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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ryan, Ronald Joseph (1925–1967)

by Mike Richards

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Ronald Ryan, n.d.

Ronald Ryan, n.d.

Ronald Joseph Ryan (1925-1967), criminal, was born on 21 February 1925 at Carlton, Melbourne, only son of Australian-born parents John Ronald Ryan, an invalid and former miner, and Eveline Cecilia Thompson, née Young, a domestic servant. Ronald's childhood was dominated by his parents' alcoholism, poverty and poor health, particularly his father's chronic phthisis. He was violently abused by his father and neglected by his mother.

Following the theft of a watch from a neighbour's house at Mitcham in November 1936, young Ryan was made a ward of the state and sent to Rupertswood, Sunbury, the Salesian Order's school for 'wayward and neglected' boys. He did quite well, captaining the football and cricket teams, joining the choir, and impressing other boys as 'a natural leader'. After several failed attempts, he absconded in September 1939 and went to Balranald, New South Wales. He eventually settled there with his mother and three sisters, worked as a labourer and kept out of the hands of the law. Aged about 23, he returned to Melbourne where, by 1950, he was employed as a storeman. On 4 February that year at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Richmond, he married Dorothy Janet George, a secretary; educated at a private school, she had rebelled against her wealthy parents.

In 1953 Ryan was acquitted on a charge of arson. To pay his gambling debts, he uttered a number of forged cheques in 1956 and was placed on a good-behaviour bond. He then took a succession of jobs in the country and the city. By 1959 he was virtually a professional criminal, leading a gang that broke into shops and factories. After being apprehended in April 1960, he and three accomplices escaped from the police, but were recaptured several days later. On 17 June he pleaded guilty in the Melbourne Court of General Sessions to eight charges of breaking and stealing, and one of escaping from legal custody. He was sentenced to eight and a half years imprisonment.

Appearing to want to rehabilitate himself, Ryan was released on parole in August 1963, but soon returned to crime. Following a series of factory-breakings and safe-blowings in Melbourne, he received an eight-year sentence on 13 November 1964. Within ten months his wife divorced him. Ryan and another prisoner Peter John Walker escaped from Pentridge gaol on 19 December 1965; during the break-out, he seized a rifle with which he shot dead a prison officer George Henry Hodson. The media gave extensive coverage to the manhunt. Both fugitives were at large for seventeen days. Reports of their activities caused widespread anxiety, particularly after they robbed a bank at Ormond on 23 December and Walker killed an associate Arthur James Henderson at Albert Park on Christmas Day.

Ryan and Walker were captured in Sydney on 5 January 1966. Brought before the Supreme Court of Victoria, they pleaded not guilty to a charge of murdering Hodson. On 30 March the jury convicted Walker of manslaughter; Ryan was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Appeals to the Full Court (June) and the High Court of Australia (October) were rejected. On 12 December 1966 Sir Henry Bolte's Liberal Party government declined to commute Ryan's sentence. The decision sparked large-scale opposition. After an appeal to the Privy Council failed in January 1967, the execution was delayed by a last-minute legal application involving supposedly new evidence. Ryan was hanged at 8 a.m. on 3 February 1967 in Pentridge gaol. Calm and composed on the scaffold, he addressed his last words to the hangman, possibly recalling the injunction of Jesus to Judas before the betrayal: 'God bless you. Whatever you do, do it quickly'. He was buried with Catholic rites in an unmarked grave in the grounds of Pentridge gaol. His three daughters survived him.

Slightly built and 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, Ryan was a stylish—if 'spivvy'—dresser, who usually wore an expensive, well-cut suit, a silk tie and a fedora. He was always keen to impress as a man of means and consequence. Towards the end of his life he wanted to be known as the 'leading criminal' in the country. He is remembered as the last person to be judicially executed in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Tennison, Defence Counsel (Melb, 1975)
  • T. Prior, A Knockabout Priest (Melb, 1985)
  • P. Blazey, Bolte, a Political Biography (Melb, 1990)
  • B. Dickins, Remember Ronald Ryan (Syd, 1994)
  • B. Dickins, Guts and Pity (Syd, 1996)
  • M. Richards, The Hanged Man (Melb, 2002)
  • Journal of Australian Studies, 33, 1992, p 19
  • University of Technology, Sydney Review, 5, no 2, 1999, p 1
  • private information.

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Citation details

Mike Richards, 'Ryan, Ronald Joseph (1925–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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