The Jerilderie Letter

It would be easy to assume that the Kelly Gang members were tough, ignorant, uneducated men who mindlessly pursued a career in crime. But both Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne could read and write, and wrote letters to the press and others, explaining their situation and calling for justice. The most famous of these is the ‘Jerilderie Letter'.

Written in 1879, the 8000-word long letter details Kelly's thoughts about being ‘forced' into becoming an outlaw. It also calls for the resignation of a corrupt police force that, Kelly maintained, preyed upon Irish Catholic settlers.

Although there is little use of punctuation and correct grammar, the letter is a powerful insight into his feelings and his desire to set the record straight:

I have been wronged and my mother and four or five men lagged innocent and is my brothers and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also who has no alternative only to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct off a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police who some call honest gentlemen.

– Ned Kelly

Jones, I 2000, 'Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter', La Trobe Journal, No. 66

Kelly dictated the letter to Byrne, who rewrote it in better handwriting and with fewer mistakes. After robbing a local bank of £2000, Kelly gave the letter to the bank's accountant – Edwin Living – and told him to have it published and distributed, under threat of violence.

But despite Kelly's threats, Living never published the letter. He took it to the bank's head office in Melbourne, where it was lent to the police for Kelly's trial. It was later returned to Living, whose family donated it to the State Library of Victoria in 2000.

With this letter Kelly inserts himself into history, on his own terms, with his own voice...We hear the living speaker in a way that no other document in our history achieves... The language is colourful, rough and full of metaphors; it is one of the most extraordinary documents in Australian history.

– Kelly historian, Alex McDermott

McDermott, A (ed) 2001, The Jerilderie Letter, Text Publishing Company, Melbourne.

Secondary sources – like the one quoted here – can sometimes champion one point of view. This particular text is written by a Kelly historian who clearly has a very high opinion of the Jerilderie Letter. Other secondary sources might have a different perspective.

A page from Ned Kelly's letter.
Engraving of Joe Byrne of the Kelly gang.
The original building that housed the post and telegraph that Ned Kelly robbed.
Engraving of the Kelly Gang holding up a police station.