Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Was it a myth or was he a real man? Who truly was the ' stripling on a small and weedy beast'? Was Jack Riley really the Man From Snow River, as written by Banjo Paterson?
This was a poem that caught the true heart of the Australian spirit. Where courage and strength were the real characters of a man. While it told the story of a thrilling horse chase and captured the imagination of a nation, Paterson's creativity was first captured by a stockman by the name of Jack Riley, according to legend.
Jack Riley had migrated to Australia from Ireland at only 13 years old. He worked as a tailor near Omeo in Victoria but found his true passion as a stockman, where he worked for the Pierce family of Greg Greg, over the border in New South Wales.
Jack Riley as an old man. Photo: Man from Snowy River Musuem (manfromsnowyrivermuseum.com)
The story is told that Paterson was travelling to Bringenbrong, a small village in the Snowy Mountains, guided by two well known graziers in those parts, Peter and Walter Mitchell. They ended up staying the night with Jack Riley in his small isolated hut. It was there that Paterson heard about the story of Riley's memorable ride, when as a young man he chased a station-bred horse gone wild that had defeated every attempt to catch him.
The horse was as elusive as smoke and as defiant as lightning. A hunting party was organised and a strategic yard built in which to trap him. The horse seemed to know they were coming. He abandoned his normal run to the creek and hurtled himself down an incredibly steep incline, stopping all but one who were chasing him. Riley charged after the horse 'in a flurry of heels and a shower of dirt'. And the rest, as is often said, is history.
"And he ran them single handed till their sides were white with foam,
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home."
Paterson acknowledged the poem was a work of fiction that draws on some other mountain cattlemen he met, but that the main story was based on Jack Riley. A newspaper article in 1950 listed a number of contenders including Hellfire Jack Clarke McEachan of Bredbo, Louder of Yass, George Hedger of Numbla Vale and Jim Spencer of Jindabyne. Many will claim it was all of them and more, that Paterson never laid claim to basing his man on any one particular person.
Jack Riley's grave in Corryong cemetery. Photo: Peter Ellis at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
In 1914 when friends found him very sick and attempted to get him to a doctor. They attempted to take him to Corryong Hospital but he died along the way. Jack is buried in Corryong cemetery in a modest grave, bordered by logs and filled with loose stones. The inscription reads:
"In Memory of The Man from Snowy River, Jack Riley, buried here 16th July, 1914."
'Jack Riley - The Man from Snowy River', The Man from Snowy River Museum, http://manfromsnowyrivermuseum.com.au/jack-riley-the-man-from-snowy-river/#:~:text=Jack%20Riley%20was%20the%20Man,was%20based%20on%20Jack%20Riley., accessed on 18th July 2020.
'There was a Man from Snowy River', The Argus, Saturday 15 January, 1949, Page 3
'Mr Hughes backs Man from Snowy', The Herald, Friday 24 November,1950, Page 10