14 February 2007
James Cockington

"There are much more interesting bushrangers than Ned Kelly," says Brian McDonald (see My Collection) who, despite his reservations, has one of the largest private collections of books on the Kelly gang. McDonald, who has lectured on Australian history since 1975, knows all too well that of the 1600 or so Australian bushrangers it's Ned who, rightly or wrongly, dominates the public imagination.

There's a vast industry devoted to the collecting of Kellyana. This term refers not only to Ned Kelly but also his family, gang members, the police officers they killed and those who captured him at Glenrowan.

What is astonishing is how brief Kelly's activities were. The Kelly gang came to notice after they killed three policemen at Stringybark Creek in Victoria on October 26, 1878. Kelly was captured and the rest of the gang was killed by police at nearby Glenrowan in June 1880. On November 11 that year, Kelly was hanged at Melbourne Gaol. "Such is life," he allegedly said at the time.

Short his life may have been but it was long enough for the outlaw to ignite a national obsession that shows no sign of abating nearly 130 years after his death.

Kellymania is booming. Peter Carey started a resurgence when he won the Booker Prize in 2001 with his True History of the Kelly Gang. Signed first editions of this work are now worth about $400. Then there was the 2003 movie starring Heath Ledger as the bushranger, which marked the latest in a series of cinematic treatments.

For collectors of Kellyana it usually starts with the myriad books, magazines, official reports and even comics devoted to the man and the myth. But serious Kelly enthusiasts usually prefer something more than the written word.

Recently some rare Kelly memorabilia were shown at the Shapiro Auctioneers gallery in Sydney, generating considerable interest. Some items had never been seen in public before. A few of these have already been reserved by museums but some are destined for future public sale.

The highlight was the .32 calibre revolver uncovered during the demolition of a house in Forbes, NSW, formerly occupied by Ned's younger sister, Kate. The initials KK are inscribed on the handle. Its exact history is uncertain but it is likely to be one of the many weapons appropriated by the Kellys during the period. Its connection, no matter how tenuous, to older brother Ned makes it a very desirable item. If sold at auction it would be expected to fetch about $250,000.

Almost as desirable is another weapon, the .38 calibre revolver used at Glenrowan by Jesse Dowsett, the railway guard who played a major role in the siege. Dowsett returned Kelly's fire and watched in amazement as the bullets bounced off his armour like "parched peas". He saw Kelly being shot then wrestled to the ground and it was Dowsett who took Kelly's weapon from his hand. "Little Dowsett, what a plucky fellow he is," wrote Dr John Nicholson at the time.

Also on display was a signed studio photograph of Kate Kelly, dated 1881. This item was previously unknown and unpublished. It would have inspired a spirited bidding war if sold at auction but it has gone cheaply to a Canberra museum so that it will remain in the public domain.

Ditto the James Kelly charge sheet. This NSW Police document includes hand-written details relating to his subsequent trial at Wagga for horse stealing and a black and white photograph of him in prison gear. Its value would be $4000 plus if it were sold on the open market.

Such personal mementos are valued highly by collectors but mass-produced items are now worth almost as much. Original copies of the Minutes of Evidence taken before Royal Commission on the Police Force of Victoria are among the most desirable, with the second Progress Report the rarest of all. This 720-page document probes the conduct of various members of the constabulary. Copies are generally valued at about $3000 although one appeared recently on eBay with a price of $20,000. It didn't sell.

Worth even more would be the fabled first Kelly publication. The History of the Notorious Kelly Gang was published 16 months before Glenrowan by G. Wilson Hall, the perceptive editor of the Mansfield Guardian. Only four original copies are known to survive, none in private hands. If one was ever to appear for public sale there would be a bidding battle worthy of anything staged at Glenrowan.

Also in the "in your dreams" category is one of five legal briefs - The Queen v Edward Kelly - relating to the wilful murder of Thomas Lonigan. This 55-page document, in purple ink on blue legal paper, sold for $25,000 in June 2000.

Then there's the ridiculous: Brian McDonald knows of some so-called reward posters listed on eBay that have sold for several hundred dollars each.

These are cheap reproductions made in the 1960s and are obvious fakes. They show a photo of Ned Kelly taken two days before his execution. "It's like selling a coin dated 24 BC," he says.

My collection

Accountant Brian McDonald's passion for Australian history began on December 11, 1975 (he remembers the exact date) when he wandered into a Sydney bookshop and picked up David Collins's An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales volumes one and two.

He has since amassed an impressive library. His main interest is convict history but he says his shelves hold "about 25 per cent bushrangers, about 10 per cent Ned Kelly".

McDonald has worked as a radio commentator and tour guide, sometimes dressed as a bushranger doing shows for kids. It was the public's fascination with Ned Kelly that inspired him to compile What They Said About Ned! an annotated bibliography of the Kelly Gang.

This impressive feat of research lists the (so far) 797 separate publications devoted to Kelly in particular or bushranging in general. Many of these form part of his personal collection.

The work is available through Australian History Promotions (www.australianhistorypromotions.com).

This article can be found in the Sydney Morning Herald - Wednesday, 14 February 2007.

© Copyright 2005 The Antique and Historical Arms Collectors Guild of Victoria. All rights reserved.