Joseph Byrne was the eldest son of Patrick (Paddy) and Margret Byrne (nee White). Paddy was the son of an ex-convict from County Carlow, his mother was from County Clare and had travelled to Australia due to the Great Famine. Joe was born in the Woolshed Valley in 1856, though there is no known birth certificate, nor is there a baptism record to verify the date. He was soon joined by John in 1858, Catherine (“Kate”) in 1860, Patrick jnr (“Paddy” or “Patsy”) in 1862 , Mary in 1864, Dennis (“Denny”) in 1866, Margaret in 1869 and Ellen (“Elly”) in 1871.
All of the Byrne children went to school and church in the Woolshed Valley. Joe was a good student and demonstrated early signs of the gift for language that would become a major part of his persona. He was at one time, according to the recollections of a former classmate, dux of his school, but academic excellence was irrelevant to the lifestyle thrust upon the Byrne children. The small Byrne selection was a functional dairy and the cows didn’t milk themselves. It was a case of all hands on deck where farm life was concerned.
Joe was always considered to be quiet and unassuming by most that encountered him. As he got older he would become more outgoing, largely thanks to the influence of his closest friend, Aaron Sherritt. It is unclear when and how Joe and Aaron met. The Sherritts were an Irish protestant family from El Dorado and moved in different circles to the Byrnes. Regardless of the nature of their meeting, the two became such firm friends that Aaron managed to get himself transferred to the Woolshed School so he could spend time with Joe while still getting a basic education. Aaron was far more outgoing and seemed to get himself into mischief regularly. This would prove to be a defining aspect of the relationship between the pair.
When Joe’s father Paddy died of a heart attack, Joe was expected to take on the mantle of head of the household. It fell on Joe to earn some money, so, as a fifteen year-old, he took up work doing odd jobs for the Chinese in Sebastopol. It was during this time that he witnessed a man named Ah Suey strung up outside a shop screaming for help. Days later Ah Suey was found murdered due to debts he owed to Chinese mobsters. Joe was a witness in the trial of the two Chinese men charged with the murder but gave very little information, possibly due to fear of a reprisal as the accused were apparently members of the Triad, a Chinese crime syndicate with branches all over the world. This would not be the only time Joe would end up in court thanks to his association with the Chinese. Joe spent much of his youth around the Chinese and learned Cantonese by ear. He indulged in the food and other cultural aspects such as gambling and opium smoking.
For a brief time, Margret Byrne attempted to court their German neighbour Anton Wick, who they referred to as Antonio. Joe seems to have disliked Wick, who was known for being something of a drunk and a brawler. Joe defiantly stole a horse from Wick and even flaunted his act by showing off his riding at Wick’s selection on the stolen horse. Wick took Byrne to court but the case was dismissed. No doubt this rebellious act did nothing to improve the already strained relationship Joe had with his mother.
As Joe and Aaron got older they became so intertwined in each other’s lives that Aaron became unofficially engaged to Joe’s sister Kate and Joe was in a long term relationship with Aaron’s sister Bessie and expected to be engaged. For whatever reason, Joe seems to have been reluctant to commit to Bessie, a dressmaker, but people would report on their relationship well into future events. The pair tended to get up to greater and greater mischief, eventually engaging in stock theft together. This brought the pair in frequent contact with two Beechworth-based policemen, Detective Michael Ward and Constable Patrick Mullane. The first recorded incident of Aaron and Joe getting into trouble with the law was in May 1876 when they stole the pet cow from the El Dorado school common. The pair butchered the unfortunate animal and divvied up the carcass between their families. The evidence against them was overwhelming and Joe and Aaron were both sent to Beechworth Gaol for six months. Joe appears to have been well behaved in prison and gained his release on 6 November, 1876. This was to be the only time that Joe would be convicted.
The pair had barely gotten readjusted to life on the outside when they were charged with assaulting a Chinese man named Ah On in February 1877. Joe and Aaron had been skinny dipping in the dam where Ah On got his water and a disagreement arose during which the Chinese man chased them with a bamboo rod and Aaron threw a large rock that cracked Ah On’s skull. They were arrested and held in Beechworth to await trial.
It is likely that it was in the holding cells of Beechworth while awaiting their day in court, that Joe and Aaron met 16 year-old Dan Kelly who was waiting for his own appearance on a charge of stealing a saddle. Despite the evidence being fairly conclusive against the pair, Joe and Aaron were let off. No doubt Joe was counting his lucky stars, but it wasn’t enough to convince him to walk the straight and narrow.
In late 1877 and early 1878, Joe and Aaron joined a horse stealing gang with Dan’s big brother Ned. Under the alias ‘Billy King’, Joe helped Ned, his stepfather George King, Aaron Sherritt and an array of others that came and went, to steal horses from wealthy squatters and perform an elaborate ruse to sell them over the border. Ned would ride into town with the stock, joined shortly after by Joe. Then Ned would “sell” Joe the horses, complete with bill of sale and Joe would sell the horses on. This way everything seemed legitimate and above board to witnesses who had never met the men before. Ned Kelly claimed they stole more than 250 animals and they were never caught (although some of the men who bought the stock from them ended up in gaol). What caused the lucrative operation to be stopped is a mystery, but likely it had something to do with Ned feeling like he had taught the squatters he was taking a swipe at a lesson.
In April 1878, Ned and Dan Kelly took to the bush after an incident at the Kelly homestead where Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick was shot in the wrist while trying to arrest Dan. Some historians have speculated that the Kellys’ brother-in-law William Skillion was misidentified by Fitzpatrick who had actually seen Joe, despite Skillion being shorter, heavier and older than Joe with no comparable facial features. At any rate, the Kelly brothers were joined by Joe and Dan’s mate Steve Hart at Dan’s hut on Bullock Creek. The Kelly brothers were attempting to raise money for their mother’s court appearance by mining for gold and distilling bootleg whiskey. Ned soon received news that there were parties of police heading into the Wombat Ranges to capture them and in response the four decided to bail up the police and rob them.
On 26 October, 1878, a party of four policemen consisting of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constables Thomas McIntyre from Mansfield, Michael Scanlan from Mooroopna and Thomas Lonigan from Violet Town, entered the bush in pursuit of the fugitive brothers and camped at Stringybark Creek, less than a mile from the hideout. The next day Ned, accompanied by the other three, ambushed the police. Lonigan was shot dead while attempting to fire at Ned. Ned interrogated McIntyre, who revealed that Kennedy and Scanlan were out scouting. Joe attempted to settle the terrified trooper by drinking tea and smoking with him. When the other police returned, McIntyre attempted to get them to surrender but a gunfight erupted. Constable Scanlan was shot and killed, then Kennedy was also killed after a running gunfight. It has been suggested that Joe Byrne fired the shot that killed Scanlan, but there is not enough evidence to conclusively prove the notion. Regardless, Joe took Scanlan’s solitaire ring, a gold band with a blue topaz set in it, as well as Lonigan’s wedding band and watch. The watch was eventually returned but Joe always wore the rings and is seen wearing them in the post morte. photos taken of him at Benalla. The gang were soon declared outlaws by act of parliament, with Joe for the first time having a price of £250 on his head, though he was unidentified at the time. Based on descriptions given by Constable McIntyre, some people recognised his as Billy King, another name put forward was Bob Burns.
The outlaws’ next move was to rob a bank to pay their supporters. After weeks of scouting and collecting tips, the gang struck on 7 December, 1878. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station, Faithful Creek where the staff and visitors were locked in a shed. The gang dressed in new clothes taken from a hawker’s wagon. The following morning Joe joined Ned and Steve in vandalising the telegraph lines. Later, Joe was left to guard the prisoners while Ned, Steve and Dan rode into Euroa to rob the bank. Joe had written a letter in red ink, dictated by Ned, which was Ned’s attempt to explain his side of the story. This would become known as the Cameron letter as it was sent to Donald Cameron MP whose political posturing Ned had mistaken as being sympathy. The gang released the prisoners in the evening and escaped with £1500 in gold and cash.
The gang went to ground briefly following the robbery, but they were still active in planning their next heist. In February 1879 Joe convinced Aaron Sherritt that the gang would strike at Goulburn. Aaron duly passed this information on to Superintendent Hare in Benalla. Hare had been given the job of leading the hunt for the Kelly Gang after the previous leader, Superintendent Nicolson, was deemed unfit for purpose. So, while the police headed for Goulburn, the gang headed for Jerilderie. Ned and Joe spent a night drinking in the company of Mary Jordan, a barmaid known locally as Mary the Larrikin. The next day they joined Dan and Steve and rode into Jerilderie at night where they roused the police and bailed them up. The police were held in their own lock-up and the gang took over occupancy of the police station. Over the weekend the gang dressed in the policemen’s uniforms and scoped the town out. Joe had the gang’s horses shod on the government account and helped Ned plan the big robbery. Another letter was written up by Joe, dictated by Ned, to be printed in the local rag, since named the Jerilderie letter. It was a much longer version of the previous letter and appears to have had much more content influence by Joe. On the day of the heist the locals were rounded up into the pub and Joe went next door into the bank via a rear entrance, pretending to be a drunk. He held the staff at gunpoint declaring “I’m Kelly!” and was soon joined by Ned and Steve. The bank was raided and Ned even took to burning debt records. Afterwards the gang shouted everyone drinks and Ned gave a speech before the gang rode away with £2000 in unmarked, untraceable banknotes, gold and change. The New South Wales government immediately doubled the reward for the gang to £8000. In the wake of the gang’s increased notoriety, a song began circulating supposed to have been written by none other than Joe Byrne himself, telling the story of the gang’s exploits.
The few months after Jerilderie saw Joe and Dan testing the Sherritt brothers for their loyalty. On numerous occasions Joe would write threatening letters to Detective Ward and draw caricatures that were both insulting an a threat. He would give them to Jack Sherritt to pass on to Ward. Joe would frequently tell Jack and Aaron about supposed plans the gang had for future robberies and at one point suggested he and Dan would recruit Jack and Aaron to join them in robbing a bank behind Ned’s back, because Joe did not agree with Ned’s method. Joe was soon being pressured by sympathisers to murder Aaron and in a letter sent to Aaron on 26 June, 1879 he stated:
The Lloyds and Quinns wants you shot but I say no, you are on our side.
It was around this time that Joe’s opium addiction because problematic. Opium is a powerful drug that is highly addictive and when Joe’s supply ran out he suffered withdrawals. With this came weightloss, fever, mood swings, and anxiety among other symptoms. While opiate withdrawal can induce a form of psychosis, it is unclear if this was something Joe suffered. Some speculate that he was paranoid that the Sherritts were plotting against him, but it must be remembered that not only was this belief fostered by the Kelly sympathisers, it was actually true (at least where Jack Sherritt was concerned). There was even suggestions that one of the Sherritt brothers, likely Jack, was masquerading as Joe to plant stolen horses in people’s paddocks and harass station-masters at railway crossings in order to stimulate police presence in areas where there were suspected sympathisers.
Throughout his outlawry Joe was seeing a general maid named Maggie at The Vine Hotel in Beechworth. The hotel was run by the Vandenbergs, a prominent family in the community, and was far enough outside of the town centre that Joe could access it with hardly any risk of being spotted. On Saturday nights Joe would sneak out of the bush for a drink and a bit of horizontal refreshment, then catch up on the gossip from around town. The last time they saw each other was just before Glenrowan when Maggie informed Joe that Aaron Sherritt had been in The Vine with a policeman who had interrogated her.
Despite Joe’s apparent misgivings about Aaron’s supposed infidelity, it was decided to make Aaron a vital part of Ned Kelly’s masterplan to lure a train full of police to Glenrowan. Many questions still loom about the details of Ned’s original plan but what is known is that Joe and Dan bailed up Anton Wick and used him to lure Aaron to open the door to his hut, whereupon Joe blasted him twice with a shotgun, killing him instantaneously. For two hours Joe and Dan terrorised the four armed police hiding in the bedroom, threatening to shoot them or burn the hut down, before setting Wick free and heading off for Glenrowan to meet Ned and Steve.
After arriving at Glenrowan, Joe was tasked with escorting Jane Jones, the daughter of the Glenrowan Inn’s publican, into the inn to prepare for the gang’s prisoners. Throughout the day he guarded the prisoners. At one stage Joe had to calm a situation outside the gatehouse, where Ned was verbally abusing a teenage boy to the point that the boy was shaking uncontrollably in terror. As time went on Joe’s mood seemed to improve and he grew friendly with Ann Jones, dancing with her and at one point playing with her hair while she tugged at Scanlan’s ring on his finger. In the evening Joe accompanied Ned to bail up Constable Bracken, the town’s only policeman.
In the early hours of Monday morning, 28 June, the police special train Ned had planned to derail finally arrived in Glenrowan. It was warned by the school teacher who had been allowed to go free by Ned the night before. The gang put on suits of iron armour and confronted the police. In the gunfight Ned was injured as was Superintendent Hare and Joe, who was shot in the right calf, an injury that would have damaged nerves, tendons and ligaments. During the fight Joe and Ned were overheard bickering, Joe reportedly telling Ned:
I always told you this bloody armour would bring us to grief, and now it has!
The armour had been constructed mysteriously in the early part of 1880. They were made mostly from repurposed plough mouldboards. Each suit had a slightly different design. Joe’s is considered the best made suit and has small plates to connect the backplate and breastplate. The helmet has a distinct scalloped faceplate that gives the impression of two individual eye holes, rather that a single eyeslit like the rest of the gang’s helmets. Despite it’s effectiveness in protecting the head and torso, the arms, legs and groin were still vulnerable. Ned seemed to think the armour would lead them to victory, but the opposite seemed true.
Over the next few hours Ned disappeared and the rest of the gang retreated into the inn. Police reinforcements began to arrive and the inn was continuously riddled with bullets. Some of the prisoners, mostly women and children, managed to escape, mostly unharmed. With Ned missing and no sign of an escape route, the gang’s morale was low. Joe began to drink heavily. At around 5am Joe poured himself a drink and stood at the bar giving a toast:
Here’s to many more long and happy days in the bush, boys!
At that moment a fusillade of bullets penetrated the inn and Joe was hit in the groin. He collapsed on top of two of the trapped civilians and bled to death within minutes, the bullet having severed his femoral artery.
In the afternoon, after Ned was captured and the prisoners freed, the inn was set on fire by police. Father Gibney, a priest from Western Australia, rushed in to try to rescue Dan and Steve but found them dead. Joe’s body was dragged from the inferno by police but the other two gang members were incinerated. Joe was still dressed in his armour when he was dragged out.
Joe’s body was taken to Benalla police station where it was sketched by artist Julian Ashton, then tied to a lock-up door for photographers. The sight attracted a number of curious spectators but was described with great disgust in the press. The skin on the hands had begun to crack and blister from the fire, and the face was black with smoke. The clothes were stained with dirt and blood.
The inquest on Byrne’s body was conducted in secret that night and immediately followed by a casting of the body for the Bourke Street wax museum. Stripped of his clothing and jewellery, Byrne was given a pauper’s burial in an unmarked grave in Benalla cemetery, before the family had a chance to claim it. This was deliberately engineered by Captain Standish, the chief commissioner of police. The report from the inquest was never released, only a summary of the findings.
Decades later a grave marker was placed in the approximate location of Joe’s grave. To date he is the only member of the Kelly Gang with a marked gravesite. His family later moved further north but tragedy seemed to follow them. His sister Kate was briefly admitted to a lunatic asylum. His brother Paddy apparently committed suicide by drowning and Margret Byrne refused to discuss Joe, referring to him only as “The Devil”.
The popular perception of Joe Byrne is to either typify him as a romantic balladeer with Bohemian proclivities or a murderous, paranoid and unhinged drug addict. Neither interpretation is correct. Joe was a complex man who at once was loyal to a fault and hopelessly addicted to sex, booze and opium. At the same time he had a fierce temper that would result in violent acts, sometimes extremely so, and his intellect was hamstrung by his lack of education and opportunities to flex his grey matter. Under more favourable circumstances Joe Byrne could have become a successful bush balladeer like Lawson or Patterson. Instead, his poverty stricken home life and lack constructive outlets to indulge his artistic leanings resulted in delinquency and eventually outlawry that resulted in his premature death.
A Special thank you to Georgina Stones for her assistance in putting this brief biography together.
If you would like to read some of Georgina’s writings about Joe Byrne, you can read them at An Outlaw’s Journal.
You can also read some of her work below: