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Such is life: reflections on the death of Ned Kelly

By Peter Norden - posted Friday, 12 November 2010


On the 11th November 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged from the gallows of the Old Melbourne Jail. 5000 stood outside in protest, a sizeable crowd given the population of Melbourne 130 years ago was only 280,000. Close to 50,000 signatures were attached to the Petition of Mercy that was submitted to the Executive Council.

The Herald newspaper that afternoon reported on the event in these words:


The general sympathy which appeared to be felt for the condemned man was not confined to the lower orders alone, as the crowd which assembled around the gaol gates this morning testified…Women - many of them young, well-dressed and apparently respectable – were there mixing with the others.

The Telegraph reporter, on the other hand, described the crowd as:

A mob of nondescript idlers, whose morbid and depraved tastes had led them from the pursuit of honest toil. It must be acknowledged that the criminal and most depraved classes in the community predominated.

What evidence that even in the days of Ned Kelly there were such strong and divergent perspectives about crime, its perpetrators and how our government should respond.

Only 13 years before, the last of the 825 shiploads of convicts deported from mother England arrived in Australia. Among its passengers were many Irish Fenians, deported under the authority of the British Crown.

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This article is based on the author's delivery of the John Barry Lecture at the University of Melbourne on November 11, 2010

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About the Author

Peter Norden, AO is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne, based in the Melbourne Law School.

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