of ‘The Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia’
by Justin Corfield
in the Kelly community had high expectations of this first ever Kelly
encyclopaedia, so when this book was released it prompted some interesting
reactions. Historian Alex McDermott reviewed it for The Age newspaper
and suggested it has a pro-Kelly ‘prejudice’, saying, “This
is not how a proper encyclopaedia is meant to work”. Some of the
descendants of the gang member’s families were not entirely happy
with it calling into question the accuracy of some of its data, and
one Kelly buff refused to review it at all. Perhaps one explanation
for its lack luster response may lie in the fact that, rightly, people
tend to demand more from a serious reference book than they do from
a more general work.
The 500 plus pages include: an extensive and detailed chronology, family
trees for the Kelly, Hart, Byrne, Quinn, Lloyd and Sherritt families (which
generally list 3 or 4 generations), cemetery maps, a list of Kelly sites,
detailed information on films about Ned Kelly, and a comprehensive bibliography
of published works on Kelly. Transcripts of the Jerilderie and Cameron
Letters are included, as are the letters dictated by Ned in gaol. The
more general content of the book has a strong focus on genealogy and includes
information from aboriginal trackers to lawyer William Zinke, and a wide
array of subject matter in between.
The content itself is obviously too extensive to review or assess in detail,
instead all that can be offered is an overall impression of the book.
The hard work and hours dedicated to this publication are obvious. The
author has made a valiant attempt to provide a broad and unique coverage
of all things Kelly. For the most part he has succeeded in his goal by
managing to provide an immense amount of data, nevertheless the encyclopaedia
does feel somewhat incomplete. There are some areas that could perhaps
have been improved on, namely: the author’s focus and reliance on
a limited number of secondary sources (rather than primary sources), inconsistency
in the listings (both in filtering information provided and assessing
listings significance), and some disappointing omissions.
The main sources the author used for the general information provided
on Kelly history, other than genealogy, do appear to be somewhat limited.
More credit and attention seems to have been paid to a limited number
of secondary sources, than direct research from a wide variety of primary
sources and data. This trusting and narrow approach is a risky one as
it tends to result in the information presented having been pre-filtered,
potentially uncorroborated, or based on limited and unbalanced data and
opinion. Thus this method is obviously far from ideal, particularly given
that this work has been designed to be used as an independent source book.
Justin’s background and skill is in genealogy, and this factor is
very apparent in the presentation of his research. However by focusing
so heavily on family histories he may have limited the main areas of interest
for his readers, and inadvertently forgotten the purpose a specialized
encyclopaedia, such as this, would usually be put to.
The main criticism leveled at the book, by historian Alex McDermott, that
it was not equal handed in presenting all ‘sides’ to the history,
unfortunately does have some merit. The book does tend to leave one with
the impression of having been filtered through the author’s own
partisans, which is disappointing for an encyclopaedia. For example: some
significant people are depicted somewhat partially, little focus is made
on the general fear the Kelly outbreak had on the Victorian community
(with the exception of within Mansfield), and, the presentation of the
1881 Royal Commission’s findings are incomplete and partially summarized
with only the anti-police perspective is reported.
Obviously it would not be possible to include every last piece of information
relevant to the Kelly outbreak, nor is there always a similar amount of
information available on every topic. However, whether by the author or
the editing, overall there is something of a disparity and inconsistency
in the amount of detail that proportionately has been given on the individual
listings. The information provided on each entry doesn’t appear
to accurately reflect the entry’s relevance or importance to Kelly
history. This is perhaps most noticeable in the detailed attention paid
to some of the personal and family histories of the entries, a number
of whom were merely bit players and only briefly associated with the Kelly
outbreak. Despite the detail gone into on some minor figures, a similar
amount of detail on others is not always included, such as the histories
of the genuine descendants of the Kelly gang members’ families.
Yet those seeking information on the Kelly outbreak are more likely to
be more interested in people more directly related to the gang.
Some examples are
The very minor character, barrister’s clerk Benjamin Brown,
not only gets a listing, but half a page’s worth. Enough information
is detailed on both Frank Becroft, assistant to James Gloster, and
Mary Luplau, possible school fellow of Kate Kelly, to fill nearly
a page respectively. Newspaper sketch artists, and George and Julian
Ashton’s family history was awarded a page and a half. Whereas,
in contrast, although listed, Ettie Hart, sister to Steve Hart and
girlfriend of Ned Kelly, is paid little attention and given a mere
3 sentences. Aaron Sherritt’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Barry, who
witnessed his murder and gave important and detailed evidence to the
Royal Commission (1881 into the Kelly Outbreak), has inexplicably
not even been given a listing at all.
Other disparities in listings can be seen in the amount of information
given about significant Kelly scholars. Some were given a page, but
some no more than a brief paragraph each. One Kelly scholar (and friend
of the author, who interestingly also shares the same publisher) was
allotted nearly 2 full pages. In contrast, there is, for example,
a lack of recognition and detail written about Kelly researcher and
innovator Max Brown. Despite the fact that Max’s 1948 work provided
a sound and comprehensive basis on which numerous subsequent researchers
work rests, he was given just 9 sentences. The disproportion of space
and lack of detail given in reference to some of these entries doesn’t
accurately reflect their relative contributions. This discrepancy
is particularly disappointing - not for what was included, but for
what was omitted.
partiality is seen in the allocated space of the Kelly exhibition
listings. A detailed entry is given to one exhibition (organised
by friends/acquaintances of Justin’s), which fills a page, yet
2 similar major Kelly exhibitions (‘Men of Iron’ and ‘Kelly
Culture’) didn’t rate even a brief listing. Again, this
inequity is disappointing not for what was included, but for what
was left out and such omissions tends to give the impression that
a less than thorough approach was made in general research.
- In this
electronic information age it is surprising, even odd, that the Internet
did not rate a listing. It was however somewhat appeasing to find
a minor reference to the Net with Kelly website ironoutlaw.com given
a short entry, (although unfortunately, unlike print authors, no mention
made or credit was given to its creator Brad Webb). Considering the
current and future direction of research and study, the huge number
of people regularly accessing Ned on the Internet, its growth, as
well as the importance of easy public access to Kelly information,
omitting the Internet entirely does not make sense.
It seems a particular pity that none of the historical data sites
devoted to Kelly documents were listed, i.e. Ned Online, Victorian
State Library, or the Public Record Office sites.
One even wonders if the Internet was deliberately ignored, as even
in his listing for the Jerilderie Letter the author, strangely, refers
people to a transcript of the letter in a friend’s book, without
mentioning the free and instant online direct images and transcript
of it on the State Library’s website. Here again there
doesn’t appear to be any obvious reason for such a noticeable
and inexcusable omission.
- A disappointing lack
of note has been paid by the author to the many descendants
of the families of those involved in the Kelly outbreak. Particularly
as many of these people have, and continue to, provide much valuable
information and support to Kelly researchers. Some have been quite
vocal in addressing disputed areas of Kelly history, such as the numerous
myths and claims that affect not only living family members, but also
more general Kelly history and legend. The lack of note paid to them
in this encyclopaedia is disappointing and difficult to understand,
particularly given the inclusion of some other less relevant listings.
has obviously devoted countless hours to this book’s general and
genealogical research, however as a resource text it does feel somewhat
incomplete. Wider sources for historical information (other than genealogical)
could certainly have been utilized. Rather than the author’s obvious
trust and reliance on a limited selection of secondary sources, benefit
certainly could have been gained by a wider source range and a greater
focus on primary sources. It is a pity that more time was not put into
a general topic editing, and more thought into each listing’s worthiness
of space and attention.
I found it to be very disappointing as an encyclopaedia as it lacked
the neutrality, thoroughness, and even-handedness usually required of
such a title. However, it does serve as an interesting collection of
Kelly history, facts and trivia, and may be a useful reference for anyone
wondering if their ancestors were involved in the Kelly outbreak. For
this reason the Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia is worthy of inclusion on the
shelves of Australian public libraries, however I do not see it as an
essential book for the average Kelly enthusiast to own.
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