The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Ned Kelly, the Ironclad Australian Bushranger (1881)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Ned Kelly: The Ironclad Australian Bushranger was written by James Skipp Borlase. Borlase (1839-?) is an interesting man, much more so than his characters. He was a failure as a husband and as a solicitor and became a writer out of desperation. Borlase wrote widely, including a great deal of material for boys’ magazines like Boys’ Leisure Hour under the pseudonym of “J.J.G. Bradley.” Borlase was also a plagiarist, lifting material from other writers.
There was a historical Ned Kelly (1854-1880), an Australian bushranger (bandit). Kelly robbed banks and killed policeman but was most famous for wearing steel armor to protect himself from bullets. During his lifetime Kelly was admired for his bravery and defiance of authority and has become a national icon in Australia.
Ned Kelly: The Ironclad Australian Bushranger is partially an attempt to faithfully tell the true story of Ned Kelly’s life and partially Borlase’s attempt to exploit Kelly’s notoriety. The serial begins with Kelly and his gang attempting to kill Tom Conquest, a policeman who has pursued them across Australia. After throwing Conquest down a well Kelly returns to his home in the mountains and visits his daughter Rose. (She is Borlase’s creation). Rose is seventeen and beautiful. Ned has raised her since her mother died. He loves her but is unhappy at how he has raised her:
Would to heaven that I had not brought her up to regard right as wrong and wrong as right; and yet I could not have endured that the only being there is left me to love should regard me as a ruffian and a villain. I am only what circumstances have made me, and why should I be different? My parents were murdered by the law, and her mother was destroyed by a villain. We both of us owe the world nothing but our hate and our scorn, and by heaven, I, at least, never let a chance slip of requiting the obligation.1
Rose is her father’s daughter and is willing to kill any potential stepmother that Ned brings home–she is unwilling to share her father with another woman. But from the beginning of the serial Rose wonders why, if her father leads the honest life he claims to, everyone else is so evil to him.
Kelly wanders around Australia, committing a number of crimes, and when the country gets too hot for him he goes to Rio de Janeiro. Kelly travels to London and attempts to continue his career as a thief, but is swindled out of his money by a widow in league with some gamblers. After Ned avenges himself on them, he buys a wife and unsuccessfully attempts to rape her. Ned returns to Australia, commits further crimes, and then goes to Singapore and then San Francisco, where one of Ned’s friends is lynched by a mob. Ned travels around California, goes to Tahiti, and returns to Australia. Ned meets the infamous Tichborne claimant and returns with him to London. From there Ned goes to Paris, robs the Paris mail, goes to Ireland and fights with some Fenians, then returns to Australia, where Borlase follows the historical record, finishing the serial with an accurate account of Kelly’s death.
Ned Kelly is told in typical Borlasean fashion, with numerous one-line paragraphs and a repetition of the criminal attempt/betrayal/pursuit/relocation pattern. The dialogue is melodramatic and the incidents quickly pall. But Ned Kelly is interesting for the extent to which Borlase indulges his taste for brutality (see: Blue Cap the Bushranger). Borlase makes a brief attempt to justify the story as a debunking of the tendency to make real criminals into fictional heroes, ala Dick Turpin (see: Rookwood):
Romance writers will doubtless describe Ned Kelly as a brave, noble-minded, chivalrous man, driven to his evil courses by the force of circumstances; but we, who have promised to make a plain statement of facts, according to the best of our ability, cannot disguise the truth that he was one of the most unblushing villains in existence and a disgrace to humanity. Despising danger, defying the written and unwritten laws of God and man, he has made an unenviable name which will be remembered for many generations to come.2
But the relish with which Borlase describes Ned’s violent acts undercuts Borlase’s statements. Kelly murders, rapes, sets a house on fire in order to kill the man inside it, forces his former gang members to sit on a nest of “white bull-dog ants” and be eaten alive, and carries out a threat to “write my marks on you a sight plainer”3 on a woman who tried to kill him. These passages have far more life, unfortunately, than the rest of Ned Kelly.
Borlase’s racism also infects Ned Kelly. The Chinese in San Francisco are portrayed in racist terms, as are the Tahitian natives, and the word “nigger” is thrown around freely in describing the Australian natives. Borlase also includes the following complaint:
Shooting a black has never cost any squatter much repentance, as the Government always protect the black from any retaliation for murdering a white man. When that awful imbecile Charles Joseph La Trebes was superintendent of Victoria, he officially offered a reward of £100 for the conviction of a white man who had shot a black, and £50 for the conviction of a black who potted a European!4
Critics usually describe Ned Kelly as an anti-Kelly tract, as Grace Moore does here:
While Francis Hare depicted a Ned Kelly who was at one with the landscape and admired by the community, Borlase subverts this vision of a Robin Hood-style hero. Many of those who encountered the Kelly gang recalled Ned’s strong sense of fair play and a genuine compassion underlying his criminal exploits…Borlase’s re-invention of Ned Kelly willfully reimagines him as a type of melodramatic stage villain, for whom no act of depravity is too great…From the story’s outset, Borlase seems bent on dismantling the folk hero elements of Kelly’s character.5
Moore goes on to note the anti-Irishness in Borlase’s portrayal of Kelly:
Borlase’s depiction of Ned Kelly the fire-setter is partly the result of a formulaic approach to representing the Australian colony to the British reading public. As markers of Australia’s exotic otherness, a bushfire and a dramatic rescue were almost de rigueur in nineteenth-century fiction. However, Borlase’s decision to make Ned responsible for the fire is a politically loaded one which, I would argue, draws upon contemporary anti-Irish prejudice, while at the same time attempting to undermine the affinity between Kelly and the landscape which characterized so many accounts of his exploits.
Ned himself was caught up in an arson incident in real life when in 1868 his uncle James set fire to the Kelly family home in Greta, while his mother, Ellen, and three of her children were inside. James was arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death for his crime, although his sentence was later commuted to fifteen years’ hard labour. There is, however, no evidence that either James or Ned Kelly ever deliberately lit a bushfire, and Borlase’s imagined version of events may well reflect contemporary anti-Irish prejudice. Gemma Clark has noted a strong tradition of arson as a ‘protest crime’ in nineteenth-century Ireland, in part because of the sheer spectacle created through the burning of property. As Clark observes, ‘It combines huge practical and physical damage with a powerful psychological weapon: a burning house or haystack advertises quite dramatically the singling out of an individual’. (‘Arson in Ireland’, p. 2) Kelly’s attack on the M’Pherson homestead is consistent with Clark’s account of the spectacular nature of incendiarism. Furthermore, I would argue that for Borlase, fire was a logical extension of Kelly’s heritage. To re-imagine him as an arsonist was to highlight his Irishness, while downplaying his connection to the Australia and the countryside that he attacks.6
Print: James Skipp Borlase, Ned Kelly: The Ironclad Australian Bushranger. London: British Library, 2011.
1 James Skipp Borlase, Ned Kelly: The Ironclad Australian Bushranger (London: Alfred J. Isaacs & Sons, 1881), 10-11.
2 Borlase, Ned Kelly, 99.
3 Borlase, Ned Kelly, 241.
4 Borlase, Ned Kelly, 416.
5 Grace Moore, “The Fiery Outlaw: Incendiarism and the Tarnishing of a Bushranging Folk Hero,” Australian Folklore 29 (2004): 122-123.
6 Moore, “The Fiery Outlaw,” 124.