Nothing definite re the diseased stock of this locality. I have made careful inspection, but did not find exact source of disease […] Missing portions of cultivators are being worked as jackets and fit splendidly. Tested previous to using, and proof at ten yards.– Extract from report to Assistant Commissioner Nicolson from police spy known as the ‘Diseased Stock Agent’.
They’re the most iconic relics in bushranging history but many questions still remain about the suits of armour worn by the Kelly Gang at Glenrowan. How were they made? Who made them? Why weren’t the legs protected? Where did the idea come from? The list goes on. Here we will look at some of what we do know about the armour and a few interesting mysteries as well. It is not an exhaustive account, nor does it provide all the answers, but the information herein was key to understanding the way the armour was presented in Glenrowan.
In mid-1879 the outlaws went quiet, only being spotted occasionally travelling or meeting with sympathisers. This also fuelled rumours that the gang had split up as they were not usually spotted together. By the end of the year plough mouldboards were going missing throughout the region, some supposedly procured by Kelly sympathisers. Notorious double-agent James Wallace was one of the people said to have helped gather the steel. What was initially thought by police to be little more than an oddly specific prank was soon linked to the Kellys via the network of spies the police had established.
Daniel Kennedy, a police spy known colloquially as the “Diseased Stock Agent”, informed then-head of the Kelly pursuit, Assistant-Commissioner Nicolson, that the gang had constructed steel “jackets” that “fit splendidly” and were “proof at 10 yards”. Such a bizarre, coded statement was bound to raise eyebrows but neither Nicolson nor his successor Superintendent Hare seemed to put any considerable stock in it. The notion of bulletproof armour was simply too outlandish in 1880 to seriously entertain, despite later statements to the contrary by certain police officers with axes to grind.
The armour seems to have been the brainchild of Ned Kelly alone, though its development must have required a few others to have input. It was not the first time Ned had considered the protective properties of steel. Based on witness accounts, the gang’s hideout at Bullock Creek had been made of thick logs and had a door made from the steel ballast of a ship, all intended to provide protection in the event of a police ambush. Here they could potentially withstand a gunfight for a few days if they had enough supplies. In the letters dictated from his cell in 1880, Kelly stated that his intention with the armour was to wear it when robbing banks. The protection it offered would, he claimed, deem it unnecessary to injure or kill opponents, as nothing an armed guard or clerk could do would actually put them at such a risk that it would necessitate violent retaliation. This explanation does not marry up with how the armour was eventually used, so must be taken with a pinch of salt, or indeed the whole cellar.
We also know, based on a reported conversation between Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne at Glenrowan, that Joe didn’t approve of the armour, or at the least had serious misgivings about Ned’s faith in it. Constable Phillips, who overheard the conversation, reported that Joe said: “I always told you this bloody armour would bring us to grief!” It is worth noting that when this conversation took place both of the outlaws had been seriously injured in unprotected limbs by gunfire; Joe had been shot in the calf, rendering him unable to walk, and Ned had been shot in the foot and left arm rendering him unable to load his weapons or walk steadily. Later in the siege Dan Kelly would also be badly injured by a bullet smashing his unprotected knee.
Some have suggested that the suit of Japanese armour in the Burke Museum in Beechworth was an inspiration; or that Ned’s ideation derived from armoured bandits in the novel Lorna Doone; or that the idea was inspired by the armour of mediaeval knights. Regardless, the designs for the four suits were unique and demonstrated a flair for ingenuity, while also being fundamentally flawed. The key flaw was the need to keep the arms and legs unprotected for practicality, as it made the limbs very vulnerable, demonstrated by the injuries sustained by the outlaws.
The mysterious history of the armour has resulted in many myths over the 140 years since the Glenrowan siege. Most have been perpetuated by people with only a cursory knowledge of the story at best, or narrators telling the story with an over-reliance on oral history. Many of these myths have been repeated so often that for a long time they were blindly accepted as fact. The most notable myths, or unverified claims, are as follows:
– Only Ned Kelly had a helmet: This is a pervasive but patently false belief. The helmets of the other three gang members were claimed by Jim Kelly, at one point, to be police forgeries (to what end is hard to gauge), and these claims were published in J.J. Kenneally’s book The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, and thereafter frequently repeated. How Jim would know anything about the armour or its creation is unclear as he was in a gaol in NSW at the time it was being developed and constructed. Indeed, there is nothing concrete to suggest he was even back in Victoria until well after Ned’s capture. Any claims Jim would have made in this regard are unreliable at best. Nevertheless, the claim was accepted as fact by a range of authors including Frank Clune, Charles Osborne and John Molony. Molony’s justification for his stance was that only Ned needed one as he was to be at the forefront of any dangerous activity. Clune asserted that only Ned was strong enough to wear the helmet with the rest of the armour. The fact that Dan’s and Steve’s helmets were photographed with the other parts of their armour after the siege, with visible fire damage to boot, and remained in police custody thereafter, demonstrates this claim to be untrue. Joe’s armour has been in police custody, then private hands, since 1880 and at least one witness reported seeing the helmet being removed with Joe’s body from the burning inn, thus further indicating that there were helmets for all four suits. However, those who accept the claim seemingly find it easy to dismiss the helmets as some elaborate and pointless hoax by the police, if only to preserve the iconography of Ned Kelly being distinct from his gang.
– There were more than four suits: Over the years there have been stories handed down that, in addition to those worn by the outlaws, suits of armour were crafted for the sympathisers. While there is anecdotal evidence that people have seen these alleged suits or know where they were hidden, there is nothing tangible that has ever been released publicly to confirm this and therefore it must be treated as unlikely to be true. There is certainly a lack of reporting in the newspapers of the time of anything that would indicate large numbers of suits of armour being made, or found, that might indicate that the gang’s supporters also had their own bulletproof armour. There are people who have claimed to have seen or found some of these suits; three of which were claimed variously to be submerged in a dam, buried on a farm and hanging up in a barn, though the actual locations are a well-kept secret if true. It would also be extremely difficult to prove that any suit of armour found in one of these locations actually dates back to 1880, as anyone with the tools and know-how could craft their own suit at any time using antique metals – as evidenced by the number of replicas made in precisely this manner. The replica armour on display in Kate’s Cottage, Glenrowan, and the Beechworth Courthouse are excellent reproductions of the techniques and materials, but cannot reasonably be mistaken for the real deal; though some proponents of the myth that only Ned wore a helmet would have people think that they had been mistaken thus. As any validity to these claims is yet to be objectively established, they remain well within the realm of rumour and gossip.
– Different materials and construction: It has been claimed that some prototype armour was constructed from materials such as saw blades, sheet metal and India rubber. One anecdote states that there was even an early iron prototype made that was so poorly constructed the gang abandoned it. Other oral history, oft repeated by bushranger historian Gary Dean, states some additional suits used the same iron plates as the four gang members’ suits but were wired together instead of bolted and riveted, (it should also be noted that this is usually used as evidence for the Dan and Steve survival myth, as he claims these suits were worn by them and hidden in a dam after they escaped the inn). Again, any evidence of this is either long gone or well hidden, but it is likely that the gang tested other methods and materials before landing on the design they ended up with. It is possible some of the rumoured additional sets of armour may have actually been crafted by sympathisers after the siege and spawned not only the stories about extra armour, but also that the gang used different materials to construct the armour. This would have also helped fuel the rumours of Ned Kelly’s “phantom army”, which Ian Jones was a proponent of.
Much debate has been made regarding the construction of the armour. The more widely accepted version is that it was constructed with the aid of a bush forge to heat the iron to “cherry red” then beaten into shape over a green log half-submerged in a creek. The location of this forge was long rumoured to have been at either the Kelly selection or Maggie Skillion’s selection. An early iteration of this account is found in J.J. Kenneally’s book The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, wherein he states that Dan Kelly and Tom Lloyd constructed the armour at the rear of Maggie’s property then buried the offcuts and forge once they were done. This version also states that only Ned had a helmet and the others were fakes, so must be taken with a grain of salt, though scientific testing conducted on Joe Byrne’s armour seems to confirm that the armour may have indeed been made using a bush forge as suggested. There were also partly buried blacksmithing tools, the remains of a hearth, and what appears to be an offcut of Joe Byrne’s breastplate, uncovered by Darren Sutton after a 2003 bushfire that passed through the Beechworth area. There are also accounts of people seeing traces of tree sap on the inside of Ned’s helmet, suggesting that the notion of them being shaped on a green log may be true.
Many suggest only an expert blacksmith could reshape a collection of plough mouldboards into the iconic, crude plate armour that we know today. Names raised in connection to the construction of the armour include Pat Delaney, Tom Straughair and George Culph. When blacksmith Nick Hawtin was tasked with creating a set of replicas of the four suits he had to investigate the methods that would have been employed as well as the materials. It was his conclusion that the suits were likely constructed by blacksmiths using a range of metals but possibly modified and adjusted in the bush where a creek could be used to quench the metal. He also suggested that the suits worn by Ned and Dan were created by the same blacksmith due to the similarities in the construction and design, while Joe’s and Steve’s were made by different blacksmiths, Steve’s in particular seemingly made from mostly scrap metal and much less competently.
One of the most fascinating things about the armour is the stories about the gang members it tells through the unique styles of each suit and their respective flaws. Steve Hart’s helmet, with its extra wide eye slit, seems to be the most inexpertly constructed. Not only does the brow guard only wrap around far enough that the bolt barely secures it, there is a notch in the face plate where a hole was punched too close to the edge, and a split on the opposite side of the faceplate where it seems a cut was misplaced; the backplate is one large piece, indicating that it was made from sheet metal rather than mouldboards and looks to have been damaged then stuck back together in spots. By comparison, Dan’s helmet is the most refined with a symmetrical design that features a separate plate for the brow, and the eye slit narrows when the faceplate is pushed up. Only Joe and Dan had thin plates that joined the front and back of the body armour. Because of the restrictive nature of the armour with the side plates attached that would impede the process of donning it, it is likely that the sides had to be bolted in after the armour was put on or the body armour had to be slid on over the head like a rigid life jacket, with both scenarios requiring assistance from at least one additional person. The inverted bullet dent on Ned’s breastplate demonstrates his was made first as this was evidently a mark from testing. Dan’s has a similar construction to Ned’s and the helmet looks very similar so was probably made by the same smith using improved techniques. Joe’s suit may have been made in between the two given that it is both less refined looking than Dan’s and more competent in it’s construction than Ned’s. Very possibly Steve’s was made last using scraps because he was hesitant to get involved with the Glenrowan plot or because the gang wanted to speed the process up by doing it themselves concurrent to the other armour, which was shaped by professional blacksmiths. Of course this is merely speculation based on available evidence, and impossible to prove definitively given the construction of the armour was deliberately performed in secret.
Ned Kelly’s Armour
It is generally accepted that Ned Kelly wore the prototype armour. The primary evidence for this is the reversed bullet dent on the breastplate, indicating where the gang tested the durability of the steel, as well as the higher number of flaws compared to the other suits. Ned’s armour is the only suit with shoulder plates – curved plates that protect the bicep – and, if contemporary descriptions and sketches are accurate, was the only suit with a “lappet” that covered the buttocks. These extra pieces would have been more protection, but would have added extra weight than necessary and subsequently such elements would have been removed in later models. It appears to have been almost exclusively made from plough mouldboards riveted together, or bolted in the case of the helmet.
The holes punched in the sides of the breastplate and backplate parallel to each other suggest the plates were held together at the sides with thin straps, twine or wire, and slots in the top edge are where straps sat across the shoulders to hold the body armour in place, much like advertising “sandwich” boards. In probability, thin leather belts may have been used as shoulder straps (a belt like this was previously on display in the defunct Ned Kelly Vault) . These correlate with witness descriptions of the armour from when Ned was captured.
A broken slot on the breastplate indicates that the placement of the slot was incorrect first time around and the smith did it again twice. A folded upper corner on the breastplate may indicate a later modification to allow freer movement of the right arm. As mentioned earlier, there is a reversed dent on the breastplate from where the gang tested its bullet resistance after construction. A hole has been punched in the bottom corner of both sides for attaching an apron. The breastplate is constructed from two plough mouldboards, flattened, riveted together in the middle then re-shaped. There appears to be a broken rivet in the centre. The hole at the bottom of the breastplate where the current apron is hanging from an iron hinge was probably a rivet hole, but the rivet came loose and is since long gone. There are four rivets still visible on the breastplate. Interestingly, on the inside is a maker’s stamp from Hugh Lennon, who once stated there was no way that one of his durable ploughs could have been turned into such armour. The entire piece is curved to fit the torso.
There are deep dents on the helmet and breastplate that indicate that they were struck with great force at close range, indicative of the circumstances of the last stand, wherein Kelly was fired upon with Martini Henry rifles. That these sorts of dents do not appear on the other parts may indicate that the shots were only fired at his front as he approached, further enforcing that the dents were made during the last stand. The most notable dents are one near the middle of the breastplate, one just below the right eye and another on the left side of the faceplate. Without the armour, any of these would have been fatal.
Ned’s headgear comprises a cylindrical helmet and faceplate. The cylinder is made from a single iron sheet with a portion cut out to form a brow guard, then curled around. The brow guard is secured on the right-hand side, with the left-hand side slightly torn and beaten flatter. Some have described it as having been welded. A small dent in the middle of the brow may have been made by a tool rather than a bullet. The right-hand side of the cylinder is not cut square, retaining a curved shape from its original mouldboard design. There is a hole punched in this curve that indicates where a bolt would have been placed, but did not line up with the faceplate. The top half of the faceplate is curved, but from the middle down the plate flares out and is flat at the bottom. It is connected to the cylinder by a bolt approximately at the midpoint on either side. When attached to the cylinder an eyeslit is formed and the flattened portion extends over the upper part of the breastplate to protect the throat. This makes the helmet immovable when in place, meaning the wearer cannot turn their head to see either side and must turn their whole body. Visibility in the helmet is poor, with no peripheral vision and only a narrow field of view directly in front. One lower corner of the faceplate is bent in slightly, the other has a notch missing, likely from a bolt hole that was cut through. In the centre of the flat portion of the faceplate is a round, bevelled bolt hole. Double holes punched around the upper edge of the helmet were probably for padding to be sewn in, or for leather straps to be laced through so that the weight of the helmet rested on the crown of the head instead of the shoulders. Some have speculated these holes may have been to allow a smith to hold the metal more securely with a specific prong tool while shaping the helmet. A matching pair of holes is on the bottom edge but off-centre, likely placed in error.
The backplate is slightly longer than the breastplate and is uneven, though it too is made from two mouldboards riveted in the middle. It is curled like the breastplate to fit closer to the torso, though it also curves at the shoulders. At the shoulders there are “wings” that both allow for the curves that go in opposite directions, and allow more movement for the arms. One wing is more angular while the other is rounded. At the bottom of the backplate is a tiny hole where a rivet has seemingly come loose and fallen out, though this may have been a hole punched to attach the lappet (though that is unlikely). There also seems to be a larger rivet on the outside edge of the join. The top edge is uneven and a small broken rivet is present in the projection. There are three slots for shoulder straps, an extra one on the right-hand side evidently misplaced then recut.
The two shoulder plates are likely made from offcuts of the other pieces. They are large enough to protect the bicep from the shoulder to the elbow. One is more narrow and almost rectangular, the other is slightly wider, not as curled, and has a curved bottom. Both have three holes punched in the upper edge from which straps would have secured them to the body armour. One of the pieces was souvenired by Constable Gascoigne and kept hidden for some time before it was acquired from his descendants under dubious circumstances.
The suit as it currently exists has a large, almost square, steel plate attached to the breastplate by a single iron hinge to function as the apron. On one side is a hole above a cut in the steel, and the bottom is slanted. The metal is evidently of a different type to that used in the construction of the rest of the suit. This is almost guaranteed to be a later addition to replace a genuine piece that has since gone missing. In the illustration made by Thomas Carrington of the armour after Ned’s capture, which was instrumental in identifying pieces of Ned’s armour to unjumble the suits in 2002, the apron is shown as a half circle shaped plate, similar to the left shoulder plate, with two holes on the straight edge that correspond to the two holes in the lower corners of the breastplate.
Carrington also depicts a seperate piece, referred to as a “back lappet”, that is more square but with a scalloped upper where there appears to be either three round holes or three rivets, and a flared bottom edge, perhaps even two rivets and a hole – it is unclear. This piece presumably hung over the buttocks. Current speculation has suggested this piece was entirely imagined or that it’s actually the apron but Carrington drew a made up apron based on what he could see at the train station and had to add the lappet later as a separate piece. Some even suggest this lappet looks enough like Steve Hart’s apron to support the idea that the apron with Steve’s suit is really Ned’s.
Another contemporary illustration shows a detailed close up of the shoulder plates that matches exactly the ones on the suit in the SLV (proving it is not merely a copy of Carrington’s picture, which only depicts them as part of the whole suit). This also depicts the half-circle apron and scalloped back lappet, both looking almost identical to Carrington’s depiction but not exactly. Here the apron looks more narrow and appears to be a similar size to the shoulder plates, and is missing the slit and strap Carrington’s has on the bottom edge. This illustration also depicts remnants of the straps and cords used to connect parts of the armour together. The central strap on one of the shoulder plates matches the appearance of the same shoulder plate as seen in the photograph of Dan’s and Steve’s armour; another detail missing from Carrington’s etching.
A later illustration, published in the early 20th century, seems to show the rear lappet joining the back plate with a strap going from the middle of the lappet to a hole in the middle of the lower edge of the back plate. But beyond this, the illustration appears to simply be a crude reworking of Carrington’s picture. If these depictions are precisely correct, and the original apron and lappet are missing, where are they? Possibly they were removed in the span of time between Glenrowan and Ned’s committal in Beechworth, and either lost or stolen. Certainly, the possibility of theft is fairly high, given the prevalence of theft of Kelly related relics. It is indisputable that there are holes punched in the breastplate that correlate exactly with where that curved apron would have connected as in the illustrations. It is unlikely that the apron on the armour now is from one of the original suits, but it has been in place since the 1890s. This may tie in with rumours that the police attempted to manufacture fake armour after the siege.
It is interesting to note that Ned’s backplate does not actually have a provision for the back lappet. The small hole near the bottom is almost certainly where a rivet has fallen out. It is also intriguing that there is an extra slot at the top that is not shown in the illustrations, but in fact correlates with where in the two etchings an extra L-shaped piece appears to have been riveted. Though it could be interpreted that the uneven upper edge was misrepresented by the artists as a piece that folded across, it is worth noting that in both illustrations it seems to be a separate piece riveted onto the backplate where the extra slot is. There also appears to be a broken rivet in the corner of the plate that is sticking up, which could indicate where something was attached. Could there have been a small extra piece that has come loose and disappeared over time that was meant to even up the upper edge of the back plate? There are distinct similarities between this part of the armour and the corresponding piece in the contemporary illustrations, but there are also notable differences. It remains a mystery as to whether real parts of Ned’s armour have gone missing and been replaced with forgeries.
Joe Byrne’s Armour
Joe’s armour is the only suit in a private collection and thus has been the least available for public scrutiny. It is also the suit that has remained most continually intact since 1880. It was given by Superintendent Hare to the Clarkes of Rupertswood Mansion as a gift in thanks for the family’s assistance in his recuperation following the Glenrowan siege (they were relatives of his wife.) At the time Hare believed he was gifting them Ned’s armour, and also gifted Ned’s revolving carbine alongside it. A photograph of a policeman wearing the armour and holding a shotgun was used for the cover of Superintendent Hare’s memoirs and appeared inside the book as well.
On rare occasions, such as TV documentaries, exhibitions, and anniversary festivals, the armour is trotted out. At one event people were even allowed to try on the helmet. It was also used as a costume in the 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang, back when it was still believed to be Ned’s, though it was only used for a few close-ups, photos of the actor in the armour were used to promote the film. The suit comprises a helmet, breastplate, backplate, apron, and side plates that turn the body armour into a sort of cuirass.
The most distinctive part of the armour is the helmet with its scalloped faceplate that creates two eye-holes instead of the straight slot like the other helmets. Beyond that it conforms to the same construction method as with Ned’s armour (excepting the side plates.) The face plate on the helmet has a bevelled hole on the left hand side where the mouldboard was originally attached to a plough and a smaller hole next to the securing bolt on the same side where it appears the manufacturer miscalculated where the bolt hole was supposed to be. Joe’s helmet is also the only one with a curled bottom edge on the cylinder to allow it to sit more comfortably on the shoulders, and has the distinction of being taller and possessing a longer faceplate. There is also a rather strange hole on the right-hand side, which looks like a bullet dent that has been torn open or has rusted away to create a hole. No explanation has ever been given.
For over 100 years questions have been asked about how Joe Byrne was struck in the groin while wearing his armour. The assumption was that it was a complete fluke and the bullet passed through the gap between the apron and the breastplate. Another theory is that Joe was lifting the apron while drinking, allowing a bullet to pass underneath. A more likely scenario is that the apron was not attached at the time due to the way it impeded leg movement. A potential piece of evidence to back this idea up is that the apron was not drawn on Carrington’s illustration of Joe’s death. Given that it is evident that Carrington saw Joe’s dead body, likely still in the body armour, it seems a curious thing to omit unless there was no apron present for him to illustrate. Based on the construction of Joe’s breastplate, it would appear that there were two bolts at the base that correlated with holes in the apron, (only one bolt is remaining presently.) Feasibly these bolts were used to hook looped leather thongs over. The thongs could have been tied to the apron through punched holes and made into a loop to allow easy removal for when mounting a horse.
If we can accept the premise that a smaller apron was more likely to allow easier mounting or more comfortable sitting on horseback, perhaps it is worth entertaining the notion that the apron attached at present to Dan’s suit is actually Joe’s. The smaller size and diagonal cut along the bottom edge could also correlate with the story of Joe lifting the apron when he was shot. A larger apron would be harder to get a bullet under in theory, but a small plate would pose far less protection of and thus could potentially expose vulnerable areas. Furthermore, the apron currently kept with the rest of Joe’s armour was photographed with the pieces of Dan’s and Steve’s armour after the siege, notable for the slots on the upper edge. These slots also correlate exactly with the two holes punched along the centre of the bottom edge of Dan’s breastplate. When paired with Joe’s breastplate the slots don’t line up with anything so any attempt to join it requires a bit of fiddling around and is ultimately not very convincing at showing that it was designed to be worn in such a way.
The breastplate and backplate have a very similar appearance to Ned’s armour. The backplate has a similar “wing” design at the shoulders, though the one on the right shoulder is more pronounced. There is also a hole at the bottom of the backplate that could be where a rivet fell out, which may also explain why there appears to be a rivet on the wrong side of the join that is partially flattened out over where the two plates overlap. Both the breastplate and backplate have circular lumps that appear to be where a rivet may have been placed, though not to connect anything. It is possible that the gang had added metal or rivets to the bolt holes from where the plates joined the equipment they belonged to in order to plug them up.
Overall, the armour is a much more sophisticated suit than Ned’s, indicating it was subject to much more research and development than the prototype. It was evidently constructed with a mind towards maximising coverage while not impeding the limbs as much as possible. It is not perfect, though, and still has some spots that seem a bit crude or unrefined.
Dan Kelly’s Armour
Interestingly, the most well-constructed suit of the four is that believed to be Dan Kelly’s. Its construction is both aesthetically pleasing and functionally superior, distilling the best elements of the other suits. Most of the pieces in this suit were previously arranged in a different order and labelled as Ned’s armour. Like Steve Hart’s suit, the key to identifying the pieces was a photograph taken the day after the siege at the Benalla police station, where the pieces were laid out with Ned’s carbine, shoulder plate and skull cap. All of the pieces currently comprising the suit are included in that photo except the apron.
Based on some witness accounts, Dan was still wearing his body armour when his corpse was seen in the bedroom of the Glenrowan Inn during the inferno. Thomas Carrington illustrated Dan’s body as he watched it through the flames beginning to burn. This is the only known visual record of the bodies of Dan and Steve. Interestingly, Dan’ sapron is not illustrated in this image, just like the image Carrington made of Joe’s death, which may indicate that it was attached in such a way that it could be removed from the breastplate while the rest of the armour was still being worn. Some witness accounts state that the armour was next to the bodies, but if that is the case then it indicates that Carrington’s illustration is incorrect. Knowing whether or not the armour was on the corpse as it burned could potentially help explain how Dan Kelly died, but alas it remains inconclusive.
The helmet comprises three pieces: the main plate that protects the back and sides of the head, a riveted brow plate and a bolted face plate. To accommodate the brow plate, the sides of the helmet taper inwards slightly, likely due to the small plate being slightly shorter than intended. The holes punched along the bottom edge of the back of the helmet indicate some kind of quilted or padded collar may have been stitched into it instead of the overall padding seen in the other helmets. There are holes in the top edge, but they are very different to the other helmets. The double holes on the back of the helmet are larger and one of the is plugged with a large rivet; this is repeated on the right-hand side, and seems to have been the same on the left side also. Perhaps this indicates a kind of lid had been attached at some stage, in which case it would have been the only enclosed helmet. It may also be indicative of an attempt to find an alternative way of attaching support straps to the top of the helmet, though it appears to have been the only helmet that was designed to be worn comfortably without straps suspending it from the skull, as the eyeslit sits perfectly in line with the eyes as the helmet rests on the wearer’s shoulders. The way that the eyeslit narrows when the helmet is worn is quite interesting, as the edge of the faceplate has been cut in such a way that it rises in the middle; almost like the bevelled faceplate on Joe’s helmet but not as crude. It is easy to see why for many years this was mistaken for Ned’s helmet. It is similar in design, but far more aesthetically pleasing due to its symmetry, and is clearly made by more experienced hands and thus more befitting of Ned’s reputation as the leader – after all, why wouldn’t the best man in the gang have the best armour, (or so that train of thought goes)?
The body armour, like Joe’s, was meant to encase the torso like a cuirass, with the front and back linked by thin side plates. Only one of these remains and is attached to the backplate by a rivet. It appears that the rivet or bolt that secured the side plate to the breastplate was sheared off to separate the halves, with part of the fixing still visible in the hole. On the left-hand side there are holes of equal size punched parallel to each other in the breastplate and backplate, demonstrating that a similar attachment was likely present in that spot. The side plate from the left-hand side may have been removed by the wearer to allow ease of removal in conjunction with a loosening of the left shoulder strap, which may also account for the broken rivet in the remaining side plate if the act of prying the armour apart may have accidentally snapped it.
The breastplate is made from two plates of iron fastened slightly to the right of centre by rivets. Along the seam near the bottom is a kink that indicates where, perhaps, the steel was overstressed during smithing. In the centre of the piece, near the bottom, two parallel holes have been punched, evidently for the purposes of attaching an apron. The area around the right arm is cut deeper to allow more movement, possibly even greater provision for holding a rifle. A larger hole punched in the lower left hand corner of the breastplate either comes from where the plate was attached to a plough, or may have originally been intended to be used for an apron.
The backplate has a unique T-shaped construction made from three plates of iron riveted like a double-breasted military jacket, which is likely why it was once considered to be Ned’s breastplate. The replica of this piece was used as Ned’s breastplate in the 1970 film along with the replica of Joe’s helmet because of their striking aesthetic. The “wings” that were designed to protect the shoulders are cut in such a way that wearing it on the front of the body would dramatically reduce freedom of movement in the arms. The shape is also reminiscent of the backplates on Ned’s and Joe’s suits, which also featured “wings” at the shoulders, however the construction was vastly different and less pronounced. In various spots on the backplate there are bevelled holes, some of which have been cut through to shape the iron, where the steel used would have connected previously to equipment. There are small holes along the bottom edge that have either been punched through or drilled. When the suit was on display in Old Melbourne Gaol, these holes lined up with holes drilled into the upper edge in the apron with which it was displayed. It appears as if the holes were possibly drilled into the steel at a later point specifically to make them line up for display purposes given how clean and round the holes are, though perhaps not. Once again, some holes appear to have been plugged up with flattened rivets, while others are unstopped. Perhaps the filler in these holes fell out during the fire, or were deemed unnecessary to fill.
The apron now displayed with the suit is much smaller than in other suits and has a distinctive slant on the lower edge. The narrow end has a rivet punched in, with two other spots where holes appear to have been filled in. There is a large hole on the upper left-hand corner where the steel was bolted onto a plough. Small holes punched along the top edge are presumably for attaching the apron to the breastplate, however the holes do not line up with the ones on the breastplate it is displayed with. The apron on Joe’s suit has slots that are situated parallel to where the holes are punched in the lower edge of Dan’s breastplate, and the piece was also included in the photo of the pieces at Benalla. It is a much larger apron, curved on one side and straight on the other, whereas the one currently with Dan’s suit is much smaller. It is possible that by the time Dan and Steve had their armour built there had been concerns raised about the level of protection offered to the legs and groin by the smaller aprons on Ned’s and Joe’s armour, which would be a good reason for the two remaining suits to have much larger aprons.
A curious detail is that the backplate and apron have matching rust streaks that are from when the armour was displayed in Old Melbourne Gaol, with the T-shaped backplate as a breastplate and the apron hanging from its bottom edge. The holes in the backplate and the apron seem to line up reasonably well though they only connect from the centre on one side.
Steve Hart’s Armour
It seems bizarre, given he is the most often overlooked member of the gang, but Steve’s armour may just be the only complete suit. The pieces it comprises of were all included in the photograph of Dan’s and Steve’s armour taken after the siege, and most of the pieces are being worn together by a policeman in another photo taken at the same time (the trooper is also wearing Ned’s cap and holding Ned’s carbine.) The construction of Steve’s suit is far more crude looking than the other three and appears to the only one that uses sheet metal rather than mould boards for any part of the construction, perhaps indicating a rush to build it or a shortage of the iron mouldboards to construct it with.
The most easily recognisable trait of this suit’s helmet is the wider eye slit. Presumably this was to afford a better field of view for the wearer, or perhaps Hart was claustrophobic when wearing the helmet. The helmet also has double holes punched around the upper and lower edges for attaching padding and possibly for straps that would stop the helmet resting on the shoulders, which would have both exposed the skull and dropped the eye slit too low to be practical. A perfect illustration of the practicality of such straps is evident in photographs of police officers wearing the helmet without any such straps. A minor error in the helmet is a bolt hole cut too close to the edge of the faceplate, demonstrating an unskilled or overconfident hand was likely involved in the construction; a misplaced cut on the opposite side of the faceplate indicates the same. The left-hand side of the helmet curves at the edge – a remnant of its original form as a mouldboard – which evidently created a difficulty in securing the brow piece, as it is barely connected by a bolt in the lower corner, no doubt partly because this helmet has a much wider shape. This helmet is also the only one where the faceplate has no hole in it left over from where the steel was formerly attached to a plough. It has the strange distinction of being both one of the most aesthetically pleasing and yet haphazardly made of the helmets.
Moving on to the breastplate we can see the standard construction of two plates riveted together. The only difference is that the steel joins on a slight downward angle instead of vertically. As with Dan’s the breastplate has curved cuts around the arm to allow better movement, though the wing on the right-hand side has been cut away completely. This breastplate has two holes, (one punched in each lower corner), in order to secure the apron. There is a hole near the bottom of the join where a rivet has apparently fallen out. For many decades, this piece was worn as Ned Kelly’s backplate, sometimes with Ned’s shoulder plate hanging off it as a back lappet. Steve’s armour also has the intriguing distinction of being the only suit other than Ned’s to have a deep dent from a Martini Henry round. This dent is just under the slot for the left hand shoulder strap and seems to have cracked the steel around the slot. This indicates that Steve must have been relatively close to whoever fired the shot with the high powered round. This could tally up with witness accounts that stated Steve was shot in the arm as such a blow would surely have broken his collarbone, leaving him unable to properly use his arm. He may also have removed the body armour due to the jagged steel cutting into him where the bullet had created the crack, thus explaining why his body was not seen in armour during the fire.
The backplate, which was for some time displayed as Ned’s backplate in Old Melbourne Gaol, is the only such piece that is not made from multiple parts. The backplate is one big piece of steel, shaped to fit onto the wearer’s back. It has two slots for the shoulder straps but no other holes. There are spots where it seems the metal was cracked or broken then welded back together. No doubt this was a weaker piece than what was worn on the breast and head, but as the gang were meant to be facing their opponents it seems unlikely that they would have seen it as a problem.
(Slideshow: “Ned Kelly’s armour – Police Barracks, 7 April 1941” [Source: SLNSW])
Finally, the apron is the largest such piece, and seems to have been part of a different machine than the Lennon ploughs used on the other suits. It still bears two bolt holes, but is a larger, squarer piece. The upper edge has a slight W shape, with holes punched in at the upper corners and in the centre, where the steel has been hammered flatter. The holes line up with the holes in the breastplate precisely, indicating this is the correct coupling. This piece would have offered better protection for the legs, but restricted the ability to walk.
What can we learn from these idiosyncrasies? Perhaps it can create a narrative of when each suit was made and who by. Naturally, as each suit was made the process would have become more refined. Whether it’s a blacksmith or an outlaw, the quality of the pieces must naturally become higher as the competency with the process develops. Both Ned’s and Steve’s show signs of being early designs by being visibly asymmetrical, with rougher construction and less attention to aesthetics. Cracks in the metal indicate where it may have cracked during construction due to being shaped at the wrong temperature. Joe’s and Dan’s are both far more competently made with more symmetrical construction, additional plates to increase the level of protection, narrower eye slots and smoother plates indicating the metal was heated correctly in order to be shaped to the body. It also raises questions as to how some people could have asserted for so long that the incorrect configuration of the pieces was the true formation of the armour, given all the clues as to how the pieces are meant to fit together.
Where did the armour go?
The armour was collected by the police following the siege and kept in storage. Captain Standish had ordered the suits to be destroyed to prevent them ending up on display after a request to put them in an exhibition in the Burke Museum just after the siege. He was on record stating the exhibition would:
…keep up the disgusting Kelly-heroism and have a very detrimental effect on the rising generation.
During this time Superintendent Hare arranged to have a suit smuggled out, that being the one he believed was Ned Kelly’s, along with Ned Kelly’s revolving carbine. In error, Joe Byrne’s was taken and thus was gifted by Hare to the Clarkes of Rupertswood for their aide in his recuperation. The other suits remained in police custody and Ned’s armour, or at least part thereof, was used as evidence during his trial. A Dr. Law would later state that a plate of Ned’s armour was kept in a vault at his father’s bank for safekeeping as it was to be used as evidence. This could this potentially provide an explanation for the missing apron, and raises a tantalising possibility that there are other priceless Kelly relics hidden away in bank vaults, some perhaps long forgotten or having been handed down through enough generations with conflicting origin stories that their significance is long lost on the custodians.
In around 1892, pieces of the armour in the Chief Secretary’s Department were assembled into a suit comprised of Ned’s helmet and breastplate (now with the large hinged apron permanently attached in place of the original curved one), Steve’s breastplate and one of Ned’s shoulder plates. It was put on display in the Trustee’s Museum in the old Melbourne Aquarium at the Exhibition Buildings, along with the sawn-off carbine Ned was said to have used at Stringybark Creek to shoot Constable Lonigan, until the aquarium burned down in the 1950s. By the 1940s this suit was already being described as Steve Hart’s armour and spent much of those later years before the fire dumped in a store room.
Following the aquarium disaster it became the property of the Museum of Applied Science, who displayed it on a mannequin in their museum with a collection of guns and images related to the Kelly pursuit. It was a popular exhibit that invoked the ire of the establishment, who decided to remove it from display as they rebranded the museum as the Institute of Applied Sciences, despite much protest from the public. Subsequently it was fobbed off to the State Library of Victoria who occasionally put it on display. The Institute of Applied Sciences was renamed multiple times before being absorbed by what is now Museums Victoria who still own the shoulder plate that was originally with their suit, now exhibited with the rest of the known pieces of Ned’s armour. By the 1940s the suit had become definitively referred to as Steve Hart’s armour and was labelled as such until after the armour was reassembled in 2002.
On occasion the various suits of armour were put on display together, though rarely all four at once. Most commonly one or both of the two suits still in the possession of Victoria Police were displayed with the one now in the possession of the State Library in locations such as the Burke Museum or Melbourne Gaol, the latter of which was vested to the National Trust in 1971. Attributions of whose armour was whose changed often, though it had been established that the armour now belonging to Rupert Hammond, a descendant of the Clarkes of Rupertswood, was actually Joe’s.
The suit mostly comprised of Steve Hart’s armour was kept in the vaults of the old Treasury Building, Melbourne. Here the children of the caretakers were known to have played with it in the 1920s and 30s. At this stage it was still being referred to as Dan Kelly’s armour. It was labelled as such when on display next to Ned’s (which was correctly labelled at that point) in the Burke Museum, Beechworth. Later it was put on display in the Victoria Police Museum where it was referred to as Ned Kelly’s armour. By the time it was exhibited with the three other suits in the 1998 ‘Men of Iron’ exhibition at Old Melbourne Gaol it had once again become known as Dan Kelly’s armour and comprised of Steve’s helmet and apron, Ned’s backplate and Dan’s breastplate. The suit remains part of the Victoria Police Museum collection, and was on display in the museum’s World Trade Centre location until relocation to a new museum site began in early 2020. It remains away from public view as the museum transition is not yet complete.
The suit mostly comprised of Dan’s armour was kept in the Police archives for many years before being put on display at the Old Melbourne Gaol. Though the pieces were often jumbled around with Steve’s armour, usually the helmets, the most well-known iteration was made up of Dan’s helmet and backplate (worn as a breastplate), Steve’s backplate, and what is currently regarded as Dan’s apron. This was such a striking arrangement that it was labelled for many years as Ned Kelly’s armour. It was suspended from wires in a display case at the gaol with Ned’s Colt Navy revolver suspended alongside it to suggest the arm of an invisible combatant in the armour holding it. This configuration remained intact and listed as Ned’s armour until the Great Unjumbling in 2002 whereupon it was returned to the Victoria Police Museum and remained on display there until the site’s relocation in 2020, which is still underway, leaving the Gaol without a genuine suit of armour on display for the first time in almost 40 years.
Joe’s armour would intermittently make public appearances or feature in photoshoots over the course of the 20th century, though since the last time the four suits were reunited in Beechworth in 2010 it has mostly remained locked up in a vault in Canberra. It’s most notable outing post-Glenrowan is still its use as a costume in the 1906 feature film The Story of the Kelly Gang, though it was a centrepiece for a Ned Kelly anniversary event in 2008 where people could try the helmet on, and was also the only suit to be used for a scientific analysis of the metals used to learn more about its construction. The closest that the average person is able to get to Joe’s armour is the duplicate suit made from moulds of the original pieces that is on display in the Benalla Pioneer and Costume Museum (currently undergoing renovations.) There has been, to date, no suggestion that the armour will at any stage be given over to any public institutions, nor has there been indications of when it may once more be put on public display.
The Great Unjumbling
In 2002 the armour of Ned, Dan and Steve was reorganised to create the most accurate formation of the suits since 1880. After decades of the suits being mixed up and mixed up again, it was finally recognised that it was time to try and assemble the armour correctly.
A team of experts was put together to do the job of working out what went where, consisting mainly of historians like Ken Oldis. By looking at the recorded history of the armour, in particular photographs and etchings, they were able to better identify how they had been mixed up and thus make a more educated assessment of the correct arrangements.
There are still questions about certain pieces and where they belong, notably the large, hinged apron attached to Ned’s breastplate. This piece was not from the suit originally and may very well be a fake made after the fact used to disguise the fact that the real apron was either lost or stolen, as it does not correlate with any pieces that were sketched or photographed at the time of the siege, though it has been with the suit for over a century by this stage and is made from similar material. The helmet, breastplate, backplate and shoulder plates on Ned’s suit are correct. These were identified using Thomas Carrington’s etching. The apron in that etching is completely different to any of the pieces currently kept by the State Library, Victoria Police Museum or Rupert Hammond. Where this piece went is a mystery and in all probability is either destroyed or in a private collection somewhere.
When it comes to the suits worn by Dan and Steve, there is no clearly recorded information about the formation of the individual suits, as they were raked out of the burnt inn and thus already separated by the time they were claimed by the police. The photograph taken of the pieces of armour laid out on the ground in Benalla is important for identifying the correct parts of the two suits though. Putting them together is a matter of educated guesses using the clues in the armour itself. The patina on the suits differs slightly to that of Ned’s armour, most likely due to the conditions they were kept in for display, though the fire from the inn would have had some impact.
With regards to the suit attributed to Steve, the main clues lie in the quality of the construction and where the holes line up. The post-jumble formation shows that the body armour only connected by shoulder straps, with no additional holes in the backplate for fastening at the sides. Holes punched in the lower corners of the breastplate line up with holes punched in the upper edge of the apron, demonstrating that it was meant to hang evenly over the legs, not lopsided as it had been previously. Given the size of the helmet, breastplate and backplate, which are slightly shorter than those of the other suits, one can reasonably assume the wearer was either more diminutive in stature, physically weaker than the others (necessitating less weight to carry), or both. Steve was shorter and lighter than the rest of the gang so it stands to reason that this suit would have been more suited to his physicality. He was described, even at Glenrowan, as being the shortest member of the gang, and appearing to be the youngest due to his fresh face and smaller build.
It is also worth considering that with his rumoured track record of frequently splitting from the gang, Steve may have been the last of the four to get a suit made. This could explain the mistakes made during construction as well as the inferior materials. The backplate made from a single sheet of steel is obviously made from different metal to the other suits due to its size and the cracks in the steel, indicating it was made from sheet metal instead of plough mouldboards. The resulting piece, though not as durable, is likely much lighter and therefore easier to carry.
The apron on Joe’s armour is clearly not designed to go with that suit. The slots cut into the upper edge match up with the holes punched in the “Dan Kelly” breastplate. Moreover, the apron appears in the photograph of Dan’s and Steve’s armour raked from the ruined inn. However, as it has been with Joe’s armour in private hands since the 1880s, the likelihood of a swap arrangement with Rupert Hammond and the Police Museum is infinitessimally small. That said, the only suit the small apron could go with in the unjmbling was Dan’s as it did not match Steve’s armour and the hinged apron did not fit any of the other suits (nor was it photographed with the pieces of Dan’s and Steve’s armour). There is some potential that it could fit on Ned’s armour, though as it differs so much from the apron illustrated by contemporary artists, it seems unlikely that it belongs to Ned’s suit.
The larger shoulder plate from Ned’s suit was not included in the unjumbling as it remains the property of Museums Victoria. Apparently it was not included with the armour when the suit was given to the State Library, due to them having lost it in storage, and thus is technically on loan to the library in order to be displayed with the rest of the suit at present. It seems the option for the State library to purchase the shoulder plate in order to permanantly reunite it with Ned’s suit is not on the cards.
The armour caused a sensation right from the moment the first reports filtered out from Glenrowan. Thomas Carrington’s illustrations of the siege remain some of the most iconic images related to the Kelly story, especially the illustration of Ned Kelly at bay that graced the front page of the Australasian Sketcher. Within weeks most publications had produced illustrations depicting the armour or the seige, and photographer William Burman had commissioned a replica of Ned’s armour to use in photographs replicating his capture. The cylindrical helmet with eye slit has become instantly recognisable image in Australia and around the world. Thanks to Sidney Nolan’s paintings, the helmet is often simplified as a square with a rectangular shape cut out of the middle. The kitsch value of anything with a Ned Kelly helmet is considerable, with items ranging from cigarette lighters to garden gnomes featuring representations of the armour in some regard. The helmet has inspired or been used in various media of popular culture including comic books, television shows, web series, video games, action figures and more.
It was Sidney Nolan’s more cubist take on the armour that really cemented its place in Australian culture however. By reducing it to pure black geometric shapes it created a symbol that was instantly recognisable. Now people see the Kelly helmet everywhere; any square or cylinder with a slot immediately becomes a representation of the famous headgear. Perhaps the most important aspect of Nolan’s art in this regard is that in many of the images he created the helmet is empty, creating the sense that the armour and Ned himself are indivisible while also making room for people to project anyone they wish inside the eyeslit – whether it be themselves or an idea of who Ned Kelly ought to be. In so doing Nolan accidentally created something more powerful for the mythology of Ned Kelly than any number of pub tales could or, indeed, did.
Interpretations of the armour have been featured in everything from children’s books to commercials. Its prevalence on signage in Kelly Country is an ever present reminder of the region’s connection to one of Australia’s most significant historical events. It also continues to be a popular costume for children and adults alike, with some paying over a thousand dollars for sheet metal replicas of the armour while others are happy to make a helmet using a box cutter and a KFC bucket. It could be argued that the Kelly armour has influenced more recreational smithies, and even some professional ones, than anything else in Australia. The enigma of the armour combined with its iconography proves to be a continual source of inspiration to artisans of all inclinations.
Naturally, the armour has been depicted many times on film since the first cinematic depiction in 1906. Most interpretations were woefully inaccurate with oversized helmets or breastplates. It wasn’t until the 1970 film that we got a concerted effort to replicate the actual pieces of armour, though they were made from a mixture of tin and fibreglass, and the suits were assembled based on aesthetic properties over accuracy. Thus Mick Jagger’s Ned Kelly wears Joe’s Helmet and has Dan’s backplate as a breastplate. The armour from The Last Outlaw in 1980 is somehow less accurate that what was in the 1970 film, though Ned’s was the only one seen in any detail, the others mostly shot in day-for-night battle sequences. We got close enough glimpses of the breastplates worn by the other gang members to know that no considerable effort was made to accurately reproduce the armour, given that the pieces were oversized, the wrong shape and mostly flat. The 2003 film replicated the armour very closely, with minor variations due to them being costumes foremost rather than straight replicas. The 2019 Peter Carey adaptation, however, took the costume angle a step further by having scores of suits of armour, each one decorated with paint, fabric or scratchings to reflect the characters. Some of the armour was decorated with monster faces, crude illustrations of genitalia, or patterns, while the suit worn by George Mackay was covered in words that had been scratched into the steel. Ironically, there were pieces of the armour made for True History of the Kelly Gang that replicated the genuine ones but they were jumbled up with the pieces inspired by the real armour and given to extras, meaning the four outlaws were wearing armour that merely resembled the style of the originals.
The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)
The Glenrowan Affair (1951)
Ned Kelly (1970)
The Last Outlaw (1980)
Ned Kelly (2003)
True History of the Kelly Gang (2019)
Though the armour is undoubtedly iconic and many aspects of its later history are well documented, the origins remain elusive and continue to provide fertile ground for speculation. There also remains the possibility that there are at least a couple of original pieces of the armour out there that are yet to be reunited with their parent suit. As time goes on many historical artifacts gradually come to light, so it is not unlikely that pieces of the Kelly armour that may have been souvenired many decades ago could have been passed down through generations without their significance being noted or, more likely, the possession of such objects has been kept secret in order to keep the pieces in private hands.
We may never be able to verify claims of armour being made for sympathisers or the gang using a bush forge at the back of Maggie Skillion’s hut to construct it. The best we can do is theorise in the absence of hard evidence to back up such claims, though the oral histories provide quite intriguing answers to some of the mysteries. Meanwhile, we have four suits belonging to the outlaws, and all four are in the most complete and accurate formation that they have been since they were worn by the gang in 1880. For many, these suits act as a connection point between the past and present; between themselves and these monumental figures in Australian history. The armour has become, for many, symbolic of rebellion, being prepared to stand up for your beliefs, and of a uniquely Australian form of pragmatism. Others would contend that it is a relic of a miserable and unpleasant chapter in Australian history and ought to be hidden away or destroyed entirely. Either way, it demonstrates that the armour has become more about an idea than about the Glenrowan tragedy, and for that reason alone it is a symbol that will endure.