Wednesday, December 16, 2020

From the Vault: Henry Bolte and Ronald Ryan


Some notes:

As Christmas approaches, things are getting more hectic for me in various ways.  As a result, I will be posting more occasional items from the vault in the leadup to Christmas.

The item below is one which was posted on November 2010 and which drew quote a number of reader comments.

In those days the blog structure allowed public comments but that was changed a few years back.

I have posted below the original item, the story of politics in the execution of Ronald Ryan, the last man executed in Australia, and have also posted the reader comments which followed.

As a point of interest, Ronald Ryan was a prison escapee from Melbourne who was characterised by the news media as an extremely dangerous man.  He was known to be in Sydney.  Life was simpler then, we would go to bed at night without the doors locked, leaving the doors open to catch the southerlies that brought cooler welcome relief from the weather at night.  I remember my mother insisting that until Ronald Ryan was caught, we were locking our  doors at night.  

Henry Bolte and Ronald Ryan

Henry Bolte (1908 – 1990) was Australia’s longest serving Victorian Premier, from 1955 to 1972. An astute politician with a shrewd sense of what would appeal to the public, he was a chain smoking, whisky swigging right wing politician who promoted an image of a rough, earthy, simple, man at odds with trade unions, teachers, liberals, strikers and protesters.

He was never reluctant to express himself to journalists and reporters knew they could always rely on him for a good quote. Asked by reporters what his opinion was of Prime Minister John Gorton, he said nothing, simply held his nose and mimicked pulling a toilet chain.

Shortly before his retirement he was telephoned on a Saturday night by the news editor of The Sunday Observer, a paper hostile to Bolte, to ask whether the rumour that he was retiring because he had been offered a position on the board of The Herald & Weekly Times, now News Limited. The following conversation took place:

Bolte: Nah, not true. What paper did you say you were from, son?
Journalist: The Sunday Observer.
Bolte: Well, you got the story wrong. I'm joining the board of your paper.
Journalist: In that case I'm going to quit.
Bolte: You better, son, because you're the first **** I'm going to sack when I get there.

Bolte is, however, best remembered as the last Australian politician to approve capital punishment.

In 1965 two prisoners, Ronald Ryan and Peter Walker, escaped from Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison. In the process a guard was shot and killed. They were recaptured outside Concord Hospital after Ryan had arranged a double date with an ex-girlfriend who tipped off the police. Ryan was sentenced to death for murder, despite considerable doubt that he had fired the fatal shot.

Although the State Government of Victoria had commuted every one of the previous 35 death penalty cases, back to 1951, Bolte refused to do so. Publicly he maintained that the death penalty was a necessary deterrent for crime against government officials and law enforcement officers. Privately, it was considered that Bolte was playing to the public for support for re-election.

His refusal to recommend clemency and his insistence on having Ryan hanged earned him the opposition of the Melbourne press, the churches, the universities and most of the legal profession. It also alienated sections of the Liberal Party and some members of his own Cabinet.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 February 1966:

“...when it [hanging] is violently opposed by at least half the community, when it more and more seems to be the decision of one man – and that man a politician, not a judge – then it is intolerable. We believe that the sentence on Ryan should be commuted and that no man should ever again be hanged in Australia."

Opposition was universal.

Four of the jury members went so far as to request intervention on the basis that when they found Ryan guilty, they were under the belief that the death penalty had been abolished in Victoria.

An estimated 18,000 people participated in street protests and 15,000 signed a petition against the hanging. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) suspended radio broadcasts for two minutes as a protest.

At 8.000am on Friday, 3 February 1967, Ronald Ryan was hanged.

In his last moments he had written a letter to his daughters, in which he said:

“With regard to my guilt I say only that I am innocent of intent and have a clear conscience in the matter.”

A journalist asked Bolte what he was doing at the moment that Ronald Ryan was hanged. “One of the three Ss, I suppose” he replied. When asked what he meant, he responded: “A shit, a shave or a shower.”

At the Victorian State elections of 29 April 1967 Bolte’s Liberals were re-elected and gained six seats.

Some reader comments:


Ronald Ryan was hanged an innocent man. There was no scientific ballistic forensiv evidence to prove Ryan guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

CORRECTION: In his last moments of life Ryan wrote several handwritten letters to various people, including his daughters. Ryan maintained his innocence to the end, in which he wrote "With regard to my guilt I state most emphatically that I am innocent of murder.”


Some interesting facts :

* For unknown reasons, ballistic forensic experts never scientifically examined Ronald Ryan's rifle.

* There was no scientific evidence, no proof and no conclusive evidence that Ronald Ryan's rifle had fired a shot at all.

* It was never proven by scientific ballistic forensics that the fatal bullet came from the rifle in Ronald Ryan's possession.

* Despite extensive search by police, the fatal bullet mysteriously went missing and was never found.

* The missing fatal bullet was never scientifically examined by ballistic forensic experts for evidence, to prove which rifle had fired the fatal bullet.

* Despite extensive search by police, the spent cartridge from the fatal bullet, mysteriously went missing and was never found.

* The missing spent cartridge was never scientifically examined by ballistic forensic experts for evidence, to prove which rifle had fired the fatal bullet within the cartridge.

* If Ronald Ryan had fired a shot, a spent cartridge would have spilled out of the rifle onto the ground, but no spent cartridge was ever found.

* All fourteen eyewitnesses for the prosecution, testified different accounts of what they saw. There were widespread inconsistencies.

* All fourteen eyewitnesses testified seeing Ronald Ryan armed with a rifle.

* Only four of the fourteen eyewitnesses testified of seeing Ronald Ryan fire a shot.

* Two eyewitnesses testified seeing Ronald Ryan recoil his rifle. In fact, ballistic experts testified that type of rifle was recoilless.

* Two eyewitnesses testified seeing smoke coming from Ronald Ryan's rifle. In fact, ballistic experts testified that type of rifle contained smokeless cartridges.

* All fourteen eyewitnesses testified of hearing one single shot. No persons heard two shots.

* Prison officer Paterson, testified after changing his statements to police on three separate occasions, that he fired one single shot from a distance at an elevated position.

* If Ronald Ryan had also fired a shot, at least one person among the hundreds of pedestrians and motorists surrounding the crime scene would have heard two shots. Every person heard one single shot.

* Eyewitnesses testified of seeing prison officers' aiming their rifles during the prison escape.

* Ballistic forensic experts never scientifically examined prison officer Paterson's rifle for evidence, if it had fired a shot.

* Ballistic forensic experts never scientifically examined any of the prison officers' rifles for evidence, if their rifles had fired a shot.

* At the time one single shot was heard by all persons, many armed prison officers' had already surrounded the crime scene. They were on low prison walls, on prison guard towers and on the streets.

* Ballistic expert evidence indicated that prison officer Hodson was shot from a distance, at an elevated position, in a downward trajectory angle.

* A ballistic expert testified that Ronald Ryan (a shorter man) could have fired at prison officer Hodson (a taller man) in such a downward trajectory angle as evidence indicated, because both men were on level ground.

* A ballistic expert testified that Ronald Ryan could not have fired from a distance as evidence indicated, because both men were within close proximity.

* A ballistic expert testified that Ronald Ryan could not have fired from an elevated position as evidence indicated, because both men were on level ground.



It was the biggest travesty of justice ever known in Victoria. Henry Bolte a coward and went into hiding prior to Ronald Ryan's hanging. What was strange also was the fact that Peter Walker committed murder while they were both on the run and he got jail, not a death sentence. To this day I am of the belief that the shot fired at the time of the escape came from Prison officer Paterson's gun, as for the Victorian police force they bungled their investigation.... maybe by design or ineptness who knows.

Ron Brasher

My name is Ronald Brasher (great nephew of Ronald Ryan) , my mum told me that, Ron was a good thief and not a murderer. He was a gentleman outside his life of crime. I don't understrand why they can't prove he is an innocent man, with the technology of today. And didn't Paterson take his own life (because of the guilt he felt, for taking someone's life).

Bytes (ie my) response:

Makes you wonder, doesn't it. Perhaps there is no forensic material or evidence available for testing or perhaps we have been too much influenced by shows such as CSI. Most experts and writers seem convinced, today, that there are at the least serious doubts about Ronald Ryan's guilt.

There definitely was scientific, ballistic, forensic testing for evidence, at the time of Ronald Ryan's capital case, but Ryan's rifle was never tested because the arresting detectives had hidden the rifle in the boot of a police car. By the time the rifle was found, it had been contaminated with dirt and dust from within the boot of the police car.

Prison guard Helmut Lange committed suicide in April 1969 with his prison-authorized rifle, whilst on duty at Pentridge Prison. According to his close friends, Lange had vital information that would have cleared Ryan of murder and had been deeply troubled over Ryan's hanging. He shot himself in the head.


Read more ...

Ron Brasher

I would help in any way I can to clear his name of this crime, It has been with me all my life, I don't understand why people don't ever talk about my grandpa (George) who always took care of Ronald, when he could. My dad told me a story about uncle Ron, When he wanted dad to drive a getaway car, dad said , no. ps I'm not religious, but..... god bless you , DORINA LISSON..........
Ron Brasher

Ron, I am aware that the Ryan family wish to keep a low profile and I respect that. However, if you would like to be involved in the fight to have Ron's name cleared, I will certainly support you. Phil Opas warned me to beware of the media and others who will do anything, and will say everything, to distort the facts and the truth. He was right! I need to give you the same warning. I promised Phil Opas I would continue the fight to clear Ron's name. My argument is that there is NO EVIDENCE to prove Ron guilty beyond reasonable doubt, but the State hanged him anyway. Feel free to email me.
BTW ... nice name Ronald !!!


Ronald Ryan with his wife, Dorothy Pirois.

Guard George Hodson, who was shot dead during Ryan and Walker’s Pentridge prison escape.

The beam from which Ryan was hanged

The hanging beam on which Ronald Ryan was executed (above) was later moved from Pentridge to old Melbourne Gaol, now a museum.

Pentridge Prison’s D Division with the white wooden hanging beam in the centre which formed the gallows from which Ronald Ryan was hanged.

Anti-hanging protest marchers outside Pentridge Prison, before the hanging of Ronald Ryan in February 1967

Ronald Ryan’s wife Dorothy and their daughters, Jan, Wendy and Rhonda, sat in their Melbourne house with the radio turned off as he was executed 14km away.

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