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Updated December 12, 2004

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Review of ‘The Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia’ by Justin Corfield

Many 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.

Review Summary

Content
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.

General comments
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.

Specific Comments
Sources
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.

Genealogy
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.

Approach
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.

Inconsistencies in information provided
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 as follows:

  • Historical figures
    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.
  • Kelly scholars
    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.

Other omissions

  • Another 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.

Summary

Justin 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.

Overall, 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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