Ned Kelly in Fiction

The Australian Bushranger in Peter Carey's "True History of the Kelly Gang" and Films

Seminar Paper, 2009

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0

Regina Schultze (Author)



1. Introduction

2. “Such is Life” - Biography of Ned Kelly

3. Peter Carey’s “The History of the Kelly Gang“

4. Tony Richardson’s “Ned Kelly”

5. Gregor Jordan’s “Ned Kelly”

6. Conclusion

7. Attachment

8. Sources

1. Introduction

Edward “Ned” Kelly, the head of the Kelly Gang, is a very diversely discussed person. Even nowadays, opinions differ here. Was he a cruel murderer or just a victim of society? Kelly is often compared to Robin Hood who presumably lived in the 13th century in England, Great Britain[1]. Interestingly, Robin Hood stood for the prototype of an evil criminal in medieval times.[2] Whereas the name once was applied for felons, it is now exclusively associated with generosity and kind-heartedness, probably because of the various film versions about him.

It seems as if every culture has its very own antithetically valuated hero. The Australian bushranger Ned Kelly stands in one line with characters like Jesse James (1847-1882, born in Missouri, USA[3]) and Ernesto “Che” Guevera (1928-1967, born in Rosario, Argentina[4]).

“The bushrangers – outlaws and highwaymen – were [...] known to share with the poor what they stole from the rich. [T]hey were a dying breed; hunted to extinction by a police force equipped with the technology of the new age, especially the telegraph and the railway”.[5]

This paper will deal with Ned Kelly’s biography and today’s perception of him, especially regarding current fiction. In this context, I’ll have a look at Peter Carey’s book (published in 2000) and two of the many film versions about Kelly starring Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger in order to compare different perspectives of the bushranger.

2. “Such is Life” - Biography of Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly’s father John “Red” Kelly was born in Ireland and was shipped out to Van Diemen’s Land, Australia at the age of 18 because he “had stolen a pig to feed his starving brothers and sisters”[6]. After seven years of hard labour, he travelled around Australia and got to know Ellen Quinn, whose parents were Irish, as well.[7] They married and moved to Beveridge, “a town of just one short street and a pub”[8]. It was a hard life – “it was the Irish, in particular, who had the greatest trouble throwing off their clouded past and who were most likely to remain outcast”[9].

“[T]o be an emigrant is not just to be on the border, but to be the border itself”[10]

In 1854[11], Edward “Ned” Kelly was born as the couple’s first son.

15 years later, he was accused of supporting the well-known “Gentleman bushranger”[12] Harry Power with whom he robbed rich landowners and travelers. Power was highly admired for helping the poor and when he was imprisoned in 1870 and “sentenced to a fifteen years imprisonment with hard labour”[13], Ned Kelly had already learned a lot from him and clashed with the police every now and then.[14] At that time, the family had moved to Eleven Mile Creek near Greta after Red’s death in 1866. Ellen earned some money by selling food and alcohol to travelers while the whole family had to help running the farm. Already known to the police, Ned was jailed a few times for “disturbing the peace”[15], “assault and indecent behavior[u]r”[16] and “receiving a stolen horse”[17]. He was set free when he was 19 and found his mother married to the Californian George King who taught Ned how to steal horses, fake horses’ brands and where to hide them.[18]

In 1878, Constable Fitzpatrick went to the Kelly’s home in order to arrest Ned’s younger brother Dan and presumably to court Catherine Kelly. It is hard to say what really happened then, because the Kelly-version and Fitzpatrick’s differ extremely, but in the end, Fitzpatrick accused the two Kelly brothers of attempted murder.[19] Ned and Dan escaped into the Australian wilderness, “but Ellen was taken into custody along with her baby, Alice”[20].

In the following two years, the Kelly gang – the brother’s friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne accompanied them - managed to hide in the borderland between Victoria and New South Wales. They robbed banks and prepared for armed conflicts with the police. Three policemen were killed who were sent to arrest them.

“In response to these killings the Victorian parliament passed the Felons' Apprehension Act which outlawed the gang and made it possible for anyone to shoot them”[21] Nevertheless, they enjoyed great popularity, especially in the poor population. Ned demanded a fairer common weal by writing a letter in which he described his situation and his criminal past, which was to a great extent influenced by corrupt policemen. This letter is known as the Jerilderie letter.[22]

“What else can England expect. Is there not big fat-necked Unicorns enough paid to torment and drive me to do things which I don’t wish to do, without the public assisting them I have never interfered with any person unless they deserved it”[23]

Ned knew that a direct confrontation with the police was near and in 1880, the gang took hostages in Glenrowan in order to attack a police train. They had prepared this day for a long time: gathering information, practicing how to shoot unerringly, forging suits of armour. Under his armour, he wore “a green sash [given as a reward by a family whose child he rescued as a boy]”[24].

“Following a tip-off from the local school teacher the train stopped at the station and a bitter gun battle took place”.[25]

Three of the gang members as well as civilians were killed in the hotel by the police on that day; Ned Kelly was captured badly injured and executed by hanging in Melbourne. His last words: “Such is life”[26].


[1] see Dale, Thomas: The Annotated Edition of the English Poets — Early ballads (London, 1856, p.70) - (27.11.2008)

[2] ibid.

[3] (27.11.2008)

[4] (27.11.2008)

[5] Boxer, Charlie: Who was Ned Kelly. Gangster hero of the Australian Outback. London: Short Books, 2004, p. 31

[6] Boxer, p. 11

[7] (27.11.2008)

[8] Boxer, p.13

[9] Boxer, p. 17

[10] Darian-Smith, Kate/Gunner, Liz (Ed.): Text, Theory, Space. Land, Literature and History in South Africa and Australia. London: Routledge, 1996, Liz, p. 53

[11] Glen Rowen Cobb & Co Pty Ltd: “The Ned Kelly Story” (19.11.2008)

[12] (21.11.2008)

[13] (21.11.2008)

[14] (19.11.2008)

[15] Boxer, p. 35

[16] Glen Rowen Cobb (19.11.2008)

[17] ibid.

[18] Boxer, p. 40

[19] Glen Rowen Cobb (19.11.2008)

[20] (19.11.2008)

[21] (19.11.2008)

[22] Fleischmann, Florian: „Australische Nationalnarrative: Der Volksheld Ned Kelly“ - ned_kelly (19.11.2008)

[23] The Jerilderie Letter (1879): (19.11.2008)

[24] (19.11.2008)

[25] Glen Rowen Cobb (19.11.2008)

[26] Santha, Beatrice: “Ned Kelly” - (19.11.2008)

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Ned Kelly in Fiction
The Australian Bushranger in Peter Carey's "True History of the Kelly Gang" and Films
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
The Australian Dream
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
452 KB
Kelly, Fiction, Australian, Bushranger, Peter, Carey, True, History, Kelly, Gang, Films
Quote paper
Regina Schultze (Author), 2009, Ned Kelly in Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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