Introductory activities

This is not presented as a comprehensive or complete list, merely some suggestions as to possible ways to tune into a study of The Jerilderie Letter.

(TEACHERS: Read my short paper (PDF, 79KB), ‘Ned Kelly as the father of modern Australian literature’. This sets out an overall context in which this unit could be delivered.)

  • Tapping into prior knowledge (e.g. content, expectations)
    • Five Minute Challenge: in up to five minutes, without stopping, students write as much as they can about their prior knowledge of Ned Kelly and his life, recalling any facts, opinions, associations, memories, comments on books they’ve read or movies they’ve seen.
  • Watch this video clip, which summarises the arguments over whether Ned Kelly should be considered a hero or a villain. Approx. 6 minutes and a fairly lively stoush! Discussion can ensue regarding which of the arguments presented here is successful.
  • Listen to the Redgum song ‘Poor Ned‘; lyrics here.
  • Watch Paul Kelly and his band performing ‘Our Sunshine‘. This video clip features text from The Jerilderie Letter. Song lyrics are here.
  • Construct a timeline of Ned Kelly’s life, using information from The Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • For oral discussion: Australian novelist Peter Carey used The Jerilderie Letter as inspiration for his novel The True History of the Kelly Gang. He referred to the Letter as being ‘like Ned’s DNA’. What do you think he meant by this?

Group activity 

Before reading the text of the Letter, it’s important to understand that it is a dictated oral text. What differences might this make to how the text appears on the page? How is our spoken language different to what we write down?

  1. With a partner, students should spend five minutes each dictating an event they have participated in recently-a sports event, a school excursion, a family dinner, a social event with friends. They should attempt to tell the whole story, from start to finish, including as many details as possible. Their partner should record what is spoken, word for word. (There may have to be some pauses while the writing partner catches up.)
  2. Examine the dictated passages: what you do notice about them? They may capture thoughts, rather than sentences; they most likely will not be governed by standard rules of written structure, such as punctuation or conventional grammar.


Personal response on reading the text including such aspects as:

  • questions and comments while reading the text
  • personal connections with own experience
  • identification with characters and situations
  • reflection on completion of the text.

Students should keep a journal while reading the Letter and note any words or phrases that they may not be familiar with. Students should also list the key events that Ned refers to and map these against the timeline they completed in the earlier activity: this list might include meeting Isaiah ‘Wild’ Wright, the arrest of Ned Kelly’s mother Ellen (and her subsequent incarceration with a three-month old child), the incident with Constable Fitzpatrick and the shootings at Stringybark Creek.

Note: a comprehensive and well edited version of this journal is required to complete one of the Rich Assessment Tasks for this unit.

Students should note which incidents or characters they encounter in The Jerilderie Letter are referred to in the song ‘Poor Ned’ or the Sunrise debate linked above.

Owing to an absence of consistent punctuation and unconventional grammar (perhaps owing something to contemporary English usage in the 1870s, especially with regard to speech, and the fact that Kelly was not extensively educated in the formal sense), the Letter may be a difficult text to read at first. Suggestions to combat this include focusing on small sections of the text at a time, and/or reading sections of the text aloud.

Teachers may prefer, over a series of lessons, to read the entire text of the Letter, or organise shared readings with groups of students. The suggested reading guide is a useful tool. If teachers decide to read part or all of the Letter aloud, it is strongly recommended that the relevant section of text is thoroughly pre-read first, to become familiar with florid sentence structures (many sentences in the Letter go over a page or longer) and the rhythms that are created as a result.

The Jerilderie Letter
: Reading guide

This is intended as a guide in the event that a teacher decides to read The Jerilderie Letter aloud to the class. This is not essential within the context of this unit, but it may be a good way to access the text given its fluid ‘stream of consciousness’ style. It is intended that each reading take no longer than ten minutes. Page numbers are based on the 2012 Text Classics edition, with an introduction by Alex McDermott.

It is recommended that each reading be followed by journal writing using the focus points listed below. Teachers may, on pre-reading the section, devise other similar questions.

First Reading: pp. 1–15
‘Dear Sir . . . Beechworth Pentridge’s dungeons.’

Second Reading: pp. 16–29
‘This is the only charge ever proved … they got a warrant against my brother Dan.’

Third Reading: pp. 29–43
‘And on the 15 April … shooting three troopers in self defence and robbing a bank.’

Note: This section contains the infamous Fitzpatrick incident, which marked Kelly as a wanted man on very spurious grounds (ie. that he shot Fitzpatrick in the wrist).

Fourth Reading:pp. 43–64
‘I would have been rather hot-blooded … who some calls honest gentlemen.’

Note: This section contains Kelly’s account of the shootings at Stringybark Creek and as such may deserve extended study.

Final Reading: pages 64 to the end
‘I would like to know what business … I am a widows son outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed.’

Possible journal focus questions

  1. Why is the punctuation missing? What effect does this have on how you read The Jerilderie Letter?
  2. What are the challenges in reading the Letter?
  3. Ned is often protective of others; see footnote p. 57. Why do you think this is?
  4. Does anything reported in the Letter justify Ned’s criminal activities?
  5. What are some of the challenges for historians in trying to piece together the truth about stories like Ned’s?
  6. Can students recall a time when they were unfairly treated? What happened-and how was it resolved?
  7. Can students identify an example of an injustice from today’s newspaper? Are there any parallels with Ned’s story? What are they?
  8. At any point while reading the Letter, do you find yourself sympathising with Ned, or feeling sorry for him? When? Why?
  9. Upon completing the first reading of the Letter, comment in one paragraph each on:
  • your impression of Ned Kelly as he appears in the text
  • the historical value of the Letter
  • the most interesting thing about the Letter: a character (preferably other than Ned!), an incident, a phrase, an insult, a description.


Outline of key elements of the text


  • Plot: summarise the key events that occur in the course of the Letter. Periods of time in jail, the important characters Ned encounters, and so on. These can be referenced against the timeline of Ned’s life you prepared earlier.
  • Character cause and effect: On this graphic organiser (PDF, 89KB) write Ned’s name at the base of the tree and choose five other characters from the Letter. Write their names in each of the other boxes. Does this character have a positive or negative effect on Ned’s life? Why?
  • Themes: Through the Letter, Ned wanted to reveal his side of the story and the central theme of the Letter is that he and his family were denied natural justice-and that, for example, the shooting of the three constables at Stringybark Creek happened in self-defence. Find evidence in the Letter, either in the text itself or footnotes, that suggests Ned was unfairly treated.


Synthesising task/activity

Incorporating multimodal resources such as, but not limited to, songs, film clips, images, screenshots of the original handwritten text of The Jerilderie Letter and so on, students should produce a Glog that illustrates the influence both the Letter and Ned Kelly have had on Australian narratives and myth-making.
(ACELA1567)   (ACELT1774)   (ACELY1776)   (EN5-3B)   (EN5-6C)   (EN5-2A)

Extension task

‘I do not call McIntyre a coward for I reckon he is as game a man as wears the jacket …’ (The Jerilderie Letter, p. 79). With the reference to the events at Stringybark Creek as Ned recalls them, explain in 250-300 words what you think he means by this. Consider that almost every reference to the Victorian Police in the Letter is negative or insulting. Your response should also be grounded in a clear understanding of the usage of the word ‘game’ in this context.
(ACELY1749)   (ACELY1750)   (ACELY1753)   (EN5-8D)   (EN5-1A)   (EN5-6C)

The writer’s craft and close reading

In his Introduction to the Text Classics edition of The Jerilderie Letter, Alex McDermott states that the Letter ‘gives the impression of a man ready to explode; indeed, it gives us a peculiar insight into the process of that explosion . . . With this letter, Kelly inserts himself into history, on his own terms, with his own voice.’

Importantly, McDermott goes on to say: ‘We hear the living speaker in a way that no other document in our history achieves, with its own strange slang, venomous threats, frequently contradictory statements and skewed sense of history.’ He achieves this, McDermott says, in a ‘flamboyant and rough’ style.

Earlier this unit explored the notion of dictating oral texts and how they might differ on the page from a purely written text. The activity will further examine the writer’s intention and method.


Students should pick any five pages of The Jerilderie Letter and read them several times, both quietly and aloud. It should already be clear that the text of the Letter abandons conventional punctuation and sentence structure, owing to the sense of contemporary oral language inherent in its dictation.

In their five pages, students should take note of:

  • any colourful or descriptive language (including ‘strange slang, venomous threats’)
  • references to the police and Kelly’s attitude towards them
  • notes relating to style or tone; what is the dominant emotion that emerges from The Jerilderie Letter? How is this evident?
  • references to injustice, unfairness or dishonesty on the part of people with whom Ned Kelly had dealings.

Students arrange this information visually. An exemplar is available here (PDF, 171KB) and represents only one possible format for the presentation of this information. The important thing is for students to understand that recognising these four elements of the text-colourful language, references to the police, style and tone, and references to injustice are key to understanding the Letter and Kelly’s motives in composing it. Each of these elements is unpacked in the following tasks:

Colourful language

Choose one of the following examples:

  • ‘the ground was so rotten it would bog a duck in places so Mr Gould had abandon his wagon for fear of loosing his horses in the spewy ground’ (p. 1)
  • ‘he was as helpless as a big guano after leaving a bullock or a horse.’ (p. 12)
  • ‘that Fitzpatrick will be the cause of greater slaughter to the Union Jack than Saint Patrick was to the snakes and toads in Ireland’ (p. 28)
  • ‘the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police who some calls honest gentlemen’ (pp. 63-4)
  • ‘The Queen must surely be proud of such heroic men as the Police and Irish soldiers as It takes eight or eleven of the biggest mud crushers in Melbourne to take one poor little half starved larrikin to a watch house.’ (p. 69)
  • ‘but by the light that shines pegged on an ant-bed with their bellies opened their fat taken out rendered and poured down their throat boiling hot will be cool to what pleasure I will give some of them’ (p. 74)
  1. What sort of impression does the author of words such as these have of the world?
  2. Have students heard phrases like this before? Where?
  3. Identify examples of hyperbole, simile and metaphor in one or more of these examples.

References to the police

This allows students to consider two of the central incidents in The Jerilderie Letter and indeed in the Kelly narrative: the Fitzpatrick incident and the shootings at Stringybark Creek.

1. Fitzpatrick

Reread pages p. 29 (‘And on the 15 April …’) to the top of page 39 (‘and a hundred pound for any man that could prove a conviction of horse-stealing against me …’).

Interestingly, in her footnote on page 36-37, Ellen Kelly mentions that Fitzpatrick ‘tried to kiss my daughter Kate’. This detail is missing from Ned’s account of the incident as recorded in the Letter. Why do you think that is?

This is the incident that finally pushed Ned over the edge into complete outlawry. He may have been engaged in illegal activity on the quiet prior to this, but after the incident with Fitzpatrick he was on the run with a price on his head, hence its significance. 

2. Stringybark Creek

‘… we knew our doom was sealed …’ (p. 44)

The crime for which Kelly was eventually tried and hanged, the shootings at Stringybark Creek, provide yet another catalyst in the tale of the Kelly Myth. Did he act in self-defence or were the deaths of the three policemen an act of cold-blooded murder?

Reread the Letter pages 44 (‘October I came on Police Tracks …’) to 61 (‘shattered into a mass of animated gore to Mansfield …’).

Note comments such as ‘I could have shot them without speaking but their lives was no good to me.’ (p. 58) Kelly then notes that he let McIntyre go as the policeman had surrendered. This is a contradiction worthy of discussion and exploration through class discussion and journal writing.

Students might consider:

  • Why was one policeman’s life worthless but another’s worth saving? Does the fact that McIntyre surrendered suggest that Ned Kelly was a man of some decency?
  • Note also the footnote regarding Sergeant Kennedy’s body on p. 60. What happened to his ear?

The style and tone of the Letter

Find a section of the Letter in which Ned’s anger is clearly evident-where he is insulting, patronising, arrogant or sarcastic. A couple of examples are provided in this exemplar(PDF, 171KB)

Reread the first five pages of the Letter, and then reread the last five. Record ways in which these two sections are different. It is almost possible to determine the mood Kelly was in when dictating them.

  • What are the significant differences in style, tone and language?
  • It can be argued that by the end of the letter, Ned Kelly is virtually frothing at the mouth with rage. How is this evident in the language?

In her article ‘Ned’s Irish Accent‘, Dymphna Lonergan makes the case for hearing Ned’s Irish accent in certain usages in the Letter. Despite being born in Australia, it’s possible that Ned spoke with an Irish accent after his parents.

  • What do these usages add to the Letter?
  • What does the Letter gain from being an oral text?


Text and meaning including such elements as:

Themes and ideas

  • Watch the Sunrise clip again, in which Derryn Hinch and Trevor Monty argue about Kelly’s legacy. Which of these men do you agree with? Why? Has this view changed from the initial viewing of this clip? Why?
  • Does the end ever justify the means?
  • How is the Letter a definition of character? What sort of person is Ned? What values does he consider important?
  • How is the Letter a definition of morality? Does it present a world where the line between right and wrong-or legal/illegal-is blurred?
  • Is there ever a moral justification for crime? Would you steal money to pay for your mother’s lifesaving operation?
  • There is some controversy over whether Ned Kelly received a fair trial, as was his right. Ask students to find and read newspaper accounts of the trial (there are several on NLA’s Trove website). Students may need to reread the section of the Letter that recounts what happened at Stringybark Creek. What does it mean to be innocent until proven guilty-why is this an important legal right? Compare with other famous trials or crimes: the Port Arthur Massacre, The Belanglo Backpacker Murders, Carl Williams.
  • Does saving McIntyre’s life give weight to Ned’s view of himself as the victim of police tyranny?
  • How important were Ned’s family to him? Why?
  • As a historical document, what are some of the flaws with The Jerilderie Letter? (There’s one very important one-it’s only Ned’s point of view.)

What does the Letter mean?

  • The Jerilderie Letter is the engine room of the Kelly Myth. The word ‘myth’ is used provocatively. How can we know the truth of what happened to Ned Kelly in the late 1870s?
  • Is it part confession, part call to arms, part memoir, part rage against the machine?
  • Ned was Catholic, and for Catholics the concept of confession has special significance. What is the significance of the Letter as a confession?
  • It synthesises colourful Irish vernacular with a profound, if somewhat misguided, sense of natural justice.
  • It crystallises the attitude of the Irish (ie. the Kellys) towards the British (ie. the colonial government/Police etc.) Arguably this is a religious conflict, Catholic vs. Protestant, and is very old and very deeply felt.
  • Consider the Letter’s concluding statement: ‘I do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning, but I am widows son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed.’ (p. 83) On one reading, Kelly is advocating nothing short of open rebellion against the colonial Victorian government, ‘worse than the rust on the wheat in Victoria’ (p. 83). This may sound like hyperbole and arguably Kelly may not have had either the resources or the army of supporters to actually foment such a rebellion-but these are the words of an angry man. It is worth noting that he intended derailing a train full of policemen at Glenrowan, at what became his famous Last Stand; had he succeeded, it is difficult to estimate the ‘collateral damage’ in terms of innocent lives lost.
  • The Jerilderie Letter is a glimpse into the mind of a man who would consider such an act justifiable. Kelly felt he was at war.


Synthesising task/activity

In pairs, students should write and present a script based on an informal conversation that addresses and explores one of the following topics. There should be some room in the presentation for expansion on or further elaboration of the opinions or ideas covered in the written script.

  • Why doesn’t Ned Kelly shoot Constable McIntyre at Stringybark Creek? What might this reveal to us about Kelly?
  • Discuss the significance on the Kelly Story of the incident with Constable Fitzpatrick.
  • At times, there is a sense in the Letter that Ned is using it to ‘get things off his chest’. How important is the Letter as a confession, a chance for Ned to ‘come clean’?
    (ACELT1643)   (ACELY1749)   (EN5-3B)   (EN5-8D)

Ways of reading the text

  • as a confession (see previous section)
  • an open letter to the police
  • an incitement to revolution
  • Ned Kelly’s story in his own words; but how much of it can we believe?
  • stream of consciousness. Example:

‘Such fools we all are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.’
-Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

What parallels with The Jerilderie Letter can be identified here?


Comparison with other texts including such approaches as:

  • the Letter is unique in being an intimate account of one of Australia’s notable historical figures in his own words
  • in many ways, it defies genre
  • many versions of the Kelly Story exist and are worth investigating and critiquing
  • this unit has already referred to two songs, ‘Poor Ned and ‘Our Sunshine‘. How do these two songs differ in their presentation of the life of Ned Kelly?
  • Our Sunshine is also the name of a novel by Robert Drewe, in which Ned’s interior life is examined-his thoughts, dreams and so on.
  • compare this to the True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. Is this title oxymoronic or tautological? Is history ever true, or accurate?
  • this novel was used as the basis for a film starring the late Heath Ledger as Ned; watch the trailer.
  • an earlier film version, made in 1970, starred Mick Jagger as Ned and would make for interesting comparison. And possibly a laugh or two.
  • the first feature length film made in Australia, in about 1906, was The Story of the Kelly Gang. Very little of this film survives, but this silent clip portrays the Fitzpatrick Incident.


Evaluation of the text as:

Representative of Australian culture

  • Why do we revere criminals? Why are Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s books so popular? (After reading the Letter, do students consider Ned a criminal?)
  • Explain how the Letter positions our attitude to authority, which is famously irreverent. (This is evident in our satire of politicians, and even to some degree in the so-called ‘Tall Poppy’ syndrome.
  • ‘Australians love an underdog.’ What does this mean with regard the Letter?
  • Ned was born not long after the Eureka Stockade in Victoria, when gold miners staged a rebellion against oppressive conditions imposed on them by the colonial government. In part, miners were angry that a hotel owner was acquitted of the murder of a miner, and they burned his hotel down. The Stockade and the Kelly Myth are connected by issues of justice and tyranny. How equipped are we to seek change and protest against perceived injustices . . . and how far would we go in standing up for our beliefs?

Literary significance

  • The paper Ned Kelly as the father of modern Australian literature (PDF, 79KB) positions Ned Kelly as the founder of modern Australian literature. Perhaps this is a little facetious, but there is a rich contemporary tradition in Australian literature including Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood and Adam Lindsay Gordon, evolving into the likes of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson and onwards into the 20th century.
  • The role of the Letter in our literary tradition cannot be underestimated. It serves as a unique historical document and a precursor to the modernist traditions of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf; this connection is no less important for being completely unintentional.
  • The Letter is also a compendium of insults, slang and other informal usages of the day-so it has limitless value as a time capsule of how people of Ned’s ilk spoke and what they said. Through the Letter’s voice we get a good look at the important values of the day and so it is also a valuable social document.


Rich assessment task 1: Productive

Position yourself in role as Ned Kelly’s defence lawyer, the scenario being that he has been granted a retrial. Research, write and present to class a three-minute summation of your strongest arguments in support of him. Where possible, evidence for your statements should be drawn from The Jerilderie Letter. Remember that you are summing up; evidence has been heard and this is your last chance to defend Ned Kelly before the Jury (i.e. fellow classmates) retires to consider a verdict.

Additional resources may help with this task:

  • Gregory Peck delivers his closing address to the jury as Atticus Finch in the film To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Kevin Costner’s closing statement as Jim Garrison in the film JFK is also worth watching.
  • Some contemporary newspaper accounts of Ned Kelly’s original trial are also useful.

Use the assessment rubric (PDF, 74KB) to evaluate students’ work.
(ACELY1750)   (ACELY1813)   (ACELA1571)   (EN5-1A)   (EN5-3B)

Extension task

Using available technology such as iPads, digital cameras or similar devices, students create a short documentary (5-8 minutes) that explores The Jerilderie Letter as representative of Australian culture (perhaps using as a starting point one of the dot points under this heading above). Students might incorporate reference to other versions of Ned Kelly’s story as evidence of ongoing cultural influence; this task therefore might be a opened-out, extended version of the Glog students created earlier in the unit.
(ACELY1756)   (EN5-1A)

Synthesising core ideas 

Students revisit their reading journals and reflect on their understanding of The Jerilderie Letter having completed (or while working on) their Glogs.


Students write in role as a historian who has tracked down the only existing handwritten copy of the original Jerilderie Letter, which is at the time owned privately and not for public exhibition or use. Write a letter to the owner of the document, detailing it’s literary and historical significance and making at least two clear and cohesive arguments as to why it should be made available to the public, either through donation to a museum, or temporary loan so that it can be transcribed.
(ACELT1814)   (EN5-5C)


Rich assessment task 2: Receptive

You are to synthesise, edit and publish a comprehensive account of your Jerilderie Letter Reading Journal, including the Five Page Task (PDF, 171KB) of this unit. Your journal should make definitive conclusions about the value of the Letter and its place in the Kelly Myth. Your journal might include, but should not be limited to:

  • an analysis of the Fitzgerald Incident or the Stringybark Creek shootings
  • a clear definition of the Letter as confession or as justification
  • explanations of the vernacular in use at the time, as evident in Ned’s language use and structures
  • a survey of the change in tone in the Letter as it progresses, and Ned becomes increasingly angry and bitter
  • a comparative account of how events in the Letter are treated in other versions of the Kelly narrative, such as Our Sunshine, True History of the Kelly Gang or the Heath Ledger film version (which is based on ‘Our Sunshine‘).

Use the assessment rubric (PDF, 73KB) to evaluate students’ work.
(ACELT1640)   (ACELT1812)   (ACELY1753)   (EN5-5C)   (EN5-7D)   (EN5-6C)