National Library of Australia

Heroes and Villains

Given the nation’s origin as a penal colony, it is not surprising that the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes unclear.

For some characters, there is little confusion. Frederick Deeming, serial killer, bigamist, conman, thief, and at one time suspected to be ‘Jack the Ripper’, was unquestionably a villain.

And Olympic swimming champion Shane Gould; Ellen Kettle, the nurse who revolutionised Northern Territory Aboriginal healthcare, and Frank Fahy, first undercover policeman of the Sydney Criminal Investigation Bureau, are clearly heroes.

But the lines can blur.

Was Ned Kelly really a criminal or simply a victim of circumstance and institutionalised oppression? Was William Bligh a casualty of his bad temper and disciplinarian style, or an officer with great strength of character who also experienced a lot of bad luck? Lindy Chamberlain too, suffered the vicissitudes of public opinion, before her innocence was accepted and her conviction quashed.

Public opinion varies over time and often as a result of new research, and the evidence for such interpretation lies in our library collections.

One thing is clear. The people we admire and those we despise reveal much about us as a nation.