Historian and author behind An Outlaw’s Journal, Georgina Stones, has written another book detailing an overlooked part of the outlaw’s life.
Ah Nam tells the story of an incident in Byrne’s adolescence when he accompanied a Chinese man, the titular Ah Nam, and became involved in a brawl. Stones has not only crafted a narrative from the available evidence, fully illustrated with original drawings by Aidan Phelan, but has included notes, historical imagery and essays detailing her research, which provided the basis for the narrative. She also incorporates the oft forgotten history of the old Spring Creek camp in Beechworth and its inhabitants – particularly the prostitutes who worked under the infamous madam, Sarah Payne.
Ah Nam will be published through Ingram Spark and Australian Bushranging, and will be available to purchase in a hardcover or eBook format from retailers such as Booktopia, Angus and Robertson, and Barnes and Noble. The book launches on 3 February 2022.
Grantlee Kieza returns to the Kelly story
On 30 March, 2022, Grantlee Kieza’s new book The Kelly Hunters will be released. The book, a follow-up to his popular 2018 release Mrs. Kelly, which nabs its title from a Frank Clune book, focuses on the police pursuit of the Kelly Gang.
The publisher, Harper Collins, describes the book as:
…a fascinating and compelling account of the other side of the legendary Kelly story.
Kieza’s book will be in fierce competition with another book on the Kelly police pursuit, David Dufty’s Nabbing Ned Kelly, which Is also slated for a March release through Allen and Unwin. Both books look set to change the way the Kelly story is discussed for the foreseeable future and provide a welcome counterpoint to the oversaturated library of books that focus on Ned Kelly.
Mad Dog Morgan gets a new home release in UK and US
While Philippe Mora’s 1976 bushranger epic, Mad Dog Morgan, has had multiple DVD and Blu-ray releases here in Australia, international film buffs and fans of the movie have missed out. Now, thanks to Indicator, the movie is getting a new limited edition release for the US and UK markets.
Starring legendary American actor Dennis Hopper and the late David Dalaithngu, Mad Dog Morgan tells the story of the infamous bushranger from his time on the Victorian goldfields to his gruesome demise. Despite superficially veering from the history in some aspects, it remains one of the most authentic bushranger films to date and is well-loved outside of Australia as a slice of “ozploitation” cinema.
The Indicator release features a restored 4K version of the film by Powerhouse Films, both the shorter UK release version of the film as well as the director’s cut, a poster, and an 80 page book, and is packaged in individually numbered casing. Special features include audio commentaries, an option to listen to the original mono audio, image galleries, original theatrical trailer, documentaries Hopping Mad,That’s Our Mad Dog, Mad Country, and To Shoot a Mad Dog, as well as excerpts from Not Quite Hollywood. Australian fans will recognise many of these special features are already present on the locally produced Umbrella Entertainment release.
The Indicator edition of Mad Dog Morgan is currently available on some websites for pre-order, with an expected release date of 22 March 2022, and will cost approximately $27.99USD.
Kelly at La Mama
From 29 March to 3 April at Melbourne’s famous La Mama theatre, a rendition of Matthew Ryan’s popular play Kelly is set to perform.
The play, which has been performed in a variety of locations with a mix of interpretations, depicts Ned Kelly awaiting his trial and ruminating on what got him there.
What sets this interpretation apart is that the role of Ned Kelly is being performed by an actor far removed from the historical Kelly’s ethnic background, which is sure to start much lively conversation.
Once again, the mythical ostrich-riding bushranger of South Australia’s Coorong is the focus of a news piece. This time it is for Farm Online National, written by Chris McLennan.
The article covers the story of the “Birdman” and features relevant quotes from The Meningie Progress Association president. Whether it is true or false is left to the reader’s imagination.
Book Review: The Story of Ned Kelly
In a market so oversaturated with similar (and superior) content, it’s hard to fathom how a book like ‘The Story of Ned Kelly’ by Marie-Ève de Grave can get past the goal keepers of the publishing industry. It is the epitome of style over substance, with a wildly inaccurate and over-simplified “poetic” retelling of the Ned Kelly legend that has less historical accuracy than a Wikipedia entry. The words are accompanied by linocuts that were loosely inspired by Peter Carey’s novel ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’, though I don’t recall any part of that book describing Ned dressed in a bucket and waffle iron as demonstrated by the cover art. It’s nice to flick through and look at the pictures, and Five Mile Press have done a superb job with the printing and materials, but the product is wasted on such a sub-par text when so many better written, better illustrated, and better researched options are available.
I picked this up at Kmart for $12, and I wouldn’t pay any more than that for it. This is the kind of book you’ll find in an opp-shop in 20 years for $2 with a birthday message written on the inside cover.
My recommendation: If you’re looking for a kid’s book on Ned Kelly, leave this one on the shelf and fork out an extra few bucks and get Mark Greenwood’s far better offering, Ned Kelly and the Green Sash, or Janeen Brian’s quirky Meet… Ned Kelly. — AP
This month on A Guide to Australian Bushranging
A Bushranger’s Autobiography
Straight from the archives, this serialised account of the life of William Westwood, alias Jackey Jackey, is taken from the horse’s mouth.
As he awaited his appointment with the hangman, Westwood dictated his life story to a fellow convict, preserving his own perspectives on his lawless career.
Westwood’s autobiography is a frank and revealing account of a life gone astray, and the brutality of life in Her Majesty’s penal colonies.
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.
Bushranger history has long been the province of male authors and historians, even as far back as 1818 with the infamous pamphlet Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Van Diemen’s Land Bushrangers by T. E. Wells being perhaps the first dedicated text on the subject. However, in recent years we have seen a new guard forming that is being largely driven by female authors and historians, whose unique perspectives on both an emotional and intellectual level have challenged long held beliefs and, in many cases, set the record straight by digging up information that has long been forgotten or ignored by their predecessors. The first signs of this shift in the 1970s when Margaret Carnegie wrote the first biography of Daniel Morgan, Morgan: The Bold Bushranger. It went beyond the oft-repeated hyperbole about how nasty Morgan was and returned to the source material with a fresh pair of eyes to sift through it all and get to the truth of the man rather than the infamous legend. Similarly, Dagmar Balcarek’s contributions in subsequent decades infused many bushranger stories with more feminine sensibilities and helped inject some life into what was seen at the time as stale and boring by many.
Here we will showcase some of the more notable individuals who are, at present, making a big impact on our understanding of some of the most notorious men (and women) in Australian history.
Carol Baxter is one of the most notable female historians where bushranging is concerned. Her biography of Frederick Wordsworth Ward and Mary Ann Bugg is the most definitive account to date, locking in place an understanding of the story derived from recorded facts rather than folklore and hearsay. This refusal to accept many of the long held assumptions and oral traditions has seen her looked down upon in some quarters, but respected by others. Baxter describes her situation succinctly on the website for her book:
I soon realised that the role of mediator had become my own. As a professional researcher, genealogist and historian, I had no personal connection to either Fred or Mary Ann and no pre-conceived ideas, prejudices or agendas. All I sought was the truth. And the truth was most surprising. Many of the well-known Thunderbolt and Mary Ann stories proved to be wrong. Utterly and unquestionably wrong. They were myths propagated by the ignorant and perpetuated by the gullible, and are still being voiced today – vociferously – by those with a personal, political or financial agenda.
Baxter’s background in genealogy has given her a knack for sniffing out information that is often overlooked or forgotten. Rather than regurgitating the same old stories about Thunderbolt that have done the pub circuit for 150 years, Baxter made an effort to find the truth of who the historical Ward and Bugg were. The result is a new understanding of these fascinating historical figures that has redefined how they are portrayed.
Not all librarians have a knack for writing, but in the case of Jane Smith it is certainly true. A desire to write children’s books cane to Smith after working with children in a library setting, resulting in her series of children’s non-fiction books on Australian bushrangers. Since then she has written a historical fiction series (Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy), and the definitive biography of Captain Starlight.
While most historians and authors have been more inclined to write about the Kellys, Ben Hall or Frank Gardiner, Smith’s decision to chronicle the life of the notorious Frank Pearson has gifted bushranger enthusiasts a detailed account of a frequently forgotten figure. The ability to put her resources to use in nailing down the narrative of a renowned conman, notable for his use of aliases, demonstrates her formidable prowess as a historian.
It is also important that so much of her work is aimed at younger audiences, as it reflects a desire to ensure these stories are kept alive into the future, which is essentially the purpose of historians and authors. In an interview with A Guide to Australian Bushranging, Smith explained what keeps her so engaged with researching and writing about bushrangers, and history in a broader sense:
I really enjoy history; I enjoy learning about how things were in the past and marvelling at the differences and similarities compared with life today. I think that knowing something of history is really important if you want to be a well-rounded human who can make informed decisions. When I was at school, however, I found history lessons boring. It seemed to me that history just meant memorising names and dates – and yet it’s so much more than that!
One of the most important things a historian must do is ask questions. In the case of Judy Lawson, her journey of exploration is a series of questions that started from one key query: did Tommy Clarke really murder the special constables in the Jingera Ranges?
This question resulted in her book The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures, which explores the crimes attributed to the Clarke bushrangers and the cultural context in which they arose. The discussion around the police murders raises more questions than answers, leaving the conclusion open for the reader to interpret rather than the author feeding their opinion as fact. By providing an alternative viewpoint on the crimes, Lawson has challenged the deeply held assumptions that have made the Clarkes a taboo subject in the Braidwood district for 150+ years.
The second edition of her book goes further, examining many of the other crimes attributed to the Clarkes and their associates in the same way, bringing readers to reassess their views. Ultimately, this was all born from encountering a depiction of events that contradicted the information that she had come upon herself independently. This assumption of guilt, combined with the assumption that the crimes were the result of some innate criminality, or simply the product of work-shy laggards who simply didn’t want to follow the rules proved irksome, and were motivations to set the record straight.
Today we can sit back in our climate controlled houses, complaining about our increasing weight while planning our next overseas trip and say well if they had lived an honest life they would not have had those dreadful things happen. But is that the answer? Can the events of the 1860s in Braidwood be attributed only the the fact that the boys were seen as dishonest? They were not in this class alone.
Judy Lawson, The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures
This assumption of guilt where many bushrangers are concerned has been all too common, but authors like Lawson are working hard to turn the tide.
Followers of A Guide to Australian Bushranging will be familiar with Georgina Stones, who has frequently contributed to the website and social media. Her work on Joe Byrne sheds light on parts of his story that had been overlooked or completely ignored by other historians, and has allowed Byrne’s story to be studied in much the same level of detail as Ned Kelly’s. Her ongoing project, An Outlaw’s Journal, is a mixture of her historical research and short stories based on, or inspired by, the recorded history. While this has, in some corners, attracted some level of controversy, Stones’ work does not shy away from some of the more taboo or risque aspects of Joe’s life and times. In her research she has uncovered some aspects of Joe’s early life not otherwise talked about such as his role as a witness in the murder case of Ah Suey, and his relationship to Ellen Salisbury.
Since then, Stones has also begun a second project titled Michael Howe: Governor of the Woods, which operates in much the same way as An Outlaw’s Journal. Her research has quickly redefined the way Howe is viewed, and is proving to be invaluable in learning the stories of his gang members, and the men that hunted them. Though the research is ongoing, the impact this has on our understanding of the early Tasmanian bushrangers is profound, and she has plans to release a book later this year.
Stones’ interest is firmly on peeling away the myths to uncover the forgotten histories of the bushrangers, but she is the first to admit that her age and gender play a significant role in how her work is perceived. During a live stream on A Guide to Australian Bushranging’s Facebook page she explained:
Sometimes I don’t think that we’re taken seriously for our work and I think we’re dismissed. I mean, I honestly believe sometimes that if I was a man perhaps some of my work might be taken a bit more seriously and I mightn’t be sometimes spoken down to as often as sometimes I am, which is a bit upsetting but true. I think people assume we are soft on these men, like because we’re females we’re just doe-eyed, but I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of the time people like Judy Lawson and Carol Baxter, the reason why they’ve been able to kind of shine a new light is because as females we can kind of… understand things a bit different and deeply than maybe what men sometimes do.
On this cold and wet Tasmanian afternoon, as I sit at my desk listening to the inescapable rasping call of a native hen, my mind begins pondering the question posed to me for the writing of this essay; ‘Has Michael Howe been mispresented?’ (No, do not rub your eyes or adjust your screen brightness, you read those words correctly.) I understand this may seem odd to some and perhaps hardly worth touching upon, let alone worthwhile reading. After all the man was a violent psychopath, he set fire to half of Van Diemen’s Land and left a wake of destruction wherever he trod. The history books and newspaper reports tell us so, do they not? In fact, according to Thomas Wells, Michael was a man who committed crimes “with the coolest indifference” and was “never known to perform one humane act.” Surely there is no way such strong declarations could possibly be wrong? Surely the records were properly scoured before such judgments were cast? Or were they? Firstly, I must begin by admitting that this is a question I never believed I would be answering, let alone examining in such detail. In fact, if asked for my thoughts on the subject of Michael’s misrepresentation several months ago, I would have shaken my head and given the reply of most Tasmanians: “What is there to misrepresent?” At that time, I could not have contemplated the degree to which Michael’s character has been cruelly defaced by the scrawls of ignorance and just how much his memory has become blackened. Over the past month, however, I have found myself completely drawn to this “rough sailor-looking fellow”, with his “profusion of coarse hair” and “deep set eyes”, who had a fondness for gardening, knitting and reading. Which in turn has led me to dedicate my free time to pouring over witness statements, government dispatches, newspaper articles and history books. This obsessive search to better understand Michael, led me to discover that the Michael Howe who has long been presented has almost no semblance to reality. In fact, much of what has been written about his actions completely contradict those detailed within primary source documents, with some events entirely omitted from both posthumous reports and those written during his lifetime. This discovery quickly awakened my bloodhound-like tenacity and in turn has sparked a serious yearning to tell Michael’s story and to redeem the character of this Yorkshireman, who himself expressed regret at feeling “greatly injured by the country at large.”
For some, the simple mention of the name ‘Michael Howe’, or as he himself pronounced it in his Yorkshire accent, ‘Mick’l’, is enough to cause a shudder. Which as it happens, was the exact reaction given by my father when he found out I had become interested in this “demon bushranger”. Eyeing the illustrations Aidan had done of Michael he asserted, “He was bad man, Georgina. You better not be trying to make him out to be someone he wasn’t,” and as I listened, tight-lipped, I knew there had to have been more to this man than what is commonly told. Which, as it so happens, is exactly the case and my wish to remove the black cloak from Michael shoulders has led to me to uncover details about his character which has brought me a strong sense of pride. I believe the lack of understanding and compassion given to Michael is tremendously sad, and even while alive the want of these things seems to have been something he longed for. According to James Calder (a 19th century writer and researcher who is quickly becoming my idol), after Michael’s surrender to Captain Nairn, “he was visited by the Chief Superintendent of Convicts, Mr. Paterson, to whose charge he had been consigned when he first landed here, and who had shown him kindness. This gentleman once more uttered a few fatherly words to him. Howe had been so long a stranger to civil words, that he warmly expressed his thanks for the slight attention now shown to him, saying he had often thought of the old superintendent with kindly feelings.” It can also be argued that this want of kindness, or remembering those that had showed it to him, was why he specifically wrote about his sister Mary in both his journal and the gardening book he took from Mr. Pitt. Like his journal of dreams, this book was held together with kangaroo skin, which Michael had sewn “very neatly with sinews”. Owing to him being a great lover of gardening, Michael had “so studied it, as to have thumbed its covers off”, and on the flyleaf of the book recorded Mary’s birthday, in conjunction with the number of years they had been “parted”. It is moving to think of Michael, alone in his hut on the upper Shannon River, remembering his life back in Pontefract and the sister who loved him.
Another reality at odds with the known narrative is the way in which Michael treated the men and women he stuck up, which is a point highlighted by witness statements and Calder who asserts, “none of these pillagings were attended with personal violence of any kind…Howe disliked unnecessary violence, and though he sometimes threatened it, using hard words and black looks, he never would permit it except in self-defence, or when, according to his style of thinking, he believed his victims deserved it.” One such example is seen at Governor Davey’s residence at Coal River, near Richmond, which Michael and his gang robbed on the evening of the 8th of September 1816. Not wishing to alarm the wife of Mr. Peachey the overseer, Michael instructed the man to wake up his wife and allow her to dress before he entered. Once he had scoured the room of what he “stood in need of”, Michael informed Mr. Peachey of the items he had taken, adding he had “not touched his wearing apparel.” It was also noted by the overseer that before leaving, Michael asked for his dictionary, promising to return it when the book had served its purpose. An item which would no doubt have served ‘the lieutenant-governor of the woods’ well in his communications with ‘the lieutenant-governor of the town.’
This habit of only taking the necessities is seen throughout many of the robberies Michael was in command of and differs greatly from the belief that he and his gang ransacked these premises with the zeal of a Roman legion. For the most part, green tea (black tea was bitter and undesired by the settlers), flour, sugar, ammunition, weaponry, clothing, blankets, needles and thread, and meat, were the necessities taken. The only occasion these acts differed was on the 10th of May 1815, while raiding the house of Mr. Adolarius William Henry Humphrey, a police magistrate who was known for abusing convicts. Humphrey and his wife were not at their Pitt Water (Sorrell) home when Michael broke open their front door with an axe, which was fortunate for the magistrate as Michael and his gang had expressed their desire to murder the unkindly man in order to “prevent him ever flogging another man” or “serving out slop” to convicts. Once inside the house, the gang began searching the premises for necessities which on this occasion also included Humphrey’s compass; an item Michael would come to show Thomas Seals the following year. While he and two other members of his gang, James Geary and Richard McGwyre were filling their knapsacks, Michael came upon two pairs of leg irons, with the discovery sending his blood cold. Fetching the remainder of his gang from the servant hut, they proceeded to smash everything left in the house, knowing all too well the weight of irons clasped at their ankles. Before leaving, Michael relayed to one of the servants that they would have left quietly if it weren’t for finding the leg irons. Further to this, the gunfight between Irishman Dennis McCarty and the gang on the 24th of April 1815 is another event which has seen key details omitted from newspaper and posthumous accounts. Unlike what is often presented, Michael did not surprise McCarty with a barrage of musket fire, but rather it was McCarty who opened fire upon the unsuspecting gang while they rested beneath trees on the banks of the Derwent River near New Norfolk. In response to this attack, the gang, excepting Michael and James Geary, left their weapons and ran a little up the hill, which led to McCarty defiantly shouting, “now you dogs, if you are men, face us like men!” Adhering to this order, the remaining members of the gang, including Mary Cockerill, retrieved their arms and the firing commenced. With the wounding of five of McCarty’s men, Carlisle, Murphy, O’Burne, Triffett and Jemott, one of the gang, most likely Michael, demanded a cease fire with the wild call, “McCarty, stop, you scoundrel, it is you we want, or we will blow your brains out!”
Such acts of violence were few and far between and the gathering of weapons from settlers, it should be remembered, was vital if Michael and the gang were to stand a chance against soldiers, with them believing there were “two or three parties of soldiers out” at the time of the fight with McCarty. Furthermore, the burning of haystacks and barns, like those carried out on the wheat and corn harvests of Bartholomew Reardon and Humphrey, were not overseen by Michael and it is unclear whether he was even aware of their undertaking until afterwards. Instead, these were the actions of George Watts, Thomas Garland and James Whitehead (not John). In my research, I have discovered that many of the acts attributed to Michael, which are often used to further demonise him, were undertaken by others and often times are quite fanciful in their diversion of fact, with the known narrative’s description of the burning of wheat stacks and gunfight with McCarty clear cases of this. I feel I must also point that Watts and Garland’s act of wanton destruction was too much for James and he left the pair shortly after, declaring to a servant that he did not feel safe among them. For me, James’ comment about not trusting Watts and Garland, brings into question why James continued to stand by Michael if he was as cruel and unhinged as he is portrayed. How could he have trusted his life with ‘the wild beast of the ranges’? By all accounts, James had a strong moral compass and like Michael, treated the men and women within his company with respect. On one occasion, a servant by the name of George Green expressed his regret at seeing James in such a situation, with James replying he was sorry to find himself in the situation also, adding it never would have been the case if not for the treatment of his previous master.
Another gang member who was known to show respect was Peter Septon, who, like Michael, had served time in the British army. While travelling close to Launceston, accompanied by George Jones and John Brown, the trio met a gentleman in the company of two ladies. Fearful of their whereabouts reaching the ears of soldiers, the gang took them to a farm house, where it was stated the “outlaws behaved in the most becoming manner, having refused to take any refreshment till the ladies had done; and even led their horses the next day over the difficult part of the New River.” In conjunction with this action, upon seeing a servant of Governor Davey’s by the name of Lucas was unwell, Peter mixed the man up a concoction of milk and wine, while Michael made himself a tankard of eggnog. Such actions, for which I have only mentioned a few, are omitted from nearly all the tellings of Michael’s life, but of course, you never let the truth get in the way of a good story, do you?
While the known narrative may portray Michael as a paranoid and unhinged leader, this could not be further from the truth. By all accounts, he kept the gang in orderly control and no man or woman were ever molested or left fearing for their life by his actions. In fact, as I have come to find, there is a stark difference in the way the gang conducted themselves when Michael was leading them as opposed to when he was not at the helm. The first example of this is in October 1814, when while robbing McCarty’s house John Mills repeatedly threatened to “fuck” Mrs. McCarty, who he deemed to be a “whore”. It should be noted that Mills was a man who Michael noted to a solider he would only have freed from Launceston “if he was worth the risk.” The other example is seen in the second robbing of Lieutenant-Governor Davey’s house, when George Jones, visibly drunk, made the servants drink rum, threatening them if they did not partake of spirit. Such actions, along with a list of others, are often laid at Michael’s feet but this is simply ignorant of the facts and nowhere better are his beliefs described then by Thomas Seals, who had been told, “if I would be a friend to them, they would reward me well […] for they were fully determined to be like Turpin, to rob from the rich and give to the poor.”
In concluding this essay, I wish to point out the lack of inclusion about Mary Cockerill is due to truth differing greatly from the narrative. There was no baby, there was no incredible love story (highlighted by her own actions), and he certainly did not shoot her for falling behind. Just how Mary and the other unnamed Aboriginal woman came to be with the gang is unclear, but it is likely they left abuse and slavery just as Michael and the others had done. They would have proved invaluable in reading tracks and keeping them away from aboriginal tribes, which proved near fatal to Michael while alone, as recorded in his journal.
By no means is this an exhaustive list of the wrong-doings done to Michael’s character over the last 200 years and nor does it include an explanation for every event and action in his 31 years of life, for such pieces are still to be written. However, what I hope this essay does do is convey the truth of who Michael Howe was and to bring forward details which have long remained in the shadows.
Historical Records of Australia, Series 3, Volume 2.
Historical Records of Australia, Series 3, Volume 3.
‘Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land’, by T.E. Wells.
‘Tasmanian History: Early Troubles of the Colonists’, by J. E. Calder.
‘Governor of the Ranges: Mike Howe, Wild Beast of Tasmania’, by Bernard Cronin and Arthur Russel.
‘History of Australian Bushranging’, Volume 1, by Charles White.
Baptism record of Mary Howe located on Ancestry.com and comes from the parish of Pontefract, St Giles.
Source for correct name of James Whitehead comes from witness statements (Historical Records of Australia), his prison record (Ancestry.com) and his death record (Tasmanian Convict Registry).
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.
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.
[In this article Georgina Rose Stones explores the complex relationship between Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt in an attempt to understand what led to Byrne turning on his best friend in the worst way possible ~AP]
“If I had not shot him, he would have shot me if he had the chance.”
“Dear Aaron I write these few stolen lines to you to let you know that I am still living…” On the 26th of June 1879, a desperate Joe Byrne pens a letter to his lifelong friend, Aaron Sherritt, asking him to join the gang, “a short life and a jolly one” Joe asserted. However, within the span of a year, on the night of June 26th 1880, Joe, accompanied by Dan Kelly, would shoot and kill Aaron at his hut in the Woolshed. “You will not blow now what you do with us anymore”, Joe declared, looking down on the blood soaked face of his once most trusted friend…. For the writing that follows, I have chosen to analyse the actions of both Joe and Aaron from the period of June 1879 to June 1880, paying particular reference to Joe’s own words, both within his letter to Aaron, and, through Joe’s dialogue to those around him. I have chosen to focus my response on this area, as I believe, it is something that has not been examined in detail previously. This, in turn, has allowed for a great deal of conjecture as to Joe’s actions, his frame of mind and reasons for his killing of Aaron.
Firstly, I do not think it feasible to discuss the later actions of Joe and Aaron without giving detail to their friendship. Given the great differences in their appearance, personality and manner, it is interesting that the two men were able to form such a close friendship. In terms of appearance, Joe was described as being “soberly dressed”, with the photo taken of him in 1877 reflecting this. In stark contrast, Richard Warren the son of a local newspaper owner, recalled that Aaron was “as flash as Lucifer”, going on to say, “anybody seeing him coming down Ford Street would ask, ‘who the hell’s this? Some advance agent for the circus.’” James Ingram, whose Beechworth bookshop was regularly visited by both Joe and Aaron, remembered Joe as “a nice, well behaved lad.” While a school friend of Joe’s would relate to author Max Brown that she found him to be “a nice quiet boy, not flash.” Counter to this is Annie Wick’s assessment, “he was a wild boy, good looking, but wild” although spoken in reference to Joe, the ‘wild’ streak mentioned ran through the veins of both young men. This wildness is captured within their tendency to ‘borrow’ horses as stated within Ian Jones’ The Fatal Friendship, “If they liked your horse, they’d take it at night, ride to Eldorado, gallop all the way, and it’d be back in your paddock the next day all knocked up.” Living in the Woolshed Valley, it would have been easy for the two boys to pick up a degree of waywardness given the ruggedness of both the area and inhabitants. Certainly the Chinese community, both within the Woolshed and Beechworth, played a large role in Ah Joe and Ah Jim (Aaron’s) early, and later, friendship. It is also known that Joe was an opium addict; this addiction would have undoubtedly been sprung within the opium tents which dotted the many Chinese camps of Sebastopol. From these descriptions, it is easy to imagine Joe, swaggering along Camp Street, dressed smartly in his tweed ‘town clothes’, his larrikin heels echoing off cobblestones. While alongside him, is Aaron, dressed flashily, a bright sash swinging from his waist, tipping his pork pie hat to all who passed. Contrasting these two men further, is the differing way in which they interacted with their families. Aaron, it can be asserted, was closely tied to his father John, and, mother Anne, while Joe’s relationship with Margret was far more complex. It is easy to dismiss Joe’s absence from home as him openly showing how little he cared about the plight of his family. I, however, do not view it in such a harsh way. Joe was a young man who was educated, well read and given his close relationship with the Beechworth Chinese community, cultured. Further to this, it is noted that Joe was a friend of respected Chinese businessman and philanthropist, Nam Sing, who resided within the Spring Creek Chinese community. Given his intellect and nature, it is easy to imagine Joe sitting under Nam Sing’s veranda, conversing in Cantonese while sipping jasmine tea from an intricately painted China teacup. Joe’s regular visits to the Burke Museum highlight, both his cultural and, historical curiosity, which would have been quite at odds with his upbringing and life within the rugged Woolshed Valley, further contrasting the personas of Joe and Aaron. In conjunction with these elements of Joe’s character, it is an undisputable fact that Joe and Margret did not share a loving mother and son relationship. This is first highlighted, publically, within the court proceedings regarding a stolen and later slaughtered heifer from the Eldorado Common School with the charge being, ‘having in their possession the carcass of a certain cow for the lawful possession of which they cannot satisfactory account.’ At the trial, Margret’s evidence had been laced in bitterness to Joe, so bitter in fact that Police Magistrate, Robert Pitcairn was forced to ask “Is your son good to you?” After a lengthy silence, which must have seemed like an eternity for Joe, she replied “I cannot say.” In contrast, John Sherritt spoke glowingly of his son, concluding in his evidence, “we are not separated”. Joe and Aaron were found guilty and on the 21st of May, 1876, were given a six month sentence with hard labour, to be undertaken inside the cold granite walls of Beechworth Gaol. Not only does this incident highlight the family differences between the two men, but, also connects with the statement Joe made on the night of June 26th 1880, “The bastard will never put me away again.” This was a striking declaration, and I believe, gives an interesting insight into the dynamics between Joe and Aaron. While Joe’s remarks could have been in reference to his imprisonment, they could also have been in relation to an incident that occurred on the 13th of January 1877. During a hot summer’s day in the Woolshed, Joe and Aaron had decided to cool off in the, shimmering, rippling waters of the nearby dam. While they were swimming, a Chinaman, named Ah On, came down to the dam to collect water for his garden. Words were exchanged between the pair and an angry Ah On went back to his hut, while Joe and Aaron retrieved their clothes and quickly dressed. According to the Chinaman, and his two friends, the young men began ‘pelting stones’ at the Chinese hut. It was also claimed, by the Chinese, that after Joe and Aaron had barraged the hut with stones, and Aaron had severely wounded Ah Oh with a stone to the temple, did they retaliate with bamboos. This was made in challenge of Willie Sherritt’s claim that they had produced the bamboos first. Finally, as Joe himself relayed to Constable Mullane, “I’ve nothing to say. I didn’t do it and didn’t see it done…we were bathing in the dam; when we got out the Chinese hunted us with bamboos; I ran one way, and Aaron ran the other, and I saw nothing at all of it.” Both men were remanded to the police court until the 13th of February, where, during a two day trial both Joe and Aaron, although cautioned, were found not guilty. The reasoning behind my statement, that Joe’s utterance over Aaron’s dead body could have been about the above incident, is in regards to a conversation Aaron had during the final minutes of his life. “One night, I heard someone knocking on the bars of my cell window, and when I asked who it was, Joe replied, ‘It is me; I am going to help you escape.’ I told him “the Chinaman is getting better, so you had better give yourself up, and do not be a fool.’ Joe took my advice, surrendered, secured legal advice and was acquitted”. It is tempting to imagine Joe, standing outside Aarons hut, listening to the conversation between Aaron and the police, of a friendship long ago, his fingers furling and unfurling around the trigger of the double barrelled shotgun….
Between the times of June 1879 to June 1880, Joe’s perception of Aaron changed dramatically. The reasons for his altered view of Aaron have been discussed in the past; however, they often show little regard for Joe’s own words. For a number of people it is Joe’s opium addiction that helped ‘pull the trigger’. It is believed his addled state of mind sent Joe into a paranoid frenzy, his testing of Aaron and Jack fuelled by crippling opium withdrawals. Personally, I have never been at ease with this notion, and, it is why, I have felt compelled to pen this piece. In conjunction with the ‘Sherritt Letter’, I will be analysing Joe’s ‘threatening’ letters to Aaron and Detective Ward, his association with Jack Sherritt, the words of both Belle and Anne Sherritt and Aaron’s betrayal of Maggie.
On the day of the 26th of June 1879, Joe hastily wrote a letter to his ‘lifelong’ friend. Within “these few stolen lines”, Joe pleads that Aaron confirm himself to be, “on our side”, in the wake of constant distrust amongst the “Lloyds and Quinns” who, “wants you shot”. The letter is an emotionally charged piece, written on two sheets of note paper, possibly taken from Anne Sherritt and offers a valuable insight into Joe’s frame of mind at this time. It is clear, within the letter, that Joe is burdened by the suspicion that darkens Aaron within the eyes of Tom Lloyd. It is also clear why this would have been the case. Firstly, Joe would have been in a precarious position, defending Aaron’s loyalty while so many others, including Dan Kelly, were questioning it. This, in turn, may have brought about a degree of distrust towards Joe, resulting in him not only shielding threats made against Aaron, but also, against himself. Up to, and during, this time, it is obvious that Joe was still trying to keep his bond with “dear Aaron” from becoming severed, however, several months after Joe’s request that he join the gang, his correspondence to Aaron altered significantly. It is quoted within The Fatal Friendship that “a letter from Joe Byrne reached the Beechworth Police, containing threats to Aaron, Constable Mullane and Detective Ward, ‘warning them of mischief before that day month.’” Furthermore, it was said by Ward that the letter also offered “a reward of eight thousand pounds for the apprehension and delivery in Wombat Rangers of Captain Standish, Senior Constable Mullane and myself.” It is not clear what triggered this change; obviously what was said between Joe and Aaron is not known. Perhaps Aaron’s reluctance to join the gang, when he may have been eager in the past, shed doubt on his actions in the eyes of Joe. Months of questioning from the “Lloyds and Quinns” had certainly worn away at Joe. What is known for certain, however, is that not long after this, Joe turned his attention to Jack Sherritt.
During this time, Joe sent Jack a letter which was described as being “short written, quick”, asking Jack to meet him on Thursday the 5th of November, at Thompson’s farm on Sandy Creek. It is noted that Jack had misgivings about the meeting, but instructed by Superintendent Nicolson, he kept the appointment. When, on the Thursday, Jack had ridden over to the farm, he was informed that Thompson had been “gone 12 months”. Sure that he had been watched on the way, Jack camped the night, and left the following morning. It is recalled, that as he was riding back along a scrubby stretch of track, Joe sprang out of the scrub and called him. Turning his horse around, Jack saw Joe, who he described, “had no horse, but he had a pair of long boots, and his trousers were all over blood. He had long spurs.” Joe signalled Jack to follow him deep into the scrub, and the pair chatted in what was described as, a “long and friendly conversation.” Joe had asserted that the purpose of the meeting was to see if Jack would scout the Yackandandah Bank for the gang, and, “see how many police were stationed there…and see where the police went in to have tea.” Finally, asked by Joe whether he knew Nicolson, Jack had replied, he “knew no one”. This is in an interesting incident, not only because we see for the first time the toll of an outlawed life, but that Joe had asked, specifically, whether Jack “knew Nicolson.” Of course, this may well have been an innocent enquiry; however, I feel it is far sounder that Joe had been informed of Jack’s previous dealings with the Scottish Superintendent. Further to this meeting, it is noted that, later, on the 23rd of November, Joe appeared at the Sherritt farm. Joe was described as being “well dressed” and, it was noted, “shook hands with all the family”, including Aaron, and, thanked Jack for his work in the past month. Joe asserted his purpose of the visit was to ask Jack and Aaron to aid the gang in holding up one of the Beechworth Banks. Joe stayed at the Sherritts’ for four hours and left at midnight, promising he would return the following Sunday. It is recorded, that Joe “‘looked as if fretting’, and, appeared to have lost weight. They thought he was now less than ten stone.” This assessment has often been likened to Joe’s withdrawals from opium, I however, disagree. It should be highlighted that Joe was, by nature, a “thoroughly nervous man” and it is likely that he suffered anxiety. This anxiety would no doubt have been heightened by Joe’s opium use, and the burden of outlawry. This, consequently, would account for Joe’s manner while visiting the Sherritt’s. The reason, I personally, disregard Joe’s behaviour as stemming from withdrawal, is due to two specific details. Firstly, it is noted that the gang had many Chinese sympathisers, who no doubt, would have been able to ‘appease’ Joe’s opium addiction. If Joe was “short on funds”, the promise of future payment may have been offered to the Chinese, as it may have been before the Euroa and Jerilderie robberies. In relation to this, it was noted that on the 3rd of December Joe, accompanied by Aaron, appeared at E Fang’s store in Sebastopol, where he “got a bottle of gin, some tobacco, and something else, and went away.” It is tempting to presume that the “something else” could very well have been opium. Secondly, it is believed that the ‘poison’ Joe had with him at Glenrowan was a packet of Laudanum, which, if taken in small amounts, would have offered Joe the same release as the opium pipe.
A final detail, which it can be asserted, led to the severed trust Joe had for Aaron is in regards to the police watch party which had been set up in Aaron’s hut. While the manipulative actions of Detective Ward cannot be shadowed, it must be accepted that Aaron made little attempt to hinder him. Almost the entire existence of Aaron’s life had become funded by the police, from the clothes he wore, the crockery and cutlery he used, even the hut, both he and Belle resided in, had been purchased by Constable Alexander. Behind this façade of employment, which Aaron, as Ian Jones points out, may have seen as “a long rambling joke”, it was Joe’s life he continued to profit from. Surely, at least in Joe’s eyes, the line of friendship had been crossed, and indeed, obliterated. While, before this time, Joe had continued to hide any grievances he may have had for Aaron, it is clear he no longer felt the need to do so. This is highlighted in his dialogue with Anne Sherritt, who recalled to the police, “I saw a man with a horses bridle on his arm, and this was Joe Byrne. And as soon as he saw me he got up and came over and spoke friendly enough to me; and he said he had come to take Aaron’s life, and also Detective Ward’s. He said ‘those two had them starved to death.’…I begged him not to take Aaron’s life. I said, ‘he has no harm; he would not hurt you’. And he said, ‘you need not impress that on my mind, because I can tell you that there was Ward and him and Mr. Hare very nearly twice catching us, and that tells you whether he would hurt us or not…’” Personally, I believe Joe’s statement deserves more weight than it has previously been given, and, shines a clear light on Joe’s assessment of Aaron’s involvement with the police. Further to this, if Aaron had not been so involved, wouldn’t he have seen reason to pull back his association with the police? Wouldn’t he have, as a result of Joe’s words, seen fit to explain himself to Joe? In conjunction to this is the words of Belle herself, who, in a newspaper interview after Aaron’s death, had questioned why she had not yet received a widow’s pension from the police, as her husband had been in their employment. Interestingly, Joe claimed that Belle often went “blowing about what her husband would do.” Many have viewed this to be false, asserting that it was nothing more than malice. I, however, believe Joe, and furthermore, it does not tarnish my view of Belle, as it is almost certain that she would have felt a sense of pride in her husband’s employment with the police.
I wish to conclude with an incident that I believe clearly marked Aaron as a traitor in the eyes of Joe, which was Aaron’s brazen betrayal of ‘Maggie’. On the evening of the 24th of June, two days before Aaron’s murder, Aaron, accompanied by a policeman, made a ‘pub crawl’ through Beechworth. As the afternoon gave way to evening, the pair reached the Vine Hotel, which stood at the very edge of town, before the descent into the Woolshed. Working at the Vine, was a young woman known, to history, as ‘Maggie’, and, as it happened was also one of the girls in Joe’s life. As the two men entered the bar, it is recalled that Aaron nodded in ‘Maggie’s’ direction had asserted, “that girl often sees Joe Byrne.” This, I believe was a striking disregard for the safety of ‘Maggie’, and, in the eyes of Joe, would have been unforgivable. In response to the constable’s questions, which began after Aaron had left, ‘Maggie’ asserted that she knew who had informed him of her identity, and promised, “somebody else will soon know, too.” Further to this, it is recalled that on the “Wednesday or Thursday night” Joe visited “Maggie”, on what was to be “the last time they met on earth.” It is easy to imagine the darkening of Joe’s usually gentle countenance, as “Maggie” informed him of Aaron’s betrayal. Finally, I firmly believe that if Joe needed one more reason to doubt Aaron’s loyalty, this would have surely been it. Not only had Aaron showed Joe such disregard, but he had directed this straight into the ears of an officer of the Victoria Police.
If Aaron’s fate was not already sealed on the night of June 25th, 1880, this most certainly helped pull the trigger the following evening.
Jones, Ian. The Fatal Friendship: Ned Kelly, Aaron Sherritt and Joe Byrne. Revised ed. South Melbourne: Lothian, 2003. Print.
Shaw, Ian W. Glenrowan. Sydney, N. S. W. : Macmillan, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2012.
FitzSimons, Peter. Ned Kelly. London Bantam Press, 2015.
Brown, Max. Ned Kelly : Australian Son. Kensington, N.S.W. : Times House, 1986.