‘Easy to escape, hard to survive’ by Julia Dąbrowska

With the beginning of September, long-time follower and occasional contributor to A Guide to Australian Bushranging, Julia Dąbrowska has penned this prose and accompanying artwork to commemorate the death of the “Wild Colonial Boy”, Jack Donahoe (sometimes spelled Donohoe, Donahue).
While he died in a bloody stoush with police on this day in 1830, Julia’s short piece gives us a snapshot at where that story began in 1828.

Easy to escape, hard to survive

It has been said, “In Australia it was easy to escape. The hard thing was to survive.” A young man, hiding in the high grass and ferns has already understood it. The young man is Jack Donahue, a Dublin-born convict who was transported in Australia three years ago. He is breathing quickly, his forehead is covered with sweat. The day before Jack was sentenced to death by hanging along with his two gang members, George Kilroy and William Smith. He managed to escape, despite having leg irons. Jack knows that the first thing he needs to do after his successful (for now) escape is to get rid of them.

“I need me a saw or an axe to cut the bloody leg irons off,” he thinks. After several more hours of walking, Jack spots a farm. He goes into a tool shed next to a piggery, finds an axe and a saw. After a while, he frees himself from the leg irons. Then he goes into the piggery. He picks up some stale bread, onions and carrots meant to be the food for the pigs, like he used to do while working on a pig farm. Jack knows that he may not always be lucky enough to steal food from a farm not being noticed. So he leaves the piggery with pockets of his prison uniform full of food. His next plan is to find some former convicts who may help him. And to team up with some other bushrangers.

Dressed like a London dandy

A short, blonde-haired young man dressed in a worn out prison uniform sits on a fallen tree next to the Richmond road. This man is Jack Donahue, who had recently escaped while being transported from the court to the gaol. Next to him lay the clothes Jack had stolen from some Sydney gentleman.

“A bloody good haul,” thinks Jack. He looks at his own dirty clothes, gathers some dry grass and twigs and lights a fire. Half an hour later, the prison uniform is burning in the fire. And what is Jack now wearing? A blue coat, silk cravat, thin white shirt adorned with lace, white trousers and brown boots. Now he’s not dressed like a convict, but like a true London dandy.

©Julia Dąbrowska, 2023

My Story: Georgina Stones and Michael Howe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Historical Records of Australia, Series 3, Volume 2.

Historical Records of Australia, Series 3, Volume 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature Competition Entry #3: Fragments from an Outlaw’s Journal by Georgina Stones

Darkness folds around Joe, memories flickering, painfully, to the surface, while he waits for the train that Ned promises will come…

I pour another glass full of whiskey and reach into my pocket, the small packet of opium powder ruffles beneath my fingers. I think this is my third dose, but I cannot be sure. Nothing will be strong enough to blur the vision of Aaron, lying dead at my feet. I have long been haunted by the blood that was spilled at Stringybark Creek, but nothing could have prepared me for the blood that leeched out of Aaron. Christ. The way it spurted between his fingers in a wild arc of crimson, as he clutched at his throat and staggered backwards. But I aimed again and pulled the trigger, the shot shredded through his shirt and skin, instantly shattering his ribs, which exploded out from underneath his favorite cotton shirt. Aaron gargled and spluttered, falling backwards, he smashed his head against an old potato box. Then came the screaming and wailing of Belle, piercing my ears worse than the blast of the bloody shotgun. I looked down at what I had caused, my eyesight blurred, the bashing of Dan’s fist on the door seemed a hundred miles away…


I dared not tell Ned of what had occurred, and thankfully, he has not yet asked. If I were a superstitious cove I would tap on this table, but I have never cared for such a notion…We had gone to Aaron’s with the intention of killing the mongrels hiding in his hut, we hoped it would scare Sherritt out of Victoria. But when old man Wick knocked on the door and I heard the bugger laughing, I could not contain the rage that burned. Aaron had virtually starved us out, he had become as much our enemy as that bastard Ward and smart old Hare. I had remained loyal to him, even when my own mother was in my ear, I had not faltered in this loyalty. But a man can only be pushed so far. I had done six months in gaol for the idjit, breaking rock, my feet red raw from the ill-fitting shoes I was constantly marched in, all for the cow he had slaughtered. Spent a day and a half sweating in the lockup for the effing trouble with Ah On…After our release I swore the bastard would never put me away again; I have always been a man of my word.


I swirl the glass to dissolve the powder and throw back the contents, if I still had the sensation of taste I’d have complained of the bitterness, but my dependence on alcohol and opium has meant I can no longer taste a great deal. The weeks after Stringybark Creek, I was never separated from the bottle. How could I not be? My dreams were constantly filled with gunshots, shouting and blood. The nights were the worst. Hard to escape reality when you’re stuck in a cave with three other men, all of us with blood on our hands. In order to deal with the visons that plagued me, I’d drink myself into a stupor and obsess over the rings on my fingers. Twisting and pulling at them until my fingers were swollen and red. The following morning I would wake, slumped against the rock, with Danny standing over me, a pannikin of creek water in his hands. I was showing them to Mrs. Jones earlier, and she wanted a closer look, but couldn’t get the damned things off. They have always been a tight fit, especially Scanlan’s, I think he must have had fingers like a woman, certainly nothing like my pair of fives. Suppose these rings have become a part of me now, Ma would tell me it’s so God knows that I have sinned, but I think he knows anyhow, with or without these blasted things…


A week after Da died, Ma gifted me a prayer book for my fourteenth birthday, but not one for the word of God, I tore the pages out and replaced them. It’s become my journal, an outlaw’s journal, I suppose. I’ve been writing in it here, whenever I am gifted the chance. The bits I had written about Maggie I gave to her as a gift of my love. She is unable to read a great deal, so I recited to her what I had written. Danny reckons he keeps a journal too, but it’s only a few bits of scrap paper, and truth be told, I’ve not seen the young beggar ever writing.


Ma has always been of the opinion that religion and having faith is of the utmost importance. Da would often humor her, but I have found it difficult to do so. I always detested going to church. A few times I would hide in Wick’s orchard; however it was always to no avail. One incident I have never been able to shake from my memory occurred just after Da had died. The priest, whom I knew to be a liar, ventured close behind me and put his hand on my shoulder, his nails digging deep into my sack coat. “You’re a nice looking fellow aren’t you?” He whispered. Unable to conceal the fear that trembled within me, I shook from him and ran out the door, not stopping until I reached home. When Ma arrived back with my brothers and sisters, her face was distorted with anger. She yelled at me for embarrassing her in front of her friends and swore I would face eternal damnation if I were to act like that again. She blamed my behavior on the books I read, so she threw them all in the fire. For a long time I tried to be the son she wanted, but I was never quite good enough. It always seemed to me she would have preferred Aaron as her son, he wasn’t, as she put it, “afraid of hard work.” I have never understood her, she would berate me for spending afternoons at the public library in Beechworth, yet she insisted she valued education…


The only time I remember her being truly proud is when I came first in my class in reading and writing. Before Da had his turn, I was always a good scholar, even when bloody Aaron tried to persuade me to muck about with him. Da couldn’t read or write anything, except an ink scratch that resembled his name, but he liked me to sit beside him at the table and write him poems. When I was given the certificate by Mr. Donoghue, I dared not put in my pocket for fear it would tear, so I held it in my hands, as tenderly as a newborn lamb. On the walk home with Kate and Patsy I held it aloft, so proud I was of what I had achieved. I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, Ma and Da’s faces when I arrived home, the look of pride, something I have not known since…


Relaxed by the opium powder and whiskey, I lean back in my chair and let my eyes wander around the room at the collection of men we have rounded up, some full of pluck, others as skittish as foals. Through the doorway, I can see Dan playing cards with one of the younger men, while Jane Jones sits on his knee, holding one of his revolvers. He catches me looking and winks over Jane’s shoulder; I merely shake my head at him. He’s always been a cheeky bugger when it’s come to girls, reckons he has had many a donah. When the pair of us would stay up, keeping sentry over Steve and Ned while they slept, Danny would tell me endless tales of his time with a young lass named Ginnie, who seemed to be nothing but skin and bone. Of course, I’d tell him stories about the women I had charmed…


Ann Jones, her cheeks flushed, moves about the bar. After the dancing had concluded she quizzed me about Maggie, I didn’t say much. What can I say? Stuck here, waiting as I am for this godforsaken train, so that we may send it and all its police occupants to hell. It’s a pity old Ward and bloody Mullane won’t be travelling; I’d give all the money in the world to see their bloated and mangled carcasses amongst the wreckage. I will never forget when the pair of them came looking for Aaron and myself at Sheepstation Creek, the way they looked down their noses, near scoffing at us they were. When I was first outlawed, I sent him word that if I ever caught him, I would shove his body in a hollow log and burn it. He knew I was serious. Joey Byrne rarely plays bluff.


Pulling the cork free with my teeth, I empty the remaining whiskey into the nobbler and throw it back in a single swig. I wish to quell the thoughts that gnaw, but I know it is all in vain; Aaron lying face down in his own blood and gore devours my mind…


Tearing another packet of opium powder, I tap the contents into the glass which begin to dissolve in the sticky remnants of whiskey and reach across for the gin bottle. Gulping the drug, I finger the keepsake that is hidden beneath my crimean shirt. Maggie, my darling Maggie. When we are alone together there is such hunger between us, I have never known a woman quite like her. She helps me to forget the reality of this pitiful existence, where I am able to lose the outlaw guise and become truly myself. Maggie is branded with the scars of her previous life in Cornwall, and I swear to her, and I swear again, that if I am to ever come across him I will do more than merely shoot the mongrel. We often lie together in Maggie’s quarters at the Vine, wrapped in a haze of opium filled bliss. I smile now as I think of her, curled around me, sucking opium smoke like clean mountain air… She has begun making visits into the Chinese camp to procure the drug, as the traps have made it too hot for Patsy to do so. I wear her ring around my neck as a promise of my love and the future I hoped may be granted to us. Yet with every hour that passes on the hands of Mrs. Jones’ grandfather clock, I become less certain…


I must finish here, Neddy is calling for me. There is a trap named Bracken who must be fetched.

Literature Competition Entry #2: The Book of Drops by Ben Holgate

The master and his apprentice occupied the hangman’s cell, intently focussed on their macabre lesson.

‘The knot is instrumental in the breaking of the spine, son. There is no room for error on placing the knot,’ advised the master.

A man in his fifties, the master was growing older, developing a bald patch at the crown of his scalp and his hands trembled constantly, affecting his script, his grip and his ability to tie a noose. It was time to hand his unenviable livelihood away. He had been responsible for 19 executions at the gallows just four paces outside the door, most of them having been clean and instantaneous, yet he had learned some hard lessons too. He would be present for his apprentice’s first execution, and no more after that. It was important that the younger man learnt fast and thoroughly.

The apprentice looked at the coil of rope his master offered in his outstretched hand, trying to come to terms with the gravity of this new vocation. Mixed emotions welled within his stomach and his chest – fear, nausea, sadness, empathy, an immutable thirst for justice – and binding all of that was a steely sense of resolve.

The master, hands trembling under the weight of the rope, tried to read behind the young man’s eyes. ‘Take the rope, son.’ The apprentice looked up from the coil of rope and the men’s eyes met.

‘I remind you sir,’ said the apprentice, ‘that I wish for you to not call me that.’

‘Ah yes, forgive me son,’ responded the master, oblivious to his continued offence. ‘I do it out of mere habit.’

‘It would please me if you would break the habit. My mother graces Heaven because my father is a wretch – ‘

‘Aye, that is true,’ the master interrupted.

‘ – and I would prefer not to be reminded of my connection to any father, except that of my only true father now; the good Lord in the kingdom of Heaven.’

The master watched his reflection in his pupil’s glassy eyes. The apprentice held his eye, attempting stoicism, but a single tear betrayed him by springing from his eye and free-falling down his face, followed by a trembling lip and a single sob, before quickly recovering his composure. The master felt his own eyes fill up for the man, but managed to hold back the water.

‘Not many men get to legally avenge their mother’s death,’ said the master. ‘You need to take the rope, before my hand gives out.’

The apprentice took the rope.

‘Let’s see what your noose looks like,’ said the master, taking a small wooden stool from the corner and drawing it into the centre of the room before sitting on it. The apprentice kneeled, and uncoiled the rope, feeling the fibres of the hemp strands run through his palms as he let it uncoil to the floor. He took one end of the rope, and made a large loop, folding the tail of the rope back along the edge of the noose. The master watched closely, every flick of the apprentice’s finger and every turn of the rope. The result was a fine noose.

‘That’s good work, son. A capital job indeed. Now rise and fit it round my neck.’

The apprentice looked up at the master, and then rose to a standing position. When he had accepted this new vocation, he was riding a wave of righteous anger, as were all others in the Clifton Hills community. Christian decency demanded an eye for an eye, and his poor murdered mother should be avenged. The apprentice had readily presented at the State Executioner’s office volunteering his services to hang the wretched devil who confessed to the bloody affair. He hadn’t foreseen any possibility that in the following weeks, as the emotional wave ebbed, that shades of grey might wash out what was initially a black and white picture. Now he stood in a chilled, bluestone cell in the gaol, the trap only six paces away, the lever only three. The ominous cypress beam dominated overhead, decorated with the scars and patina left behind by forty-four previous executions, the most notable being that of Ned Kelly’s eleven years earlier.
Now as he was about to place a noose around another human being’s neck for the first time, the conflicting emotions resurfaced. He was able to muster enough mettle to slip the noose over his master’s crown. The master inhaled sharply as he felt the rope slide past his ears, and the rest of his body joined his hands in the trembling.

‘Now slide the knot around to the left ear, right under the jaw there. You want the knot to sit firm against the jawbone, else the rope might not draw tight right enough and you’ve got a death by strangulation on your conscience.’

‘My conscience is my own worry,’ said the apprentice, terser than intended.

‘Ah, that it is my boy. Your emotions are justified in wanting to inflict a painful and miserable death, but you will be under close scrutiny from the sheriff and the warden, and a decapitated body or a man writhing in agony on the end of this rope for minutes on end will reflect poorly on my craftmanship.’

The knot rested secure under his left ear, firm but tight.

‘Now we must move to the scales. A correct weight is imperative for knowing how far to let the drop.’

Both men moved to the scales, where the master stepped upon them and demonstrated the correct procedure for an accurate measurement.

Moving to a wooden bureau, the master opened a narrow book and showed his apprentice the table of drops.

‘Greater minds than ours dictate the length of the drop, son.’

‘The British Home Office,’ said the apprentice, reading from the top of the table.

‘No drop should exceed eight feet.’

‘That’s right,’ replied the master. ‘Although I think they guess as much as we once had to.’

‘What’s your meaning?’ asked the apprentice.

‘Well, the rule is that all deaths must be instantaneous without being unnecessarily violent, even when they clearly aren’t. Abide by this chart my boy, and the surgeon won’t question your methods, despite any bungling. I’ve found it to get the job done more often than it turns to suffering, so maybe there’s something in it. Still, seeing a man kick and struggle for twenty minutes at the end of this rope is something that will stay with you.’

‘So what does the chart say for your weight?’ asked the apprentice.

‘Well son,’ began his master, ‘the scales say 13 stone 1 pound. That makes me 183 pounds, so by the book the length of the drop must be four-foot-seven.’

The apprentice’s eyes scanned the chart, looking at the rows of numbers. He was literate enough, knew his arithmetic and his reading, though he wasn’t so good at writing, but could get by well enough as to appear educated. Looking at the way the rope sat around his master’s neck, the apprentice pondered the alternatives to a precise and clean break. The rope sat a little lower than a short but deep, stitched wound on the master’s throat.

‘And what of your wound? How will it hold up to the drop?’

‘Ah, I reckon it will give out soon enough, but if you place the knot correctly, I’ll be dead before I’m aware of it, and if the chart holds true there won’t be enough force to tear my head entirely from my shoulders.’

‘Should I practice caution and make the drop shorter to save it from tearing from your shoulders?’

‘By God’s mercy, absolutely not!’ hissed the master. ‘And don’t get any notion of raising such concerns with the surgeon either. I’ve seen his meddling in my trade have grievous consequences. I won’t be the victim of one of his arbitrary decisions to change the state of things. The Heavenly Father knows I did what I did, though I don’t, but I’ll face him in fair judgment. I ought not have to go and suffer a cruel mortal death unless He wills it himself. You follow that chart son, you place this knot exactly as it is now and leave the rest to the Lord. Do you understand me?’

‘As you’ll have it,’ said the apprentice flatly.

A brief moment of silence fell before the apprentice spoke again.

‘Why did you kill her?’

Now the master’s eyes betrayed his emotions, and whilst he abstained from sobbing, his tears flowed freely.

‘I cannot even remember doing it, though I know that I did. I loved your mother, I did. My heart was her kingdom. While I was riding the tram down Bourke Street, I saw her walking in the street, arm in arm with Thomas Hogan. I took her out walking, to have a proper conversation about it with her, and when she told me she would never love me, that her love was for only Hogan, it was the devil himself bringing hell up to Earth for me to suffer here. It was the devil took control of my body. I was cast outside and the devil crawled inside me and it was he that slashed your mother’s throat. I’ll swear it on the Bible if you bring one to me.’

‘It was you. You are the devil!’ shouted the apprentice, enraged by his master’s blame-shifting.

‘Right you are, I suppose you are right. It was these trembling hands that held the razor on that cursed night, and I stand before you now ready to pay my debt to you, and to her, and to the righteous people of the colony.’

‘You tried to commit suicide and escape your true justice.’

‘I tell you again it was the devil inside me, son. I have never been capable of such inexcusable sins. I would never wilfully commit such unholy crimes. My faculties had abandoned me.’

‘You’ve made an orphan of me,’ said the apprentice. ‘In one despicable act, you’ve robbed me of my mother and my father.’

‘This is true,’ said the master, ‘but you still have your father until that trap swings open.’

‘That trap will swing open. I will pull that lever with a sure and steady hand, and I will watch my father, the devil, plunge to his rightful place. Until then, him and I have nothing to speak of, except our lessons.’

The master wiped the tears from his cheeks, smiled at his son one last time, and began demonstrating how the white hood was to be fitted to the condemned.

Literature Competition Entry #1: Meeting Dan at Stringybark Creek by Joanne Stritch

Many a ghost has come back to a place where life took them down a path they regretted. So was the situation for the image of a man kneeling next to the gum tree. Leaning his slim weight on his rifle with one hand, one knee was on the dewy ground and the other leg bent, heeled foot flat against the earth. His unbuttoned blazer exposed his waistcoat and his stained trousers were slightly baggy but tucked tidily into his riding boots.

The man felt burdened by the weight of an event that took control of the end of their lives; him and his brother and that of two friends. Near to him he saw a splayed body lying on its back, all bloody with a helmet still on. Himself, he wore a brimmed felt hat, cord under his nose, the trend of his group. He had thought it was so cool. Heroes of the bush they were, his group. What does that really matter now? He could almost feel his thin moustache cringe in disgust.

The man’s eyes looked far into the bush below, but showed no expression. In his soul he looked with regret, regret for what his young life became, how wasted it was and how one solitary event had sealed all their fates. The landscape remained similar, preserving the battle scene on the hill above the creek. The body was long gone, carried out on a stretcher with the others. They had won this event, his group, but had lost with their lives. He would stand with his brother and mates again in a heartbeat against a force so strong, so unfair and unbeatable; a man had only two options.

Immense pride at the mateship of his group flowed thru his aura. They were a fair minded group of blokes, fair to most that crossed their path. They created their own sense of justice but nobody got hurt from this justice, except maybe the banks. The supposed justice that was served their way was cruel, emotionally and physically. There was reflected hurt back to the authorities at this event but it wasn’t his group’s choice to have this outcome.

Want flowed thru him willing the bush, with all its living scents of eucalypts and peppermint trees, to force some life into him and move him on. Transition him into a higher sphere and take him away to his family. Instead he was a contradiction; stuck like lifeless paste to a place in the history of the valley, whilst the valley was full of life, feeding its nature and evolving. He fed nothing, not even hope. There was no colour in his world, only a monotone of dullness.

The man was very still and statue-like, slumped slightly. If his mother walked past she would’ve given his shoulders a friendly shake in support to try and cheer him up. But his mother was long gone, and the man wished he had led his troubles further afield from his beloved family. If he was real life flesh and blood his black coloured eyes, which pierced the air like a fast shooting bullet, would disarm the most confident person walking by. That same person would be able to see straight into his soul, with a view directly to the hole in his chest where his heart should be. A heart shredded and burnt into ash by physical forces but also emotionally destroyed by guilt.

Drawing attention to his presence did not feel like the purpose in him being here, and reliving the events was certainly not attractive. Searching for a method of how to connect to try and heal the pain was on his mind, not knowing how proved the problem. Sharing emotion was not his strong point. He’d physically been a weight bearer for his group, despite his lean appearance. Being emotionally supportive by just being present was his method. Right now he was staying patiently in a position ready to act, but also ready to wait. Could this convey sorrow, could this fix the injustices of the past, could this bring forgiveness which might ultimately let him rest? He’d been around for too long, a dead man was not supposed to be frozen in an aura of defeat.

The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly: Retrospective Review by Gabriel Bergmoser

This entry was written by playwright Gabriel Bergmoser, creator of the musical Moonlite. Gabriel’s passion for bushranger tales is evident in his work and I am very glad to present this personal account to you. ~ AP


It’s impossible to write this without giving a bit of personal context, so please bear with me.
I went to primary school in Mansfield, about a hundred metres from where Sergeant Kennedy, Constable Scanlon and Constable Lonigan were buried after being shot by Ned Kelly at Stringybark Creek. With its relative proximity to the creek itself, Mansfield is a major Kelly Country location, and there is a reasonable thread of fascination with the events in the town.
I was totally Kelly obsessed from the moment I was old enough to have any kind of understanding of the story, and as such I was thrilled when, in primary school, my class spent a few weeks studying bushrangers. To tie in with this theme, every lunch our teacher read us a little bit of the only novel she had on the topic – a book from the 1920s called The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly. At the time, being around ten, I was utterly transfixed by the book, looking forward to the next instalment every lunch, outraged when the book was snapped shut and we had to go and play.
We never finished the book, much to my consternation, and as my teacher’s copy was an antique she wasn’t about to lend it to me, so I resolved to find my own. Every weekend trip to Melbourne I would beg my parents to let me scour second hand bookstores to try and find it. But it didn’t matter how many places I searched (a lot); I never saw the book.


Over the years I kept looking. Not super seriously, eventually more just out of habit. But as more and more time passed, a strange kind of fervour grew. It had to be somewhere, right?
Apparently it didn’t. Even online searches yielded nothing. The book evidently existed, it was just very, very rare.
It wasn’t even like I was driven by genuine memories of how good it was. If you’d asked in the past couple of years, I doubt I could recount any of the book with any accuracy. But the fact that I couldn’t find it was maddening.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was walking through Adelaide when a second hand bookstore caught my eye. I wandered in and set about trying to find the book. No luck. But there were a couple of other gems in the bushranger section and as I took them up to the counter the lady who owned the shop commented on an evident obsession. I mentioned my ongoing search for The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly and the response was immediate; “oh, it’s in that cabinet over there.”
That book was first read to me in 2002. It took sixteen years to finally get my hands on it.

Honestly, after all of that I wasn’t sure if I would even read it. Carrying it out of the store with immense reverence, the idea that the book wouldn’t be worth it was a bit of a concern. But upon flicking through it became evident that I wouldn’t be able to help myself.
Beyond that, I was fascinated by what the book might represent. Originally serialised in the 1920s, a disclaimer in the front of the book says that the names of many of the supporting characters had been changed “for obvious reasons”: the book was written within the life spans of people who knew the Kellys. Ellen Kelly died only a few years before it was published. With that in mind, does this book represent one of, if not the earliest romanticised fiction of Ned Kelly? If so, what, if any, was its role in his growing canonisation? And aside from anything else, is it actually a good book?


Told largely from the perspective of fictional drifter Jack Briant, The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly chronicles his tangential involvement with the gang during the last year of their lives, and… well, actually that’s about it.

The character of Briant, despite some early intrigue regarding his backstory that is resolved in the most toothless, predictable way possible, feels very much like a not particularly subtle stand in for the author. It’s hard to state this with much veracity; I couldn’t find much information on writer Charles E. Taylor, but the character of a wealthy man from Melbourne who wins Ned’s trust, confounds the police and flirts with Kate Kelly seems very much like a way for an author brought up in the aftermath of the Kellys’ time to play out a kind of wish fulfillment. By extension, this makes him an audience surrogate and, perhaps, indicates why the book had such an impact on ten year old, bushranger obsessed me.
As a character however? Briant is kind of annoying. He stands out badly due to the fact that he never existed and yet in the book he is at least tangentially present for much of the gang’s doings. But the fact that he has no real place in the history also means that he’s largely inactive as a protagonist; his contributions to the plot essentially extend to teaching the gang how to conceal their campfires (because that’s exactly the kind of thing a rich bloke from Melbourne would know rather than Ned) and distracting the police once or twice.
Adding to the character’s artificiality is an occasional propensity to remind the audience, via his inner monologue, that Ned is bound for a sticky end and that the police are just doing their jobs and plenty of them are noble. This doesn’t really track with his actions and as such feels like the work of a nervous editor ensuring the book doesn’t glorify the Kellys too much. Even the foreword insists that ‘no attempt has been made to canonise these young criminals’ despite the fact that, well, that’s exactly what the book does.

Make no mistake; this novel exists squarely in the tradition of Ned as a romantic, Robin Hood like figure. He’s presented in the text pretty much exactly how you’d expect; noble, imperious, wily with occasional flashes of larrikin charm. The rest of the gang get essentially one note personalities, with Dan being The Angry One, Joe being The Sad One and Steve being The Other One.
Beyond the gang, Hare and an almost pantomime villain version of Aaron Sherritt, most of the characters are either loose analogues for people like Wild Wright or Tom Lloyd or, like Briant, made up entirely. Weirdly, some of those characters are actually among the book’s most endearing, from crotchety old Kelly sympathiser Sam Jackson to Briant’s love interest, mercurial farmer’s daughter Nita. Even some of the fictional policeman show moments of surprising depth, like one particularly evangelical trap standing silently side by side with sworn enemy Ned at a funeral out of respect for the deceased.
And then there’s the titular ‘girl’. Jim Kelly was apparently outraged by this fabrication in particular, vehemently claiming that Ned ‘had no girl’. As it stands, the character is barely there, a fictional lover of Ned who only appears in the second half of the book and barely warrants supporting character status, let alone the title. The relationship is so thinly sketched that it’s hard to see why it was included at all.


It’s honestly difficult to say what the book is really about. Jack’s fledgling romance with Nita gets the bulk of the attention, but neither of them are the title characters or, y’know, real people. Their will they-won’t they thing is surprisingly engaging, but it ends up being far more dominant than major events like the death of Aaron Sherritt, which happens within a page of Joe discovering he’s a traitor, or the siege of Glenrowan which gets maybe two pages at the end. As it stands, it reads more than anything like the author just really wanted to hang out with these characters.
Except, of course, they’re not characters, they’re real people. The changed names are the most telling aspect; this book was written at a time where the events were not so long in the past as to rightly be considered legend yet. Given those circumstances, it’s hard to see the book as one written in particularly good taste, and it’s even harder to understand why it makes some of its more egregious diversions from history; namely the Siege of Glenrowan occurring several weeks after Sherritt’s murder and Dan dying well before Joe and Steve at the siege itself. You could chalk this up to ignorance, were it not for the afterward that includes many of the correct dates and details.
But look, accuracy is not what makes this book fascinating and nor, realistically, is narrative. What makes it worthy of discussion is the fact that it represents a blithe fictionalisation of the Kelly story written at a time when the events were still very much within living memory. And despite Jim Kelly’s consternation, it would be far from the last. From Our Sunshine to True History of the Kelly Gang; the literary class might have evolved, but the fundamental ethos certainly hasn’t; this story is our defining cultural myth, so writers and artists will always be drawn to create their own version.

I don’t know whether I would attribute much if any of the history’s ongoing romanticisation to this book. The process of consolidating the facts into legend had long since started, but to my knowledge The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly represents the first in a long tradition, the moment when writers started to feel comfortable twisting the story to suit their own ends, in the process creating new versions of the legend that would ensure it was kept alive for generations to come. Whatever your opinion on the practice, that fact alone gives it a place in the canon.
It’s hard, in the end, to know how to feel about this book. I didn’t remember enough of it to be especially nostalgic in reading it. It was certainly entertaining and rarely less than fascinating. But it is very much of its time and as a novel, isn’t much more than mediocre. A forgotten classic this absolutely is not.


Of course, my stake in the whole endeavour always went deeper than simply reviewing a piece of Kelly esoterica. After a sixteen year search, am I glad I finally found and read the thing? Yeah, I’d say so. I would have been immensely surprised if it was anywhere near as good as my 2002 self remembered it so its overall quality didn’t count as much of a disappointment. More than anything, having and holding an original copy of the book dating from the 1920s is really special, and a piece of Kelly history I’m proud to own. But in terms of whether you should embark on your own multi year hunt to track down and read it? Unless you’re a hardcore collector, there are probably better uses of your time.

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Selected Sources:

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

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

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

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

“Look Australia! Our bushrangers are far more interesting and complex than you realise!” – The story behind The Legend of Ben Hall

This week we asked film-maker Matthew Holmes, writer and director of The Legend of Ben Hall, to pen some thoughts about his passion for Ben Hall, bushrangers, film-making and how that translated into his award winning film. ~ AP

I’ve always had a love for Australian history and bushrangers were always part of that. I really didn’t know much detail about them beyond some broad knowledge of Ned Kelly, but I was fully aware of the mythos surrounding them – daring Australian highway robbers that held up coaches and fought it out with the police. But it wasn’t until 2007 when a friend of mine recommended that I check out a bushranger called Ben Hall.


When I began learning about Ben Hall, I was immediately hooked and began buying up every book I could find. Yet, my first introduction to Ben Hall was through the prism of folklore. A cursory investigation into Ben Hall will give you this romanticised version – a dashing, outlaw rogue who never killed a man; a poor victim of police corruption; a swaggering leader of men with a twinkle in eye; and of course, a martyr of police brutality. He is absolutely endowed with this ‘Robin Hood’ mantle of the noble bandit. Wikipedia, folksongs and the brief overviews of his life in bushranger books always give this impression of Ben Hall. And to be honest, I swallowed that romantic illusion completely – I loved it, and I thought this would make for a great film. It wasn’t until my books arrived in the mail and I began reading the real history that my perception of Ben Hall began to change.

I had ordered books by D.J. Shiel, Edgar Penzig and Peter Bradley and devoured them immediately with the full intention of writing a screenplay. Yet page after page, I began to realise something – Ben Hall was no Robin Hood. There was another whole side to his story. Things were not so cut and dry. The deeper I delved into the historical accounts – which included newspaper reports and police records – I began to discover a much darker tale surrounding Ben Hall – and a far more interesting one. The ‘romantic’ bushranger image began to dissolve away as the truth came forward. Ben Hall was far more complex than I could have ever imagined. This man was a plethora of contradictions and not at all like his public image. Gone was the charming, swaggering ‘Gentleman Bushranger’. Here was a broken man defined by heartache, rage, depression, regret and loss. It was almost like this man didn’t even want to be a bushranger, but found himself driven to that path by bad choices and circumstances. To me, this was no longer of story of black hat vs white hat; this was a story to be told in many shades of grey.

This is when Ben Hall’s story became even more interesting to me. I now realised that for so many years, filmmakers have been approaching these stories from two polarising viewpoints; bushrangers are the good, police are the bad – or visa versa. Yet the true history of these men and women cannot be defined so simply. I wanted to bring that truth to the big screen. I felt it was time for these social perceptions, myths and legends to be pushed aside, because the truth was far more interesting anyway. This is why I made a decided effort to make my Ben Hall film as historically accurate as I could. If I didn’t, I would only be adding more mythology to mix. I wanted to shake up the genre and say “Look Australia! Our bushrangers are far more interesting and complex than you realise!”


As a filmmaker, flawed characters are far more interesting and their stories more engaging. My goal was to humanise every character in these stories instead of branding them with a stereotype. Just because someone was policeman didn’t mean I was going to portray them as a moustache twirling aristocrat. Nor were the bushrangers going to be these loveable rogues with hearts of gold. I would portray them exactly as the history books revealed them, which at times was not very flattering – on both sides of the conflict. I wanted to help the audience understand why Ben Hall was this way. We didn’t have to agree with his choices, just understand them. We didn’t have to agree with the police gunning Ben Hall down, just to understand why it happened that way.

If I had set out to make a film that put Ben Hall on a pedestal and portrayed him a harmless rogue that was cruelly oppressed by the villainous police, it might’ve been a more accessible film as far as the marketplace was concerned – but it would’ve been completely dishonest. Yet, if I had made Ben Hall out to be an absolute villain – an irredeemable, heartless, mass-murdering thug – that too would’ve been completely dishonest. Neither of those perceptions of Ben Hall are accurate. He was many shades of grey, and when you get down to it – just a regular person like you and I, with positive and negative characteristics. Ben Hall was a man who would shoot it out with police and rob a hundred people at gunpoint on the highway, yet he would kindly play with the children of his enemies in their front yard. Ben Hall was known to break open a church poor box and take its coins, yet gave a sick woman some extra money on the road when he learned she was on her way to the doctor. He burned down people’s homes if they crossed him, yet he refused to let his gang execute policemen that they captured. It was exciting to discover a character so rich and complex, so I was determined that’s how I would portray him.


Overall, the reception to The Legend of Ben Hall has been overwhelming – from audiences. The authenticity is something everyone is picking up and appreciating. So many people find its approach to history refreshing and have thanked me for making it balanced. I’ve found the film has been less well received by critics, who tend to think I’m either glorifying a criminal or not providing enough reason for him to be this way. I think that’s because some critics, like many people, came to TLOBH with their own pre-conceived ideas of what a film about a bushranger should be. So when the film does something completely different, they blame the film for not being done correctly and meeting their expectations.

I have found the odd person on social media or YouTube condemning the film for being inaccurate. Or they believe I’m glorifying a criminal. I think its quite clear that the film doesn’t do this, but again – some people will be disappointed when the film doesn’t align with their preconceptions. I did notice on our tour of the film in regional New South Wales that many people who stayed for the Q&A’s always tried to pull me up on the film’s ‘inaccuracies’. They were in fact just referring to the myths they had been brought up believing, the same old oral tales passed down by novels, songs or TV shows. I had to carefully explain that, in fact, those were not true and why that myth has persisted. It’s amusing how many people assume that as a filmmaker, I had not done my research. But that probably comes from decades of Hollywood films messing around with the truth.

On social media, I will occassionally get an ‘Armchair Historian’ come at me with a bunch of poorly researched ‘facts’, once again lost in the mythology. But it really shows how much these tall-tales have become so entrenched in our social perceptions of bushrangers. My goal with Ben Hall – and any future bushranger films – is to take those ‘perception glasses’ off and allow people see these bushrangers and police for who they really were, warts and all. Because the truth is stranger than fiction and these stories are fabulous. Films are about entertainment, but there’s no reason they can’t educate and enlighten audiences at the same time. It’s time to let these stories speak their truths to us rather than us pressing our ideals onto the stories.


The Legend of Ben Hall will be released in the UK and Ireland for home entertainment July 2, 2018. So far it has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray in seven countries and its seen sold to television, cable and digital in over twenty-two countries.

If you would like to purchase a copy of The Legend of Ben Hall you can find one here.

Joe Byrne: An Opinion

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

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

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

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

This is what compels me to Joe Byrne.


Ian Jones, A Short Life

Ian Jones, The Fatal Friendship

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

Keith McMenomy, Ned Kelly The Authentic Illustrated History