Joseph Byrne also known as Joe Byrne (November 1857 - June 28 1880) was an Australian bushranger known as the lieutenant of the Kelly Gang. He died in the siege of Glenrowan which is one of the most famous events in Australian history. Joe Byrne was a crack shot, a good horseman and a skilled bushman that enabled him to evade capture for several years. His skill at writing enabled him to produce material that added significantly to the development of the Kelly legend, notably the The Jerilderie Letter. There is also a legend that Ned Kelly, with Byrne's assistance, was planning to declare a Republic of North-Eastern Victoria at the time of the siege of Glenrowan.
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 firm 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 Beechworth Jail. During this imprisonment, Byrne and Sherritt met Jim Kelly who was the brother of Ned and Dan Kelly. Joe Byrne met Ned Kelly in 1876 and the pair soon became firm friends.
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 pounds (equivalent to approximately AU$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 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 the third of 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 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).
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 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 June 28, 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 taking poison while Ned Kelly was captured and tried in Melbourne. Ned Kelly was hanged at Melbourne Jail on November 11, 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.
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 Vic this is not considered to be from the same metal as the suit of armour made for Joe Byrne.