To say 2022 has been a roller-coaster of a year would be understating things. For Australian Bushranging it has been yet another big one with book releases and talking events, as well all the usual stuff that rolls out on this website and social media.
The first book release of the year from Australian Bushranging was Georgina Stones’ Ah Nam. The book tells the story of Joe Byrne as a teenager, hired to escort a Chinese man back to Sebastopol and the misadventures along the way.
The first part of the book tells the story as a narrative, complete with original illustrations. This is followed by essays and source documents that explain the historical basis of the story. Stones not only uses the story as a vehicle to depict an interesting and important event in the early life of the future outlaw, but also to give a more humanised depiction of the Chinese and the prostitutes of Beechworth, who are frequently overlooked in standard history books.
This is the first Australian Bushranging book to be distributed by IngramSpark, which makes it a lot more cost effective on both ends, and allows readers outside of Australia to have access without the outrageous cost of postage.
Glenrowan: Definitive Edition
The second book release of the year was a new, revised edition of Glenrowan. At almost 600 pages, it has a bit of heft to it. The revised text includes passages omitted from the first edition due to the extra printing cost, as well as new illustrations and supplementary material.
The new cover design replaces the original Matthew Holmes one to draw more of a distinction between the two by focusing on the central figure of the story rather than the more abstract image of the armour.
For those who may have missed the first edition in 2020, Glenrowan tells the story of the final months of the Kelly Gang, centred around their last battle at Glenrowan. It takes historical events and figures and uses the dramatised narrative to fill in the gaps in the historical record in a way that humanises the characters and makes the situations more relatable for readers in the modern day.
Aaron Sherritt: Persona non Grata
This year’s second Australian Bushranging book release was Aaron Sherritt: Persona non Grata, a biography of the man whose death sealed the film of the Kelly Gang. Though not an exhaustive account, it it the first time a book has focused on Sherritt rather than frame him only in relation to Ned Kelly or Joe Byrne.
The book launch for Aaron Sherritt: Persona non Grata was held at the El Dorado Museum, which is right in the heart of the region Sherritt was raised in and lived out his short life. The building itself is the former common school where Aaron and Joe Byrne had stolen a cow that they then slaughtered and butchered. Some of those in attendance were Sherritt descendants, and a presentation was given that looked at how Sherritt had been portrayed over time versus how he actually was according to history.
William Westwood: In His Own Words
The third Australian Bushranging release for the year was a collection of autobiographical writings by bushranger William Westwood. The anthology of memoirs and letters also includes a short biography in the introduction for comparison with the main text, as well as contemporary news articles for context.
There are few extant memoirs by bushrangers, and though Westwood’s have been published elsewhere, this text connects them in a way that allows the reader to get a more full, chronological perspective on the writing. There will be future releases from Australian Bushranging that are similar, but none have been announced as yet.
Bushranging Tales Volume One
The final release from Australian Bushranging in 2022 was Bushranging Tales Volume One.
Written as a fifth anniversary commemoration for A Guide to Australian Bushranging, the book consists of short stories depicting real bushranging events as well as biographies and archival material. Included in the volume are stories about Michael Howe, Matthew Brady, Martin Cash, Daniel Morgan, Johnny Gilbert, Harry Power, Captain Thunderbolt, Captain Moonlite and Ned Kelly.
There has been an awful lot going on in the world of bushrangers and the Bushranging Gazette has kept abreast of it all. Here are five of the biggest stories from 2022.
1. Books Galore!
2022 has seen a huge influx of books about bushranging and Australian history. Here are the most notable releases from 2022 that feature bushrangers:
2. End of an Era at Glenrowan
Chris and Rod Gerrett, who owned and operated Kate’s Cottage in Glenrowan for more than thirty-five years have called it a day and handed the reins over to new owners, Doug and Michelle Coad.
The shop, which includes a small museum and replica of the Kelly family’s house at Greta, has been a mainstay of Glenrowan and is located a stone’s throw from the Big Ned statue. Thousands of visitors have enjoyed the attraction, and since taking over Doug and Michelle have revitalised the attraction.
The replica cottage had been engulfed by creeper vines, which Doug Coad says was “six tonnes” worth when they cleared it all off to reveal the struggling building underneath. Since then the work to undo the decades of neglect has been ongoing: repairing the roof, re-papering the interior walls, restoring the clothes on display in the rooms, cleaning up the blacksmith shop where blacksmithing demonstrations are now held, as well as acquiring new display cabinets for the museum and putting some objects on display for the first time since they were added to the museum’s collection three decades earlier.
Currently the outside of the gift shop is undergoing a transformation too, with rendering being applied in preparation for new murals to be painted on in February of 2023. It is fair to say this staple attraction in Kelly Country has had a major glow-up.
One of the most significant episodes in bushranging history was Frank Gardiner’s heist on the Orange gold escort at Eugowra Rocks. On 15 June 1862 Gardiner and a gang of bushrangers ambushed the gold escort after blocking the road with bullock drays. In the attack two police officers were shot and injured, but the troopers and the coach driver managed to escape alive.
It was estimated that the gang got away with around £4000 in gold and cash from the escort, making it one of the biggest gold heists in Australia’s history.
Natural disasters continued to devastate bushranger country in 2022, however this time instead of fire it was floods. Flash flooding wreaked havoc in parts of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania leaving many people displaced, livestock and crops destroyed and many other knock-on effects that will be felt well into 2023 and beyond.
As of December 2022, the estimated damage costs are in the billions, with the disasters not only interrupting transportation of goods but dramatically impacting the supply of meat, dairy, fruit, vegetables and grain.
2022 saw a number of exhibitions and special events on around the country themed around bushrangers.
From February to June Heide MOMA hosted a special exhibition of Sidney Nolan’s artwork, including many of his Ned Kelly paintings.
In March a short season of Matthew Ryan’s play Kelly was performed at La Mama Theatre.
In May Narryna in Battery Point hosted a talk about the bushranger letter in their collection.
In July, Rebecca Wilson exhibited her Kelly paintings at the Parkes library.
In Jerilderie a new exhibition titled Doing the Bolt was opened, depicting the lives of bushrangers, convicts, and rebels, housed in the old printery building.
At the National Art School, formerly Darlinghurst Gaol, an exhibition titled Captivate opened in September and included paintings by Frank Pearson, formerly the bushranger known as Captain Starlight.
In October the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery opened the exhibition Jingo was Born in the Slum featuring photography by Matthew Thorne from the making of True History of the Kelly Gang, as well as some of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings.
Later in October Jacqui Stockdale launched an exhibition of her work inspired by the animated theatre at Glenrowan, titled The Outlaws’ Inn.
Finally, December saw the launch of the Crime Time TV exhibition at Geelong Gaol, which includes memorabilia from film and television about crime, including some about bushrangers.
Alan Crichton: In July the Kelly world bid farewell to Alan Crichton, a prominent and outspoken member of the community and author. Crichton had been a frequent contributor to the Ironoutlaw website, writing for a series called Keep Ya Powder Dry. Crichton, a noted poet, published a book of verse about the Kelly Gang titled Bound for Judgement, as well as presenting at several events including the Greta Heritage Weekend. He also penned a novel set in Kelly Country entitled Far Beyond the Falls that entwines aspects of the Kelly story into its narrative.
Jack Charles: Veteran actor and Aboriginal activist Jack Charles passed away on 13 September following a stroke. Uncle Jack was a Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta man who was part of the stolen generations, co-founded Australia’s first Aboriginal-led theatre group in Melbourne in 1971, and overcame periods of homelessness and drug addiction to become one of the most valued and respected elders. Uncle Jack will be familiar to fans of bushranger stories on screen, having portrayed Billy Dargin in the 1970s Ben Hall television series, appeared as Harry Edwards in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and latterly cameoing in True History of the Kelly Gang as a waiter. He leaves behind a proud legacy on stage and screen as well as his important role in the indigenous community as an Elder and activist.
Tommy Dysart: Scottish-Australian actor Tommy Dysart may remembered from brief appearances in Ben Hall and The Last Outlaw or as the mysterious wizard in the Glenrowan animated theatre. Dysart had a long and varied career in film and television, but was most beloved for his appearances in advertisements for the Yellow Pages phone directory and Don Smallgoods.
Australian Bushranging on Social Media
One of the most popular posts on the A Guide to Australian Bushranging Facebook page this year was this post from 21 January:
Few sidearms are as common in the armoury of the bushrangers as the pepperbox revolver, so named because of its resemblance to a pepper grinder. From the 1840s through to the 1870s this weapon was a standard piece of the kit of bush bandits. In later years, as Colt revolvers became more commonplace in Australia, the humble pepperbox took a backseat to the pocket Colt and the Colt Navy.
Other popular posts included this photo of the new replica suit of Ned Kelly armour at Kate’s Cottage, and a repost of the link to the article The Gilbert-Hall Gang: An Overview. The metadata indicates that the most popular content on the page was images related to either Ben Hall or Ned Kelly. As seems to be the trend over the past couple of years, posts with links to the articles on the website had far less reach and therefore far less interaction. Facebook’s tendency to throttle any posts that take users away from the app or site continues to stifle many content creators and pages that rely on Facebook in some capacity as a platform to promote their website, YouTube channel or business.
On Instagram the five most popular posts in 2022 were:
The Grave of Joe Byrne (04/11/22)
An empty block of land (04/11/22)
Ned Kelly Waxwork (12/11/22)
The Ned Kelly Death Mask (04/02/22)
Russell Crowe as Harry Power (05/12/22)
Again, Ned Kelly related content seems to be the winner on Instagram, accounting for the entire top five and eight of the top ten posts of the year.
There was far less content on the A Guide to Australian Bushranging YouTube channel this year owing to time constraints, however a guided tour through Glenrowan did make it. Going forward, there will be more video content, though nothing specific has been planned yet for 2023.
Victorian Bushrangers at Old Geelong Gaol
On 7 August, A Guide to Australian Bushranging‘s Aidan Phelan gave a presentation at the Old Geelong Gaol about Victorian bushrangers. The talk ranged from an introduction to bushrangers to the lives and careers of several notable Victorian outlaws.
Among the stories told during the presentation were those of Bradley and O’Connor, Captain Melville, Harry Power and Thomas Menard. Menard has a special connection to the gaol as he was hanged there for murder and was buried in the grounds.
The event was well received and the venue proved to be suitably atmospheric, with replicas of the death masks of Thomas Menard, Ned Kelly and Captain Moonlite adding to the effect.
Features on A Guide to Australian Bushranging in 2022
There were scores of items published on A Guide to Australian Bushranging in 2022, but you may have missed some of the key feature articles from this year. Here is a list of the features that rolled out over the course of the year, with links so that you can catch up on any you missed.
Thomas Jeffries: An Overview — A short biography of Tasmanian bushranger Thomas Jeffries, infamous for his acts of infanticide and cannibalism.
Bushranging and our Police System — A twelve part series of articles published anonymously by a New South Wales trooper, in which he reflects on the police force and his role in the pursuit of the Clarkes and Connells around the Braidwood district. First published in 1867, many names were censored to avoid causing legal issues and potential reprisals.
And with that we conclude 2022. As can be seen it has been a big year, but 2023 looks to be every bit as big. So from A Guide to Australian Bushranging to you have a happy and safe new year, and we look forward to seeing you again.
Porcupine Village, Maldon, a former tourist attraction styled as a small town of the Australian gold rush, is undergoing major redevelopments, with a mind towards re-opening for tourists and school groups.
The village was used during filming for The Legend of Ben Hall, and accurately depicts the architecture and layout of a typical town in the gold rush that struck Victoria and New South Wales in the 1850s and 1860s. It opened in the 1990s and consists of a mixture of replica buildings and actual buildings that were relocated to the site.
Since 2007 it has been disused, but the current owners found many of the props and items still locked up inside the old buildings and saw an opportunity to rekindle the magic of the park.
We opened it up and almost everything is still there, which is pretty amazing. […] The education sector will be a big part of the village. We’ve already had inquiries from schools who are keen to do Australian history lessons out there. […] The whole place is pockmarked with original diggings, and we’re going to set up miners tents and camps to give people a real taste of what the region would have been like in the 1850s.
A new book about the police efforts to capture the Kelly Gang is on the way. Titled Nabbing Ned Kelly, the book by David Dufty, whose previous work has focused on military history, focuses on the police pursuit rather than the actions of the bushrangers, with a particular focus on Detective Michael Ward.
Ward was a key player in the pursuit of the outlaws, operating from Beechworth while the main hunt was run from the police headquarters in Benalla. Ward’s role involved communicating with informants, such as James Wallace and the Sherritts, in an effort to tighten the net around the gang.
Slated for a March 2022 release from Allen and Unwin, the new addition to the ever-growing library of books about the Kelly saga approaches the story from a perspective rarely explored in other texts, and demonstrates that there is still as much interest in the subject of Ned Kelly as there are fresh angles to view it from.
David Dufty goes back to the records to uncover the real story of the police officers who pursued the Kelly Gang. This pacey account of the capture of the Kelly Gang reads like a detective story.
In late December, filmmaker Matthew Holmes announced through social media that he was planning on publishing the screenplays to his “Legends Anthology” as a book.
Holmes pitched the idea of a collected screenplay book filled with storyboards and concept art from the unmade films (The Legend of Frank Gardiner and The Legend of John Vane) and photographs from his award-winning film The Legend of Ben Hall.
So….. in 2022, we are considering releasing the 3 screenplays for the ‘Legends Anthology’ films into a book! (Because sadly, they will never be made into movies). This book would contain the complete screenplays for ‘The Legend of Frank Gardiner’, ‘The Legend of John Vane’ and ‘The Legend of Ben Hall’ and would also feature storyboards of keys scenes, concept art and other such supporting artwork. These would be very Limited Editions. Who would be interested in purchasing one?
While the book is in early stages of development, fans of Holmes’ Ben Hall epic have expressed enthusiasm for the project. Earlier in 2021, news emerged that Holmes was shelving the two Ben Hall prequels due to the difficulties in procuring funding for the projects, despite interest from people in the industry. By releasing the screenplays as books it gives fans of The Legend of Ben Hall an opportunity to see what could have been.
Author of An Outlaw’s Journal, Georgina Stones, is on track to release her new book AhNam later this month. The book focuses on an incident early in the life of Joe Byrne, who would later become a member of the Kelly Gang, and weaves in the history of the Chinese and prostitutes of the Beechworth district on a backdrop of the late gold rush era.
Featuring artwork by Aidan Phelan, the book is split into two sections: a narrative that dramatises the story, and a breakdown of the history that the story was based on. The book will be released through Ingram Spark in print-on-demand or eBook format.
A Guide to Australian Bushranging’s Year in Review
Our most popular articles in 2021
2021 continued to be a very busy year for A Guide to Australian Bushranging, with 47,303 views in total from more than 25,000 individual visitors from around the world. As usual, the lion’s share of the views came from Australia, with the United States of America in second place and Norway in third place. Following close behind were the United Kingdom and Poland.
This year’s most read articles were a mix of the old and the new, with the top spot going to John Francis Peggotty: The Birdman of Coorong, an article from February 2018, racking up 2,509 views in 2021. The most read articles of 2021 indicate that there is a continued interest in the Kelly story with articles pertaining to the story taking second, third, and fifth spot on the list. Other heavy hitters were The Clarke Gang, Harry Power, and The Bathurst Rebellion.
Statistics demonstrate that May/June, then August through to November, were the busiest times of the year for A Guide to Australian Bushranging, with Wednesdays at 1:00pm being the most popular time of day for readers. In 2021 there were 119 articles in total published, including Spotlight articles and Gazettes. Social media continued to be the main avenue for people to discover the website, with 5,754 tweets on Twitter, and 5,315 shares on Facebook.
ABC Radio Hobart & Northern Tasmania
Earlier in 2021 A Guide to Australian Bushranging caught the attention of ABC Radio in Tasmania and Aidan Phelan had a guest spot on the Evenings program over several weeks, interviewed by Paul McIntyre and Mel Bush, some of which you can find below.
Streaming on Facebook, and videos on YouTube
During the earlier lockdown in Melbourne in June 2021, Aidan Phelan and Georgina Stones did a series of live streams on Facebook discussing aspects of bushranging. The streams were subsequently uploaded to the A Guide to Australian Bushranging YouTube channel.
Beyond the live streams, a number of videos made their way onto YouTube including The Battle of Goimbla and Lt. Col. William Balfour and Matthew Brady. As video production is quite a long process compared to creating articles for the website, there is far less content on that front being produced, but hopefully in 2022 time will allow for a lot more videos getting made.
2021 was a year of big changes for A Guide to Australian Bushranging. In February, due to a dispute between Facebook (now Meta) and the Australian government, the Facebook page for A Guide to Australian Bushranging was temporarily deleted. This led to a rethink in how the bushranger content is delivered to followers, with the decision being made to reduce posts on Facebook, and to limit external links as much as possible by collecting news articles on bushranger-related topics for a monthly newsletter (the Bushranging Gazette).
Along with the changes in the mode of delivery, the website got an aesthetic tweaking and a new logo. Where the original logo had Frank Gardiner on horseback leaping over the name of the site, the new logo has Dan Morgan on horseback enveloped by the name of the site.
Behind the scenes, moves were being made to prepare for a series of booklets. However what began as a small-scale project quickly ballooned into an upcoming non-fiction book titled Aaron Sherritt: Persona non Grata, and plans for a series of books that collect bushranger stories and biographies to be published under the Australian Bushranging banner. More on these books will be released as details are confirmed.
With such a busy year for A Guide to Australian Bushranging in 2021, it certainly sets the stage for an even bigger 2022. To keep track of developments, you can follow the website on WordPress, like and follow on Facebook and Instagram, and subscribe on YouTube.
It is well known that the story of the Kelly Gang is the bushranging tale most often depicted in film (only rivalled by adaptations of Robbery Under Arms). Depictions of Ned Kelly in media are so numerous that it would be almost impossible for one person to document them all. Given less attention, however, are the other members of the gang. Of the three other gang members, only Joe Byrne’s story has been documented in any considerable detail. Byrne is generally considered to be Ned Kelly’s right hand man and most people only know his story as it relates to Ned Kelly. Joe is a mainstay of film adaptations of the Kelly saga, unlike his best mate Aaron Sherritt, and thus we have a wealth of sources to compare and evaluate.
Because of the sheer volume of Kelly movies dating back to the silent era, there is a daunting task in evaluating all of them in terms of their accuracy to history, so for the sake of this article we will only be looking at the four of the most recent examples:
* Ned Kelly (1970) featuring Mark McManus as Joe Byrne.
* The Last Outlaw (1980) featuring Steve Bisley as Joe Byrne.
* Ned Kelly (2003) featuring Orlando Bloom as Joe Byrne.
* True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) featuring Sean Keenan as Joe Byrne.
These portrayals will be reviewed based on how they are written and overall creative choices. This will allow us to see what works and what doesn’t in each version, based on common criteria. Given the number of portrayals that will be looked at, this will be a bit longer than most articles in this series.
Physical appearance and mannerisms
The 1970 depiction of Joe Byrne has a reasonably close physical resemblance to the historical Joe, however he is clearly a man in his thirties. McManus’ Joe has brown hair, a stubbly beard, and blue eyes. His clothing is quite odd. He favours worn down bush clothes with muted colours, as well as a big floppy hat and tall lace-up boots that appear to be 20th century army boots. After raiding the hawker’s wagon he wears a black hat, high heeled shoes, and light coloured plaid suit. He is also occasionally seen with a velvet waistcoat and a brown scarf. This Joe speaks with a nasally Irish brogue, and tends to range in temperament from high energy and playful, to snappy and brooding. He has a fondness for an old-fashioned pint of ale, but does not exhibit any other particular vices.
The 1980 Byrne is the most physically similar on the list to the historical Byrne. He has a long face with large, protruding ears, blue eyes, coppery hair, full beard and light moustache. Again, he looks to be in his early to mid thirties. This Joe favours more fashionable clothes in blues and browns, and is particularly fond of flares, high heeled boots with spurs, light coloured shirts and waistcoats. His signature item of clothing is a hat with a flat crown and very wide brim that curls slightly. He can also occasionally be spotted wearing a ring on his left hand. This interpretation of Joe speaks with a mongrel accent that is mostly Irish, but occasionally slips into something Australian. He is often quiet and thoughtful, though he has bursts of exuberance and joviality, and can be very passionate and hot-tempered. He is frequently seen smoking a pipe, and sometimes drinks liquor. At Euroa he nabs himself brown flares, a brown jacket and a blue waistcoat with brown lapels. He can speak Chinese and is seen to negotiate with a gold merchant.
Orlando Bloom’s Joe is very sober in appearance and manner. He appears to be the right age, with dark brown eyes, a mop of curly black hair and wispy black facial hair. This Joe is seen briefly wearing a sort of Homburg hat, and usually favours fashionably cut clothes in black and dark greys with cowboy boots. During the Euroa robbery he sports a light grey tweed suit, which gives him a much friendlier appearance. At Glenrowan he favours black garb, a long greatcoat and a white knitted scarf. He is occasionally spotted wearing a large silver ring with a black stone set in it. He rarely smokes or drinks, and generally has a quiet, melancholic temperament when not trying to seduce women, to whom he seems to be irresistible. He can speak Chinese, and uses it to seduce a Chinese servant. He talks softly with an Irish brogue, but prefers to stay quiet.
In the 2019 interpretation, Joe is presented at first as a highly excitable dullard, and possibly homosexual, speaking with a broad Australian accent. This continues to be the case throughout the production, but he becomes increasingly prone to nervous breakdowns and zoning out. After the Stringybark Creek incident he tries to convince Ned to escape to America with him so they can eat donuts. He smokes opium almost constantly and is occasionally shown to be so completely stoned that an ember landing in his eye doesn’t register to him. Keenan strongly resembles the historical Joe physically, excepting his long, blonde hair. In terms of clothing, nothing he wears is period accurate. He is shown wearing a brown duffle coat and chinos, or tight shorts, cowboy boots, an Akubra and a cardigan with no shirt underneath. At Glenrowan he wears a pink dress with black and white face paint. He tends not to get involved much in Ned’s scheming, except at Stringybark Creek where he tries to dissuade Ned from attacking the police camp. His temperament generally ranges from childlike enthusiasm to haunted and morose.
The real Joe Byrne was only in his early twenties when he became mixed up with Ned Kelly. He stood just shy of six feet tall, and was well-built with long, delicate features, large ears, pale blue eyes, coppery coloured hair and usually wore a full beard and wispy moustache. He favoured fashionable clothing, especially flared trousers, high-heeled boots and was known to wear a felt hat with the crown turned down. At Euroa he scored a new outfit of elastic-sided boots, brown trousers with matching waistcoat, a grey coat, black tie and a Rob Roy shirt. Occasionally he was seen wearing long boots with long-necked spurs. At Glenrowan he wore brown trousers and waistcoat, a great striped Crimean shirt, blue sack coat and a tattered scarf. He notably wore rings taken from Constables Lonigan and Scanlan. In terms of personality, he could be warm and friendly, usually quiet and reserved, and was known to be very tender with women. On the flip side, he could be quick to rage and became violently angry when pushed. He smoked tobacco frequently, and was known to be addicted to whiskey and opium. Some reports describe him having a peculiar swagger when he walked. Like most young men of his generation, he spoke with an Australian accent and used Australian slang (the accent has been recorded as far back as the 1850s). He spoke in a “clipped” fashion, which probably meant that he tended to drop letters off words (eg. drinkin’, smokin’), or spoke in short bursts.
Relationship with Aaron Sherritt
Perhaps the most important part of Joe’s life was his relationship with Aaron Sherritt, his lifelong mate. It was his connection to Sherritt that stood to potentially jeopardise the gang’s freedom and liberty.
In the 1970 film, Joe and Aaron have just gotten out of prison and are looking for work. Their relationship is clearly one of two friends who are joined at the hip. When together they seem to have boundless energy and muck around. When Joe learns of Aaron’s betrayal he does not hesitate to assume Aaron has sold him out in order to afford new clothes. There is no internal conflict about what to do to him.
Aaron and Joe in The Last Outlaw are more like brothers. Joe trusts Aaron completely, and it takes a great deal of convincing to get him to accept Aaron’s betrayal. When he does, it boils over into an unquenchable hatred. In this version it is clear that Aaron is trying to confuse the police to help his mates, with Joe being in on it. This serves to make the collapse of their relationship all the more tragic and accurate.
The 2003 iteration has much the same dynamic as the 1970 one, except that Aaron and Joe have been friends with Ned since they were teens so it is more of a three-hander. Joe doesn’t appear to be any closer to Aaron than anyone else. The revelation that Aaron has betrayed them simply makes Joe sad, and he is left questioning why he did it.
In True History of the Kelly Gang Aaron Sherritt is never included, which only serves to push Joe further into the background and make things all the more about Ned.
In reality, Joe and Aaron had known each other since they were very young. They were pretty much inseparable from that time, and did everything together. They both worked with Ned stealing horses, but for some unknown reason only Joe was present at Stringybark Creek. However, Aaron vitally provided shelter and protection in the immediate aftermath, then acted as a double agent to keep the police distracted while the gang moved around. It is probable that Joe knew of this in some regard, which is why he tested Aaron’s loyalty repeatedly when faced with rumours of his treachery. This makes Joe’s anger and subsequent willingness to murder Aaron make more sense, for such a betrayal would have had far more meaning.
Meeting Ned Kelly
The first time Joe met Ned Kelly is a mystery. There is much speculation, but it remains simply that.
In the 1970 film, Joe and Aaron meet Ned at the sawmill where he works when they are fresh out of gaol and looking for jobs. Immediately the trio have a rapport, with Ned declaring that despite there being a lack of work he had best look out for his own kind, suggesting that he will find jobs for them. Indeed, later on we see Joe shifting lumber at the sawmill when Constable Fitzpatrick arrives to question Ned about his brother.
This is almost identical to the how the meeting is depicted in The Last Outlaw. Where this version differs is that Joe and Aaron are introduced to Ned by his brother Jim, the three of them having supposedly just come out of gaol. This time the sawmill is packing up to go to Gippsland, so instead they then join Ned in mining for gold and Joe teaches him how to build sluices.
In the 2003 film we do not see the meeting, Ned is already a friend of Joe and Aaron, demonstrated by the three of them napping together under a tree in the very first scene of the film. Joe and Aaron are next seen waiting for Ned as he leaves gaol. It is indicated that Joe is a family friend and has been checking in on Ned’s family while he was in gaol. There is no indication that they worked together.
In the 2019 film, we first see Joe when he is working as Ned’s boxing promoter. He collects the bets and hypes up Ned’s boxing match, calling him a “dancing monkey” to get him revved up. It is clear that there is a strong bond between the two.
Of course, this is an area of history that is unrecorded, so to write about the meeting is pure speculation. That said, there is no indication in any recorded history that Joe or Aaron ever worked with Ned at a sawmill, and as Ned was only ever involved in one boxing match we know of, which took place before he knew Joe, it is unlikely he would have needed a promoter. Moreover, the earliest that we know of Joe and Aaron being associated with Ned is 1877, when they helped him steal, shift and sell horses. However, Joe and Aaron could have met Ned as early as 1876, when they were in court at Beechworth on the same day as Dan Kelly, meaning they may have waited in the holding cell together. Ned was present as a witness for Dan, so this may have provided am opportunity for their paths to cross. We will never know for sure, but we can guess based on available information, and on that level The Last Outlaw gets the closest to the truth on this point.
In True History of the Kelly Gang, Joe is frequently seen smoking opium from a special pipe (seemingly a 19th century Chinese water pipe). The historical Joe’s opium habit is well known. He is often described as an opium addict, though the extent to which he used the drug is unknown. What is known is that he sourced it from the Chinese in Sebastopol, which is where he was spotted buying it by a police spy. Of course, to suggest that Joe smoked it very occasionally as a recreational drug would not have fitted with the grim and gritty story Justin Kurzel wanted to portray, so this version of Joe is rarely straight.
None of the other productions even hint at opium use. At most we see Joe smoking tobacco from a pipe or perhaps a cigar. It could reasonably be argued that this was entirely down to content standards for film and television in the ’70s and ’80s, but as the opium use was not well known at that time it may have simply been that it wasn’t considered. As for the 2003 film, no doubt it was about not only time constraints, but also the connotations that come with a main character using narcotics.
In the 1970 film, Joe is never shown mingling with the opposite sex. There is no indication of any romance at all.
In The Last Outlaw and the 2003 film, his love life is portrayed rather accurately. In the former he visits his girlfriend at night at the Vine Hotel in Beechworth where she is employed as a maid. Though here her name is Helen, in all other respects she is identical to the historical Joe’s girlfriend. In the 2003 film his girlfriend is a barmaid named Maggie who he occasionally visits. In both portrayals she is the one that convinces him Aaron is betraying him. In reality, Joe’s girlfriend was indeed known as Maggie, though this was supposed to have been a pseudonym, and her supplying of information to Joe about Aaron proved important to what eventuated only a few days later in the lead up to the Glenrowan siege.
Where the 2003 film veers from known history is in Joe’s promiscuity. He is portrayed as a lothario who can pick up any woman he wants. He seduces Mrs. Scott at Euroa and Julia’s servant girl when he is in the bath. Though there are accounts of Joe’s life that state he was popular with the ladies, who gave him pet names like Sugar and Little Birdy, there were no definitive sources that claimed he went from pub to pub seducing barmaids or anything of that sort. It is reasonable to suggest he had romantic dalliances with women like Mary Jordan, a barmaid near Jerilderie, and Ellen Byron, his teenage sweetheart who was also a sympathiser, but it is only speculation.
The 2019 film it is heavily implied he is either in a romantic relationship with Ned Kelly or desires to be. Their physical intimacy in particular is on the nose in this regard.
In 1877, Ned Kelly set about getting back at the squatters who he had taken exception to, stealing their horses and selling them over the border for profit. This is usually a staple of adaptations of the story to film, but not always.
In the 1970 film, Joe and Aaron are eager participants, joining Ned and his stepfather George King in the trade. In one scene we see Ned negotiate horse prices with William Baumgarten by playing a match of hop-step-jump in the rain. Joe and Aaron eagerly act as adjudicators, measuring the distances. They also stick with Ned after King departs, helping him paint horses so they appear piebald in order to disguise them for sale.
In The Last Outlaw there are more people helping out with the horse stealing racket, including Wild Wright, Tom Lloyd, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. This portion of the story is portrayed as if it were a great adventure with the men frequently sitting around in camp talking about how what they are doing is an affront to their enemies from high society. Eventually everyone leaves apart from Ned, Joe and George King, though King eventually does part ways with them on a river boat. Oddly, we see very little of the actual stealing and selling of horses.
The 2003 film portrays the horse stealing through a montage, where the horses are taken at night and sold discreetly. It is very similar to the sequence in the 1970 film, but instead of a jaunty, cheeky vibe there is more of a sense that this is an uplifting moment. The horse stealing is conducted by Ned, Joe, Aaron, Dan and Steve, as George King is not featured in this film.
In the 2019 film the horse stealing is conducted by George King, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. Joe is uninvolved. Instead, while the thievery is going on Joe is mostly camping with Ned and getting stoned.
This is the part of the history where we get our confirmation of Joe and Aaron being associated with Ned. Aaron would later brag about their exploits to Superintendent Hare. At this time Joe used the alias Billy King, which was at one time misreported as George King.
The 1970 and 2019 films don’t spend a lot of time at Stringybark Creek. The former presents it as a musical sequence, the latter reduces it to a couple of minutes rampage with dizzying camera work. Neither of these does a good job of portraying Joe’s involvement.
When one takes time to break down the Stringybark sequence of the 1970 film we see Joe portrayed as Ned’s follower, but also somewhat twitchy and uncertain. He is shown shooting Scanlan with a rifle as the constable struggles to get to his feet. This is obviously Ian Jones’ influence as it was he that championed the notion that Joe was the one that killed Scanlan. By the time Ned brings Kennedy down, we see that Joe is particularly disturbed by the turn of events and appears quite rattled. It is Joe who tries to convince Ned to leave the sergeant to die, clearly afraid to remain at the site of such a horrific crime. As far as appearances are concerned, Joe is here presented as disheveled and wearing a waistcoat and shirtsleeves, and no hat, which is a far cry from how he presented to Constable McIntyre.
The 1980 miniseries took time to build up to Stringybark, showing Joe joining Ned and following him to the police camp out of loyalty. Joe also hands tea to a visibly shaken McIntyre, which is accurate. In fact, McIntyre made a point of noting Joe’s kindness to him in order to emphasise the point that despite treating the constable with apparent empathy, when it came down to it Joe was willing to kill the man in order to demonstrate his loyalty to Ned. Once again, Joe is depicted landing the killing blow on Scanlan, this time with a pistol. This is later used to suggest that Joe continuing to stay with Ned is because he murdered one of the police, despite there being no difference in the eyes of the law at the time between one of the gang killing, or all of them. According to McIntyre’s evidence, Scanlan was shot by Ned Kelly, causing him to fall from his horse with blood pouring from under his arm. This is consistent with the wound identified as having brought about his death due to puncturing both lungs. In this case, even if Joe had fired one of the two other shots that hit Scanlan, which struck his hip and shoulder, it was still Ned Kelly that killed him. It would seem that Ian Jones preferred the idea of Joe killing one of the police in order to take some of the heat off Ned and help reinforce his own bias against Joe.
In the 2003 film, Joe follows Ned’s lead, as in the other depictions, but does not exhibit any notable compassion or kindness towards McIntyre. His head is very much in the game, and it seems that he and Ned are both calling the shots. Joe does not exhibit any remorse or fear, but rather a steely determination. He is armed with a snub-nosed revolver, which is a far cry from the old fashioned rifle with a large bore that McIntyre described him with. When Kennedy and Scanlan arrive, Joe engages in the gunfight with complete coolness, but notably doesn’t actually shoot anyone.
True History of the Kelly Gang shows Joe trying to convince Ned to go around the police, but to no effect. We also see him immediately traumatised by the violence Ned inflicts on the police, breaking down in tears and sobbing. It seems that in this incarnation, Joe was the only gang member with any empathy. The sequence is so fleeting that there is not much to pick from it.
The Euroa sequence in the 1970 film is played as a farce, with jaunty music and comedic, campy moments played up for effect. One example of this is the gang in sped up footage walking around behind a hawker’s wagon then emerging out of the other side fully dressed in new clothes. In this depiction Joe and Ned go to the bank alone and while Joe is emptying the drawers and the safe, Ned bails up the manager and his family. This is a very amusing sequence, but only resembles the history in broad brushstrokes.
The Last Outlaw remains the most accurate depiction of Euroa, with only very minor details that stray from recorded fact, including Joe’s new outfit which was almost completely different from the one depicted. Notably, we see Joe guarding the prisoners at Younghusband’s Station on his own while some of the men inside conspire to break free, which is correct. Joe remains fairly quiet throughout proceedings, which is also accurate, though we don’t see him interact with Mrs. Fitzgerald as he did in reality. Overall, there is nothing especially deserving of criticism in this depiction.
In the 2003 film, however, Joe is present at the bank during the robbery. In fact, he even manages to seduce Mrs. Scott in the process. The gang’s use of Younghusband’s Station as a headquarters is entirely omitted, and many of the moments portrayed are incorrect, but it still maintains a sense of the farcical nature of the raid that was embodied in the 1970 film.
True History of the Kelly Gang completely omits the Euroa robbery from the story. It is possible this was due to time constraints, but given the importance of the robbery in the story, its absence is important. It was during the Euroa robbery that Steve Hart was finally identified as one of the gang members, Joe having been named a short time prior after the connection to Aaron Sherritt had been established (the gang having visited him shortly after the police killings and made their presence known with gunshots). It was this event that began to change perceptions of the gang in the public eye.
In all productions Jerilderie is delivered in a truncated form. As this event took place over multiple days, it would take considerable time to portray all aspects of the affair on screen.
In the 1970 film, Jerilderie is presented as part of the musical montage, resuming after a brief narrative pause. Here we see the entire gang in police uniforms and it is Ned and Joe who rob the bank in disguise as policemen. We also see Ned and Joe take the gang’s horses to the blacksmith. Throughout the sequence Joe remains quiet except for when bailing up the bank manager in his bath.
Once again, The Last Outlaw nails this sequence. It is almost exactly as it happened, albeit in a streamlined depiction that leaves details out. We see Joe getting the gang’s horses shod by the blacksmith and charging the work to the government account, as well as assisting Ned in scoping out the town dressed in a police uniform. Joe is also the one that initiates the bank robbery after entering through a side door, which is correct given that the Jerilderie bank was connected by a corridor to the pub where the gang were holding their prisoners. In this scene, Joe is very much in command until Ned arrives to take over. As the events unfold, Joe seems to be enjoying the escapade immensely. When we see the gang taking breakfast, and Ned makes a point of emptying the bathtub, we see Joe pulling faces at the children in the background. This flash of silliness is clearly a creative choice by Bisley, and not based on anything from history, though it is amusing.
The 2003 film cuts out nearly the entire Jerilderie raid, keeping it confined to a single scene in the middle of robbing the bank. The townsfolk are being held prisoner in the bank while Joe clears out the cash. After Steve pinches Reverend Gribble’s watch, Ned makes Joe begin to transcribe the letter he wishes to send to Premier Berry in Melbourne. Thus, Joe is relegated to little more than Ned Kelly’s PA in this scene. Apart from the odd nod to moments that happened, this sequence is completely inaccurate.
In True History of the Kelly Gang, Jerilderie is a moment of absolute absurdity. Beyond it being in the snow, and the bank being attached to the printing office, we see a group of pallbearers inexplicably carrying a coffin past the scene, as Joe, dressed in hotpants and a sheepskin jacket and not much else, writhes around on the ground. To state the obvious, there is no resemblance to history in this depiction.
Aaron Sherritt’s betrayal is a mainstay of most interpretations of the story, as his murder is one of the few major crimes actually committed by the gang.
In the 1970 film, Aaron is caught out when Joe spots him spying on his mother’s house with police. It takes no further convincing to get this version of Joe to turn, and he bitterly states that it explains all his new clothes. This truncated version works for the limited runtime, but there’s something a bit empty about how overly simplified it is.
In 1980, however, the betrayal is built up more, culminating in Joe being informed by his girlfriend that Aaron was with a policeman in he pub where she works. This moment is played melodramatically with turbulent wind and intense music while Joe scowls and thrashes around in fury. He announces that the “bastard Sherritt” has got to die. Up to this stage Joe had been reluctant to believe Aaron would betray the gang and was acting as a double agent. This is much closer to the history but requires time to play out, which the mini series format luckily allowed.
The 2003 version depicts Aaron’s betrayal as a result of police brutality. Again, Joe’s girlfriend is the one to tell Joe that he’s up to something. Joe and Ned inform Aaron that they are going to rob the bank in Beechworth and then wait to see if police arrive. When they do, the outlaws know Aaron is the traitor and decide he has to die.
True History of the Kelly Gang, because it omits Aaron entirely, loses this vital part of the story. It was Aaron’s death, or at least the gang causing a scene at Aaron’s hut, that was to lure the police out on a special train. By removing Aaron and the rest of the sympathisers, the 2019 film completely changes the dynamic that drove the escalation in the gang’s activities.
In reality, Aaron had been working with both sides. Assisting the police paid his bills, but also gave him an opportunity to keep the police distracted so that the gang could move around undetected. Aaron actually had an agreement with the chief commissioner that if he could get Joe to turn himself in, and betray the other three, then Joe’s life would be spared. Joe frequently tested Aaron’s loyalty, in a manner very similar to that shown in the 2003 film, but as in the 1980 and 2003 depictions, it was Maggie telling Joe about Aaron’s betrayal that sealed the deal.
Murder of Sherritt and Glenrowan
1970’s depiction of the murder of Sherritt is abrupt, to say the least. We see Aaron in his hut with his head on his wife’s lap, the mother-in-law nearby, when there comes the knock at the door. We hear, “It’s Anton Week; I’ve lost my way,” then Aaron gets up and answers the door. Aaron jokingly asks Anton if he’s lost and then after a confused “Ja,” we see a shotgun poke out from under the German’s arm and blast Aaron in the chest. Aaron falls wordlessly and Joe sprints away into the night.
At Glenrowan, Joe arrives in the morning and informs Ned that Aaron is dead. His demeanour throughout the sequence is more boredom than grief, only perking up during the dances. He is depicted in the same costume that he has worn for most of the film, with an oilskin over the top. We barely see anything of him throughout and when it gets to the final shootout it becomes difficult to keep track of which one he is due to the darkness and the fact that his costume looks almost identical to Ned’s.
The Last Outlaw fares much better in both the murder and the Glenrowan depictions. The scene in Aaron’s hut matches the historical account almost exactly. Aaron opens the door to direct Anton home when Joe pushes the German away and blasts Aaron twice in the chest. Aaron falls silently (but dramatically) and Joe grabs his wife, Belle, and orders Dan be let in from the other door. All of this is almost to the letter. There is a brief moment of Joe trying to get the police out of the bedroom, and the scene ends with Joe firing into the ceiling and ordering the police out. The sequence has obviously been truncated for pacing reasons, but the way the scene ends is a little bizarre and very melodramatic. As far as historical accuracy goes, it remains faithful enough to the reality that it conveys an authentic, if not entirely accurate, representation of what happened.
Joe and Dan are depicted as arriving at Glenrowan some time in the middle of the day. Joe is morose and haunted, quickly downing whiskey to steady his nerves. The only thing that is wide of the mark is that we don’t really see Joe interacting with Ann Jones or engaging in the dancing. When it comes to the siege, we see a reckless and defiant Joe in action. He seems to be fuelled by liquid courage and anger. He is shot in the leg and falls against the outer wall before being transferred inside. Once inside his movement is unrestricted and he merely limps slightly to get around. In reality, Joe’s wound was severe enough that he could only crawl to get around.
The 2003 depiction of Sherritt’s murder is highly fanciful, without any clear motivation as to why. Aaron is shown losing at cards to the police in his hut before going to bed with his pregnant (thirteen year-old!) wife. A flutey voice is heard in the night calling for Aaron and the police surmise it is one of his “whores”. When Aaron goes out he is confronted by Joe on a distant hill dressed in unconvincing drag. Joe shoots Aaron in the chest with a shotgun and leaves him dead in the mud before rejoining Ned on horseback.
At Glenrowan, Joe is stern and business-like, as in the Jerilderie scene. He is dressed in a long grey overcoat, and white crocheted scarf, reminiscent of how the historical Joe was dressed while remaining distinctly unique to this interpretation. Joe discovers that Thomas Curnow has escaped and raises the alarm to Ned. Obviously this is a huge divergence from history as Curnow had been allowed to go home by Ned personally, and Joe had been with him at the time. When the siege unfolds, Joe goes from nervous to hysterical with terror, giggling when the circus monkey is shot, to absolutely traumatised. He staggers around with not an ounce of fight left in him.
True History of the Kelly Gang’s overly stylised depiction of Glenrowan has almost no resemblance to reality, least of all in the depiction of Joe. Here Joe walks around in a lacy pink dress with black and white warpaint, his long hair partly tied back and a durry hanging limp from his lips. He bosses Thomas Curnow around and acts as Ned’s enforcer. As Ned prepares for battle, it is Joe that gaffa tapes Ned’s memoirs to his bare torso and kisses him. When the gang realise that the train hasn’t crashed, they retreat to the inn and Joe vomits on the floor in terror. For some reason they never don the bulletproof armour and they all are quickly drenched in blood (though it is unclear where from).
Joe Byrne’s death is well recorded thanks to witness accounts. At around 5:30am on 28 June 1880, Joe toasted the Kelly Gang and was almost immediately after killed by a bullet to the groin. He bled out and was dead almost immediately.
In the 1970 film, Joe gets thirsty after ducking around the bullet-riddled bar room. He pops up to grab a drink and is shot by a tracker. He mumbles, “oh, shit,” and falls. What ought to be a serious moment ends with an odd comical note.
In The Last Outlaw, Joe hobbles to the bar and pours a drink. Ned appears in the doorway and Joe responds in awe, as if this was a sign they were saved. He aggressively toasts the gang and a barrage of bullets strikes him. He awkwardly slumps to the floor as Ned dramatically screams his name. Later we see Father Gibney find his corpse.
In the 2003 film, Joe, as in the 1970 version, takes a break to have a drink. However, in this version Joe is clearly rattled by the carnage around him and wanders through the bar with a thousand yard stare. He pours his drink and leans back only to have the glass explode from a bullet and then cop a bullet through the gap in his armour. There is no toast. He stares in bewilderment then slides awkwardly down the bar and dies.
The 2019 film never actually shows Joe dying. We see him drenched in blood, whose is never made clear, and he abuses Ned for getting them into the situation. That is the last we see of him before the inn goes up in flames.
It wasn’t until 1980 that any production attempted to recreate Joe Byrne’s body being displayed for photographers and onlookers at Benalla police station. Steve Bisley’s costume is almost 100% accurate, and his posing is as close to that visible in the photographs as we are likely to see. The recreation of the lockup is pitch perfect, and the whole scene with the onlookers and the photographer is, again, as accurate as you are ever likely to see in a recreation. Helen rushes through the crowd and stares in horror at the two-day-old corpse of her lover. The makeup accurately depicts the discolouration and scorch marks that are partly visible in the historical images. It is impossible to find a reasonable fault in the way this scene was portrayed.
Though a similar scene was planned for the 2003 film, True History of the Kelly Gang is when we next see a display of Joe’s body. However, in this version he is roped to a tree while poncho-clad police pose next to the corpse as if for a camera. If any attempt at historical accuracy had been employed in the costumes and location, no doubt this could have been a very impactful shot, but it is hampered by the fact that the only aspect of this that is accurate is that the body was strung up for photographs.
If it comes down to a matter of ranking the portrayals, the above criteria must all be factored in. Ultimately, there is yet to be a fully accurate depiction of Joe Byrne, encompassing his personality, appearance and the facts of his life with attention to complete historical accuracy, which is a shame.
Ned Kelly (1970) – 3/5
Mostly accurate on a very basic level, but the characterisation is so superficial as to miss nearly all of Joe’s personality including his sense of style, his hedonism, and gift for language. Instead we only see the boyish, larrikin aspect of Joe, which is oddly lacking in most other depictions.
The Last Outlaw (1980): 4/5
This remains the best on-screen Joe. Bisley resembles the historical Joe closely in appearance and personality. However, this Joe is played fairly safe, with his alcoholism and drug use notably absent. The decision to portray him as the murderer of Constable Scanlan is problematic, but not egregious enough to damage an otherwise fairly accurate depiction of Joe’s outlaw career.
Ned Kelly (2003): 3/5
This version of Joe goes to pains to portray him as sombre, intelligent, and a lothario. There are many notable inaccuracies in the portrayal, such as his relationship with Ned pre-dating Ned’s prison sentence, and dressing as a woman to lure Aaron Sherritt to his doom. When the odd historically accurate detail appears it almost seems accidental, yet it happens enough to give some degree of merit to the portrayal.
True History of the Kelly Gang (2019): 1/5
The only things stopping this getting a zero are the inclusion of Joe’s opium use and Sean Keenan’s engaging performance and physical resemblance to the real Joe. Everything else from the inexplicable costumes, to this version’s apparent obsession with donuts, is so far off the mark that the character could go by any other name and nobody would recognise it as an attempt to portray Joe Byrne. The fact that any resemblance to the real Joe is apparently accidental would otherwise be enough that it should not even rate a mention as a portrayal of Joe Byrne. A horribly squandered opportunity to utilise a superb casting choice to portray this historical figure accurately.
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.
With November 2019 seeing the 140th anniversary of the Wantabadgery Siege, the decision was made to make a pilgrimage to Wantabadgery. As no formal acknowledgement of the anniversary or notification of any organised commemoration thereof had been announced, I decided that somebody ought to fill the void — and who better than the chap that does all the bushranger stuff online? It should be pointed out before we continue that this recap is not all about bushrangers, but rather a recounting of the things that happened during the trip. Hopefully it will give you some travel ideas. That said, let us continue…
With Georgina Stones from An Outlaw’s Journal in tow, I headed up northeast of Melbourne. On the way we passed through Benalla, where Georgina added some fake flowers to Joe Byrne’s grave. Previously she had left real flowers, but this time wanted to leave something a little more enduring. Every time we go up I see if I can spot the little bust I placed on the grave. The tiny polymer clay portrait has been there through searing heat, bucketing rain and everything in between but is still looking pretty good despite being put through the ringer.
Our first night was spent in The Empire in Beechworth. This heritage hotel was around in the days of the Kelly Gang and has an interesting anecdote connecting it to the Kelly story. Following the murder of Aaron Sherritt, his widow Belle and her mother Ellen were lodging in The Empire. Aaron’s inquest had been held in The Vine (no longer in existence, and definitely not the one in Wangaratta) and the pair had stayed on in Beechworth long enough to see Ned Kelly arrive for his committal. Having been convalescing in the hospital in Melbourne Gaol, he had been deemed fit enough for transportation to Beechworth via train. When being taken from the station to the gaol by buggy, he was taken past The Empire where he saw two women watching him from the balcony. He tipped his hat to them in a conspicuous show of gentlemanly behaviour, perhaps unaware that it was his machinations that had led to the brutal slaying of the husband and son-in-law of the two women he was saluting.
Dining at The Empire was exquisite. Food and drink were top notch, and the service equally as commendable. That night we were the only ones in the building, which should have meant a nice, quiet stay. However, there were other occupants that were not keen on staying quiet — occupants who were not of the physical world. Disembodied footsteps and the sound of objects being shifted or dropped was pervasive throughout the night, though we did get some shut-eye. It should be added that the rooms at The Empire are nice and cosy with very comfortable beds, so if you’re looking for a place to stay, give them a look-in (the ghosts don’t cost extra).
The next morning after an obligatory visit to the Beechworth Bakery, we headed to the Beechworth Cemetery so that Georgina could pay her respects to Aaron Sherritt. While there I tracked down the grave of John Watt. Watt was the proprietor of the Wooragee Hotel on the outskirts of Beechworth. One night he answered the door of the pub to reveal three bushrangers who ordered him to bail up. Rather than comply, Watt turned to head back inside. One of the bandits shot him in the back, then they fled. It took Watt over a week to die from his wound. Subsequently, two of the bushrangers, James Smith and Thomas Brady, were hanged in Beechworth Gaol for the murder.
Upon leaving the cemetery, we began the journey into New South Wales. Our prior search for accommodation had led us to a motel in Gumly Gumly, just outside the city of Wagga Wagga. The accommodation was nice enough for the price, however our neighbours weren’t exactly the quiet type. One couldn’t help find some amusement in their loud interrogation as to whether their companions were “giving wristies” while blaring Spotify over a Bluetooth speaker right in front of our door. In fairness, they did apologise when they realised that it was actually people they had seen park and enter the room they were in front of and not a very potent hallucination.
For the next few days we were right in the heart of the territory connected to Dan Morgan and Captain Moonlite. After so many visits to Kelly Country, it was great to finally be immersing myself in other bushranger stories. The only major drawback was the threat of fire. Following prolonged drought, much of New South Wales was suffering from their worst bushfires in living memory. Though the region we were exploring was safe, one couldn’t help but think about the beleaguered fireys battling the blazes further north on the other side of the Blue Mountains. Driving through the lower portion of the state and seeing how bone dry it was and how wispy the vegetation looked, it did not take much imagination to picture it going up like a celluloid girdle on bonfire night. With the anniversary of the Wantabadgery Siege, there are no prizes for guessing where was first on the list of locations.
Wantabadgery is a small town between Wagga Wagga and Gundagai that is mostly farmland and built on a mix of steep hills and flat pasture. It was here in November 1879 that Andrew George Scott would seal his name in infamy. Having been the target of police harassment since his release from prison earlier in the year, Scott had decided to seek his fortune in New South Wales. Venturing out on foot from the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy with his companion James Nesbitt, Scott soon added Frank Johns, August Wernicke and Thomas Rogan to the mix. A few miles outside of Wantabadgery they convinced a swaggie named Graham Bennett to join them and from there they continued on to Wantabadgery station, which Scott had been told would provide them food, shelter and possibly work. When they got there they were made to wait outside for two hours to see the superintendent, who simply told them to go away. On that day 140 years ago it was cloudy and raining, but when we were there the heat was unrelenting, as were the flies. Despite the difference in climate, the immersion was easy. The terrain doesn’t appear to have altered much all these decades after the fact. It is very easy to picture the bushrangers huddled among the boulders on the outskirts of Wantabadgery station, trying to get some sleep after being turned away.
The first stop for us was the Webb-Bowen memorial (“The hero of Wantabadgery”), which is the only real public acknowledgement of the bushranging event in Wantabadgery. The result of a wonderful community effort to honour the fallen officer, it features a metal sculpture by Max Burmeister and artworks by locals that portray Webb-Bowen as something of a pop culture figure (I personally really love the Warhol inspired piece on display there and would like to see that become a poster of some description). A simplified map is on display to indicate the significant spots in the area related to the events, which gives a decent indication of where to go and came in handy. It would have been nice to see some signage at the relevant sites akin to those placed at locations pertaining to the Ned Kelly story, but it is understandable that more of an effort hadn’t been made to draw attention to these places in that manner, especially as these are still working farms. Regardless of where you go that is connected to the Moonlite story, there is almost no acknowledgment of it or only a vague understanding of it. Captain Moonlite does not bring tourists into towns like Ned Kelly does, unfortunately.
Wantabadgery Station is currently a working cattle farm, concerned with raising black Angus, and by all accounts they do a very good job of it. No doubt they occasionally get visitors asking to see the homestead the Moonliters bailed up in 1879, but on this occasion I decided it was better to be more respectful than simply rocking up and asking to have a sticky beak. It must be remembered that a great many of the sites associated with bushranger stories are on private property, especially in the Riverina where bushrangers preferred to raid farms rather than rob mail coaches. One day, perhaps, I’ll pluck up the courage to get a look at the farm, but until then I must be satisfied with having stood at the gate, much as Moonlite and his boys did while waiting to see Percy Baynes.
McGlede’s farm was the location of the final shootout between the gang and police. While a gunfight had occurred at Wantabadgery station, there were no casualties. When a combined troop of police from Wagga Wagga and Gundagai intercepted the gang at the McGlede selection, however, a deadly battle ensued. It was here that James Nesbitt and Gus Wernicke were killed, and Constable Webb-Bowen was mortally wounded. There is nothing left of the selection now apart from the land. There are no signs pointing to it or seemingly anything at all to indicate the site. I stopped to ask some locals if they knew where to find it and they merely stared at me with the vaguely confused look cows usually give humans (Georgina did not find my bovine interrogation a-moo-sing). Having to be satisfied with having gone to the approximate location, the decision was made to head for Gundagai, where hopefully at least one of us might get enough phone reception to plot our return trip. I annoyed Georgina greatly by cranking up Slim Dusty’s version of “The Road to Gundagai” as we approached the town. It was a place that I had wanted to visit ever since I was a little boy. Some of my family members had visited back in the ’90s and brought us back souvenirs related to the statue of Dad and Dave, Mum and Mabel. It became something of an ambition of mine to see the real deal myself. It wasn’t hard to find exactly what I had sought for so long. The statue is right next to the visitor centre. The familiar shapes of the popular Steele Rudd characters immediately caught my eye. We parked and walked down to the statue. It was incredible to see these strange, almost malformed figures looming over me with hollow eyes. The statue was far bigger than I had imagined, and far more detailed. It’s original location when unveiled in the 1970s was opposite the statue of The Dog on the Tuckerbox (more on that later), but in 2005 it was relocated to the reserve next to the info centre. The connection to Gundagai comes from the old radio series of Dad and Dave of Snake Gully that used the song “The Road to Gundagai” at the beginning of each episode. To get a sense of Australian culture from the turn of the century, I recommend getting your hands on some form of media pertaining to Dad and Dave. I think Dad and Dave: On Our Selection, starring Leo McKern and Geoffrey Rush in the title roles, is a great way to get an introduction to the quirky world of the Rudd family.
One of the best and newest attractions in Gundagai is the statue of Yarri and Jacky Jacky. These two courageous men are hugely important in the history of the town and more than deserving of such a beautiful sculpture to commemorate them. In the 1850s Gundagai was first founded on the flood plains of the Murrumbidgee river. Of course, the local Wiradjuri people had warned the whites about the risk of flooding; after all, the name of the place came from a word in the local dialect meaning “big water”. In 1852 the area was subjected to a catastrophic flood, destroying homes and leaving many people stranded amongst the gurgling floodwaters. Seeing that the people needed assistance, Jacky Jacky and Yarri led a rescue mission, riding out in bark canoes with other Wiradjuri men into the torrent to rescue survivors, saving 69 people. 89 of the 250 settlers perished in the flood, which left only three buildings intact when things settled. It is hard to say anything to adequately emphasise or exaggerate what is already an incredible turn of events. Happily, the statue stands in front of a series of information panels that describe Gundagai’s history. More effort needs to be made to highlight these stories of unity from our history, but this is a good start.
Antique shops have always been attractive to me, most likely because of my Dad’s hobby of looking for a bargain in any obscure place he came across. A collector of items ranging from ceramic horses to Inuit soapstone carvings, he played a big part in my fascination with collecting. Naturally, the moment I saw what appeared to be a decent collection of vintage knick-knacks I had to poke my head in. Beyond the rows of vintage clothing and antiques in Junque and Disorderly, a creaky staircase led up to the Gabriel Gallery, a collection of photography from the turn of the century by Dr. Charles Gabriel. The images were a fascinating look at the history of Gundagai and portrayed a vibrant community at the dawn of Federation. Of course, as is the way with basically every museum, big or small, there was one very unique part of the collection. In this case it was a walking stick and letters belonging to Henry Lawson, the great bush poet. If you have an interest in photography or early federal Australian history, the Gabriel Gallery is a great attraction to visit in Gundagai.
After a brief rest to have a cool drink, we decided it was time we headed for the gaol. Gundagai Gaol is located on a steep incline behind the courthouse and is only accessible on a tour, which you can book in the information centre. The blistering heat proved not to be very conducive to getting up the hill without becoming out of breath, but it was good to tick off the list, even though we didn’t go in. The gaol consists of two small buildings around the size of camp dormitories, and was the location where the Moonliters were held after their capture. The courthouse being so close to the gaol meant that it was no effort to have a quick walk around the outside on the way back down the hill from the gaol. The courthouse is a handsomely designed and built structure that operates very rarely, but is still a functional courthouse. It was the place where the Moonliters were committed for trial, which would take place in the Supreme Court in Sydney.
We geared ourselves up for a visit to the local museum but a makeshift sign informed us that the opening hours had changed and we would not be getting in this particular day. Unfortunate, but not unexpected. The itinerary was subsequently shifted around and we made way for the cemetery. By this stage I was glad to be taking advantage of the air conditioning in the car. Throughout the trip the temperature rarely dipped below 30°C.
The Gundagai Cemetery was a little way out of town but worth the visit. It is the one location that makes an effort to signpost anything connected to Captain Moonlite. The cemetery is surprisingly vast and open and the ground rock hard from the rigorous drought that has plagued the region. The monument marking the resting place of Senior Constable Webb-Bowen is hardly inconspicuous and juts out of the smattering of squat and crumbling grave markers, gleaming white. Next to it is the far more humble headstone belonging to Sergeant Edmund Parry who was killed by Johnny Gilbert in 1864. To see two officers of high esteem next to each other in such a way is just brilliant for the die-hard bushranger buffs.
To find Moonlite’s grave one must trek further uphill to the back of the cemetery. Here you will find a large rock with a plaque on it marking the resting place of the notorious preacher. Were it not for the seating heat and the incessant flies, the moment would have been quite profound – after all, this was my first time visiting the resting place of one of my favourite historical figures. I left a copy of my article about Wantabadgery on the grave, both as a sign of respect to Scott and his mates as well as the police, but also so that people that visited after us could learn something about the reason why the grave was significant enough to earn signage. I should point out that Scott would be fairly chuffed at being in such a prime location in the cemetery, looking down on the rest of the graves from beneath the shade. It was very rewarding to have finally connected with these historical figures.
The Dog on the Tuckerbox statue is a must-see if you are in Gundagai. This humble canine has become an icon ever since its unveiling in 1939. Inspired by a poem about a bullocky who is having a bad day, the statue depicts a cattle dog perched on a tuckerbox and is mounted on a plinth in a little pool. Recently the statue was vandalised but was quickly repaired and put back on his pride of place. There are some ruins adjoining the courtyard that used to be hotels for travellers going through the region, and there is a cafe where you can get a bite to eat and a Dog on the Tuckerbox souvenir. One of the more unexpected sights in this location is a cubist statue of folk musician Lazy Harry. Long time Kelly buffs will be well acquainted with Lazy Harry from his album about Ned Kelly, which has been on loop in Glenrowan for several decades.
After our jaunt through Moonlite country, we headed into Junee for a day without the focus being on bushrangers. Though Junee was on Ben Hall’s beat and was the location of a store his gang robbed multiple times, we had something else in mind.
Junee itself is quiet and pleasant, with easy to navigate streets. It wasn’t difficult to find the Licorice and Chocolate Factory, a huge brick building surrounded by gardens and gravel car parks. We were greeted by the sound of live music wafting as we walked into the premises. There were statues of sheep and dogs, the meaning of which were somewhat lost on us, and we made our way inside. Crossing through the cafe, we reached the factory where many warm and tasty smells lingered in the air – the rich aroma of chocolate mingling with the tang of licorice. There was not much to see through the big windows that kept the onlookers separated from the equipment on this day, but it would be interesting enough if we were on a guided tour, which the television display was obviously a part of. We went upstairs and looked at the homewares and knick-knacks, noting the beautiful writing sets and kitchenware. There was a lot of cast iron pieces as well, which were quite nice. We went back to the cafe and had hot chocolates, which were delicious and creamy. Georgina bought Orange Whiskey Marmalade, and although we didn’t buy any chocolate for fear it would simply melt in the heat, there was a lot of items we would have snapped up (though the chocolate boobs – yes, that’s a thing – were not on that list).
Monte Cristo is one of the most spooky and well-known attractions in New South Wales and probably the best known thing in Junee. Billed as Australia’s most haunted homestead, it dates back to the mid-1870s and has many spooky stories attached to it. Restored from essentially ruins by Reg and Olive Ryan, the homestead is an impressive example of late-Victorian/early-Edwardian architecture. Though the buildings are starting to look a little shabbier than in the glory days after the restoration, one can appreciate the degree of work that went into essentially rebuilding the place. While I had believed that the property must have been remote, it turns out that Monte Cristo is right in the heart of Junee, making it super easy to find.
Though the place dates from later than the height of bushranging in the area, one can still imagine how the Crawleys who owned the property might have responded to news that the Kelly Gang and the Moonliters were close by in the late 1870s. Of course, the one thing everyone wants to experience at Monte Cristo is the paranormal, and if you’re open to it you won’t be disappointed. I personally witnessed a man’s shadow moving in “the boy’s room” when nobody was in there, and there were plenty of weird vibes in certain rooms. The Dairy Room is the most disturbing part of the property. Both Georgina and I entered thinking it looked nice and cozy, but that quickly changed. For me it struck when I realised the chain looped through a hole in the wall was not for locking the door. See, it was in this room that an intellectually disabled boy was restrained by a chain in that same spot, resulting in the extreme wear and tear on the bricks. In fact he had been in there, restrained, when his mother died of heart failure right in front of him and left there for days before someone went to investigate. It was in this building also that a caretaker was murdered by a local youth who allegedly was inspired to kill after watching the movie Psycho.
One must be careful not to let the spooky reputation get the better of you, as we almost gave a visitor a heart attack when he came past the original homestead and saw Georgina and I taking the weight off our feet on a bench. Certainly the place could have done without all the Halloween decorations everywhere, most of which appeared to have been left partly taken down. In the courtyard between the servants’ quarters and the ballroom were two old hearses filled with plastic skeletons. It cheapened the vibe of the place considerably. A recent addition to the site is the Doll Museum, which I knew we had to do as soon as I saw it. Though only a small building, the collection is huge and very impressive. The horror section should appeal to many visitors with replicas of Annabelle and Chucky in glass cabinets. There’s even a Ned Kelly doll in the mix. Seriously, Ned is everywhere!
When our time in Wagga Wagga was at an end, it was time to head back towards the border. Of course, the Riverina was the home to many notorious bushrangers – Dan Morgan, Blue Cap, Harry Power – but our next stop put us in a key location in the Kelly story. Jerilderieis not far from the border, but it isn’t exactly the kind of place you would go to unless you had a specific reason to, and you would be able to see the attractions in an afternoon. While trucks rumble through it at all hours, there is hardly any other traffic, and the place is so small that it really isn’t hard to understand how easy it was for the Kelly Gang to keep essentially the whole town prisoner in the pub. Alas, such is life where many of these old country towns are concerned, as infrastructure has frequently bypassed many of them, leading to isolation and a reduction in the strength of the local economy. A town like Jerilderie could definitely use the cash injection that tourism would bring, but the lack of tourism has led to many of the tourist attractions becoming little more than dots on a map. It’s a “catch 22”.
By the time we arrived, the heat was fairly intolerable. We stayed in Ned’s Studio Apartment, which was a really lovely spot. With its close proximity to everything the town offers as well as its own amenities enabling us to cook and clean our clothes, it was a perfect base during our stay. There was only one downside. At first we didn’t make much of the fact that the water tasted strange but when we washed our clothes and they smelled like they had been washed in a swimming pool we knew something was up. Sure enough, a bit of Googling revealed that Jerilderie has an issue with chlorine in the water supply. While easy to get around, it’s the kind of thing that is helpful to be aware of in advance and the sort of thing you don’t find out about unless you specifically look for information about it.
After our arrival in town, we stopped in at the Royal Mail Hotel, where the Kelly Gang had kept their prisoners while they robbed the bank. In 1879, this building was attached to the bank, which is now the location of a motor mechanic shop, and this feature proved useful to the Kellys. While Dan Kelly kept the prisoners guarded in what is now a dining room, Joe Byrne walked next door to the bank via a rear passage and began the work of robbing it. Where once Ned Kelly gave a speech about the circumstances of his life that led him to become an outlaw, now stand inactive arcade machines and dining tables. The walls are decorated with a mix of historical photos and framed photocopies of images from Ned Kelly: A Short Life. As Georgina had a whiskey and I unwound from driving through kilometres of parched New South Welsh farmland, the other patrons comprised entirely of a man of around his late thirties and his friend who was a “little person”. The pair added a bit of life to the bar. Perhaps we just went in at the wrong time, seeing as that night when we went there for dinner the bar room was full of men knocking back beers after a hard day’s work.
After settling in at the accommodation, we decided to take a quick look around town. It soon became apparent that when reports described Ned Kelly and Constable Richards going through the streets so Ned could make a mental map of the town, it wasn’t quite as much effort as one might imagine. Where the gang’s plot unfolded was in a small section in the heart of the town.
The old printing shop that was run by Gill, the newspaper editor, was only a short distance away from the hotel. Gill was the man Ned Kelly wanted to publish his letter. At some stage the place had been turned into a museum but there was no way in as the place was locked up and left alone, though a peek in the windows showed there were displays set up inside still. No doubt there would have been interesting things to see in the museum had it ever opened, but alas it was another closed door to add to the list.
The Traveller’s Rest is situated in the street behind the council building, right by a giant windmill. This was the location of the infamous incident wherein Steve Hart took a watch from Reverend Gribble. Gribble complained to Ned Kelly, who in turn made Steve return the watch. It was also here that Ned had his last drinks before heading home after the bank robbery. It is said that he placed his pistol on the bar and said in his typical braggadocio fashion, “There is my gun. Anyone can take it and shoot me; but if you do, Jerilderie will drown in its own blood.”
The telegraph office is probably the most iconic building in Jerilderie, owing to its very conspicuous signage stating its connection to the Kelly story. In the past it was open for visitors but now remains closed. A peek through the windows reveals not only the huge cracks in the walls, but also the few exhibits that have been left out to gather dust, the plaque on the wall in the main room and a bunch of boxes and crates that were evidently used for packing up items in the building. There is also a plastic box out front that presumably used to contain maps or pamphlets of some kind, but is now empty. I left a printout of my article on Jerilderie in the box for a visitor to collect with the intention that it could help set the scene as they explored the town.
The old blacksmith shop was where Joe Byrne took the gang’s horses to be shod. No longer publicly accessible, in previous years it was able to be explored for $2, and a radio interview with Andrew Nixon, one of the smithies that worked there when the gang visited, would play in the background to set the scene. Now, apart from the Kelly trail signage there is nothing to indicate the historical significance of the building.
Jerilderie’s information centre doubles as a lolly shop, appropriately dubbed Sticky Fingers. In a back room you can get information about the town and surrounding areas, while in the main entrance you can buy souvenirs and lollies. As well as getting maps and useful tips, I procured some sweet treats to enjoy. The souvenirs are the usual Kelly fare with Jerilderie slapped on where otherwise it would say “Glenrowan” or “Beechworth” or whatever town the things were to represent. It would be great to have something to purchase that reflected Jerilderie specifically, but sometimes you have to be satisfied with what you have on offer.
A little further out is the site of the old police complex, where once stood the barracks, stables and lock-up. All that remains is the stables, and what I took to be the adjoining lock-up cell, but the printed sheet that explained the building was long rotted by the elements so it wasn’t exactly easy to find the info. Road works were being undertaken at the site so we had to dodge earth moving vehicles as we headed up to the stables. There is something strangely poetic about the dilapidated state of the building, excepting the recently installed guttering. It was here that the Kelly Gang had their base of operations in the town after locking the police up in the cell. The original police station is long gone, now a big empty patch of dirt marks where the police station used to be.
As was becoming a recurring theme in our travels, we started our days in town at the bakery. The food is good, the prices reasonable and the service friendly. The mural of notable figures from the town’s history was certainly… unique. Now, at the risk of sounding perhaps a smidge insensitive, I am used to seeing wall murals that adhere to artistic conventions like balance in the layout and verisimilitude in the portraits. Evidently some degree of effort went into the portraits, but there’s something odd about seeing a depiction of Joe Byrne with what looks like an advanced case of Proteus syndrome. Fortunately around the corner is a nice little exhibit of items found on the site, including a shortened Martini Henry rifle that may have been dropped by one of the trooopers that went to the town from Victoria in search of the gang. Out the back there is also a big statue of Ned Kelly made from bread tins, which I quite liked. It gave me a few little flashbacks to my short-lived baker apprenticeship seeing all those tins.
After a short stay in Jerilderie, it was time to hit the road again. I made the executive decision to pass through Culcairn so that I could get a chance to see some key sites related to Dan Morgan. We stopped for brunch at the Culcairn Bakery and had some of the best, freshest food we had had the entire trip. Honestly, it was tempting to linger in town a bit longer, but we had places to be and things to see.
Just outside of town is the grave of John McLean, the stockman who has the dubious honour of being the first man murdered by Dan Morgan. After Morgan had drunkenly fired his pistol into a crowd of captives at Round Hill Station, a local squatter named John Heriot had been badly wounded when a bullet struck his leg. McLean had gotten Morgan’s permission to fetch a doctor, but Morgan’s accomplices convinced him that McLean was going for the police instead. When Morgan ordered McLean to stop and the man continued riding, Morgan shot him. He took McLean back to the station and stayed with him all night. McLean died soon after and even though the grave by the side of the road has a big sign next to it to tell the story, it is in fact a fake grave. The real grave is actually several hundred metres away by Round Hill Station.
Round Hill Station is another example of a bushranger site that has continued to thrive beyond its infamous past. Now billed as Round Hill Homestead, it is both a farm and a perfect place for functions such as weddings. As with Wantabadgery Station, I elected not to go wandering in uninvited, satisfied with knowing I had been to the spot, more or less, where Morgan went from just another highwayman to Morgan the Murderer.
The brief spell outside the car saw me swarmed with flies and seriously wishing I had one of those hats with the corks hanging off the brim. I happily shooed the last of them out of the car before we headed off towards Walla Walla.
Morgan’s Lookout was one of the few things on the list that I had positioned as a must. Located on the outskirts of Culcairn, northwest of Walla Walla, the lookout is essentially a collection of huge boulders where Dan Morgan is believed to have made a camp so he could monitor the movements of police and potential victims from afar. There is no admission fee and it opens from sunrise to sunset. By the time we arrived the heat was blistering and the moment we stood outside it hit like opening a preheated oven. It appeared that some effort had been made to create a set of signs detailing the history and ecology of the location. Walking through the huge boulders was incredible. You could easily imagine Morgan sleeping inside the overhangs or lurking between the rocks, ready to pounce. A steel staircase allowed access to the top of the largest boulder. On the way around we met another visitor that was taking photographs – the only other living soul at the spot at the time. The hike up the stairs was almost as breathtaking as the view from the top of the lookout; once up on the platform you realise just how far Morgan would have been able to see. For what seemed thousands of miles around, everything was dry, mostly flat and yellow. It was easy to see how an enterprising bushranger would find the viewpoint useful. Unfortunately the weather proved intolerable and we headed back to the car quicker than originally intended. Once inside our conveyance we spent five or more minutes trying to get the flies out before resuming the trip.
We returned over the border much earlier than originally planned due to a decision to power through to Beechworth. This decision may have proved to have been wise given that only an hour or so after passing back through Wodonga we heard news of fires breaking out in Albury. Once we were back in Victoria we were relieved to once again see hills and the colour green. The trip was slowed considerably by road works, but hopefully soon there will be nice new road surfaces for drivers in the area. When we finally made it to Beechworth we checked in at the George Kerferd Hotel. This lavish accommodation, especially in comparison to our previous lodgings, is situated within the grounds of the former lunatic asylum (somewhat appropriate, some may say, for someone such as I). That night we indulged in Chinese food from the Chinese Village Restaurant. Georgina probably wouldn’t have felt the trip was complete without having done so at least once.
One of the best things to do in Beechworth is to explore the darker side by going on a ghost tour of the old lunatic asylum. As an enthusiast of all things paranormal, this came highly recommended and did not disappoint. Our original plan to walk from the accommodation was vetoed by our disinclination to walk after our dinner. This proved a wise decision as the asylum grounds are deceptively huge. The winding road to where the tours operate was suitably eerie as night closed in and a light drizzle began. The Asylum Ghost Tours signs, with their ominous bloody handprints, led us to the Bijou Theatre from where the tour would begin. The theatre is decked out with a mix of historical medical paraphernalia and ghostly themed decorations of questionable taste, but you can buy merchandise from there either before or after the tour. I bought a copy of the book Palace of Broken Dreams, which is an interesting read and details the history of the site. Our guide Bronwen was excellent, leading us through the buildings and recounting the history, both earthly and otherworldly, clearly and without any forced theatricality. It should be noted that this is not one of those tacky tours where you’re led into darkened rooms where some git in a Halloween costume will jump out and scare people. No, this tour lets the history and the location do all the work. As for paranormal experiences, both Georgina and I experienced things on the tour. For myself, I saw what appeared to be a young boy with a shaved head trying to hide behind some cars parked outside of what was at one stage an arts room, as well as hearing the voice of an older male in an empty room as we entered the complex where the nursery was housed. Throughout the tour, our guide was gracious in answering questions. My inclination during such tours is always to dig deeper where possible and Bronwen demonstrated that she was intimately acquainted with the place and the entities therein, as much as the history side of things, which was very impressive. Ultimately I would rate this tour extremely highly and recommend it for anyone with an interest in the paranormal or even just in the history of medicine in Australia.
One of the important things we had to do while in the region was visit the El Dorado Museum for a meeting. Georgina’s work on An Outlaw’s Journal has led to a very close relationship with the museum as they are in the process of updating their collections and displays. As small local museums go, El Dorado is a beauty. Their collection ranges through all sorts of history from the colonial era to militaria and even geology. Our work with the museum at present is super secret, but Georgina took the opportunity to give the museum a beta copy of the book she has been working on about the El Dorado cow that Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt stole. As usual, it was a fruitful meeting and an absolute pleasure to meet the committee with whom we look forward to working with in future.
As in previous visits, we went to the Beechworth Courthouse, where many infamous faces had their day in court. Recently restoration works were performed in parts of the building and the historical books in the library were treated to prevent any creepy crawlies from making a meal out of them. The courtroom is basically unchanged from the era that saw members of the Kelly gang and their families on trial there and there are some very interesting exhibits. The staff are friendly and happy to have a chat about the building and its history, and even though I’ve heard the spiel a half dozen times it never gets dull.
We also made a trip to theBurke Museum, where they are doing refurbishment to a portion of the interior where the Chinese collection is housed. The Chinese artifacts are one of the most important collections in the museum, owing to the cultural significance both to the Beechworth community and the Chinese in equal measure, many of whom travel to Beechworth specifically to connect with their heritage. In light of this, I purchased a set of postcards with illustrations depicting frontier life for the Chinese featuring artwork by Andrew Swift. We were privileged enough to get a look through some of the historical photographs in their archives in search of sites connected to Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go back and get copies as intended. The team at the museum are friendly, enthusiastic and very helpful if you are looking for assistance in your research.
We also went to the Ned Kelly Vault, one of Beechworth’s best attractions. The small building houses the best singular collection of Kelly related relics in the world, spanning the whole story and it’s cultural influences. As a big enthusiast of film, it is always a hoot to see armour worn by Mick Jagger, John Jarratt and Heath Ledger on display, among the various other exciting items such as Ann Jones’ table, helmets and weapons used by Victoria Police, and a range of photos of people involved in the story, including an image purporting to show Ned and Dan Kelly prior to their outlawry (which can only be viewed in a specially constructed box). The volunteer-run museum has thousands of people going through its doors every year and hopefully things will continue to grow.
Another spot we visited in Beechworth was the remnants of the old hospital. Essentially, all that remains of the busy frontier hospital is the stonework from the front wall. As impressive as it is, there is something rather melancholy in the absence of the rest of the building, but that’s progress for you. Once upon a time, this would have been bustling with nurses and doctors going about their duties, attending to patients from the town and the goldfields. Now, it’s just a bunch of carved stone leading onto an empty lot.
The following day we started with a trip to the El Dorado Pottery, a favourite of mine. After making a few purchases, we headed through the Woolshed Valley. Although the speed limit along the trail is 100km p/h, the road is covered in fine dust and gravel – not exactly prime conditions in case of a need to stop suddenly at top speed. We briefly stopped at Reedy Creek so Georgina could dip her toes in the water. As we were leaving there were already locals coming down in their swimmers to cool off. It’s a beautiful spot to have a swim and no doubt Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt did as much back in the day. As we continued, we stopped at the site of the Sebastopol Flats, where Joe Byrne used to work and socialise with the Chinese. Georgina made a series of videos for her Facebook page covering aspects of the story related to the locations we were visiting, the last of which was The Devil’s Elbow, where Aaron Sherritt lived at the time of his murder. The trail is conveniently signposted throughout and you can read up on the history as you go. Unfortunately there is not a lot of structures left to see, so the signs do a fantastic job of explaining what things were there and their significance.
We then made our way back to Beechworth where we managed to get in on a tour through the Beechworth Gaol. Despite some factual inaccuracies on this occasion that only big nerds like myself would pick up on, the tour was lively and engaging. The gaol itself is in excellent condition, owing to the fact that it was only fifteen years ago that it was decommissioned. If you are in Beechworth, try and get on the tour, which operates twice daily. There are many links to not only the Kelly Gang (all of whom had served time there), but also more recent high-profile criminals such as Squizzy Taylor and Carl Williams. To drive home the Kelly connection, a set of dummies dressed in replica armour stands between the corridors of cells. For some reason Joe Byrne’s helmet had been swapped with a second Dan Kelly helmet, but not everyone is as pedantic enough to notice as I am. Hopefully there will be more attractions at the gaol soon to encourage visitors beyond the tour, but as in all things it requires money and time, which is often in short supply these days.
That night we returned to the Beechworth Gaol for an evening hunting for ghosts. The Beechworth Gaol is the location of the four hour long paranormal investigations hosted by Danni from Paranormal Prospectors. Entering the gaol with the lights off, after dark, was a confronting experience itself, but this was heightened by the fact that the electronic temperature gauge that had been set up in the aisle of the male cell block appeared to be floating when we entered, though it may have been an optical illusion caused by the dramatic change in lighting. Regardless of whether or not it was, this has to be hands down the single most paranormally active place I’ve ever been. We got EVPs, Georgina was poked in the back by a disembodied finger (with an EVP capturing a voice describing exactly that), the laser grid was manipulated to go brighter and duller, there were intelligent responses where whistling patterns were being repeated by a disembodied voice in various points in the prison, there were disembodied footsteps, and intelligent responses on the spirit box. One of the most incredible things was the table tipping, where the group lightly rested their fingertips on the edge of a small table and it began to tilt and spin. It spun so fast we were all running in a circle and it tipped so intensely it fell over several times, and yet nobody was gripping the table at all – I have no conventional explanation for it. Overall, it was absolutely exhilarating to experience and as a ghost buff I feel like I definitely got my money’s worth.
On the return trip we popped into the Beechworth Galleries, where we examined the bric-a-brac and marvelled at the welded sculptures. The statues, of which a considerable number depicted Ned Kelly in armour, are made by a South African artist and range from the whimsical to the absolutely astounding. Any garden or deck would be immediately improved by having one of these amazing artworks on display there – just don’t ask me how you’ll get a life-size elk made of steel home. A keen observer might recognise the artist’s work on display outside of the Billy Tea Rooms in Glenrowan.
We also made sure to visit Glenrowan. For me, this is where it all began in 1998 during a stop on the way to Beechworth for my grade six school camp. Of course, in some ways it was a very different place back then. For one, back then Bob Hempel was still fit enough to charge out of the animated theatre ringing a bell to attract visitors whenever a session was due to begin. Nowadays, he’s far more subdued but you still hear the crack of the “gunfire” echoing through the main strip to remind you of the attraction’s presence. Kate’s Cottage hasn’t really changed, though the pet birds are dead now and the re-created Kelly house is starting to sag like an under-baked cake, but they still play Lazy Harry on loop, and you can still get your Ned Kelly tea towels and ciggie lighters from there. The site of the siege has recently had the stolen wooden replica of the inn sign replaced with a metal one that is hopefully harder to pinch, though the metal sculpture approximating Ned’s armour at the capture site has already had the helmet stolen, having been there for only around a month.
We had our brunch at the Vintage Hall Cafe, which is both a cafe and a shop that sells a mix of souvenirs and second hand items. It was here in 1970 that the Mick Jagger film had it’s Victorian premiere, and some local brainboxes decided to set off explosives around the building in protest (surprisingly this act did not somehow stop the film from existing). I managed to pick up a copy of the Monty Wedd Ned Kelly comic strip in a hardcover book, which was something I had been wanting for a long time. Then Georgina and I did our usual trip to Kate’s Cottage to browse the books. If you’ve got a decent wad of cash on you, you can pick up some really great titles from the range of second-hand books. I was very tempted by a number of the titles but decided to save up. Then it was a quick sojourn at the Billy Tea Rooms, which provide a lovely spot to have a bite to eat. We walked to the site of the siege where we had a moment of contemplating. It probably would have been longer than a moment if it wasn’t so hot that we could feel our skin baking.
After this we made our way to Greta to visit the cemetery, but ended up going to Moyhu and buying a fake plant centrepiece because we couldn’t find anywhere nearby that we could get flowers from. The volunteers that have been working to maintain and upgrade the facilities in the cemetery have done exemplary work and it is a pity that more of the smaller country cemeteries don’t get as much TLC. The Kelly graves are not marked, though with some research you can find out where the plots are. While many people complain that the graves are unmarked, it is very unlikely that it would make much of a difference. The marker at the gate is a tasteful memorial to the whole family, unified in the afterlife. Of course, having visited three quarters of the gang, we had to visit Joe Byrne one more time as we returned via Benalla (I doubt Georgina would have forgiven me if we hadn’t). From that point it was just a straight ride into the sunset on our way home where I hoped the cat hadn’t baked to death in my heat-trap of a house. Fortunately my mum had been an angel, as always, and made sure that the cat was looked after in my absence. By the time we got home we were both exhausted and decided that it was time to order a pizza now that we were somewhere that it would actually get delivered to.
It was indeed a very eventful trip. To experience the places where these incredible stories unfolded is always wonderful and exciting. It was good to see so much of the history preserved, but at the same time the amount of attractions that were poorly maintained or not maintained at all was disappointing. Australia’s heritage may not be full of Roman hippodromes or Greek amphitheatres, but what we do have is valuable and it is disheartening to see so much being lost because people either can’t afford to restore and maintain, or just can’t be bothered. Ideally, a town like Jerilderie could be thriving with frequent visitors coming through to visit the Kelly sites, if it wasn’t for the fact that they are so small and off the beaten track. Towns like Beechworth, in comparison, embrace their history and perhaps it could even be said that they take it for granted along with their accessibility due to proximity to the highway. It’s sad to see, but the reality is that it’s getting harder and harder to keep these things up and running in Australia, and these attractions will exist only as long as the people owning them are physically able to be there. Some young entrepreneur with a bit of cash behind them could revolutionise the tourism industry in bushranger country, but it would require real passion for the history as much as a fat bank account. These sites are our history and our culture and deserve to be maintained and cared for. Perhaps in the not too distant future, they will get the attention they need. Only time will tell.
Few figures in history reach the notoriety and cultural impact of the Kelly Gang. As so much is easily available on the subject already, here is an easily digestible summary of the so-called Kelly Outbreak. For more detailed information, there is a swathe of articles available on A Guide to Australian Bushranging that examine elements of the history in more depth.
The story of the Kelly Gang begins on 15 April, 1878. Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick was sent by Sergeant Whelan at Benalla to take charge of the police station at Greta. Greta was well-known to police in the district as members of the Kelly, Quinn and Lloyd families(all related) had selections there. These families were under particularly strict scrutiny by the police due to their recidivism and suspected involvement in crimes such as stock theft. In fact, Constable Fitzpatrick had heard there was a warrant out for the arrest of Dan Kelly, the seventeen year-old son of the notorious Ellen Kelly, for his suspected involvement in horse stealing. He made it known to Whelan that he intended to arrest Dan en route to Greta police station. Despite popular understanding, Fitzpatrick was not required by law to carry a copy of a warrant with him.
When Fitzpatrick arrived at the Kelly selection, Dan was not at home so he spoke with Ellen Kelly (who was nursing a newborn), then rode to their neighbour, William “Brickey” Williamson, and questioned him about whether he had a permit for the logs he was splitting. He lingered until dusk and returned to the Kelly selection in case Dan had returned rather than riding to Greta to take charge of the station as ordered. Dan Kelly answered the door and Fitzpatrick made his intentions known. Dan agreed to go quietly with Fitzpatrick on condition that he could finish his dinner first as he had been riding all day. He denied having stolen any horses and it would later be revealed that he had been in gaol when the animals in question were stolen, corroborating his assertions. What happened next is not known for sure due to conflicting evidence. What seems to have been the case, according to popular understanding, is that Fitzpatrick possibly made an unwanted sexual advance on fifteen year-old Kate Kelly and a fight broke out. Fitzpatrick claimed that Ellen Kelly hit him in the head with a coal shovel and Ned Kelly entered the house and shot him in the wrist, accompanied by Brickey Williamson and Ellen Kelly’s son-in-law Bill Skillion who were both brandishing revolvers. Ned Kelly would claim he was never there and Ellen would indicate that Fitzpatrick was drunk and had fought with Ned and Dan. Another version of the story states that Fitzpatrick injured his arm on a door latch and claimed it was a bullet wound, cutting himself to make it look like he had removed a bullet. Regardless, Fitzpatrick returned to Benalla and lodged a report. The following day Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Bill Skillion were arrested and charged with aiding an attempted murder. Ned and Dan Kelly had gone into hiding at Dan Kelly’s hut in the bush, and a £100 reward was posted for the capture of Ned Kelly for attempted murder.
While the brothers were hiding in the Wombat Ranges Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Bill Skillion were sentenced. Ellen Kelly received three years hard labour, the two men were given six years each. Days later a search party was sent from Mansfield to find the Kelly brothers. Word soon reached the bushrangers that they were being hunted and they tracked the police as they ventured into the bush from Mansfield on 25 October, 1878. Despite the fact they had constructed a fortified hut with huge logs for walls and an armoured door made of sheet metal to protect them in an ambush, they remained on edge. The Mansfield police party consisted of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constables Thomas McIntyre, Michael Scanlan (of Mooroopna) and Thomas Lonigan (of Violet Town). They set up camp on the banks of Stringybark Creek, less than a mile from Dan Kelly’s hut. The following day Kennedy and Scanlan headed off to scout for the brothers, leaving McIntyre and Lonigan to tend the camp. McIntyre shot some parrots with a shotgun Kennedy had left him for the task of hunting something for supper. He returned to camp and began cooking bread. Unknown to them, the sound of McIntyre shooting had been heard and Ned Kelly decided to bail up the police. He and Dan were joined by Joe Byrne, a young man from the Woolshed Valley who had recently been involved in stock theft with Ned, and Steve Hart, a jockey from Wangaratta. Ned claimed his intention was to rob the police of their food and weapons.
In the afternoon of 26 October, 1878, the Kelly Gang emerged from the bush and ordered McIntyre and Lonigan to bail up. McIntyre did as instructed but Lonigan ran and was shot by Ned with a quartered bullet. A piece of shrapnel pierced Lonigan’s eye and entered his brain, killing him. Ned insisted that Lonigan had gotten behind a log and was about to shoot him. McIntyre would refute this, stating that there was not enough time for Lonigan to have done so. The bushrangers raided the camp, gathering what they could. Dan Kelly insisted McIntyre be handcuffed but Ned refused. He ordered McIntyre to tell the other police to surrender when they returned or be shot. Joe Byrne drank tea and smoked with McIntyre as they waited. When Kennedy and Scanlan returned the gang hid and McIntyre attempted to get the police to surrender. Very suddenly shots were fired. Ned shot Scanlan in the back as his horse tried to run away. Kennedy jumped out of the saddle and began shooting with his pistol. McIntyre escaped on Kennedy’s horse and rode into the bush. Kennedy attempted to follow McIntyre and shot Dan Kelly in the shoulder. Ned pursued Kennedy and they fired at each other in a running gunfight. Kennedy was wounded and fell a considerable distance from the camp. Ned finished him off by shooting him in the chest at close range. He would claim it was a mercy killing. The bushrangers then looted from the corpses and took everything they needed from the camp before burning the tent. Constable McIntyre, meanwhile, had been badly injured as he escaped and hid in a wombat hole overnight. The following day he walked to a farm and raised the alarm.
Almost immediately parliament passed the Felons Apprehension Act, which gave them the power to declare people “outlaws”. This was based on the legislation of the same name passed in New South Wales in response to bushrangers such as Ben Hall and Dan Morgan. It meant that the outlaws were not protected by the law and could be murdered without provocation and the killer would not only be exempt from any repercussions, they would receive the reward money. Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly and their two accomplices (Joe Byrne and Steve Hart had not yet been identified) were officially declared outlaws in the colony of Victoria. £1000 was put on Ned’s capture, another £1000 was offered for the others. The assistant commissioner of police, Charles Hope Nicolson, was assigned to lead the hunt for the gang.
On 9 December, 1878, the Kelly Gang re-emerged. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station at Faithfull’s Creek and imprisoned the staff in a storeroom. That evening a hawker arrived to camp at the station and he was bailed up as well. The outlaws took new outfits from the hawkers wagon and spruced themselves up with perfume. Later, Ned held a Q&A session in the shed where he answered all the questions his prisoners had about his life and crimes. The next morning, Dan guarded the prisoners while the other gang members destroyed the telegraph lines. A hunting party was also captured and added to the prisoners in the shed.
In the afternoon of 10 December, Ned, Dan and Steve rode to Euroa to rob the bank. Dan guarded the back door as Steve went into the manager’s homestead via the kitchen. Here he was recognised by one of the servants who had been a schoolmate of his. He locked her in the drawing room with the rest of the manager’s family before heading into the bank. Meanwhile, Ned had tried to get in the front door with a dodgy cheque he had made the superintendent of Younghusband’s Station write out. When the bank clerk tried to tell him they were closed, he burst in and bailed the staff up and ordered them to give him all the money. Once the till was emptied he ordered them to open the safe but they needed the manager’s key. Ned and Steve bailed up the manager, Robert Scott, and after much hassle, including sending Scott’s wife to get the key from the study, the safe was emptied too. The outlaws then took the staff and the Scotts with them back to the station where Joe had been guarding the prisoners, and had even captured the linesman sent to repair the broken telegraph wires. The gang stayed until night time and then left, ordering the prisoners to wait until they were gone before leaving themselves. The gang escaped with over £1500 on gold and money. In response the reward was raised to £4000 and Assistant Commissioner Nicolson was replaced by Superintendent Francis Augustus Hare.
With all four gang members now officially named, it was harder for them to move around, so they got Joe Byrne’s best friend Aaron Sherritt to keep the police distracted by giving them false information. In early 1879 he informed Superintendent Hare that the Kelly Gang would be going to Goulburn. The police immediately headed for Goulburn, but the outlaws were actually heading for Jerilderie, further west. They split up and Ned and Joe went to the Woolpack Inn to get information about Jerilderie. They soon rejoined Dan and Steve and headed into the town.
At midnight on 7 February, 1879, the Kelly Gang woke the Jerilderie police up and captured them. They locked the police in their own lock-up cell and planned their next heist. The next day Ned and Joe disguised themselves as police reinforcements and went through the town with one of the constables. They made note of where everything was. Later, Joe and Dan traced the telegraph lines and got their horses shod. The next day Dan guarded the wife of the town’s Sergeant as she decorated the town hall for mass. The gang then began to round the townsfolk up and imprisoned them in the Royal Hotel. Joe went into the bank via the back door and bailed up the staff. Ned and Steve soon appeared. They robbed the till, but again had to get the manager’s key for the safe. Steve was sent to find the manager and caught him having a bath. Eventually the safe was opened and emptied. Ned began destroying records of the bank’s debtors and the bank staff were added to the prisoners in the hotel. Ned and Joe had written a letter that was to be published in the local newspaper, but the local news editor had run out of town once he realised the Kelly Gang were robbing the bank. Ned gave the letter to one of the bankers to be passed onto the press. The gang soon headed off with £2000 pounds of stolen money and gold. This caused the New South Wales government to contribute another £4000 to the reward.
For months the gang seemed to disappear. During this time Aaron Sherritt kept the police distracted by hosting watch parties at the Byrne selection every night. Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor was sent from Queensland with a party of native police. The native police were feared for their incredible tracking abilities and their discipline. During the latter months of 1879, Superintendent Hare took ill and was replaced by Assistant Commissioner Nicolson. Nicolson stopped the watch parties and relied on a syndicate of police informants to keep track of the Kelly Gang. Unfortunately a lot of information the police received was either outdated, false or cases of mistaken identity. The media criticised the police for their apparent ineptitude.
At this time the outlaws had begun to collect steel plates, mostly plough mouldboards, in order to craft bulletproof armour. Ned Kelly would claim his original intention was to wear the armour during bank robberies as the banks were now all guarded by armed soldiers. Each gang member had their own suit, but mystery still surrounds who made the armour. Many believe it was made by blacksmiths or by the gang themselves.
The gang had also been very reliant on their sympathisers for fresh horses, food, shelter and information. The proceeds from the bank robberies had all gone to their supporters. The most prominent sympathisers were Tom Lloyd, Wild Wright, Paddy Byrne, Ettie Hart and the Kelly sisters. Aaron Sherritt was a sympathiser too, but many of the gang’s other supporters thought he was working for the police and had told the gang to murder him. Sherritt’s family had actually been working as police informants, his brother Jack Sherritt in particular, but Aaron had remained a supporter of his closest friend. Nevertheless, the rumours were persistent and Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly frequently tested the Sherritts by giving them useless information to see if it reached the police. When Superintendent Hare returned as head of the pursuit, he re-employed Aaron to take watch parties to spy on Mrs. Byrne. When the threats against Aaron became worrisome, Detective Michael Ward, one of the heads of the hunt based in Beechworth, had arranged for Aaron to be guarded day and night by police. Meanwhile, Ned Kelly had decided to escalate the conflict with the police and take out as many of them in a single go as possible. He planned to lure them out on a special train and derail it. A commotion at Aaron Sherritt’s hut would cause the police, who were based in Benalla, to go by train to Beechworth and resume the hunt with a fresh trail. In order to get to Beechworth they had to pass through Glenrowan, where the train line would be broken on a treacherous bend, causing the train to fly off the tracks. The intention seems to have been to murder the police on board in order to force the government to stop pursuing the gang out of fear.
On 26 June, 1880, Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne bailed up a German neighbour of Aaron Sherritt named Anton Wick. They took him to Sherritt’s hut and used Wick to lure Aaron to the back door. When Aaron opened the door Joe murdered him, shooting him twice with a shotgun. Aaron died instantly. The four police constables that had been assigned to protect Aaron cowered and hid in the bedroom. Joe and Dan tried to force the police out of the bedroom for two hours before giving up and riding off to join Ned and Steve at Glenrowan.
At Glenrowan, Ned and Steve bailed up a team of quarrymen and some plate-layers to pull up a section of the train track. Ned also captured Ann Jones, proprietor of The Glenrowan Inn, and her daughter Jane. The prisoners were taken to the gatehouse where Joe and Dan arrived at around five in the morning. At daybreak the prisoners were split into two groups: women and children were kept in the gatehouse to be guarded by Steve, everyone else was taken to The Glenrowan Inn. Throughout the day more prisoners were captured as Ned waited for the police. To keep the prisoners occupied there were sporting games held at the inn, card games were played inside, drinks flowed freely and there was even a dance in the bar room. Still, there was no sign of police. As it was a Sunday, no civilian trains would be running and Ned expected the police to arrive as soon as they heard the news of what had happened at Aaron’s hut. What Ned had not discovered was that the news of Aaron’s murder did not reach the police in Benalla until after lunchtime. The police took a long time to make any arrangements but as dusk approached, arrangements were made for a special police train to be sent to Beechworth.
That evening Ned decided to bail up the local policeman, Constable Bracken. Thomas Curnow, the schoolteacher, had been trying to convince Ned he was on his side all day and Ned finally agreed to let Curnow take his sick wife home when they went to capture Bracken. As soon as he got home, Curnow gathered materials to help him stop the train. He took a candle and a red scarf and rode off to the train line. Back at the inn there was more dancing and after midnight Dan Kelly told everyone to head home. However, Ann Jones stopped them from leaving so Ned could give a speech. As Ned was talking the police train finally arrived and stopped at the station. Curnow had used the lit candle behind the red scarf as a danger signal and warned the train about the damaged line. The Kelly Gang donned their armour and prepared for battle. Constable Bracken escaped and ran to the train station where he informed Superintendent Hare that the gang were in The Glenrowan Inn. The police headed to the inn and a battle commenced.
In the initial exchange Superintendent Hare’s wrist was smashed by a shot, Joe Byrne was shot in the calf, and Ned Kelly was shot in the foot and his left elbow was smashed. As the battle continued, the prisoners tried to escape. Jane Jones led a group of women and children to safety after she had been hit in the head by a police bullet and her little brother had also been mortally wounded by police fire. Over the next few hours, Ned escaped into the bush, most of the women and children escaped even though the police continued to try and shoot them, and Joe Byrne was killed by a police bullet to the groin. Police reinforcements continued to arrive throughout the early hours of the morning and just before sunrise Ned Kelly reappeared behind the police lines.
Ned fought the police for almost half an hour before Sergeant Steele blasted his unprotected knee. He was captured alive but badly wounded. Dan and Steve remained in the inn. At ten o’clock the rest of the prisoners were let out. By this time people from all around had descended upon Glenrowan to watch the siege. At three in the afternoon the police decided to burn the inn down to flush Dan and Steve out. They had previously ordered a cannon to be sent from Melbourne to blown the inn up but it had not yet arrived. As the inn was set on fire a Catholic priest, Matthew Gibney, ran inside to rescue anyone that was still in there. Joe Byrne’s corpse was dragged out and the dead bodies of Dan and Steve were found in the bedroom but could not be retrieved before the fire took hold. Another civilian shot by police, Martin Cherry, was rescued from the fire but only lived long enough to be given the last rites. After the fire had stopped, Dan’s and Steve’s bodies were retrieved. They were charred beyond recognition. The onlookers crowded around to get a good look at the dead bodies and to grab any souvenirs they could. Photographers captured images of many of the scenes.
Ned Kelly was taken to Benalla, where Joe Byrne’s corpse was strung up against a door of the police lock-up to be photographed. Ned was then sent to Melbourne Gaol to be treated for his wounds but was not expected to survive. Meanwhile, Dan and Steve were buried in unmarked graves to prevent the police taking the bodies away from the families. Months after Glenrowan there were still bullets and bits of shot being removed from Ned’s hands, feet and limbs. When he was deemed fit, he was sent to Beechworth for a committal hearing. Authorities were worried that having a trial in Beechworth would mean there was a strong likelihood of there being sympathisers in the jury so in order to have the best chance at convicting him, he was transferred back to Melbourne for his murder trial.
The trial in the Supreme Court was quick and Ned Kelly was found guilty of murdering Constable Thomas Lonigan and sentenced to death by Sir Redmond Barry, the judge that had sentenced his mother to gaol in 1878. While he was held in Melbourne Gaol to await his execution, his sympathisers tried to get a reprieve. Petitions with tens of thousands of signatures were gathered and there were protests and riots in the streets of Melbourne. Kate Kelly met with prominent politicians to beg for mercy but the Executive Council were unmoved and the sentence was upheld. Ned dictated several letters from his cell in order to make his version of events heard. As he was unable to write due to his injuries another prisoner was made to write for him. On 11 November, 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol. Thousands of people gathered outside the prison and Ellen Kelly worked in the prison laundry within earshot of the gallows. After his execution, his body was taken to the dead house, his head was shaved and a cast made, then his body was removed to be dissected by university students. The remains were buried in the gaol.
The Kelly Gang was not prolific by a far stretch. They did fewer robberies than the Hall Gang; they murdered less people than Jimmy Governor; they were not at large as long as Captain Thunderbolt; and there were not as many members as The Ribbon Gang. But what distinguished the Kelly Gang was that there was a political element to their story that was unprecedented, and a sophistication to their operations that surpassed similar feats from the “golden era” of bushrangers. Most people believe bushranging ended with the Kelly Gang, but in fact bushranging continued well into the 1920s before it began to evaporate.
Certainly the armour is a powerful piece of iconography and it encapsulates a lot of what makes the Kelly story so unique. In almost 100 years of bushranging, starting with Black Caesar in 1788, nobody had thought to protect themselves from bullets. Ned Kelly mixed the best bits of old fashioned bushranging with a fresh, more methodical approach: to prevent being shot they made armour; because mail coaches were not lucrative targets they robbed banks; they destroyed telegraph lines to prevent information reaching the police quickly; to gain sympathy they gave speeches and wrote letters to the press and politicians; to prove they were not cold blooded murderers they performed intricate heists with no bloodshed. They were bushrangers that didn’t act like typical bushrangers and that made them a cut above the rest.
Because the Kelly Gang came from the selector class and so many people identified with them, they became representatives of people in a way not seen since Jack Donohoe became the hero of the convict class. They came to represent everything one group of people tried to suppress, at the same time as being everything the other group wanted to be, which struck a chord and captured the imagination. Even now, they capture that same spirit because a lot of the class conflict in the modern day is merely a mutation of what it was then and stems from the same things. People will always be able to find something in the Kelly Gang they either love or hate because they have transcended history and become part of the cultural tapestry.
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.
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.
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.
On the weekend of the 11th of November I went on a trip through the Kelly Country in North East Victoria. Ostensibly I was going up for a meeting of Kelly enthusiasts on the Saturday night but one does not simply go into Kelly Country for an evening! The following is an abridged account of some of the things that occurred during the trip.
Starting from the Melbourne region, it takes a few hours to get to the heart of Kelly Country. On the way up you will pass through Beveridge, where you can see the dilapidated remains of the old Kelly house where Red Kelly and Ellen Quinn started their family. An interesting example of 1850s bush carpentry, years of neglect and vandalism have left the building as little more than a husk. For many years various people have made a pledge to preserve and restore the house but the most that appears to have been done is the installation of a sign telling visitors what they’re looking at. Nearby you can also visit the old church where the Kelly children went to school. It’s a handsome bluestone building with boarded up windows that is kept safely removed from visitors by fences and gates.
As you continue you’ll pass Wallan, where Ned’s relatives, the Quinns, once resided. You will also pass Avenel where the Kelly family lived after Red lost the selection in Beveridge. The family likely had few positive memories there but for one that has become an integral part of the Kelly legend – Ned rescuing Dick Shelton from drowning in Hughes Creek. For this act he received his green silk sash, which is displayed in Benalla. Avenel is also where Red Kelly is buried (there is some speculation as to whether his grave is in the same location as the marker due to cemetery boundaries being shifted).
Further on, Euroa was the location the gang chose for their first bank robbery, though the original building is long gone. A sign marks where the bank once stood. It is a small town perfect for a quick stop on your journey (though this time there was no stop there).
A must-see whenever I go to Kelly Country is Benalla. It is one of the more “modern” towns in the region boasting lots of shopping and art. Various buildings throughout Benalla are painted by local artists depicting all manner of scenes ranging from Ned Kelly holding his helmet to a pair of bright green ninja turtles. Like Melbourne, Benalla has cafes and laneways where you can procure a cuppa. For Kelly buffs, Benalla is home to the Costume and Pioneer Museum where several important artifacts are housed: Ned Kelly’s sash (mentioned earlier), the old lockup doors (one of which was the one that Joe Byrne’s body was strung up on for photographs) and an exact replica of Joe Byrne’s armour made from molds of the original suit. The museum is also home to a great display of militaria and old clothing from the 20th century.
Benalla is also home to King’s bootmaker shop, which Ned Kelly sought refuge in while running from the police after being arrested for drunkenness. Across the road is the old courthouse where Ned appeared immediately after that incident, but where he was also briefly held in the lockup cell after his capture.
However, the most significant stop in Benalla for Kelly buffs has to be the cemetery. Here you will not only find the grave of gang member Joe Byrne, but also several other graves related to the story including Martin Cherry, who was killed by police fire at Glenrowan, and William Reardon, who survived the Glenrowan siege as a toddler. Finding the Kelly-related graves can be quite an undertaking if you don’t know where they are and I found myself wandering through row after row of graves reading the lecterns where the names of those buried are listed. I found Cherry’s by accident as he is buried separately to the other graves in his section. Joe’s grave, however, is easy to find under a huge tree that is perpetually adorned with ribbons and tinsel. The grave itself never seems to be without some kind of floral adornment or a cup to hold an “eye opener” (Joe’s expression for a drink of whiskey first thing in the morning), something that no doubt would be seen as bad taste by some. I made a mental note to save up for some flowers to lay on old Cherry’s grave next time. It is a charming and well maintained cemetery and worth a wander.
My hub for the weekend was Wangaratta, a town I’d only been through a handful of times. It is not a town that soaks itself in the Kelly history, rather it reminds one very much of most any outer suburban town with its variety of supermarkets and fast food restaurants. Not knowing much about the layout of the town the info centre seemed to be a logical stop-off to look for a map of some kind. Alas, no map, however there was a nice little section about the Kelly Gang and a fascinating life-size statue of Ned Kelly that appears to be wearing Steve Hart’s helmet from the 2003 Ned Kelly film. In a case in the info centre is also the replica of Ned’s sash that Heath Ledger wore in that same movie. Wangaratta is definitely a good spot for a “city mouse” to use as their hub for a North-East trip.
Of course, the key part of the weekened was the trip into Beechworth for the meetup. It began with a visit to the Ned Kelly Vault. The Vault is one of the most remarkable collections of Kelly artifacts you are likely to find anywhere. Ranging from firearms used by the gang to Mick Jagger’s replica armour used for the 1970 film, the collection incorporates elements of the history and the influence on popular culture. No doubt the collection could benefit greatly from a larger space, but as it is the Vault is fantastic.
Director of The Legend of Ben Hall, Matthew Holmes, was present also and got a chance to hold an original reward poster (with protective gloves of course).
The meetup then moved to the Hotel Nicholas, a significant site for local Kelly history. The interior is adorned with framed imagery of all things Kelly and Beechworth including portraits of the gang and their sympathisers and archival imagery of the hotels that populated Beechworth. The site was reputed to be where Joe Byrne’s armour was fashioned by Charles Knight (though there are accounts that would disagree), as well as being where Ned Kelly and Wild Wright had their famous bare-knuckle boxing match. The food was delicious and the drinks – well, it’s hard to get that wrong in a pub – all complimented by live music. As the meetup occurred during the Celtic Weekend there was a lot of Celtic music playing throughout the night.
It was a great chance to meet a few people from the community, many of whom are readers of A Guide to Australian Bushranging. The group was also lucky enough to get an exclusive update on the in-development film Glenrowan. I made sure to stay sober for the drive back to Wangaratta.
The next day some of the people from the previous night met at Beechworth cemetery where we visited several graves including Anton Wick (neighbour to Aaron Sherritt and the Byrnes who was used as a decoy to lure Sherritt to his demise) and Aaron Sherritt. The exact location of Aaron’s grave was somewhat disputed but based on the description of it being sunken with a brick border, it seems to have been the right one. For me it was strange visiting the Beechworth cemetery as it was the first time in 20 years I had been there, the first visit being part of the school camp that stoked my interest in Ned Kelly.
The rest of the day was very eventful. In the blistering sun I was accompanied by Georgina Rose Stones (whose writings on Joe Byrne you can find here, here and here) on a visit to Greta cemetery where we visited the graves of a great many of the key players in the Kelly story including Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly, Steve Hart, Ellen Kelly, Tom Lloyd and Kelly siblings Jim, Maggie and Grace. It was a profound experience to visit the final resting place of these people I’ve read and written so much about. To know that under a dry, dusty patch of earth under my feet lay the remains of Australia’s most notorious outlaw was humbling. The Greta Cemetery Trust are doing incredible work maintaining and restoring the graves and one can’t even begin to thank these dedicated volunteers enough.
One of the best parts of the trip was driving through El Dorado – Byrne and Sherritt Country. Following the path on the Heritage Route, which starts in town and ends near the Woolshed Falls, we saw the site of the Chinese Gardens where Chinese miners grew and harvested vegetables; Reedy Creek; Buttrey’s Rock where a gold escort was allegedly bailed up in the 1850s; Sebastopol Flat, a former mining town where Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt frequented; and the site of Aaron Sherritt’s hut at the Devil’s Elbow.
The dryness of the area resulted in incredible clouds of dust that completely engulfed the car when people drove ahead of us, forcing me to drive slowly to avoid a collision. The views were beautiful and you certainly feel like you’re in another time and place as you move through the dense forest or witness the sunlight hitting Reedy Creek in just the right way. I highly recommend this self-guided tour (look out for the blue markers on the roadside to find points of interest).
The eeriest location on the tour was the site of Sherritt’s hut. Nothing of the hut remains, it is merely a patch of dirt behind a barbed wire fence, however the echoes of that terrible tragedy still resound. The events that transpired here signified the end for the Kelly Gang. One is certainly inclined to consider the knock-on effects for the Byrnes and Sherritts after such a terrible twist of fate. It is important to look out for the info on the side of the road to locate the site as it has no street address you can jaunt off to.
As we drove through Beechworth we stopped at the former site of The Vine Hotel, where Joe Byrne would visit his girlfriend. The hotel is long gone, now the site of a house. It’s unlikely the residents know that where they live used to be the pub most frequented by the Kelly Gang. A hotel called The Vine still exists in Wangaratta and is considered to have some connection to the gang but it is a different hotel altogether.
No trip to Kelly Country is complete without swinging by Glenrowan. Leaving early in the morning meant getting the chance to grab breakfast in the town from the Glenrowan Vintage Hall (though the Billy Tea Rooms are a must for a bite if you’re in town). After breakfast and a look around the eclectic collection of new and second hand wares, a trip to the siege site and the site of Ned’s capture were necessities. It seems so bizarre that the site of the most famous shoot-out in Australian history is now little more than an empty lot, yet, as is a recurring theme with Kelly sites, the history is there even if there’s nothing tangible left.
There are other things to do in Glenrowan of course. You can visit Bob Hempel’s animated theatre (we chose not to), visit the museum in the basement of Glen Rowen Cobb and Co, and to pop in to Kate’s Cottage to browse the second-hand books and see the replica homestead. You can also go to the Mount Morgan Store and get a portrait done in old time clothing. I personally nabbed a very reasonably priced copy of Superintendent Sadleir’s memoirs that was published over forty years ago, though there were many more I would have snapped up if I had the money.
As we left we swung past Joe Byrne’s grave one more time so Georgina could pay her respects. This was, perhaps, my most eventful trip to the North-East yet. To have covered so much is an incredible privilege (there were things that I didn’t cover here, you got the edited highlights). I can’t wait for my next trip!