The Timeless Nature of Petitions

As I recently returned home to Australia to catch up on a mountain of paperwork, I suddenly realised that my awaiting mail was only about a third of its usual size. No doubt this was due to the fact that I now receive most correspondence and statements electronically by email. But there is a paradox. Although I see less paper, I see just as much information (if not more). Nothing has changed.

And so it is with petitions. Nothing has changed. History tells us that the process of petitioning is ancient. I have written about this here. It seems that the human condition (psyche) is built to protest, to advocate, and to seek justice. No matter what the age. No matter what time in history we find ourselves.

For example, less than two hundred years ago, in Australia, one of the most famous petitions ever written had a powerful social influence. Despite an absence on Internet and email, the Ned Kelly petition has become a testimony to the trial and execution of an iconic Australian legend. Whether he is famous or infamous, is beside the point. The Ned Kelly petition demonstrated and captured like a photograph, a cross-section of the Australian colonial psyche.

After the bushranger Kelly was sentenced to death by Irish-born judge Sir Redmond Barry, Ned Kelly's friends and family, along with David Gaunson (the parliamentarian) organised a petition for reprieve and did their best to obtain as many signatures as possible to try and save Ned's life  from the hangman's noose.

Petitions in Ned's day were nothing new. They were used to help gain compo for Ann Jones, to try and stop Constable Fitzpatrick from being booted out of the police force in Lancefield, to get Mr. Ryan out of gaol after being arrested under the Felon's Apprehension Act and several others associated with the Kelly story.

After Ned's capture, a public meeting was held at the Hippodrome in Melbourne, seeking that the life of Ned Kelly be spared. The petition for reprieve was organised, published widely and then presented to the Governor. Over 30,000 signatures were collected on the petition. The actual numbers of signatures reported varies from 30,000 to 60,000.

The petition for reprieve has an important place in Australian colonial history. It demonstrates the tensions between "the establishment" - the incumbent government of Victoria - and the general population, anti-authoritarian working class battlers.

The petition came after the astonishing trial of Ned Kelly. After he was captured and stood trial, he was sentenced to death by the Irish-born judge Sir Redmond Barry. This case was extraordinary in that there were exchanges between the prisoner Kelly and the judge, and the case has been the subject of attention by both historians and lawyers. When the judge uttered the customary words "May God have mercy on your soul", Ned allegedly replied "I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go". He was hanged on 11 November at the Melbourne Gaol for multiple murder by Elijah Upjohn.

Although two newspapers (The Age and The Herald) reported Kelly's last words as "Such is life," another source, Ned Kelly's gaol warden, writes in his diary that when Kelly was prompted to say his last words, he (Kelly) opened his mouth and mumbled something that he couldn't hear—and since the warden's office is closer to the scene of the hanging than the witnesses' allotted space, Ned Kelly's last words actually remain uncertain.

Sir Redmond Barry died of the effects of a carbuncle on his neck on 23 November 1880, twelve days after Kelly. Kelly's prophetic powers and iconic magnetism were clearly evidenced by his trial, death and the amazing support he received in the Petition for Reprieve. Over 30,000 Victorians solidified Kelly's legendary status by signing the petition for reprieve which ultimately confirmed his iconic and quintessential colonial rebel status.

Petitions, then and now, have not changed. The delivery method and technology for signature collection may have advanced. But the human spirit behind each petition stays the same. Justice.