Much conjecture has been made around whether Aaron Sherritt was a sympathiser or a traitor; a matyr or a double agent. All of it relies on the same broad brushstrokes and oversimplification that has plagued understanding of the Kelly story for over a century. The truth is far more complex and the more one delves into the events of the Kelly outbreak, the murkier it becomes. Aaron Sherritt made friends everywhere but in the end was surrounded by enemies. How did he go from everyone’s mate to persona non grata?
[Source: Illustrated Australian news. July 3, 1880.]
Sherritt was born into an Irish protestant family in 1854, growing up in the Woolshed Valley – a notoriously rough area of the north east of Victoria right in the heart of the goldfields of that region. He met Joe Byrne as a young boy and the pair were inseparable. Naturally, the Catholic Byrnes were wary of Aaron, and the Protestant Sherritts equally wary of the Byrnes, but the friendship continued to flourish.
As teens, Aaron and Joe began to spend most of their downtime around Sebastopol, a mining town between El Dorado and Beechworth. Here they would spend considerable amounts of time in the Chinese camp, even earning the nicknames Ah Joe and Ah Jim (because Ah Aaron proved too difficult to pronounce). Much has been made of Joe’s bilingualism, speaking Cantonese proficiently, but it is probable that Aaron was also proficient to some degree as he spent time with the Chinese almost as much as Joe, though history doesn’t record how robust his linguistic skills were.
In his early twenties, Aaron worked on a gold claim with two Chinese men named Ah Loy and Ah Fook. This Ah Fook was very probably the same man that had been robbed by Harry Power and assaulted by a young Ned Kelly several years earlier, and would suffer a horrific murder not long afterwards. Aaron fancied himself as something of a butcher and tried to obtain a butcher’s licence under Ah Loy’s name when his own licence was revoked. The ploy was not as clever as Aaron thought, so when his cover was blown he was fined.
Chinese Sluicing, Near Beechworth [Source: The Australian news for home readers. August 25, 1864.]
Aaron and Joe frequently caught the attention of the police through their various schemes, with Detective Ward and Senior Constable Mullane being frequent visitors to the Byrne and Sherritt farms. In 1876 the pair were tried for assault against Ah On, a Chinese man who lived on the outskirts of Sebastopol. The pair had been skinny dipping in a waterhole near Ah On’s house and a dispute arose. It seems that there was an argument and while Ah On chased the boys away, waving a bamboo staff, Aaron threw a rock at Ah On. The rock hit him, fracturing his skull. Joe and Aaron narrowly avoided gaol time but it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out. It is possible that this was when they first met Dan Kelly, who was in Beechworth awaiting his own hearing over an allegedly stolen saddle at the same time. His big brother Ned was also in attendance to provide a statement. There is no definitive account of how they met the Kellys, but as they tended to move in different circles, owing to Beechworth’s distance from the Kelly stomping ground in Greta, it is unlikely that they had made significant contact before this time.
The pair took up stealing horses and cattle for easy money. Aaron had been coached in the world of “stock trading” by a man named John Phelan and likely put the lessons to good use, selling duffed livestock. This soon escalated into an unfortunate incident where a stolen cow was inexpertly butchered by the pair and saw them locked up in Beechworth Gaol in May 1876 for six months. The El Dorado school’s pet cow had been stolen from the common, then taken to a place of slaughter. They borrowed a knife and steel from Joe’s neighbours and as they were slaughtering the cow were spotted by a local sticky-beak named Sandy Doig. Joe and Aaron were arrested by Ward and Mullane after dividing the carcass among their families. Unable to beat the charges, this was to be their first time going to prison.
Aaron was a larrikin and something of an adrenaline junkie. For him, few things gave him more of a thrill than stock theft. When the opportunity arose to take the flashness out of some local squatters by stealing their horses he didn’t stop to think twice, and joined Ned Kelly, along with Joe, in a horse stealing racket. A rotating roster of larrikins from the Greta Mob helped the thieves shift the stolen animals. Aaron would later brag of his love of horse stealing to Superintendent Hare. The operation saw the gang moving stock throughout Victoria and parts of southern New South Wales. No doubt Aaron was able to use some of the tricks he had learned from John Phelan to help disguise the stock. Likely, the horse thieves had made good money from their dodgy trade. When Aaron would reflect on the time he would only mention himself, Joe and Ned. It is impossible to know if Ned’s stepfather George King had been left out of the reminiscences due to Aaron trying to protect his identity or something else having happened. George King seemingly vanished from history straight after the campaign of larceny and the only tangible evidence he was involved comes from Ned’s allusions to him as a duffer in his letters.
It was around this time that Aaron became unofficially engaged to Joe’s sister Kate. In kind Joe was in a serious relationship with Aaron’s sister Bessie, though both boys had a reputation as skirt chasers. Aaron seems to have maintained this relationship admirably long considering his roving eye. Aaron was a frequent visitor to the Byrne homestead where he would do chores for Margret Byrne. Meanwhile, Aaron had gained a lease on a selection that Joe Byrne was helping him fix up per the lease agreement. Unfortunately the domestic bliss was doomed to be short lived.
In October 1878 Joe Byrne was implicated in the police killings at Stringybark Creek. While Aaron wasn’t there he was keen to provide support for his greatest friend. Just after the event Aaron took the gang into the bush and guarded while they slept in a cave. For a time he acted as a spy for the gang, keeping tabs on police movements to allow the gang to move freely. Shortly after the killings a large party of police raided the Sherritt and Byrne homes, during which time Aaron became acquainted with Captain Standish, the Chief Commissioner of police. Aaron and Standish reached an agreement by which Joe Byrne would be taken alive and spared the noose if Aaron gave information leading to the capture of the rest of the gang. Subsequently Aaron began making himself known in the police offices in Benalla, providing useless information in a thinly veiled attempt to throw police off the scent of the gang. A few days before the gang headed to Jerilderie, Aaron misdirected the police by informing Superintendent Hare the outlaws were headed for Goulburn. Despite this, Hare took a liking to Sherritt and maintained his services. Aaron now found himself in the position of stringing the police along and making money out of it in the process, allowing his mates to go unmolested while keeping the police under the impression they were getting insider information to help catch them. This would not last.
Night after night, Aaron would accompany a party of police to caves that looked down onto the Byrne property. He maintained that this was the place the gang were most likely to visit after their activities. Hare claimed in his memoirs that on one occasion Sherritt had secretly convinced one of the constables to help him steal the booty from the bushrangers, which they would then split between them. Hare was convinced that Sherritt was doing his best to help the police nab the outlaws, but despite months of camping in the caves they were no closer to catching the Kellys.
Things began to fray at the seams for Aaron when the police party was discovered by Margret Byrne. Alerted by the sun glinting off a discarded sardine tin, Mrs. Byrne crawled up into the rocks and saw Sherritt asleep with several police. When the police announced that they’d been spotted, Aaron went white as a sheet and declared he was a dead man. Soon after, the engagement between Aaron and Kate Byrne was called off and this threw Aaron into a downward spiral. This is where Aaron’s motives become unclear and his actions began to raise red flags amongst the sympathisers.
The dust had barely settled after the engagement was broken before Aaron was making moves on Kate Kelly. This coincided with controversy over a horse named Charlie. Aaron had gifted a filly to Kate Byrne but had told her that if she didn’t intend on keeping it he would take it back to sell. Whether on Kate’s or Margret Byrne’s instructions, Paddy Byrne sold the filly to a Chinese man and received a gelding in the exchange. Aaron, fuming over the disregard for his stipulation, stole Charlie the gelding as compensation for the filly. Aaron then sold the horse to Kate Kelly’s sister Maggie, who was unaware it was stolen. Margret Byrne filed charges and Aaron was dragged into court. It was alleged that Margret had offered to drop the charges if Aaron would leave the colony. The case against Aaron was complicated but not compelling enough to secure a conviction. Aaron walked free but the damage was done and he had lost the trust of the Byrnes. People began to suggest that his involvement with the police saw strings being pulled to get him off.
By this time Aaron had become so entrenched in the police activities that Detective Ward had expense accounts all over Beechworth to cover his purchases. Aaron was not earning a wage otherwise and this began to put stress on him financially. When he started courting Ellen Barry, better known as Belle, things started looking up for Aaron – or so he thought.
Belle was a fifteen year-old whose mother was well known in the district due to her work as a midwife and her husband was infamous for his involvement with stock theft. The Barrys were Catholics and when Aaron proposed to Belle this caused friction between him and his own family. His mother in particular was so incensed by the suggestion that Aaron would not only marry outside of the family faith, but convert to Catholicism to facilitate it, that she essentially disowned him and started a period of direct antagonism towards Aaron from his family members.
Despite the union causing a fracture in his family, Aaron married Belle in Beechworth on Boxing Day, 1879. They stayed in the Hibernian Hotel for the honeymoon, all expenses paid by the police, naturally. Detective Ward even gifted the newlyweds a set of silverware.
In early 1880 tensions were high. The police were suspicious of Aaron, the Byrnes had distanced themselves from him and the Lloyds and Quinns were putting pressure on the Kelly Gang to have Aaron taken out. And now on top of that, as Aaron began his married life, his own family had disowned him and were blatantly stirring up trouble. Aaron’s brother Jack, on one occasion, had broken into Aaron’s in-laws’ home and stolen items belonging to the newlyweds, including Belle’s new saddle and watch. The stolen items were planted at the Byrne farm to throw suspicion but Jack was not as clever as he liked to imagine, having left a tie that was gifted to him by Detective Ward at the scene of the crime. Once Aaron had uncovered the deed he engaged his brother in a horseback chase before the pair came to blows. In his rage, Aaron ripped a sapling out of the ground and walloped Jack across the head with it. The blow rendered the younger Sherritt unconscious and bleeding heavily from the head. Suddenly terrified at the thought that he may have killed Jack, Aaron headed to the pub to steady his nerves before turning himself in to the police. As this was transpiring, Jack appeared in the pub behind him covered in blood. The pair got drunk and briefly patched things up but it would not last long.
Soon Aaron took possession of an abandoned hut near Sebastopol. This caused problems when the owner turned up and started threatening Aaron. The police who were working with Sherritt at the time pitched in and bought the old hut in order to cool the situation down. This two-roomed miner’s hut was flimsy and the furnishings were rudimentary, but it suited the newlyweds better than bunking down at Aaron’s in-laws’ place where they were heavily scrutinised.
Aaron was now struggling to cope with the lifestyle. He threw himself wholeheartedly into working with the police, knowing it would put the final nail in the coffin, but perhaps Aaron figured it couldn’t get any worse. In response to threats from the sympathisers, Superintendent Hare and Detective Ward arranged to have police constables stationed with Sherritt around the clock. A team of four would work in shifts; during the day police were to stay in the hut to avoid detection and at night they would accompany Aaron to his watch at the police caves. Of course things did not go to plan, with constables seen outside during the day performing chores and relaxing. This was, naturally, noticed by Kelly sympathisers, particularly the Byrne brothers, and word inevitably reached the gang.
In June, the Kelly Gang came back into the open with a grand plan to lure a train full of police and trackers to be derailed at Glenrowan. Unlike in their previous missions, Aaron was not made privy to the plan and for a very good reason: he was a key part of it. There is conjecture about the gang’s true intentions, but the plan was most likely one of two options. The first is that Aaron Sherritt would be murdered in order to lure the train from Benalla based on the four constables raising the alarm. The second is that the police were the targets with the alarm to either be raised by Aaron or by a surviving policeman. Ned Kelly’s comments made after his capture to Constable Armstrong, one of the police stationed in the hut, implied that he believed Aaron was being tortured for information by police and that his plan was to target the police, not the informant. According to multiple reports, Ned was unaware during the gang’s time in Glenrowan that Aaron was the one that had been killed and asserted it must have been the others that came up with the idea of killing him.
Only days before the plan was put into action, Aaron was taken on a pub crawl by one of the police assigned to his hut, Constable Alexander. During this they went to the Vine Hotel in Beechworth where Aaron spotted Joe Byrne’s girlfriend. Alexander immediately began questioning her unsuccessfully. Word promptly found its way back to Joe Byrne what Aaron had done. Perhaps it was this final straw that made Joe decide to put Aaron to death.
[Source: The Australasian Sketcher. July 17, 1880.]
On the night of 26 June, the gang split up with Ned Kelly and Steve Hart heading to Glenrowan while Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly headed to the Devil’s Elbow, where Aaron lived. Joe and Dan rode with a pack horse in tow, likely carrying their weapons and possibly their iron armour. On the way to Aaron’s hut, the pair passed Anton Wick, Aaron’s neighbour, doubled back and bailed him up. They led Wick at gunpoint to Aaron’s homestead. Dan waited at the front door while Joe went around the rear with Wick and ordered him to call out to Aaron. When Aaron answered the door, Joe shot him twice with a shotgun. With gaping wounds in his stomach and throat, Aaron hit the floor and died without a word. So extreme were the wounds that when the post mortem was conducted it was found that his heart had been completely emptied of blood.
The police that had been assigned to protect the Sherritts cowered in the bedroom, unable to leave without being shot, and forced Belle and her mother to hide under the bed until morning. The police did not leave until midday on the following day, throwing Ned Kelly’s plan out the window and resulting in the disastrous siege of Glenrowan, wherein all of the Kelly Gang but Ned were killed.
Aaron’s inquest was held in The Vine Hotel, and on 29 June Aaron was buried in Beechworth cemetery in an unmarked grave. Over the next few years, Belle would seek reparations from the police for their culpability in Aaron’s death. The stress of what happened on 26 June contributed to her having a miscarriage and subsequently suffering poor health. She received no support, financial or otherwise, from Aaron’s family.
Aaron’s brothers Jack and Willie Sherritt would use the connections they made as police informants during Kelly hunt to become constables. Unfortunately the nepotism only went so far and they were deemed a poor fit for the force, subsequently being kicked out by the Assistant Commissioner. Unemployed and unable to return to live with their parents for fear of being killed by Kelly sympathisers, Willie went to Queensland and Jack begged, unsuccessfully, to be let back into the police force. When Jack testified during the Royal Commission into the Kelly outbreak in 1881 he used it as a platform to try and defame Assistant Commissioner Nicolson.
Many years after the outbreak, Jack Sherritt and Paddy Byrne had a public reconciliation in Beechworth in an effort to bury the hatchet between the two families that had been so terribly affected by their roles in the Kelly outbreak.
Over time, the myths of the Kelly story resulted in Aaron Sherritt being unfairly vilified as an outright traitor; a self-serving fizzgig. Such a negative association with Aaron’s name blackened his character, despite him being a victim of the politics of the Kelly story rather than an antagonist. Sadly, not only did the police’s carelessness make Aaron a target, but their terrible decisions helped the outlaws decide to murder him and meant that his death was not reported for more than twelve hours. That the police in question were demoted or sacked afterwards was little comfort to Belle, who was constantly denied assistance from the police, despite her husband being, to the best of her knowledge, one of them. Were it not for a push by the press to get Belle compensation the poor girl would have had nothing.
Aaron Sherritt has suffered a tremendous injustice due to the inaccuracies in the telling of the Kelly story through the years. Whereas he was traditionally portrayed as some kind of Beechworth Judas, his story highlights, more than any other, the true nature of the network of Kelly Sympathisers. While many were sincere in supporting the cause and the gang, the majority were bandwagon riders that hoped for reflected glory and a share of the loot whenever a bank was robbed. The truth is that the sympathisers are directly responsible for Aaron’s murder and the chain of events that followed, resulting in no less than six untimely deaths. If misinformation about Aaron being a traitor had not been spread as gospel truth, quite contrary to the reality, the gang would have had a different path roll out for them.
Source: The Herald (Melbourne) 5 July 1880: 3.