In February 1879 the Kelly Gang crossed the border into New South Wales. The reward on their heads was £4000 and having been declared outlaws by act of parliament, they could be shot dead without challenge. Having successfully robbed the bank at Euroa and made Victoria’s police the target of much derision from the press, the gang decided to take the flashness out of the NSW police as well.
The Kelly Gang performed an incredible raid on the township of Jerilderie over the course of a weekend. They locked up the police, scoped the town in stolen police uniforms, then took the townsfolk as prisoners while they robbed the bank. The plot was executed almost perfectly, except that Ned Kelly’s attempt to apprehend the newspaper editor, Gill, to make him publish a letter he had dictated to Joe Byrne (largely based on the one he had earlier sent to Donald Cameron M.P.) had been thwarted by the man’s fleeing town at the sight of the outlaws in the bank.
Letter writing was a key part of Ned’s public relations campaign to soften his image. He wanted his version of events published so that the public would have a different perspective on events to the one pushed by the press. He believed, quite inexplicably, that he could both state his interpretation of crimes associated with him, as well as graphic insults and threats against his enemies, and come away with people seeing him as the victim.
It was not altogether unheard of for bushrangers to write to the press to state their opinions or try to clear their name. Both Frank Gardiner and John Peisley had done so in the 1860s. The key difference was in the brevity of their correspondence, whereas Ned’s letter spanned 50+ pages.
In response to the Jerilderie affair, Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, doubled the reward for the gang to £8000. This was an incredible sum, equivalent to over $1000,000 in modern Australian decimal currency. This, naturally, raised eyebrows and seemingly prompted Ned Kelly to pen a letter, mocking the New South Wales government and police force.
March 14, 1879
To Sir Henry Parkes
Premier N S W
My dear Sir Henry Parkes
I find by the newspapers that you have been very liberal in offering a reward for the Kelly gang or any one of them Now Sir Henry the man that takes I Captain E. Kelly will have to be a plucky man for I do not intend to be taken alive. And as I would as soon die in NSW as Victoria I will give you or any other person who wishes to take me a fair chance to try your pluck. I am at present not very far from Bathurst (in fact I have been in the town of Bathurst and has taken a peep at the bank) Now I tell you candidly that I intend to rob Bathurst and particularly the bank. So now you are warned of course I will not say what time I and the gentlemen that follows in my train will visit the City of the plains. But one thing you can count on that I will pay it a visit. Now Sir Henry I tell you that highway robbery is only in its infancy for the white population is been driven out of the labour market by an inundation of mongolians and when the white man is driven to desperation there will be desperate times. I present my respects to the Sydney police
yours E. Kelly
Needless to say, the Kelly Gang did not rob the bank in Bathurst as suggested, and this was likely a ploy to redirect attention to allow the gang to move without risk of being caught, if indeed the letter was genuine.
If this is truly a letter from Ned Kelly, apparently written without the input of Joe Byrne, it gives an intriguing insight into Kelly that the other letters do not offer. Here, rather than trying to justify his criminal career and threatening violent retribution against his foes, this Kelly engages in a much more playful manner of speaking that is more reflective of the tone used in many of his speeches, albeit with less emphasis on his own victimhood and more on a political bent. It seems he is trying to summon up the spectre of the golden era of bushrangers that he grew up with in an effort to get the government on edge, if only for his own amusement. Again, if this is genuine, it provides a glimpse at a playful, boastful side of Ned that takes a back seat in his other missives.
The author does make a rather odd claim that the Chinese (referred to as “Mongolians”, as per the racist styling of the time) are forcing white men to turn to crime by squeezing them out of the labour market. Such invective was not uncommon at the time, and the prevailing belief among many lower class white men was that the pitiful wages Chinese workers commanded was undercutting their competitors, thus giving an unfair advantage that put white men out of work. Such a mentality was not helped by the press, who seemed to prey on the xenophobia. Little has changed on these fronts. The reality was that economic depression was the root cause of much of the unemployment, as would be experienced by Captain Moonlite’s gang only a few months after this letter was written, leading to their depredations at Wantabadgery.
Ned, as is well known, did not exactly have a good track record with the Chinese. In 1870 he was put on trial for assaulting a Chinese man named Ah Fook. Ned got off due to the prosecution case being weak (much of this likely due to poor translation.) Ah Fook, or at least a countryman of the same name, would later suffer a hideous fate at the hands of his fellows, being mutilated then murdered. Ned didn’t exactly deny that he had beaten the man with his own bamboo staff, justifying himself by stating that he was responding to his sister’s distress as the man verbally abused her. However, this does not automatically translate to Kelly having a racist hatred of the Chinese.
Now, it is certainly possible, if not probable, that the letter is a fake. People impersonating the gang was common for a myriad of reasons. In this case it may have been a practical joke to make fun of Parkes and the police. With that said, the tone and style in of language is quite in keeping with the patterns of speech we know Ned employed when he didn’t have Joe Byrne to refine it. The strangely polite, almost erudite, manner of speaking despite the rough edges, as well as the tendency to declare what will happen with absolute certainty, is typical of Kelly. However, much of the turn of phrase and the overall contents of the letter are so unusual for him that the most likely scenario is that this was a letter penned by someone else pretending to be him, maybe even a sympathiser or close associate who was familiar with the way Ned spoke.
If nothing else, the letter is an interesting curiosity that highlights the way that Ned Kelly had become such a celebrity, even by February 1879, that people could actively contribute to the mythos by impersonating him, and his actions had begun to suggest he represented something political to sections of the population. In essence, this letter encapsulated the zeitgeist of that small period between the bank robberies and the Glenrowan plot.