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.
It is well known that the story of the Kelly Gang is the bushranging tale most often depicted in film (only rivalled by adaptations of Robbery Under Arms). Depictions of Ned Kelly in media are so numerous that it would be almost impossible for one person to document them all. Given less attention, however, are the other members of the gang. Of the three other gang members, only Joe Byrne’s story has been documented in any considerable detail. Byrne is generally considered to be Ned Kelly’s right hand man and most people only know his story as it relates to Ned Kelly. Joe is a mainstay of film adaptations of the Kelly saga, unlike his best mate Aaron Sherritt, and thus we have a wealth of sources to compare and evaluate.
Because of the sheer volume of Kelly movies dating back to the silent era, there is a daunting task in evaluating all of them in terms of their accuracy to history, so for the sake of this article we will only be looking at the four of the most recent examples:
* Ned Kelly (1970) featuring Mark McManus as Joe Byrne.
* The Last Outlaw (1980) featuring Steve Bisley as Joe Byrne.
* Ned Kelly (2003) featuring Orlando Bloom as Joe Byrne.
* True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) featuring Sean Keenan as Joe Byrne.
These portrayals will be reviewed based on how they are written and overall creative choices. This will allow us to see what works and what doesn’t in each version, based on common criteria. Given the number of portrayals that will be looked at, this will be a bit longer than most articles in this series.
Physical appearance and mannerisms
The 1970 depiction of Joe Byrne has a reasonably close physical resemblance to the historical Joe, however he is clearly a man in his thirties. McManus’ Joe has brown hair, a stubbly beard, and blue eyes. His clothing is quite odd. He favours worn down bush clothes with muted colours, as well as a big floppy hat and tall lace-up boots that appear to be 20th century army boots. After raiding the hawker’s wagon he wears a black hat, high heeled shoes, and light coloured plaid suit. He is also occasionally seen with a velvet waistcoat and a brown scarf. This Joe speaks with a nasally Irish brogue, and tends to range in temperament from high energy and playful, to snappy and brooding. He has a fondness for an old-fashioned pint of ale, but does not exhibit any other particular vices.
The 1980 Byrne is the most physically similar on the list to the historical Byrne. He has a long face with large, protruding ears, blue eyes, coppery hair, full beard and light moustache. Again, he looks to be in his early to mid thirties. This Joe favours more fashionable clothes in blues and browns, and is particularly fond of flares, high heeled boots with spurs, light coloured shirts and waistcoats. His signature item of clothing is a hat with a flat crown and very wide brim that curls slightly. He can also occasionally be spotted wearing a ring on his left hand. This interpretation of Joe speaks with a mongrel accent that is mostly Irish, but occasionally slips into something Australian. He is often quiet and thoughtful, though he has bursts of exuberance and joviality, and can be very passionate and hot-tempered. He is frequently seen smoking a pipe, and sometimes drinks liquor. At Euroa he nabs himself brown flares, a brown jacket and a blue waistcoat with brown lapels. He can speak Chinese and is seen to negotiate with a gold merchant.
Orlando Bloom’s Joe is very sober in appearance and manner. He appears to be the right age, with dark brown eyes, a mop of curly black hair and wispy black facial hair. This Joe is seen briefly wearing a sort of Homburg hat, and usually favours fashionably cut clothes in black and dark greys with cowboy boots. During the Euroa robbery he sports a light grey tweed suit, which gives him a much friendlier appearance. At Glenrowan he favours black garb, a long greatcoat and a white knitted scarf. He is occasionally spotted wearing a large silver ring with a black stone set in it. He rarely smokes or drinks, and generally has a quiet, melancholic temperament when not trying to seduce women, to whom he seems to be irresistible. He can speak Chinese, and uses it to seduce a Chinese servant. He talks softly with an Irish brogue, but prefers to stay quiet.
In the 2019 interpretation, Joe is presented at first as a highly excitable dullard, and possibly homosexual, speaking with a broad Australian accent. This continues to be the case throughout the production, but he becomes increasingly prone to nervous breakdowns and zoning out. After the Stringybark Creek incident he tries to convince Ned to escape to America with him so they can eat donuts. He smokes opium almost constantly and is occasionally shown to be so completely stoned that an ember landing in his eye doesn’t register to him. Keenan strongly resembles the historical Joe physically, excepting his long, blonde hair. In terms of clothing, nothing he wears is period accurate. He is shown wearing a brown duffle coat and chinos, or tight shorts, cowboy boots, an Akubra and a cardigan with no shirt underneath. At Glenrowan he wears a pink dress with black and white face paint. He tends not to get involved much in Ned’s scheming, except at Stringybark Creek where he tries to dissuade Ned from attacking the police camp. His temperament generally ranges from childlike enthusiasm to haunted and morose.
The real Joe Byrne was only in his early twenties when he became mixed up with Ned Kelly. He stood just shy of six feet tall, and was well-built with long, delicate features, large ears, pale blue eyes, coppery coloured hair and usually wore a full beard and wispy moustache. He favoured fashionable clothing, especially flared trousers, high-heeled boots and was known to wear a felt hat with the crown turned down. At Euroa he scored a new outfit of elastic-sided boots, brown trousers with matching waistcoat, a grey coat, black tie and a Rob Roy shirt. Occasionally he was seen wearing long boots with long-necked spurs. At Glenrowan he wore brown trousers and waistcoat, a great striped Crimean shirt, blue sack coat and a tattered scarf. He notably wore rings taken from Constables Lonigan and Scanlan. In terms of personality, he could be warm and friendly, usually quiet and reserved, and was known to be very tender with women. On the flip side, he could be quick to rage and became violently angry when pushed. He smoked tobacco frequently, and was known to be addicted to whiskey and opium. Some reports describe him having a peculiar swagger when he walked. Like most young men of his generation, he spoke with an Australian accent and used Australian slang (the accent has been recorded as far back as the 1850s). He spoke in a “clipped” fashion, which probably meant that he tended to drop letters off words (eg. drinkin’, smokin’), or spoke in short bursts.
Relationship with Aaron Sherritt
Perhaps the most important part of Joe’s life was his relationship with Aaron Sherritt, his lifelong mate. It was his connection to Sherritt that stood to potentially jeopardise the gang’s freedom and liberty.
In the 1970 film, Joe and Aaron have just gotten out of prison and are looking for work. Their relationship is clearly one of two friends who are joined at the hip. When together they seem to have boundless energy and muck around. When Joe learns of Aaron’s betrayal he does not hesitate to assume Aaron has sold him out in order to afford new clothes. There is no internal conflict about what to do to him.
Aaron and Joe in The Last Outlaw are more like brothers. Joe trusts Aaron completely, and it takes a great deal of convincing to get him to accept Aaron’s betrayal. When he does, it boils over into an unquenchable hatred. In this version it is clear that Aaron is trying to confuse the police to help his mates, with Joe being in on it. This serves to make the collapse of their relationship all the more tragic and accurate.
The 2003 iteration has much the same dynamic as the 1970 one, except that Aaron and Joe have been friends with Ned since they were teens so it is more of a three-hander. Joe doesn’t appear to be any closer to Aaron than anyone else. The revelation that Aaron has betrayed them simply makes Joe sad, and he is left questioning why he did it.
In True History of the Kelly Gang Aaron Sherritt is never included, which only serves to push Joe further into the background and make things all the more about Ned.
In reality, Joe and Aaron had known each other since they were very young. They were pretty much inseparable from that time, and did everything together. They both worked with Ned stealing horses, but for some unknown reason only Joe was present at Stringybark Creek. However, Aaron vitally provided shelter and protection in the immediate aftermath, then acted as a double agent to keep the police distracted while the gang moved around. It is probable that Joe knew of this in some regard, which is why he tested Aaron’s loyalty repeatedly when faced with rumours of his treachery. This makes Joe’s anger and subsequent willingness to murder Aaron make more sense, for such a betrayal would have had far more meaning.
Meeting Ned Kelly
The first time Joe met Ned Kelly is a mystery. There is much speculation, but it remains simply that.
In the 1970 film, Joe and Aaron meet Ned at the sawmill where he works when they are fresh out of gaol and looking for jobs. Immediately the trio have a rapport, with Ned declaring that despite there being a lack of work he had best look out for his own kind, suggesting that he will find jobs for them. Indeed, later on we see Joe shifting lumber at the sawmill when Constable Fitzpatrick arrives to question Ned about his brother.
This is almost identical to the how the meeting is depicted in The Last Outlaw. Where this version differs is that Joe and Aaron are introduced to Ned by his brother Jim, the three of them having supposedly just come out of gaol. This time the sawmill is packing up to go to Gippsland, so instead they then join Ned in mining for gold and Joe teaches him how to build sluices.
In the 2003 film we do not see the meeting, Ned is already a friend of Joe and Aaron, demonstrated by the three of them napping together under a tree in the very first scene of the film. Joe and Aaron are next seen waiting for Ned as he leaves gaol. It is indicated that Joe is a family friend and has been checking in on Ned’s family while he was in gaol. There is no indication that they worked together.
In the 2019 film, we first see Joe when he is working as Ned’s boxing promoter. He collects the bets and hypes up Ned’s boxing match, calling him a “dancing monkey” to get him revved up. It is clear that there is a strong bond between the two.
Of course, this is an area of history that is unrecorded, so to write about the meeting is pure speculation. That said, there is no indication in any recorded history that Joe or Aaron ever worked with Ned at a sawmill, and as Ned was only ever involved in one boxing match we know of, which took place before he knew Joe, it is unlikely he would have needed a promoter. Moreover, the earliest that we know of Joe and Aaron being associated with Ned is 1877, when they helped him steal, shift and sell horses. However, Joe and Aaron could have met Ned as early as 1876, when they were in court at Beechworth on the same day as Dan Kelly, meaning they may have waited in the holding cell together. Ned was present as a witness for Dan, so this may have provided am opportunity for their paths to cross. We will never know for sure, but we can guess based on available information, and on that level The Last Outlaw gets the closest to the truth on this point.
In True History of the Kelly Gang, Joe is frequently seen smoking opium from a special pipe (seemingly a 19th century Chinese water pipe). The historical Joe’s opium habit is well known. He is often described as an opium addict, though the extent to which he used the drug is unknown. What is known is that he sourced it from the Chinese in Sebastopol, which is where he was spotted buying it by a police spy. Of course, to suggest that Joe smoked it very occasionally as a recreational drug would not have fitted with the grim and gritty story Justin Kurzel wanted to portray, so this version of Joe is rarely straight.
None of the other productions even hint at opium use. At most we see Joe smoking tobacco from a pipe or perhaps a cigar. It could reasonably be argued that this was entirely down to content standards for film and television in the ’70s and ’80s, but as the opium use was not well known at that time it may have simply been that it wasn’t considered. As for the 2003 film, no doubt it was about not only time constraints, but also the connotations that come with a main character using narcotics.
In the 1970 film, Joe is never shown mingling with the opposite sex. There is no indication of any romance at all.
In The Last Outlaw and the 2003 film, his love life is portrayed rather accurately. In the former he visits his girlfriend at night at the Vine Hotel in Beechworth where she is employed as a maid. Though here her name is Helen, in all other respects she is identical to the historical Joe’s girlfriend. In the 2003 film his girlfriend is a barmaid named Maggie who he occasionally visits. In both portrayals she is the one that convinces him Aaron is betraying him. In reality, Joe’s girlfriend was indeed known as Maggie, though this was supposed to have been a pseudonym, and her supplying of information to Joe about Aaron proved important to what eventuated only a few days later in the lead up to the Glenrowan siege.
Where the 2003 film veers from known history is in Joe’s promiscuity. He is portrayed as a lothario who can pick up any woman he wants. He seduces Mrs. Scott at Euroa and Julia’s servant girl when he is in the bath. Though there are accounts of Joe’s life that state he was popular with the ladies, who gave him pet names like Sugar and Little Birdy, there were no definitive sources that claimed he went from pub to pub seducing barmaids or anything of that sort. It is reasonable to suggest he had romantic dalliances with women like Mary Jordan, a barmaid near Jerilderie, and Ellen Byron, his teenage sweetheart who was also a sympathiser, but it is only speculation.
The 2019 film it is heavily implied he is either in a romantic relationship with Ned Kelly or desires to be. Their physical intimacy in particular is on the nose in this regard.
In 1877, Ned Kelly set about getting back at the squatters who he had taken exception to, stealing their horses and selling them over the border for profit. This is usually a staple of adaptations of the story to film, but not always.
In the 1970 film, Joe and Aaron are eager participants, joining Ned and his stepfather George King in the trade. In one scene we see Ned negotiate horse prices with William Baumgarten by playing a match of hop-step-jump in the rain. Joe and Aaron eagerly act as adjudicators, measuring the distances. They also stick with Ned after King departs, helping him paint horses so they appear piebald in order to disguise them for sale.
In The Last Outlaw there are more people helping out with the horse stealing racket, including Wild Wright, Tom Lloyd, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. This portion of the story is portrayed as if it were a great adventure with the men frequently sitting around in camp talking about how what they are doing is an affront to their enemies from high society. Eventually everyone leaves apart from Ned, Joe and George King, though King eventually does part ways with them on a river boat. Oddly, we see very little of the actual stealing and selling of horses.
The 2003 film portrays the horse stealing through a montage, where the horses are taken at night and sold discreetly. It is very similar to the sequence in the 1970 film, but instead of a jaunty, cheeky vibe there is more of a sense that this is an uplifting moment. The horse stealing is conducted by Ned, Joe, Aaron, Dan and Steve, as George King is not featured in this film.
In the 2019 film the horse stealing is conducted by George King, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. Joe is uninvolved. Instead, while the thievery is going on Joe is mostly camping with Ned and getting stoned.
This is the part of the history where we get our confirmation of Joe and Aaron being associated with Ned. Aaron would later brag about their exploits to Superintendent Hare. At this time Joe used the alias Billy King, which was at one time misreported as George King.
The 1970 and 2019 films don’t spend a lot of time at Stringybark Creek. The former presents it as a musical sequence, the latter reduces it to a couple of minutes rampage with dizzying camera work. Neither of these does a good job of portraying Joe’s involvement.
When one takes time to break down the Stringybark sequence of the 1970 film we see Joe portrayed as Ned’s follower, but also somewhat twitchy and uncertain. He is shown shooting Scanlan with a rifle as the constable struggles to get to his feet. This is obviously Ian Jones’ influence as it was he that championed the notion that Joe was the one that killed Scanlan. By the time Ned brings Kennedy down, we see that Joe is particularly disturbed by the turn of events and appears quite rattled. It is Joe who tries to convince Ned to leave the sergeant to die, clearly afraid to remain at the site of such a horrific crime. As far as appearances are concerned, Joe is here presented as disheveled and wearing a waistcoat and shirtsleeves, and no hat, which is a far cry from how he presented to Constable McIntyre.
The 1980 miniseries took time to build up to Stringybark, showing Joe joining Ned and following him to the police camp out of loyalty. Joe also hands tea to a visibly shaken McIntyre, which is accurate. In fact, McIntyre made a point of noting Joe’s kindness to him in order to emphasise the point that despite treating the constable with apparent empathy, when it came down to it Joe was willing to kill the man in order to demonstrate his loyalty to Ned. Once again, Joe is depicted landing the killing blow on Scanlan, this time with a pistol. This is later used to suggest that Joe continuing to stay with Ned is because he murdered one of the police, despite there being no difference in the eyes of the law at the time between one of the gang killing, or all of them. According to McIntyre’s evidence, Scanlan was shot by Ned Kelly, causing him to fall from his horse with blood pouring from under his arm. This is consistent with the wound identified as having brought about his death due to puncturing both lungs. In this case, even if Joe had fired one of the two other shots that hit Scanlan, which struck his hip and shoulder, it was still Ned Kelly that killed him. It would seem that Ian Jones preferred the idea of Joe killing one of the police in order to take some of the heat off Ned and help reinforce his own bias against Joe.
In the 2003 film, Joe follows Ned’s lead, as in the other depictions, but does not exhibit any notable compassion or kindness towards McIntyre. His head is very much in the game, and it seems that he and Ned are both calling the shots. Joe does not exhibit any remorse or fear, but rather a steely determination. He is armed with a snub-nosed revolver, which is a far cry from the old fashioned rifle with a large bore that McIntyre described him with. When Kennedy and Scanlan arrive, Joe engages in the gunfight with complete coolness, but notably doesn’t actually shoot anyone.
True History of the Kelly Gang shows Joe trying to convince Ned to go around the police, but to no effect. We also see him immediately traumatised by the violence Ned inflicts on the police, breaking down in tears and sobbing. It seems that in this incarnation, Joe was the only gang member with any empathy. The sequence is so fleeting that there is not much to pick from it.
The Euroa sequence in the 1970 film is played as a farce, with jaunty music and comedic, campy moments played up for effect. One example of this is the gang in sped up footage walking around behind a hawker’s wagon then emerging out of the other side fully dressed in new clothes. In this depiction Joe and Ned go to the bank alone and while Joe is emptying the drawers and the safe, Ned bails up the manager and his family. This is a very amusing sequence, but only resembles the history in broad brushstrokes.
The Last Outlaw remains the most accurate depiction of Euroa, with only very minor details that stray from recorded fact, including Joe’s new outfit which was almost completely different from the one depicted. Notably, we see Joe guarding the prisoners at Younghusband’s Station on his own while some of the men inside conspire to break free, which is correct. Joe remains fairly quiet throughout proceedings, which is also accurate, though we don’t see him interact with Mrs. Fitzgerald as he did in reality. Overall, there is nothing especially deserving of criticism in this depiction.
In the 2003 film, however, Joe is present at the bank during the robbery. In fact, he even manages to seduce Mrs. Scott in the process. The gang’s use of Younghusband’s Station as a headquarters is entirely omitted, and many of the moments portrayed are incorrect, but it still maintains a sense of the farcical nature of the raid that was embodied in the 1970 film.
True History of the Kelly Gang completely omits the Euroa robbery from the story. It is possible this was due to time constraints, but given the importance of the robbery in the story, its absence is important. It was during the Euroa robbery that Steve Hart was finally identified as one of the gang members, Joe having been named a short time prior after the connection to Aaron Sherritt had been established (the gang having visited him shortly after the police killings and made their presence known with gunshots). It was this event that began to change perceptions of the gang in the public eye.
In all productions Jerilderie is delivered in a truncated form. As this event took place over multiple days, it would take considerable time to portray all aspects of the affair on screen.
In the 1970 film, Jerilderie is presented as part of the musical montage, resuming after a brief narrative pause. Here we see the entire gang in police uniforms and it is Ned and Joe who rob the bank in disguise as policemen. We also see Ned and Joe take the gang’s horses to the blacksmith. Throughout the sequence Joe remains quiet except for when bailing up the bank manager in his bath.
Once again, The Last Outlaw nails this sequence. It is almost exactly as it happened, albeit in a streamlined depiction that leaves details out. We see Joe getting the gang’s horses shod by the blacksmith and charging the work to the government account, as well as assisting Ned in scoping out the town dressed in a police uniform. Joe is also the one that initiates the bank robbery after entering through a side door, which is correct given that the Jerilderie bank was connected by a corridor to the pub where the gang were holding their prisoners. In this scene, Joe is very much in command until Ned arrives to take over. As the events unfold, Joe seems to be enjoying the escapade immensely. When we see the gang taking breakfast, and Ned makes a point of emptying the bathtub, we see Joe pulling faces at the children in the background. This flash of silliness is clearly a creative choice by Bisley, and not based on anything from history, though it is amusing.
The 2003 film cuts out nearly the entire Jerilderie raid, keeping it confined to a single scene in the middle of robbing the bank. The townsfolk are being held prisoner in the bank while Joe clears out the cash. After Steve pinches Reverend Gribble’s watch, Ned makes Joe begin to transcribe the letter he wishes to send to Premier Berry in Melbourne. Thus, Joe is relegated to little more than Ned Kelly’s PA in this scene. Apart from the odd nod to moments that happened, this sequence is completely inaccurate.
In True History of the Kelly Gang, Jerilderie is a moment of absolute absurdity. Beyond it being in the snow, and the bank being attached to the printing office, we see a group of pallbearers inexplicably carrying a coffin past the scene, as Joe, dressed in hotpants and a sheepskin jacket and not much else, writhes around on the ground. To state the obvious, there is no resemblance to history in this depiction.
Aaron Sherritt’s betrayal is a mainstay of most interpretations of the story, as his murder is one of the few major crimes actually committed by the gang.
In the 1970 film, Aaron is caught out when Joe spots him spying on his mother’s house with police. It takes no further convincing to get this version of Joe to turn, and he bitterly states that it explains all his new clothes. This truncated version works for the limited runtime, but there’s something a bit empty about how overly simplified it is.
In 1980, however, the betrayal is built up more, culminating in Joe being informed by his girlfriend that Aaron was with a policeman in he pub where she works. This moment is played melodramatically with turbulent wind and intense music while Joe scowls and thrashes around in fury. He announces that the “bastard Sherritt” has got to die. Up to this stage Joe had been reluctant to believe Aaron would betray the gang and was acting as a double agent. This is much closer to the history but requires time to play out, which the mini series format luckily allowed.
The 2003 version depicts Aaron’s betrayal as a result of police brutality. Again, Joe’s girlfriend is the one to tell Joe that he’s up to something. Joe and Ned inform Aaron that they are going to rob the bank in Beechworth and then wait to see if police arrive. When they do, the outlaws know Aaron is the traitor and decide he has to die.
True History of the Kelly Gang, because it omits Aaron entirely, loses this vital part of the story. It was Aaron’s death, or at least the gang causing a scene at Aaron’s hut, that was to lure the police out on a special train. By removing Aaron and the rest of the sympathisers, the 2019 film completely changes the dynamic that drove the escalation in the gang’s activities.
In reality, Aaron had been working with both sides. Assisting the police paid his bills, but also gave him an opportunity to keep the police distracted so that the gang could move around undetected. Aaron actually had an agreement with the chief commissioner that if he could get Joe to turn himself in, and betray the other three, then Joe’s life would be spared. Joe frequently tested Aaron’s loyalty, in a manner very similar to that shown in the 2003 film, but as in the 1980 and 2003 depictions, it was Maggie telling Joe about Aaron’s betrayal that sealed the deal.
Murder of Sherritt and Glenrowan
1970’s depiction of the murder of Sherritt is abrupt, to say the least. We see Aaron in his hut with his head on his wife’s lap, the mother-in-law nearby, when there comes the knock at the door. We hear, “It’s Anton Week; I’ve lost my way,” then Aaron gets up and answers the door. Aaron jokingly asks Anton if he’s lost and then after a confused “Ja,” we see a shotgun poke out from under the German’s arm and blast Aaron in the chest. Aaron falls wordlessly and Joe sprints away into the night.
At Glenrowan, Joe arrives in the morning and informs Ned that Aaron is dead. His demeanour throughout the sequence is more boredom than grief, only perking up during the dances. He is depicted in the same costume that he has worn for most of the film, with an oilskin over the top. We barely see anything of him throughout and when it gets to the final shootout it becomes difficult to keep track of which one he is due to the darkness and the fact that his costume looks almost identical to Ned’s.
The Last Outlaw fares much better in both the murder and the Glenrowan depictions. The scene in Aaron’s hut matches the historical account almost exactly. Aaron opens the door to direct Anton home when Joe pushes the German away and blasts Aaron twice in the chest. Aaron falls silently (but dramatically) and Joe grabs his wife, Belle, and orders Dan be let in from the other door. All of this is almost to the letter. There is a brief moment of Joe trying to get the police out of the bedroom, and the scene ends with Joe firing into the ceiling and ordering the police out. The sequence has obviously been truncated for pacing reasons, but the way the scene ends is a little bizarre and very melodramatic. As far as historical accuracy goes, it remains faithful enough to the reality that it conveys an authentic, if not entirely accurate, representation of what happened.
Joe and Dan are depicted as arriving at Glenrowan some time in the middle of the day. Joe is morose and haunted, quickly downing whiskey to steady his nerves. The only thing that is wide of the mark is that we don’t really see Joe interacting with Ann Jones or engaging in the dancing. When it comes to the siege, we see a reckless and defiant Joe in action. He seems to be fuelled by liquid courage and anger. He is shot in the leg and falls against the outer wall before being transferred inside. Once inside his movement is unrestricted and he merely limps slightly to get around. In reality, Joe’s wound was severe enough that he could only crawl to get around.
The 2003 depiction of Sherritt’s murder is highly fanciful, without any clear motivation as to why. Aaron is shown losing at cards to the police in his hut before going to bed with his pregnant (thirteen year-old!) wife. A flutey voice is heard in the night calling for Aaron and the police surmise it is one of his “whores”. When Aaron goes out he is confronted by Joe on a distant hill dressed in unconvincing drag. Joe shoots Aaron in the chest with a shotgun and leaves him dead in the mud before rejoining Ned on horseback.
At Glenrowan, Joe is stern and business-like, as in the Jerilderie scene. He is dressed in a long grey overcoat, and white crocheted scarf, reminiscent of how the historical Joe was dressed while remaining distinctly unique to this interpretation. Joe discovers that Thomas Curnow has escaped and raises the alarm to Ned. Obviously this is a huge divergence from history as Curnow had been allowed to go home by Ned personally, and Joe had been with him at the time. When the siege unfolds, Joe goes from nervous to hysterical with terror, giggling when the circus monkey is shot, to absolutely traumatised. He staggers around with not an ounce of fight left in him.
True History of the Kelly Gang’s overly stylised depiction of Glenrowan has almost no resemblance to reality, least of all in the depiction of Joe. Here Joe walks around in a lacy pink dress with black and white warpaint, his long hair partly tied back and a durry hanging limp from his lips. He bosses Thomas Curnow around and acts as Ned’s enforcer. As Ned prepares for battle, it is Joe that gaffa tapes Ned’s memoirs to his bare torso and kisses him. When the gang realise that the train hasn’t crashed, they retreat to the inn and Joe vomits on the floor in terror. For some reason they never don the bulletproof armour and they all are quickly drenched in blood (though it is unclear where from).
Joe Byrne’s death is well recorded thanks to witness accounts. At around 5:30am on 28 June 1880, Joe toasted the Kelly Gang and was almost immediately after killed by a bullet to the groin. He bled out and was dead almost immediately.
In the 1970 film, Joe gets thirsty after ducking around the bullet-riddled bar room. He pops up to grab a drink and is shot by a tracker. He mumbles, “oh, shit,” and falls. What ought to be a serious moment ends with an odd comical note.
In The Last Outlaw, Joe hobbles to the bar and pours a drink. Ned appears in the doorway and Joe responds in awe, as if this was a sign they were saved. He aggressively toasts the gang and a barrage of bullets strikes him. He awkwardly slumps to the floor as Ned dramatically screams his name. Later we see Father Gibney find his corpse.
In the 2003 film, Joe, as in the 1970 version, takes a break to have a drink. However, in this version Joe is clearly rattled by the carnage around him and wanders through the bar with a thousand yard stare. He pours his drink and leans back only to have the glass explode from a bullet and then cop a bullet through the gap in his armour. There is no toast. He stares in bewilderment then slides awkwardly down the bar and dies.
The 2019 film never actually shows Joe dying. We see him drenched in blood, whose is never made clear, and he abuses Ned for getting them into the situation. That is the last we see of him before the inn goes up in flames.
It wasn’t until 1980 that any production attempted to recreate Joe Byrne’s body being displayed for photographers and onlookers at Benalla police station. Steve Bisley’s costume is almost 100% accurate, and his posing is as close to that visible in the photographs as we are likely to see. The recreation of the lockup is pitch perfect, and the whole scene with the onlookers and the photographer is, again, as accurate as you are ever likely to see in a recreation. Helen rushes through the crowd and stares in horror at the two-day-old corpse of her lover. The makeup accurately depicts the discolouration and scorch marks that are partly visible in the historical images. It is impossible to find a reasonable fault in the way this scene was portrayed.
Though a similar scene was planned for the 2003 film, True History of the Kelly Gang is when we next see a display of Joe’s body. However, in this version he is roped to a tree while poncho-clad police pose next to the corpse as if for a camera. If any attempt at historical accuracy had been employed in the costumes and location, no doubt this could have been a very impactful shot, but it is hampered by the fact that the only aspect of this that is accurate is that the body was strung up for photographs.
If it comes down to a matter of ranking the portrayals, the above criteria must all be factored in. Ultimately, there is yet to be a fully accurate depiction of Joe Byrne, encompassing his personality, appearance and the facts of his life with attention to complete historical accuracy, which is a shame.
Ned Kelly (1970) – 3/5
Mostly accurate on a very basic level, but the characterisation is so superficial as to miss nearly all of Joe’s personality including his sense of style, his hedonism, and gift for language. Instead we only see the boyish, larrikin aspect of Joe, which is oddly lacking in most other depictions.
The Last Outlaw (1980): 4/5
This remains the best on-screen Joe. Bisley resembles the historical Joe closely in appearance and personality. However, this Joe is played fairly safe, with his alcoholism and drug use notably absent. The decision to portray him as the murderer of Constable Scanlan is problematic, but not egregious enough to damage an otherwise fairly accurate depiction of Joe’s outlaw career.
Ned Kelly (2003): 3/5
This version of Joe goes to pains to portray him as sombre, intelligent, and a lothario. There are many notable inaccuracies in the portrayal, such as his relationship with Ned pre-dating Ned’s prison sentence, and dressing as a woman to lure Aaron Sherritt to his doom. When the odd historically accurate detail appears it almost seems accidental, yet it happens enough to give some degree of merit to the portrayal.
True History of the Kelly Gang (2019): 1/5
The only things stopping this getting a zero are the inclusion of Joe’s opium use and Sean Keenan’s engaging performance and physical resemblance to the real Joe. Everything else from the inexplicable costumes, to this version’s apparent obsession with donuts, is so far off the mark that the character could go by any other name and nobody would recognise it as an attempt to portray Joe Byrne. The fact that any resemblance to the real Joe is apparently accidental would otherwise be enough that it should not even rate a mention as a portrayal of Joe Byrne. A horribly squandered opportunity to utilise a superb casting choice to portray this historical figure accurately.
In part one we covered Ned Kelly’s Glenrowan plot, the murder of Sherritt, the gang’s occupation of Glenrowan, the bungling of the police response and the machinations of Thomas Curnow to foil Kelly. At the conclusion, Ned Kelly had allowed Thomas Curnow to return home and the police train was leaving Melbourne with a team of journalists on board. This is where we resume ournarrative…
At 10:00pm the train departed from Spencer Street and proceeded north. A little under an hour later it arrived at Essendon train station where it collected Sub-Inspector O’Connor, his five trackers, his wife and sister-in-law. Once the passengers were settled in it was full steam ahead until they reached Craigieburn. Despite the order to close the railway gate, the Craigieburn stationmaster had left the gates open across the track to allow the regular traffic to cross unimpeded on the Sunday. As a result when the engine did not slow down as it passed the station, believing the track was clear, it ploughed through the iron gates causing considerable damage. The collision had destroyed part of the braking mechanism as well as pulverising a lamp and the footplate on the carriage. A stop at Seymour allowed the passengers to get coffee while the engine was patched up well enough to continue.
The police special arrived at Benalla a little after midnight. In the meantime, a second engine organised by Hare and Sadleir had been raising steam and was ready for action. When Hare was informed about the damage to the engine there was a discussion about how to assess if there were further hazards along the tracks, especially in light of the rumours circulating that Kelly sympathisers had sabotaged the line. Hare’s initial idea was to tie a constable to the engine as a lookout, but this was scrapped when it was pointed out that this would be lethal and impractical. Instead the damaged engine would journey ahead as a pilot to ensure a clear path, and the carriage would be shunted onto the spare engine to carry the passengers.
Curnow swings into action
All the time that the drama had been unfolding with the trains, Curnow had been attempting to convince his wife to allow him to leave and warn the police train. She was terrified that the bushrangers or their sympathisers would find out and murder them but Thomas’s mind was made up. Once his wife was asleep, he snuck out with a candle, matches and his sister’s red llama wool scarf. He took his horse and rode down the train line to a spot where it would be safe to flag down the train.
A Fateful Decision by Mrs. Jones
Once Ned had returned from capturing Bracken, things had stayed fairly quiet. It was just before 2:00am when Margaret Reardon asked Dan Kelly for permission to go home. Dan agreed that it was time for everyone to leave and instructed the prisoners to head home through the back door. However, Ann Jones panicked and blocked the door, telling the crowd that Ned would give a lecture first. Ned, of course, relished the opportunity to hold court again and proceeded to begin a rambling rant. Twice he attempted to stand on a chair and failed, seemingly incapable of retaining the necessary balance either through exhaustion, intoxication or the weight of his armour. During the lecture he took verbal potshots at the police, which Constable Bracken rebuffed with great indignation. While all this took place in the inn and unbeknownst to the gang and their captives, the police train was approaching Glenrowan and was minutes away from arrival.
Curnow stops pilot engine
As the pilot engine came into view, Curnow lit the candle and held it behind the red scarf as a warning signal. When the engine stopped, Curnow explained the danger ahead and the warning lanterns were lit. A whistle was blown to alert the police special bringing up the rear.
While the trains sat idle, Hare went outside to get information about what was happening. He positioned some of the constables on the rise that overlooked where the trains were stopped and learned that the Kellys had pulled up the tracks just beyond the Glenrowan station. Curnow mounted and rode home, fearing that the longer he stayed the more likely he would get caught. The journalists in the press carriage caught wind that something was amiss and brought the lamp in from outside the carriage and pressed the seat cushions into the windows so they couldn’t be seen. Slowly the trains began to move towards the station.
As Dan kept watch outside the inn, he heard the train whistle then ran inside, interrupting Ned to tell him the train was coming. Joe Byrne locked the front door and put the key on a shelf as the gang ran into the bedroom they were using as their armoury. When he was certain the outlaws were occupied, Bracken stole the key and hid it in his trouser cuff before positioning himself near the rear passage to eavesdrop. In the bedroom, Dan and Steve helped each other into their armour while Ned went outside to investigate.
By his own account, Ned mounted his horse and rode out of the inn’s paddock and down towards the train line. Here he was able to see the pilot engine arriving and slowing down, the police special close behind. Ned would have realised at that moment that he had been betrayed. Some of the police on the train spotted Ned as he rode back to the inn to break the news to his gang.
As the train arrived, Hare saw a candle burning in the window of the gatehouse. As the police and their equipment and horses were being unloaded, Hare took a small party with him to the gatehouse, leaving Sub-Inspector O’Connor in charge at the station. At the gatehouse, Hare roused Mrs. Stanistreet who, terrified and weeping, informed him that the Kelly Gang had kidnapped her husband and taken him away, pointing towards the Glenrowan Inn. The police, thinking Mrs. Stanistreet had pointed to the Warby Ranges, headed back to the station where they would prepare to ride into the mountains on horseback.
The daring of Constable Bracken
When Ned returned to the inn he ordered Ann and Jane Jones to snuff out the lights and put out the fires, which they promptly did. The gang then went outside where they presumably discussed their plan of attack.
Meanwhile in the inn, Bracken told the prisoners to keep low in case there was shooting before unlocking the front door and leaving. He ran across the railway reserve as fast as he could go. When he reached the train station platform he found Superintendent Hare and explained that the outlaws were in Jones’s inn.
The Kellys, in full armour and well-armed, shifted the sliprail next to the inn’s sign as they walked around the side of the building, believing the doors were still locked, and took position along the verandah. Hidden by the shadows, there was no way for the police combatants to see they were in armour. They waited patiently for the onslaught.
Hare called out to his men to join him in storming the inn. There was some confusion and only a handful of the men initially headed down with Hare leading the charge. The police horses that were being unloaded were let go and allowed to run free. Bracken took one of the horses and began to ride towards Wangaratta in order to gain police reinforcements.
As Hare passed through a gate and took position, a blast from Ned Kelly hit him, shattering his wrist. He reeled and perched himself on a tree stump. He managed to get at least one shot off before realising he needed first aid. With the opening of fire the rest of the police ran to join the fray. O’Connor and the trackers took cover in a drainage ditch, which provided reasonable cover directly in front of the inn.
The outlaws mocked and jeered from the verandah as their armour protected them. Bullets went past them into the building, causing mass panic inside. The gang’s sense of invulnerability was short-lived however as Ned was injured when a bullet struck him in the foot, and became lodged. Another shot struck his bent left arm at the elbow rendering it essentially useless. He wasn’t the only outlaw casualty, with a bullet tearing through Joe Byrne’s calf, leaving him unable to walk.
It was at this stage of the battle that two skyrockets were fired from just near McDonnell’s railway tavern. Whether this was a signal to summon an army of sympathisers or a signal to turn them away, or perhaps something else altogether, remains a mystery, with only oral traditions providing any explanation.
Hare, losing copious amounts of blood due to the severity of his wound combined with a pre-existing heart condition, was forced to retreat to the train station. He left instructions to surround the inn and ensure the outlaws were unable to escape. When he reached the train station, the journalists had created a barricade with the police saddles. Upon seeing Hare was injured, Thomas Carrington offered to help as he had some knowledge of first aid. A handkerchief and scissors were taken from O’Connor’s wife and cut into strips that were used to bandage Hare’s wrist. Once the makeshift bandages were applied, Hare attempted to go back onto the battlefield but soon passed out from blood loss. He was helped back to safety by Rawlins, the volunteer.
Back at the inn, with Joe and Ned injured, the gang decided to retreat to the rear of the building to regroup and reload. While Dan and Steve went inside, Joe and Ned were overheard at the back door having a discussion by Constable Phillips, who had positioned himself at the rear of the inn. Unable to reload his carbine, Ned ordered Joe to perform the fiddly task for him. The pair bickered about their situation with Joe saying, “I always said this bloody armour would bring us to grief.” Ned tried to buoy his spirits by bragging about Hare having been taken out and boasting that they would soon do the same to the rest of the police. It was at this time Ned was able to observe that the only way Joe could move around was by crawling on all fours.
In the early fray the police fire had resulted in multiple civilian casualties. Johnny Jones had been hit by a police bullet that tore through his pelvis and up through his body, exiting under his arm. George Metcalf was hit in the eye as police bullets hit the bricks of the chimney he was hiding behind (though it was later claimed by some of his colleagues, when questioned by police, that he was shot by Ned Kelly the day before, though no other witnesses seemed to notice one of the prisoners having been shot in the eye during during the many hours leading up to the siege.) In the kitchen, a police bullet ricocheted and hit Jane Jones, cutting across her forehead and lodging behind her ear. Civilians were laying low in the inn, the bulk of the women and children were sheltering in the kitchen where they were further away from the police who continued to fire into the inn relentlessly even when there was no return fire. The order was raised to fire high to avoid civilians cowering on the floor after the police had heard women screaming inside the inn.
Ned Kelly decided to find an escape route. He tried to mount Joe’s horse but she broke free and bolted into the bush. Ned followed her. This was noticed by Gascoigne who shot Ned, but the bullet took no effect except to throw him off balance, leading Gascoigne to surmise that he was wearing protection of some kind.
Shortly after heading into the bush, Ned passed out near a fallen tree. It is uncertain how long he was unconscious for, but when he came to he crawled into the bush leaving his carbine and skull cap behind in the mud.
Brave Jack McHugh
Ann Jones was distraught over the wounding of her son and began wandering through the inn, shouting at Dan, Joe and Steve to go out and fight, before turning her ire towards the police. A torrent of lead saw her retreat to the kitchen.
Aware that the boy needed urgent medical attention if there was any hope of preserving his life, Jack McHugh draped the boy over his shoulders and ran out into the crossfire. Somehow avoiding getting shot, he made it to the train line where he was spotted by police. After explaining his mission he was allowed to seek shelter in McDonnell’s tavern. Young Jones was made as comfortable as possible, but his life was fading fast.
Emboldened by McHugh’s miraculous escape and desperate to get out of the mess, John Stanistreet also managed to escape under fire to warn the police that there were women and children trying to escape. Ann Jones rallied the women and children in the kitchen and Jane took a candle and held it aloft to guide the escapees as they ran and to show they were not the bushrangers. Despite being fired at, most of the women and children escaped, with only an odd few retreating or remaining inside the main building.
Senior Constable Kelly and Constable Arthur ventured into the bush behind the inn hoping to find a spot to close off any escape route. Here they found Ned’s carbine and skull cap. While Arthur took position, Kelly took the items. When he returned to the front he wore Ned’s skull cap, claiming that his own hat had gone missing. Ned, who had been close by, managed to go deeper into the bush without being noticed.
Superintendent Hare tried to gain passage back to Benalla, but the pilot engine was hit by bullets from the inn and took off without him. The police special then turned around and carried him back. Once in Benalla he managed to make it to the telegraph office and secure medical assistance from Doctor Nicholson. Superintendent Sadlier was summoned and Hare sent word to Beechworth, Wangaratta and Violet Town to send all available police to Glenrowan before falling unconscious.
Death of Joe Byrne
Witnesses in the inn reported that close to 5:00am Joe Byrne was killed. Joe was observed pouring himself a drink and shortly after toasting to the effect of, “Here’s to many more days in the bush, boys!” It is unlikely this was a triumphant gesture so much as a darkly sarcastic one. After this he was struck by a bullet in the groin and collapsed across the prisoner named Sandercook and bled out within a couple of minutes, the femoral artery having been severed. Despite popular belief, there is no evidence to support the claim that Ned was present at this moment. In fact, all of the prisoners in the inn that testified stated that once the firing started Ned never re-entered the inn. The only account that stated otherwise was Ned Kelly’s, though his personal recounting of what transpired at Glenrowan changed slightly every time he discussed it, making such accounts unreliable.
Arrival of Police Reinforcements
Bracken had by this time ridden to Wangaratta and roused Sergeant Steele who had received the telegram from Hare and organised a police train. Not wanting to waste a moment, Steele and his mounted troopers headed to Glenrowan on horseback while the foot constables took the train. The train arrived slightly before the rest of the Wangaratta party and Rawlins briefed them on what was happening. As the mounted troopers arrived, they heard clanking in the bush that they dismissed as stirrup irons. Ned Kelly would later claim they had ridden so close to him as he lay in the bush that he could have reached out and grabbed them, but instead he tried to remain silent and let them pass. Immediately upon arriving at the inn, Steele took a position at the rear and began firing into the building without having received any instructions or waiting to be updated on the situation.
Simultaneously, a train from Benalla carrying Sadleir and his party arrived. The men were sent out to reinforce the existing troopers while Senior Constable Kelly and Sub-Inspector O’Connor got Sadleir up to speed. Sadleir maintained the strategy of surrounding the inn and directed his men to fan out.
A mad dash for freedom by Mrs. Reardon
Margaret Reardon had enough of hiding and attempted to flee with her children. Dan Kelly called out that women and children were coming out and as they did, police ordered them to stay back. The prisoners continued to run towards the fence, desperate to escape the firing. Sergeant Steele took aim at Margaret Reardon and fired, the shot passing through the swaddling cloth her baby was wrapped in and cutting the infant’s head. The group scattered in terror. 19 year-old Michael Reardon tried to double back and get inside the inn, but Sergeant Steele shot him in the back, the lead lodging in the teen’s back and lung. When the police around him told him to stop firing he simply replied “I don’t care; I shot mother Jones in the —!”
Where is Ned?
By now Ned had been missing for several hours while Dan and Steve had been left to hold the fort. The police had shot dead all of the horses in the paddock, whether they were the gang’s or not, to cut off a potential escape. A local man named Martin Cherry had been shot in the belly by a police bullet and was taken to the kitchen and hidden under a mattress. Dan had taken to standing at the back door and calling out to his big brother with no reply. Witness accounts stated that both remaining outlaws seemed greatly deflated after Joe’s death.
The remaining prisoners were almost entirely men, with a few children in the mix. The majority of those who were trapped had migrated to the bedrooms in order to get some distance and some barriers between them and the police. With the arrival of Sadleir’s party and Steele’s party the opportunity for the prisoners to escape had effectively evaporated.
Nobody in the inn had any idea what had happened to Ned. Oral tradition states that he had been found in the bush by his cousin Tom Lloyd who helped him prepare for a return to the inn. Ned himself would never make such a statement, but evidently something transpired in the bush and at sunrise, rather than make good his escape Ned decided, for whatever reason, to turn back and face the police again in open combat.
Ned Kelly’s last stand
The first policeman to take notice of Ned was Constable Arthur who warned him to stay back. Instead Ned threatened him and drew a pistol. Arthur fired his Martini Henry rifle at close range, badly denting the armour but not stopping the outlaw, who replied by bashing his revolver against his chest and boasting about his invulnerability. Other police left their posts to confront the mysterious figure. For around half an hour, Ned stumbled around half-conscious through blood loss, sleep deprivation and alcohol consumption. He occasionally steadied himself by resting his broken foot on the odd tree stump. For all the firing he managed, cycling through three different revolvers, not one trooper was killed or injured.
Eventually Ned reached the fallen tree where he had collapsed earlier that morning. Senior-Constable Kelly and Jesse Dowsett, a railway guard, approached. Dowsett began shooting Ned’s helmet and taunting him. As Ned was distracted, Sergeant Steele emerged from the bush and shot Ned in his right knee and pelvis. The shots were enough to knock the wind out of his sails and Ned collapsed. In a moment police piled on top of him. Senior-Constable Kelly removed Ned’s helmet, whereupon Steele began to strangle the outlaw and put a pistol to his head. Before Steele could pull the trigger he was threatened by Constable Bracken who levelled his shotgun at Steele and declared, “If you shoot him, I will shoot you.”
The crowd that had formed around the fallen bushranger had to react quickly as they were being shot at by Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. Ned was picked up and carried a short distance where Dr. Nicholson was able to use a penknife to cut the straps on one side of the armour to remove it. He was lifted over a fence and taken to the train station. He was put in the guard van of the train, but a flurry of bullets struck the van so he was transferred to the station building. A mattress was procured and Ned was laid upon it with his head resting on a large roll of cotton. The boots were cut off his feet and most of his clothing stripped from his body for medical examination. The main injuries that required attention were his shattered left elbow, a pistol ball lodged in his right thumb, the injury to his right knee and the bullet lodged in his foot. The rest of the injuries, of which there were more than twenty, were considered minor. He complained of hunger and was given bread and brandy, the dribbles of which he sucked out of his beard.
While he was in the station various police and journalists interviewed him, though he would often slip into unconsciousness. He explained that he had intended to fight to the bitter end and that the other bushrangers would not surrender. The whole time Steele kept watch over Kelly as if he were afraid he would vanish.
Then there was two
Likely believing Ned had been killed, Dan and Steve remained in the inn. Occasionally they would shoot at police but Dan was shot in the knee and retreated inside where he remained. When Dave Mortimer asked permission to try and escape Dan allowed it but as soon as the white handkerchief was presented to the police to signify surrender, the police opened fire at it. Thinking better of walking out to be gunned down, the prisoners remained in the inn. Now they were made prisoners by the police rather than the outlaws.
At 10:00am the decision was made to allow the civilians to come out. They were instructed to keep their hands raised and to lie on their bellies. The terrified victims were then scrutinised to prevent the risk of Kelly or Hart escaping. Two brothers were recognised as Kelly sympathisers and arrested; the rest of the crowd were allowed to disperse. Now the inn was empty apart from Dan Kelly and Steve Hart, Joe Byrne’s corpse and old Martin Cherry who was still in the kitchen under a mattress.
Sadleir brings in the artillery
Desperate for a way to get into the inn that would mean no police casualties, Sadlier ordered artillery be sent up from the garrison in Melbourne to blow the inn apart. Sadleir had also brought thick ropes with him to pull the chimneys down, thinking the outlaws could be hiding therein, but had decided it was too risky. Sadleir continued to mull over options for capturing the two remaining outlaws while bored police continued to shoot at the inn.
By this time the rails had been repaired and trains were running along the line, bringing gawkers in from all over the region. Amongst the crowds, Father Matthew Gibney arrived. Gibney, the Vicar General of Western Australia, had heard of what was transpiring and wanted to be available to provide spiritual assistance where possible. He gave Ned the last rites and asked if the others would surrender to him. Ned told him they would not know him from a policeman but Gibney was determined to get into the inn, believing that a man of the cloth could bring the outlaws to reason.
More reinforcements arrived from Beechworth, led by Senior-Constable Mullane. Given how late in the siege it was, they had little to do other than use the inn for target practice, which was exactly what they did. There remained no definitive instructions for the police from Sadleir though the suggestion had been made to him that the police should rush the inn. Sadleir considered even one police casualty to be too many and refused to agree to such a measure.
Kelly sympathisers arrived in Glenrowan to see what was happening. Among them were Ned and Dan’s sisters Maggie, Kate and Grace who were all dressed as if for a great celebration. They were granted admittance to see Ned and briefly spoke with him. When Superintendent Sadlier asked Maggie if she would get Dan to surrender she proclaimed she would see him burn first. Also present were Wild Wright, Tom Lloyd and Dick Hart. The presence of such high profile sympathisers put the police on edge.
That afternoon a telegraph was set up by the telegraph operators from Beechworth using a portable receiver and transmitter that was connected to the wire that went past the train station. This enabled messages to be transmitted directly to Melbourne from the battlefield.
Burning the inn
After consulting with Sadlier, Senior-Constable Johnston gained permission to start a fire to smoke the remaining gang members out. Johnston gave the inn a wide berth as he gathered items to use to light a fire. While going about this duty he was stopped by armed Kelly sympathisers who interrogated him about what was happening. Luckily for Johnston, they did not suspect him of being a policeman. He gathered straw, kerosene and matches and as he approached the inn, the police intensified their firing to create a diversion. At 3:00pm Johnston set fire to the exterior wall of the parlour and ran for cover.
The fire spread quickly through the weatherboard building. Seeing this Kate Kelly attempted to run to the inn but was held back by police. Instead Father Gibney rushed inside in search of survivors. He entered the dining room and upon entering the bar saw Joe’s corpse. After establishing it was cold and stiff, he checked the other rooms. In the makeshift armoury he found Dan Kelly and Steve Hart lying dead on the floor with their heads propped up on sacking. Beside them was the greyhound, which had been shot. With the inferno spreading to the bar, the alcohol exacerbated the fire. Joe’s body was dragged out by police but the bedrooms were too aflame to risk retrieving the others. As the kitchen was explored Martin Cherry was found and rescued. Once he was dragged clear Gibney gave him the last rites, whereupon Cherry passed away.
With the exterior wall having Byrne’s away, the crowds gathered to see Dan and Steve burning within the bedroom. Thomas Carrington took the time to draw the scene as the crowd watched the gruesome spectacle.
The fire was allowed to take its course and the burnt out shell collapsed around half an hour after the fire had started. As the wrecked lay smouldering the police began sifting through the rubble. The unrecognisable corpses of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were dragged out with long poles and laid out on sheets of bark. One of the bodies was photographed.
The burnt bodies were taken to the train station where they were seen by Maggie Skillion and Kate Kelly, who wailed mournfully at the sight. Sadleir made the executive decision to allow the families of the outlaws to take possession of the bodies. He assumed that such a gesture would quell any rumblings of revenge against police. When Captain Standish arrived at 5:00pm he agreed that the families should have taken the bodies, though he would later try (unsuccessfully) to retrieve them for a coronial inquest.
Ned was loaded onto a train and, along with the bodies of Byrne and Cherry that were loaded onto the guard van as well taken to Benalla. Overnight the corpses were kept in the police lockup with Ned housed in a lockup under the Benalla courthouse. Thus ended the Glenrowan Siege.
The following day Joe Byrne’s corpse was strung up for photographs and gawkers. After his post mortem his results casts were made of his head and hands that were then used for a wax figure in the Bourke Street Waxworks. At the same time the corpse was being viewed Ned Kelly was surreptitiously taken to the train station and transported to Melbourne.
Ned was taken to Melbourne Gaol where he was put in the prison hospital in order to recover well enough to stand trial.
Souvenir hunters took no time in scouring the Bartley and picking it clean of bullets, bits of the inn, even dirt and leaves. Charred bits of Dan and Steve which had separated from the trunk were even salvaged. Nothing was sacred and everything was up for grabs. Some might say not much has changed.
When Ann Jones eventually returned, she build a hut around the parlour chimney to live in. Thereafter she faced many more difficulties. On the day of Ned Kelly’s execution she was arrested for harbouring outlaws, but beat the charge. Magistrates refused to issue her with a liquor licence, which meant she eventually opened a wine saloon in place of the inn. Jane Jones died two years after the siege. She had been in failing health ever since that weekend in 1880. The inn site was later leased to the police department in a strange turn of events.
Joe Byrne was buried in a pauper’s grave in Benalla cemetery, while Dan and Steve were buried in unmarked graves elsewhere. Officially they were buried in a twin plot in Greta cemetery, but oral tradition begs to differ, helping to fuel rumours that they never died at Glenrowan and it was all a hoax to allow them to escape.
The siege of Glenrowan has become an important part of Australian culture, taking on the significance of historic battles such as Gettysburg or Waterloo (even if the scale was hardly comparable.) It is often seen as an exciting tale of rebellion and defiance though the reality is far less fanciful. While some may speculate the different outcome that may have come about if the police train had been derailed as planned, perhaps it is more apt to consider the fact that the outlawry on the bushrangers was weeks away from expiring when they were destroyed. It is unlikely that the police would ever have allowed the gang to avoid meeting their demise at the end of a rope or a bullet, but it is curious to consider a world where the Kelly Gang managed to run out the clock, so to speak, and regain the rights and protections of the law. Speculation aside, there was no glory in what transpired at Glenrowan. It was a tragedy from beginning to end with no real winners. Civilians lost their lives or were permanently scarred and traumatised; three of the outlaws were killed; a considerable number of police were later demoted or sacked either directly or indirectly due to their conduct during the siege. The site where it all played out is marked by signs and plaques, but there are no monuments to memorialise the tragedy. Thus, with many myths and half-truths still accepted as facts, Glenrowan sits in the awkward place between history and folklore where imagination turns devastating tragedy into a rollicking good yarn. Such is life.
Few events in bushranging history have the fame of the Glenrowan Siege. The incredible and spectacular close to the career of the Kelly Gang has been immortalised in print, song, film, painting and more. Over time the events have become obscured by retellings that embellish and dramatise them. Here, on the 140th anniversary of the siege, we will take a concise look at what ended one of the most renowned and dramatic chapters in Australian history.
There is no definitive understanding of what the Glenrowan plot actually was. Most of what we know has been taken from the witnesses accounts of being told by the outlaws, and Ned Kelly’s own unreliable narratives in his interviews and the letters he wrote in gaol. Anything else is either unsubstantiated oral history or inference. All we know for certain is that Ned Kelly intended to derail a train full of police and trackers at Glenrowan, and an event on a Saturday night at the hut of Aaron Sherritt – a sympathiser who the gang had reason to believe had been assisting police – was to provide a lure for a special police train. No civilian trains ran on a Sunday, so the only vehicle that would be on the tracks that day would be one specially assigned to move police from Benalla to Beechworth. This is all that we know beyond dispute. There are many various elaborations on this information that historians and researchers have put forward to describe Ned Kelly’s plan:
1) The Republic of North East Victoria
One explanation that was championed by some notable Kelly historians was that Ned Kelly was attempting to kick-start a revolution and establish a republic. Once the train was derailed, the survivors would be killed excepting any notable survivors who would be bartered for Ned’s mother’s release from prison. The Kelly Gang, in armour, would be joined by a “phantom army” of heavily armed sympathisers that were waiting in the hills behind the Glenrowan Inn, summoned by skyrockets acting as a signal. The militia would then ride to Benalla, capture the town, and declare a republic. It must be noted that there is no official contemporary record to indicate this was the plan or even rumoured, and none of the documents that were supposed to have proved the legitimacy of the claim have surfaced.
2) Mass Murder
The least imaginative explanation of Ned’s plot is that he had no plans beyond murdering as many people as he could. This supposition relies on a very skewed perspective. It derives from the simplistic view that Ned Kelly was a psychopathic terrorist that was only interested in killing people, specifically police. Given Kelly’s two previous well-planned outings in Euroa and Jerilderie, during which no blood was spilled, it seems unlikely for straight up massacre to have been his next move. Given the efforts he had previously gone to in order to prove he was not bloodthirsty, this is not a consistent mindset. To accept this explanation does not require a deeper look into the behaviour and psychology of Ned Kelly or his gang, relegating them to be cast as cartoon villains.
3) Escalation of a war with police
By looking at what has been definitively established, contemporary rumours, and Ned Kelly’s own statements such as the Cameron and Jerilderie letters and the letters he dictated in gaol, we can see that Ned Kelly saw himself as being in some kind of war with police, referring to them as his “natural enemies”. In light of this, it could be supposed that Kelly intended to disable the police in order to remove the threat of capture. Such a large scale attack would in turn potentially make the government wary of continuing to pursue the outlaws. Taking out the bulk of the police force that were stationed in Benalla, the regional headquarters, would leave the Benalla police station unmanned, whereupon the gang and sympathisers would be able to take control of the station as a headquarters for themselves and take control of the town. Ned intimated on occasion that he desired to rob the bank in Benalla, and it was well known that since the Jerilderie raid the gang had been looking desperately for a suitable target for a robbery around Beechworth or Yackandandah in particular. Such a plan is more in line with what the gang did when they bailed up the town of Jerilderie, using the police barracks as a base of operations. It also demonstrates a more extreme thought process, whereby Ned was willing to take out huge numbers of police in order to ensure a greater chance of success and to intimidate his remaining opponents into backing down. If this was his aim, it has echoes of the kind of guerrilla warfare carried out by the IRA and implies a far more militaristic mindset than on the gang’s previous two outings. Ned established that he felt that he was right in striking first, even with lethal force, in order to protect himself. By 1880 the pursuit had likely taken a physical and mental toll on him and made him desperate. It is also worth noting that Mrs. Byrne had been bragging the gang we’re going to do something to make all of Australia’s ears tingle.
There is room to speculate what the intention was at Sherritt’s hut. Ned Kelly would later claim he had not ordered Sherritt’s murder; that it must have been a decision made by the others. This seems to marry up with Ned’s claim at the time he was trying to break the train line that many police had been shot in Beechworth and he was expecting a train full of police and trackers in response. It was known that Aaron Sherritt had police staying in his hut with him. Later, Ned would suggest that the police must have tortured Aaron to make him complicit. It stands to reason that if Ned was intent on taking out a train load of police that he would also be inclined to take out a party of police that he suspected were stationed with his friend against his will.
Regardless of the exact plan, Glenrowan was picked as the location and Ettie Hart was sent to scope out the area and gauge the sympathies of Ann Jones who owned one of the two pubs in town, the other being the McDonnell’s Railway Tavern, which was run by known sympathisers. As Glenrowan had no telegraph station of its own it would be unlikely that news of the train line being damaged there would be able to get out in time to warn the police. Ned knew there was a chance, however, that he might need to take prisoners to prevent someone raising the alarm, thus it suited his purpose to have access to Ann Jones’s inn.
The gang each had a home-made suit of iron armour to protect them from bullets. It is unclear what the initial idea behind the armour was, but based on Joe Byrne’s later comments it was Ned Kelly’s idea alone. Ned would at one time indicate they were meant to protect the gang from guards when robbing banks, but the unprotected legs and arms may have gone against this idea.
Some have speculated that the design of the armour was devised with the intention that the wearers would be shooting downwards from an embankment, thus eliminating the need for leg protection. This very specific application seems unlikely if there was to be any further use of the armour after the derailment. It may simply have been the case that armour thick enough to be bulletproof would simply have been too heavy if it also covered the arms and legs.
The notion of the armour is mysterious as there has never been a definitive primary source found that explains the genesis of the idea. It is known that the gang’s hideout on Bullock Creek had an armoured door, so it seems likely that Ned Kelly was aware of the usefulness of a bulletproof protection as far back as mid-1878. There have been scores of suggestions as to where the idea for the armour originated from the novel Lorna Doone to a suit of Japanese armour in the Burke Museum in Beechworth.
The armour covered the head, chest, back, thighs, and in Ned’s case his upper arms as well (he probably also had a plate to protect his buttocks that has long disappeared, but is featured in contemporary illustrations.) Joe and Dan also had iron plates that joined the body armour together to encase the torso like a cuirass. The helmets offered limited scope of vision and we’re supposed to have had quilted lining sewn inside to pad them. The iron was taken mostly from ploughs, the mouldboards being an appropriate shape and size to use. It also appears that some sheet metal was likely also used in some instances such as Steve Hart’s backplate. Rumours persist that the armour was either made by sympathetic blacksmiths or the gang themselves using a partly submerged green log as an anvil that would dull the sound of hammering. The quality of the smithing indicates that a blacksmith was probably involved at some point.
Murder of Sherritt
On the evening of 26 June, 1880, Anton Wick was walking along the road to El Dorado as night fell. He knew the way well enough as he had lived there a long time. As he was walking, he was passed by two riders leading a packhorse who ignored him before doubling back. One of the riders asked Wick if he recognised him, to which Wick replied that he didn’t. The rider revealed himself to be Joe Byrne and flashed his pistol. Wick was handcuffed by Dan Kelly, the other rider, and walked back up the road to the Devil’s Elbow where Aaron Sherritt lived in an old miner’s hut with his wife. The bushrangers hitched their horses and walked up to the hut. Joe Byrne took Anton Wick to the back door and Dan Kelly guarded the front door in case anyone tried to escape.
Byrne ordered Wick to call out to the occupants. Inside were Aaron Sherritt, his wife Belle as well as his mother-in-law and four policemen, who were in the bedroom preparing for the evening’s watch party at the Byrne selection. When Wick called for assistance it was Belle who asked who it was. “It’s Anton Wick; I’ve lost myself,” was the reply. Ellen Barry told Aaron to tell the old German where to go. Aaron opened the back door and said “Do you see that sapling?” before noticing movement by the chimney. Aaron asked, “Who’s there?” Suddenly Byrne pushed Wick aside and unloaded a barrel from his shotgun into Sherritt’s torso, followed by a second blast that tore Sherritt’s throat apart. Sherritt staggered back and hit the dirt floor without any utterance. Joe coldly stated “That’s the man I want.” He would also say, “The bastard will never put me away again.” As Belle wailed over her husband’s body, Dan Kelly was brought inside. For two hours the bushrangers attempted to flush the police out of the bedroom but the officers cowered inside, even trapping Belle under the bed, pinning her against the wall with their feet until she passed out and did the same with her mother. At one point Dan Kelly attempted to set fire to the house but the wood was too wet to catch and there was no available kerosene. Dan and Joe freed Wick and left at about 9:00pm. Inside, constables Duross, Dowling, Alexander and Armstrong remained, too petrified to see if the bushrangers had gone until after sunrise the following day. They were convinced the gang had surrounded the hut to trap them. It was unclear what the packhorse the bushrangers had with them was carrying. There is some reason to believe it was their armour, which they never wore during the affair.
Meanwhile in Glenrowan
Ned Kelly and Steve Hart arrived in Glenrowan around the same time Dan and Joe left El Dorado. They put their horses in the paddock of McDonnell’s tavern and took tools to try and take up the railway track. They went a short distance down the line to where the track curved on an embankment and attempted to break it. In the event that a train did not stop before hitting a broken line at this spot it would have resulted in catastrophe, but they had the wrong tools and were unsuccessful in their sabotage. Already things were not going to plan, but Ned Kelly was resourceful.
Realising that they were out of their depth, the bushrangers went to a row of tents pitched between the train station and Ann Jones’ inn. Thinking these were railway workers, they awoke them one by one with the intention of making them damage the tracks for them. Ned interrupted the foreman Alfonso Piazzi attending to “country matters” and a scuffle ensued. Piazzi pulled a gun on Ned but the bushranger knocked it aside with his carbine causing it to go off. Fortunately nobody was injured, but soon all the men, and the woman Piazzi had in his tent, were rounded up and ordered to break the line. It was then explained to the outlaws that they were not able to do as asked as they were not railway workers, they were labourers who had been working with the gravel along the line and knew nothing about the tracks. Ned was then informed that he would need the stationmaster. He proceeded to take the men with him to the gatehouse where John Stanistreet, the stationmaster, resided.
Stanistreet and Jones
John Stanistreet and his wife were roused by knocking at the door, which was not uncommon as they had frequently been pestered by people travelling late at night requesting that the railway gates be opened so they could pass through (a substantial amount of whom were Kelly sympathisers.) However, before the door could be answered, Ned Kelly burst in and held the couple at gunpoint, demanding Stanistreet come with him. When Ned ordered Stanistreet to instruct the gravel collectors on how to disassemble the track, Stanistreet informed him that he had no understanding of how to do that himself and that it was the plate-layers that would know what to do. Ned’s patience was wearing incredibly thin and he took Stanistreet with him to the Glenrowan Inn which was not much more than a few metres away. Steve Hart was left to guard the labourers.
Ann Jones and her daughter Jane, who were sharing a bed, were woken up by Ned knocking at the door. When Ann answered, John Stanistreet and Ned Kelly were there waiting. Ned ordered Ann to accompany him to the gatehouse but before they left Ned watched Ann and Jane get dressed to make sure there was no funny business. He then took the keys and locked the door to the bedroom where Ann’s sons were sleeping. Ann and Jane were taken to the gatehouse and added to the growing number of prisoners. Ned left Steve in charge while he went to look for the plate-layers.
Bailing up the plate-layers
Ned walked down the line and bailed up a plate-layer named Sullivan, then as he was crossing the tracks they met James Reardon. Reardon had been roused by his dog barking and asked what Sullivan was doing out at such an hour, whereupon he was told that Ned Kelly had bailed him up. Ned appeared and pushed the muzzle of his pistol into Reardon’s cheek and demanded to know who he was. When Reardon confirmed he was a plate-layer, Ned stated that there had been a conflict near Beechworth and many police were killed. He explained that he was expecting a train full of police to come in response and that the plate-layers would help him dismantle the track to wreck the train. They were marched back to the gatehouse.
When Ned returned, the gravel collectors and Stanistreet were waiting with Steve Hart. Reardon announced that his tools were at home. Ned sent Steve to get the men to fetch tools from the shed while he went back with Reardon. After much hassle a length of the rail was displaced. The half hour job had taken two hours. With this, the group retired to the gatehouse for refreshments.
At around 5:00am, Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly arrived in Glenrowan, left their horses at McDonnell’s and went to the gatehouse to meet Ned. It is unclear if they expressed any details to him about what had transpired in El Dorado the previous night.
At breakfast time, Ann Jones suggested sending Jane across to stoke the fires and begin preparing meals. She also suggested Ned could have a wash up there. Ned sent Joe Byrne across to the inn with Jane to keep an eye on her. The fires were stoked and Jane checked on her brothers. Soon the male prisoners were brought across to the inn and the women and children were left at the gatehouse under Steve’s watch, excepting the Joneses who remained at the inn to serve the food and drinks.
The police in Aaron’s hut
When the police felt safe to leave the bedroom it was already morning. They asked Ellen Barry for a drink. She told them that there was water on the table. Belle tossed the water out saying it may have been poisoned and was then told by the men to go outside and fetch water. The first attempt by the police to get help failed when the local schoolteacher they asked told them his wife wouldn’t let him go. The next attempt was when a Chinese man was stopped and paid to take a note to Beechworth police station. The Chinese man soon returned saying he couldn’t take the note as it was too far. He kept the money.
Stuck for options, the police asked Aaron’s neighbour to send word but although the neighbour said he would do it when he made a trip into town the police did not trust him to follow through. Frustrated, Constable Armstrong commandeered a horse and rode to Beechworth. It was midday when he arrived to tell Detective Ward the news. Once the information reached Ward he sent telegrams to inform his colleagues.
As Sunday rolled on the gang continued to add to the number of prisoners. The longer the wait, the more difficult it was proving to be to stop people from noticing what the gang was up to. Male captives in the Glenrowan Inn occupied themselves with card games such as cribbage and bought drinks. Ann Jones would comment to Ned Kelly that she would be glad if he came every weekend given how much business he had drummed up for her. Steve Hart continued to guard the women and children in the gatehouse but grew increasingly laissez-faire, drinking heavily and even napping on a sofa with two revolvers resting on his chest. Mrs. Stanistreet would note that despite how much he had to drink, he managed to retain an admirable level of sobriety and self control. At one point Dan Kelly burst into the gatehouse in search of a bag. It was unclear why he was so desperate to find it.
Around mid-morning, three boys, the Delaney brothers, went out with the intention of going kangaroo hunting with their greyhound. They went looking for Michael Reardon to accompany them. Unable to find anyone at the Reardon house they continued to walk down the line. As they reached the crossing they were bailed up by Ned Kelly, who was riding Joe’s grey mare. He escorted them back to the gatehouse but when he recognised 15 year-old Jack Delaney as a youth that had helped police some months earlier, he became apoplectic. Kelly ranted and abused the boy, accusing him of trying to sell him out to the police. Delaney was trembling so violently with fear that he shattered a clay pipe he was borrowing. Ned went so far as to thrust a pistol into Delaney’s hand, suggesting he shoot him right there if he was so keen on helping the police. Within moments, Joe Byrne emerged from the gatehouse and intervened, telling Ned to go away and cool off. Such an incredible outburst showed how the stress of his plan falling apart, combined with alcohol consumption and a lack of sleep, was causing him to act irrationally.
As the drama with the Delaney boys was unfolding, Thomas Curnow was driving his buggy, accompanied by his wife and baby, his sister and his brother-in-law. As they reached the railway crossing, they were flagged down by Stanistreet who warned them Ned Kelly had bailed everyone up. A moment later, Kelly appeared and confirmed this. He sent the women into the gatehouse and Curnow parked his buggy at the I before he and his brother-in-law joined the other male prisoners inside.
The Glenrowan Games
In the afternoon, the outlaws became aware of the growing restlessness of their prisoners. Ned initiated a series of sporting games, even participating in hop-step-jump while holding a revolver in each hand. After the sports, Dan Kelly suggested a dance and the bar was cleared out to allow space for the activity. Dave Mortimer played concertina and Dan asked Thomas Curnow to join him. Curnow insisted he needed to fetch his dancing shoes and asked to go home and fetch them. Ned considered the request until he was informed that in order to get to Curnow’s house it required passing the police station. Ned immediately refused the request and Curnow begrudgingly accepted this outcome. He had spent the preceding hours gathering information about Ned’s plan and was determined to stop the police train from derailing. His first attempt may have failed, but he continued to scheme.
Superintendent Hare received word that there was a telegram waiting for him at 2:30pm. He immediately went to the Benalla Telegraph Office where he was informed by a telegram from Captain Standish of Sherritt’s murder. A request was sent to Captain Standish to arrange for Sub-Inspector O’Connor and his native police, who were about to return home to Queensland, to come back to Beechworth for a fresh pursuit. Hare was joined by Superintendent Sadleir and they began to formulate a plan to pursue the outlaws from El Dorado as soon as possible.
After buttering Ned up, Curnow received consent to visit his pregnant wife at the gatehouse. Here he attempted to curry favour with Steve Hart by helping him remove his boots and soaking his sore feet in warm water. He later informed Ned that Stanistreet kept a loaded revolver in his office, which Ned ordered Steve to confiscate. Curnow hoped that this would bring Ned to trust him, then once trust was established he would be able to seek permission to leave.
Special train organised
It wasn’t until the evening that Standish was able to arrange for O’Connor and his trackers to return to active duty for the Victorian police. He then organised a special train to leave Spencer Street that night, consisting of a locomotive, guard van and first class carriage. Just as Ned had asserted, this was not to be a civilian train but a conveyance specifically to get O’Connor and his team to Benalla and then the entire police search party to Beechworth from there.
Once O’Connor confirmed his involvement, it was agreed that he and his trackers (Hero, Jacky, Barney, Johnny, and Jimmy) would board the special train at Essendon station that night. His wife and sister-in-law decided they would accompany him to Beechworth and packed for a holiday up north.
Late in the evening another dance was held, with Dave Mortimer calling the sets and playing concertina. Those who weren’t dancing were mostly indoors playing cards or drinking. At this time Jane Jones was observed sitting on Dan Kelly’s knee and kissing him. Ned spent considerable time outside talking with Ann Jones who seemed to be going out of her way to accommodate him. As the dancing died down, Ann Jones was also seen flirting with Joe Byrne, attempting to pull Scanlan’s ring off his finger while he played with her hair. Johnny Jones sang for the crowd, performing “Cailin deas cruitha na mo” (The Pretty Girl Milking a Cow) and then performing “Farewell to Greta” for Ned Kelly with the promise of a sixpence from his mother if he did so.
Bailing up Bracken
At 9pm Ned and Joe put on their armour and gathered a group of prisoners to escort them to the police barracks, where they could capture Constable Bracken. Curnow convinced Ned to take Dave Mortimer to lure Bracken out, while also gaining permission to take his family home from the barracks. Bracken was the only policeman in the town, having been stationed there to keep an eye on Kelly sympathisers for Superintendent Hare. At the barracks the group roused Bracken, who had been in bed with gastro. Ned bailed him up, but as Ned was dressed in his full armour Bracken thought it was a prank. He was made to mount up but Joe kept a close eye on him to ensure he didn’t escape.
With Bracken captured, Ned allowed Curnow to leave, warning him not to dream too loud. When the Curnows arrived home, Thomas informed them of his plan to stop the train before it reached Glenrowan. His wife feared that if the bushrangers discovered he had stopped the train they would murder the whole family.
Word sent to journalists
As the special train was being prepared, journalists from multiple publications were requested to ride to Beechworth in the train so they could report first-hand on the work the police were doing to catch the Kelly Gang. The police had been regularly criticised in the press for their apparent ineptitude for catching bushrangers since the Euroa raid in December 1878, and the government seemed keen to get good press for their officers of the law as a fresh lead had presented itself. John McWhirter, Joe Melvin, Thomas Carrington and George Allen were all sent to join the train, which left Melbourne at 10pm. Apart from rumours of a murder, there was no indication for the reporters of what was unfolding in Kelly Country, but they were soon to find themselves in a journalist’s dream and recording history unfolding right before their very eyes.
Much conjecture has been made around whether Aaron Sherritt was a sympathiser or a traitor; a matyr or a double agent. All of it relies on the same broad brushstrokes and oversimplification that has plagued understanding of the Kelly story for over a century. The truth is far more complex and the more one delves into the events of the Kelly outbreak, the murkier it becomes. Aaron Sherritt made friends everywhere but in the end was surrounded by enemies. How did he go from everyone’s mate to persona non grata?
[Source: Illustrated Australian news. July 3, 1880.]
Sherritt was born into an Irish protestant family in 1854, growing up in the Woolshed Valley – a notoriously rough area of the north east of Victoria right in the heart of the goldfields of that region. He met Joe Byrne as a young boy and the pair were inseparable. Naturally, the Catholic Byrnes were wary of Aaron, and the Protestant Sherritts equally wary of the Byrnes, but the friendship continued to flourish.
As teens, Aaron and Joe began to spend most of their downtime around Sebastopol, a mining town between El Dorado and Beechworth. Here they would spend considerable amounts of time in the Chinese camp, even earning the nicknames Ah Joe and Ah Jim (because Ah Aaron proved too difficult to pronounce). Much has been made of Joe’s bilingualism, speaking Cantonese proficiently, but it is probable that Aaron was also proficient to some degree as he spent time with the Chinese almost as much as Joe, though history doesn’t record how robust his linguistic skills were.
In his early twenties, Aaron worked on a gold claim with two Chinese men named Ah Loy and Ah Fook. This Ah Fook was very probably the same man that had been robbed by Harry Power and assaulted by a young Ned Kelly several years earlier, and would suffer a horrific murder not long afterwards. Aaron fancied himself as something of a butcher and tried to obtain a butcher’s licence under Ah Loy’s name when his own licence was revoked. The ploy was not as clever as Aaron thought, so when his cover was blown he was fined.
Chinese Sluicing, Near Beechworth [Source: The Australian news for home readers. August 25, 1864.]
Aaron and Joe frequently caught the attention of the police through their various schemes, with Detective Ward and Senior Constable Mullane being frequent visitors to the Byrne and Sherritt farms. In 1876 the pair were tried for assault against Ah On, a Chinese man who lived on the outskirts of Sebastopol. The pair had been skinny dipping in a waterhole near Ah On’s house and a dispute arose. It seems that there was an argument and while Ah On chased the boys away, waving a bamboo staff, Aaron threw a rock at Ah On. The rock hit him, fracturing his skull. Joe and Aaron narrowly avoided gaol time but it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out. It is possible that this was when they first met Dan Kelly, who was in Beechworth awaiting his own hearing over an allegedly stolen saddle at the same time. His big brother Ned was also in attendance to provide a statement. There is no definitive account of how they met the Kellys, but as they tended to move in different circles, owing to Beechworth’s distance from the Kelly stomping ground in Greta, it is unlikely that they had made significant contact before this time.
The pair took up stealing horses and cattle for easy money. Aaron had been coached in the world of “stock trading” by a man named John Phelan and likely put the lessons to good use, selling duffed livestock. This soon escalated into an unfortunate incident where a stolen cow was inexpertly butchered by the pair and saw them locked up in Beechworth Gaol in May 1876 for six months. The El Dorado school’s pet cow had been stolen from the common, then taken to a place of slaughter. They borrowed a knife and steel from Joe’s neighbours and as they were slaughtering the cow were spotted by a local sticky-beak named Sandy Doig. Joe and Aaron were arrested by Ward and Mullane after dividing the carcass among their families. Unable to beat the charges, this was to be their first time going to prison.
Aaron was a larrikin and something of an adrenaline junkie. For him, few things gave him more of a thrill than stock theft. When the opportunity arose to take the flashness out of some local squatters by stealing their horses he didn’t stop to think twice, and joined Ned Kelly, along with Joe, in a horse stealing racket. A rotating roster of larrikins from the Greta Mob helped the thieves shift the stolen animals. Aaron would later brag of his love of horse stealing to Superintendent Hare. The operation saw the gang moving stock throughout Victoria and parts of southern New South Wales. No doubt Aaron was able to use some of the tricks he had learned from John Phelan to help disguise the stock. Likely, the horse thieves had made good money from their dodgy trade. When Aaron would reflect on the time he would only mention himself, Joe and Ned. It is impossible to know if Ned’s stepfather George King had been left out of the reminiscences due to Aaron trying to protect his identity or something else having happened. George King seemingly vanished from history straight after the campaign of larceny and the only tangible evidence he was involved comes from Ned’s allusions to him as a duffer in his letters.
It was around this time that Aaron became unofficially engaged to Joe’s sister Kate. In kind Joe was in a serious relationship with Aaron’s sister Bessie, though both boys had a reputation as skirt chasers. Aaron seems to have maintained this relationship admirably long considering his roving eye. Aaron was a frequent visitor to the Byrne homestead where he would do chores for Margret Byrne. Meanwhile, Aaron had gained a lease on a selection that Joe Byrne was helping him fix up per the lease agreement. Unfortunately the domestic bliss was doomed to be short lived.
In October 1878 Joe Byrne was implicated in the police killings at Stringybark Creek. While Aaron wasn’t there he was keen to provide support for his greatest friend. Just after the event Aaron took the gang into the bush and guarded while they slept in a cave. For a time he acted as a spy for the gang, keeping tabs on police movements to allow the gang to move freely. Shortly after the killings a large party of police raided the Sherritt and Byrne homes, during which time Aaron became acquainted with Captain Standish, the Chief Commissioner of police. Aaron and Standish reached an agreement by which Joe Byrne would be taken alive and spared the noose if Aaron gave information leading to the capture of the rest of the gang. Subsequently Aaron began making himself known in the police offices in Benalla, providing useless information in a thinly veiled attempt to throw police off the scent of the gang. A few days before the gang headed to Jerilderie, Aaron misdirected the police by informing Superintendent Hare the outlaws were headed for Goulburn. Despite this, Hare took a liking to Sherritt and maintained his services. Aaron now found himself in the position of stringing the police along and making money out of it in the process, allowing his mates to go unmolested while keeping the police under the impression they were getting insider information to help catch them. This would not last.
Night after night, Aaron would accompany a party of police to caves that looked down onto the Byrne property. He maintained that this was the place the gang were most likely to visit after their activities. Hare claimed in his memoirs that on one occasion Sherritt had secretly convinced one of the constables to help him steal the booty from the bushrangers, which they would then split between them. Hare was convinced that Sherritt was doing his best to help the police nab the outlaws, but despite months of camping in the caves they were no closer to catching the Kellys.
Things began to fray at the seams for Aaron when the police party was discovered by Margret Byrne. Alerted by the sun glinting off a discarded sardine tin, Mrs. Byrne crawled up into the rocks and saw Sherritt asleep with several police. When the police announced that they’d been spotted, Aaron went white as a sheet and declared he was a dead man. Soon after, the engagement between Aaron and Kate Byrne was called off and this threw Aaron into a downward spiral. This is where Aaron’s motives become unclear and his actions began to raise red flags amongst the sympathisers.
The dust had barely settled after the engagement was broken before Aaron was making moves on Kate Kelly. This coincided with controversy over a horse named Charlie. Aaron had gifted a filly to Kate Byrne but had told her that if she didn’t intend on keeping it he would take it back to sell. Whether on Kate’s or Margret Byrne’s instructions, Paddy Byrne sold the filly to a Chinese man and received a gelding in the exchange. Aaron, fuming over the disregard for his stipulation, stole Charlie the gelding as compensation for the filly. Aaron then sold the horse to Kate Kelly’s sister Maggie, who was unaware it was stolen. Margret Byrne filed charges and Aaron was dragged into court. It was alleged that Margret had offered to drop the charges if Aaron would leave the colony. The case against Aaron was complicated but not compelling enough to secure a conviction. Aaron walked free but the damage was done and he had lost the trust of the Byrnes. People began to suggest that his involvement with the police saw strings being pulled to get him off.
By this time Aaron had become so entrenched in the police activities that Detective Ward had expense accounts all over Beechworth to cover his purchases. Aaron was not earning a wage otherwise and this began to put stress on him financially. When he started courting Ellen Barry, better known as Belle, things started looking up for Aaron – or so he thought.
Belle was a fifteen year-old whose mother was well known in the district due to her work as a midwife and her husband was infamous for his involvement with stock theft. The Barrys were Catholics and when Aaron proposed to Belle this caused friction between him and his own family. His mother in particular was so incensed by the suggestion that Aaron would not only marry outside of the family faith, but convert to Catholicism to facilitate it, that she essentially disowned him and started a period of direct antagonism towards Aaron from his family members.
Despite the union causing a fracture in his family, Aaron married Belle in Beechworth on Boxing Day, 1879. They stayed in the Hibernian Hotel for the honeymoon, all expenses paid by the police, naturally. Detective Ward even gifted the newlyweds a set of silverware.
In early 1880 tensions were high. The police were suspicious of Aaron, the Byrnes had distanced themselves from him and the Lloyds and Quinns were putting pressure on the Kelly Gang to have Aaron taken out. And now on top of that, as Aaron began his married life, his own family had disowned him and were blatantly stirring up trouble. Aaron’s brother Jack, on one occasion, had broken into Aaron’s in-laws’ home and stolen items belonging to the newlyweds, including Belle’s new saddle and watch. The stolen items were planted at the Byrne farm to throw suspicion but Jack was not as clever as he liked to imagine, having left a tie that was gifted to him by Detective Ward at the scene of the crime. Once Aaron had uncovered the deed he engaged his brother in a horseback chase before the pair came to blows. In his rage, Aaron ripped a sapling out of the ground and walloped Jack across the head with it. The blow rendered the younger Sherritt unconscious and bleeding heavily from the head. Suddenly terrified at the thought that he may have killed Jack, Aaron headed to the pub to steady his nerves before turning himself in to the police. As this was transpiring, Jack appeared in the pub behind him covered in blood. The pair got drunk and briefly patched things up but it would not last long.
Soon Aaron took possession of an abandoned hut near Sebastopol. This caused problems when the owner turned up and started threatening Aaron. The police who were working with Sherritt at the time pitched in and bought the old hut in order to cool the situation down. This two-roomed miner’s hut was flimsy and the furnishings were rudimentary, but it suited the newlyweds better than bunking down at Aaron’s in-laws’ place where they were heavily scrutinised.
Aaron was now struggling to cope with the lifestyle. He threw himself wholeheartedly into working with the police, knowing it would put the final nail in the coffin, but perhaps Aaron figured it couldn’t get any worse. In response to threats from the sympathisers, Superintendent Hare and Detective Ward arranged to have police constables stationed with Sherritt around the clock. A team of four would work in shifts; during the day police were to stay in the hut to avoid detection and at night they would accompany Aaron to his watch at the police caves. Of course things did not go to plan, with constables seen outside during the day performing chores and relaxing. This was, naturally, noticed by Kelly sympathisers, particularly the Byrne brothers, and word inevitably reached the gang.
In June, the Kelly Gang came back into the open with a grand plan to lure a train full of police and trackers to be derailed at Glenrowan. Unlike in their previous missions, Aaron was not made privy to the plan and for a very good reason: he was a key part of it. There is conjecture about the gang’s true intentions, but the plan was most likely one of two options. The first is that Aaron Sherritt would be murdered in order to lure the train from Benalla based on the four constables raising the alarm. The second is that the police were the targets with the alarm to either be raised by Aaron or by a surviving policeman. Ned Kelly’s comments made after his capture to Constable Armstrong, one of the police stationed in the hut, implied that he believed Aaron was being tortured for information by police and that his plan was to target the police, not the informant. According to multiple reports, Ned was unaware during the gang’s time in Glenrowan that Aaron was the one that had been killed and asserted it must have been the others that came up with the idea of killing him.
Only days before the plan was put into action, Aaron was taken on a pub crawl by one of the police assigned to his hut, Constable Alexander. During this they went to the Vine Hotel in Beechworth where Aaron spotted Joe Byrne’s girlfriend. Alexander immediately began questioning her unsuccessfully. Word promptly found its way back to Joe Byrne what Aaron had done. Perhaps it was this final straw that made Joe decide to put Aaron to death.
[Source: The Australasian Sketcher. July 17, 1880.]
On the night of 26 June, the gang split up with Ned Kelly and Steve Hart heading to Glenrowan while Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly headed to the Devil’s Elbow, where Aaron lived. Joe and Dan rode with a pack horse in tow, likely carrying their weapons and possibly their iron armour. On the way to Aaron’s hut, the pair passed Anton Wick, Aaron’s neighbour, doubled back and bailed him up. They led Wick at gunpoint to Aaron’s homestead. Dan waited at the front door while Joe went around the rear with Wick and ordered him to call out to Aaron. When Aaron answered the door, Joe shot him twice with a shotgun. With gaping wounds in his stomach and throat, Aaron hit the floor and died without a word. So extreme were the wounds that when the post mortem was conducted it was found that his heart had been completely emptied of blood.
The police that had been assigned to protect the Sherritts cowered in the bedroom, unable to leave without being shot, and forced Belle and her mother to hide under the bed until morning. The police did not leave until midday on the following day, throwing Ned Kelly’s plan out the window and resulting in the disastrous siege of Glenrowan, wherein all of the Kelly Gang but Ned were killed.
Aaron’s inquest was held in The Vine Hotel, and on 29 June Aaron was buried in Beechworth cemetery in an unmarked grave. Over the next few years, Belle would seek reparations from the police for their culpability in Aaron’s death. The stress of what happened on 26 June contributed to her having a miscarriage and subsequently suffering poor health. She received no support, financial or otherwise, from Aaron’s family.
Aaron’s brothers Jack and Willie Sherritt would use the connections they made as police informants during Kelly hunt to become constables. Unfortunately the nepotism only went so far and they were deemed a poor fit for the force, subsequently being kicked out by the Assistant Commissioner. Unemployed and unable to return to live with their parents for fear of being killed by Kelly sympathisers, Willie went to Queensland and Jack begged, unsuccessfully, to be let back into the police force. When Jack testified during the Royal Commission into the Kelly outbreak in 1881 he used it as a platform to try and defame Assistant Commissioner Nicolson.
Many years after the outbreak, Jack Sherritt and Paddy Byrne had a public reconciliation in Beechworth in an effort to bury the hatchet between the two families that had been so terribly affected by their roles in the Kelly outbreak.
Over time, the myths of the Kelly story resulted in Aaron Sherritt being unfairly vilified as an outright traitor; a self-serving fizzgig. Such a negative association with Aaron’s name blackened his character, despite him being a victim of the politics of the Kelly story rather than an antagonist. Sadly, not only did the police’s carelessness make Aaron a target, but their terrible decisions helped the outlaws decide to murder him and meant that his death was not reported for more than twelve hours. That the police in question were demoted or sacked afterwards was little comfort to Belle, who was constantly denied assistance from the police, despite her husband being, to the best of her knowledge, one of them. Were it not for a push by the press to get Belle compensation the poor girl would have had nothing.
Aaron Sherritt has suffered a tremendous injustice due to the inaccuracies in the telling of the Kelly story through the years. Whereas he was traditionally portrayed as some kind of Beechworth Judas, his story highlights, more than any other, the true nature of the network of Kelly Sympathisers. While many were sincere in supporting the cause and the gang, the majority were bandwagon riders that hoped for reflected glory and a share of the loot whenever a bank was robbed. The truth is that the sympathisers are directly responsible for Aaron’s murder and the chain of events that followed, resulting in no less than six untimely deaths. If misinformation about Aaron being a traitor had not been spread as gospel truth, quite contrary to the reality, the gang would have had a different path roll out for them.
The following article from 1923 begins with the death of Ellen Kelly then recaps the story of the Kelly Gang as it was understood at the time. Mrs. Kelly (she had returned to using her first husband’s surname) was a remarkable woman who lived almost a century, outliving nearly all of her own children. She had been cared for by her only surviving son Jim but lived in desperate poverty. The hardships of colonial life, and of the drama that unfolded around her family, must have taken a severe toll on her. It wasn’t until authors like Max Brown began researching and writing about the Kelly story that public opinion began to soften toward them, but right up until Ellen’s death there remained a strong sentiment of condemnation that was only exacerbated by the half-remembered and outright fabricated stories that were circulating at the turn of the century. The following article demonstrates this point remarkably well. Statements about how bloody their record ~AP
Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1903 – 1926), Sunday 8 April 1923, page 11
MOTHER OF THE KELLYS.
DIES IN BUSHRANGERS’ HAUNT.
Stories of Blood and Terror. Outlaws’ Last Stand at Glenrowan.
The death of Mrs. Ellen King. formerly Kelly, which took place at Greta West, near Wangaratta (Victoria), last week, recalls memories of her sons, Ned and Dan Kelly, leaders of the most notorious gang of law-breakers that ever infested the Australian bush. From 1878 to 1880 the Kelly gang terrorised a considerable area of Victoria and New South Wales. They were practically the last of the bushrangers, as they were undoubtedly the worst, their record being the most daring and bloody in all the list. Several histories of their career have been written, and the story has been dramatised for stage and film. They serve to illustrate a period in the development of the country that has happily passed, and which, with increased settlement, and improved means of rapid communication, will never come again.
The mother of the Kellys was 95 years of age at the time of her death, and for the past 40 years she has lived in the wild hills of Greta West, the scene of many daring exploits by her sons. She was a native of Antrim (Ireland), and came to Australia with her parents in 1841. Her maiden name was Quinn. In 1851, at Ballarat, then in its heyday as a goldfield, Ellen Quinn married John Kelly, who had been transported from Ireland some time previously. Their son, Edward, was born in 1854 at Wallan Wallan ; James was born in 1856, and Daniel in 1861. There were, besides, four daughters. At the time of the brothers’ exploits one of these was married to a man named Gunn, another to a man named Skillian, and two others, Kate and Grace, were single.
START WITH HORSE-STEALING.
The Kellys, like the Kenniffs in later years in Queensland, appear to have started on the downward path by stealing horses. F. A. Hare, P.M., who, as Superintendent of the Victorian police, was personally concerned in the hunt for the Kellys, declares in his book, “The Last of the Bushrangers,” that “Ned Kelly was regarded as a horse and cattle thief from earliest boyhood. He was known to steal carriers’ horses at night, ‘plant’ them in the bush until a reward was offered for them. and then in the most innocent manner produce them and claim the reward. When he was 16 years of age he joined the bushranger, Power, taking charge of the outlaw’s horses whilst he committed his depredations. In 1870 he was arrested and charged with having assisted Power, but no one could identify him, and so he was discharged. In 1870 Jim Kelly, then only 15 years of age, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on two charges of horse-stealing. On his discharge in 1876 he went to New South Wales and stuck up a number of people, but was captured immediately and was sent to gaol for 10 years, so that he was out of the way when his brothers were outlawed. In 1871 Ned Kelly was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for horse-stealing. Many stories are told of the manner in which the Kellys and their associates used to run mobs of horses into the Warby and Strathbogie Ranges, fake the brands with iodine, keep them until the marks had healed, and then drive them to Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong, and even as far as Sydney, where they would be sold openly in the auction yards.
SHOOTING OF FITZPATRICK.
The plunge to crime of the most violent character was taken in 1878. Warrants had issued for the arrest of Dan Kelly on no less than six charges of horse stealing. Constable Alexr, Fitzpatrick, on April 15, 1878, went to the Kellys’ hut at Greta, with the object of effecting an arrest. As he rode up he saw Dan standing at the door, and he said, “You’re my prisoner.” Dan replied. “All right; but wait until I get something to eat. I’ve been riding all day.” The constable agreed. After Dan sat down, his mother said, “You won’t take Dan from here this night.” Dan told her to shut up. The woman continued to grumble, and presently asked, “Have you got a warrant?” Fitzpatrick replied, “I have a telegram, which is just as good.” The constable then accepted Dan’s invitation to have some food, and as he sat down Mrs. Kelly said, “If my son Ned was here, he’d throw you out of the window.” Dan looked out of the window and said, “Why, here he is!” As Fitzpatrick turned to look, Dan sprang on him, and at the same moment, Mrs. Kelly struck him on the head with a heavy spade that had been used as a fire shovel. As Fitzpatrick fell several persons rushed into the room, including Ned Kelly, who held a revolver in his hand. Evidently he had fired, for Fitzpatrick was wounded in the arm. Ned Kelly said, “I’m sorry I fired. You are the civilest — — trap I’ve seen.” He offered to cut out the bullet and bind the wound, but Fitzpatrick refused to let him touch it. Ned said the constable could not be allowed to go until he had promised not to tell how he got wounded, and Mrs. Kelly cried, ” Tell him if he does tell he won’t live long after.” Fitzpatrick promised not to tell, and after himself extracting the bullet he bound up the wound with his handkerchief and was allowed to depart. On the following day a party of troopers arrested Mrs. Kelly, who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for her part in the affair. William Skillian and William Williams were each sentenced to six years.
THREE POLICEMEN MURDERED.
A party of 25 troopers with black trackers were sent out to capture Ned and Dan Kelly. On October 25 one party of searchers went into camp at Stringy Bark Creek, about eight miles from the Wombat Ranges. Sergeant Kennedy, who was in charge, had information of the movements of the wanted men, but it appears that his informant had also told the Kellys of the approach of the police. Sergeant Kennedy and Constable Scanlan went into the scrub seeking track of their quarry, whilst Constables Lonergan and McIntyre were left in charge of the camp. Lonergan was making tea when four men rode up on horseback and cried, “Bail up ; put up your hands.” Lonergan made a jump to get behind a tree at the same time reaching to his belt for his pistol. As he did so he was shot dead, his last words as he fell being, “Oh, Christ, I’m shot.” McIntyre, who was unarmed, surrendered. Ned Kelly, after examining Lonergan’s body, said, “What a pity ; why didn’t the —— fool surrender.” The bushrangers then hid themselves until Kennedy and Scanlan returned. As they came close, McIntyre said, “Sergeant we’re surrounded; you’d better surrender.” Scanlan put his hand to his belt, and Ned Kelly fired at him, but missed. Scanlan jumped from his horse and made for a gum tree, but was shot dead before he reached it. Kennedy wheeled his horse and started to gallop off, but was brought down by a bullet from the rifle of one of the terribly accurate marksmen. As the frightened horse dashed through the camp McIntyre threw himself upon it, but it had not galloped far before the animal was shot through the heart. McIntyre fell clear, and crawling into a patch of scrub, he secreted himself in a wombat hole, where he lay hidden whilst the bushrangers searched all around, swearing what they would do to him when they found him. After dark he got clear, and walked 20 miles to Mansfield, where he made known the facts of the murder of his three comrades.
£8000 REWARD OFFERED.
Rewards of £100 each had been offered for the capture of Ned and Dan Kelly, and these were increased to £500. As time went on the rewards offered by the New South Wales and Victorian Governments, and the associated banks were increased until they totalled £8000 for the capture of the gang, which now included Steve Hart (aged 20 years), and Joe Byrnes (aged 19 years); who had been identified as having been with the Kellys in the fatal encounter just described. The next exploit of the bushrangers was the sticking up of Younghusbands station on Faithfull Creek on December 8. This was a carefully planned coup, the statlon hands, manager, and several callers being locked up in a store room. The outlaws helped themselves to arms and clothes, they took it in turns to sleep, two reposing whilst two watched, and an itinerant hawker who called during their stay had his stock ransacked for new clothes, etc. Some quaint fancy led the outlaws to smother their clothes with the contents of bottles of perfume from the cart. On December 11 Joe Byrnes was left in charge of the prisoners, whilst the others rode to Euroa, where they robbed the National Bank, taking possession of just on £2000 in notes, gold, and silver, besides 31oz of smelted gold. Everything was carried out in the boldest possible manner. The telegraph lines had been cut on each side of Younghusband’s station, so that no alarm could be given, and Mr. Robert Scott, the manager of the bank at Euroa, was forced to put his wife and child in a buggy and drive the whole party back to Younghusband’s after the robbery. That night the robbers left the station with the booty, after first threatening that the manager, Mr. Macauley, would be ‘shot like a b—— dingo,’ if anyone stirred for three hours after they had gone.
TOWNSHIP HELD UP.
At midnight on February 8, 1879, Constables Devine and Richards were at the station and lock-up, just outside the town of Jerilderie (N.S.W.), when they were advised that a row had taken place at Davidson’s Hotel, and a man killed. When the police reached the scene they were confronted by Ned Kelly who, with revolver in hand, ordered them to bail up. As they were unarmed there was nothing for it but to comply and the two officers were locked up in their own cells. The next day was Sunday, and the outlaws, donning the uniforms of the police, spent the day at the police station. On the Monday they took possession of the Royal Hotel, the largest in the town, they locked up everyone likely to interfere with their plans, and proceeding to the Bank of New South Wales, which adjoined the hotel, they surprised the officials, overpowered them, and obtained possession of sums which again totalled over £2000 in notes and gold. At the hotel Ned Kelly had drinks served to everyone. In a speech, he blamed Constable Fitzpatrick for all that had happened. He said he had not been within 100 miles of Greta when Fitzpatrick was shot; he blamed Lonergan for having threatened his mother and sister ; and said he was going to shoot Devine and Richards. He added “The police are worse than the —— black trackers.” The robbers remained masters of the whole town, consisting of about 300 inhabitants, from Saturday night. until the afternoon of the following Wednesday, when they rode off, flourishing their revolvers, and shouting “Hurrah for the good old times of Morgan and Ben Hall.”
COLD BLOODED CRIME.
For some time after this the gang remained in hiding, and little was heard of them until on June 27, 1880, they shot and killed Aaron Sherritt for giving information of their whereabouts to the police. Sherritt, it appears, had been engaged to a sister of Joe Byrnes, but he was suspected of playing traitor, and the engagement was broken off, Sherritt then marrying a daughter of a settler on Woolshed Creek. On the date mentioned, a party of four policemen were secreted in Sherritt’s house, watching the home of Byrnes’s mother. Dan Kelly and Joe Byrnes held up a German named Weeks, who was walking along the road, and they compelled him to call out to Sherritt. When Sherritt came to his door to see who had called, he was shot dead by the outlaws, who called to Mrs. Sherritt: “Send out some of the — traps to bury your husband. We’ve shot him for being a traitor.” The outlaws were hidden in the outside darkness, and there was a bright wood fire burning in the house, which would have made the police easy marks for the rifles of the murderous pair had the officers moved. Finding the police would not come out, the bushrangers fired their rifles several times through the windows and doors. At about 2 o’clock in the morning they rode off without doing further mischief.
LAST SCENE AT GLENROWAN.
The news of this fresh outrage led to the despatch of a strong party from Melbourne by special train. These included Sub-inspector O’Connor of Queensland, with six black trackers, Superintendent Hare, Inspector Pewtress, several other Victorian police officers and Press representatives. Amongst these latter was Mr. J. Melvin, a veteran who, many years later, worked in the Parliamentary Press Gallery at Brisbane. As the police train drew near to the scene of the trouble, it was pointed out that the brightly lighted carriages provided a fine mark for the rifles of the outlaws. Mr. Melvin thereupon climbed on to the roof, as the train sped through the darkness, and he put out all the lights. Approaching Glenrowan the party learned that the bushrangers had torn up the railway line a short distance ahead, and had taken possession of the Glenrowan Inn, about 100 yards distant. The inn, which was fated to be the scene of the bushrangers’ last stand, was a long, low weather-board building, with a wide veranda on the front. Into this building the gang had collected a total of 62 of the townspeople, including Constable Bracken.
THE INNOCENT SUFFER.
The police besieged the building, and in the exchange of rifle fire between them and the outlaws a number of innocent people were wounded. Supt. Hare’s wrist was shattered. Mrs. Jones, the landlady of the hotel at one stage rushed on to the veranda calling the police “murderers,” and declaring that her son had been killed and her daughter wounded. The police ceased firing, and the boy was removed and taken to Wangaratta Hospital, where he died. An old man named Martin Cherry was also killed. During a short truce the whole of the non-combatants were removed from the hotel. Shortly after day-break police reinforcements from Benalla were being placed in position, when they were fired at from behind a tree, which stood some distance behind the hotel, and a tall, stout figure, with what looked like a nail can over his head, was soon to appear. Several of the besieging force fired at this, but the bullets seemed to rebound. Sergeant Steel then fired at the legs, and at the second shot the figure toppled, crying : “I’m done for.” It proved to be Ned Kelly. As the police rushed forward he raised himself on his elbow, and commenced shooting wildly, shouting: “You shall never take me alive.” However he was soon overpowered and handcuffed. In the meantime a successful attempt had been made by the police to fire the building. Whilst this was being done Mrs. Skilllan. a sister of the Kellys, attempted to ride up to the building to persuade her brother Dan to surrender, but was stopped by the police, who pointed out that she would be in great danger. As the flames began to envelope the building the Rev. Father M. Gibney walked to the front door, crucifix in hand, and followed by a number of police. On entering the front bar they found the body of Joe Byrne, who was said to have been shot dead as he drank a glass of brandy. The bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were found dead in a small parlour off the bar. It was surmised that they had either suicided or had shot each other simultaneously. Ned Kelly was convicted and hanged in Melbourne gaol on November 11, 1880. And so at last the law was vindicated, as it must ever be, and the whole gang of desperadoes perished as violently as their victims had done. It was officially estimated that the cost of capturing the gang was not less than £40,000, exclusive of the salaries and wages of those engaged.
One of the most famous relics of the heyday of bushranging is the death mask of Ned Kelly made by Max Kreitmayer just after the execution of the Victorian outlaw. It is a sombre reminder of a young life snuffed out prematurely, but also of the trail of chaos and destruction he left in his wake. What many don’t know is that Kreitmayer also had a death mask of another member of the Kelly Gang: 23 year old Joe Byrne.
For decades the Bourke Street Waxworks was one of the most significant locations in Melbourne. Not only was it a waxworks museum, it was often used to host dances, live music and lectures among other events. Established in 1853 by the Sohiers, it was a sister location to the famous Sohiers waxworks in Sydney. However in 1871 the rights to the museum were bought by Maximilian Ludwig Kreitmayer, a Hungarian anatomist who specialised in wax models for medical students; specifically models of organs afflicted with venereal diseases. His enormous collection of wax reproductive organs exhibiting everything from warts to syphilis was initially added to the Sohier collection but public backlash against the “pornographic” display saw it replaced with something far more exciting.
Madame Tussaud’s wax museum was world class. It featured life-like statues of some of the most renowned people in history. Kings, Queens, poets and painters – the collection spanned a huge denomination of people throughout history. However the most popular part of the museum was a special room which you could enter for an additional fee called The Chamber of Horrors. Within was a pantheon of criminals, despots and monsters along with an assortment of torture methods on display with wax statues demonstrating the operation of the stomach-churning activities. There was also a collection of severed heads on pikes that were cast from molds Marie Tussaud herself had made of aristocrats beheaded in the French revolution including the likes of Marie Antoinette. The enterprising Sohier museum had emulated this and Kreitmayer followed suit. The most infamous crimes and criminals were replicated in wax for people to see for an additional fee on top of their general admission. Chief among the exhibits of criminals in the chamber were the bushrangers. So renowned was Sohier’s waxwork of Morgan, for example, that Dan Morgan himself bragged about sneaking into town to see himself immortalised in wax (though the situation is very unlikely). Duplicates were made for Kreitmayer’s branch in Melbourne but gradually Kreitmayer added his own statues to The Chamber of Horrors. At the turn of the century the Melbourne waxworks had statues of Gardiner, Morgan, Robert Burke, Jimmy Governor, Paddy Kenniff and the Kelly Gang on display.
In June 1880 the colony of Victoria was suddenly abuzz with the unfolding news of the infamous Kelly Gang battling police in a tiny railway town called Glenrowan. At the conclusion of the siege, gang leader Ned Kelly was captured alive but his companions Joe Byrne, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart all perished. A fire destroyed the bodies of Dan and Steve but Joe was retrieved with minor scorching to extremities. He had been killed by a bullet to the groin causing him to bleed to death that morning. Not one to miss an opportunity, Kreitmayer sought permission from the Chief Commissioner of police to get special access to the body. Access was granted and only two days after the siege, molds were being made of Byrne’s head, hands and feet. Kreitmayer even managed to snag Byrne’s boots, still crusty with mud and blood.
Within weeks the molds had been used to generate a statue that was exhibited in The Chamber of Horrors. Advertisements boasted of a full body cast of Byrne the bushranger and contemporary accounts described the scene in detail.
In the 1890s the prison ship Success was purchased by a private owner to be converted into a floating museum. A set of waxworks figures were sold to the floating museum by Kreitmayer including a set of the popular Kelly Gang display figures. The five statues (the gang plus Kate Kelly) were displayed behind bars with a backdrop made to resemble the Australian bush. Only one photograph is known to exist of this set of statues and the most curious is that of Byrne. Seated next to the statue of Ned Kelly, it has a far more life-like face and hands compared to the majority of the set. The hands are oddly splayed against the thighs and seemingly disconnected at the elbow. It’s easy to imagine this splayed-finger look being the result of finding an effective way to mold a dead man’s hands.
When compared to a photograph of Byrne’s corpse taken on an almost identical angle the truth becomes apparent. This is the wax statue made from Kreitmayer’s molds of the corpse.
If this is a duplicate, which is undoubtedly the case as Kreitmayer kept his Kelly Gang display intact and it remained thus until the museum was converted into a cinema in 1910, then naturally other versions exist or existed. A mysterious image taken around the same time shows a disembodied wax head with the handwritten label “Ned Kelly”. The first thing one noticed is that it doesn’t resemble Ned Kelly at all despite the long hair and beard. The next thing that’s noticeable is how realistic this head looks.
If this is, as it seems to be, made from a cast of a real face, but it isn’t Ned Kelly’s face, could it be from a different member of the Kelly Gang? A comparison between this face and two known photos of Joe, one as a 21 year old and the other post mortem, may show if this is so.
The dimensions match overall but notably there’s a tremendous resemblance in the eyebrows, nose, cheeks and lips that seems far more than a mere coincidence. Such a strong resemblance would normally be fairly conclusive, but unfortunately without knowing the providence of the image it is impossible to prove conclusively that this is Joe or that it is a Kreitmayer waxwork. It seems unlikely that the museum would have been in operation for half a century, during which time we went from photography being limited to rare tintypes to having motion pictures, and the collection to have not been photographed in part or entirely. At the least one might expect photos to be taken for insurance purposes if not for posterity or promotion. If this head is part of a defunct collection from 1910 then surely other photos exist in that collection too. For now we can merely speculate on this image.
Postscript: The image of the disembodied wax head is one I have been examining ever since I came across it on Pinterest in December 2018, while doing research for my novel, ‘Glenrowan’. I still do not know the provenance of it and due to the way Pinterest is designed I cannot contact the person who originally posted it to enquire as to where it came from. If you are that person, or know who they are please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
2019 was a very busy year for A Guide to Australian Bushranging. Of the scores of articles published in the past year, these were the ones that attracted the most attention. If you want to check them out, just click the titles to go to the articles.
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.