Marxist Interventions

Bushrangers

From Ben Hall to Ned Kelly

(This is mainly about the Kelly gang, for which the best source is McQuilton, John, The Kelly Outbreak, 1878-1880: The Geographical Dimension of Social Banditry, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1979. The following is largely a summary of McQuilton’s work, and the numbers in parentheses are page numbers from that book. I wrote it as part of a larger project, since abandoned. For non-Australians perhaps I should explain a few terms: bushrangers were outlaws. Squatters were pioneers who occupied land without owning it; later many became rich and the term took on elitist implications. "Selection" refers to plans to encourage small scale farming. - Tom O’Lincoln.)

Bushranging had initially been a form of escape from and revolt against the convict system. Then the second half of the 19th Century saw new outbreaks, with new causes. The most obvious catalyst was the gold rushes, which created new wealth alongside political confusion. The sight of desperadoes seizing gold shipments at a time when the forces of order were thinly stretched perhaps needs little explanation. However rural discontent was another, more interesting factor.

In New South Wales, cattle stealing had long been common in squatting districts, where small squatters became bushrangers when the police cracked down. By the 1860s, there was more wealth in rural districts to attract systematic banditry. Bushrangers like Ben Hall and Frank Gardiner survived partly because small squatters assisted and protected them, as did rural workers: when Hall’s gang shot it out with two larger squatters, Henry Keightley and David Campbell, station workers made no move to support their employers. When the bushrangers proved able to outwit the NSW police, they became heroes to much of the Sydney populace as well. There were tumultuous scenes at the conclusion of Gardiner’s trial in 1864, and over just two days in the previous year, 14,000 people had signed petitions in an attempt to save two other flash young bandits from the gallows.

In Victoria, where selection was most successful, hardships faced by small farmers in the northeast nevertheless led to the ‘Kelly outbreak’ at the end of the 1870s. McQuilton has shown the Kelly gang to be ‘social bandits’, whose clashes with the authorities were implicitly political.

With the decline of the Ovens gold fields, large numbers of ex-diggers sought to establish themselves on small farms in northeastern Victoria, in the region around Benalla, Wangaratta and Beechworth. The land under cultivation rose from 22 000 acres in 1860 to 163 000 in 1883, yet the small farmers fell into such arrears that over seventy per cent of the land selected after 1872 took more than two decades to purchase. Families lived in wattle and daub huts with earthen floors, and necessity drove them to evade the provision of the very Selection Acts that were supposed to help them. After bad seasons or when farm prices fell too low, men violated the residency requirements to find temporary jobs such as shearing. But shearing could take them away for up to five months, in a season which overlapped with the most important times for farming. The women and children were then left to cope.

Hardship drove the selectors to other forms of lawlessness, such as burning squatters’ fences and ‘rescuing’ impounded livestock. ‘During its early years of operation, the railway line was obstructed by men fearful of its impact on the environment. Some of the remote police stations reported that they had been stoned ... the managers of the commons were harassed and the manager of the Barnawartha Common had his sheds and harvest burnt by selectors irate at rates charged for commonage [pasturing on common lands].’ (51) The region’s remoteness from Melbourne bred a sense of indifference and hostility toward the colonial authorities; at the same time the farmers’ remoteness from each other inhibited effective political organization. Politicians who won their votes lost interest in selector interests upon election, while farmers’ unions were not effective before the eighties. In 1878, when the legendary Kelly outbreak began, grain prices were falling and bad weather was damaging crops.

It was natural to look for anarchistic individual solutions, to regard cattle theft as legitimate, and to protect bushrangers. Groups of young selectors’ sons formed ‘mobs’, whose ‘flash’ poses and love of ‘borrowing’ horses shaded into more clearly criminal behaviour. The police, meanwhile, were closely allied with the squatters; the officers mixed with them socially and the force was ever-eager to pursue alleged cattle duffers because of the substantial rewards on offer. Police morale was abysmal throughout Victoria, corruption was rife and discipline was arbitrary. Economy drives meant dismissals rather than fines or transfer whenever the Chief Commissioner wanted to reduce police numbers. Ned Kelly’s family was part of a wider clan with a history of horse theft and clashes with the police, while the authorities for their part conducted a campaign of harassment against the Kellys. We see the combination of economic hardship, crime and harassment clearly in Ned’s mother Ellen, who forfeited her selection for arrears in rent in the same month as she stood trial on dubious charges of aiding and abetting an attempted murder. A former trooper wrote in a Queensland newspaper:

‘You will find hundreds of such families around any township in these colonies -- poor devils, not originally bad, until a fussy or an ignorantly ambitious policeman makes them so for some one of these mistakes, which are often magnified into crimes ...‘ (Quoted 146)

However the authorities were alarmed at the degree of public sympathy for this gang of outlaws. One local paper estimated that eight hundred men were ready to support the Kellys, and the sympathy cut across racial divisions, with local Chinese helping to supply the gang. There are even claims that the Victorian Aboriginal trackers first employed in the pursuit ‘were sympathetic to Kellys and were leading [the police] around in circles’ though other accounts suggest the trackers simply wanted to avoid shoot-outs. Queensland black trackers arrived to replace them. More than a hundred years later, some of these Queenslanders’ descendants were to take out writs alleging that they had never been paid, and claiming damages. (See ‘Trackers’ families claim $80m for Kelly reward’, The Age, 2 February 1996)

Portrayals of Ned Kelly as a political republican rely on oral sources, and are impossible to confirm. It does appear that elements of Irish republicanism, and recollections of the convict era, merged with contemporary grievances to provide at least a quasi-political rationale for the Kelly outbreak. Ned’s Jerilderie letter harked back to the penal settlements where ‘many a blooming Irishman ... were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddy Land.’ (88) On the other hand, sympathizers and even people closely connected to the gang came from a diversity of nationalities.

Following the gang’s capture, the Melbourne populace showed its sympathy with demonstrations, including an eight thousand-strong mass meeting at the Hippodrome which demanded a reprieve. Shortly after Ned’s execution someone fired a shot during a demonstration outside the Glenrowan police station. For several years, tensions remained high in northeastern Victoria between Kelly sympathizers and the authorities, while official policy denying sympathizers the right to select land nearly led to a second rebellion. Later the policy softened, and the economic prosperity of the eighties saw the tensions fade. Those selectors who managed to survive as farmers gradually became a conservative social force in the following decades.

The legend remains, complementing that of the Eureka rebellion; enduring stories of resistance to capitalism and vain dreams of economic independence.

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