Con-artist sailor turned cannibal convict murderer.
He was referred to as “the monster”, accused of a string of horrific crimes including murder, infanticide and cannibalism. His reputation was so repulsive that the gentleman bushranger Brady threatened to break him out of prison so he could have the privilege of hanging the villain himself. But was Thomas Jeffries (aka Jeffrey) as bad as he was claimed to be?
Jeffries (or “Jeffrey” as he would write it) was a native of Bristol, born in 1791. His father was a butcher, and as a young man Thomas pursued a career in the British Navy. After three years, the harsh discipline of the Navy pushed him to abscond, which was not altogether uncommon. He then did a stint in the army before absconding again, and after discovering that he no longer fit in with his old mates back in Bristol he attempted to give the Navy another shot. This ended with him robbing the ship.
After an elaborate scheme to rob his well-to-do uncle, Jeffries found himself burning through money. To combat this he joined a gang of highwaymen. After one of their victims was murdered they were captured but released due to lack of evidence.
Jeffries was eventually transported in 1817 for robbery. Sailing on the ship Marquis of Huntley, his experience as a sailor allegedly saw the captain order his irons be struck off so he could work as one of the crew.
Some sources suggest that he had a wife and children that were left behind when he was transported, though this is unlikely and doesn’t seem to tally with the records of him as a convict. It must also be pointed out that some sources claim Jeffries was a hangman from Scotland, which is certainly not the case. Misinformation about Jeffries goes back to at least the mid-1800s when James Bonwick cobbled together a very inaccurate depiction of Jeffries (among other bushrangers) in a book about the bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land.
Jeffries landed at Sydney and was quickly assigned, but his misbehaving saw him handballed back to the authorities. He was allocated to a work party at Coal River, where he absconded with a party of four others. They took to the bush, but after a time their supplies ran out and two of their number were, according to Jeffries, killed and cannibalised by the others.
Jeffries was recaptured and sent on a ship to Van Diemen’s Land. He arrived in George Town, where he was sent to the prisoners’ barracks. Soon he climbed up the food chain and become an overseer. He would later brag that in his time as constable the incidence of misbehaving steeply decreased, though there is no evidenceto back him. It was here that his troubles with alcohol began to become evident.
He was stripped of his position after drunkenly attempting to stab the chief constable who had busted him breaking through the wall of the barracks with a pickaxe. Attempts to put him in irons failed but he was subdued and locked up in the George Town Gaol. He was to be transported to Macquarie Harbour but instead was considered more useful in the work party at George Town. In February 1825 he absconded from his work gang and was at large for a time, but was soon recaptured, given 50 lashes and sentenced to hard labour.
In April that year Jeffries was transferred to Launceston, where he became the watch house keeper. In addition, Jeffries was made the flagellator. In the convict world the flagellator was the most despised man. This job was usually given to inmates whose cruel streak was considered useful to the governor for keeping others in check by inflicting as much severe pain and injury on others as they could muster. Many convicts viewed the flagellator as a traitor to the convict class, as they had essentially fallen in with the oppressors to break and brutalise their peers.
Here, even by his own admission, his alcoholism spiralled out of control, leading to reprimands. He was also fined in August for allegedly falsely imprisoning and assaulting Elizabeth Jessop. Although the witness accounts differ greatly and tend to support the idea that Jessop was heavily drunk at the time of the alleged offences and lied about what happened, she was believed over Jeffries. Later writers have tried to construe this event as evidence of Jeffries’ sexual deviancy by claiming he raped the women in his custody, which is not supported by the evidence.
Joined by John Perry, William Russell and James Hopkins, Jeffries escaped from Launceston watch house. The prison authorities had suspected this and lay in wait as the gang headed out. When they were fired upon by a guard, Jeffries dumped his kit and the gang bolted into the bush.
Jeffries was now on the run, and he and his gang were about to seal their infamy with a string of horrendous crimes ranging from robbery to murder and cannibalism.
A description of Jeffries from 1 April 1825 describes him thus:
Thomas Jeffreys, 210, 5 ft. 9¼ in. brown hair, brown eyes, 35 years of age, painter, tried at Notts, July 1817, sentence life, arrived at Sydney per Prince Regent, and to this Colony per Haweis, native place Bristol, castle, hearts, and darts, flower pots, and several other marks on left arm, absconded from the Public Works at George Town, Feb. 1, 1825.—£2 Reward.
“RUNAWAY NOTICE.” Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser (Tas. : 1821 – 1825) 1 April 1825: 1
The gang first robbed a hut at Springs, taking flour, a musket and ammunition. They continued towards the South Esk River, robbing huts as they went. They are said to have expressed at this time a desire to join Matthew Brady’s gang. Brady would later express that Jeffries had offered his services to him but refused. Whether or not this occurred at the same time is impossible to say.
In mid December 1825, the gang stayed for ten days at James Sutherland’s farm, Rothbury, near Campbell Town. On Christmas Day there was a shoot out and one of Sutherland’s men was killed. The gang raided a hut then continued into the bush.
On 31 December they raided John Tibbs’ farm near Launceston. Several people were bailed up including Mrs. Tibbs and her infant, as the bushrangers robbed the house. The bushrangers then took their prisoners into the bush, carrying the plunder. The group was split up with Perry and Russell taking one group, Jeffries with the remainder.
Tensions grew as the groups were matched through the bush, resulting in Russell shooting Beechy, a bullocky, and Perry shooting Tibbs in the neck. Despite being badly wounded, Tibbs managed to escape and raise an alarm in Launceston. Beechy would later die from his wound.
The two groups rejoined and continued to head north. During the trek, Jeffries and Russell took Mrs. Tibbs’ child from her and went into the bush where he was killed by one of the bushrangers who dashed his brains out on a tree. Jeffries told the distraught mother they had sent the child to a man named Barnard. After camping for the night the prisoners were released in the morning.
Soon after, a reward of $200 or a free pardon was issued for Jeffries and company.
The gang’s next robbery was committed near George Town, followed by several days of walking in the bush with captives. On 11 January 1826, the gang encountered Constable Magnus Bakie who was robbed and ordered to guide them through the bush. When Jeffries became convicted the Constable was trying to steer them into the path of a search party he executed Bakie by shooting him.
They set their captives free and continued into the bush, where they ran out of food and became lost. Perry murdered Russell in his sleep and he and Jeffries ate their comrade’s flesh to sustain themselves. Several days had passed between Bakie’s murder and when Jeffries and Perry re-emerged near Launceston at a farm where they found provisions and slaughtered two sheep for their meat. Nor wanting to waste anything, Jeffries and Perry ate the remaining “steaks” made from Edward Russell with fried mutton.
The bushrangers camped overnight but were separated where Perry supposedly became lost while looking for water in the bush while caring their only cooking pot. Around this time the gang’s departed fourth member, Hopkins, was captured.
On 22 January, search parties went out looking for Perry and Jeffries. While one party was at breakfast at a farm near Evandale, an Aboriginal boy who had been recruited as a tracker pointed out Jeffries approaching. The party overwhelmed Jeffries and he surrendered. The creek where “The Monster” was taken was later renamed Jeffries Creek and ran under what is now known as Logan Road. The creek has long since dried up.
The successful posse took Jeffries and back to Launceston where crowds tried to attack the wagon. He was then lodged in the old Launceston Gaol. Shortly afterwards Matthew Brady would write to the Lieutenant Governor, declaring his intention to break into the gaol and murder Jeffries. Perry remained on the run until the end of the month and was captured near Launceston.
When Brady was also captured in March, he and his associates were sent by ship to Hobart to stand trial with Jeffries and Perry. Brady vociferously refused to share a cell with Jeffries, threatening to decapitate him if he was not moved to a different cell.
Jeffries was tried and found guilty of murder, then sentenced to hang. He was executed alongside Matthew Brady, having confessed to his life of crimes in a self-penned memoir, but laid the blame for his criminal behaviour on his alcoholism. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Hobart Town.
The following is an incomplete list of some of the sources and references used in the research for this biography. — AP
The Bushrangers, Illustrating the Early Days of Van Diemen’s Land by James Bonwick
Bushrangers Bold! by Bob Minchin
A Compulsion to Kill: The Surprising Story of Australia’s Earliest Serial Killers by Robert Cox
Newspapers and Gazettes:
Hobart Town Gazette (Tas. : 1825 – 1833), Saturday 17 December 1825, page 2
Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser (Hobart, Tas. : 1825 – 1827), Friday 20 January 1826, page 3
Hobart Town Gazette (Tas. : 1825 – 1827; 1830), Saturday 29 April 1826, page 2
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Wednesday 17 May 1826, page 3
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Wednesday 24 May 1826, page 2
Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser (Hobart, Tas. : 1825 – 1827), Friday 5 January 1827, page 4
Indigenous readers are advised that the following discusses the history of first nations people and contains the names and likenesses of deceased persons.
Aboriginal bushrangers of the early colonial period tend to be somewhat difficult to define. Given that many were not from within the colonial society, and the few that were often did not behave like most bushrangers when that took to the bush, they tend to almost require a separate definition. In fact, there’s a definite overlap where the Aboriginal bushrangers and resistance fighters are concerned. None exemplify this conundrum better than the man known as Musquito.
Born in the early to mid 1780s in New South Wales, Musquito is believed to have grown up around Broken Bay (though some sources state he was from Port Jackson) as a Gai-mariagal man, probably by the name Y-erran-gou-la-ga. At some point he seems to have picked up at least a moderate amount of English, and he had a brother known to the whites as Phillip. The rest of his early life is a mystery.
In 1805, Musquito became a wanted man. His actions around the Hawkesbury River were a cause for concern — so much so that his own people turned on him. When Musquito murdered a woman (almost certainly an Aboriginal woman), the people he been raised amongst turned him in with another man named Toulgra (called “Bulldog” by the whites) in exchange for another of their nation who was wrongfully imprisoned. Musquito never stood trial for the murder, nor was he formally charged. Instead, he and Bulldog were sent to Norfolk Island after threatening to start a fire where they were lodged at Parramatta Gaol.
Musquito remained on Norfolk Island for eight years, where he was expected to perform labour in order to earn his rations and was employed as a lime-burner. When he was removed from the island in 1817, he was sent to Port Dalrymple, Van Diemen’s Land, on the Minstrel. He was eventually employed by Edward Lord, the wealthiest man in Van Diemen’s Land. Here he worked as a stockman, but when Lord left the colony for Mauritius in February 1818, Musquito remained.
In September 1818, Musquito was told by Governor Sorell that if he assisted in the tracking down and capture of Michael Howe he would be rewarded with free passage back to New South Wales. By this time his brother Phillip had written to Governor Macquarie to ask for Musquito’s return to his ancestral home. Sorell had even tried to get Macquarie on board, recommending that Musquito, “Big Jack” McGill, and “Black” Mary Cockerill be acquired by New South Wales for their superior tracking abilities, but nothing was ever followed up. For unknown reasons, Macquarie seemed to want Musquito kept away from his homeland.
When Musquito, accompanied by McGill, found Howe camped by the Shannon River, they pounced upon the bushranger and after a violent struggle Howe escaped without his kit bag and supplies. In the bag was Howe’s famous kangaroo skin journal, in which he described his dreams, memories, desires and fear of the Aboriginals, who had recently been engaged in attacks on white farmers (at least one of these attacks resulted in a death that Howe was accused of).
Musquito had been looking forward to returning to New South Wales as per the agreement struck with the government, but when he heard nothing from Macquarie or Sorell he decided he had copped all he was willing to from the white man. Musquito went bush and found his way to Oyster Bay. The government had treated Musquito like merely some troublesome Aboriginal they could afford to ignore, but they were about to be proven terribly wrong.
Musquito managed to find his way to a sort of commune of Aboriginal men and women that had, for various reasons, found themselves expelled from their own people; many had transgressed tribal laws making them outlaws from both colonial and indigenous societies. This community would come to be known as the “Tame Mob”. When Musquito joined them he remained somewhat on the outer, but his knowledge of English language, farming practices and firearms saw him quickly rise through the ranks to become their leader. In fact, he became so highly regarded amongst the mob that, by some accounts, he was given a wife (known as “Gooseberry”) who was said to have been the most beautiful woman in the tribe. He was later described as having three wives by Thomas Anstey, the magistrate at Oatlands, who also described Musquito prostituting some of the women, including his wives, to white men in exchange for goods. That Anstey was not speaking from experience, but rather repeating rumours, is telling.
Soon the Tame Mob grew to encompass dozens of men and women, and they were even alleged to have fallen in briefly with some white bushrangers in the Oyster Bay region. As time wound on, this seemingly harmless group of outcasts became motivated to push back against the colonists. Adding coal to the furnace was Musquito, whose first hand experience of the colonisation of New South Wales had instilled in him a fierce distrust and hatred of white men, and the irreversible damage their ways were inflicting on Van Diemen’s Land and its peoples, just as they had done to his homeland.
There were many rumours that circulated about Musquito, including that he had murdered Gooseberry in a rage on the government paddock in 1821. He was said to have had a taste for mutton, which the other Aboriginals refused to eat, and he was described as a great drunkard who would trade rations for rum.
The Tame Mob, now estimated to be 75 strong, began to engage in acts that are better described as acts of war, rather than bushranging. Thefts and brutal murders were coupled with arson in an effort to stamp out the influence of whites in their region, which essentially sprouted from Oyster Bay and encompassed Pittwater (Sorell), Orielton, Risdon and even reached as far as Jericho and Oatlands. A reward of £100 was offered for Musquito – dead or alive – and he was given the nickname “The Black Napoleon”.
From November 1823 to 1824 the Tame Mob, led by Musquito, performed a series of violent and deadly raids along the Tasmanian east coast, targeting white farms, gangs of bushrangers and rival mobs that stood in their way. Prominent in the mob alongside Musquito were “Black Jack” (Jack Roberts) and “Black Tom” (Kickerterpoller), the latter of which would go on to leave his own mark as a bushranger.
On 15 November, 1823, the Tame Mob attacked a hut at the property of George Gatehouse at Grindstone Bay. For several days before they had begged food from John Radford, the stock-keeper, engaged themselves in fishing and held a corroboree nearby. They returned to the hut on the fateful day armed with spears. In the ensuing assault two people were murdered – a Tahitian man named Mammoa, and a 19 year-old assigned servant named William Hollyoak. The lone survivor, John Radford, pinned the murders on Musquito and Black Jack. Hollyoak had been staying at Gatehouse’s on his way back to his employer, George Meredith, having just come out of hospital. The three men had been lured out by Musquito and speared as they retreated after sensing an ambush. Radford was speared through the side by Black Jack, and after stopping to pull a spear out of Hollyoak’s back, was speared in the thigh. The last Radford saw of Hollyoak was the boy being swarmed by Aboriginal men, with five or six spears sticking out of him. Radford managed to make it to Prosser’s Plains to raise the alarm. When they recovered the body of Mammoa, he has been speared almost 40 times.
A posse was formed by George Meredith to find the Tame Mob and seek retribution. By Meredith’s account, the Aboriginals all escaped unharmed when the posse found them in the bush, though other accounts claim they found them all asleep and slaughtered as many as they could, with very few escaping. In response to this turn of events, Musquito was severely beaten by members of the Tame Mob who were obviously angry about the messy encounter he had led them into.
The following raids mostly involved arson – burning houses and crops. These were clearly attacks designed to flush the colonists out of the area. Despite being assaulted by his own tribe, Musquito still enjoyed some seniority and helped the Tame Mob develop strategies for battle. He educated them on firearms, noting that the firearms could only fire once before needing to be reloaded; thus in battle the mob would wait until a shot had been fired then swarm on their attacker with spears while he reloaded. Often one of the English speakers, usually Musquito, would lure the occupants of a house to the door. From his use of English they would mistake him for a “tame black” (one raised by whites, or at least employed by them), and this would distract them while the rest of the party surrounded the house before attacking.
On 16 June 1824, Musquito joined the Tame Mob in four attacks. They struck the farm of a man named Oakes at Murderers Plains (Abyssinia), where two men were murdered; Triffitt’s at Big River (Ouse) where another man was murdered; and two of Captain Wood’s properties at the Clyde River (near Hamilton) and Lake Sorell where a hut was destroyed without fatalities.
In July, the mob killed a man named Patrick McCarthy at Sorell Plains near New Norfolk. On the 23rd of the same month, Robert Gay, a servant of George Meredith, was killed and mutilated. The murder was attributed to Musquito and his followers.
In August, Lieutenant William Gunn went in pursuit of Musquito after having been given the slip by Matthew Brady’s gang. He would have no satisfaction in this pursuit either. Meanwhile, the Aboriginal group that was attacking farms was now estimated to have 200 or more members, indicating that some form of merger had been struck between the Tame Mob, the Oyster Bay tribe and the Big River tribe. The little rebellion was now a full scale war.
In late August 1824 Musquito and Black Jack were finally brought to heel. For three days two men named Hanskey and Marshall trekked through the wilds with a seventeen year-old, half-Aboriginal boy named Teague (or Tegg) acting as their guide after a purported tip-off from some of Musquito’s female followers. Teague had been promised a boat as his reward for helping to capture Musquito. Their perseverance paid off and they intercepted Musquito near Oyster Bay with Black Jack and two Aboriginal women. Teague opened fire and shot Musquito twice in the thigh and once through the body. Though he attempted to shelter, Musquito’s injuries were severe and he was captured.
After recuperating in the Colonial Hospital in Hobart, Musquito and Black Jack were tried for murder. They were denied legal counsel and could not give evidence as they were not Christians, thus unable to swear on a Bible. Musquito was found guilty of the murder of Hollyoak, and Black Jack was found guilty of murdering Patrick McCarthy. Naturally, the two were sentenced to death.
On 24 February 1825, Musquito was hanged in the Murray Street Gaol, Hobart, along with Black Jack and six whites. Prior to his execution Musquito was said to have confided in his gaoler, John Bisdee:
Hanging no good for black fellow… Very good for white fellow, for he used to it.
Teague never received the boat he was promised, and therefore turned bushranger himself and swore to kill any white man he encountered. Two murders were attributed to him, but he avoided any punishment for them, if indeed he was guilty. He was found by his master Dr. Edward Luttrell, and spent the rest of his life in Luttrell’s employ. He died in 1831.
The amalgamated Aboriginal forces that had begun their reprisals on the whites under Musquito continued for six more years, with the conflict being referred to as the “Black Wars”. Musquito’s off-sider Black Tom became a prominent figure during this time, picking up where Musquito left off.
No doubt the life of Musquito is shrouded in misinformation and outright lies, just as many of his bushranging and Aboriginal contemporaries alike have endured, due to the concerted vilification by colonial historians and others who felt they had something to gain by portraying this Aboriginal man as a mindless, violent monster. Many of the crimes attributed to him were likely not committed by him, if they even happened at all. Certainly, the outcome of his trial had been determined before it began.
Many of the colonists described the first nations of Van Diemen’s Land as peaceful until Musquito came onto the scene. Many laid the blame for the Aboriginal retaliation attacks squarely at his feet, others admitting that his treatment by the authorities was to blame for his rebellion.
Musquito left an indelible mark on Tasmanian history and many of the beats of his story would be repeated in decades to come by other Aboriginal bushrangers, in one way or another. It seems the lessons that could have been learned from Musquito’s life were ignored or dismissed by the people who most needed to heed the warnings.
Recommended reading: Steps to the Scaffold by Robert Cox [Cornhill Publishing, 2004].
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.
Francis MacNeiss McNeil McCallum, better known as Captain Melville, is one of Australia’s most intriguing bushrangers. He at once bears the tropes of the traditional bushranger – a charming, adventurous highwayman and escapologist with a flair for drama – while also being something unique. His story is one punctuated by misadventure and violence and ends gruesomely.
McCallum was born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1822. On 3 October, 1836, he was tried in Perth for housebreaking. While he was on trial he admitted to having served 22 months in gaol for thievery prior, starting his criminal career at the age of 12. Found guilty, he was sentenced to 7 years transportation but was forced to serve almost two years in prison in England as Edward Mulvall before he could be sent out. On 25 May, 1838 he began his journey with 160 other convicts to Australia on the Minerva, and on 28 September 1838 he arrived in Van Diemens Land. The sixteen year-old McCallum”s sentence was to be served at Point Puer boys’ prison at Port Arthur. Point Puer was a landmark in British history as the first juvenile prison. Prior to this all convicts, regardless of age, were kept together and in the same conditions. Given that under British law a child as young as 8 years old was able to be tried as an adult, this resulted in many children being brutalised alongside hardened criminals and adult offenders. Point Puer provided an environment for wayward youths to learn skills and a trade, with emphasis on trades such as shoemaking, timber work, masonry, gardening and construction. McCallum served 18 months at Point Puer whereupon he was assigned to the timber yards in Hobart. It was here that McCallum first took to the bush, taking another boy named Staunton with him. They were quickly apprehended and sentenced to 5 years at Port Arthur where McCallum promptly received 36 lashes. This would not be the last time.
On 20 September, 1840, McCallum was absent from work and displayed insolence towards his guards, receiving 20 lashes. Later that year his insolence got him another 36 lashes and 7 days in solitary. On 22 February the following year his misbehaving saw him slapped with an additional 2 years into his sentence. During this time he was given 12 months probation during which time he performed a burglary that saw his sentence amended to transportation for life.
For the next few years McCallum continued to be a fly in the ointment of the authorities. He was frequently flogged and frequently absconded, apparently spending time in local Aboriginal camps, resulting in months and months added to his sentence and most of that in leg irons. By the end of 1850 McCallum had finally made good his escape, and now as a scarred and bitter 27 year-old, he made his way to the mainland and assumed the name Edward Melville.
Since the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851, the population had exploded and with this came increased struggles and conflict. The Australia McCallum found himself in was one where there was particularly huge conflict between Europeans and Chinese immigrants, usually over gold claims. The difficulty in mining enough gold to make a living was enormous and thus tensions were high. The goldfields were subject to riots, lynchings, murder and robbery. The villages on the goldfields were rudimentary but diggers were still able to satiate their vices. The police force was largely staffed with ex-convicts who were paid embarrassingly meagre wages with bonuses for arrests. This resulted in widespread police harrassment and lots of questionable arrests. Such a hotbed of tension and corruption was perfect breeding ground for bushrangers.
As with most prospectors, McCallum did not fare well on the diggings and sought alternative means of supporting himself. He set his sights on the highways and plunged into the dangerous career of highway robbery. In 1852 McCallum went bush, adopting the moniker, “Captain Melville”. Operating between Melbourne and Ballarat, particularly in the vicinity of the Black Forest and Mount Macedon, Captain Melville gained a reputation as a man not to be trifled with.
It was during this time that a story oft attributed to Melville was supposed to have taken place. As the story goes, Melville rode to the station of a squatter named McKinnon as the sun was setting and let himself in. He summoned the maid then asked to see the man of the house. When McKinnon responded, Melville stated that he had heard the man’s daughters were accomplished musicians and requested an impromptu performance. McKinnon protested that the girls were dressed up ready to go to a ball that evening and refused to summon the girls. Melville levelled his pistol at McKinnon who quickly reconsidered his answer. The girls were brought down and compelled to play piano with Melville singing along. However, word had reached the local constabulary and by dawn a party of troopers was on the doorstep. Melville, quick as a hare, made a hasty exit via a window.
On 18 December, 1852, Melville, in company with a mate named William Roberts, stuck up Aitcheson’s sheep station near Wardy Yallock. After rounding up the sixteen staff and imprisoning them in the barn, Melville bailed up Wilson, the overseer, and Aitcheson then added them to the prisoners. After Melville cut a length of rope into pieces, they proceeded to call the men out one by one and tie them up to the fences outside. When Wilson asked what they wanted, Melville replied, “Gold and horses, and we are going to get them.” With the men secured, the bushrangers went to the homestead. Melville told the women not to fear them as they would not interfere with women more than necessary. He then ordered them into a room and instructed them to prepare food, which was taken with two bottles of brandy to the men. Melville and Roberts indulged in a meal themselves then ransacked the house, taking any valuables they could grab. After this, the pair stole two of Aitcheson’s finest horses and gear then, as they were leaving, they informed the prisoners that Mrs. Aitcheson would be down to untie them once the coast was clear.
Melville and Roberts took up residency on a spot on the Ballarat road where they could stop travellers on the way to and from Geelong. The day following their raid on Aitcheson’s farm, the pair struck again from their new spot. Two diggers, named Thomas Wearne and William Madden, were bailed up on the Ballarat road. Melville and Roberts took £33 from the pair before asking where they were headed. The victims stated that they had been heading to Geelong to spend Christmas with friends, but now they would have to go back home as they had no money. After a brief consultation, the bushrangers returned £10 to their victims and hoped it would enable them to enjoy the festive season.
The takings were good on the Ballarat road in the lead up to Christmas as travellers went to and fro with the intention of visiting friends and family for the holiday. Soon a reward of £100 was issued for their capture. Their last victim on the road was bailed up at Fyans Ford, five miles from Geelong, on Christmas Eve. After completing the transaction, the bushrangers rode into Geelong and booked in at a hotel in Corio street where they had their horses attended to. Elated by the recently ill-gotten gains and seemingly feeling in the Christmas spirit, Melville and Roberts went to a house of ill-repute nearby to spend Christmas Eve indulging in wine, women and song.
The booze must have loosened his lips as much as his breeches for when he was engaged in the affections from one of the girls he let slip who he was. The women promptly kicked into action, keeping the bushrangers occupied while one of them snuck out to alert the police. Melville, despite being drunk, became suspicious of the women and ordered Roberts to fetch the horses. Roberts, however, was passed out drunk on a table. Unable to rouse Roberts, Melville decided to cut his losses and bolt. When he opened the front door he saw the working girl entering the front gate with police. Slamming the door shut, Melville raced to the back of the house, smashed open a window with a chair and jumped out of the window. He ran across the yard and hurled himself over the fence, knocking over one of the constables that was arriving to apprehend him. Barely breaking his stride, Melville continued to run through a vacant lot, but changed direction when he realised that the police lockup was between him and his horse. He continued to run, with police in pursuit, towards the old dam where he came across a young man named Guy who was returning from a ride on a horse he had borrowed from his lodgings at the Black Bull Inn. Melville saw his chance to gain a mount and yanked Guy out of the saddle. Guy was quick as a flash and returned the favour, copping a punch while restraining Melville. In moments the police arrived to properly arrest their target. They complimented the civilian on his having pinned the fugitive down. Guy simply replied that he wasn’t going to lose a horse like that.
Melville and Roberts were licked – their lucky streak officially at an end. They were imprisoned in the South Geelong gaol, then conveyed by dray to the courthouse, while heavily manacled. They were surrounded by police and had no hope of escape. The trial was speedy, and Melville and Roberts were convicted on three charges of highway robbery. Melville was sentenced to thirty two years hard labour: twelve years for one crime, ten apiece for the other two.
Melville was sent to do his time on the prison ships moored at Hobson’s Bay, Williamstown. These imposing maritime structures were referred to as hulks, but were actually converted cargo ships that had been abandoned by sailors who ditched their jobs to strike it rich on the goldfields. Now, rather than hauling goods they were places of incarceration as well as cruel and unusual punishment. McCallum was imprisoned on President, the place reserved for the worst of the worst, on 12 February, 1853. Here inmates were frequently denied all comforts, including the ability to read the Bible, and were often subjected to a myriad of inventive and inhumane punishments in response to misbehavior. This was not enough to quell Melville’s insatiable appetite for rebellion and on 26 January, 1854, he was given a month in solitary confinement in heavy irons for attempting to incite a mutiny.
Melville was transferred to Success in February of 1856. Success was lower security, and in addition to now being taken to the shore to work in the stone quarry, Melville managed to pick up a job translating the Bible into Indigenous languages, which he claimed to speak fluently. It was honest work, even if the person doing it wasn’t equally as honest.
On 22 October, 1856, things took a startling turn. As the launch boat was towed from Success carrying fifty convicts to the stone quarry for the day’s labour, the convicts began to push forward, crowding the bow. Jackson, the overseer, ordered the men back, but the orders were disregarded and a group of the convicts grabbed the tow rope, pulling it until they brought the launch close enough to the tugboat to enable transfer. Ten of the convicts jumped across: Melville, John Adams, Matthew Campbell, Henry Johnstone, Patrick Ready, Terence Murphy, John Fielder, Matthew McDonald, Richard Hill, and William Stevens (alias Butler).
Jackson tried to force the prisoners back as they began leaping into the tugboat but he was struck and fell into the water. At that moment things spun out of control. The guards on Success began firing at the mutineers, one of the shots hitting Richard Hill in the neck. Corporal Owen Owens, a seaman attached to Lysander, was struck by Melville and thrown overboard by two other mutineers. The blows continued to rain down as he attempted to climb back in. Several prisoners, including Melville, attempted to hold him under the water until a blow from what was believed to be a mallet or a boat-hook penetrated his brain, killing him. The mutineers would state that it was Stevens who had struck the lethal blow using a mallet that had been smuggled on board to break their chains with. The instrument was thrown overboard. One of the rowers, John Turner, was also plunged into the bay as were James Hunter of Lysander, who jumped into the water out of fear, and Peter Jackson, the ship-keeper for Lysander, who was turfed out but had managed to rise to the surface of the water in time to see the tail end of the struggle. The rowers realised that it would be folly to resist and dishonorable to comply with the mutineers so they evacuated. The mutineers took control of the tug boat. Melville stood triumphantly on the tug, apparently brandishing the mallet. One of the mutineers, Stephens, at this point exclaimed “All is lost!” He then jumped off the boat into the water, leaving the others to their fate. The irons around his ankles caused him to immediately drown.
The mutineers attempted to steer the boat towards a cluster of cutters (fishing boats) near the shore but were unable to reach them. Melville playfully blew a kiss to Thomas Hyland, the chief warder of Success, as they began to make good their escape. Instead of heading for the cutters they changed course, hoping they would eventually be able to row downstream in the river. The escapees were soon intercepted and captured by a police boat. When the corpses of Owens and Turner were fished out of the water, Turner appeared to have drowned, but the coroner stated that Owens had a hole in the left side of his head that was big enough to fit three fingers into. In the recovered boat Tristram Squire, the shipkeeper of Success, found two makeshift knives made out of and old pair of sheep shears.
Melville was tried in November before Justice Molesworth. While the other mutineers were acquitted of murder by construction on the 26th, owing to Owens’ death not being clearly a result of the escape plot, Melville had the charge of murder lumped squarely upon his shoulders. As was usual by now, Melville defended himself, charged with murdering Owens. Melville argued that as the warrant for his detention referred to him as Thomas Smith, which was not his name, he was being detained unlawfully. The session concluded at midnight with the jury finding him guilty, but it was not unanimously agreed upon that it was he that struck the killing blow, bringing into question the extent to which he could be charged with murder. In his closing speech to the jury, Melville went to pains to disclose the injustices he felt had been perpetrated against him, claiming he had been bullied, beaten and oppressed by corrupt prison staff, leading him to such desperation that he would be prepared to kill in pursuit of freedom. Melville’s attempts to defend himself were in vain, however, and on 21 November, 1856, he was sentenced to death.
Melville was returned to Success to serve out his sentence. Such was his desperation that he began to act completely unruly either to be transferred off Success, presumably to a lunatic asylum, or to be given the sweet release of death. When he attacked a guard, almost biting the hapless man’s nose off, he was given solitary confinement. Needless to say this was less than adequate and Melville continued his depredations in captivity.
Melbourne Gaol was to be Melville’s home for the remainder of his life. The prospect of thirty-five years in prison was not a life that Melville was willing to endure. His behaviour became erratic and uncontrollable, frequently refusing food. On one occasion in July 1857, Melville attempted to stop the prison guards from removing his night tub from his cell in order to clean it. He armed himself with a sharpened spoon and the lid from the tub as a shield and threatened to kill anyone that attempted to removed the night tub. During a scuffle with three of the guards, Melville attacked the governor of the gaol, George Wintle, and cut his head open behind his ear using the sharpened spoon. After this Melville was restrained and kept in solitary confinement where he could be monitored and assessed for mental illness. It was assumed that Melville was feigning madness in the hope of getting relocated to Yarra Bend Asylum so he could escape.
Melville was clearly despondent and sought the ultimate escape. On 11 August that year, when Melville failed to respond to the turnkey, guards entered his cell to find him dead. There was blood and foam coming from his ears and mouth, his face was contorted and there was a coiled handkerchief tightened around his neck. It was later determined that Melville had crafted a makeshift rope put it around his neck as tight as possible then simply slumped his head to the left until he was strangled to death. Prior to this he had scrawled a message on his wall in pencil declaring that he would leave the world on his own terms. An inquest deemed the death a felonious suicide. Melville’s body was buried in the prison grounds in an unmarked grave. In the end, it seems, Melville finally got the defiant freedom he had craved since he was a boy convict.
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.
Few bushrangers can lay claim to being the living embodiment of bushranging as John Gilbert was during his short and violent career. Known variously as “Flash Johnny” and “Happy Jack”, Gilbert was known for his impulsiveness and energy. Gilbert was a bundle of contradictions; vain, ostentatious and unpredictable yet courteous to women, admired pluck and preferred bluff over violence. He captured the imagination of New South Welshmen in the early 1860s and became a legend in his own lifetime.
During his life Gilbert’s origins were a mystery to most. Journalists would scramble for the merest hint of a clue in the hope of uncovering the story behind the most notorious highwayman in Australia. Gilbert was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, in 1842, the youngest child of English emigrants William and Eleanor Gilbert. John had a slew of siblings: Ellen, William jnr, Francis, James and Charles. When John was still an infant his mother died, but soon afterwards William remarried to a Canadian woman named Eliza. After this union John’s half-brothers Thomas and Nicholson were born.
As a ten year old he journeyed with his family from the beautiful waterside vistas of Ontario into the United States, departing from New York on the ‘Revenue’ to the dry, sweltering goldfields of Victoria.
In 1854, twelve year-old Johnny Gilbert took his leave of his family and obtained employment as a stable boy for a pub in Kilmore. While this work provided pocket money and good experience with horses, one of his greatest loves, his exposure to the larrikins, louts and rogues travelling to and from the gold fields seems to have fostered a fascination for lawlessness in the boy. When he was about eighteen, Gilbert headed to the gold fields of New South Wales to seek his fortune.
Gilbert worked around the boom town of Kiandra, one of the most bustling gold rush locations. The gold fields in this time were a cesspool of debauchery, lawlessness and other forms of villainy. Murders, riots, lynchings and robberies were everyday occurrences and put enormous strain on the understaffed and overextended colonial police. A law passed in Britain had prevented the various regional police forces to unite as one entity, forcing the existing regional forces to remain fractured and overworked. This, combined with the rise in lawless behaviour and the huge influx of immigrants seeking riches on the goldfields, resulted in absolute mayhem. No doubt this was a perfect environment for Johnny Gilbert who had a thirst for adventure and thrill-seeking. At this time bushranging had blossomed from sporadic cases of stock theft, home invasions and highway robbery by criminals hiding in the untouched wilds into something almost industrial in its scale. The easy pickings from the mail coaches and less cautious miners meant that anyone that was unprepared for the backbreaking labour of mining for gold was very likely to “go bush”.
It was around this that Gilbert crossed paths with Frank Gardiner. Gardiner was on the run, having violated his ticket of leave conditions, and had established himself in Lambing Flat (later Young) with his mate William Fogg, running a dodgy butcher’s shop that dealt in meat from stock that had been procured illegally. Gilbert adopted the Murringo region as his new home and picked up work as a stockman. Likely it was through Gardiner and Fogg that Gilbert became associated with men that were not known at that time but would soon become household names, such as John O’Meally, Fred Lowry and John Peisley.
By 1862 Gilbert was fully entrenched in the lawless lifestyle of Gardiner and his cohort and on 10 March that year he was involved in his first documented act as a bushranger. Along with Gardiner, O’Meally and Tom McGuinness he robbed two storekeepers of almost £2000 in gold and banknotes. Such a score was no doubt absolutely thrilling for the bandits but devastating for the victims. Gilbert took to adopting a very flash dress sense as his new outlaw lifestyle began to bring in spoils he could hardly have imagined on a stockman’s wage. He was fond of ostentatious clothing such as bright red sashes and tassles, as well as jewellery and accessories, particularly fob chains and rings. He worked with Gardiner committing highway robberies including at least one involving a young squatter named Benjamin Hall. Gilbert seems to have worked his way up to being Frank Gardiner’s closest bushranging associate as the only known photograph of Gilbert is a carte de visite of him and Gardiner together.
At the beginning of June 1862 Gilbert began to strike out without Gardiner. On the first of the month he and two others allegedly robbed Herbert’s Store at Little Creek, taking monkey jackets and boots. They then went to Chard’s store and attempted to rob the store owner of £30. The commotion roused some local miners who armed themselves and attempted to capture the bandits but they managed to escape.
On 15 June, 1862, Gilbert accompanied Gardiner and his gang to Eugowra Rocks where they robbed a gold escort in one of the biggest gold heists in Australian history. The bushrangers had blocked off the road with drays from a waylaid bullock team in order to halt the Orange gold escort. When the escort arrived, Gardiner emerged from behind the boulders that rested uphill alongside the road and called upon the coach driver to bail up. Gardiner’s gang promptly opened fire, injuring several policemen and spooking the horses who bolted and caused the mail coach to crash. The gang looted the coach as the police escaped, lifting around £14000 in gold and cash (close to $4000,000 in modern Australian currency). The police responded swiftly and Sub-Inspector Pottinger led a party of police that, almost by accident, managed to find the bushrangers’ camp and recover a portion of the loot.
Just after this, Johnny Gilbert was joined by Henry Manns (one of Gardiner’s gang) and his brother Charlie Gilbert as he attempted to leave the district to avoid the increased police activity. Gilbert converted his stolen gold into cash at a bank and carried the spoils – £2500 – in a valise on his saddle.
On 7 July, the trio were stopped by Sub-Inspector Pottinger who was accompanied by Detective Lyons and a volunteer named Richard Mitchell. When they asked Johnny Gilbert for documents proving his ownership of the horse he was riding, he duped and fled. Henry Manns and Charlie Gilbert were arrested but “Happy Jack” had a plan. He rode towards the Weddin Mountains and alerted members of Gardiner’s gang and Gardiner himself. The police and their prisoners stayed overnight at a nearby station. The following day, as the police and their prisoners continued on their way, the bushrangers positioned themselves for ambush at Burrangong.
The bushrangers emerged from the bush and bailed up the escort and opened fire. Detective Lyons was thrown from his horse when it was clipped by gunfire and he chased it into the bush. Pottinger and Mitchell returned fire at the bushrangers without effect on both sides. As Pottinger and Mitchell doubled back for reinforcements. Charlie Gilbert and Henry Manns were freed and the bushrangers escaped. Once clear the men split up, Manns heading to Murrumburrah where he would soon be arrested again, the Gilbert brothers heading to Victoria where they collected their brother James and left for the nearest port to make their way out of the colony.
The brothers managed to gain passage to New Zealand where they headed for the goldfields. They were determined to go straight and leave bushranging behind them. Johnny, however, became paranoid that he would be recognised and began cross-dressing in public to counter this. His disguise was unconvincing however and ended up drawing more attention to him than it diverted. Johnny told his brother that he had to return to Australia and soon made his way to Queensland.
As this was occurring, Frank Gardiner began to grow tired of the bushranging life and escaped out of New South Wales with his mistress Kitty Brown. Gardiner’s absence left a power vacuum in the Lachlan bushranging scene.
Gilbert’s time in Queensland was short lived as his sudden appearance and distinct features immediately put him on the radar and he returned to New South Wales at the beginning of 1863, where Ben Hall was making a name for himself as a bushranger.
Initially teaming up with Fred Lowry, a tall and brash former stockman and prison escapee, Gilbert was involved in several robberies around the Yass gold fields. Gilbert decided to utilise his contacts from his time with Gardiner, teaming up with John O’Meally, Ben Hall, Patsy Daley and others. This new gang, known popularly as the Gilbert Gang, wasted no time in making a splash.
On 2 February, 1863, the gang robbed Dickenson’s Store at Spring Creek, stealing £60 worth of goods. As they made their escape they bailed up a policeman and stole his horse. While positive identification of the culprits was impossible, it is more than likely that the Gilbert Gang was responsible.
On 15 February, Vincent Cirkell, a publican in Stoney Creek, was shot dead. It was believed the Gilbert Gang suspected him of being an informant and that O’Meally had been the trigger man. This version of events was merely a fabrication as the poor man was shot during a robbery that had escalated out of control and the assailants did not match the descriptions of any of the gang members. Such misidentification was commonplace as the hysteria surrounding the gang intensified and minor bushrangers were happy to let the more prominent bandits take the blame.
The gang struck again on 28 February, robbing Solomon’s store on the Wombat Diggings. The bushrangers fired at Meyers Solomon, the storekeeper, beat a young man named George Johnstone and threatened to kill Solomon’s wife before leaving with £250 worth of loot.
The first gang member to be captured was Patsy Daley. Daley’s aggression had made him particularly wanted by police and they got their man on 11 March when he was found hiding in a mine shaft. After this, the gang’s numbers would fluctuate wildly.
On 1 April, Gilbert hit the road with Lowry and a recruit named Gibson. They were spotted by a party of police and engaged in a horseback shoot-out, ending in Gibson’s capture and Gilbert and Lowry escaping into the bush. One of the officers had mocked Gilbert’s shooting, yelling that he couldn’t hit a haystack.
The Gilbert Gang continued their depredations unabated. Along with various robberies, the bushrangers made a point of partaking in less villainous activities. Gilbert and O’Meally at one point crashed a wedding and only left after being given some booze and cake. Despite such jovial incidents, the gang’s robberies were becoming more frequent and less discerning. Nobody was exempt from their attention regardless of age, sex or social class. Gilbert had even taken to using fire as a tool to distract people from pursuing him after a robbery.
On 7 June the gang were particularly busy, robbing Henry’s store near Possum Flat of half a chest of tea and dress prints; O’Brien’s store was robbed of £37 cash; McCarthy’s store was stuck up and the widow McCarthy liberated of her rings and 15 shillings, as well as taking four ounces of gold from one of her customers; finally they tried to bail up McConnell and Co. but when the staff refused to let them in they peppered the place with shot, broke in and looted the place, taking goods and £15 from the till. Having had their fill of robbing stores they robbed Heffernan’s pub of booze, watches and firearms before moving on to Regan’s Hotel while singing O’er the Hills and Far Away, an old English folk song.
On 21 June, Gilbert and Lowry attempted to rob John McBride but were met with resistance. McBride drew a Colt revolver and started firing, blowing Lowry’s hat off. In the battle McBride was hit in the thigh and the bushrangers bolted. McBride would die soon after from his wound. This appears to have been the last straw for Lowry, who was not sighted with any of Gilbert’s gang afterwards. He would go on to form his own gang and operate near Fish Creek.
After a series of brushes with police, Gilbert and O’Meally set their sights on bigger fish. On 30 July they rode into Carcoar and attempted to rob the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney. This was the first time anyone had attempted to rob a bank in New South Wales. Gilbert attempted to lure the clerk with a dodgy cheque while O’Meally watched the door. When O’Meally attempted to bail up the bank manager at the door, Gilbert was distracted and the clerk pulled a pistol on the bushrangers and fired a shot. At that moment the manager ran for help and scores of gawkers filed out into the street. The bushrangers cut their losses and mounted, riding out of town as fast as they could. Unwilling to call it a day, the pair robbed a store on the way back to their camp, leaving with around £300 worth of goods and cash.
The gang, now merely comprising of Gilbert and O’Meally, had recruited a juvenile delinquent named John Vane as a telegraph and supplier of horses. Since the failed bank robbery the pair had decided they needed more manpower and adopted as junior gang members Vane and his best friend Mickey Burke. Vane was tall, lanky and somewhat clumsy whereas Burke was energetic and enthusiastic.
The new look Gilbert Gang’s first operation was on 2 August. At dusk they arrived at Coombing Park and stalked the grounds. Their intention was to steal a prized racehorse named Comus II, owned by Icely, the station owner. Vane and Burke took Comus II from the stable along with a grey gelding belonging to Sub-Inspector Davidson but were spotted by Icely’s groom. The groom took aim but was shot in the mouth by Burke, allowing the bushrangers to escape.
Now the gang reconnected with Ben Hall and became a formidable force unlike anything yet seen in New South Wales. On 24 August the gang bailed up nine diggers and held them captive while they waited for four storekeepers they had been informed were due to pass through. The gang robbed these storekeepers of whatever they had on them that was somewhat valuable, disappointed that these seemingly well-to-do men were not as flush as had been intimated. The gang also stole the horses and gear from the men to replace the knocked up mounts they had been on and rode towards Junee. In the meantime the alarm had been raised and a police party led by Sub-Inspector Pottinger rode out to catch the bushrangers. The groups crossed paths and there was a shoot-out, but the bandits escaped much to Pottinger’s chagrin.
In Junee on 27 August, the gang got to work. Gilbert raided Hammond’s Store with Vane and Hall while O’Meally and Burke struck Williams’ pub. Gilbert left a good impression on the Hammonds and their servants with his fine clothing, well groomed appearance and pleasant demeanour during conversation. He even took the time to flirt with the ladies. When the gang left town they took two of Hammond’s horses, five packhorses and goods and cash to the value of £250.
The gang continued to wreak havoc, robbing stores and distributing the stolen goods amongst their sympathiser and selling the surplus to traders. At the end of August, O’Meally killed a storekeeper named Barnes who they had previously robbed. When they encountered Barnes they attempted to rob him and he tried to ride away. As he fled O’Meally shot him under the shoulder and he fell to the ground, smashing his head, dying instantly.
On 19 September the gang set up a mile out of Blayney and stuck up travellers. Nine people were captured and robbed and kept captive under some trees nearby. A mounted trooper was bailed up and robbed and made to join the others. This was followed by the mail coach from Carcoar, which was also bailed up. When one of the occupants refused to follow Gilbert’s orders he threatened to blow the man’s brains out. The unperturbed traveller, named Garland, called Gilbert’s bluff but Ben Hall intervened and convinced Garland to do as instructed or receive a beating. The mail was sifted through while Vane and Burke bailed up more travellers, taking possession of a racehorse named Retriever. Now with no less than a dozen prisoners the decision was made to head for Blayney. As they went Gilbert bailed up a man named Beardmore who offered to write a cheque for £20 if Gilbert would loan him a revolver and duel at twelve paces. Gilbert refused, but Beardmore’s jibe that he knew Gilbert wouldn’t be game infuriated the bushranger and prompted him to accept the challenge. Hall again intervened. Gilbert relieved Beardmore of a gold ring, but when the man asked to have it back because it was a gift from his mother, Gilbert accepted because he admired Beardmore’s pluck.
A few days later, the gang bailed up three constables. They stripped them naked and tied them to a tree. O’Meally threatened to shoot the men but Hall cooled him off. The gang took possession of the uniforms and with the one taken from the trooper near Blayney, they now had four complete troopers’ uniforms, which they began using as disguises while riding. The gang was about to seal their place in history.
In September, the gang raided Grubbenbong Station, the property of John Loudon. They ransacked the place, taking any valuables they could find before demanding supper. When Mickey Burke went to smoke his pipe Gilbert ordered him outside as it was impolite to smoke near women. After the meal, Gilbert was so taken by the Loudons that he returned all they had taken. The gang then rode to William Rothery’s Cliefden Station, where they again bailed up the household and demanded refreshments. Hall and Vane checked out Rothery’s horses before the gang indulged in food and champagne. They rode off with two of the horses and headed for Canowindra.
Here they arrived at dusk the following day, bailing up Robinson’s Hotel and shouted the patrons drinks and cigars. Gradually the townsfolk were all taken prisoner in the hotel and what began as a raid became a big party with dancing and piano. While the townsfolk were occupied with the dance the local store was raided, the loot put on packhorses. The local constable had been handcuffed and was brought in and placed on a chair to watch the amusements. The festivities continued into the early hours. The gang left at sunrise, but there was more to come.
On 3 October the gang raided Bathurst. Whereas Canowindra had a tiny population of a few dozen, Bathurst was a thriving city with more than 6000 residents. They arrived in the evening and made their way through the crowds of Saturday night shoppers. Their first stop was the gunsmith but none of the pieces on offer were to their taste. They moved on to the jewellers but when the jeweller’s daughter saw what was happening she screamed and tried to raise the alarm. The bushrangers mounted and began riding wildly through the streets. They then bailed up the Sportsman’s Arms Hotel with the intent of stealing a racehorse named Pasha, but the horse was not there so the gang departed.
With the gang’s activities becoming ever more brazen, a reward of £2,500 was offered for the apprehension of the gang or information leading to it. This did not bother the bushrangers, however, and they continued business as usual. On 12 October, they once again struck Canowindra. As before, Robinson’s Hotel was bailed up and the townsfolk herded inside for another night of festivities. The gang held the town for three days, covering the cost of meals and drinks. All who entered the town were detained but not once were they bothered by police.
Of course, the good fortune of the gang could not last and the first major blow to what was now considered the Gilbert-Hall Gang was about to be landed. On 24 October, the gang descended upon Dunn’s Plains near Bathurst. Here was the residence of Henry Keightley, a police magistrate who had been assisting police and openly bragging about what he would do if he encountered the gang. The gang ordered Keightley to surrender but instead he retreated inside and opened fire on the bushrangers. A heated battle ensued during which Burke was shot in the stomach. In incredible agony he tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head but still took half an hour to die. Keightley and the other occupants of the house surrendered when they ran out of ammunition. Vane, beside himself at Burke’s death, beat Keightley and his friend Dr. Pechey. Keightley was then held to ransom. His wife was ordered into town to fetch £500, which would them be given to the bushrangers in exchange for Keightley’s life. The demands were met and the gang took off, true to their word.
It was now established that Ben Hall had taken control of the gang. His generally calm demeanour proving to be more suited to leadership then Gilbert’s impulsive and whimsical style. The reward was raised to £4000 for the gang or £100 for their accomplices. The death of Burke had hit Vane hard and tensions arose between him and Gilbert who struck him during an argument and gave Vane a black eye. Vane promptly turned himself in, no longer seeing any appeal in the lifestyle he had adopted. The gang was once again reduced to the trio of Gilbert, Hall and O’Meally. They passed through Canowindra again but only stayed for a drink. The police were soon hot on their heels and interrupted a robbery. The gang got away but the police were becoming an ever more problematic occurrence. Brushes with the police became more and more frequent with the gang having to drop everything and run on multiple occasions, rarely even having time to get their boots on. In this atmosphere of frustration and increased tension the gang decided to attack Goimbla Station.
Goimbla Station was the home of David Campbell, a squatter who had been assisting police. As with the Keightleys, the gang intended to intimidate him into no longer helping their enemies. Campbell refused to surrender to the bushrangers and took cover in the house and opened fire. Another battle took place, during which the gang burned a barn and a stable, roasting the squatter’s horses alive. Mrs. Campbell joined in the fracas, fetching guns and ammunition while being fired at, and the squatter’s brother William was wounded. David Campbell refused to give in and seeing O’Meally stand up from behind cover, he fired and hit him in the neck. He died instantly. Gilbert and Hall knew they stood no chance and ran away, leaving the blood-drenched corpse of their longest standing confederate behind.
For the remainder of 1863 and into 1864, the pair continued to rob travellers and raid stores. They recruited John Dunleavy and Jim “Old Man” Gordon to help out. The gang were involved in several shoot-outs with the police including one at the appropriately named Bang Bang Hotel. These violent brushes with the law seemed to be bringing out the worst in Hall and Gilbert. When they bailed up a man named Barnes, who they suspected of being involved with the disaster at Goimbla, they threatened to burn his cart and hang him, even going so far as to procure a rope. Hall suggested that instead of a hanging they should flog him, so Barnes was tied to a tree and given 25 lashes.
Perhaps realising what the bushranging life was doing to him and those around him, Gilbert took his leave of the gang around August. While Ben Hall continued to commit crimes with Dunleavy and the Old Man, Gilbert returned to Victoria where his family lived.
In October 1864 Gilbert returned from his sojourn to rejoin Ben Hall who had been abandoned by the other two in the intervening months. They recruited John Dunn, a seventeen year old ex-jockey, who had previously telegraphed for Gilbert and O’Meally but was now wanted for skipping bail. Straight away the gang launched into their old tricks with new blood. Dunn was a natural, immediately keeping pace with the other two as they bailed up a buggy at Breadalbane Plains on 24 October, establishing the new outfit. More robberies followed but Hall was not satisfied with this and wanted another taste of the glory days.
16 November 1864 saw the Hall Gang strike at Black Springs, just outside Jugiong. Dozens of travellers were bailed up, including diggers, teamsters, squatters and Chinese, who were robbed then kept prisoner on the opposite side of a hill to shield them from the road. The gang intended to rob the mail coach that was due that afternoon. A trooper named McLaughlin was bailed up and added to the collective and when the coach arrived shortly after, the gang were surprised by the police escort riding behind. A horseback gunfight ensued. During the gunfight Gilbert shot Sergeant Edmund Parry in the back, killing him instantly. This was the point of no return for Gilbert.
The gang continued a spate of smaller robberies, stealing valuables and horses from the Binalong region. The mail started sending the deliveries by horseback during the night in an effort to foil the robbers but the bush telegraph informed the gang and they adjusted operation accordingly. When they had taken all they desired, they burned the rest of the letters and papers. While Hall and Gilbert always rode together, Dunn was not always present for the gang’s nefarious activities.
On Boxing Day, 1864, the gang bailed up Edward Morriss at his store in Binda. They raided the cashbox and took over £100. The gang then escorted Morriss and his wife to a ball at the Flag Hotel. With the bushrangers were their girlfriends Christina McKinnon and the Monks sisters Peggy and Ellen. At the ball the gang sang, danced and shouted drinks all the while acting in a lewd fashion with their female companions. When Morriss escaped to release the gang’s horses, the bushrangers fired on him and then turned their ire on his store. The bushrangers set fire to the building causing £1000 in damages and destroying the records of Morriss’ debtors.
26 January, 1865, the gang rode to Kimberley’s Inn, Collector, and held it up. Earlier that day they had been engaged in their usual activity on the roads. While Hall and Gilbert raided the inside, Dunn tried to keep guard outside. When Constable Nelson arrived to arrest the bushrangers, Dunn shot him dead. When Gilbert examined the body, he took the murdered trooper’s pistol belt to replace his own.
On 6 February, 1865, the gang went to work near Springfield Station. After they had robbed several travellers and a bullock team, a buggy arrived carrying the four Faithfull boys, sons of the squatter who owned Springfield. When the gang attempted to bail them up, two of the boys, Percy and George, presented firearms. A gunfight broke out during which Gilbert’s horse, spooked by the noise, reared just as he was aiming his revolver. The sudden movement blocked the aim and the horse was killed as the shot hit it in the head. Gilbert took cover behind a fence as bullets struck close. Hall chased the youths, seemingly intent on gunning them down as they retreated to their house. The gang ransacked the boys’ things and retreated before they could return.
In response to the murders perpetrated by the gang as well as the depredations of Daniel Morgan who had been operating along the Murrumbidgee at the time, the New South Wales government passed the Felons Apprehension Act that would make the three Hall Gang members outlaws by act of parliament. They had 30 days to surrender before the act was passed.
The trio were unfazed, continuing to add to their long list of crimes by stealing horses and firearms, robbing travellers and mail coaches. They brought in a fourth member to the group, long rumoured to have been Braidwood bushranger Thomas Clarke, but almost certainly Dunn’s mate Daniel Ryan. The quartet attempted to rob a gold escort on 13 March near Araluen. The gang opened fire and a battle erupted during which two troopers named Kelly and Byrne were injured while defending the gold. The bushrangers were outmaneuvered and forced to retreat without the loot.
The four bushrangers continued to operate in the wake of the failed heist. Moving their operations closer to Binalong, they stole horses to replace the ones they had been riding on in order to keep ahead of the police. By 17 March the gang was back down to three. They continued to rely on sympathisers for food and shelter, the police becoming more dogged in their pursuit.
In May the gang split, Hall seemingly taking leave of Dunn and Gilbert. He set up camp at Billabong Creek but was sold out by one of his sympathisers, Mick Coneley. On 5 May Hall was ambushed and shot to death, around 30 bullets being pumped into his body. He never fired a shot and was still mere days away from being declared an outlaw.
Gilbert and Dunn must have sensed the net was closing in. They no longer knew who they could trust, but Dunn was certain his family would provide them temporary shelter.
On 12 May, 1865, Gilbert and Dunn sought refuge with Dunn’s grandfather near Binalong. Overnight, the police were informed and they surrounded the house. The following day the police made their move and as the bushrangers tried to escape, a running gunfight took place. Gilbert was shot through the heart by Constable John Bright and killed instantly, but Dunn escaped. Gilbert was 23 years old.
His corpse was taken back to Binalong and autopsied. An inquest was held and Gilbert was buried in the paddock of the police station, the grave was unmarked. Dunn was captured nine months later and, after a trial, was hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol for the murder of Constable Nelson.
It has been claimed that in his short life Gilbert had committed more than 600 crimes. His flashy dress sense, jovial personality, expert horsemanship and flair for drama made him instantly popular among the class of people that admired rogues. Yet, his short fuse, willingness to use lethal force and his lack of distinction between who he victimised are qualities that paint him as one of the most villainous bushrangers to his detractors. Like many bushrangers he is both as noble and as ignoble as he is described by his supporters and detractors. It is a paradox only resolved by simplistic reasoning.
Forever consigned to popular culture as Ned Kelly’s little brother, Dan Kelly was a young man of only nineteen when he lost his life fighting the police. Like so many “boy bushrangers” his young life was snuffed out without him having ever fulfilled his potential, wasting his youth on a life of crime. But there was more to Dan Kelly than just having Ned Kelly as his big brother.
Daniel Kelly was born on 1 June, 1861 to John “Red” Kelly and Ellen Quinn. He was named after one of his father’s brothers and christened in the church in Beveridge, Victoria, where the family were living in a house John had built. Before Dan was born, there had been Mary Jane (died in infancy), Annie, Ned, Maggie and Jim. Dan would be followed by Kate and Grace. Dan’s infancy years were quiet for the family. John turned his hand to a number of occupations but was primarily employed doing odd jobs around the district and splitting timber. Financial strain, however, soon saw John attempting to distill his own whiskey. Unfortunately he took to drinking most of the produce himself. The difficulty saw the family relocate to Avenel, but here their problems would not only continue, they would worsen.
John spent six months in gaol in 1866 for stealing and butchering a calf. This meant that for half a year Ellen was reliant on her brothers for help around the place. The Quinn brothers were not model citizens by the furthest stretch, Jimmy Quinn being the worst of the lot. Jimmy was too fond of liquor, quick to violence and did not discriminate when choosing a target. No doubt Dan’s exposure to this would have negatively shaped his young mind. When John was released from gaol he was a broken man. Dan was barely five years old when his father died of dropsy, an old term for oedema (build-up of fluid in the soft tissues), likely linked to his alcoholism. He was buried in Avenel. The family soon found themselves frequently homeless, moving from Avenel to an abandoned pub in Greta. Here the Kellys co-habited with Ellen’s sisters, both of whose husbands were in prison at the time, and their children while they attempted to make ends meet.
The new home in Greta was short-lived. One night John Kelly’s brother James had arrived at the house drunk and his sexual advances were rebuffed by Ellen. He returned later that same night and burned the place to the ground. The children inside were asleep but the sisters remained awake, fearful of retribution. After another binge at the local pub, James threw incendiary devices at the house until a fire took hold, but thankfully there were no fatalities. The families were now homeless again and devoid of earthly possessions such as clothes and furniture. When James was tried he was sentenced to death by Sir Redmond Barry. This was later commuted to a long prison sentence by the executive council. The Greta community got together and helped the victims get back on their feet. Ellen soon gained a lease on a selection on the 11 Mile Creek. Things were starting to look up.
With his big brother Ned, only twelve himself when Red died, acting as man of the house, Dan and his brother Jim often ran wild. By 1870 things had changed dramatically for the family. Ellen had her selection but the land was not fit for crops. The family had to rely on the money they made from lodgers and travellers looking for a drink. Fifteen year-old Ned worked for a time as Harry Power‘s offsider, and then found himself in and out of gaol, eventually copping three years for receiving a stolen horse. Jim was now the man of the house in Ned’s absence. Jim was not a good candidate, however, and would coax Dan into mischief; their first arrest occurring when Dan was only ten years old.
In September 1871, Jim and Dan had borrowed horses without permission from a hawker named Mark Krafft. Krafft had been grazing his horses at the Kelly selection, as he had frequently done, and the boys had taken them for a joyride. Jim had previously been working as Krafft’s servant to get some extra money, the pudgy child being less physical than his big brother and thus less suited to splitting work. Constable Ernest Flood, newly stationed in Greta, nabbed them on a charge of illegally using a horse and took the children to Wangaratta to be kept in the logs until trial. When they went to court two days later the case was quickly dismissed on account of Jim’s and Dan’s ages (12 and 10 respectively) and the fact that Jim had been a servant of Krafft for a time. One can only imagine the impact that the experience of being taken away from their family and locked up in a cell with a bunch of strange, grown men waiting for trial for two days would have been on the children. It would eventuate that Flood was nothing but bad news for the family, allegedly stealing their horses and selling them to railway workers and sexually assaulting Dan’s big sister Annie and making her pregnant, though the truth of this is debatable owing to there being no solid evidence to back the claims.
Jim, only fourteen, ended up in gaol in 1873 with two sentences of 2 1/2 years to be served consecutively for helping shift stolen cattle. With Red gone and Ned and Jim in gaol, Ellen was on the lookout for a new man to help around the house and to protect her from her brothers or anyone else that might come sniffing around with bad intentions. She took the bold move of selling grog on the sly to travellers and seemed to think she had found her man in Bill Frost, an itinerant worker who had lodged with the family. Frost engaged in a sexual relationship with Ellen, from which she became pregnant with a daughter. Frost was apparently not keen to be a father and skipped town. Ellen, not one to be passive, tracked him down and took him to court for maintenance. After a long and bitter dispute she won but the infant died before the first maintenance payment came through. One can only imagine how this would have impacted young Dan, who had to assume the role of man of the house.
It wasn’t all gloomy for Dan though. According to some accounts, while his big brothers were doing time, Dan was lavished with affection from his sisters. Some considered this made him spoiled, but at any rate he managed to keep his nose clean during this period. It was at this time that Ellen took in George King, a 25 year-old American-born traveller, miner and stock thief. It was a remarkably short courtship as they were married in 1874, just after Ned came home from Pentridge. Within a month Ellen gave birth again. No doubt Dan, now thirteen, was relieved not to have the responsibility of being the male head of the household anymore. Between Ned and George the role was well taken care of.
Dan’s main hobbies at this time were much the same as the majority of young men in the country – riding and hunting. Dan would latch onto groups of boys who were out kangaroo hunting and took much pride in his marksmanship. He also took much joy in racing his peers on horseback. A brilliant description of Dan came from Joseph Ashmead, a friend of the Kelly family, in an unpublished memoir:
He was riding a smart black pony, and proudly told us it was a galloper and could clear any fence in the north east. The boy was alert and active with piercing black eyes that took in everything at a glance. He wore strapped trousers, a red shirt and straw hat tilted forward, secured by a strap under his nose. The back of his head was broad and covered with close cropped hair as black and shiny as a crow; his jaw was heavy, his lips thin, and when closed tightly, there seemed to be something cruel in them, but when they relaxed into a smile, he appeared to be a jovial, good-natured fellow. His name was Dan Kelly and he was a great lover of horses. I was the only one of the boys who had a horse. A bay pony. She had belonged to a clergyman and was an honest goer. Dan ran his eye over my over my horse and proposed that we should have a race, a challenge that I gladly accepted. When Dan found that he could not shake me off, he developed a great respect for me, and declared there was not a kangaroo in all the country who could get away from us, so we went kangaroo hunting, not once but many times. I left my cows to look after themselves, or bribed some of the boys to look after them for me, with the promises of some sinews out of the kangaroo’s tail to make whip crackers with.
No doubt Dan’s hunting provided much needed meat for the family, or at least was able to be sold to raise money for other goods. Seemingly Dan left home at the first opportunity to seek work. By some reports he travelled into New South Wales to work on sheep stations around the Monaro region as a shearer. He was also reported to have worked in Chesney Vale with Ned as a brick layer, but was not very good at it. It is likely that this is when Dan took up possession of an abandoned miner’s hut by Bullock Creek in the Wombat Ranges and began prospecting for gold. Sluices were later constructed along the creek and this would have provided a bit of pocket money. No doubt the seasonal nature of most of these jobs left Dan with a considerable amount of free time in between and he soon found himself adopting the larrikin culture of the day.
The fast riding, clownishly attired, skirt chasing lifestyle of the larrikin had become a widespread issue throughout the colonies. Gangs of youths in porkpie or billycock hats worn on jaunty angles, short Paget coats and jackets, bell-bottom trousers, colourful sashes and pointy high-heeled boots would loiter in public areas making a nuisance of themselves. Dan became a founding member of the “Greta Mob”, who populated the streets around Greta and Wangaratta. Apart from Dan, the mob consisted mostly of his cousins Tom and Jack Lloyd and a young Wangaratta jockey named Steve Hart, with the rotating roster of associates typical of these forms of social group. Their primary interests were fast horses, smoking, booze and chatting up girls. The boys were known to ride full gallop through the streets and challenge each other to various horse tricks. Steve Hart, for instance, could get his horse to vault over the railway gates, much to the chagrin of the gatekeeper. The Greta Mob adopted as their signature the larrikin badges of high-heeled boots, cocked billycock hats with the hatstring worn under the nose (to stop the hat flying off when riding at full gallop) and brightly coloured sashes worn around the waist. The style was clownish but that’s not unusual for teenage boys of any era. Unfortunately, Dan was still living in hand-me-downs and cut an odd figure in his threadbare, oversized, outdated outfits. The only verified photographic images we have of Dan illustrate this clearly. He wears a rumpled hat, a baggy sack coat with missing buttons and fraying cuffs as well as baggy trousers held up with a piece of rope. He was known to grow his hair long and seems to have cultivated a moustache at some point. But what Dan lacked in creole couture he made up for in his riding and his drinking. It has been written that Dan had many sweethearts but whenever they were unavailable for a night of frivolity he would employ the services of working girls, though it is incredibly unlikely that a fifteen year-old boy would have the presence of mind or the funds to engage in that lifestyle, regardless of the usual rampant libido they enjoyed.
One of the few times Dan graced the courts was in relation to a supposedly stolen saddle. In March 1877 he was charged with stealing the saddle in question in Benalla and was tried during the Beechworth general sessions before Judge Hackett. It had taken five months to lay charges against the teenager. The saddle in question was one that Dan had purchased from a man named Roberts in exchange for a different saddle and £1, and he produced a receipt to prove it, which was verified in court. Along with Jack Lloyd and his brother-in-law Bill Skillion, Ned Kelly was present during the hearing as a witness to back up his little brother. In the end the case was dismissed and Dan walked away with a sense of vindication. Judge Hackett stated that he “did not see why the prisoner was there at all” as his case was clear-cut. During this case Dan displayed a trait that distinguished him from his older brothers – he provided no resistance to arrest and complied happily with the police. This could be interpreted by some as overconfidence in his ability to dodge a conviction, but more likely Dan understood that resisting arrest was a fool’s game and further that he was innocent of the crime of which he was accused (which a trial would – and did – prove). This would not be the last time he displayed a conspicuous willingness to comply.
While he had been waiting to appear in court over the saddle charge, Dan met two boys from the Woolshed Valley named Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt. They were also waiting to appear in court that day over a charge of assault against a Chinaman named Ah On. It would eventuate that the pair would not get their day in court that same day, remanded to be tried in the next session. What exactly transpired between the young men in that cell can only be guessed at, but this would prove to be a fateful friendship.
Dan’s first and only conviction came from an incident at Goodman’s store, Winton, on September 28, 1877. Dan had travelled into town to exchange meat for goods. When he arrived the establishment wasn’t open and therefore no trade took place. Annoyed, Dan went drinking with his cousins Tom and Jack then returned with them to Goodman’s store, drunk. Dan smashed in the door and took the goods he sought. A man going by the name Moses Solomon was also there and claimed he was assaulted by the rowdy larrikins. Tom Lloyd lingered and flashed Mrs. Goodman, the other two pushing Tom into her with the lights out. Dan was found guilty of wilfully damaging the property and sentenced to three months in Beechworth Gaol. Tom Lloyd was additionally charged with intent to rape but was found not guilty, yet still got six months for his part. Dan did his time in Beechworth Gaol without incident. Almost miraculously for a Kelly boy he managed to get through his sentence without incurring any additional penalties. Three months crushing granite would have given Dan bigger muscles, but also greater resolve to walk the straight and narrow once he was out. Unfortunately fate had a different plan for him.
While Dan was still in prison a warrant was issued for his arrest. A witness saw two young men they believed to be Dan Kelly and Jack Lloyd leading a mob of stolen horses near Chiltern. They reported it to the police and the paperwork was duly issued. This was noted by Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick after reading the announcement in the Police Gazette. On April 15, 1878, Fitzpatrick was sent from Benalla to take over at Greta police station. Fitzpatrick informed his superior, Sergeant Whelan, that he knew of a warrant for Dan Kelly and intended on arresting him on his way to the station. Fitzpatrick went alone to the Kelly property and what occurred has been subject to much scrutiny and debate. The general thrust is that Fitzpatrick enquired after Dan but found he was away. The constable then asked a neighbour, Brickey Williamson, about Dan’s whereabouts before electing to return to the Kelly house and wait. He was greeted by Dan who offered to go quietly on the provision that he could finish his dinner first. After this, a scuffle broke out and Fitzpatrick was wounded in the wrist. The policeman claimed Ned Kelly had shot him, Ned Kelly claimed he wasn’t even there. Each witness account conflicted with the others in some way. Regardless, Dan and Ned immediately fled to the Wombat Ranges. Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Dan’s brother-in-law Bill Skillion were arrested and charged with aiding attempted murder.
For six months Dan and Ned hid in the ranges. A second, fortified, hut was built further up the creek from Dan’s place using thick logs, and both huts were equipped with whiskey stills. The intention was to raise money for Ellen Kelly’s defence by selling gold and bootleg whiskey. Unfortunately it was not enough and Ellen got three years, the men each received six years.
After the trial police parties were organised to bring the Kelly brothers to justice. Warrants had been issued for their arrest. There was £100 on each of their heads; Ned for attempted murder, Dan for aiding and abetting. A party was sent from Mansfield to find the Kellys in the Wombat Ranges. The party consisted of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and constables Michael Scanlan, Thomas McIntyre and Thomas Lonigan. When Ned found the police party’s tracks he sent Dan to find their camp, which he duly did. The next day the brothers, roused by McIntyre firing a shotgun while hunting parrots, went to the police camp with Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. They hid in the spear-grass and intended on ambushing the camp to take the police guns and horses. When the bushrangers emerged they held McIntyre at gunpoint. When Lonigan ran to cover and moved to fire at the arrivals, Ned shot him. There was a moment of disbelief as Lonigan struggled on the ground. Dan remarked “He was a plucky fellow. Did you see how he went for his gun?” He then seized the police shotgun and searched the tent. When Lonigan’s identity was revealed, Dan exclaimed that “He won’t be putting any of us poor buggers away again.”
McIntyre took a particular dislike to Dan, describing his nervous laughter and his “grotesque” appearance in his oversized hand-me-down clothes. McIntyre fully believed that Dan would be the one to put a bullet in him.
Dan insisted McIntyre be handcuffed but Ned refused, believing a fear of being shot was incentive enough for the trooper to obey his orders. This did not sit well with Dan who grumbled that the police would just as soon clap cuffs on them.
When Kennedy and Scanlan returned from scouting McIntyre tried to persuade them to surrender but a gunfight broke out. Scanlan was shot, McIntyre escaped on Kennedy’s horse and Kennedy fired at the Kellys with his pistol. A bullet from Kennedy hit Dan’s shoulder as the sergeant retreated into the bush after McIntyre. Kennedy was soon killed by Ned a considerable distance from the camp. The gang looted the bodies and Dan took Scanlan’s pocket watch. The salvageable items were collected and the tent burnt as the gang escaped.
As a result of the incident at Stringybark Creek, Ned and Dan were outlawed with a reward of £500 each. At this stage Joe and Steve were unidentified.
In December 1878 the gang re-emerged near Violet Town. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station on Faithfuls Creek in the afternoon and began herding the staff into a shed. They kept the staff as prisoners in the tool shed overnight and stole new outfits from a hawker’s wagon. That night the gang chatted with their captives, answering questions but with Ned doing most of the talking. Dan and Steve were overheard talking about how they’d like a lark with the female prisoners. In the morning the nearby telegraph poles were damaged by Ned, Joe and Steve. In the afternoon Ned, Dan and Steve headed into Euroa to rob the bank, leaving Joe on sentry at the station. The timing was meticulously arranged to coincide with a funeral that would keep the townsfolk occupied during the gang’s activities. Dan acted as a guard, standing at the rear of the bank, making sure that nobody escaped or interrupted while Ned and Steve robbed the place. Once the loot had been acquired the bushrangers headed back to the station with the bank staff and the manager’s family and servants. On the way Dan rode in the stolen hawker’s wagon and kept his gun trained on Mrs. Scott, the bank manager’s wife, who was driving a buggy alongside, in case she tried to escape or raise an alarm. The raid went off without a hitch and the gang escaped with thousands of pounds to distribute among their families and sympathisers. Before they left, Dan gave Constable Scanlan’s watch to Becroft, the hawker’s assistant, and money with which to repair it. It is unclear what the nature of the damage was.
In February 1879 the gang struck again at Jerilderie. They travelled over the border to answer a challenge that they wouldn’t last 24 hours in New South Wales. The gang roused the police in the middle of the night and locked them in their own cells. Mrs. Devine, the wife of the senior constable, recalled how as the gang occupied their home during their stay Dan would bounce her son on his knee but later spoke in quite a violent manner in order to make her work faster as she decorated the courthouse for mass. The gang then went through town disguised in police uniforms pretending to be reinforcements against the Kelly Gang. On the Monday Dan and Joe had their horses shod at the blacksmith and investigated the telegraph lines before the gang put their plan into full effect. Ned, Steve and Joe robbed the bank while Dan kept prisoners under control next door in the hotel. The gang had successfully managed to occupy the town for a whole weekend unmolested and rode away with thousands of pounds in unmarked notes that could not be traced. In response, the New South Wales government doubled the reward for the gang to £8000.
Upon leaving New South Wales, the gang split up to reconvene at the Byrne selection at a set date and time. Only Dan arrived on time. He stayed for dinner and questioned the Byrnes about whether the other gang members had been past. Dan seems to have had a good relationship with the Byrnes, frequently stopping by in much the same manner for a meal and a chat. Dan also seemed to be the most active gang member, being reported as having been spotted more than any other member of the Kelly Gang. It is also probable that he partook in Joe’s favourite past-time of visiting the Sebastopol opium dens for a smoke and card games.
Over the course of 1879 and early 1880, Dan and Joe Byrne tested the loyalty of the Sherritts and various other sympathisers that were suspected of turning on the gang. On 14 May, 1880, Dan paid a visit to his uncle Tom Lloyd. Lloyd’s neighbour, a police informant named Jacob Wilson, saw horses in Lloyd’s garden and began snooping. He was found behind the cow shed by the dogs and the barking roused everyone in the house. Uncle Tom sent the dog to chase the man down and he climbed up a cherry tree. Dan Kelly and cousin Tom Lloyd, who were unarmed, fetched the dog and yelled taunts to the police they assumed were nearby, before going back inside. Wilson was so terrified he stayed in the tree until morning. Incidents like this were increasingly common and the gang began to stop visiting certain people in case they were spotted.
More concerning to the gang however was the rumour that had been circulating that the Sherritts were in cahoots with the police, fuelled by the vicious game of “Chinese Whispers” that accounted for the gang’s bush telegraph. On one occasion Dan arrived at the Sherritt selection on Sheepstation Creek looking for Jack Sherritt, Aaron’s younger brother. When he was told Jack wasn’t home he pushed his way inside with a revolver drawn and searched for him. Dan said they wanted to speak with him. Unbeknownst to Dan, Jack was at that moment speeding away to speak to Assistant Commissioner Nicolson in a desperate attempt to seek protection. Nicolson told him to go to a local pub and use that as his alibi. It was clear to everyone that the gang was getting desperate and had cottoned on that something was up and Ned was determined to address it in his next big scheme.
In early 1880 a plan had been devised by Ned Kelly to escalate the gang’s activities. The banks were too heavily guarded to rob as they had done previously, so now they were struggling to find ways to keep their network of sympathisers on-side. The gang’s health was also deteriorating as the rigours of life on the run was wearing them down. Ned suffered sciatica and sandy blight, Joe struggled with withdrawals as his opium supply was cut off due to lack of funds, and Dan was described by one witness as looking gaunt and hollow-cheeked. Police parties were coming closer than before to catching the gang and even had the assistance of an elite team of black trackers from Queensland on top of a network of police spies and informants. Ned wanted to end the pursuit in dramatic fashion by luring a trainload of police and trackers to be derailed at Glenrowan. He sent Dan and Joe to create a commotion at Aaron Sherritt’s hut, where a team of constables had been allocated to protect him, as the bait. On Saturday 26 June, Dan and Joe kidnapped Aaron’s neighbour Anton Wick and used him to lure Aaron to his back door whereupon he was murdered by Joe with a shotgun. Dan guarded the front door in case the police that were hiding inside tried to escape. The two bushrangers then terrorised the party of constables as they cowered in the bedroom, Aaron’s mother-in-law and pregnant wife stuck between the two sides. Attempts to burn the place failed and the outlaws rode away two hours later. It would be midday the next day before any of the police were brave enough to see if they had gone. Initially Ellen Barry, the mother-in-law, stated that Dan had been quiet when entering the hut with a pistol. It was only later when attempts were being made to gain a payout from the police that she would describe him resting on the table as he looked at the murdered Sherritt with a grin.
Dan and Joe arrived at Glenrowan at around 5am on 27 June, 1880. Dan was immediately employed with tending the horses and carrying the gang’s armour into the Glenrowan Inn. Over the course of the day Dan guarded the prisoners in the inn and even initiated dancing to keep them entertained. He was seen to get intimate with Jane Jones, the publican’s daughter, she having been spotted sitting on his knee and kissing him, even being given one of his revolvers to use while she kept the prisoners at bay when Dan had to leave the room. As the weekend rolled on and the special train did not appear as expected, tensions began to rise. Multiple times during the gang’s stay at Glenrowan, Dan told Ned they should leave and argued the point only to be shouted down by his brother who was determined that they would stay and fight. The longer they waited the more difficult it became to keep the prisoners under control and the more they risked accidentally derailing a civilian train. Ned refused to heed his brother’s pleas. When Ned decided to release Thomas Curnow, the school teacher, Dan argued publicly with him as he knew Curnow could not be trusted. Curnow had spent the day trying to butter Ned up, a suspicious Dan watching like a hawk. Sure enough, when the train did appear in the early hours of 28 June, Curnow warned the police that the tracks were damaged and the gang was in Glenrowan. Just before the train arrived, Dan had told the prisoners to head home, however they were detained by Ann Jones who told them to wait for Ned to make a speech. If Dan’s instructions had not been countermanded a considerable amount of the tragedy that was to unfold could have been avoided.
When the train arrived the gang dressed in their homemade armour and engaged in a gun battle. Ned and Joe were wounded early on and they retreated inside. Ned soon disappeared into the bush behind the inn and Dan took control of the situation, doing his best to evacuate the women and children despite the relentless firing from police. Joe was shot dead by a police bullet early in the morning and Dan and Steve became very disheartened, believing Ned had also been killed or had abandoned them. When Ned re-emerged just before 7am the remaining gang provided covering fire from the inn, but within a half hour Ned was captured and the two bushrangers were stuck in the inn surrounded by police in broad daylight. Dan had received a bullet in the leg that shattered his knee and necessitated a retreat into the inn. At 10am the rest of the prisoners were released and Dan and Steve remained inside. As the prisoners left they shook Dan’s hand.
What happened in the inn next is unknown but it is possible that Dan was struck in the neck by a bullet while his helmet was off and killed or that he took his own life by taking poison. All that is known for certain is that at 3pm the inn was burned and while it was on fire his corpse was witnessed by multiple people, in the back room still in body armour and resting on a pillow made of sacks. The body was effectively cremated in the fire and the burnt remains released to his family. Later, Dr. Hutchison, a medic who had been called up to assist during the siege, retrieved what was believed to be Dan’s foot from the ruins and the scorched bones were handed down through the family.
Around 200 people attended the wake at Maggie Skillion‘s home, many of whom were drunk and armed. Police efforts to reclaim the bodies were scrapped in response, the risks being too high. Though there are a number of (probably deliberately) conflicting oral histories with respect to the location of the last resting place of the two outlaws, most accounts indicate Dan Kelly was buried in an unmarked double grave in Greta cemetery with Steve Hart. The location within the cemetery of the exact double grave they were interred in is a closely guarded secret in family traditions in an effort to avoid the graves being disturbed. Unfortunately, this has added fuel to the fire of conspiracy theories and in one infamous case a particularly motivated “truther” went through the cemetery plunging steel probes into grave sites hoping to prove that there were no coffins in them. When Ellen Kelly died the 1923, she was buried in an unmarked plot next to the official spot where Red Kelly’s youngest son is buried.
In the years after Glenrowan there were rumours that Dan and Steve had escaped to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. In 1911, novellist Ambrose Pratt, author behind the memoirs of Captain Thunderbolt’s apprentice William Monckton, published a book claiming to be the memoirs of Dan Kelly. In fact, many people claimed to be Dan Kelly over the years, most notably a tramp called James Ryan whose ridiculous attempt to cash in on the survival rumours were published in the press and convinced scores of people who lacked knowledge of basic facts of the story. Ryan’s story even inspired the utterly woeful film The Glenrowan Affair. Ryan was killed by a coal train in the 1933 and is buried in Ipswich, Queensland. In order to lure tourists, the cemetery even erected a memorial telling the story of the claimant. None of the alleged Dans ever had any solid case to back their claims up but the myths of a miraculous escape from the burning inn persist to this day.
Dan Kelly was, in most ways, at least as competent as his big brother. As a horseman, tracker and marksman, his abilities were perhaps even better. Certainly he was more ruthless than Ned, a pragmatism that some interpreted as callousness or even psychopathy. It must be remembered that the gang were wanted dead or alive (preferably dead) and mistakes could not be afforded. Dan was a much better judge of character than Ned and certainly better at performing under pressure. Even the Kelly matriarch was known to have held Dan in more regard than Ned in these measures.
Unlike his brothers, Dan was fairly successful at avoiding trouble. In fact, it is probably telling that the worst trouble in Dan’s life seemed to come from following Ned’s and Jim’s lead. Imagine how different the story would have turned out if Dan had been able to accompany Fitzpatrick as intended, before Ned and Ellen had attacked the policeman. A stint in the logs, a quick trial during which the mistaken identity could be proven and Dan could have gone home as a free man. Sadly, as in all things, life never pans out the way we think it should.
Best known as Frank Gardiner’s accomplice, John Peisley was a bushranger determined to lord over Lambing Flat and the Abercrombie region but whose vices brought him unstuck. Oddly, for such a well-known bushranger, many of the accounts of his life and career are light on details and plagued with inconsistencies. In the early 1860s, Peisley’s was a name regarded with fear, but was he a mere thug or a wayward youth brutalised by the prisons and victim to an alcohol addiction that impaired his judgement with fatal consequences?
Peisley (variously spelled Piesley, Paisley and Peasley also) was born in Bathurst, New South Wales in 1834. His parents were of the convict class, his father Thomas Peasland arrived as a convict on the Agamemnon in 1820 and was a ticket of leave man who took up a cattle farm on the Iceley property in Cooming Park, near Carcoar. John’s mother Sarah arrived as an infant with her convict mother aboard the Minstrel in 1812. They had six children, including John.
Peisley’s father was arrested when it was found he had in his possession a bull branded T.P, but Iceley, whose cattle often mingled with that of the Peisleys, claimed it to be a crude reworking of his own brand: T.1. A jury of local shopkeepers, unaware of the fact that the cattle mingling from the Iceleys’ prize stock with the less impressive animals owned by the Peisleys would have resulted in the Peisleys’ cattle improving in quality, thereby making it difficult to prove that the quality of the animal was proof of its provenance. Peisley was sent to Cockatoo Island for seven years but died in prison before the sentence was up. Furthermore, all of his property was claimed by the government and bought by Iceley at an agreeable price. This rendered the Peisleys homeless and young John fell into a life of crime.
Peisley fell in with a gang of stock thieves and horse planters and was arrested at 20 for stealing horses. Tried on 13 September, 1854 at the Bathurst Quarter Sessions he was sentenced to five years on the roads and sent to Darlinghurst Gaol. It would appear that Peisley managed to escape custody shortly afterwards during probation and was removed to Parramatta Gaol and again tried at the Bathurst Quarter Sessions on 18 February 1855, where he was sentenced to an additional month to be commenced at the end of the previous sentence.
For Peisley the compulsion to steal stock seemed to be an itch that he couldn’t help scratch and he found himself in the Supreme Court in Sydney on 8 December 1857 on a charge of stealing a mob of horses during probation. This offence saw him sent to Cockatoo Island for a portion of his sentence where he met a fellow stock thief, Frank Christie. Being stuck on an island prison was not a deterrent to Peisley’s desire for liberation and he was captured attempting to make his way across the water from the prison. For this he was given an extra nine months on top of his existing sentence. Peisley was lucky enough to have his Ticket of Leave granted on 23 November 1860 despite his apparent inability to demonstrate any meaningful reform of character. It was around this time that a fellow Cockatoo inmate, Frederick Britten, successfully swam across Sydney Harbour with his accomplice Frederick Wordsworth Ward who would later gain popularity when he assumed the moniker “Captain Thunderbolt”.
Almost as soon as he had gained his liberty, Peisley sought out his prison buddy Christie, who was at that time in Lambing Flat under the name Frank Gardiner, on the run after violating his own Ticket of Leave. The pair decided to take to bushranging together and roamed the district with surprising impunity.
On 16 July 1861, Gardiner was involved in a horrific fight with police at the home of his friend William Fogg at Fish River. Gardiner was captured, Sergeant Middleton badly injured after being shot by Gardiner, and Trooper Hosie apparently being bribed to release Gardiner. Peisley was implicated in the escape but always denied involvement even to his dying moments.
Nevertheless, a reward of £100 was offered for Peisley on 23 July 1861. However, so indignant was Peisley at the suggestion of his supposed involvement in the incident that he took to writing to the Bathurst Free Press to clear his name.
Sir, You will no doubt be surprised to receive a note from the (now by all account) noted Piesley; but, sir, through your valuable paper I must make it known that if it be my lot to be taken, whether dead or alive, I will never be tried for the rescue of Gardiner, in the light in which it is represented, nor did I ever fire at Trooper Hosie. Aud such I wish to be known, that it is in my power to prove what I here assert, and that beyond a doubt. I am no doubt a desperado in the eyes of the law, but never, in no instance, did I ever use violence, nor did I ever use rudeness to any of the fair sex, and I must certainly be the Invisible Prince to commit one tenth of what is laid to my charge. And, sir, I beg to state that it is through persons in high positions that I now make this assertion, and I trust I may never have to allude to it again. I love my native hills, I love freedom, and detest cruelty to man or beast. Trusting you will publish this, my bold letter no doubt, but you can be assured it comes from the real John Piesley, and not any of his many representatives,
I am, Mr. Editor, your much harassed writer, JOHNPIESLEY.
After the incident at Fogg’s shanty, Peisley took his leave of Gardiner, striking out on his own in the Abercrombie Ranges. He visited the superintendent at Lawson, who many years earlier had given Peisley’s father his ticket of leave. He had a meal there before stealing two plough horses, which he sold near Goulburn, before heading to Bigga where he stayed overnight in a pub getting drunk. The next day he rode out to see a farmer named Benton.
Peisley was not a prolific bushranger like many of his contemporaries, though he had a lot of incidents linked to him. On 14 September 1861 he robbed a Mr. O’Sullivan between Marrugo and Cowra, later forcibly entering a hut near Marrugo and robbing John Dawkins. On 30 October Peisley robbed James Eldridge, J. Laverty and Catherine Vardy near Binda and committed another robbery on December 28 of the same year. One of the less savoury incidents of Peisley’s career was when he was claimed to have robbed a woman who recognised him from their youth. According to the woman, Peisley had once sold her brother a stolen horse at Bigga and hoped that her previous association with him would compel him not to mistreat her. Her faith was ill-founded as he proceeded to strike her across the face, kicking her while she was on the ground which gave her two black eyes and severe bruising on her nose. The terrified woman attempted to get to her feet and Peisley fired a shot at her, which grazed her cheek, leaving a scar. Peisley always maintained that he had never mistreated a woman with particular vehemence, so there are questions about this incident. Regardless of Peisley’s assertions such alleged actions did nothing to endear him to the locals and Peisley was frequently referred to as a “terror”, the mere mention of his name putting people on edge.
Of all the incidents of Peisley’s life, the most infamous was that which occurred at the home of William Benyon. On 27 December, Peisley joined James Wilson, an Abercrombie storekeeper, at McGuinness’ Inn, Bigga, where they drank excessively. The pair then headed to the Benyons’ place where they asked after William Benyon and gained a bottle of porter from his wife, Martha. Peisley stayed at Benyon’s place eating and drinking himself into an awful, cantankerous state of mind. He challenged Benyon to run, jump or fight him for £10 but when Benyon refused Peisley continued to goad him into a confrontation. He accused Benyon of swapping a horse of his when they were boys, taking off his waistcoat and rolling his pistols up in it before a scuffle erupted in the yard. Martha Benyon hid Peisley’s guns in the garden as a precaution. During the conflict Peisley proceeded to ram William Benyon’s head repeatedly into a fence and Stephen Benyon, William’s brother, intervened. Peisley ran into the house for a knife with which he attempted to stab William in the breast. Martha interjected and begged for her husband and Stephen Benyon took the opportunity to strike Peisley with a spade. After this Peisley made a point of shaking everyone’s hands before demanding his guns and riding away.
In Peisley’s absence William Benyon set about loading a revolver which he gave to his brother, believing that Peisley meant to return and shoot Stephen. When the bushranger returned, he questioned Stephen:
Surely you don’t mean to shoot me?
He convinced Stephen to put down the revolver, stating that he was not guilty of any cowardly action and would not do one now and shaking his hand. As soon as Stephen put the firearm down, Peisley snatched it up and shot Stephen in the shoulder. Peisley then bailed up a number of the family and staff in the barn and upon William Benyon making a lunge at the bushranger he was shot in the throat, the bullet passing through his windpipe and lodging in his spine paralysing him and leading to his death seven days later.
In January 1862, a description of Peisley was published in the Police Gazette:
About 28 years of age, about 5 ft. 10 ins. high, stout and well made, fresh complexion, very small light whiskers, quite bald on top of head and forehead, several recent marks on face, and a mark from a blow of a spade on top of head; puffed and dissipated-looking from hard drinking; invariably wears fashionable Napoleon boots, dark cloth breeches, dark vest buttoned up the front, large Albert gold guard, cabbage-tree hat and duck coat. Sometimes wears a dark wig and always carries a brace of revolvers.
That same month Peisley found himself in a clash with police. Spotted near Bigga by Constables Morris, Murphy and Simpson, Peisley rode up to the mounted troopers and introduced himself. Peisley challenged Morris to a bout of fisticuffs but when the trooper dismounted Peisley laughed and rode off. Morris drew his pistol and fired at the retreating bushranger, the shot passing along the neck of Peisley’s horse.
Peisley turned and grinned, “That was a good one, try again!” he said mockingly. The police gave chase but their horses were no match and Peisley escaped. Constable Edward Morris would later retire from police work and open a store at Binda, which would be burned down by Ben Hall in an act of vengeance for trying to set the Hall Gang’s horses loose.
Peisley was spotted shortly after by Corporal John Carroll of the Southern Gold Escort near Tarcutta riding a fine mount and leading a pack horse. Carroll seemed to recognise Peisley and rode up to question him.
“Have you any arms?” Carroll queried.
“Just my two.” replied Peisley, seemingly misinterpreting the question. When Carroll clarified that he meant firearms, Peisley then intimated that he had his brace of revolvers on his pack horse. When presented with a single-shot pistol aimed at his head and a demand to remove his hat to demonstrate whether he was bald, Peisley instead took off after failing to grab his pack horse, dodging his way up a hill and then upon gaining the high ground drawing a colt revolver from a valise with which he threatened Carroll. The beleaguered corporal fired at the bushranger but the shot took no effect. Peisley escaped, but lost his packhorse. Carroll promptly rode to the Tarcutta Inn and procured a revolver and assistance before riding back to the spot of the encounter and seizing Peisley’s packhorse and swag. Thereafter Carroll led a group of men to watch the camp of a man whose horse closely resembled that of Peisley, resulting in a rude awakening the next morning for an innocent man.
Days later, Peisley was captured at Boothea’s Hotel, Mundarlo, by Murdoch McKenzie of Mundarlo, Mr. Stephen of Tarcutta and James Beveridge of Wantabadgery Station. Peisley had been at Tarcutta Inn having a meal when word got out about the infamous visitor. McKenzie informed Beveridge, who had been riding past, that the bushranger was in the hotel. When Beveridge rode to Tarcutta police station he found the troopers had all gone looking for Peisley, and managed to procure a set of handcuffs and rode back to the the inn where Peisley was still eating. Beveridge blocked the doorway and as Peisley went to leave, McKenzie and Beveridge leaped on top of him and secured him. The bushranger was kept secured overnight then taken into Gundagai the next morning. Beveridge would later become involved in the story of Captain Moonlite in 1879.
On 12 February 1862, Peisley was committed for trial on the charge of murdering William Benyon. He seemed not to have any concerns while in court and was described by a press correspondent thus:
At a distance he has a pleasing countenance, but upon closer inspection his features appear more hardened and determined.
Seven witnesses appeared to give evidence and Peisley’s fate was seemingly set. On 13 April, 1862, Peisley was tried for murder at Bathurst and found guilty. On 25 March Peisley was hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol. His last words came after a lengthy explanation of his own account of the crimes that had led him there:
Good bye gentlemen; God bless you.
Peisley’s death was instantaneous, however an Aboriginal man hanged with him named Jacky Bullfrog was not afforded the same swift end, the hangman clearly having botched the job as the man struggled on the end of the rope for several minutes before death took hold.
“Peisley the Bushranger” Wellington Times (NSW : 1899 – 1954) 9 March 1936: 4.
“THE BUSHRANGER PEISLEY.” Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (NSW : 1851 – 1904) 12 February 1862: 2.
“THE MEETING OF PEISLEY AND CARROLL.” The Golden Age (Queanbeyan, NSW : 1860 – 1864) 20 February 1862: 3.
“COMMITTAL OF PEISLEY, THE BUSHRANGER FOR WILFUL MURDER.” Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1908) 28 February 1862: 4.
“JACK PIESLEY.” Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW : 1881 – 1940) 20 September 1902: 6.
“PEISLEY THE BUSHRANGER—MURDER OF BENYON.” Geelong Advertiser (Vic. : 1859 – 1929) 26 February 1862: 3.
“HOW PEISLEY WAS SHOT” The Gundagai Independent and Pastoral, Agricultural and Mining Advocate (NSW : 1898 – 1928) 22 November 1926: 1.
“BUSHRANGER and BLACKGUARD” The World’s News (Sydney, NSW : 1901 – 1955) 8 October 1930: 27.
Greene, S. (2017). A BUSHRANGER IN THE FAMILY John Peisley c.1834-1862. Ghostbuster, 26(1), pp.11 – 13. [https://www.cdfhs.org.au/images/pdf/gbuster/GhostMain_March17.pdf]
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Stephen Hart was once one of the most infamous bushrangers in Australia. Now he is often thought of as no more than an also-ran, an afterthought, the “other Kelly”. According to an article in the Evening News, Sydney, 14 February 1879, “Ned Kelly is looked upon as a hero all over the North-eastern district, and Steve Hart is second only in popular esteem.” So what changed the public perception of one of only four people ever outlawed in the history of Victoria? What led to Steve Hart becoming the forgotten Kelly Gang member?
To understand the story of Steve Hart, we must look at his parents. Steve’s father Richard Hart was transported to Australia as an eighteen year old convict in 1835 on the Lady McNaughton for being a pick-pocket. Earning his ticket of leave on 26 January 1840, he would later gain his Certificate of Freedom on 18 June 1843. In the subsequent years he would be joined by his sister Anne and brother Richard, both were transported as convicts. Richard was employed at Gunning Station at Fish River working for Elizabeth O’Neill, the widow of John Kennedy Hume, brother of explorer Hamilton Hume, who had been murdered by bushranger Thomas Whitton on 20 January 1840. The widow Hume had been left with nine children to care for (she was pregnant with her ninth at the time of the murder) and nobody to protect them, so Richard’s presence was likely very welcome.
Ten years after Richard gained his ticket of leave, recently orphaned Bridget Young, aged sixteen, and her sister Mary, aged twenty-one, travelled to Australia from Galway on the Thomas Arbuthnot as part of the “Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme“. No doubt the potential opportunities in Australia were a glimmer of hope as they escaped the crushing existence of being employed at workhouses back in Ireland and trying to stave off starvation due to the Great Hunger, also known as the Great Famine or the Irish Potato Famine. They arrived in Sydney and were stationed at the Hyde Park Barracks for several weeks before travelling to Yass for work, Bridget then became indentured to Mr. Smith of Mingay Station in Gundagai, which was one of the various stations affected by the horrendous flood of June 1852.
One of the young women who had accompanied Bridget all the way to Yass since their initial departure from Galway on the Thomas Arbuthnot was Margret White, who would later move to Goulburn where she would marry Paddy Byrne. These two were the parents of Kelly gang member Joe Byrne. What interaction these women had, if any, remains an unanswered question.
When Elizabeth O’Neill left Gunning and took up residence at her property Burramine (aka Byramine) at Yarrawonga in the 1850s it is likely that Richard travelled with her. By this time, Richard had met Bridget Young and the pair were raising a family in Gundagai, but a short time thereafter the family arrived in South Wangaratta where they soon established themselves, possibly with more than a little assistance from Elizabeth.
Stephen Hart was born at the Hart property on Three Mile Creek, Wangaratta, on 4 October 1859 to Richard and Bridget Hart (née Young), and baptised on 13 October that year. Steve was one of thirteen children. His siblings were William (who died as an infant in Gundagai in 1852), Ellen, Julia, Richard jr (Dick), Thomas Myles, Esther (Ettie), Winifred, Agnes, Nicholas, Rachel and Harriet – certainly Richard snr and Bridget had their hands full with such a brood. Steve’s was not an overly troubled childhood by the standards of the time and place. In factthe Hart family seemed to be quite well to do with a 53 acre property in Wangaratta on the Three Mile Creek and a larger 230 acre block at the foot of the Warby Ranges. As with all selector’s sons, Steve was expected to work on the selection as soon as he was old enough but he had at least some education and could read and write.
Steve was an able, if not necessarily dedicated, worker. Employed for a time as a butcher boy in Oxley to a Mr. Gardiner, Steve soon ended up working with his father and siblings stumping properties for what would have been around £6 a month. Hardly glamorous work, but honest. No doubt he was frequently roped into doing jobs for the Bowderns who were neighbours to the Harts and close friends.
As a teenager, Steve was a jockey who had a few minor prizes under his belt including the Benalla Handicap. His small frame and natural affinity with horses made him the perfect fit and would come in handy later on when combined with his excellent geographical knowledge of Wangaratta and the Warby Ranges. He was evidently a popular youth, quite likely due to his fun loving nature and eagerness to please. It’s easy to imagine Steve strutting past O’Brien’s hotel with his hat cocked, chinstrap under his nose and a bright sash around his waist accompanied by the likes of Dan Kelly, Tom Lloyd, John Lloyd and, later on, Aaron Sherritt, Joe Byrne and Ned Kelly. His time with the Greta Mob, as they called themselves, was probably the only time Steve felt a sense of belonging, his adolescent mind far more preoccupied with socialising than work. It seems he built a strong bond with Dan Kelly in particular during this time, perhaps drawn in by the self-assuredness and natural charisma the younger Kelly seemed to possess. The Kelly boys were seemingly blessed with the ability to leave a favourable impression on most anyone they met while also projecting a ‘don’t mess with me’ vibe likely forged due to their harsh upbringing. In contrast, Steve’s slender build and delicate features likely made him someone who was far from intimidating, so being around someone like Dan would have been a good move to make him tougher by association. The Greta Mob were larrikins and what Steve lacked in physicality he made up for in horsemanship – a primary interest of the larrikin class. The gang were fond of showing off their skills on horseback and this kept them in the cross-hairs of the local police.
Of course, Steve was not exempt from the seemingly obligatory prison stint. On 7 July, 1877, Steve Hart appeared in Wangaratta Police Court during the general sessions charged with stealing a horse from David Green of Glenrowan. Green’s grey mare had gone missing and Sergeant Steele had been tasked with finding the culprit. Going to the Hart property in Wangaratta, Steele interrogated Steve and a lodger named James O’Brien about the horse in the paddock behind them. “What, that grey mare?” Steve asked incredulously. Steele pressed the point and Steve indicated he had been loaned the horse from a man in town. When Steele asked for a name, Steve replied “Have you a warrant for me? I’ll give you no bloody information unless you have.” Steele promptly arrested Hart and O’Brien, who had also gotten Dick Hart implicated in a horse theft at the same time. The initial charge of theft was altered to ‘illegally using a horse’ and Steve was shortly convicted and sent to Beechworth Gaol for twelve months. It was here that he befriended Dan Kelly who was doing time over an incident at a shop where he had gotten drunk and broken in. The freezing winter months and stifling summer heat would have taken their toll on the lad, then just eighteen. Undoubtedly this would have made him seem rather a black sheep in the family by the time he got home, so instead of staying at the farm he left to find work elsewhere, first supposedly shearing in New South Wales and later at a sawmill near Mansfield before he joined the Kelly brothers at their gold claim on Bullock Creek. It was honest enough work and no doubt his body had been bulked up from the hard labour smashing granite with a hammer in Beechworth Gaol for a year. The one known photograph of Steve depicts him as a slender youth, but descriptions of Steve in 1878 painted a different picture.
After Steve’s exit from Beechworth Gaol and all during his time travelling for work, Sergeant Steele had been hounding his family for word on his whereabouts. Steele was convinced he was off duffing stock with the Kellys and even threatened the Harts that if they didn’t tell him exactly where Steve was that he’d be shot. Unfortunately the family had no idea of Steve’s whereabouts.
When Constable Fitzpatrick was assaulted at the Kelly house in April 1878, Steve was not involved. However he was reported to have made the decision to stick by his mates and while working with his father and siblings he downed his tools and took off declaring:
“A short life, but a merry one!”
This phrase not only summed up the youthful impulsiveness of the adolescent Hart, but became a sort of catchphrase for the Kelly gang later on when the meaning had far more sinister undertones. Though, it was usually attributed to Steve, there is some question over the accuracy of the attribution, though it certainly sounds authentic enough to be believable and has become the phrase that is synonymous with him.
Steve was with Dan and Ned in October 1878 when a party of police had entered the Wombat Ranges hunting for the two Kellys. On 26 October Ned Kelly led Dan, Steve and Joe Byrne in an assault on the police party. Three police were killed in the incident, though Steve was not one of the killers. When McIntyre escaped on horseback Dan Kelly had directed Steve and Joe to catch him. They had gone a distance into the bush but could not catch up. They fired ineffectually into the bush. No doubt this episode was traumatic for all involved, but for Steve and Joe, who came from comparatively sheltered lives compared to the Kelly brothers, it must have been doubly so.
The immediate aftermath of Stringybark Creek saw the gang desperate to escape capture long enough to establish a new base of operations. This was where Steve Hart had his chance to shine. Navigating the torrential flood waters that caused the rivers to swell to insurmountable levels, Steve took the gang into his playground. Crossing a secluded bridge he took the gang and their horses safely to Hart territory, successfully evading the police search parties. Steve would prove invaluable to the gang in their next undertaking – the robbery of a bank.
An oft related anecdote is that Steve Hart, dressed as a veiled woman riding side-saddle, would ride into towns close to the Strathbogie and Warby Ranges to gather information about the banks. On one of these reconnaissance missions Steve found the perfect target in the township of Euroa. Disguises were not a necessity for Steve at this stage as he was the only member of the gang yet to be identified.
Steve’s role in the bank robbery was straightforward but vital. When Ned and Dan set out from Faithful’s Creek, Steve rode ahead on his bay mare. Arriving in town in advance of the others, Steve got a bite to eat while he waited and used the time to assess whether the plan was still viable. When the others arrived he accompanied Dan around the back where he went into the bank manager’s residence and locked Susy Scott, her mother and children in the parlour, but not before being recognised by Fanny Shaw who was employed as a general maid for the Scotts. Steve and Fanny were schoolmates and Steve informed Fanny that he was in the process of robbing the bank before tricking her into joining the family in the parlour. Fanny Shaw’s testimony would finally expose the mysterious fourth member of the Kelly Gang. In the ashes of the fire from the gang’s old clothes was found what was believed to be a woman’s bonnet, but was after revealed to be Steve’s cabbage tree hat with a fly veil. While this would appear to indicate the cross-dressing rumours were no more than that it is very difficult to disprove the initial claim.
With the fourth member of the gang finally identified, a description was published in an effort to help the public recognise the miscreant:
He is described in the criminal records as being 21 years of age, 5ft. 6in. high, fresh complexion, brown hair, and hazel eyes ; right leg has been injured.
When the gang were officially declared outlaws it became much harder to move freely. Steve’s reconnaissance missions ended in favour of his sister Ettie feeding information back to the gang. When the raid on Jerilderie was decided upon the gang crossed into New South Wales in pairs, Ned and Joe heading for the pub where they received intelligence from Mary the Larrikin before meeting up with Dan and Steve the next day.
Steve’s role in the raids seems to have very much been as Ned’s attack dog. He was the only gang member to not don a police uniform after the Jerilderie police had been locked in their own cells. When the bank was robbed it was Steve who found the bank manager Tarleton having a bath (and subsequently made to guard him as he dressed). Witnesses in the hotel would describe Steve as seeming very nervous. While Ned was going about his work Steve stole a watch from Reverend Gribble. The outrage made it to Ned Kelly who ordered Steve to return the watch, which he did under sufferance. It must have seemed a strange paradox to be an outlawed bushranger but not be allowed to steal from people. Once again he and Dan performed horse tricks as they left the town after a victorious raid.
For months the gang seemingly disappeared. More detailed descriptions were offered that appeared to do very little to help identify the gang:
Steve Hart, about 21 years of age, 5 feet 4 inches high, dark complexion, black hair, short dark hair on sides of face and chin, bandy legs, stout build, clumsy appearance, speaks very slowly; dressed in dark paget suit, light felt hat, and elastic-side boots.
Watch parties were assigned to the Kelly, Hart and Byrne properties to stop them from returning home. During this time the banks were guarded by men of the garrison artillery, which made future plans for bank robbery impossible to carry out. But by the beginning of 1880 the gang were making appearances again, this time they were stealing metal to make suits of armour.
At Glenrowan, Steve initially attempted to pull up rails from the train track with Ned but soon became the attack dog again, keeping prisoners under control while Ned found the men who could lift the rails. Steve’s behaviour was typically aggressive, but as he was confined to guarding the women and children in the station-master’s house he became bored and took to drinking and even napped on the sofa with his revolvers resting on his chest. Depending on which account you read, at one point either Thomas Curnow helped Steve remove his boots and wash his feet in warm water to alleviate swelling or Steve ordered some of the women to wash his feet. He was also seen with his head on Jane Jones’ lap while he complained of feeling unwell. When Steve tired of being isolated he took the women and children to the inn to join the rest of the party.
When the police train was stopped and firing broke out, Steve seemed to avoid injury. However later on witnesses claimed he had injured his arm. Some witnesses described him cowering behind the fireplace to avoid gunfire, his initial overconfidence brought about by the armour supplanted by terror. After Joe Byrne’s death and Ned Kelly’s apparent disappearance Steve was despondent. When the prisoners were allowed to exit the inn he was overheard asking Dan Kelly “What shall we do now?” to which the reply was “I shall tell you directly.” Many have interpreted this to indicate a suicide pact. The truth about Steve’s cause of death will never be determined, however, as his corpse was burned beyond recognition in the fire that destroyed the inn. Stories of Steve and Dan surviving the fire are ludicrous and easily disproved.
After the fire, Steve’s body was retrieved and Superintendent Sadleir made the controversial decision to hand it over to the Hart family. A coffin was quickly procured and the remains placed inside and buried in a clandestine service in Greta Cemetery next to Dan Kelly in an unmarked grave. Steve’s untimely demise seemed to weigh heavily on the family but manifested in various ways. Ettie Hart appeared in a stage production entitled Kelly Family, whereas Dick preferred to stew over the turn of events and even agitated to form a second gang with Patsy Byrne, Wild Wright, Jim Kelly and Tom Lloyd. The agitation amounted to nothing however. In 1899, Tom Lloyd would marry Steve’s younger sister Rachel.
Over time Steve’s notoriety faded and soon he became “the other guy” in popular culture. Yet, Steve Hart is one of the more tragic characters in the Kelly saga, his youth and poor choices leading to a horrific and untimely death. There is perhaps no better example of the folly of youth than this accidental bushranger who just wanted to back up his mate and ended up one of the most wanted men in the British Empire.
A very special thank you to Noeleen Lloyd whose advice and additional information on the Hart family was invaluable in the compiling of this biography.
LA citation”STEPHEN HART’S BOYHOOD.” Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954) 10 July 1880: 6.
“More Facts About the Kelly Raid.” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931) 14 February 1879: 3.
“DESCRIPTION OF THE OUTLAWS.” Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954) 14 December 1878: 16.
“THE KELLY GANG” The Kyneton Observer (Vic. : 1856 – 1900) 8 March 1879: 2.
“WHEN GUNDAGAI WAS A TRAGIC SIGHT” The Gundagai Independent (NSW : 1928 – 1939) 1 August 1935: 6.
You cannot believe anyone else’s version of an event. You must search it out yourself. – Ian Jones
With the passing of Ian Jones on 31 August, the world of Ned Kelly buffs was shaken. Jones had dedicated the best part of his life to recording and popularising the story of the Kelly Gang and for a considerable number of people in the community they had never been in a world without Ian Jones. His masterpiece Ned Kelly: A Short Life, released in 1995, remains a must-read for all people interested in the story. On top of this, his work on Ned Kelly (1970) and The Last Outlaw (1980) helped entrench Ned in the Australian popular culture.
Beyond his contributions to Kelly scholarship and culture, Jones is best remembered for his work in film and television, for which he was awarded the Longford Lyell Award in 2006 by the AFI. He began his career as a journalist for the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial before moving into broadcasting. His first work in television was on the broadcasts of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne for HSV7 and later a foundation director at Channel Seven in Melbourne. But he soon moved into other programming such as Consider Your Verdict and Video Village. In the 1960s he began working for Crawford Productions and in 1964 was the first writer and director for the classic Australian crime drama Homicide. For Crawfords he also worked on The Sullivans, Matlock Police, Hunter, The Bluestone Boys, Bluey, Division 4, Ryan and The Box. But perhaps his most popular work at the time was Against the Wind, a 1978 drama set in the convict era starring Jon English that gained a devoted fanbase around the world. He created the series with his wife Bronwyn Binns, with whom he would go on to create The Last Outlaw.
Ian Jones was also a military historian with a passion for the Australian Light Horse Brigade and in 1987 wrote and produced The Lighthorsemen starring Peter Phelps and Sigrid Thornton. The film depicted the actions of the 4th Light Horse Brigade in the Battle of Beersheba, a key event in WWI and a major victory for Australian forces in the war.
Jones credited his love affair with all things Kelly to a gardener named Tom Maine who would tell him stories about Ned Kelly when he was ten. The obsession began when he read conflicting accounts of Ned Kelly and determined to find out the truth. His fascination with film meant that it was destiny that he would create what is widely considered to be the definitive on-screen depiction of the story. His first attempt during his time as a university student did not pan out as expected resulting in an empty bank account and an injured foot. His experience as co-writer on Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly film, seeing how it was tampered with after his own involvement ceased, led to him going over all elements of The Last Outlaw with a fine-toothed comb. In 1992 he released his first book on the subject, The Friendship That Destroyed Ned Kelly: Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt (later re-released in a revised edition as The Fatal Friendship: Ned Kelly, Aaron Sherritt and Joe Byrne) and was finally able to immortalise some of his own research in print. After the release of Ned Kelly: A Short Life in 1995, Ian Jones cemented his place and became a celebrity to aficionados of the Kelly story. Whenever Ned Kelly was in the news his would be the opinion everyone would seek, even only a few months ago in relation to a controversial work by Stuart Dawson refuting the idea that Ned Kelly was attempting to create a republic – one of the key ideas Ian Jones had popularised after learning of it in his interviews with descendants. Jones was instrumental in the creation of the Ned Kelly Vault in Beechworth, a museum dedicated to the story with an eclectic collection of artifacts spanning the history and the cultural legacy of the story. He never wavered in his high opinion of Ned Kelly, championing the outlaw as an inherently fine man who found himself falling foul of the law after years of oppression. As Ned Kelly appears to be regaining a foothold in the Australian collective consciousness after a lull it seems almost poetic that Jones has departed now, his success in helping to preserve the story for future generations now assured.