The Kelly Historical Collection, while comprehensive, in a very real sense gives us only one side of the Kelly story. The other side is given by the press reports of the time. In November 1878, shortly after the Stringybark Creek murders, it was commented that ‘There are 840,000 people in Victoria. Of these 839,996 – barring children in arms and ministers of religion – are deeply interested in the doings of the remaining four.’ This interest was sustained by the blanket newspaper coverage given to the hunt for the Kelly Gang and their various actions.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ned Kelly was no stranger to newspaper coverage of his exploits. This began when he was about ten in 1864, jumping into a creek to rescue a classmate. More serious however was the coverage of his family and clan. The Kellys were part of the Quinn clan, who collectively had the distinction of being officially regarded as the most lawless in the Wangaratta district. An official policy of suppressing lawless behaviour led to the Quinn family being paid special attention by the police, and arrested given any misdemeanour. Tension and arrests happened easily and often, as it can be said that selectors as a class displayed a series of attitudes that the colonial elites found problematic. It was not considered a crime for instance, to “borrow” somebody else’s good horse for a journey, letting it loose to be found at the destination. Most of the male members of the Quinn clan spent time in gaol for horse and cattle theft.
Along with this police attention came press attention, especially following the teenage Ned Kelly’s apprenticeship to the bushranger Harry Powers. One of the local squatters, Robert McBean, after being held up and robbed by Powers, identified the young Kelly as Powers’ accomplice. Kelly was arrested and stood for trial, at which McBean retracted his positive identification. This, and the lengthy remand period that Ned endured while Superintendent Nicolson tried to secure information about Powers from him, excited considerable press attention.
All in all, Ned must have been very used to seeing his story in the papers, albeit in what he would regard as distorted or false versions. A large part of his later career is dedicated to correcting the record through the publication of his letters. As well, it seems, he made sure that press attention remained firmly focussed on him.
The press followed the story of the hunt for Kelly very closely indeed. Reporters travelled with parties of police on hunts, including to Glenowan in June 1880. Some of the correspondence and reports in the collection bear the imprint of being borrowed by the newspapers for copy. Indeed there are hints from the documents of a kind of one-step-removed communication between Kelly and his pursuers.