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Historical accounts of bushranging in the Port Phillip District are fraught with contradictions. An early bush-ranging episode occurred on 28 April 1842 when a gang of outlaws, led by a lapsed theology student named Howie, terrorised the newly settled areas east of Melbourne. Other accounts suggest that bushranging was rife as early as 1837 when George Comerford and Joseph Dignum began a criminal career that culminated in betrayal and death at the hands of their comrades-in-arms. They were soon succeeded by many others who thought that their fortune could be gained (and starvation avoided) by entering into the 'game'.

More commonly, bushranging activity occurred in country Victoria. By 1855 the Victorian goldfields were swarming with bushrangers. With a lean police force incapable of keeping crime at bay, many of the gold-diggers were forced to employ their own armed guards known as 'gold escorts' to protect their finds from gangs such as that led by 'Black' Douglas, who hid in the thick forests and dense scrub along the roads from the goldfields. British artist William Strutt described an episode of 16 October 1852 on St Kilda Road as 'one of the most daring robberies attempted even in Victoria', recording the event 35 years later in his Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 (University of Melbourne art collection).

Many bushrangers were either ex-convicts, escapees or failed gold-diggers who managed to lure young boys into their gangs, providing bullet fodder for the meagre police force. Most were victims of the harsh penal or social caste system. Others were very young and robbed, not gold, but food and clothing for survival. The notorious 'gold run' from the Ballarat goldfields to Melbourne was the setting for many incidents inspiring public outrage. The Argus (8 October 1852) condemned bushrangers such as Alfred Stallard for gratifying their 'brutal desires' against unfortunate women robbed of their dignity and modesty as well as their gold. Most bushrangers died very young, often at the end of a police bullet. Others died from chronic dysentery while awaiting trial in the Collingwood Stockade.

Criminal or hero, Ned Kelly's (1854-80) bushranging career has taken on mythic status. By 1878 the 'Kelly Gang' was firmly entrenched in the public imagination. Its four members were of Irish stock, sons of Catholic selectors, young and single, and already familiar to the police for charges relating to 'duffing' (livestock theft). Kelly's letters, published in the newspapers, increased his popularity and encouraged greater scrutiny of the Victoria Police. From 1878 to 1880 the public was captivated by the police hunt for the Kelly Gang. As eloquent testimony to Ned's popularity and notoriety, a petition for his reprieve, collected over the two days before his execution, attracted 32 000 signatures. When Kelly was hanged on 11 November 1880 over 4000 people were reputed to have gathered in silence outside the (Old) Melbourne Gaol. Many other bushrangers, captured and sentenced to hang, were subsequently buried in unmarked graves outside the cemetery located on the present Queen Victoria Market site.

Katherine Blashki

Mann, Lindsay, The Plenty bushrangers of 1842: The first Europeans hanged in Victoria, Author, Melbourne, 1996. Details