Almanac Poetry: A Notable Colonial Fistfight


‘Ned Kelly in Boxing Pose’ photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

A Notable Colonial Fistfight: Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly vs. Isaiah ‘Wild’ Wright, Beechworth, Victoria, August 8th, 1874

 

Saturday afternoon
in the Imperial Hotel.
Regulars. Laughter.
A squeezebox. An old man
dances a stiff-jointed jig.
Alone by the window, Kelly
sips on an ale,
gazing at High Street’s passing parade.
A stocky, bull-necked man walks by,
jolting him out of his reverie.
‘Bloody Wright!’
Wild enters the bar.
Kelly turns, glares.
Words fly.
About a stolen horse
—Isaiah Wright: sentence eighteen months,
for illegally using, not stealing;
Edward Kelly: sentence three years,
for receiving the same beast,
though he didn’t know it was stolen.
Wild hadn’t bothered to tell him that.
Ned also hadn’t forgotten
the arrest by Senior Constable Hall
—helped by others, the bloated Scot
had tried to kill him.
(His mother was certainly right
when she told him as a boy.
‘The police have it in for our lot, son.’)
This is the first occasion
Ned and Wild have seen each other
since doing time.
Kelly rises from his stool, fists clenched.
Wright, a notorious fighter,
calmly stands his ground.
‘All right, Ned. If that’s want you want …’
The sporty publican, Rogers,
a well-known organizer
of wrestling bouts, fist-fights, cricket and skittles,
nimbly steps in.
‘Gentleman, gentlemen!
No fighting in here.
If you really want to settle this …’
He outfits the combatants
in boxing attire
—white singlets, silk shorts, lightweight shoes—
then calls to his off-sider,
‘Take over. I may be some time.’
Rogers, the two men and half the pub
proceed to the sporting ground
on the banks of Spring Creek,
below the fruit and hop garden.
Others join them along the way.
Rogers takes centre-stage.
He extends his arms,
establishing distance between the two men,
both physically impressive,
particularly for the time:
Kelly, age nineteen, six feet tall, 12 stone;
Wright, twenty-five, five-eleven, a stone and a half heavier.
The spectators, wide-eyed, expectant,
form an enthusiastic circle.
Among them, many faces familiar
to Kelly and Wright: Brickey Williamson,
Joe Byrne, Aaron Sherritt, Tom Lloyd …
Rogers holds forth:
‘The Old London Rules, gentlemen.
No Marquis of Queensberry here!’
The crowd cheer loudly.
Eyes locked, the two men nod.
Rogers flourishes a stick
then draws a line in the dirt.
‘Mr Kelly and Mr Wright
—to the mark!’

 

Wild charges forward, swinging.
His first punch,
a roundhouse right,
would have knocked a man’s head off
if it had connected.
Kelly, watchful, sees it coming and ducks.
Wright swishes the air.
Ned’s first blow,
a short right to the solar plexus,
is thrown from the heels.
Wild doubles over, lets out a groan,
for his trouble gets two jabs to the head.
He stumbles back, hands up, blinking,
trying to clear his vision.
He smiles.
Fighters always smile
when they know they’re in trouble.
Momentarily, he sees two Neds.
One will be plenty.
For much of the round, they stalk each other,
feinting and throwing inquiring jabs.
Wild tries another haymaker
but it misses by two feet.
A straight left from Ned to the nose draws blood.
End of Round One.
The next few rounds.
Ned, more scientific, picks off the shorter, stockier Wild
with stinging jabs.
Then Wild, veteran of many battles,
starts to fight more cleverly,
no longer recklessly swinging
and leaving himself an easy target.
He looks for openings,
once lands a good left hook
but Ned doesn’t even flinch.
It is like hitting a block of granite.
‘I’ll be in for a long afternoon,’ thinks Wild.
The middle rounds see Wild
increasingly desperate.
He tries to put Ned off,
uses everything
in his pugilist’s bag of tricks.
He points to his chin,
drops his hands,
sways his head in and out of range,
yells distracting comments to the crowd
‘I’ve got him now!’
‘He’s starting to look worried.’ (He isn’t.)
Nothing works.
Ned pursues him relentlessly,
not allowing his concentration
to be broken for a second.
The later rounds.
Thwack thwack thwack!
The jabs keep coming.
To Ned, it is like chopping down a tree.
The time in Gippsland, swinging an axe,
breaking bluestone in Williamstown
stand him in good stead.
All the right muscles are finely tuned,
his instincts sharply honed.
Wild still connects occasionally,
to little effect.
He tries to rally
but the stable doors have closed
and the horse has long since bolted.
In the last rounds, Wild
clinches and wrestles,
the only way he can survive.
‘Come on boys! Is this a fight
or the Pride of Erin?’
yells Aaron Sherritt,
who can’t resist getting off a good line,
whatever the circumstances.
Ned catches his eye.
Sherritt shuts up immediately.
The final round.
Ned is raining blows
on a stumbling, defeated Wild.
In the crowd, Wild’s deaf-mute brother,
locally nicknamed ‘Dummy’
(when Wild isn’t around),
moans in great agitation
at seeing his brother’s punishment.
It takes three men to prevent him
from leaping into the fray.
Ned throws a wicked right to the chin.
Wild sags to his knees, swaying.
Rogers the publican jumps in,
raises the victor’s hand.
‘Kelly, the winner in twenty!’
The crowd claps and whistles.
Hats are thrown in the air.
The district has a new champion.
Wild grabs a towel from his ‘picker up’,
wipes the blood from his face
then pushes through the throng around Ned.
He holds out his hand,
‘The better man won.’
Ned shakes it, but doesn’t say a word.
Walking back through the fruit trees,
in fading late afternoon light,
Joe Byrne says to Sherritt,
‘You fancy yourself, Aaron.
How about next time, you challenge Ned?’
Sherritt laughs.
‘I’m not that stupid, Joe.
He’d bloody kill me.’

 

. . .

 

Years later, Wild is fighting
for a travelling boxing troupe.
Charlie the spruiker asks him,
‘I hear you fought Ned Kelly.
Behind the big talk and the guns,
could he fight?
I mean, really fight?’
‘Could he fight?’ replies Wild, half-smiling,
recalling that day long ago.
‘He gave me the hiding of my life.’

 

Kevin Densley

 

Acknowledgements: first published in Antipodes (USA) in 2014, then in my book-length collection, Orpheus in the Undershirt (Ginninderra Press, 2018)

 

More from Kevin Densley can be read HERE

 

 

 

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About

Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, has just been published (late 2020) by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Recent other writing includes screenplays for films with a tertiary education purpose.

Comments

  1. John Butler says

    Kevin, I really enjoyed this.

    Thank you.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Very pleased you enjoyed this poem, John. It gave me considerable enjoyment to write it, too.

  3. matt watson says

    Brilliant Kevin,
    I loved it.
    As a kid, I watched the last outlaw, and the bout featured prominently.
    Wild Wight ended up sympathetic to Ned…
    Did he really end up fighting in a boxing troupe?
    Cheers

  4. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Matt. Yes, Wild Wright was in a boxing troupe, a considerable number of years after his fight with Ned – this detail is mentioned in many places, including Ned Kelly: A Short Life by the late Ian Jones. Also, I recall really liking The Last Outlaw, when it was on TV in 1980. Ian Jones and his wife Bronwyn Binns were co-executive producers and co-writers of this show. Finally, it is interesting to further note that Ian Jones was the co-writer of the screenplay of the 1970 Ned Kelly movie which starred Mick Jagger.

  5. Fabulous Kevin. Whenever I see the name Ned Kelly I have to read the words. Probably the most intriguing figure in Australian history for me. And you’ve nailed this. I’ve read a few accounts of this bout and even went up to Beechworth to find the actual location. It is the stuff of legend.

    The great pity is that there has been plenty written about Kelly but never a decent movie made (in my view). In the movies he’s always depicted as a one dimensional character. He obviously wasn’t. Perhaps charisma is hard to “act”.

    Perhaps our greatest Australian, John Monash, also forever recalled his conversation with Ned Kelly when Monash was just a boy. Fascinating stuff.

  6. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks for your comments, Dips. I’m so pleased you believe I’ve nailed this one. What I tried to do is breathe vivid life into an event well-known in Kelly’s story. I based my poem upon as much evidence as I could reasonably find, as well as brought my knowledge of – and interest in – boxing to play in the process, this largely an inheritance from my father, who was an amateur boxer of some note about sixty years ago. I agree with all your main points about Kelly; for me, maybe the best thing done filmically about him is The Last Outlaw series in 1980, though I’d have to look at it again to confirm that I like it as much now as I did when I first saw it.

  7. Have you read Ned Kelly’s Last Days by Alex Castles? Fabulous read.

  8. Kevin Densley says

    Yes I have. And I liked it a great deal. In Castles’ book, one gets a strong sense of time inexorably ticking away from the siege of Glenrowan to the day of his hanging, November 11, 1880. A more recent Kelly book also worth having a look at is The Kelly Gang Unmasked by Ian MacFarlane (2012), which offers a kind of counterpoint to certain Kelly books that may look at him too much on the positive side (for want of a better way of putting it).

  9. I haven’t read MacFarlane’s. I get very skeptical of the revisionist’s urges. But I should read it with an open mind.

    They say you should never meet your heroes ( or those who intrigue) but I would make an exception if Ned were around.

  10. A mate of mine’s (Lowey) great grandfather, a gravel carter, was sleeping with a fellow worker in tent outside Glenrowan one night when some bloke yelled, “Come out of there.” John Lowe, half pissed, told the bloke to piss off. Then heard the intruder’s mate say, “Shoot ’em through the canvas, Ned.” It was Ned Kelly and his gang. He wanted John Lowe to pull up the tracks and derail the train with the coppers on board. John only had one hand (shooting accident) so wasn’t that good on the tools. He and his mate were taken hostage (John Lowe was 17 at the time) in Mrs Jones Glenrowan Inn. Ned had to search further for track lifters.
    We all know what happened next. Coppers shot a shitload of hostages through the walls, then blamed the Kellys. John survived (judging by my mate Lowey, his great grandfather’s survival would have been an act of extreme cowardice, sheltering beneath women and children as the lead flew. Lowey always went for the trenches when gunplay was imminent, though I winged him on a number of occasions).
    John Lowe was the last survivor of the Kellys’ last stand, dying in about 1950 in Yarrawonga, I think. They named the footy oval after him, possibly? A great local footy stalwart anyway.
    The Lowe family still owns John’s old ute with a cup on the gearstick instead of a ball so he could insert his stump in it to change gears. (Remember the shooting accident.)
    If that hand hadn’t been blown off in a shooting accident things might have turned out differently that night.

  11. ajc – ripper story. So Australia’s history changed because a bloke had a stump instead of a hand? That is so magnificently Australian.

  12. DBalassone says

    Wonderful narrative poem Kevin. I could see the whole scene – bloodied bare-knuckles and all.

  13. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Damian B. I enjoy writing narrative poems, especially about historical subjects. This one came to me very much in visual terms. Often, during the writing process, I felt a lot like I was simply writing down/channelling the images I saw in my head.

    And ajc, your vivid prose reminded me of the great extent to which Kelly material, one way or another, provokes further interesting, connected narratives. It’s a bit like a tree where an inifinite number of branches are possible.

  14. Thanks Kevin. Terrific poem. Big topic, as the comments suggest.

    AJC, a book of personal links to the Kelly story would be interesting. I interviewed a 90 year old footballer in about 2004. His grandfather (or great uncle?) had worked with Ned Kelly – cutting timber around the north-east (Benalla?).

    When I was doing the ABC Sunday morning show, Barry Dickins came on to talk about a new play he was researching – about Squizzy Taylor. I suggested to the producer that we open the lines to people whose family had direct intersection with Squizzy and the whole shebang. The producer thought that we wouldn’t get a call. We could have gone for an hour – as it was, we did half an hour of talkback. Best one was a woman who, as she spoke, was holding the gold watch Squizzy had bought her mother who hid Squizzy in the family’s terrace house as he came racing past tying to outrun the cops. They had no idea who he was.

    Also got a call one time after being on Convo Hour as I had mentioned old footballers. A 95 year old bloke left his number with the producer and wanted me to call. He had been taken by his father in a jinker to Ramsden Street Clifton Hill to hear Mannix at the anti-conscription rally. He wanted to talk about going to the footy as a child in the early 1920s. Brilliant.

  15. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your comments regarding my poem, John. The Footy Almanac response to it has been very pleasing. Your idea concerning a book of personal links to the Kelly story immediately reminded me of a lunch I had about a year ago with a woman I hadn’t seen for a couple of decades. (There does seem to be Kelly stories in so many different contexts.) During our conversation over lunch, she told me that her great-great-grandfather (or was it great-grandfather, I’d need to double-check) had been Ned Kelly’s main physician when he was in jail in Melbourne in 1880. Of course, at that time Kelly had various serious injuries from bullet wounds obtained during the Glenrowan siege. My woman friend told me various bits and pieces about her doctor ancestor, Ned Kelly and also Ellen Kelly, who was in the women’s section of the same jail as Ned at the time.

  16. Epic stuff, Kevin.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Like so many, I am a keen student of Ned Kelly.

    I particularly liked that you mentioned Williamstown.

  17. Kevin Densley says

    Cheers, Smokie! Thanks for your comments.

  18. Good stuff Kevin. I wrote a piece on the site a few years back re when heavy weight champ Jem Mace fought a bout in 1879, it being held across the Murray River as Victorian authorities wouldn’t grant a licence.

    Ned and Joe attended, this during the height of the outlawry.

    Kevin, if the McFarlane book is the one i think it is it’s a very poorly researched, jaundiced work. I was given a copy; i certainly wouldn’t pay for it. If it’s another book i’m wrong, but a really ‘bad’ work came out around that time.

    Ian Jones was the doyen of Kelly scholars. The other works i’d suggest are ” I am Ned Kelly”, by John Moloney, also “The Kelly Outbreak” by John McQuilton based on his PhD. Of course the Keneally work is still good value.

    Glen!

  19. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks a lot, Glen, for your comments. I’m pleased you liked my “Fistfight” poem. Yes, that Jem Mace stuff is really interesting subject-matter. Mace was born in the county of Norfolk, England, where some of my ancestors came from. I think I’ve pretty much read everything I can lay my hands on concerning the Kellys over the years – not of course saying that’s every book or play or poem ever written about them – and all have their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll mention two general bushranging books (or more than two, in a sense, as one is often divided into two volumes) that are favourites of mine. You may be familiar with them. One is George Boxall’s The Story of the Australian Bushrangers, first published in 1899. The other, often in two volumes, is Charles White’s History of Australian Bushranging, first published 1900-1903. Both have the advantage of being relatively close in historical time to the events and individuals they are are writing about, and include material obtained from those who lived in the milieu concerned.

  20. Ta Kevin.

    Boxall and White, both very contemporary works. As was Kenneally’s work in the 1920’s. He was in touch with Jim Kelly, as well as other family members.

    My maternal side were Irish Catholics who settled in NE Victoria, then the Riverina. We were always told my mothers grandparents met Ned Kelly during the outbreak. All of this influenced me, so much so i wrote my BA Hon’s thesis of the Kelly Outbreak.

    Glen!

  21. Daryl Schramm says

    Read the poem a while ago. Enjoyed it. Just fascinated by all the stories in the comments. Great value.

  22. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Daryl, regarding the poem. And yes, the comments have certainly been great value.

  23. Nicole Kelly says

    Late to the party – but what a terrific poem, Kevin! I love the absolute conviction in Ned – he was wronged and dues will be paid. Fabulous!

  24. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Nicole. This long poem was quite a few years in the making and I ended up being pleased with how it turned out.

  25. G’day Kevin. Here’s the link i mentioned to you on May 8.

    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/blues-in-echuca/

    Going through my articles, there are a few re Bushranging & ‘Kelly Country’. With a maternal side of Irish who resided in ‘Kelly Country’ during the outbreak, being told of how these family members met with Ned Kelly, gave me a life long interest in this amazing period of our history.

    Glen!

  26. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks for this, Glen! Ned Kelly’s connection to boxing in general is a particularly interesting subject.

  27. Thanks for the recommendation Kevin.

    What a great tale, brutal yet still somewhat civilised.

  28. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Greg. I really like your description of the poem/story – that was the effect I was aiming for.

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