John Peisley: An Overview

Best known as Frank Gardiner’s accomplice, John Peisley was a bushranger determined to lord over Lambing Flat and the Abercrombie region but whose vices brought him unstuck. Oddly, for such a well-known bushranger, many of the accounts of his life and career are light on details and plagued with inconsistencies. In the early 1860s, Peisley’s was a name regarded with fear, but was he a mere thug or a wayward youth brutalised by the prisons and victim to an alcohol addiction that impaired his judgement with fatal consequences?

No contemporary images of Peisley are known to exist. This illustration is based on descriptions published at the time.

Peisley (variously spelled Piesley, Paisley and Peasley also) was born in Bathurst, New South Wales in 1834. His parents were of the convict class, his father Thomas Peasland arrived as a convict on the Agamemnon in 1820 and was a ticket of leave man who took up a cattle farm on the Iceley property in Cooming Park, near Carcoar. John’s mother Sarah arrived as an infant with her convict mother aboard the Minstrel in 1812. They had six children, including John.
Peisley’s father was arrested when it was found he had in his possession a bull branded T.P, but Iceley, whose cattle often mingled with that of the Peisleys, claimed it to be a crude reworking of his own brand: T.1. A jury of local shopkeepers, unaware of the fact that the cattle mingling from the Iceleys’ prize stock with the less impressive animals owned by the Peisleys would have resulted in the Peisleys’ cattle improving in quality, thereby making it difficult to prove that the quality of the animal was proof of its provenance. Peisley was sent to Cockatoo Island for seven years but died in prison before the sentence was up. Furthermore, all of his property was claimed by the government and bought by Iceley at an agreeable price. This rendered the Peisleys homeless and young John fell into a life of crime.

Peisley fell in with a gang of stock thieves and horse planters and was arrested at 20 for stealing horses. Tried on 13 September, 1854 at the Bathurst Quarter Sessions he was sentenced to five years on the roads and sent to Darlinghurst Gaol. It would appear that Peisley managed to escape custody shortly afterwards during probation and was removed to Parramatta Gaol and again tried at the Bathurst Quarter Sessions on 18 February 1855, where he was sentenced to an additional month to be commenced at the end of the previous sentence.
For Peisley the compulsion to steal stock seemed to be an itch that he couldn’t help scratch and he found himself in the Supreme Court in Sydney on 8 December 1857 on a charge of stealing a mob of horses during probation. This offence saw him sent to Cockatoo Island for a portion of his sentence where he met a fellow stock thief, Frank Christie. Being stuck on an island prison was not a deterrent to Peisley’s desire for liberation and he was captured attempting to make his way across the water from the prison. For this he was given an extra nine months on top of his existing sentence. Peisley was lucky enough to have his Ticket of Leave granted on 23 November 1860 despite his apparent inability to demonstrate any meaningful reform of character. It was around this time that a fellow Cockatoo inmate, Frederick Britten, successfully swam across Sydney Harbour with his accomplice Frederick Wordsworth Ward who would later gain popularity when he assumed the moniker “Captain Thunderbolt”.

Almost as soon as he had gained his liberty, Peisley sought out his prison buddy Christie, who was at that time in Lambing Flat under the name Frank Gardiner, on the run after violating his own Ticket of Leave. The pair decided to take to bushranging together and roamed the district with surprising impunity.
On 16 July 1861, Gardiner was involved in a horrific fight with police at the home of his friend William Fogg at Fish River. Gardiner was captured, Sergeant Middleton badly injured after being shot by Gardiner, and Trooper Hosie apparently being bribed to release Gardiner. Peisley was implicated in the escape but always denied involvement even to his dying moments.
Nevertheless, a reward of £100 was offered for Peisley on 23 July 1861. However, so indignant was Peisley at the suggestion of his supposed involvement in the incident that he took to writing to the Bathurst Free Press to clear his name.

Sir, You will no doubt be surprised to receive a note from the (now by all account) noted Piesley; but, sir, through your valuable paper I must make it known that if it be my lot to be taken, whether dead or alive, I will never be tried for the rescue of Gardiner, in the light in which it is represented, nor did I ever fire at Trooper Hosie. Aud such I wish to be known, that it is in my power to prove what I here assert, and that beyond a doubt. I am no doubt a desperado in the eyes of the law, but never, in no instance, did I ever use violence, nor did I ever use rudeness to any of the fair sex, and I must certainly be the Invisible Prince to commit one tenth of what is laid to my charge. And, sir, I beg to state that it is through persons in high positions that I now make this assertion, and I trust I may never have to allude to it again. I love my native hills, I love freedom, and detest cruelty to man or beast. Trusting you will publish this, my bold letter no doubt, but you can be assured it comes from the real John Piesley, and not any of his many representatives,

I am, Mr. Editor, your much harassed writer,

After the incident at Fogg’s shanty, Peisley took his leave of Gardiner, striking out on his own in the Abercrombie Ranges. He visited the superintendent at Lawson, who many years earlier had given Peisley’s father his ticket of leave. He had a meal there before stealing two plough horses, which he sold near Goulburn, before heading to Bigga where he stayed overnight in a pub getting drunk. The next day he rode out to see a farmer named Benton.
Peisley was not a prolific bushranger like many of his contemporaries, though he had a lot of incidents linked to him. On 14 September 1861 he robbed a Mr. O’Sullivan between Marrugo and Cowra, later forcibly entering a hut near Marrugo and robbing John Dawkins. On 30 October Peisley robbed James Eldridge, J. Laverty and Catherine Vardy near Binda and committed another robbery on December 28 of the same year. One of the less savoury incidents of Peisley’s career was when he was claimed to have robbed a woman who recognised him from their youth. According to the woman, Peisley had once sold her brother a stolen horse at Bigga and hoped that her previous association with him would compel him not to mistreat her. Her faith was ill-founded as he proceeded to strike her across the face, kicking her while she was on the ground which gave her two black eyes and severe bruising on her nose. The terrified woman attempted to get to her feet and Peisley fired a shot at her, which grazed her cheek, leaving a scar. Peisley always maintained that he had never mistreated a woman with particular vehemence, so there are questions about this incident. Regardless of Peisley’s assertions such alleged actions did nothing to endear him to the locals and Peisley was frequently referred to as a “terror”, the mere mention of his name putting people on edge.

Of all the incidents of Peisley’s life, the most infamous was that which occurred at the home of William Benyon. On 27 December, Peisley joined James Wilson, an Abercrombie storekeeper, at McGuinness’ Inn, Bigga, where they drank excessively. The pair then headed to the Benyons’ place where they asked after William Benyon and gained a bottle of porter from his wife, Martha. Peisley stayed at Benyon’s place eating and drinking himself into an awful, cantankerous state of mind. He challenged Benyon to run, jump or fight him for £10 but when Benyon refused Peisley continued to goad him into a  confrontation. He accused Benyon of swapping a horse of his when they were boys, taking off his waistcoat and rolling his pistols up in it before a scuffle erupted in the yard. Martha Benyon hid Peisley’s guns in the garden as a precaution. During the conflict Peisley proceeded to ram William Benyon’s head repeatedly into a fence and Stephen Benyon, William’s brother, intervened. Peisley ran into the house for a knife with which he attempted to stab William in the breast. Martha interjected and begged for her husband and Stephen Benyon took the opportunity to strike Peisley with a spade. After this Peisley made a point of shaking everyone’s hands before demanding his guns and riding away.
In Peisley’s absence William Benyon set about loading a revolver which he gave to his brother, believing that Peisley meant to return and shoot Stephen. When the bushranger returned, he questioned Stephen:

Surely you don’t mean to shoot me?

He convinced Stephen to put down the revolver, stating that he was not guilty of any cowardly action and would not do one now and shaking his hand. As soon as Stephen put the firearm down, Peisley snatched it up and shot Stephen in the shoulder. Peisley then bailed up a number of the family and staff in the barn and upon William Benyon making a lunge at the bushranger he was shot in the throat, the bullet passing through his windpipe and lodging in his spine paralysing him and leading to his death seven days later.

In January 1862, a description of Peisley was published in the Police Gazette:

About 28 years of age, about 5 ft. 10 ins. high, stout and well made, fresh complexion, very small light whiskers, quite bald on top of head and forehead, several recent marks on face, and a mark from a blow of a spade on top of head; puffed and dissipated-looking from hard drinking; invariably wears fashionable Napoleon boots, dark cloth breeches, dark vest buttoned up the front, large Albert gold guard, cabbage-tree hat and duck coat. Sometimes wears a dark wig and always carries a brace of revolvers.

That same month Peisley found himself in a clash with police. Spotted near Bigga by Constables Morris, Murphy and Simpson, Peisley rode up to the mounted troopers and introduced himself. Peisley challenged Morris to a bout of fisticuffs but when the trooper dismounted Peisley laughed and rode off. Morris drew his pistol and fired at the retreating bushranger, the shot passing along the neck of Peisley’s horse.
Peisley turned and grinned, “That was a good one, try again!” he said mockingly. The police gave chase but their horses were no match and Peisley escaped. Constable Edward Morris would later retire from police work and open a store at Binda, which would be burned down by Ben Hall in an act of vengeance for trying to set the Hall Gang’s horses loose.

Peisley was spotted shortly after by Corporal John Carroll of the Southern Gold Escort near Tarcutta riding a fine mount and leading a pack horse. Carroll seemed to recognise Peisley and rode up to question him.
“Have you any arms?” Carroll queried.
“Just my two.” replied Peisley, seemingly misinterpreting the question. When Carroll clarified that he meant firearms, Peisley then intimated that he had his brace of revolvers on his pack horse. When presented with a single-shot pistol aimed at his head and a demand to remove his hat to demonstrate whether he was bald, Peisley instead took off after failing to grab his pack horse, dodging his way up a hill and then upon gaining the high ground drawing a colt revolver from a valise with which he threatened Carroll. The beleaguered corporal fired at the bushranger but the shot took no effect. Peisley escaped, but lost his packhorse. Carroll promptly rode to the Tarcutta Inn and procured a revolver and assistance before riding back to the spot of the encounter and seizing Peisley’s packhorse and swag. Thereafter Carroll led a group of men to watch the camp of a man whose horse closely resembled that of Peisley, resulting in a rude awakening the next morning for an innocent man.

Days later, Peisley was captured at Boothea’s Hotel, Mundarlo, by Murdoch McKenzie of Mundarlo, Mr. Stephen of Tarcutta and James Beveridge of Wantabadgery Station. Peisley had been at Tarcutta Inn having a meal when word got out about the infamous visitor. McKenzie informed Beveridge, who had been riding past, that the bushranger was in the hotel. When Beveridge rode to Tarcutta police station he found the troopers had all gone looking for Peisley, and managed to procure a set of handcuffs and rode back to the the inn where Peisley was still eating. Beveridge blocked the doorway and as Peisley went to leave, McKenzie and Beveridge leaped on top of him and secured him. The bushranger was kept secured overnight then taken into Gundagai the next morning. Beveridge would later become involved in the story of Captain Moonlite in 1879.

On 12 February 1862, Peisley was committed for trial on the charge of murdering William Benyon. He seemed not to have any concerns while in court and was described by a press correspondent thus:

At a distance he has a pleasing countenance, but upon closer inspection his features appear more hardened and determined.

Seven witnesses appeared to give evidence and Peisley’s fate was seemingly set. On 13 April, 1862, Peisley was tried for murder at Bathurst and found guilty. On 25 March Peisley was hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol. His last words came after a lengthy explanation of his own account of the crimes that had led him there:

Good bye gentlemen; God bless you.

Peisley’s death was instantaneous, however an Aboriginal man hanged with him named Jacky Bullfrog was not afforded the same swift end, the hangman clearly having botched the job as the man struggled on the end of the rope for several minutes before death took hold.


Selected Sources:

“Peisley the Bushranger” Wellington Times (NSW : 1899 – 1954) 9 March 1936: 4.
“THE BUSHRANGER PEISLEY.” Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (NSW : 1851 – 1904) 12 February 1862: 2.

“THE MEETING OF PEISLEY AND CARROLL.” The Golden Age (Queanbeyan, NSW : 1860 – 1864) 20 February 1862: 3.

“COMMITTAL OF PEISLEY, THE BUSHRANGER FOR WILFUL MURDER.” Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1908) 28 February 1862: 4.

“JACK PIESLEY.” Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW : 1881 – 1940) 20 September 1902: 6.

“PEISLEY THE BUSHRANGER—MURDER OF BENYON.” Geelong Advertiser (Vic. : 1859 – 1929) 26 February 1862: 3.

“HOW PEISLEY WAS SHOT” The Gundagai Independent and Pastoral, Agricultural and Mining Advocate (NSW : 1898 – 1928) 22 November 1926: 1.

“BUSHRANGER and BLACKGUARD” The World’s News (Sydney, NSW : 1901 – 1955) 8 October 1930: 27.

Greene, S. (2017). A BUSHRANGER IN THE FAMILY John Peisley c.1834-1862. Ghostbuster, 26(1), pp.11 – 13. []

Steve Hart: An Overview

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Stephen Hart was once one of the most infamous bushrangers in Australia. Now he is often thought of as no more than an also-ran, an afterthought, the “other Kelly”. According to an article in the Evening News, Sydney, 14 February 1879, “Ned Kelly is looked upon as a hero all over the North-eastern district, and Steve Hart is second only in popular esteem.” So what changed the public perception of one of only four people ever outlawed in the history of Victoria? What led to Steve Hart becoming the forgotten Kelly Gang member?

To understand the story of Steve Hart, we must look at his parents. Steve’s father Richard Hart was transported to Australia as an eighteen year old convict in 1835 on the Lady McNaughton for being a pick-pocket. Earning his ticket of leave on 26 January 1840, he would later gain his Certificate of Freedom on 18 June 1843. In the subsequent years he would be joined by his sister Anne and brother Richard, both were transported as convicts. Richard was employed at Gunning Station at Fish River working for Elizabeth O’Neill, the widow of John Kennedy Hume, brother of explorer Hamilton Hume, who had been murdered by bushranger Thomas Whitton on 20 January 1840. The widow Hume had been left with nine children to care for (she was pregnant with her ninth at the time of the murder) and nobody to protect them, so Richard’s presence was likely very welcome.
Ten years after Richard gained his ticket of leave, recently orphaned Bridget Young, aged sixteen, and her sister Mary, aged twenty-one, travelled to Australia from Galway on the Thomas Arbuthnot as part of the “Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme“. No doubt the potential opportunities in Australia were a glimmer of hope as they escaped the crushing existence of being employed at workhouses back in Ireland and trying to stave off starvation due to the Great Hunger, also known as the Great Famine or the Irish Potato Famine. They arrived in Sydney and were stationed at the Hyde Park Barracks for several weeks before travelling to Yass for work, Bridget then became indentured to Mr. Smith of Mingay Station in Gundagai, which was one of the various stations affected by the horrendous flood of June 1852.
One of the young women who had accompanied Bridget all the way to Yass since their initial departure from Galway on the Thomas Arbuthnot was Margret White, who would later move to Goulburn where she would marry Paddy Byrne. These two were the parents of Kelly gang member Joe Byrne. What interaction these women had, if any, remains an unanswered question.

Hyde Park Barracks circa 1850 (detail) [Source]

When Elizabeth O’Neill left Gunning and took up residence at her property Burramine (aka Byramine) at Yarrawonga in the 1850s it is likely that Richard travelled with her. By this time, Richard had met Bridget Young and the pair were raising a family in Gundagai, but a short time thereafter the family arrived in South Wangaratta where they soon established themselves, possibly with more than a little assistance from Elizabeth.

Stephen Hart was born at the Hart property on Three Mile Creek, Wangaratta, on 4 October 1859 to Richard and Bridget Hart (née Young), and baptised on 13 October that year. Steve was one of thirteen children. His siblings were William (who died as an infant in Gundagai in 1852), Ellen, Julia, Richard jr (Dick), Thomas Myles, Esther (Ettie), Winifred, Agnes, Nicholas, Rachel and Harriet – certainly Richard snr and Bridget had their hands full with such a brood. Steve’s was not an overly troubled childhood by the standards of the time and place. In fact the Hart family seemed to be quite well to do with a 53 acre property in Wangaratta on the Three Mile Creek and a larger 230 acre block at the foot of the Warby Ranges. As with all selector’s sons, Steve was expected to work on the selection as soon as he was old enough but he had at least some education and could read and write.

Steve was an able, if not necessarily dedicated, worker. Employed for a time as a butcher boy in Oxley to a Mr. Gardiner, Steve soon ended up working with his father and siblings stumping properties for what would have been around £6 a month. Hardly glamorous work, but honest. No doubt he was frequently roped into doing jobs for the Bowderns who were neighbours to the Harts and close friends.

As a teenager, Steve was a jockey who had a few minor prizes under his belt including the Benalla Handicap. His small frame and natural affinity with horses made him the perfect fit and would come in handy later on when combined with his excellent geographical knowledge of Wangaratta and the Warby Ranges. He was evidently a popular youth, quite likely due to his fun loving nature and eagerness to please. It’s easy to imagine Steve strutting past O’Brien’s hotel with his hat cocked, chinstrap under his nose and a bright sash around his waist accompanied by the likes of Dan Kelly, Tom Lloyd, John Lloyd and, later on, Aaron Sherritt, Joe Byrne and Ned Kelly. His time with the Greta Mob, as they called themselves, was probably the only time Steve felt a sense of belonging, his adolescent mind far more preoccupied with socialising than work. It seems he built a strong bond with Dan Kelly in particular during this time, perhaps drawn in by the self-assuredness and natural charisma the younger Kelly seemed to possess. The Kelly boys were seemingly blessed with the ability to leave a favourable impression on most anyone they met while also projecting a ‘don’t mess with me’ vibe likely forged due to their harsh upbringing. In contrast, Steve’s slender build and delicate features likely made him someone who was far from intimidating, so being around someone like Dan would have been a good move to make him tougher by association. The Greta Mob were larrikins and what Steve lacked in physicality he made up for in horsemanship – a primary interest of the larrikin class. The gang were fond of showing off their skills on horseback and this kept them in the cross-hairs of the local police.

Steve Hart, photographed by W. E. Barnes

Of course, Steve was not exempt from the seemingly obligatory prison stint. On 7 July, 1877, Steve Hart appeared in Wangaratta Police Court during the general sessions charged with stealing a horse from David Green of Glenrowan. Green’s grey mare had gone missing and Sergeant Steele had been tasked with finding the culprit. Going to the Hart property in Wangaratta, Steele interrogated Steve and a lodger named James O’Brien about the horse in the paddock behind them. “What, that grey mare?” Steve asked incredulously. Steele pressed the point and Steve indicated he had been loaned the horse from a man in town. When Steele asked for a name, Steve replied “Have you a warrant for me? I’ll give you no bloody information unless you have.” Steele promptly arrested Hart and O’Brien, who had also gotten Dick Hart implicated in a horse theft at the same time. The initial charge of theft was altered to ‘illegally using a horse’ and Steve was shortly convicted and sent to Beechworth Gaol for twelve months. It was here that he befriended Dan Kelly who was doing time over an incident at a shop where he had gotten drunk and broken in. The freezing winter months and stifling summer heat would have taken their toll on the lad, then just eighteen. Undoubtedly this would have made him seem rather a black sheep in the family by the time he got home, so instead of staying at the farm he left to find work elsewhere, first supposedly shearing in New South Wales and later at a sawmill near Mansfield before he joined the Kelly brothers at their gold claim on Bullock Creek. It was honest enough work and no doubt his body had been bulked up from the hard labour smashing granite with a hammer in Beechworth Gaol for a year. The one known photograph of Steve depicts him as a slender youth, but descriptions of Steve in 1878 painted a different picture.

After Steve’s exit from Beechworth Gaol and all during his time travelling for work, Sergeant Steele had been hounding his family for word on his whereabouts. Steele was convinced he was off duffing stock with the Kellys and even threatened the Harts that if they didn’t tell him exactly where Steve was that he’d be shot. Unfortunately the family had no idea of Steve’s whereabouts.

When Constable Fitzpatrick was assaulted at the Kelly house in April 1878, Steve was not involved. However he was reported to have made the decision to stick by his mates and while working with his father and siblings he downed his tools and took off declaring:

“A short life, but a merry one!”

This phrase not only summed up the youthful impulsiveness of the adolescent Hart, but became a sort of catchphrase for the Kelly gang later on when the meaning had far more sinister undertones. Though, it was usually attributed to Steve, there is some question over the accuracy of the attribution, though it certainly sounds authentic enough to be believable and has become the phrase that is synonymous with him.

Steve was with Dan and Ned in October 1878 when a party of police had entered the Wombat Ranges hunting for the two Kellys. On 26 October Ned Kelly led Dan, Steve and Joe Byrne in an assault on the police party. Three police were killed in the incident, though Steve was not one of the killers. When McIntyre escaped on horseback Dan Kelly had directed Steve and Joe to catch him. They had gone a distance into the bush but could not catch up. They fired ineffectually into the bush. No doubt this episode was traumatic for all involved, but for Steve and Joe, who came from comparatively sheltered lives compared to the Kelly brothers, it must have been doubly so.

The immediate aftermath of Stringybark Creek saw the gang desperate to escape capture long enough to establish a new base of operations. This was where Steve Hart had his chance to shine. Navigating the torrential flood waters that caused the rivers to swell to insurmountable levels, Steve took the gang into his playground. Crossing a secluded bridge he took the gang and their horses safely to Hart territory, successfully evading the police search parties. Steve would prove invaluable to the gang in their next undertaking – the robbery of a bank.

An oft related anecdote is that Steve Hart, dressed as a veiled woman riding side-saddle, would ride into towns close to the Strathbogie and Warby Ranges to gather information about the banks. On one of these reconnaissance missions Steve found the perfect target in the township of Euroa. Disguises were not a necessity for Steve at this stage as he was the only member of the gang yet to be identified.

‘Steve Hart dressed as a girl’ by Sidney Nolan [Source]

Steve’s role in the bank robbery was straightforward but vital. When Ned and Dan set out from Faithful’s Creek, Steve rode ahead on his bay mare. Arriving in town in advance of the others, Steve got a bite to eat while he waited and used the time to assess whether the plan was still viable. When the others arrived he accompanied Dan around the back where he went into the bank manager’s residence and locked Susy Scott, her mother and children in the parlour, but not before being recognised by Fanny Shaw who was employed as a general maid for the Scotts. Steve and Fanny were schoolmates and Steve informed Fanny that he was in the process of robbing the bank before tricking her into joining the family in the parlour. Fanny Shaw’s testimony would finally expose the mysterious fourth member of the Kelly Gang. In the ashes of the fire from the gang’s old clothes was found what was believed to be a woman’s bonnet, but was after revealed to be Steve’s cabbage tree hat with a fly veil. While this would appear to indicate the cross-dressing rumours were no more than that it is very difficult to disprove the initial claim.

With the fourth member of the gang finally identified, a description was published in an effort to help the public recognise the miscreant:

He is described in the criminal records as being 21 years of age, 5ft. 6in. high, fresh complexion, brown hair, and hazel eyes ; right leg has been injured.

When the gang were officially declared outlaws it became much harder to move freely. Steve’s reconnaissance missions ended in favour of his sister Ettie feeding information back to the gang. When the raid on Jerilderie was decided upon the gang crossed into New South Wales in pairs, Ned and Joe heading for the pub where they received intelligence from Mary the Larrikin before meeting up with Dan and Steve the next day.

Steve’s role in the raids seems to have very much been as Ned’s attack dog. He was the only gang member to not don a police uniform after the Jerilderie police had been locked in their own cells. When the bank was robbed it was Steve who found the bank manager Tarleton having a bath (and subsequently made to guard him as he dressed). Witnesses in the hotel would describe Steve as seeming very nervous. While Ned was going about his work Steve stole a watch from Reverend Gribble. The outrage made it to Ned Kelly who ordered Steve to return the watch, which he did under sufferance. It must have seemed a strange paradox to be an outlawed bushranger but not be allowed to steal from people. Once again he and Dan performed horse tricks as they left the town after a victorious raid.

For months the gang seemingly disappeared. More detailed descriptions were offered that appeared to do very little to help identify the gang:

Steve Hart, about 21 years of age, 5 feet 4 inches high, dark complexion, black hair, short dark hair on sides of face and chin, bandy legs, stout build, clumsy appearance, speaks very slowly; dressed in dark paget suit, light felt hat, and elastic-side boots.

Watch parties were assigned to the Kelly, Hart and Byrne properties to stop them from returning home. During this time the banks were guarded by men of the garrison artillery, which made future plans for bank robbery impossible to carry out. But by the beginning of 1880 the gang were making appearances again, this time they were stealing metal to make suits of armour.

At Glenrowan, Steve initially attempted to pull up rails from the train track with Ned but soon became the attack dog again, keeping prisoners under control while Ned found the men who could lift the rails. Steve’s behaviour was typically aggressive, but as he was confined to guarding the women and children in the station-master’s house he became bored and took to drinking and even napped on the sofa with his revolvers resting on his chest. Depending on which account you read, at one point either Thomas Curnow helped Steve remove his boots and wash his feet in warm water to alleviate swelling or Steve ordered some of the women to wash his feet. He was also seen with his head on Jane Jones’ lap while he complained of feeling unwell. When Steve tired of being isolated he took the women and children to the inn to join the rest of the party.
When the police train was stopped and firing broke out, Steve seemed to avoid injury. However later on witnesses claimed he had injured his arm. Some witnesses described him cowering behind the fireplace to avoid gunfire, his initial overconfidence brought about by the armour supplanted by terror. After Joe Byrne’s death and Ned Kelly’s apparent disappearance Steve was despondent. When the prisoners were allowed to exit the inn he was overheard asking Dan Kelly “What shall we do now?” to which the reply was “I shall tell you directly.” Many have interpreted this to indicate a suicide pact. The truth about Steve’s cause of death will never be determined, however, as his corpse was burned beyond recognition in the fire that destroyed the inn. Stories of Steve and Dan surviving the fire are ludicrous and easily disproved.

Steve Hart, portrayed by Philip Barantini in Ned Kelly (2003)

After the fire, Steve’s body was retrieved and Superintendent Sadleir made the controversial decision to hand it over to the Hart family. A coffin was quickly procured and the remains placed inside and buried in a clandestine service in Greta Cemetery next to Dan Kelly in an unmarked grave. Steve’s untimely demise seemed to weigh heavily on the family but manifested in various ways. Ettie Hart appeared in a stage production entitled Kelly Family, whereas Dick preferred to stew over the turn of events and even agitated to form a second gang with Patsy Byrne, Wild Wright, Jim Kelly and Tom Lloyd. The agitation amounted to nothing however. In 1899, Tom Lloyd would marry Steve’s younger sister Rachel.
Over time Steve’s notoriety faded and soon he became “the other guy” in popular culture. Yet, Steve Hart is one of the more tragic characters in the Kelly saga, his youth and poor choices leading to a horrific and untimely death. There is perhaps no better example of the folly of youth than this accidental bushranger who just wanted to back up his mate and ended up one of the most wanted men in the British Empire.

A very special thank you to Noeleen Lloyd whose advice and additional information on the Hart family was invaluable in the compiling of this biography.

Selected sources:
LA citation”STEPHEN HART’S BOYHOOD.” Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954) 10 July 1880: 6.

“More Facts About the Kelly Raid.” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931) 14 February 1879: 3.

“DESCRIPTION OF THE OUTLAWS.” Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954) 14 December 1878: 16.

“THE KELLY GANG” The Kyneton Observer (Vic. : 1856 – 1900) 8 March 1879: 2.

“WHEN GUNDAGAI WAS A TRAGIC SIGHT” The Gundagai Independent (NSW : 1928 – 1939) 1 August 1935: 6.

“Country News.” Australasian Chronicle (Sydney, NSW : 1839 – 1843) 28 January 1840: 2.

Image sources:
STEPHEN HART. The Illustrated Australian News. July 17, 1880. SLV Source ID: 1760624