could be viewed as acts of defiance can be found in the changing nature of the colony he was born into. By the 1850s, along with cessation of transportation, primary industries were becoming established in the vast, rural, bush settings attracting free, working class immigrants. By 1871, when Ned was 16 years old, over half of the white population were immigrants who had been born in other countries (White 48). Ned himself was the son of an Irish convict. Consequently, this burgeoning society consisted of a working class majority of immigrants and emancipated convicts, which lacked ancient European distinctions of peasantry and aristocracy (White 49). This distinct lack of social lines between the rich and poor provided the backdrop for a growing sentiment of injustice at preferential treatment of the wealthy. The intense class conflicts this engendered might not have occurred so readily in other parts of the British Empire where social distinctions were accepted as the cultural norm.

Australian sociologist Brad West views Ned Kelly as being the product of those intense class conflicts. The historical build up to the conflicts occurred between 1860 and 1880, which was coincidentally the last twenty years of Ned’s short twenty-five year long life. Pastoralists took over vast areas of territory, which they had originally occupied illegally but annexed by right of their wealth and a number of land acts. Tensions grew between the free roaming, rural laborers and the wealthy pastoralists over property rights (West, 130-131). Through a dominant presence in judicial positions, pastoralists were able to leverage power. Ned’s opinion that “there never was such a thing as Justice in the English laws but any amount of justice to be had”, which he expressed in his famous Jerelderie letter reflected the popular perception of the colonial justice system by the rural laborers. Like Ned, the rural laborers perceived the police to be agents for corrupt colonial collaborators (Appendix B, 13; West 129-131).

Ned commented in his famous Jerilderie manifesto, which was written as justification for his criminal acts:

…If a poor man happened to leave his horse or bit of a poddy calf outside his paddock they would be impounded. I have known over 60 head of horses impounded in one day …all belonging to poor farmers (Appendix B, 16)

Cattle and sheep stealing, as conducted by Ned Kelly, became an act of defiance against this perceived colonial oppression. In his own words:

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 the whole British army…(Appendix B, 19)

Even though some acts of Ned, such as burning mortgages and sharing the loot of robbed banks with poor farmers to get them out of hock, could be construed as “Robin Hood-like”, it was probably not important to his popularity. Ned’s contemporaries shared no love for the police. Ned’s claims of police persecution served to underscore the inequalities they saw in Britain’s imposed law.

The term, “bushrangers,” was originally used for escaped convicts who roamed the bush, but came to be used for the persecuted and impoverished locals of Ned’s era who took to outlawry and poaching livestock for survival. The custom of indentured convicts supporting those who escaped became a part of the tradition of mate-ship, and continued with the support of bushrangers by dissatisfied farmers and bush workers. Ballads of the rural proletariat portrayed bushrangers as the champion of the poor and heroic fighters against colonial injustices that were being perpetrated at the time.

Convicts authored many of the original ballads about bushrangers who were usually escaped convicts. Ned Kelly himself used the lines from a famous convict ballad in his own Jerelderie letter (see highlighted sections of Appendix B-p.46, and Appendix C to compare the original convict ballad with Ned’s letter). Such ballads were sung as “anthems of defiance” for decades. One example given on a government website is the 1891 strike of sheep sheerers protesting perceived mistreatment by wealthy landowners and the government by singing the ballad of bushranger Jack Donohue (Bush Songs and Music).

It is telling that the ballad “Waltzing Matilda,” now commonly acknowledged as the unofficial national anthem of Australia even on government websites (see Bush Songs and Music) honors a poor, rural worker who commits suicide rather than be taken by law enforcement for poaching a sheep on a wealthy landowner’s property. Coincidently, this song was performed along with Ned Kelly at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Australian anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose discovered Ned Kelly oral traditions amongst the Yarralin and Lingara aboriginals of the Victoria River District of the Northern Territory. The Yarralin and Lingara people worked most of their lives on cattle stations as rural workers. After the 1966-1972 strikes, they gained some legal rights over the land that colonial powers dispossessed them of during the course of 100 years of subjugation (Bird Rose, 178).

Per Bird Rose, Ned’s appeal to the aboriginal tribes most likely lay in his fight for the “rights of the oppressed” and his vocal stance on land rights (184). A leader of the Lingara community expressed his opinion of the questionable validity of the “European pastoral lease”:

White man lease, you read him out on the paper, you change him next year, nother lease. . .mine lease you can’t wash him out. . .He’ll be there for years and years, till he die. . .We call him, that lease, blackfellow law.” (Bird Rose, 180)

Similar to the aboriginals, the rural proletariat of Ned’s generation believed the land was theirs by right of use and did not recognize the European pastoral leases originally drawn up in colonial times. In some of the tribes’ oral traditions blame for the loss of land is clearly attributed to colonial subjugation. Bird Rose notes that in more than one account, Captain Cook who charted the eastern coast of Australia in 1770 for the British Colonial Empire, is depicted as the harbinger of the “immoral process by which peoples’ land was stolen” (Bird Rose, 183).

In contrast, Ned is featured in their foundation myths as an original being involved with the creation of life itself. The actions of those “original beings” featured in traditional aboriginal “dreamings” are implicitly understood to represent the moral principles of the universe (Bird Rose,179). Thus, even for some aboriginals Ned came to represent the “moral European” and advocate for the oppressed (Bird Rose, 175).

How do we explain the retention of convict values in contemporary Australia?

It easy to imagine how values such as defiance, mate-ship, the underdog, courage, and the anti-hero shaped the lives and sustained such Australian forebears as Ned Kelly through harsh, colonial conditions. However, why were such values, embodied in Ned Kelly, still upheld as the Australian ideal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games? Absent a reasonable explanation, the theory that Ned Kelly is simply a product of government propaganda appears to be reasonable.

Sociologist Robert Prus’s social theory of memory provides us with another explanation as to why traces of Australia’s past have been retained even if preserved qualities such as egalitarianism and defiance are no longer relevant for the present world Australia occupies. Collective memory establishes a frame of reference for viewing the world. This frame of reference becomes permanently embedded in the group’s cultural filter and implicitly accepted as being the way the world is (Prus 408, 414). Thus, the “cult of egalitarianism” as noted by Australian studies specialist Elaine Thompson is still strongly represented in codes of loyalty to mates and the standard Australian salutation, “G’day Mate” (Thompson 152).

The explanation that convict beginnings became a part of the Australian world-view might also explain why a 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes by sociologists Bruce Tranter and Jed Donoghue found that many of Australians who constitute the middle classes identify with the collective memory of a convict heritage (555, 573). This is in spite of the theoretical and empirical impossibility for over 20 million people to be descended from the original convict inhabitants of the penal colonies.

Historical evidence resolves who chose Ned—the People or the Government.

The cultural groundwork has been laid as to why a nation might accept a criminal as a national hero. The question is who chose Ned Kelly—the Australian government or the Australian people? Historical documents provide objective evidence concerning the issue of the popularization of Ned as a national icon and a definitive answer to whether his iconic status is the result of nationalistic propaganda or the natural process of oral traditions and collective memory.

No matter the true motives or criminal nature of Ned’s acts, oral traditions lauded Ned as a hero of the people even while he was alive. In 1879, while the Kelly gang was hiding in the bush after murdering three troopers and robbing multiple banks, they were publicly criticized in the publication, “Outlaws of the Wombat Ranges”. The author noted that youths “not content with openly avowing their feelings in simple conversation . . . congregate occasionally at street corners and elsewhere to sing ballads – hymns of triumph, as it were – in their praise.” (Appendix D, 70) The youths’ words of defiance and admiration of Ned are clear in the following ballad excerpt:

We thin their ranks,
We rob the banks,
And say no thanks,
For what we do.
Oh, the terror of the camp is the bold Kelly Gang.
(Appendix D, 71)

As unfavorable to Ned as the 80-page booklet was, it fed the public’s hunger for information on Ned. While the Kelly gang was at large, the first play “Catching The Kellys” was performed in Melbourne.

A petition to the governor for a stay of execution collected over 31,000 signatures, a sample of which can be found in Appendix E. At Ned’s sentencing on October 30, 1880 Judge Barry Redmond commented on the support Ned received from the local community:

. . .by some spell, which I cannot understand--a spell which exists in all lawless communities more or less, and which may be attributed either to a sympathy for the outlaws, or a dread of the consequences which would result from the performance of their duty--no persons were found who would be tempted by the reward or love of country, or the love of order, to give you up. . .(The Sentencing of Edward Kelly).

Far from fading into obscurity after he was hung, the legend of Ned grew with each retelling. The first ever, feature length motion picture in Australia, released in 1906, recounted Ned’s exploits just 26 years after his execution. It played to packed houses and accelerated the momentum of Ned’s myth towards the level of national narrative. In the 1920s and 1930s, with the development of commercial radio, numerous songs recounted Ned’s deeds and appeared on records for the first time. Some songs, such as “Poor Ned Kelly” and “The Ned Kelly Song” are now a part of Australian oral traditions.

Since then, the formidable intertextuality of Ned’s story is reflected in the numerous movies, novels, plays, songs, operas, ballets, cartoons, and paintings done in his name. Sociologists Bruce Tranter and Jed Donoghue found evidence of the depth of Ned’s integration into Australian culture in a study of the depiction of bushrangers in the Sydney Morning Herald from 1987 to 2004. While other bushrangers were discussed mostly in an historical context, Ned was predominantly associated with the arts and culture (10). Many cite Sydney Nolan’s 1946 and 1947 series of Ned Kelly paintings as the turning point for Ned becoming a national icon. (See Appendix F for a comparison of the actual armor and one of Sydney Nolan’s paintings.) Sydney Nolan encapsulated the nation’s fascination for Ned in the simple but powerful symbol of the black, square, slit helmet, which dominates all of the paintings’ scenes.

What was the government doing during this time? Contrary to using Ned as propaganda, the Australian government initially discouraged propagation of his myth. In 1912, after a rash of bushranger movies was released, the New South Wales law enforcement officially banned the bushranger genre of movies due to the romanticization of bushrangers and the poor portrayal of police. Douglas Stewart's 1956 play “Ned Kelly” was supposed to be included in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics but was cancelled due to concern over projecting the wrong image to the world. Contrast such actions to: the repatriation of Ned as national property since the 1960s; government tourist campaigns and national events that depict Ned as the Australian mascot; numerous government sponsored art and museum exhibits; and legislation reclassifying historical locations and artifacts, including Ned’s infamous armor, as national heritage.

The source of this governmental change of heart towards Ned can be traced to the strong, nationalistic movement that began in Australia in the 1960s. Historian Stuart Ward asserts that the Australian government’s sudden focus on promoting culture and identity unique to Australia must be understood in terms of Britain’s waning influence in a post-colonial era. The last vestige of “British emblems of civic identity” and tangible ties to Britain were disappearing in the 1960s. A new identity was needed to fill the void (53). The substitution of colonial symbols for Australian symbols such as new Australian currency and the identification with Australia Day over Empire Day reflected a general loss of affinity for “Australian Britishness.” Each transition was underscored by a sense of anxiety that the newfound Australianness would lack a “distinctive soul” revealing a crass provinciality (65).

Ward suggests that the overly used adage of projecting an image to the world that started in the 1960s was dogged by the insecure notion that the imaginary world would look down on a culturally barren backwater (60). Accordingly, Australian Prime Minister John Gorton who was in power from 1968 to 1971, perceived Ned Kelly, along with kangaroos, as detrimental to what makes Australia “great” in the eyes of the world, stating:

We can show the rest of the world what Australia is, how its people live, and impress them with the fact that there are other things than avant-garde kangaroos or Ned Kellys in this great country of ours (60).

In order to promote what the government perceived to be a more “culturally sophisticated Australian image at home and abroad”, the Australian Council for the Arts and Australian Film Corporation was established in 1968 (Ward, 53).

The Chairman of this newly established council perceived the problem with Australian arts was that they arose out of the “Western European tradition” and thus were regarded suspiciously by many Australians “as alien, an expression of snobbery and of privilege” (Ward, 62). At the same time, he expressed the commonly held fear that what constitutes true Australian culture and national identity might not amount to good art, reflecting the insecure and “self conscious Australianism” of the time (Ward, 64), stating:

What happens if Kangaroo Productions or Bushwacker films apply for a subsidy to produce the “Saga of Bib and Bub”, or “John and Betty go to School?” I have very little sympathy with people who say ‘this film may not be so good – but by God it’s Australian (Ward, 64).

In spite of the prevailing government’s insecurities about the perceived backwater provinciality of homegrown culture, it was the Australian public and group consensus of disdaining snobbery and pretension in favor of egalitarian values that swayed the tide on what constituted Australian arts. After promotion of a succession of unsuccessful productions covering topics considered suitable material for the national image, it is very telling that the few commercial successes funded during the six years the committee lasted was a series of farces about Australia’s relationship with the “Mother” country.

Australian culture and arts specialist Ann Pender points out that the character in these films, Barry McKenzie also known as “Bazza,” was the quintessential Australian who spoke with a real Australian brogue. The significance of this film was that for decades Australians had been taught to regard their culture and natural brogue as crass and “inferior”. The character made a parody of British sensibilities and allusions of the “bygone grandeur” of colonial times and in typical Australian style, made a self-depreciatory mockery of the “crude parochialism” of Australian culture (Pender, 72).

The main character of the film even made fun of the government committee that funded the film stating:

An arty-crafty bloke like you would be laughin’ back in Australia right now. The government’s shelling out piles of bloody moulah for any bustard who reckons he can paint pictures, write poems or make fillums (Ward, 65).

Critics condemned the film for its crudeness, lack of refinement and stain on the national image (Ward, 65). However, Australian intellectual Manning Clark praised the film, succinctly tying the reason for its success into Australians’ affinity for more familiar character traits embodied in local heroes such as Ned Kelly:

The response of the audience was so warm and spontaneous that it was clear once again that you had succeeded in catching at type Australians recognize, and they are really proud of, and so barrack for him as they would for one of their football heroes, or for Ned Kelly, or for anyone who is unmistakably “one of us” (Pender, 75)

Clearly, historical evidence shows that the government’s adoption of Ned and the convict roots that he stands for was swayed by public opinion. Examination of present-day government cultural websites such as the ones referenced in this paper reveals that Australians’ sense of group identity, retained in collective memory, is now accepted as the “official” consensus of what it means to be Australian.

Little did Ned know that the iron helmet designed to protect him against hostile bullets would become a symbol for the entire nation in the aftermath of colonial oppression against which he fought with such vehemence. The cards were heavily stacked against Ned but despite the inevitability of his death, he conducted his fight with great daring. As Australians put it, he was “game.” Clearly, the qualities that his myth evoked for me as a child--of egalitarianism, courage in the face of adversity, and disdain for authority—were a legacy of the pioneering experiences of numerous Australian forebears. In light of the rich oral traditions, including childrens’ games, the propagandizing of Ned’s name does not render him a creation of the powers-that-be, but rather, is a poignant reminder that Australia is a burgeoning country exploring the legacy of its penal origins and what it means to be Australian today.

Works Cited
Australian Folklore. September 5, 2007. Australian Government. November 11, 2007
Bird Rose, Deborah. "Ned Kelly Died for Our Sins." Oceania 65 (1994): 175-186.
Bush Songs and Music. October 3, 2007. Australian Government. November 11, 2007
Conlin Casella, Eleanor, and Clayton Fredericksen. "Legacy of the 'Fatal Shore'" Journal of Social Archaeology 4 (2004): 99-125.
Darian-Smith, Kate, and Paula Hamilton, eds. Memory & History in Twentieth-Century Australia. Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1994.
Huggan, Graham. “Cultural Memory in Postcolonial Fiction: The Uses and Abuses of Ned Kelly.” Australian Literary Studies (May, 2002): 142-154.
"Kelly Culture: Reconstructing Ned Kelly." State Library of Victoria. 2 Feb. 2007. Federal Government. 1 Oct. 2007 <>.
Pender, Anne. "The Mythical Australian: Barry Humphries, Gough Whitlam and "New Nationalism"" Australian Journal of Politics and History 51 (2005): 67-78.
Prus, Robert. "Human Memory, Social Process, and the Pragmatist Metamorphosis." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (2007): 378-437.
The Sentencing of Edward Kelly. November 14, 2007. Iron November 7, 2007
Thompson, E., Fair enough : egalitarianism in Australia. Sydney: University of New
South Wales Press, 1994.
Tranter, Bruce, and Jed Donoghue. "Bushrangers in the Sydney Morning Herald: Ned Kelly and Australian Identity." Proceedings of the TASA Conference, December 4-7, 2006, University of Western Australia & Murdoch University, Australia. (December 4-7, 2006): 1-12.
Tranter, Bruce, and Jed Donoghue. "Convict Ancestry: a Neglected Aspect of Australian Identity." Nations and Nationalism 9 (2003): 555-577.
Ward, Stuart. ""Culture Up to Our Arseholes": Projecting Post-Imperial Australia." Australian Journal of Politics and History 51 (2005): 53-66.
West, Brad. "Crime, Suicide, and the Anti-Hero: "Waltzing Matilda" in Australia." Journal of Popular Culture 35 (2001): 127-141.
White, Richard, Inventing Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwen, 1981.

Appendix A
Poem by famous Australian poet Henry Lawson (1867-1922)
It is stuffy in the steerage where the second-classers sleep,
For there's near a hundred for'ard, and they're stowed away like sheep,
They are trav'lers for the most part in a straight 'n' honest path;
But their linen's rather scanty, an' there isn't any bath
Stowed away like ewes and wethers that is shore 'n' marked 'n' draft.
But the shearers of the shearers always seem to travel aft;
In the cushioned cabins, aft,
With saloons 'n' smoke-rooms, aft --
There is sheets 'n' best of tucker for the first-salooners, aft.

Our beef is just like scrapin's from the inside of a hide,
And the spuds were pulled too early, for they're mostly green inside;
But from somewhere back amidships there's a smell o' cookin' waft,
An' I'd give my earthly prospects for a real good tuck-out aft
Ham an' eggs 'n' coffee, aft,
Say, cold fowl for luncheon, aft,
Juicy grills an' toast 'n' cutlets -- tucker a-lor-frongsy, aft.

They feed our women sep'rate, an' they make a blessed fuss,
Just as if they couldn't trust 'em for to eat along with us!
Just because our hands are horny an' our hearts are rough with graft
But the gentlemen and ladies always DINE together, aft
With their ferns an' mirrors, aft,
With their flow'rs an' napkins, aft
`I'll assist you to an orange' -- `Kindly pass the sugar', aft.

We are shabby, rough, 'n' dirty, an' our feelin's out of tune,
An' it's hard on fellers for'ard that was used to go saloon;
There's a broken swell among us -- he is barracked, he is chaffed,
An' I wish at times, poor devil, for his own sake he was aft;
For they'd understand him, aft,
(He will miss the bath-rooms aft),
Spite of all there's no denyin' that there's finer feelin's aft.

Last night we watched the moonlight as it spread across the sea --
`It is hard to make a livin',' said the broken swell to me.
`There is ups an' downs,' I answered, an' a bitter laugh he laughed
There were brighter days an' better when he always travelled aft
With his rug an' gladstone, aft,
With his cap an' spyglass, aft
A careless, rovin', gay young spark as always travelled aft.

There's a notice by the gangway, an' it seems to come amiss,
For it says that second-classers `ain't allowed abaft o' this';
An' there ought to be a notice for the fellows from abaft
But the smell an' dirt's a warnin' to the first-salooners, aft;
With their tooth and nail-brush, aft,
With their cuffs 'n' collars, aft
Their cigars an' books an' papers, an' their cap-peaks fore-'n'-aft.

I want to breathe the mornin' breeze that blows against the boat,
For there's a swellin' in my heart -- a tightness in my throat
We are for'ard when there's trouble!
We are for'ard when there's graft!
But the men who never battle always seem to travel aft;
With their dressin'-cases, aft,
With their swell pyjamas, aft
Yes! the idle and the careless, they have ease an' comfort, aft.

I feel so low an' wretched, as I mooch about the deck,
That I'm ripe for jumpin' over -- an' I wish there was a wreck!
We are driven to New Zealand to be shot out over there
Scarce a shillin' in our pockets, nor a decent rag to wear,
With the everlastin' worry lest we don't get into graft
There is little left to land for if you cannot travel aft;
No anxiety abaft,
They have stuff to land with, aft
Oh, there's little left to land for if you cannot travel aft;

But it's grand at sea this mornin', an' Creation almost speaks,
Sailin' past the Bay of Islands with its pinnacles an' peaks,
With the sunny haze all round us an' the white-caps on the blue,
An' the orphan rocks an' breakers -- Oh, it's glorious sailin' through!
To the south a distant steamer, to the west a coastin' craft,
An' we see the beauty for'ard, better than if we were aft;
Spite of op'ra-glasses, aft;
But, ah well, they're brothers aft
Nature seems to draw us closer -- bring us nearer fore-'n'-aft.

What's the use of bein' bitter?What's the use of gettin' mad?
What's the use of bein' narrer just because yer luck is bad?
What's the blessed use of frettin' like a child that wants the moon?
There is broken hearts an' trouble in the gilded first saloon!
We are used to bein' shabby -- we have got no overdraft
We can laugh at troubles for'ard that they couldn't laugh at aft;
Spite o' pride an' tone abaft
(Keepin' up appearance, aft)
There's anxiety an' worry in the breezy cabins aft.

But the curse o' class distinctions from our shoulders shall be hurled,
An' the influence of woman revolutionize the world;
There'll be higher education for the toilin' starvin' clown,
An' the rich an' educated shall be educated down;
An' we all will meet amidships on this stout old earthly craft,
An' there won't be any friction 'twixt the classes fore-'n'-aft.
We'll be brothers, fore-'n'-aft!
Yes, an' sisters, fore-'n'-aft!
When the people work together, and there ain't no fore-'n'-aft.

Appendix B
The original Jerilderie Letter is now held by the Victorian State Library.
See the original at:

Appendix C
Old convict ballad
Moreton Bay

One Sunday morning as I went walking
By Brisbane waters I chanced to stray
I heard a convict his fate bewailing
As on the sunny river bank I lay
I am a native from Erin's island
But banished now from my native shore
They stole me from my aged parents
And from the maiden I do adore
I've been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I've been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails
For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay
Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed under Logan's yoke
Till a native black lying there in ambush
Did deal this tyrant his mortal stroke
My fellow prisoners be exhilarated
That all such monsters such a death may find
And when from bondage we are liberated
Our former sufferings will fade from mind

Appendix D
First page of pamphlet
T H E  K E L L Y  G A N G

The Outlaws of the Wombat Ranges

“Quid de Quoque viro, et cui dicas, soepe caveto”

“Be cautious what you say, of whom, and to whom”.



of the soi-disant surveyors, informed her friends. The next morning, before sunrise, the four men were shot dead (by the Clarks) as they lay asleep, and were subsequently buried on the banks of the adjacent creek, each rolled in a sheet of bark, it is said. The inhabitants of the neighbouring township, however, had them exhumed, and buried in consecrated ground.

The affair created a great sensation for a time, but soon became forgotten, or, at best, but rarely thought of or referred to.


“A famour man was Robin Hood,
The English ballad singer’s joy”. - Old Song.

The widely-extended and generally-expressed horror and detestation of the police murders which have been displayed through this colony, render more prominent the sympathy and admiration for the Kellys that, by the larrikin class, are not only barely disguised in some cases, but openly vaunted in others.

This is more noticeable among the youth in various large centres of population where, not content with openly avowing their feelings in simple conversation, they congregate occasionally at street corners and elsewhere to sing ballads – hymns of triumph, as it were – in their praise. We have not been informed, whether these lyrics have yet taken shape in print, but we have succeeded in obtaining the words of a few by taking them down from dictation.

They are, for the most part, wretched doggerel, void of point as a rule, and in the metre – if metre it can be called – adapted to the Universal Irish street-ballad tune, if we except one, which is an attempted parody on the “The Bould Sojer Boy”. It seems to us that the majority of them are from the same pen, and we should imagine that the writer would find himself more at home in a “thieves’ kitchen”, a St. Giles’ ballad-mongery, or one of Her Majesty’s jails, than at either missionery meeting or the gathering together of a Young Men’s Christian Association, unless, indeed, he attended with the intention of picking the pockets of the audience.

We venture to submit some extracts from this kind of literature merely as samples of the pernicious stuff that is provided to poison the ear.

It is not so much any distortion of facts that will be found to excite disgust, but rather the flippant phraseology in which the descriptions of events of serious import are clothed.

We have limited our extracts to the most harmless portions to be selected from the mass of leprous distilments of the composer’s perverted genius, such as it is, feeling confident that the majority of readers will join in our estimate of the wretched and mischievous productions, inductively judging what the character must be of the lines we have withheld from publication, as being outside the limits of decency and order. The following lines form a portion of a bad parody on "The Bould Sojer Boy"; this sample will be enough of the song to judge by. It refers, of course, to the Kelly gang:–

Oh, there’s not a dodge worth knowing,
Or showing, that’s going,
But You’ll learn (this isn’t blowing)
From the bold K—y G—g.

We have mates where ‘er we go
That, somehow, let us know
The approach of every foe
To the bold K—y G—g.

There’s not a peeler riding
Wombat ranges, hill or siding,
But would rather far be hiding,
Though he’d like to see us hang.

We thin their ranks,
We rob the banks,
And say no thanks,
For what we do.
Oh, the terror of the camp is the bold K—y G—g.

Then, if you want a spree,
Come with me, and you’ll see
How grand it is to be
In the bold K—y G—g.

The next is a fragment of an account of the Euroa bank robbery, and possesses the negative advantage of containing less pernicious stuff than most of the other effusions:–

So Kelly marched into the bank,
A cheque all in his hand,
For to have it changed for money
Of Scott he did demand.

Appendix E
First page of Petition for Stay of Execution of Ned Kelly

Appendix F
Ned Kelly’s actual armor
“Ned Kelly” by Sir Sydney Nolan.

While not everyone wants to read about Ned Kelly or the ANZACs or even The Great Depression, we hope they want to learn something about Australian History. From the ex-Prime Minister John Howard to a confused ex-NSW Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt (see the ex-pattern here?) a number of politicians have jumped on the teaching history bandwagon. But at what cost? From Right Wing Liberals to the multitude of State Governments, seems everyone has an agenda. We'd like to let the readers decide what is worth learning. Here at we present the facts, the fiction and everything in between. It all adds to the experience and hopefully makes History an exciting place to be while also proving it needn't always have to be written by the victors.
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If you're looking for that perfect gift then head over to our shop where we are featuring Max Brown's 312 page hardcover limited edition novel Australian Son: the story of Ned Kelly for $34.95 with free Australia wide postage (or $14.95 international postage). All of Max's books come with a bonus Australian Son bookmark. These books are only available for purchase online (and not through book shops). Of course the money we raise goes back in to building the world's greatest Ned Kelly web site.

Australian Son by Max Brown

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