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A convoluted path to prominence
Brett Foley
Melbourne Age
24 November 2000

PROMINENT NED KELLY historian Ian Jones almost dropped the phone in late 1968 when a Balwyn man, Keith Harrison, read the first line of a letter he said Kelly had written. When Mr Harrison read: "Dear Sir, I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present, past and future", Mr Jones knew immediately that Mr Harrison was holding the original copy of Ned Kelly's Jerilderie letter. Kelly dictated it to gang member Joe Byrne in February, 1879, just before the gang's raid on the Jerilderie Bank.

Photo by Jason SouthThe letter's story is as convoluted and mysterious as the Kelly legend, but yesterday it was unveiled as the State Library of Victoria's prize new exhibit after an anonymous woman donated it on November 8. A copy has been kept at the Public Records Office since Kelly's trial in October, 1880, but the original's whereabouts remained a mystery until that day in 1968. Mr Harrison had approached Mr Jones because the State Library had not been interested. Since then, Mr Jones - acting as unofficial custodian of the letter - had offered it to the National Library in Canberra and the State Library.

Both rejected it several times - until this month. Mr Jones said the "culture of apathy" about the letter was gone and it would finally get the display it deserved. He describes the 8300-word letter as part autobiography, part manifesto and an insight into why Kelly believed Victoria Police officers had wronged him and his family. It was written on 56 small pages over 14 different sessions. "The original just has an impact that you can't obtain from reading it in any other way. You can see Joe Byrne getting tired as his writing becomes more untidy," he said. Mr Jones said the letter contained Kelly's "passionate, vivid and poetic voice" and fragments of a rebel manifesto to proclaim a republic in Victoria's north-east.

Kelly also recounts in detail the gunfight at Stringybark Creek in October, 1878, where three police officers were killed. The previous owner had kept the letter at the back of a roll-back desk, wedged between two stiff sections of cardboard, and held together with a brass clip. Library staff said the pages were amazingly well-preserved. State Library chief executive Fran Awcock described the letter as one of the most important treasures the library had acquired. "We can't believe she just donated it, the valuation would have been astronomical and we could not have afforded to buy it if it went up for sale," she said. Kelly gave the letter to the Jerilderie Bank accountant, Edwin Living, during the hold-up, so it could be printed in the local newspaper. Mr Living took it to Melbourne and it was submitted as evidence at Kelly's trial in 1880. The Argus in Melbourne published the text of the letter in 1930.

Mr Jones recalled that the letter was nearly destroyed in 1962 when a friend from Glenrowan, Louise Earp, told him she knew a woman who had the letter. Mr Jones approached the woman and she denied it. "When Ms Earp contacted her to ask why she lied to me, she said she was fed up with the whole business and was going to burn the letter," he said. The same woman later confided in Mr Harrison, who approached Mr Jones in 1968. It changed owner in 1977. Mr Jones said the owners' secretive natures was difficult to explain, saying many older people thought it was "not respectful to have something linked to an outlaw".

The letter will soon go on display in the State Library's Domed Reading Room as the centrepiece of a Victorian history display featuring Kelly gang memorabilia. The library is also hoping to reassemble and display Kelly's complete suit of armor for the first time. The library owns the helmet and breastplate, his backplate and "apron" are in the Police Museum; and the Museum of Victoria has one shoulder piece. The library is negotiating with a private owner to secure the other shoulder piece.

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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Australian Son by Max Brown

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