Ned Kelly: Republican Hero or Scapegoat of his Times?


I recently spent a long weekend down in Melbourne, and interesting and artsy city with, like many old places, a bit of a gruesome past. Having an interest in history, criminology, and the macabre in general, I couldn’t pass up a visit to the “Old Mebourne Goal”.  I’ll now switch to the new-fangled spelling: this jail was home to many infamous serial killers, run of the mill thieves, and many nefarious riff-raff in between. Executions actually took place within the jail, noose still hung in place (literally). It ceased being an operational jail many years ago, but the building survives as a museum and tourist attraction in central Melbourne.

Warm & cozy cell

Of course, the most famous of prisoners who met their end here was the bushranger Ned Kelly. Much of the former jail is now a museum dedicated to his life, his crimes, and his death. At the courthouse next door, where other famous Aussies such as Chopper Read and the Russell Street bombers had been charged, Kelly was sentenced to death by hanging. In honor of school holidays, the courthouse had even put on a re-enactment of his trial. For many Australian parents, this seemed the perfect afternoon activity for small children, judging from the crowds. Although I’d say one mother regretted her lapse in parental judgement when her young daughter asked her “what a hanging was”.

The Ned Kelly photo-op

The jail does its best to play up the connection to Australia’s most famous criminal, down to its gift shop selling stuffed toys of Kelly, complete with suit of armour, coloring books, key chains, etc.  To buy a stuffed toy of a mass murderer seemed completely normal to the good people of Victoria. I’d say that is a uniquely Australian phenomenon.  Miniature suits of armour, like the ones Kelly had made, are on display for children to try on, and seemed to prove a big hit to the families in attendance.

Not the best picture- a kid-sized suit of Ned’s armor just what every family photo album needs?

The trials and tribulations of this guy could (and have) filled many books, but, in a nutshell, he had a rough upbringing, got in with the wrong crowd, and lived life on the wrong side of the tracks. Being a bushranger (a type of outlaw) meant a life of highway banditry, which accelerated to bank robberies, an attempted derailing of a police train, the deaths of several policemen, and some hostage taking thrown in for good measure. Between criminal doings he made time for politics, advocating for an independent Victorian republic.

His life of crime ultimately led to the famous Seige of Glenrowan, a shootout leading to death for some, but for Ned Kelly, police capture.  It is said he had an unfair trial, being given an inexperienced lawyer, and, as was the fashion those days, the word of a criminal was not admissible in the court of law, so he was unable to speak in his own defense. Even after death, things kept going south for Kelly, as his body was somewhat dismantled, and his head has now been lost, and may have spent some time, freakishly, on public display.  

Interior of the jail

As I have mentioned previously, Australians love their criminals, Kelly above all. He has risen to an elevated status, due in part to his “Robin Hoodness”, steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor attitude, as well as his republican patriotic viewpoints, which, for some, mean a great deal in a country still part of the British commonwealth, even today.  His desire for an independent Victorian state still resonated with many who have grown tired of the monarchy.

I’m not sure I completely understand it, when there are so many more (positive) role models one could look up to. I guess in Kelly, an immigrant, like many of the time, Australians see an underdog, a man who had no option but a life of crime, and committed murder not out of spite or bloodthirstiness but out of defense for himself and his merry band of revolutionaries.

Would I encourage anyone to equate Kelly with Robin Hood? Probably not.  But, as Kelly himself famously said when informed that the hour of his execution had come, “Such is life.”

Old Melbourne Goal

One thought on “Ned Kelly: Republican Hero or Scapegoat of his Times?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s