State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 66 Spring 2000

33

Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter

On 23 November 2000, it was announced that Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter had been anonymously donated to the State Library of Victoria. That same day, the letter was made available on the Library's website and, within five days, had scored 80,000 ‘hits’.
It was an exciting end to my 31-year association with the document — years of good luck, near-disaster, and frustration over what I damned as a culture of institutional apathy to Kelly material — all culminating in the Library's luminous enthusiasm to see the letter preserved and made available to the widest possible audience.
The Jerilderie Letter is a 7500-word document, handwritten on 56 pages of notepaper about the size of a video cassette. It is written in the first person and begins: ‘Dear Sir, I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future.’
The ‘occurrences’ reach from the brutal crushing of the 1798 Irish rebellion, on through the dark years of Australia's convict system in the early 1800s, and into the writer's present day with a bitter 1870s land war between struggling small farmers and big landholders who had the police as their all-powerful allies. All in a time of bad seasons, severe recession, unemployment and political chaos. Then, at last, on to a future where the writer promises a bright, new day for all those who have suffered the injustices of the past and the present.
The letter is unsigned but the voice is Ned Kelly's. And what a voice it is -passionate, vivid, sometimes poetic, often funny — speaking to us as clearly today as in the brief lifetimes of the two men who created it, Ned Kelly and his friend and lieutenant, Joe Byrne. Sometimes, unpunctuated passages roll along like a gleeful drunk. Elsewhere, sentences are rapped out in staccato succession like the footbeats of an Irish dancer.
This was the voice that fascinated novelist Peter Carey for many years, to be brilliantly re-worked by him in writing his True History of the Kelly Gang1.
The second man ever to read the letter called it ‘Kelly's confession’.2To a large extent it is precisely that. In remarkably honest and accurate detail, Ned Kelly describes the gunfight at Stringybark Creek of 26 October 1878, in which three police died.
No matter that they had been more than ready to kill Ned and his brother Dan. Three police were dead. Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly and the two men who happened to be with them that day -Joe Byrne and Steve Hart — were all outlawed, with £500 on each of their heads. The total £2000 reward represented about half-a-million dollars in modern Australian currency.
34

Charles Nettleton, photographer. Ned Kelly the day before he was hanged 1880. H18202, PCV, MC. 5, Dr.2, La Trobe Picture Collection.

The four young men now had to live outside the law and carried out the two most perfectly planned and executed bank hold-ups in Australian bushranging history — robberies that won more than £4000 (and saw the Kelly reward increased to £8000 -more than two million dollars today).
But the robberies were designed to gain more than money. They were also public relations exercises, spreading the message that Ned and his family had been unjustly treated by the police and that he had been forced to take up arms in self-defence.
For the Euroa robbery in December 1878, Ned and Joe had sent a 3500-word statement of their case to a senior police officer and to a parliamentarian who seemed to have taken an interest in their cause.3 The Premier of Victoria advised against publication of the letter, after prompting from the Chief Commissioner of Police.
So, at Jerilderie, two months later, Ned Kelly planned to pay the local newspaper editor, Mr Gill, to print copies of a new, longer, more important letter which the gang would then distribute.
However, the editor blundered into the middle of the robbery and escaped. The bank accountant, Edwin Living, then offered to take the letter and see that it was printed. But even before the gang rode out of Jerilderie with their loot, Living galloped off to Deniliquin, carrying the document, and caught a train to Melbourne. Ned's letter was not printed.
The following year, 1880, after the destruction of the gang and the capture of Ned Kelly at Glenrowan, a government copy of the letter was made and presented at Ned's trial. Incredibly, his incompetent defence counsel objected to its being tendered as evidence. The copy was filed away and forgotten.
The Melbourne Argus printed this government text of the letter in 1930, and it was again forgotten until 1948, when Max Brown published it as an appendix to his fine Kelly biography, Australian Son. It was Max Brown who first called it The Jerilderie Letter’.
For many years I believed that the original document had vanished. Then, in 1962, Mrs Louise Earp of Glenrowan told me of a friend who owned a letter supposedly given by Ned Kelly to someone at Jerilderie with strict instructions that it could not be opened for 10 years. I suspected that this was a garbled version of Ned's leaving his letter with the bank accountant, Living.
35
When I spoke to Louise Earp's friend, she denied knowledge of any such item and said that, even if it had existed, it would have been destroyed with other old papers, some time before. Seven years later, I learnt that this conversation had remarkable results.
When Mrs Earp castigated her friend for having lied to me, the woman said that she was ‘fed up with the whole business’ and very nearly burnt the letter. Fortunately, she confided in a Melbourne friend, Keith Harrison, and eventually asked him to decide what should be done with the document.
Keith rang the Library in 1968 and said that he had a letter written by Ned Kelly. The person he spoke to showed no great interest, promised to call back, but didn't.

Kelly, Ned (1854-1880), p.43 of the Jerilderie Letter, dictated by Ned Kelly to Joe Byrne, February 1879. In which the Victorian police are described as ‘a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish Baliffs or english landlords …’. MS 13361. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection. A complete copy of the letter and transcript is available on the State Library of Victoria's web site http://www.slv.vic.gov.au

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Later that year, Keith Harrison saw a newspaper item about my Kelly research. He rang Crawford Productions, where I then worked, and learnt that I was in London. He left a message I didn't receive.
After my return, early in 1969, Keith rang again. I called him that night to be told that he held a Ned Kelly letter. I was interested but wary. ‘It's quite long, he told me. Then he read out the opening words: ‘Dear Sir, I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future’. I nearly dropped the phone.
Later that evening, I found myself leafing through the 56 pages with decidedly unsteady hands. An accompanying note, supposedly written by bank accountant Living, identified this as the document given to him by Ned. Some days later, Living's daughter, Sylvia, identified the writing and the notepaper as her late father's.
At first I believed that the letter was in Ned Kelly's handwriting because the name ‘Kelly’ on page 34 and the writing of the capital ‘E’ in the document both matched Ned Kelly's signature. Then, in 1985, a letter written by Ned when he was 15 was found in police files. The signature matched Ned's but the body of the writing didn't correspond to that in the Jerilderie Letter. Careful examination of examples of Joe Byrne's handwriting showed that he had physically written the Jerilderie Letter for Ned. (This wasn't immediately obvious because of the remarkable variation in writing across the 56 pages.4)
The owner of the letter agreed with Keith Harrison that I was an ‘appropriate custodian’ and placed the document in my care. It was to receive no publicity but could be made available to ‘bona fide Kelly researchers’. With a change of ownership in 1977, the document passed from my personal custody but was still available for research, and I was now allowed to make further attempts to place it with the National Library in Canberra or the State Library of Victoria. These attempts were unsuccessful. Until last year.
In early October, the letter was mentioned during a conversation with the State Library's Director of Collections and Services, Cathrine Harboe-Ree. The long-familiar institutional apathy towards Kelly items had vanished. Cathrine was immediately enthusiastic. After I had attended a meeting with her and the Manuscript Librarian, Jock Murphy, the Library wrote to the owner, outlining the way they would handle the letter if successful in acquiring it.
The owner's response was immediate. ‘Everything I could have wished’, she told me. She wanted no payment, no tax advantage for a valuable donation. And, above all, no publicity. She wanted only to be confident that the letter would be valued and would at last receive the care and attention it deserved. A visit to the Library website on http://www.slv.vic.gov.au will show that the donor's confidence was well-founded. Superbly digitalised, the letter is presented, deservedly, as a Library ‘treasure’. It is much more than a major historical document. It is a unique artifact of the Kelly Outbreak. It is a significant and deceptively complex literary work. It is the closest thing we have to an autobiography of Ned Kelly. It contains the only available fragments of a rebel manifesto that underlay his attempt to proclaim a republic in the north-east.
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As Ned Kelly handed the document to Living, he called it, ‘A little bit of my life’. One hundred and twenty-one years after his death, this piece of him still lives, enabling us to share his anger, his pride, his regret, his contempt, and to see these changing moods and emotions given physical power and form in the flow of words from Joe Byrne's pen.
In 1879, Ned Kelly's dream was to have a few hundred printed copies of his letter distributed throughout the north-east. Today, people all over the world are reading it, exactly as he and Joe wrote it.
Ian Jones

1

In a New Yorker review (22/1/2001), John Updike scans the Carey ‘voice’ with a novelist's eye, commenting on the sparse punctuation and grammatical lapses coupled with correct spelling, even of ‘tricky’ words. The same quality exists in the Jerilderie Letter. In a unique literary analysis of the document, Joe Crowley points out that, in the 7500 words, only 11 are misspelt -and of these, 5 are proper names (’If Words Be Louder I Will Oppose Your Laws’, pp. 7-8, BA Hons thesis, 1997, University of Queensland).

2

The description, ‘Ned Kelly's Conffession’ (sic) is the heading on publican John Hanlon's copy of the letter (in a private collection), made the day of the Jerilderie robbery, 10/2/1879. See Rev. H.C. Lundy, History of Jerilderie, Jerilderie, 1958, p. 93.

3

This earlier Kelly/Byrne production is usually called the Cameron Letter (after the politician who was one of the two recipients). Both originals have vanished but a copy is held at the VPRO.

4

Ned Kelly's signature appears on the certificate for his mother's second marriage(to George King, 19/2/1874). Ned was a witness. Prison records show that he could read and write; reports by school inspector G. Wilson Brown (VPRO) show that he passed reading and writing at Third and Fourth Class levels at the Avenel school in 1864 and 1865. The popular myth of his illiteracy sprang from the fact that his right hand was crippled by bullet wounds at Glenrowan and his Condemned Cell letters to the Governor are signed with crosses.
With some seven years of schooling, Joe Byrne was the best educated member of the Kelly Gang, and, as police Superintendent Hare noted, ‘for a bushman, rather clever with his pen’. It is not surprising to find the Jerilderie Letter in his hand.
The ‘remarkable variation’ in his writing sprang from the fact that the letter was written in 14 different sessions. The start of each session is marked by careful copperplate which slips into a more mature, relaxed hand and even into a tired scrawl after several pages. The longest session produced eight pages; the shortest, only one. See Ian Jones, The Friendship That Destroyed Ned Kelly, Port Melbourne, 1992, pp. 96-101.