South Rotunda and the Heritage Collections Reading Room will be closed 22 July - 8 Sept. Find out more.

Home > Ned Kelly’s armour: a suit becomes a symbol

Ned Kelly’s armour: a suit becomes a symbol

19 July 2021

As immigration, technology and time changes Australia as a nation, there are certain mythologies which endure. Whether it’s a batsman from Bowral, a depression era horse who was unstoppable on the track, or a bushranger named Ned, there are some stories that are integral to our history.

The questions of truth, mythmaking and nationhood triggered by Ned Kelly’s armour continue today, and no matter what side of the debate you’re on, there’s no disputing that the ‘letterbox’-style headpiece and matching body armour has become one of the country’s most identifiable icons.

In a rare close-up look at Ned Kelly’s armour, Conservation Manager Jane Hinwood takes us on an intimate journey of how the armour was constructed, and reveals the many intricate details beyond what is visible when the armour is on public display.

An outlaw armour, for outlaw acts

Construction of the armour was a clandestine affair, as using the services of an established forge would have drawn unwanted attention, Jane notes. However, the gang did find some farmers sympathetic to their cause who offered mouldboards, the thick metal parts of a farmer’s plough, for the armour. Other farmers weren’t so lucky, and reported that their mouldboards had been stolen. A police informer, Daniel Kennedy, reported the ‘...missing portions of cultivators described as jackets are now being worked and fit splendidly.'

The armour not only allowed the gang to survive close-range shooting, as highlighted by Jane, but it was also designed to intimidate, with Ned and the gang appearing large and ghostly as Sergeant Steele described during the final siege in Glenrowan. The suit was ‘human, as to its clothes, but altogether inhuman as to its shape and general appearance’.

After a siege, a fight continues

After the gang was killed and Ned was captured, Superintendent Hare (who led the attack at Glenrowan) believed that as a reward, he was entitled to keep Ned’s suit. Subsequently, the Superintendent took armour he believed was Ned’s, when in fact, it belonged to Joe Byrne, another member of the ‘Kelly Gang’.

The fight for ownership of the armour continued, with Superintendent Sadler in Benalla holding several stacks of armour that the head office in Melbourne wanted returned. Adding another layer to the intrigue, Chief Commissioner Captain Standish in Melbourne fearing the potential for worship of the gang by some in the public, believed that the armour should be destroyed.

‘[T]he Beechworth Museum...are anxious to have one suit of armour presented to them. Now I entirely disapprove of this as its exhibition will keep up the disgusting Kelly-heroism and have a very detrimental effect on the rising generation. My intention is apply to the Chief Secretary to have the four suits smashed up at once.’

With knowledge that the Chief Commissioner was about to retire, Superintendent Sadler delayed the return of the armour until a new Commissioner, who was less inclined to destroy the armour, was in place.

From Glenrowan to Benalla, and now the Library, the fascination with Ned Kelly’s suit continues to this very day, and there’s perhaps no more fitting summary of Ned’s stature than with Jane’s final thoughts. ‘Whether you believe in his story. Whether you think he’s a hero or villain…he’s definitely part of our history.’

Click play on the video above to watch Kelly’s Armour: a suit becomes a symbol.