My Story: Georgina Stones and Michael Howe

On this cold and wet Tasmanian afternoon, as I sit at my desk listening to the inescapable rasping call of a native hen, my mind begins pondering the question posed to me for the writing of this essay; ‘Has Michael Howe been mispresented?’ (No, do not rub your eyes or adjust your screen brightness, you read those words correctly.) I understand this may seem odd to some and perhaps hardly worth touching upon, let alone worthwhile reading. After all the man was a violent psychopath, he set fire to half of Van Diemen’s Land and left a wake of destruction wherever he trod. The history books and newspaper reports tell us so, do they not? In fact, according to Thomas Wells, Michael was a man who committed crimes “with the coolest indifference” and was “never known to perform one humane act.” Surely there is no way such strong declarations could possibly be wrong? Surely the records were properly scoured before such judgments were cast? Or were they? Firstly, I must begin by admitting that this is a question I never believed I would be answering, let alone examining in such detail. In fact, if asked for my thoughts on the subject of Michael’s misrepresentation several months ago, I would have shaken my head and given the reply of most Tasmanians: “What is there to misrepresent?” At that time, I could not have contemplated the degree to which Michael’s character has been cruelly defaced by the scrawls of ignorance and just how much his memory has become blackened. Over the past month, however, I have found myself completely drawn to this “rough sailor-looking fellow”, with his “profusion of coarse hair” and “deep set eyes”, who had a fondness for gardening, knitting and reading. Which in turn has led me to dedicate my free time to pouring over witness statements, government dispatches, newspaper articles and history books. This obsessive search to better understand Michael, led me to discover that the Michael Howe who has long been presented has almost no semblance to reality. In fact, much of what has been written about his actions completely contradict those detailed within primary source documents, with some events entirely omitted from both posthumous reports and those written during his lifetime. This discovery quickly awakened my bloodhound-like tenacity and in turn has sparked a serious yearning to tell Michael’s story and to redeem the character of this Yorkshireman, who himself expressed regret at feeling “greatly injured by the country at large.”

For some, the simple mention of the name ‘Michael Howe’, or as he himself pronounced it in his Yorkshire accent, ‘Mick’l’, is enough to cause a shudder. Which as it happens, was the exact reaction given by my father when he found out I had become interested in this “demon bushranger”. Eyeing the illustrations Aidan had done of Michael he asserted, “He was bad man, Georgina. You better not be trying to make him out to be someone he wasn’t,” and as I listened, tight-lipped, I knew there had to have been more to this man than what is commonly told. Which, as it so happens, is exactly the case and my wish to remove the black cloak from Michael shoulders has led to me to uncover details about his character which has brought me a strong sense of pride. I believe the lack of understanding and compassion given to Michael is tremendously sad, and even while alive the want of these things seems to have been something he longed for. According to James Calder (a 19th century writer and researcher who is quickly becoming my idol), after Michael’s surrender to Captain Nairn, “he was visited by the Chief Superintendent of Convicts, Mr. Paterson, to whose charge he had been consigned when he first landed here, and who had shown him kindness. This gentleman once more uttered a few fatherly words to him. Howe had been so long a stranger to civil words, that he warmly expressed his thanks for the slight attention now shown to him, saying he had often thought of the old superintendent with kindly feelings.” It can also be argued that this want of kindness, or remembering those that had showed it to him, was why he specifically wrote about his sister Mary in both his journal and the gardening book he took from Mr. Pitt. Like his journal of dreams, this book was held together with kangaroo skin, which Michael had sewn “very neatly with sinews”. Owing to him being a great lover of gardening, Michael had “so studied it, as to have thumbed its covers off”, and on the flyleaf of the book recorded Mary’s birthday, in conjunction with the number of years they had been “parted”. It is moving to think of Michael, alone in his hut on the upper Shannon River, remembering his life back in Pontefract and the sister who loved him.

Another reality at odds with the known narrative is the way in which Michael treated the men and women he stuck up, which is a point highlighted by witness statements and Calder who asserts, “none of these pillagings were attended with personal violence of any kind…Howe disliked unnecessary violence, and though he sometimes threatened it, using hard words and black looks, he never would permit it except in self-defence, or when, according to his style of thinking, he believed his victims deserved it.” One such example is seen at Governor Davey’s residence at Coal River, near Richmond, which Michael and his gang robbed on the evening of the 8th of September 1816. Not wishing to alarm the wife of Mr. Peachey the overseer, Michael instructed the man to wake up his wife and allow her to dress before he entered. Once he had scoured the room of what he “stood in need of”, Michael informed Mr. Peachey of the items he had taken, adding he had “not touched his wearing apparel.” It was also noted by the overseer that before leaving, Michael asked for his dictionary, promising to return it when the book had served its purpose. An item which would no doubt have served ‘the lieutenant-governor of the woods’ well in his communications with ‘the lieutenant-governor of the town.’

This habit of only taking the necessities is seen throughout many of the robberies Michael was in command of and differs greatly from the belief that he and his gang ransacked these premises with the zeal of a Roman legion. For the most part, green tea (black tea was bitter and undesired by the settlers), flour, sugar, ammunition, weaponry, clothing, blankets, needles and thread, and meat, were the necessities taken. The only occasion these acts differed was on the 10th of May 1815, while raiding the house of Mr. Adolarius William Henry Humphrey, a police magistrate who was known for abusing convicts. Humphrey and his wife were not at their Pitt Water (Sorrell) home when Michael broke open their front door with an axe, which was fortunate for the magistrate as Michael and his gang had expressed their desire to murder the unkindly man in order to “prevent him ever flogging another man” or “serving out slop” to convicts. Once inside the house, the gang began searching the premises for necessities which on this occasion also included Humphrey’s compass; an item Michael would come to show Thomas Seals the following year.  While he and two other members of his gang, James Geary and Richard McGwyre were filling their knapsacks, Michael came upon two pairs of leg irons, with the discovery sending his blood cold. Fetching the remainder of his gang from the servant hut, they proceeded to smash everything left in the house, knowing all too well the weight of irons clasped at their ankles.  Before leaving, Michael relayed to one of the servants that they would have left quietly if it weren’t for finding the leg irons. Further to this, the gunfight between Irishman Dennis McCarty and the gang on the 24th of April 1815 is another event which has seen key details omitted from newspaper and posthumous accounts. Unlike what is often presented, Michael did not surprise McCarty with a barrage of musket fire, but rather it was McCarty who opened fire upon the unsuspecting gang while they rested beneath trees on the banks of the Derwent River near New Norfolk. In response to this attack, the gang, excepting Michael and James Geary, left their weapons and ran a little up the hill, which led to McCarty defiantly shouting, “now you dogs, if you are men, face us like men!” Adhering to this order, the remaining members of the gang, including Mary Cockerill, retrieved their arms and the firing commenced. With the wounding of five of McCarty’s men, Carlisle, Murphy, O’Burne, Triffett and Jemott, one of the gang, most likely Michael, demanded a cease fire with the wild call, “McCarty, stop, you scoundrel, it is you we want, or we will blow your brains out!”

Such acts of violence were few and far between and the gathering of weapons from settlers, it should be remembered, was vital if Michael and the gang were to stand a chance against soldiers, with them believing there were “two or three parties of soldiers out” at the time of the fight with McCarty. Furthermore, the burning of haystacks and barns, like those carried out on the wheat and corn harvests of Bartholomew Reardon and Humphrey, were not overseen by Michael and it is unclear whether he was even aware of their undertaking until afterwards. Instead, these were the actions of George Watts, Thomas Garland and James Whitehead (not John). In my research, I have discovered that many of the acts attributed to Michael, which are often used to further demonise him, were undertaken by others and often times are quite fanciful in their diversion of fact, with the known narrative’s description of the burning of wheat stacks and gunfight with McCarty clear cases of this. I feel I must also point that Watts and Garland’s act of wanton destruction was too much for James and he left the pair shortly after, declaring to a servant that he did not feel safe among them. For me, James’ comment about not trusting Watts and Garland, brings into question why James continued to stand by Michael if he was as cruel and unhinged as he is portrayed. How could he have trusted his life with ‘the wild beast of the ranges’? By all accounts, James had a strong moral compass and like Michael, treated the men and women within his company with respect. On one occasion, a servant by the name of George Green expressed his regret at seeing James in such a situation, with James replying he was sorry to find himself in the situation also, adding it never would have been the case if not for the treatment of his previous master.

Another gang member who was known to show respect was Peter Septon, who, like Michael, had served time in the British army. While travelling close to Launceston, accompanied by George Jones and John Brown, the trio met a gentleman in the company of two ladies. Fearful of their whereabouts reaching the ears of soldiers, the gang took them to a farm house, where it was stated the “outlaws behaved in the most becoming manner, having refused to take any refreshment till the ladies had done; and even led their horses the next day over the difficult part of the New River.” In conjunction with this action, upon seeing a servant of Governor Davey’s by the name of Lucas was unwell, Peter mixed the man up a concoction of milk and wine, while Michael made himself a tankard of eggnog. Such actions, for which I have only mentioned a few, are omitted from nearly all the tellings of Michael’s life, but of course, you never let the truth get in the way of a good story, do you?

While the known narrative may portray Michael as a paranoid and unhinged leader, this could not be further from the truth. By all accounts, he kept the gang in orderly control and no man or woman were ever molested or left fearing for their life by his actions. In fact, as I have come to find, there is a stark difference in the way the gang conducted themselves when Michael was leading them as opposed to when he was not at the helm. The first example of this is in October 1814, when while robbing McCarty’s house John Mills repeatedly threatened to “fuck” Mrs. McCarty, who he deemed to be a “whore”. It should be noted that Mills was a man who Michael noted to a solider he would only have freed from Launceston “if he was worth the risk.” The other example is seen in the second robbing of Lieutenant-Governor Davey’s house, when George Jones, visibly drunk, made the servants drink rum, threatening them if they did not partake of spirit. Such actions, along with a list of others, are often laid at Michael’s feet but this is simply ignorant of the facts and nowhere better are his beliefs described then by Thomas Seals, who had been told, “if I would be a friend to them, they would reward me well […] for they were fully determined to be like Turpin, to rob from the rich and give to the poor.”

In concluding this essay, I wish to point out the lack of inclusion about Mary Cockerill is due to truth differing greatly from the narrative. There was no baby, there was no incredible love story (highlighted by her own actions), and he certainly did not shoot her for falling behind. Just how Mary and the other unnamed Aboriginal woman came to be with the gang is unclear, but it is likely they left abuse and slavery just as Michael and the others had done. They would have proved invaluable in reading tracks and keeping them away from aboriginal tribes, which proved near fatal to Michael while alone, as recorded in his journal.

By no means is this an exhaustive list of the wrong-doings done to Michael’s character over the last 200 years and nor does it include an explanation for every event and action in his 31 years of life, for such pieces are still to be written. However, what I hope this essay does do is convey the truth of who Michael Howe was and to bring forward details which have long remained in the shadows.


Historical Records of Australia, Series 3, Volume 2.

Historical Records of Australia, Series 3, Volume 3.

‘Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land’, by T.E. Wells.

‘Tasmanian History: Early Troubles of the Colonists’, by J. E. Calder.

‘Governor of the Ranges: Mike Howe, Wild Beast of Tasmania’, by Bernard Cronin and Arthur Russel.

‘History of Australian Bushranging’, Volume 1, by Charles White.

Baptism record of Mary Howe located on and comes from the parish of Pontefract, St Giles.

Source for correct name of James Whitehead comes from witness statements (Historical Records of Australia), his prison record ( and his death record (Tasmanian Convict Registry).  

“I have a heart, but it’s as hard as stone”: Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt by Georgina Rose Stones

[In this article Georgina Rose Stones explores the complex relationship between Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt in an attempt to understand what led to Byrne turning on his best friend in the worst way possible ~AP]

If I had not shot him, he would have shot me if he had the chance.”

“Dear Aaron I write these few stolen lines to you to let you know that I am still living…” On the 26th of June 1879, a desperate Joe Byrne pens a letter to his lifelong friend, Aaron Sherritt, asking him to join the gang, “a short life and a jolly one” Joe asserted. However, within the span of a year, on the night of June 26th 1880, Joe, accompanied by Dan Kelly, would shoot and kill Aaron at his hut in the Woolshed. “You will not blow now what you do with us anymore”, Joe declared, looking down on the blood soaked face of his once most trusted friend…. For the writing that follows, I have chosen to analyse the actions of both Joe and Aaron from the period of June 1879 to June 1880, paying particular reference to Joe’s own words, both within his letter to Aaron, and, through Joe’s dialogue to those around him. I have chosen to focus my response on this area, as I believe, it is something that has not been examined in detail previously. This, in turn, has allowed for a great deal of conjecture as to Joe’s actions, his frame of mind and reasons for his killing of Aaron.


Firstly, I do not think it feasible to discuss the later actions of Joe and Aaron without giving detail to their friendship. Given the great differences in their appearance, personality and manner, it is interesting that the two men were able to form such a close friendship. In terms of appearance, Joe was described as being “soberly dressed”, with the photo taken of him in 1877 reflecting this. In stark contrast, Richard Warren the son of a local newspaper owner, recalled that Aaron was “as flash as Lucifer”, going on to say, “anybody seeing him coming down Ford Street would ask, ‘who the hell’s this? Some advance agent for the circus.’” James Ingram, whose Beechworth bookshop was regularly visited by both Joe and Aaron, remembered Joe as “a nice, well behaved lad.” While a school friend of Joe’s would relate to author Max Brown that she found him to be “a nice quiet boy, not flash.” Counter to this is Annie Wick’s assessment, “he was a wild boy, good looking, but wild” although spoken in reference to Joe, the ‘wild’ streak mentioned ran through the veins of both young men. This wildness is captured within their tendency to ‘borrow’ horses as stated within Ian Jones’ The Fatal Friendship, “If they liked your horse, they’d take it at night, ride to Eldorado, gallop all the way, and it’d be back in your paddock the next day all knocked up.” Living in the Woolshed Valley, it would have been easy for the two boys to pick up a degree of waywardness given the ruggedness of both the area and inhabitants. Certainly the Chinese community, both within the Woolshed and Beechworth, played a large role in Ah Joe and Ah Jim (Aaron’s) early, and later, friendship. It is also known that Joe was an opium addict; this addiction would have undoubtedly been sprung within the opium tents which dotted the many Chinese camps of Sebastopol. From these descriptions, it is easy to imagine Joe, swaggering along Camp Street, dressed smartly in his tweed ‘town clothes’, his larrikin heels echoing off cobblestones. While alongside him, is Aaron, dressed flashily, a bright sash swinging from his waist, tipping his pork pie hat to all who passed. Contrasting these two men further, is the differing way in which they interacted with their families. Aaron, it can be asserted, was closely tied to his father John, and, mother Anne, while Joe’s relationship with Margret was far more complex. It is easy to dismiss Joe’s absence from home as him openly showing how little he cared about the plight of his family. I, however, do not view it in such a harsh way. Joe was a young man who was educated, well read and given his close relationship with the Beechworth Chinese community, cultured. Further to this, it is noted that Joe was a friend of respected Chinese businessman and philanthropist, Nam Sing, who resided within the Spring Creek Chinese community. Given his intellect and nature, it is easy to imagine Joe sitting under Nam Sing’s veranda, conversing in Cantonese while sipping jasmine tea from an intricately painted China teacup. Joe’s regular visits to the Burke Museum highlight, both his cultural and, historical curiosity, which would have been quite at odds with his upbringing and life within the rugged Woolshed Valley, further contrasting the personas of Joe and Aaron. In conjunction with these elements of Joe’s character, it is an undisputable fact that Joe and Margret did not share a loving mother and son relationship. This is first highlighted, publically, within the court proceedings regarding a stolen and later slaughtered heifer from the Eldorado Common School with the charge being, ‘having in their possession the carcass of a certain cow for the lawful possession of which they cannot satisfactory account.’ At the trial, Margret’s evidence had been laced in bitterness to Joe, so bitter in fact that Police Magistrate, Robert Pitcairn was forced to ask “Is your son good to you?” After a lengthy silence, which must have seemed like an eternity for Joe, she replied “I cannot say.” In contrast, John Sherritt spoke glowingly of his son, concluding in his evidence, “we are not separated”. Joe and Aaron were found guilty and on the 21st of May, 1876, were given a six month sentence with hard labour, to be undertaken inside the cold granite walls of Beechworth Gaol. Not only does this incident highlight the family differences between the two men, but, also connects with the statement Joe made on the night of June 26th 1880, “The bastard will never put me away again.” This was a striking declaration, and I believe, gives an interesting insight into the dynamics between Joe and Aaron. While Joe’s remarks could have been in reference to his imprisonment, they could also have been in relation to an incident that occurred on the 13th of January 1877. During a hot summer’s day in the Woolshed, Joe and Aaron had decided to cool off in the, shimmering, rippling waters of the nearby dam. While they were swimming, a Chinaman, named Ah On, came down to the dam to collect water for his garden. Words were exchanged between the pair and an angry Ah On went back to his hut, while Joe and Aaron retrieved their clothes and quickly dressed. According to the Chinaman, and his two friends, the young men began ‘pelting stones’ at the Chinese hut. It was also claimed, by the Chinese, that after Joe and Aaron had barraged the hut with stones, and Aaron had severely wounded Ah Oh with a stone to the temple, did they retaliate with bamboos. This was made in challenge of Willie Sherritt’s claim that they had produced the bamboos first. Finally, as Joe himself relayed to Constable Mullane, “I’ve nothing to say. I didn’t do it and didn’t see it done…we were bathing in the dam; when we got out the Chinese hunted us with bamboos; I ran one way, and Aaron ran the other, and I saw nothing at all of it.” Both men were remanded to the police court until the 13th of February, where, during a two day trial both Joe and Aaron, although cautioned, were found not guilty. The reasoning behind my statement, that Joe’s utterance over Aaron’s dead body could have been about the above incident, is in regards to a conversation Aaron had during the final minutes of his life. “One night, I heard someone knocking on the bars of my cell window, and when I asked who it was, Joe replied, ‘It is me; I am going to help you escape.’ I told him “the Chinaman is getting better, so you had better give yourself up, and do not be a fool.’ Joe took my advice, surrendered, secured legal advice and was acquitted”. It is tempting to imagine Joe, standing outside Aarons hut, listening to the conversation between Aaron and the police, of a friendship long ago, his fingers furling and unfurling around the trigger of the double barrelled shotgun….


Between the times of June 1879 to June 1880, Joe’s perception of Aaron changed dramatically. The reasons for his altered view of Aaron have been discussed in the past; however, they often show little regard for Joe’s own words. For a number of people it is Joe’s opium addiction that helped ‘pull the trigger’. It is believed his addled state of mind sent Joe into a paranoid frenzy, his testing of Aaron and Jack fuelled by crippling opium withdrawals. Personally, I have never been at ease with this notion, and, it is why, I have felt compelled to pen this piece. In conjunction with the ‘Sherritt Letter’, I will be analysing Joe’s ‘threatening’ letters to Aaron and Detective Ward, his association with Jack Sherritt, the words of both Belle and Anne Sherritt and Aaron’s betrayal of Maggie.

On the day of the 26th of June 1879, Joe hastily wrote a letter to his ‘lifelong’ friend. Within “these few stolen lines”, Joe pleads that Aaron confirm himself to be, “on our side”, in the wake of constant distrust amongst the “Lloyds and Quinns” who, “wants you shot”. The letter is an emotionally charged piece, written on two sheets of note paper, possibly taken from Anne Sherritt and offers a valuable insight into Joe’s frame of mind at this time. It is clear, within the letter, that Joe is burdened by the suspicion that darkens Aaron within the eyes of Tom Lloyd. It is also clear why this would have been the case. Firstly, Joe would have been in a precarious position, defending Aaron’s loyalty while so many others, including Dan Kelly, were questioning it. This, in turn, may have brought about a degree of distrust towards Joe, resulting in him not only shielding threats made against Aaron, but also, against himself. Up to, and during, this time, it is obvious that Joe was still trying to keep his bond with “dear Aaron” from becoming severed, however, several months after Joe’s request that he join the gang, his correspondence to Aaron altered significantly. It is quoted within The Fatal Friendship that “a letter from Joe Byrne reached the Beechworth Police, containing threats to Aaron, Constable Mullane and Detective Ward, ‘warning them of mischief before that day month.’” Furthermore, it was said by Ward that the letter also offered “a reward of eight thousand pounds for the apprehension and delivery in Wombat Rangers of Captain Standish, Senior Constable Mullane and myself.” It is not clear what triggered this change; obviously what was said between Joe and Aaron is not known. Perhaps Aaron’s reluctance to join the gang, when he may have been eager in the past, shed doubt on his actions in the eyes of Joe. Months of questioning from the “Lloyds and Quinns” had certainly worn away at Joe. What is known for certain, however, is that not long after this, Joe turned his attention to Jack Sherritt.

During this time, Joe sent Jack a letter which was described as being “short written, quick”, asking Jack to meet him on Thursday the 5th of November, at Thompson’s farm on Sandy Creek. It is noted that Jack had misgivings about the meeting, but instructed by Superintendent Nicolson, he kept the appointment. When, on the Thursday, Jack had ridden over to the farm, he was informed that Thompson had been “gone 12 months”. Sure that he had been watched on the way, Jack camped the night, and left the following morning. It is recalled, that as he was riding back along a scrubby stretch of track, Joe sprang out of the scrub and called him. Turning his horse around, Jack saw Joe, who he described, “had no horse, but he had a pair of long boots, and his trousers were all over blood. He had long spurs.” Joe signalled Jack to follow him deep into the scrub, and the pair chatted in what was described as, a “long and friendly conversation.” Joe had asserted that the purpose of the meeting was to see if Jack would scout the Yackandandah Bank for the gang, and, “see how many police were stationed there…and see where the police went in to have tea.” Finally, asked by Joe whether he knew Nicolson, Jack had replied, he “knew no one”. This is in an interesting incident, not only because we see for the first time the toll of an outlawed life, but that Joe had asked, specifically, whether Jack “knew Nicolson.” Of course, this may well have been an innocent enquiry; however, I feel it is far sounder that Joe had been informed of Jack’s previous dealings with the Scottish Superintendent. Further to this meeting, it is noted that, later, on the 23rd of November, Joe appeared at the Sherritt farm. Joe was described as being “well dressed” and, it was noted, “shook hands with all the family”, including Aaron, and, thanked Jack for his work in the past month. Joe asserted his purpose of the visit was to ask Jack and Aaron to aid the gang in holding up one of the Beechworth Banks. Joe stayed at the Sherritts’ for four hours and left at midnight, promising he would return the following Sunday. It is recorded, that Joe “‘looked as if fretting’, and, appeared to have lost weight. They thought he was now less than ten stone.” This assessment has often been likened to Joe’s withdrawals from opium, I however, disagree. It should be highlighted that Joe was, by nature, a “thoroughly nervous man” and it is likely that he suffered anxiety. This anxiety would no doubt have been heightened by Joe’s opium use, and the burden of outlawry. This, consequently, would account for Joe’s manner while visiting the Sherritt’s. The reason, I personally, disregard Joe’s behaviour as stemming from withdrawal, is due to two specific details. Firstly, it is noted that the gang had many Chinese sympathisers, who no doubt, would have been able to ‘appease’ Joe’s opium addiction. If Joe was “short on funds”, the promise of future payment may have been offered to the Chinese, as it may have been before the Euroa and Jerilderie robberies. In relation to this, it was noted that on the 3rd of December Joe, accompanied by Aaron, appeared at E Fang’s store in Sebastopol, where he “got a bottle of gin, some tobacco, and something else, and went away.” It is tempting to presume that the “something else” could very well have been opium. Secondly, it is believed that the ‘poison’ Joe had with him at Glenrowan was a packet of Laudanum, which, if taken in small amounts, would have offered Joe the same release as the opium pipe.


A final detail, which it can be asserted, led to the severed trust Joe had for Aaron is in regards to the police watch party which had been set up in Aaron’s hut. While the manipulative actions of Detective Ward cannot be shadowed, it must be accepted that Aaron made little attempt to hinder him. Almost the entire existence of Aaron’s life had become funded by the police, from the clothes he wore, the crockery and cutlery he used, even the hut, both he and Belle resided in, had been purchased by Constable Alexander. Behind this façade of employment, which Aaron, as Ian Jones points out, may have seen as “a long rambling joke”, it was Joe’s life he continued to profit from. Surely, at least in Joe’s eyes, the line of friendship had been crossed, and indeed, obliterated. While, before this time, Joe had continued to hide any grievances he may have had for Aaron, it is clear he no longer felt the need to do so. This is highlighted in his dialogue with Anne Sherritt, who recalled to the police, “I saw a man with a horses bridle on his arm, and this was Joe Byrne. And as soon as he saw me he got up and came over and spoke friendly enough to me; and he said he had come to take Aaron’s life, and also Detective Ward’s. He said ‘those two had them starved to death.’…I begged him not to take Aaron’s life. I said, ‘he has no harm; he would not hurt you’. And he said, ‘you need not impress that on my mind, because I can tell you that there was Ward and him and Mr. Hare very nearly twice catching us, and that tells you whether he would hurt us or not…’” Personally, I believe Joe’s statement deserves more weight than it has previously been given, and, shines a clear light on Joe’s assessment of Aaron’s involvement with the police. Further to this, if Aaron had not been so involved, wouldn’t he have seen reason to pull back his association with the police? Wouldn’t he have, as a result of Joe’s words, seen fit to explain himself to Joe? In conjunction to this is the words of Belle herself, who, in a newspaper interview after Aaron’s death, had questioned why she had not yet received a widow’s pension from the police, as her husband had been in their employment. Interestingly, Joe claimed that Belle often went “blowing about what her husband would do.” Many have viewed this to be false, asserting that it was nothing more than malice. I, however, believe Joe, and furthermore, it does not tarnish my view of Belle, as it is almost certain that she would have felt a sense of pride in her husband’s employment with the police.

I wish to conclude with an incident that I believe clearly marked Aaron as a traitor in the eyes of Joe, which was Aaron’s brazen betrayal of ‘Maggie’. On the evening of the 24th of June, two days before Aaron’s murder, Aaron, accompanied by a policeman, made a ‘pub crawl’ through Beechworth. As the afternoon gave way to evening, the pair reached the Vine Hotel, which stood at the very edge of town, before the descent into the Woolshed. Working at the Vine, was a young woman known, to history, as ‘Maggie’, and, as it happened was also one of the girls in Joe’s life. As the two men entered the bar, it is recalled that Aaron nodded in ‘Maggie’s’ direction had asserted, “that girl often sees Joe Byrne.” This, I believe was a striking disregard for the safety of ‘Maggie’, and, in the eyes of Joe, would have been unforgivable. In response to the constable’s questions, which began after Aaron had left, ‘Maggie’ asserted that she knew who had informed him of her identity, and promised, “somebody else will soon know, too.” Further to this, it is recalled that on the “Wednesday or Thursday night” Joe visited “Maggie”, on what was to be “the last time they met on earth.” It is easy to imagine the darkening of Joe’s usually gentle countenance, as “Maggie” informed him of Aaron’s betrayal. Finally, I firmly believe that if Joe needed one more reason to doubt Aaron’s loyalty, this would have surely been it. Not only had Aaron showed Joe such disregard, but he had directed this straight into the ears of an officer of the Victoria Police.

If Aaron’s fate was not already sealed on the night of June 25th, 1880, this most certainly helped pull the trigger the following evening.

Selected Sources:

Jones, Ian. The Fatal Friendship: Ned Kelly, Aaron Sherritt and Joe Byrne. Revised ed. South Melbourne: Lothian, 2003. Print.

Shaw, Ian W. Glenrowan. Sydney, N. S. W. : Macmillan, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2012.

FitzSimons, Peter. Ned Kelly. London Bantam Press, 2015.

Brown, Max. Ned Kelly : Australian Son. Kensington, N.S.W. : Times House, 1986.

Joe Byrne: An Opinion

For this week’s feature we invited Georgina Rose Stones to pen her thoughts on Joe Byrne, lieutenant of the Kelly Gang. Georgina is a journalism student who has studied the Kelly story in detail and has been active in the bushranging history community for some time. Her knowledge of Joe Byrne’s story is in depth and she provides a very interesting perspective on an often overlooked member of the bushranging fraternity. So now I turn over to Georgina for your reading pleasure. Enjoy! ~ AP

Try as I might, I am unable to recall exactly what it was that first enticed me into the depths of the Kelly story and outbreak. I can vividly recall reading Peter Carey’s True History of The Kelly Gang for silent reading as a mere twelve year old, but what made me pick up the novel to begin with escapes me. Whatever it was, however, I will forever remain truly grateful. For many individuals, it is Ned Kelly who incites the most sympathy and interest in regards to the gang as a whole. There is no harm in that, given especially, as it is Ned who has been given the most exposure through the years. For me, however, this place has always been reserved for Ned’s “lieutenant”, Joe Byrne.

When I was first asked the question “what compels you to Joe?” I had a handful of answers flash through my mind, but now, as I sit here at my desk, I’m finding it harder to pinpoint the exactness of why, when compared with Ned, Steve and Dan, I drift towards Joe. Two aspects, I believe which have drawn me to Joe, are in regards to his schooling and personality. It is these two characteristics which I find most compelling about Joe’s persona, as when one thinks of a ‘bushranger’ or ‘outlaw’, being “a bit of a poet” or “soberly dressed” are not words which often spring to mind. Furthermore, by all accounts Joe was well read, and, like Ned, frequented James Ingram’s bookshop in Beechworth with his lifelong friend, Aaron Sherritt. Coupled with Joe’s literary interests, he was “for a bushman rather clever with his pen.” This is another aspect I have always found engaging about Joe, as like me, he loved to write, specifically in the guise of ‘bush ballads’. These ballads dealt with the exploits and overall boldness of the gang, with my favourite verse being “long may they reign – the Kelly’s, Byrne and Hart.” Further to these ballads, it is noted that while at Jerilderie, “plotting for the following day’s robbery”, Joe wrote down a riddle to amuse himself, “Why are the Kellys the greatest matchmakers in the country? Because they brought loads of ladies Younghusbands, Euroa, Victoria.” Combined with this detail, I have always been fascinated by the letters Joe sent to both Aaron and Jack Sherritt, in conjunction with, the mock reward posters and caricatures of Detective Ward. Finally, the existence of Joe’s journal has always been of great interest to me, and is something, which I believe, further highlights Joe’s clever and complex mind. The pieces of Joe’s personality are area’s with which I am also drawn. Most individuals who came into his presence, found Joe to be “quiet” and “unassuming”. At Jerilderie, an unknown individual recounted that “his manner is quiet and he appears to the casual observer an inoffensive man.” Moreover, Constable McIntyre would recount that he found Joe to be “a nervous man, thoroughly under the control of Ned Kelly.” I have always found this assessment of Joe to be interesting, as there does seem to be some alteration in his disposition when he was out of Ned’s presence. This is a factor about Joe with which I have always been compelled by and one that I find quite moving, as it demonstrates, I believe, the two ideals Joe was constantly torn between. The first, concerning him as an outlaw, and secondly, as both lover and poet. The first source I have, which represents the way Joe’s manner could change, comes from a Mr Turner, from Mt Battery Station, who met the gang while they resided at Bullock Creek. While under Joe’s watchful guard, Mr Tuner recollects a detail about Joe I have always loved, “from a billy hanging over the fire, Byrne produced some hot water, and standing with his rifle near him shaved himself most carefully, after which he gave his hair a vigorous brushing, all the time carrying on a disjointed conversation with me.” He concluded by adding, “his tone was affable and quiet” and goes on to declare, “I could not understand the different conduct in the absence of his comrades.” Another lovely detail, which I feel shows the ‘other side of Joe’, comes from Mrs Fitzgerald at Faithfuls Creek. She described that Joe “chatted with her on general topics” and, in my favourite detail, “played for her entertainment on a concertina” and seemed much more outgoing with her than with the male prisoners. Finally, I do not think it feasible to discuss what compels me to Joe, without at least mentioning his fondness for barmaids. There are two barmaids in particular who are known to have turned Joe’s head, Mary the Larrikin from the Woolpack Inn, and his last earthly lover, Maggie, from the Vine Hotel. Regarding Mary the Larrikin, I have always loved the detail of Joe riding back to the Woolpack Inn to see Mary, after meeting her the previous night while the gang were on route to Jerilderie. On their first encounter, Joe was so charmed by her presence, Ned had to warn him to “ease off and quietly told Mary not to serve Joe anymore whiskey.” On the following evening, Joe rode back to the Woolpack Inn to spend some more time with Mary, and it was noted, “had to be helped on his horse when he left at midnight.” Nevertheless, it has been Joe’s connection to Maggie that has captivated me the most and it has always saddened me that we do not know more about her. However, it is known that Joe visited her frequently, the last time being the “Wednesday or Thursday night” before the Kelly Gang’s destruction.

As I type, my eyes drift upwards to my intricately framed photo of Joe, positioned on the wall above my desk. Standing before me I see a young man dressed soberly in ‘town clothes’, his slightly flared trouser hems revealing larrikin heels, highlighting his rebellious bush spirit, which I will forever admire. Joe was a man with many complexities to his character; he was outlaw and scholar, opium user and balladeer, lover of whiskey and barmaids. A young man who often frequented the Burke Museum and whom was also in good relations with many of the Beechworth Chinese community, who called him “Ah Joe.” He was a man who declared he would “die at Ned’s side”, yet at Glenrowan, when Ned expressed the hopefulness of the situation, Joe had heatedly proclaimed, “Well it’s your fault, I always said this bloody armour would bring us to grief.” Furthermore, I see a fearless young man who in just three short years would meet his end, shot by a policeman’s bullet which tore into his thigh, severing the femoral artery. Resulting in Joe bleeding to death, and who just moments before had defiantly toasted “many a long and happy day still in the bush, boys!” In conclusion, while I do not wish to dwell on the final photo taken of Joe, finding it equally heartbreaking and repulsive, I feel I should at least mention it. The gentle calmness of Joe’s countenance does not depict a young man, who only four days previous, had shot and killed his lifelong friend and who had declared, “you will not blow now what you do with us anymore.” And, it is this that has always struck me, how quickly the outlaw guise was discarded for the “mild mannered” Joe.

This is what compels me to Joe Byrne.


Ian Jones, A Short Life

Ian Jones, The Fatal Friendship

J.J. Kenneally, The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang

Keith McMenomy, Ned Kelly The Authentic Illustrated History