Public Record Office, Victoria, Australia
University of Sydney
Ned Online tells the story of Edward “Ned” Kelly (1855-1880) through 80 documents. Ned Kelly was a bushranger (an Australian word for outlaw that has connotations of defiance and freedom rather than crime) and one of the best-known, and most mythologized, figures in Australian history. The activities of the Kelly gang in rural Victoria between 1878 and 1880, and the subsequent capture and execution of Ned, were the stuff of legend both at the time and since.
Ned Online is divided into five sections: “Themes,” “Kelly Story,” “People,” “Places,” and “Documents.” “Themes” provides an introduction to the site and to some of the issues, such as land, which lay behind the conflict. “Kelly Story” provides a clear outline of events with links to some of the pertinent documents. “People” and “Places,” the latter arranged in the form of a map, list the key individuals and locations involved and provide links to documents associated with them.
The 80 documents have been digitized and transcribed. Each is placed in context with a short introductory paragraph (about 100 words). Documents may be accessed sequentially or located through searches organized by date and document type or in free text searches. The scrolling text of document highlights at the bottom of the screen can be distracting (holding the mouse pointer over the center stops it) and is an unfortunate design choice, but it does provide a useful entrance into key moments in the story. The documents themselves are a varied collection dictated by their place in the Kelly story. They include substantial documents such as Ned Kelly’s 17-page personal manifesto, known as the Jerilderie Letter, as well as many shorter items. Most of the documents come from the forces ranged against Kelly and his gang—the Crown Law Department and the Police Branch of the Chief Secretary’s Office.
While the supplementary material on the site is popular in tone, it is based on sound scholarship and provides several suggestions for further reading. Although the site does provide substantial contextualization for the documents, these suggestions are worth following for those seeking a more scholarly analysis of the topic.
The story of the Kelly gang can be used to illuminate a variety of themes of interest to teachers of world history. Many elements of the Kelly story are common features of frontier societies and could be productively used as discussion points for students. As the site explains in its “land” theme, the context of the Kelly outbreak was one of an intense struggle between large landowners (who frequently controlled the operation of the law) and their smaller competitors.
Another productive line of investigation is the question of resistance. Hobsbawm’s concept of “social banditry” has been used to explain the Kelly phenomenon in J. McQuilton, The Kelly Outbreak 1878-1880: The Geographical Dimensions of Social Banditry.1 While the concept of bushranging drew on older folk mythology, the Kelly outbreak took place in a countryside on the cusp of modernity. Technological innovations such as photography, the telegraph, and railways all loom large in the story and helped to ensure the celebrity of Ned Kelly. Kelly himself was keenly aware of this and sought to influence his representation in the popular press. Students might be encouraged to think about how the representation of the Kelly story (by observers and by Kelly himself) feed into comparative situations in 19th-century popular culture, such as the image of the American West. Other publications on Ned Kelly include Ned Kelly: Man and Myth2 and Ned Kelly.3
1 John McQuilton, The Kelly Outbreak 1878-1880: The Geographical Dimensions of Social Banditry (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1979).
2 C. Cave ed., Ned Kelly: Man and Myth (Melbourne: Cassell, 1968).
3 John N. Molony, Ned Kelly (Carlton: University of Melbourne Press, 2001). Originally published as I am Ned Kelly (Ringwood: A. Lane, 1980).