I would not have expected Australia's best known conservative historian to be on side with the boys, so it was no surprise to read his thoughts on them in his history of Victoria, Our side of the country, first published in 1984.
While he concedes that 'the strange career of the Kelly gang reveals some of the pitfalls faced by the smaller selectors', he doesn't seem to have much sympathy for them.
After describing Ellen Kelly's 88 acre holding as 'a narrow fertile flat created by one of those meandering creeks which ceased to flow in the summer, and the remainder was timbered land which sloped towards the ranges in the south.'
'Many farmers, remembering Ireland or the little market gardens close to Melbourne, thought that they could make a living on less than one hundred acres. Scores of speeches at the top of Bourke Street stressed that hope. But most people who took up a small selection on the plains did so because they could not afford to buy more land. Starting with too little capital they were likely to be pleading for an overdraft after only one lean season. We do not know whether Mrs Kelly, like thousands of farmers of the 1870s, tried to borrow from a bank. Certainly the family of a former convict, possessing at least one wild son and and easygoing way of life, did not have a high credit rating.'
So far, so good. Though the point has recently been disputed, conventional wisdom is that the various Selection Acts simply left far too many farmers on blocks that they had no hope of making a profit from. We saw this much later, after World War I, when returned (and rurally inexperienced) soldiers were settled, once again, on hopelessly small blocks. The soldier settlement scheme failed in all states.
'A small farm had some hope of flourishing it it stood beside a busy road, especially to the goldfields. It could sell hay for the passing horse teams, eggs and butter to the travellers, and sell them at far above Melbourne prices. For a couple of years the Kellys had a prime position well away from the nearest town and facing the road to the Beechworth goldfield. Mrs Kelly was thus able to invite in the passing traffic for a nobbler of sly grog: a more profitable commodity than eggs.'
So there we have it, a logical contention that the Kellys were geographically placed to do a lot better financially by honest means than what they did. Still, with a large family and no dad to bring home the bacon, many people would not blame Ellen for turning to illicit means to supplement her meagre income.
'A crucial even in the frail fortunes of the Kellys must have been the decline of the road traffic after the railway from Melbourne passed through their district in 1873. At least the Kellys could fall back on wheat, but after successive crops the yield must have fallen, the soil being deficient in phosphate. as far as can be ascertained, the Kellys also had to harvest the wheat with the slow, laborious sweep of the scythe at the very time when the real profit lay in harvesting on the large scale. The Kellys lacked the acreage and the equipment for that scale of wheat-growing which was becoming normal on the plains by the mid-1870s. They were indirectly the victims of the new technology - the railway and the harvesting machinery. A family more determined and hard-working than the Kellys would have done better, but even they might have ultimately surrendered.'
I don't think I recall ever hearing that the Kellys farmed wheat, but the thought of it is almost pathetic - harvesting by hand, and on a tiny block - even though one hundred acres must have seemed plenty big enough when you have to scythe it!
Blainey then goes on to give a potted version of the story that we know so well. He refers to SBC as the Kellys's 'first cold-blooded venture', something that would beget arguments on many other forums, though not from me. Using a quote from Jesse Dowsett, the heroic railway guard that helped capture Ned at Glenrowan, who said to himself while firing at the armoured outlaw: 'This must be the Devil himself', Blainey relates, dispassionately, 'The Devil himself was captured. Taken by train to Melbourne, he was finally convicted of murder, and hanged on the morning of 11 November 1880.' His feelings towards Ned are unsubtle and only too evident.