Was the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly an outlaw or a hero?
Edward "Ned" Kelly (December 1854 – 11 November 1880) was an Australian bushranger, outlaw, gang leader and convicted police murderer. Recognised as the last and most famous of the bushrangers, he is best-known for wearing a self-made suit of bulletproof armour during his final shootout with the police.
Like most outlaws Ned Kelly died young, being only twenty-five when he was executed. He was expert with a ‘running-iron’ on stolen, unbranded stock, and was a deadly accurate shot with revolver or rifle. Surprisingly articulate for a self-educated man, he was clannish, loyal to his friends and supporters, and had a sardonic sense of humour. He became an outlaw, hunted for almost two years before he was shot down and hanged. To the last, his mocking courage never deserted him and to be ‘as game as Ned Kelly’; came to symbolise, in Australian folk-language, heroism of a reckless, audacious nature.
On 28 June 1880 Ned led Joe Byrne, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart against a formidable police force. With the townsfolk kept hostage in the local inn, Ned’s plan to upset the establishment and form the Republic of North East Victoria came unstuck when he was duped by the local school teacher.
During the dramatic shoot out at the Kelly Gang siege, bullets bounced off the Gang’s ingenuous armour made from the shears of mould-board ploughs. The sight of the Gang in their imposing suits amidst the foggy moonlit night struck the fear of the unnatural into the police and it took several hours to bring Ned down. Ned was hung for his crimes while the other members of the Gang perished during the siege.
Even before his execution, Kelly had become a legendary figure in Australia. Historian Geoffrey Serle called Kelly and his gang
"the last expression of the lawless frontier in what was becoming a highly organised and educated society, the last protest of the mighty bush now tethered with iron rails to Melbourne and the world."
Despite the passage of more than a century, he remains a cultural icon, inspiring countless works in the arts, and is the subject of more biographies than any other Australian. Kelly continues to cause division in his homeland: some celebrate him as Australia's equivalent of Robin Hood, while others regard him as a murderous villain undeserving of his folk hero status. Journalist Martin Flanagan wrote:
"What makes Ned a legend is not that everyone sees him the same—it's that everyone sees him. Like a bushfire on the horizon casting its red glow into the night."
KELLY GANG ARMOUR
The Kelly Gang’s armour, made of plough mouldboards, closely followed the style of ancient Chinese armour — as worn by Beechworth Chinese in the town’s Prince of Wales Birthday processions of 1873 -74. Ned’s suit was made by Tom Lloyd and the Gang on a bush forge near Greta and beaten to shape over a green log. The other three suits were made at different places by different men, their identities kept secret. Ever since their confiscation in 1880, the three publicly-owned suits have been jumbled together. The public custodians of the armour finally reached an agreement to exchange pieces in the early 2000s.
Ned Kelly's armour is the only set known to have had shoulder plates. The right hand shoulder plate seen above was actually shot off Ned Kelly at about 30 yards range range with a Martini-Henry rifle by Constable Charles Gasgcoigne on the moonlit evening of 27 June 1880, early in the Seige at Glenrowan. After the destruction of the Kelly Gang the following day, Gasgcoigne collected the shoulder plate as a souvenir, temporarily hiding it in a nearby creek and later giving it to his daughter. It was eventually secured at auction by the State Library of Victoria in 2001 for a princely AUD $202,725 (about $160,000 USD). The other shoulder plate had always been held in various Victorian institutional hands, but had been for much of its time misidentified and as a result was not displayed until relatively recently.
Each of the four suits of armour were mostly made from mild steel farm plough mouldboards, averaging 3/16 inches (ca 5mm) in thickness (some refs state "1/4 inch thick", which is not accurate). Ned Kelly's suit appears to be made from seven mouldboards in total. These plates are believed to have been mostly donated by sympathisers in north-eastern rural Victoria, although some where definitely stolen from at least one farmer in the Glenrowan area.