ned kelly
Updated June 10, 2004

ned kelly

The Armour

Overview | Origins | Creation
Purpose | Effectiveness
Police attitiude to
Suits - Ned | Joe
Dan and Steve | Icon


 
 
 

The Kelly Armour

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Ned Kelly's armour - (above)
Photo by State Library of Victoria

Overview

During a siege at Glenrowan, in June 1880, all four members of the Kelly gang, (Ned and Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart), wore suits of armour made from the mouldboards of ploughshares. The armour was worn in an attempt to protect the gang from police gunfire. Somewhat ironically, this now famous armour was used just once, but nevertheless made the Kellys a household name. Despite the police wanting the armour destroyed after the siege, it fortunately survived and over a century later, the now familiar image of the Kelly armour is ubiquitously used and easily recognised. It has even become an Australian icon. Regardless of how one may view the Kelly gang or their actions, the historical value of their armour is indisputable.

 

Origins

The origin of the idea for the Kelly gang to make and use armour is not known. There are a number of theories on the inspiration for the armour, none of which are supported by evidence. However it is widely believed that Ned himself conceived the idea. A sworn affidavit was taken by Constable Phillips (16/09/1881) and read by Supt. Hare at the 1881 Royal Commission (see Royal Comm.Q17786 for full conversation) claiming that Phillips had overheard Joe Byrne saying to Ned during the ruinous siege at Glenrowan, "Well it's your fault; I always said this bloody armour would bring us to grief." This comment implies that if Ned was not the instigator of the concept, he was certainly the champion of it.

 

Creation

 

Structure
The suits would have been made to measure for each gang member. All four suits were comprised of a steel breast-plate, back-plate, and a helmet. Each suit also had a lappet to protect the groin and thigh area, with the possible exception of Joe's (see 'Joe's armour' below). Ned's suit also consisted of shoulder pieces to protect the upper arms, and a back lappet. The suits were very heavy, Ned's being the heaviest, weighing around 97 pounds (44kg).

 

Material
The armour was made from heavy iron mouldboards from farmers' ploughs, allegedly some were stolen and some donated, (mostly from around the Greta district in northeastern Victoria). It is believed there were approximately between 20 and 30 mouldboards required to make the four sets of armour used by the gang. They were all roughly made to the same design, although Ned's also included shoulder caps. After the siege, the police announcement to the public that the armour was made from ploughshares was treated with ridicule, disputed, and deemed impossible (even by an expert plough maker).

Method
The exact method of construction is not known for certain, however recent scientific tests have provided more information (see below). The method widely accepted is that mouldboards were heated in a makeshift bush forge, and then beaten straight over a green log, before being cut into shape and riveted together to form each individual piece, (i.e. a breast plate, back plate, helmet, etc.). The pieces would then have been joined together, (i.e. over the shoulders, or at the sides of the chest), by straps (most likely made of leather). The suits were tightly fitted and the men would have had to be strapped into them. The helmets rested on the shoulders however, and were separate from the rest of the suit, (so would have been able to be put on, or removed, with relative ease). Ned is known to have had a padded fabric 'skull cap'. Holes at the top of his helmet indicate that it was fitted with suspended straps, so his head could take some of the weight of the helmet. This also would possibly have aided him in a better range of movement. (Note: It is not know whether the rest of the gang had similar skull caps).

  • New Scientific evidence:
    Joe Byrne's armour was recently scientifically tested by ANSTO (The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation). They were able to determine the maximum heat the metal reached, the method used to straighten or bend it, and to confirm the near age of the steel. Their findings support the theory that the Kelly gang made their own armour in a bush forge (which even at its hottest produced far less heat than a professional blacksmith's forge), and confirm that the suit is highly likely to be genuine.
    (For more detailed findings - click HERE)

Creators
The people who made the armour remain anonymous. Police conducted an extensive search for the armour's creators in the weeks and months following the Glenrowan siege. Despite their being numerous leads, and a narrowing down of suspects (typically local blacksmiths), no hard evidence was ever discovered. Making the armour was, at the time, treason. Anyone involved in its production ran the risk of being caught, tried and hanged, so it is understandable why those with firsthand knowledge of the truth remained silent. Self-preservation and a desire to divert suspicion from the true craftsmen were worthy causes for Kelly sympathisers to create deliberately misleading stories about the armour's creation. Over the years there have been various claims, which may or may not be true, as to the identity of the creator/s of the armour. Unfortunately none of these claims have been able to be verified as they rely entirely on oral history.
It is worth noting that all four suits, although they vary somewhat, are of a similar design and construction. If all the suits were made the same way as Joe Byrne's (see above), then there is a good chance they were all made by the gang members (and some sympathisers), rather than professional blacksmiths.

 

Police attitude to the armour

Before the siege
The Victorian Police had prior warning of the existence of the armour, its effectiveness (that it was capable of deflecting a bullet at 10 yards), and the Kelly gangs' plans to use it for protection in a forthcoming raid. Despite the reliability of the informant, (Daniel Kennedy who knew the Kellys and had been a police spy for over a year), and his repeated warnings, the idea was dismissed by the senior police (such as Superintendent Hare), as nonsense and Superintendent Sadlier told the Royal Commission he believed it to be "…an impossibility". Astonishingly, no directive was ever issued to investigate the reports further. Just days after Kennedy's third warning had been ignored; police were confronted with confirmation of the armour's existence first hand, when the Kelly gang demonstrated the 'impossible' armour's resistance to bullets at the Glenrowan siege.

During the siege
Despite the police being forewarned of the Kellys' armour, and the apparent ineffectiveness of police gunfire against the Kellys during the siege (even as the gang stood in the open while being shot at), the police did not realise they were using body protection. The siege mainly occurred during the dark (which reduced clarity of vision), and the idea that a gang of outlaws would have invented their own armour was not likely to have even occurred to police, even amongst those higher-ranking officers who had some prior warning, (which was almost certainly not made known to the general members of the force). In fact, the armour took a long time to come to mind even when provided with proof. Constable Gascoigne engaged in close gunfire with Ned (whom he recognised by voice) and shortly after told John Sadlier that he had "…fired at him point blank and hit him straight in the body. But there is no use firing at Ned Kelly; he can't be hurt." Sadlier wrote that even after such a comment "…no thought of armour" occurred to him.
Toward the end of the siege, Ned emerged in the early morning light from the bush near the inn, and made his famous and extraordinary 'last stand'. The police he was firing upon did not recognise him, but returned fire only to be amazed to see their bullets bounce off his chest and head. Homemade body armour was such an unlikely expectation that, even when only meters away, police were disbelieving. Their disbelief was such that uncertainty arose as to whether the bullet-proof creature in the mist was even human. Ned was verbally taunting the police at this time, and witnesses stated they could hear a metal like sound as he banged his chest with the butt of his gun. But it wasn't until Ned was shot in the legs, fell, and was captured that the police fully comprehended the significance of the armour and its effectiveness.

After the siege
Immediately after the siege members of the police force were as fascinated with the armour as everyone else, (the press reported the incredible nature of the armour world-wide). It didn't take long however, for police authorities to realise the potential danger inherit in the armour. They became seriously worried that its very image may excite the public imagination, or even become inspiration to other would-be rebels. But mostly their concerns lay in the possibility that the armour would be a symbol by which the Kelly gang would be 'inappropriately' revered. Many in the police force wanted the armour destroyed, fortunately however, after much debate it was instead carelessly stored (without care or appropriate attention).

 

Purpose

The armour was designed for gunfire protection whilst fighting. It was flexible enough to be worn whilst riding a horse, but was primarily calculated to be worn whilst on foot.

We know that the gang had the rail line torn up (just past Glenrowan station) with the intention to derail and wreak the specially dispatched police train, which they knew would be sent as soon as word of Sherritt's murder reached police. Whilst in prison and awaiting execution, Ned claimed that it had been the gang's intention to stand nearby and shoot any survivors of the wreckage, who otherwise may have provided resistance when the gang attempted to take any surviving senior police hostage.

Because the Kelly gangs' plans for Glenrowan utterly collapsed, their true and entire strategy will most likely never be known. So it is impossible to conclude with any confidence that the armour either did, or did not, perform successfully its initially intended purpose. We can conclude, however, that the armour did stop bullets from hitting most vital body organs and kept the gang alive for some time longer than would have been expected without it.
Conversely we can also say with some confidence that had they not been wearing the armour, escape from the police would have been easier and even likely. Also Ned's (at least initial) belief in the invulnerability of the armour was perhaps the main reason he chose to stay at Glenrowan and push a poor position, rather than immediately abandon the gang's plans and attempt to retreat.

 

Effectiveness

Before it's use at Glenrowan the armour was pre-tested by the gang and found to be effective at stopping a bullet at a range of 10 yards and was therefore believed, at least by Ned, to make the wearer almost invincible. During combat the armour proved to be only partially effective in protecting the gang as it had a number of design flaws that restricted vision and movement, as well as leaving limbs unprotected.

  • Vision: The most hindering flaw was the restriction of vision the helmet created for the wearer. The helmets were solid, heavy and entirely cylindrical with the exception of a narrow slit made at the front for eyesight. Wearing a helmet significantly reduced normal range of vision, and limited it to a narrow band directly ahead. As a result, not only was there no peripheral vision, but also accurate aiming of a weapon was made extremely difficult. Some evidence of this constraint was perhaps that despite the significant number of rounds fired by the gang, only one member of the police force (Supt. Hare) was wounded during the entire Glenrowan shootout.
  • Weight: Another significant disability brought to the wearer was the sheer weight of the suits. Ned's own armour weighed a total of 97lbs (44kgs) and thus would have made normal movement extremely difficult and speed impossible.
  • Vulnerability: Also, although the armour certainly protected the wearer from direct hits to those parts of the body that it covered (i.e. head and torso) the remaining uncovered areas were naturally left utterly vulnerable. It was in fact this vulnerability that critically injured Ned, and killed Joe. Both were shot in areas unprotected by their armour - Ned in the legs, and Joe in the groin.

 

Ned, Joe, Dan, and Steve's suits
and Where to find them

Immediately after the siege at Glenrowan people expressed fascination with the Kelly armour. Ned's armour was even being tried on and photographed before the siege had completely ended. Afterward, requests were made to the police to borrow it as an enticement to the public to attend various charitable or social events. The Kelly armour, or replicas, are frequently on display and never fails to attract crowds.

Unfortunately the journey of the sets, from their application to the present day, has not been a smooth one. Joe's is the only suit to have remained intact since the siege. Considerable confusion arose however, over the other three sets composition. Because police never handled the suits with appropriate care, chaos developed over which piece belonged with which set, and whether specific plates were used as breast or back protection. Although Joe's armour is privately owned, public institutions own the other three sets.


Ned's armour was taken from him by police at his capture, but is now owned by the State Library of Victoria. It's authenticity has been ascertained by cross checking it in detail against a sketch made by artist Thomas Carrington on the day of Ned's capture (28/06/1880) and which appeared later in 'The Australian Sketcher' newspaper.

The State library holds Ned's helmet, breastplate, back plate, and one shoulder plate. Melbourne Museum owns the second shoulder plate. (According to the Carrington sketch Ned's suit had both a front and a rear apron piece. However the front piece sketched does not appear to match the aprons with any of the known suits.) Ned's suit was eventually fully reassembled and put on display correctly for the first time in 2003, by the State Library.
More info can be found at the library's website

 


Joe's armour was removed from his dead body at Glenrowan and claimed by Supt. Hare. Hare subsequently gave it to friends, the Clarke family. It was reportedly used during the making of the first Kelly film in 1906, but otherwise has been well preserved by that family and therefore remained intact. It is currently in the private collection of a Clark descendant, QC Hammond of Canberra, who occasionally offers it for display to the public, and recently allowed scientific testing by ANSTO, which confirmed the suits authenticity.

Joe's helmet has the narrowest eye slots and was probably the most difficult to see out of. There is some dispute that the apron piece currently presented with the suit may in fact not have been Joe's. This is because there appears to be no original method of attaching it to the chest plate. It would also explain more easily why Joe received a fatal gunshot wound in the groin.

Details of ANSTO's investigation into how Joe Byrne's armour was made - More info.

 

 

Dan and Steve's armour sets became mixed after the Inn at Glenrowan had been burned and collapsed; their two sets were recovered from the ashes and later photographed. Therefore it is difficult to identify with any certainty, which set belonged to whom and even which pieces belong together.

Recently the publicly owned suits were studied and reassembled, correcting the mix up. The National Trust (Old Melbourne Gaol) owns one of the sets believed to be Dan's, and Steve's is with the Police Historical Unit (Police Museum in Melbourne). More info.

 

 



Sources consulted include:
The Royal Commission into the Kelly Outbreak 1881
Brown, Max 'Australian Son' Georgian House 1947
Dunstan, Keith 'Saint Ned' Methuen Australia 1980
Jones, Ian 'A short life' Lothian publishing 1995
Kenneally, J.J. 'The Inner History of The Kelly Gang' Kelly Gang publishing 1969
Malony, John 'I am Ned Kelly' Penguin Books 1980
McMenomy, Keith 'Ned Kelly The Authentic Illustrated Story' Currey O'Neil Ross Pty Ltd 1984
McQuilton, John 'The Kelly Outbreak 1878-1880' Melbourne University Press 1987
Meredith, John & Scott, Bill 'Ned Kelly After a Century of Acrimony' Landsdowne Press 1980
Nunn, Wannan & Prior 'A Pictorial History of Bushrangers' Landsdowne Press 1966
Sadlier, John 'Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer' George Robertson & Company 1913, 1973
Seal, Graham 'Tell em I died game' Hyland House 2002
http:// nedonline.imagineering.net.au/main.htm
http://www.prov.vic.gov.au/archivesvictoria/
http://ansto.gov.au
http://www.bailup.com/newsArmour.htm
http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/slv/exhibitions/treasures/nedkelly/index.html
The Age newspaper
The Herald Sun newspaper


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First Published June 10, 2004


Researched, data tabulated, and written by N.Cowie

 

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