Joe Byrne (1856 – 28 June 1880) was an Australian bushranger born in Victoria to an Irish immigrant. A friend of Ned Kelly, he was a member of the Kelly Gang, who were declared outlaws after the murder of three policemen at Stringybark Creek. Despite wearing the improvised body armour for which Ned Kelly and his gang are now famous (and which he is reputed to have designed), Byrne received a fatal gunshot during the gang's final violent confrontation with police at Glenrowan, in June 1880.
Joe Byrne commenced school at the Catholic school at Woolshed in 1862. He was a good student, normally amongst the top students in his class and developed a reputation as a "flash writer". He also became very good friends with fellow student Aaron Sherritt. However, Byrne's father Patrick developed heart disease and Byrne's school results suffered. He finished school in 1869 with a fifth-grade education while his father died in the same year. Joe Byrne also learnt how to speak Cantonese from nearby Chinese gold diggers and also learned how to smoke opium.
Byrne and Sheritt became closer friends at that stage and started getting in trouble with the law. Byrne made his first appearance in court in 1871 on the charge of illegally using a horse, having to pay a fine of 20 shillings up front to avoid going to jail. Byrne and Sherritt were later convicted of stealing a bullock and served six months in HM Prison Beechworth. During this imprisonment, Byrne and Sherritt met Jim Kelly who was the brother of Ned and Dan Kelly. Joe Byrne met in 1876 and the pair soon became firm friends.
The Kelly Gang
Dan Kelly had discovered an abandoned gold diggings at Bullock Creek which was worked by the Kelly brothers, Byrne, Sherritt and Steve Hart during the next couple of years. Byrne was likely present at the Kelly homestead on 15 April 1878 when Constable Fitzpatrick claimed that Ned Kelly shot him and Ellen Kelly, Ned's mother, hit him over the head with a shovel. Afterwards, Ned and Dan Kelly fled to Bullock Creek with a 100-pound bounty on their heads and Ellen Kelly was sentenced to three years hard labour for assaulting a police officer.
Joe Byrne was present at Stringybark Creek with the Kelly brothers and Steve Hart on 26 October 1878 when they surprised a patrol of four police officers on their trail, with three of them shot dead. Joe Byrne murdered Trooper Scanlon and was found wearing the trooper's ring at the time of his death. The gang were declared as outlaws for this incident on 15 November 1878 and a price of £2000 (equivalent to approximately A$754,000 in 2008) was placed on their heads.
The Kelly Gang started developing a strategy with Byrne acting as Kelly's lieutenant, always being consulted about strategy. The Kelly Gang robbed the Euroa branch of the National Bank of Australia stealing over £2,000 which was the most successful bushranger raid to that point. Joe Byrne drafted the Euroa letter (now known as the Cameron letter) in red ink sent by Ned Kelly to Donald Cameron, a local MLC. claiming that justice had not been done in the case of his mother and himself. It concluded "For I need no lead or powder to revenge my cause, And if words be louder I will oppose your laws."
The police made a serious mistake by locking up over 20 alleged supporters of the Kelly gang between 3 January 1879 and 22 April 1879 under the Felons Apprehension Act 1878. This cemented public support for the gang especially in northeast Victoria. Joe Byrne was able to use this support to advantage by penning a number of bush ballads about the exploits of Kelly and his gang:
My name is Ned Kelly,
I'm known adversely well.
My ranks are free,
my name is law,
Wherever I do dwell.
My friends are all united,
my mates are lying near.
We sleep beneath shady trees,
No danger do we fear.
Joe Byrne frequently visited his mother at her house in Beechworth and was also seen carousing in bars in the town, despite having a price on his head. This was due to a combination of his skill and daring, the incompetence of the police and the support of local residents for the Kelly Gang. There was a Royal Commission into the Victorian Police in 1881 after the capture of the Kelly Gang because of the deficiencies exposed by the Gang.
Kelly and Byrne started planning their next raid at Jerilderie. On 10 February 1879, dressed as police officers, the gang raided the Bank of NSW branch at Jerilderie taking another £2,000. Prior to the raid, Byrne composed the Jerilderie Letter which supported the creation of a Republic of North-eastern Victoria. The proceeds of both the Euroa and Jerilderie robberies were distributed amongst the gang's family, friends and supporters. The Kelly gang shouted the bar at Jerilderie which further enhanced their reputation.
After the Jerilderie raid, the gang laid low for 16 months evading capture. This aided to their reputation and greatly embarrassed the government of Victoria and the police. The Victorian Government eventually increased the reward for capture of a member of the Kelly Gang to £8,000 (equivalent to two million Australian dollars in 2005).
Siege of Glenrowan
Byrne started plans with Kelly for another bank raid in Benalla in 1880. However, they were becoming increasingly concerned about Sherritt who they feared was being targeted by police as an informant. While Byrne had previously used Sherritt as a double agent to persuade the police that the gang was planning a raid in the Goulburn River rather than at Jerilderie, both Kelly and Byrne believed that he had turned informant. This prompted Byrne and Dan Kelly to murder Sherritt as an informer on 26 June 1880.
The following day, the Kelly Gang took over Glenrowan, first tearing up the railway line in anticipation of a special trainload of police being sent to capture them. They held over 60 people hostage in the town. Tom Curnow, the schoolmaster of the local school who had won Kelly's trust, escaped and warned the train crew who in turn told the police. This enabled 34 police to surround the Glenrowan Hotel where the bushrangers had again shouted the bar.
Joe Byrne is believed to have been heavily involved in designing the armour worn by all members of the Gang at the siege of Glenrowan. This did not stop him from being shot in the groin by a stray bullet which severed his femoral artery. Eyewitnesses at the hotel claimed that a moment before the bullet struck Joe Byrne dead, he offered the toast "Here's to the bold Kelly Gang!". Another report states that he said "Many more years in the bush for the Kelly Gang!". He died from loss of blood on 28 June 1880. The next day his body was hung on the door of the lock-up at Benalla and photographed by the press. His family did not claim the body and the police refused to hand it over to sympathisers, fearing a funeral would become a rallying point for the simmering rebellion. He was buried on the same day as Sherritt. Dan Kelly and Steve Hart also died on the day of the siege by shooting themselves while Ned Kelly was captured and tried in Melbourne. Ned Kelly was hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880. There is a legend that Kelly and Byrne had drafted a Declaration of a Republic of Northeast Victoria which was discovered in Kelly's possession at his capture and was destroyed by the Victorian Government.
Byrne and his role in creating the Kelly legend
By writing the various letters that were issued in Kelly's names and the bush ballads and designing the armour, Joe Byrne was the man responsible with Kelly himself for creating the Kelly legend. In the following 125 years, the legend has grown. There have been a number of films made about the Kelly Gang including a 1906 film which was one of the first feature films ever made. In 2003, Orlando Bloom played the part of Joe Byrne in Ned Kelly.
Australian novelist Peter Carey won the 2001 Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize the same year for the True History of the Kelly Gang. This was inspired by the Jerilderie letter drafted by Byrne.
Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang has been immortalised by Sidney Nolan wearing the armour designed by Joe Byrne in a famous set of paintings. This inspired a scene at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics.
In September 2006, Darren Sutton (a Beechworth miner, fossicker, historian and tourist guide) found a piece of armour believed to be an offcut from Joe Byrne's armour in bushland near Beechworth in country Victoria. The armour is thought to have been created by local blacksmith Charlie Knight and friend Thomas Straughair for the Kelly Gang.
According to Heritage Victoria this is not considered to be from the same metal as the suit of armour made for Joe Byrne.
However, the information used to make the decision on whether the offcut matched or not has been found to be inaccurate. The reason given by Heritage Victoria was that Joe's suit contained large amounts of lead, and the piece found in the bush contains no lead, so they cannot be the same. The test results from Ansto clearly state that the lead found on Joes suit was from a bullet impact, made after World War I. The bullet impression contains lead, tin and tungsten. Tungsten was only used post World War I in ballistics. The metal piece found in the bush contains no lead because it was removed from the suit, using a chisel, which has also been recovered, prior to being worn at Glenrowan. The breastplate was too long and impeded Joe's movement, and probably prevented him easily mounting a horse, or walking freely. Further testing, and analysis of previous test results is now being undertaken independently and the results will be published some time between August and October 2010.
- Powell, Rose (20 March 2015). "First Australian press photo shows body of Kelly Gang member Joe Byrne", The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 4 September 2015.
- "AN INTERVIEW WITH NED KELLY.". The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 - 1893) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 1 July 1880. p. 7. Retrieved 3 February 2012.
- APT. "Piece of Kelly's Armour Found", Ninemsn News, 30 September 2006.
- Joe Byrne: Lieutenant of the Kelly Gang page at the Wayback Machine (archived March 9, 2005)
- Glenrowan 1880 Joe Byrne page
- ABC Online page on Ned Kelly
- La Trobe University media release on speech by Chief Justice of Victoria on the North Eastern Republic of Victoria
- Speech by Victorian Chief Justice John Phillips, Chief Justice of Victoria, at La Trobe University on The North-Eastern Victoria Republic Movement: Myth or Reality