Friday, May 1, 2009

VIC Greats 3 - Ned Kelly and Peter Lalor

Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly is an Aussie cultural icon and something of a hero. Ned was a Bushranger and a criminal who killed a number of policeman.. sounds grim for Ned's national hero status does it not.. but his criminal acts are not the whole story. Not by a long long way. Ned was a member of the Irish underclass which (it is generally considered) was victimised by both Police corruption and the injustice of the society of the time. Neds story is all tangled up with the ongoing struggle in Australia by the majority to establish a society where everyone gets a "fair go". From the time of first european settlement of Australia there was no shortage of influential and wealthy persons whose ambition was to replicate the class system of England with themselves securely at the top. Democracy was the last thing on their mind. Ned's was just one small but high profile part, perhaps a symbol, of the little people's fight for justice.

Ned and the gang, which included his mate Joe Byrne, his young brother Dan Kelly and Dan's mate Steve Hart, are famous for their armour which they made from ploughshares. Ned's armour was the most impressive and is at the the State Library of Victoria. The armour was extremely heavy and it says something about the physical stature of Ned that he could actually wear it. Ned was a stunning example of virile manhood. A champion boxer. A magnificent physical specimen. When he was finally taken at the seige of Glenrowan a petition of  somewhere between 30 - 60,000 signatures (the figure quoted varies). Imagine that in a colony the size of Victoria at that time... ie tiny.. anyway the petition pleaded for the Governor to pardon him.

Public feeling was sufficiently strong and widespread that the Government ended up holding a Royal Commission and subsequently implementing reforms to the Police force.
Like Ben Hall and his gang before them the Kelly Gang were also famous for their ability to evade police capture and make the authorities look incompetent. They were excellent horsemen and bushmen.

Old Melbourne Gaol was also the scene of Ned's execution. The most famous quote from Ned is what is alleged to be his final words "Such is life".

There are many sources of factual information about the events immediately surrounding the outlawing of The Kelly Gang, but to my surprise I found that it was Peter Carey's novelisation "A True History of the Kelly Gang" coupled with a similar fictionalisation of Ben Hall's story by Nick Bleszynski "You'll Never Take Me Alive" which really gave the best insight into the social dynamics that drove the events. Both books are highly recommended.

I've run out of room in my NSW List, so Ben Hall is going to have to get at least a brief mention here in the VIC list seeing as he's so relevant to ol' Ned.

Ben Hall is another earlier victim of the system and Ben's story was clearly influential in the events surrounding Ned. The first link in the title takes you to an excellent entry on Ben Hall in the Federal Government's Culture and Recreation website. I would encourage you to have a look at the entry (and the site in general come to that).

Peter Lalor was a leader of the Eureka Stockade. The Eureka Stockade was a rebellion of diggers on the Eureka goldfields at Ballarat. Typically the short explanation of the rebellion is that the diggers objected to the license fees they were required to pay. It is seldom explained in any great detail what the implications of that license were and you have to explore to some depth about the broader context to really get a feel for the struggle that was going on at the time - on both sides. You see at the time, the land was locked up in the possession of wealthy squatters, so there was little alternative for the workers of the society to get ahead independently. And of course when the gold rush came, a huge number of men dropped everything and went to search for gold. Consequently there was a major labour shortage. The colony of Victoria was also in dire financial straights. No doubt it seemed a neat solution to both problems to jack up the licence fees on the gold fields sky high to both raise revenue and drive the diggers back to their jobs (working for the wealthier class). To cap it off, though there was an elected government, only landowners could vote, and parliamentarians weren't paid, so to stand for parliament you had to be independently wealthy. No prizes for guessing whose interests then were represented by the products of that parliament.
Well, when the license hunts on the goldfields became more frequent and more violent who could blame the diggers for being pretty cranky.
But it gets more inflammatory. The official rationale for the licence was to cover the cost of administering the gold fields, maintaining law and order, providing services. Trouble is the administration of the gold fields was manifestly corrupt and the final straw was the murder of a miner named Scobie by a cronie and business partner of the powers that be on the gold fields. The alleged murderer (Bentley) was tried by his cronies and let off. Were the miners happy? Well no I guess you could say they were not. They assembled outside Bentley's hotel (The Eureka Hotel) demanding justice. The authorities read the Riot Act* but were unable to prevent the burning of the hotel. Naturally, the authorities sought to punish the culprits for the arson and arrested a number of diggers.
Were the diggers any happier now? Well I guess you would say - hell no! They demanded not only justice for Scobie, but release of the men they felt were being scapegoated.

It may be timely to note that the gold fields had attracted people from all over the world. Educated people. People committed to principles of democracy. The Ballarat Reform League was formed.

These are the objectives of the reform league:

  1. A full and fair representation.
  2. Manhood suffrage.
  3. No property qualification of members for the Legislative Council.
  4. Payment of members.
  5. Short duration of Parliament.
But democracy was far from the agenda of the powers that be. I remember reading one document from the bloke in charge of the goldfields that said that they "must crush this democractic agitation". And so they set about to do so. Far from backing off, the license hunts got worse before finally a meeting was called on Bakery Hill and the stockade was set up.

It was at this meeting on Bakery Hill, that the flag of the Southern Cross was first flown. This flag is now known as the Eureka Flag and it represents to many the fight for freedom and a fair go, and the oath that the diggers took on that night. Peter Lalor stood up that night and became leader and led the diggers in the oath:

"We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by eachother and fight to defend our rights and liberties".

Well, needless to say the authorities cracked down hard and there was a massacre at the stockade early in the morning of 3 December 1854. Peter Lalor leading the defence. Over a hundred diggers were locked up. Finally 11 were put up for trial for treason - a capital offence - but after 3 trials the rest were abandoned. Tried by jury - they couldn't find a jury that would convict them and all 3 trials resulted in not guilty verdicts. The press and the people of Melbourne were standing behind the diggers. Democratic reform was inevitable and pretty much everything the Ballarat Reform League was lobbying for was won.
Peter Lalor, who lost his arm in the Eureka bloodbath, was elected unopposed to represent one of the Ballarat seats . He eventually became speaker of the house. A worthy entrant in this list of great Victorians.

A final note about one more prominent Victorian personage: Sir Redmond Barry was the Judge in both the trials of the Eureka Stockade diggers and later Ned Kelly.

*By the way - it is important to understand what "reading the Riot Act" actually means. Today people use this phrase to mean that someone has got cranky and really had something to say about something, or laid down the law. Laying down the law is the more correct implication. There was in fact a Riot Act, and it was part of the legal requirement for exercising the powers under that Act, that the Act (or perhaps part of it) had to be read before the power was exercised. So "reading the Riot Act" describes the action, quite literally. It was due warning to people that the powers that be considered them to be rioting and in imminent mortal danger if they did not desist and disperse pretty bloody promptly.

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