On the evening of 7 February 1879 the Kelly gang approached the small isolated town of Jerilderie in southern New South Wales. They had recently been outlawed for the murders of three police officers at Stringybark Creek in north-east Victoria in October 1878. The gang stopped at Davidson’s Hotel a little over three km from the town. They intended to rob the Jerilderie branch of the Bank of New South Wales the next day. But the leader of the gang Edward, ‘Ned’, Kelly had a second purpose for visiting the town.

The Kellys’ Visit to the Police Station, Jerilderie N.S.W., 1879.
The Kellys’ Visit to the Police Station, Jerilderie N.S.W., 1879. IAN21/02/79/17

Kelly was carrying with him a hand-written document which he wanted to have published. It was a lengthy statement of more than 8,000 words. The document has become known in history as ‘The Jerilderie Letter’. It was the latest attempt by Kelly to make known to the public his version of the killing of the police officers at Stringybark Creek and of a number of events which preceded this, particularly the so called ‘Fitzpatrick incident’ at Greta.

Blended in with these accounts of Kelly’s dealings with the police is some other commentary about the justice system, the tension between large and smaller landholders and the position of Irish-Australians within the British empire. Kelly’s plan was to have the proprietor of the Jerilderie and Urana Gazette, Samuel Gill, publish the letter in his newspaper and to print copies for the gang to distribute. But Kelly’s plans were thwarted when Gill discovered the town was being held up by the gang and fled the town before Kelly could detain him. Kelly then gave the letter to Edwin Living, the accountant at the Bank. Living promised to give it to Gill when he returned. However Living (usually pronounced Lyving) did not try to do this and as soon as the Kelly’s had left he made his way to Melbourne via a train from Deniliquin and handed over the letter to the Police.

At this time no official copy of the letter was made by the authorities although the letter was seen by some police and legal identities. Some of the leading newspapers also saw the document. The Melbourne Age chose to provide a summary, which at nearly 4,000 words was about half the size of the of the letter.

Article from The Melbourne Age February 1879, page 3.
The Melbourne Age, 18 February 1879, page 3.

Other newspapers published briefer summaries or chose not to publish anything at all. Any chance of the letter being published in full then evaporated. The Melbourne Argus explained its approach in August 1880;

The tendency which exists to regard a man with his hands imbrued in innocent blood as a modern ROBIN HOOD is much too prevalent in Victoria, and it requires to be sternly checked, and not encouraged. Nothing would stimulate the feeling, however, so much as the printing of stories from KELLY’S own lips.

and further to this:

He left a manuscript at Jerilderie, a copy of which came into the possession of The Argus, and we found it to be entirely unfit for publication.

The Argus, 12 August 1880.

The satirical newspaper, Melbourne Punch, was similarly opposed to any publication:

Lying and cowardice are usually close companions, and a perusal of his “statement” leads us to the belief that in this last adventure both these elements of his nature were strongly exhibited.

The Kelly Gang July 1 1880, Melbourne Punch

Shortly after Kelly’s execution a summarized version of the letter again appeared, this time in the Ballarat Star; Ned Kelly’s Written Statement. After this the contents of the letter, even its very existence, largely disappeared from public knowledge. The copy made by the authorities was retained in government archives but was largely unknown to the public and to historians for many years. Then in 1930 knowledge of the letter was rekindled through its publication in a serialized number of installments in the Adelaide newspaper the Register News-Pictorial, between 29 September and 2 October 1930, as part of a continuing feature called The Kellys Are Out!, by J.M.S. Davies.

The whole series ran from 13 September to 13 October 1930, but the Jerilderie Letter text, which was reproduced in full, was incorporated in the middle issues of the series. The series was then published in the Melbourne Herald during October and November 1930 in a similar way. Eventually the letter was published in a single document for the first time as an appendix to the biography of Kelly by Max Brown, Australian Son, in 1948.

The Journey of the Original Manuscript

No official copy of the letter seems to have been made when it was first delivered to the authorities in Melbourne. After the letter was seen by some police, legal, political and newspaper figures it was returned to Living, on his insistance. After Ned Kelly was captured in June 1880 at Glenrowan, police requested to borrow Living’s copy so it might be officially copied and potentially used in trial proceedings against Kelly.

After a copy was made the original was returned to Edwin Living. This seems a strange decision by modern standards of evidence gathering and authentication. Perhaps a verified copy was deemed satisfactory given it was transcribed in 17 pages, reduced from its original 56 pages, and was more practical to handle and use in any potential police or judicial proceedings.

Living retained the original copy until his death in 1936. After this the letter remained in private hands and was assumed by most to have been lost. In the 1960s Kelly biographer, Ian Jones, became aware of the existence of the original and for a number of years became the keeper of the letter. In 1977 the ownership of the letter changed and Jones ceased to be its custodian. But he remained in contact with the owner and facilitated access to the letter for researchers. During this period some more attempts to place the letter in either the National Library or State Library Victoria were made. Eventually in October 2000 negotiations to acquire the letter for State Library Victoria took place and by late November 2000 the Jerilderie Letter was finally revealed to the public in its original form and in a digitised format.

Jones’s account in the Latrobe Journal presents this journey in more detail. The Jerilderie Letter was generously donated without its owner seeking any financial consideration at all and with a requirement that they remain anonymous. 

The writing of the Jerilderie Letter

Before the Jerilderie Letter there was a document which came to be known as the Cameron Letter, sometimes called the Euroa Letter. Donald Cameron was a Member of the Legislative Assembly in the Victorian Parliament. In Parliament during November 1878 he had been critical of the manner in which the police had dealt with the Kelly gang and had called for an inquiry. Thinking he had a sympathiser, Ned Kelly composed a letter to Cameron outlining his grievances, hoping the matter would be raised in Parliament.

It was fellow gang member Joe Byrne who recorded Kelly’s words on paper as he was the most literate member of the gang. The Cameron document was between 3,000 and 4,000 words and covered many issues addressed in the later Jerilderie Letter. Cameron however did not speak to the letter in Parliament although a copy of the letter was made by the authorities and there was some reference to the existence of the letter in newspapers in December 1878.

No doubt disappointed by the failure to have his statement published, Kelly continued with the idea and a much longer document was developed over the next few months leading up to the raid at Jerilderie in February 1879. Again it is thought to have been largely composed by Ned Kelly, and written down by Joe Byrne, who probably made some adjustments and even added some of his own words.

A close analysis of the Jerilderie Letter by Ian Jones and Joseph Crowley suggests it was written over a number of sessions, possibly up to 14 separate sessions. There is variability in the handwriting, in the paper and the tone of the ink, all of which suggests a series of sessions. It has been suggested by Crowley that an earlier draft, or drafts, may have existed given that there are very few spelling errors in the document handed to Edwin Living. This seems a reasonable deduction given the gang’s hopes that the letter would be a significant counter to the general negative community view about the Kelly gang’s outrages.

The destruction of the Kelly gang. Portrait of Byrne [picture]
The destruction of the Kelly gang. Portrait of Byrne. (1880). Melbourne: Alfred May and Alfred Martin Ebsworth; A/S17/07/80/168

Condition and Appearance

The Jerilderie Letter comprises 56 separate pages written on cream coloured note paper. The paper is of medium thickness. The pages are small between A5 and A6 dimensions, approximately 187 mm x 110 mm. The pages are generally in fair condition. Some are creased and have tears around the edges and are stained in places. There is evidence it has been folded. But given the writing of the document probably took place over a period of days or weeks and would have taken place in a variety of outdoor locations or inside very rudimentary huts or sheds, and then was transported by horseback over long distances, the condition of the paper overall is quite good. It is however a vulnerable document and to ensure its long-term preservation only a few pages can be displayed for limited periods of time in the safest possible conditions.

Jerilderie Letter, MS13361, p.37.

The title

When the Jerilderie Letter was published as an appendix to the Max Brown biography of Kelly in 1948 he coined the term ‘The Jerilderie Letter’. Prior to this the Jerilderie Letter was variously referred to as a ‘Ned Kelly’s Letter’, ‘statement’ or ‘manuscript’ and Ian Jones explains how John Hanlon, a publican who was the first to see the document Edward Living was carrying with him and made his own copy of it, called it ‘Kelly’s confession’. Since 1948, and especially since the rediscovery of the original document, ‘the Jerilderie Letter’ has become the accepted title.


The Jerilderie Letter addresses more than one topic and narrates a number of incidents from Kelly’s perspective. This, and its considerable length and detail, means it has generated numerous and varying interpretations. The majority of the letter conveys Kelly’s version of the killing of the police at Stringybark Creek, and other interactions with police during the course of Kelly’s life. These include the Fitzpatrick incident, where Constable Fitzpatrick attempted to arrest Dan Kelly and in the process was shot in the hand, which then resulted in warrants for the arrest of Ned and Dan for attempted murder and various accusations of, and incidents of, horse theft. It is loosely structured, many have said incoherent, and to understand it fully requires a great grasp of the detail of the various incidents and events in Kelly’s life. There are, for instance, 68 different people mentioned by name. 

The Stringybark Creek murders take up the largest single section, pages 30-43. The Fitzpatrick incident is also detailed and is mainly on pages 21-29. Other events such as the McCormack, Wild Wright and Whitty horse stealing events take up smaller sections on pages 1-12 and 15-19. Overall about 45 of the total of 56 pages mostly relate to these incidents, along with some disparaging comments about individual police officers such as Constable Flood, on pages 13-15.

The remaining sections contain general complaints about the police and the authorities, and wealthy large land owners. Blended in with much of this are Kelly’s views about the English system of justice, inequality and Irish nationalism. There are sections towards the end on pages 44-45 and page 49 where Kelly’s views on the British treatment of the Irish people and nation over many years is quite explicit and it is clear that Kelly sees this treatment as extending to the Australian environment.

The Bushranging tragedy: portraits of the four constables and the two Kellys.


Kelly himself is said to have described the document as ‘a little bit of my life’ in The Kellys’ Gang In New South Wales. In viewpoint it is a first-person narrative and develops mainly in a chronological pattern from some early interactions with the police, then the Fitzpatrick event and the events at Stringybark Creek, and finally to a more general expression of Kelly’s anger at those he sees as persecuting him and the community from which he has emerged. Its language is littered with colloquial expressions, some which are quite inventive and vivid. Some examples are:

the ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places so Mr. Gould had abandon his waggon for fear of loosing his horses in the spewy ground‘ p.1

their hounds were barking at the wrong stump‘, pp.19-20

Some of the most colourful expressions are insults directed at police,

‘for he has a head like a turnip a stiff neck as big as his shoulders narrow hipped and pointed towards the feet like a vine stake’ p.51

‘It takes eight or eleven of the biggest mud crushers in Melbourne to take one poor little half starved larrakin to a watchhouse’ p.47.

and most famous on page 43 is the long winded description of the police as, 

a parcel of big ugly fat necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splay footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as officers of justice or Victorian Police who some calls honest gentlemen’ p.43

Jerilderie Letter MS13361 p.43

The siding with the poorer farmers and workers, the railing against the justice system and the Irish nationalist sentiment expressed in parts of the letter, have seen some call it a Manifesto. This is a term usually associated with a political platform or program with a set of social, economic and political reforms. Rather than a Manifesto it is more accurate to describe the letter as a document outlining Kelly’s grievances against the police and justice system and which includes some political messages and rhetoric especially in relation to Irish nationalism.

Kelly’s political position in regard to the distribution of land and the question of Irish independence is clear. In his view smaller farmers and the Irish in general have been the victims of British colonial oppression.

I wish those men who joined the stock protection society to with­draw their money and give it and as much more to the widows and orphans and poor of Greta district’ p.54

and further,

it would suit them far better to subscribe a sum and give it to the poor of their district and there is no fear of anyone stealing their property for no man could steal their horses without the knowledge of the poor if any man was mean enough to steal their property the poor would rise out to a man and find them if they were on the face of the earth it will always pay a rich man to be liberal with the poor and make as little enemies as he can as he shall find if the poor is on his side he shall loose nothing by it‘ (pp.55-56).

On Irish nationalism there are several comments which make Kelly’s views clear, on page 45 he refers to the Irish as, ‘persecuted massacred thrown into martyrdom and – tortured’, and later on page 49 he speaks of the, ‘pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke which has kept it in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemy’s coat’.

Eventually what becomes very prominent is Kelly’s rage and towards the end of the letter his language intensifies into a series of warnings against the authorities or those who would aid and abet them and an image emerges of Kelly as an avenging messianic figure whose orders must be obeyed lest there be destruction across the land.

I give fair warning to all those who has reason to fear me to sell out and give ten pounds out of every hundred towards the widow and orphan fund and do not attempt to reside in Victoria but as short a time as possible after reading this notice, neglect this and abide by the consequences, which shall be worse than the rust in the wheat in Victoria or the druth of a dry season to the grasshoppers in New South Wales I do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning, but I am a widows son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed‘ (p.56).

Kelly in the Dock – A Sketch from Life. [picture]. (1880). Melbourne: David Syme and Co. A.; IAN28/08/80/145


The Jerilderie Letter has had an enduring impact on the interpretation of the Kelly Gang’s actions. Whatever judgement is made about its accuracy and the validity of the arguments presented in the text it provides a wealth of detail to consider when trying to understand the story of the Kelly gang and of Ned Kelly in particular. It is also unusual to have a substantive written documentary record by one of the leading figures in a major episode in Australian criminal history.  Tasmanian outlaw Michael Howe wrote letters to the Colonial Governor of Van Diemans Land in the early 1800s. The  American outlaw Jesse James had a series of letters published in the Kansas City Times. Some of these dealt with political matters. There are also the memoirs of Tasmanian bushranger Martin Cash and the recollections of John Vane as recorded by Charles White.

But each of these cases are different either in scope or structure to The Jerilderie Letter. This is what makes the Kelly document distinctive and continues to draw attention to its varied aspects of biography, language, the case for and against Kelly, the politics and the insight it gives into the personality of the author.

Access to the Jerilderie Letter

A digitised version of the original copy of the Jerilderie Letter and a transcript is freely accessible online. The full text of the original letter has also been published in numerous publications. One of the most accessible copies is by Text Publishing which includes a lengthy introduction.

This article has 3 comments

  1. Great article Tim. We’re all very lucky to have such a unique piece of our history freely available to us. It provides wonderful insights into the perspectives of Kelly – whether we agree with them or not.

  2. Great article. I had a read (partial scan) of the Jerilderie Letter on the banks of Billabong Creek in Jerilderie a few years back. The sense of time and place was captivating – as was the tour through town of many buildings that still stand and are just so willing to tell their story. So much should be done to keep Jerilderie as it is (was). Thanks Dayv – ‘Out&About with Dayv’

  3. Alice Richardson

    Interestingly, it was Kelly’s own barrister that objected to the Jerilderie letter being considered at Kelly’s murder trial. The letter claimed Kelly acted in self Defence, when he shot Lonigan, one of the police at Stringybark Creek.
    Without self defence being argued, a verdict of guilty was inevitable – and therefore the sentence of death.

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