State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 69 Autumn 2002


After Glenrowan
Some Recent Findings on the Provenance of the Kelly Gang Armour

When I first started my research on the provenance of the Kelly Gang armour, I became aware of the insatiable fascination people have for Ned Kelly, his comrades and the ‘mementos’ that bring to life his story. I read the article by Ken Oldis in The La Trobe Journal no. 66, which demonstrated that the breast plate and helmet, belonging to the State Library armour, had been worn by Ned Kelly, not Steve Hart, as had previously been thought. His research also showed that the back plate, originally complementing Ned Kelly's suit, was the one currently held by the Victorian Police Historical Unit. My task was to bring together all of the known documentation on the provenance of the Gang's armour after the capture of Ned Kelly and the death of the other members of the Gang at Glenrowan on 28 June 1880. For display purposes, I was to investigate how Ned Kelly's armour was constructed and worn on the day of the siege. But more specifically, I hoped to find the records that would explain how the suit of armour in the State Library's Picture Collection had come to be a combination of pieces from different suits. Also the lappet attached to the bottom of Ned Kelly's breastplate remained a mystery, as it had not appeared in any of the historical records to date. Experts believed that it was not worn at the siege and debated whether it was an original piece of the armour. This aroused my curiosity to find out whether it was authentic and when it was attached.
At the beginning of the project I ploughed through the endless microfilms of newspapers at the State Library of Victoria and documents in the Kelly Historical Collection at the Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV). I retraced the citations from articles and books published on the Kelly gang and scoured the records of the public institutions that had previously been guardians of the armour. I even had an opportunity to view some personal papers belonging to Sir William Clarke's family. I found a telegram here, a photograph there, but I found nothing substantially new, nothing long forgotten to the collective memory of Victorians.
After retracing the steps of other researchers, I decided to follow an intuitive notion that I might find something in the records of the Chief Secretary's Office, the first government custodians of the Kelly gang armour. On one of my many daily visits to the PROV, I chanced upon another Kelly enthusiast and archivist, Charlie Farrugia. My perseverance and enthusiasm must have caught his attention, as he kindly explained the ‘common sense’ that ordered these particular records. Taking a huge tome from the shelves at the North Melbourne depository, the archivist made it look so simple: he selected a year and then looked up the subject, for example the
index for 1880 under ‘K’ for ‘Kelly Gang.’ There it was, the entry — List of the Kelly Gang relics. We were both completely surprised by the find, it seemed to be exactly what I had been searching for, an inventory of the armour. However when I finally received the documents registered I was disappointed that it was a list only for the ammunition seized from the Gang by the Police. Undeterred, I ventured on alone to explore every index and every possible subject entry.
I decided not to disregard any entry, methodically following each one to its associated documents. After several disappointing traces, I was losing hope of ever finding anything of value. Then I followed up on an entry that read: ‘Kelly armour, W.L. Zincke MP applies for the armour for the Beechworth Museum’, although I knew that the request had been unsuccessful.1 I trailed a chain of obscure reference numbers from register to register, and finally ordered the box that was supposed to hold all the answers. I knew that my expectations were extraordinarily high and because of this risked further disappointment. I can still feel the excitement as I fumbled to open the box and checked through the numbered papers to find the one that I had ordered. But there it was, a bundle of papers long forgotten, that provided the sort of documentation I was looking for.
The request from Mr Zincke MP had started a chain of bureaucratic correspondence that provided a few ‘true’ glimpses into the history of the Kelly Gang; well, at least into the provenance of the armour. The letter was addressed to the Acting Chief Commissioner of Police at the time, Mr C.H. Nicolson. In response to the Beechworth Museum's request to display the armour of Ned Kelly or Joe Byrne, Nicolson forwarded the letter to Supt. Sadleir in Benalla so that he could give a full report. Nicolson asks: ‘as to the armour of the Kelly Gang now in the N.E. District. Where is it? Of what articles does it consist? And to whom did the suits or portion of suits belong?’ Sadleir replied that the three suits worn by Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly and Hart were in Benalla and comprised of helmets, breast- and back-plates, aprons and an odd side-piece.
In addition, Sadleir made a claim on the armour and protested strongly against any of it leaving his custody.2 Nicolson also had an interest in the suits and, in an attached memorandum to the Under Secretary, proposed that a Police Museum be established, similar to the one connected to the Metropolitan Police of London. This kind of museum could display those objects held in Police custody that had belonged to notorious criminals. There was no doubt that the Kelly armour fitted the bill perfectly. Nicolson also reported:
The armour worn by Dan Kelly and Steve Hart is at present in Benalla. That worn by Edward Kelly was produced at the Supreme Court at his trial, and is now at the Detective Office. The armour worn by Byrne is at the Police Depot Richmond.3
Ned Kelly's armour had accompanied him to Melbourne immediately after his capture at Glenrowan. It was on display at Spencer Street for a period of time before being moved to the Detectives’ Office. In November, Nicholson instructed Sadleir to send all the armour to the Depot in Melbourne so that a decision could be made as to
its disposal. It appears that he was unaware that the remaining suits had already been sent to Melbourne some time before Kelly's trial, on 28 October. In early December Sadleir responded:
I am only aware of one small portion that is in private hands at Wahgunyah and this will be forwarded as soon as it can be obtained. I take again this opportunity of urging my claim to Ned Kelly's armour. If so desired I shall not retain it in Victoria.4
The movement of the armour is again documented with the delivery of two bags at the Detectives’ Office in Melbourne, on 9 December 1880. Det. M.E. Ward reported that there were a total of three suits, one belonging to Ned Kelly and one to Joe Byrne, both of which he labelled. The third suit, he deduced, must belong to either Steve Hart or Dan Kelly, while he could not account for a fourth suit.5 Considering the earlier correspondence stating that Byrne's armour was at the depot, then the labels attached by Det. Ward were most certainly erroneous in their attribution and consequently caused some later confusion.
The three suits of armour accounted for at the Detectives’ Office were then passed on to Supt. Hare at the Police Depot on the following day.6 Nicolson, still keen to audit the armour, requested Hare to make a full inventory. Hare complied, sending a list along with his request to keep one suit as a ‘memento’ and reward for his role in the capture of the Kelly gang.7 Presuming that his request would be granted, Hare completed the list to reflect his possession of Steve Hart's armour.
List of the Kelly Gang Armour
  • Helmet, body & apron} Mr Hare's possession
  • Helmet, body & apron} Ned Kelly
  • Helmet, body & apron} Dan Kelly
  • Helmet, body & apron 1 shoulder} Joe Byrne
This was a new, significant piece of documentation. The list was confirmation that four helmets and four aprons had been made for each set of breast- and back-plates, thus dispelling the hypothesis that these pieces were not authentic but made under Police directives some time after the siege.8 Added to this was the mention of a shoulder-plate, albeit with its misleading attribution to Joe Byrne. The list successfully links the provenance of the shoulder-plate, photographed by Oswald Thomas Madeley soon after the Siege at Glenrowan, to that lent to the Exhibition Building Trustees for display at the Aquarium in 1892.9 This same plate is now in the collection of Museum Victoria and is attributed by contemporary experts as belonging to Ned Kelly's armour. The association of the shoulder-plate with Joe Byrne's armour may be explained by the earlier mis-labelling of the suits by Det. Ward.
The correspondence, immediately following the inventory, records Nicolson's polite demands for the return of the armour and Hare's response justifying his refusal.10 Hare got his way, leaving the armour in the care of Sir William Clarke who displayed it for many years at his Sunbury mansion, ‘Rupertswood'. Another of the inventory's anomalies is the attribution of the armour retained by Hare to Steve Hart.

Top: Kelly Gang armour and rifle, c. 1880-1892 (Rupertswood Mansion Archive Collection). [Inscribed below photograph: ‘Ned Kelly's armour and gun']. This photograph was published by Hare in his book.
Left: [Vignette of Ned Kelly on front board of] Francis Hare, The Last of the Bushrangers, London, 1892.

Did Hare think it was Hart's armour because it was the only one not labelled by Ward? If that was the case, then Ward's labels had misled Hare and he was actually taking possession of Joe Byrne's armour.
In December 1891, the Trustees of the Exhibition Building, Carlton Gardens, applied to the Chief Secretary's Office to lend the ‘Kelly Armour'.11 On 21 December the Chief Secretary's Office complied with the request and stated that the armour to be lent belonged to Steve Hart, as Ned Kelly's armour was ‘no longer in the possession of the Government'. This implies that the armour given to Clarke by Hare was considered by the Chief Secretary's Office to have belonged to Ned.
Was Hare trying to mislead Nicolson with his attribution in the inventory, so that it would appear that he had retained the less desirable armour belonging to Hart, when he thought he actually had Ned Kelly's? Or did Hare want Sir William Clarke to believe that the suit he was giving him was Ned Kelly's, when he knew otherwise? Perhaps at the time of compiling the inventory Hare thought it was the armour worn by Hart, but over the next decade this suit became known as Ned's, because it was the only suit on public display. It is very likely that public opinion was so strong in its belief that Hare had possession of Ned Kelly's armour that it was presumed fact. For the member of the public, seeing any of the four suits belonging to the Kelly gang would have been as good as seeing Ned's. Hare's book, published in 1892, included a photograph of a man wearing armour, with the caption ‘Ned Kelly in his Armour’, and that may have also perpetuated this misconception.12
To conclude, the armour taken by Hare as a memento and given to Clarke was at the time attributed to Steve Hart. Within 10 years it became known as Ned Kelly's and according to contemporary experts is now attributed to Joe Byrne. A second suit of armour, the one exhibited in 1890 at the Aquarium, adjacent to the Exhibition Buildings in Carlton (currently held by the State Library of Victoria), was a compilation of pieces from several suits but attributed to Steve Hart. In 1928, Inspector Pewtress on a visit to the Aquarium identified the helmet as Ned Kelly's. Recent research by Ian Jones and Ken Oldis supports this attribution of the helmet to Ned along with the breastplate.13 It is most likely that the lappet attached to the breastplate was made at the same time as the other pieces of armour and was one of the three lappets held at the Chief Secretary's Office. It was then selected along with the helmet, shoulder, breast- and back-plate to be displayed at the Aquarium. The pieces of armour that remained at the Chief Secretary's Office were at some time sent to the Police Barracks for storage. In 1955, all four suits were once again reunited and examined by Mr F.J. Kendall, Director of the Science Museum of Victoria. Although measurements and weights were taken at this time there were no further developments as to their attribution.
The documents rediscovered at the PROV have brought some clarity to the events that surround the movement of the Kelly Gang armour, but in some ways they have also added to the confusion. Importantly, they record the personal tensions, differing perspectives and the inevitable human errors that obscure our knowledge of the past. My research was focused on the State Library armour but it is clear that
there is a need for further investigation into the provenance of each piece of the four suits. That is, if they are ever to be attributed correctly and displayed as they were worn on the day of the siege.
Allison Holland

Notes on Contributors

Mimi Colligan is the author of Canvas Panoramas: Panoramic Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century Australia and New Zealand, to be published this year by Melbourne University Press.
Des Cowley is Rare Printed Collections Manager, State Library of Victoria.
Ruth Dwyer is a researcher and occasional author, with a particular interest in the decorative arts and the non-British in nineteenth-century Victoria.
Allison Holland, of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria, is currently assisting with the development of the Dome Gallery exhibitions at the State Library of Victoria.
Wallace Kirsop is Honorary Professorial Fellow in French Studies at Monash University.
Jock Murphy is Manuscripts Librarian at the State Library of Victoria.
Dean Wilson is a Research Fellow in the Dept of Criminology, University of Melbourne.


PROV, series 3991/1371/82/W835 no. 1. Chief Secretary, Inward Correspondence from W.L. Zincke, 6 September 1880.


Ibid., no. 2. Memo from Nicolson to Sadleir.


Ibid., no. 3. Memo to the Under Secretary from Nicolson, 5 November 1880.


Ibid., no. 4. Memo to Sadleir from Nicolson, 24 November 1880.


Ibid., no. 5. Detective Report from Det. Ward to the Secretary, 9 December 1880.


Kelly Collection microfilm of PROV, series 4965, 4/325, a and b. Correspondence regarding the receipt of the Kelly armour at Richmond depot, 9 and 10 December 1880.


PROV, series 3991/1371, 82/W835 no. 6. Memorandum from Hare to the Nicolson, 15 December 1880.


J.J. Kenneally, The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and their Pursuers, 1945, pp. 174-77.


PROV, series 3992/465. Chief Secretary Office, Inward Correspondence, 1892, T5157, 11 May 1892.


PROV, series 3991/1371/82/W835 no. 7. Memorandum from Nicolson to Hare, 25 February 1881.


PROV, series 3992/441. Chief Secretary's Office, Inward Correspondence, Exhibition Trustees, R 11748, 21 December 1892.


Francis Augustus Hare, The Last of the Bushrangers: An Account of the Capture of the Kelly Gang, London, Hurst and Blackett, 1892, p. 285. The armour photographed is the same as that currently held by a descendent of Clarke.


Victoria Police Historical Unit archives. Correspondence from Kenneally to Prendergast, 2 April 1928. Inspector Pewtress was a Detective working in the Beechworth district at the time of the Siege and was either at Glenrowan or sighted the armour in Benalla.