When you think of Ned Kelly, the bushranger’s iconic metal armour comes to mind. But why a bulletproof suit and who was game enough to make it?
When you think of Ned Kelly, the bushranger’s iconic metal armour comes to mind. But why a bulletproof suit and who was game enough to make it?

Mystery man behind Ned Kelly’s armour suit

Exactly 140 years ago, in thick bush at Eleven Mile a creek near Benalla, Ned Kelly and his gang were undertaking social distancing of a very different kind.

Ned, his brother Dan and their mates Joe Byrne and Steve Hart were the most wanted men on the continent.

The New South Wales Government had just teamed up with a group of banks to post a £4000 reward for their capture.

The Victorian Government had matched it, bringing the total to £8000 - about $1.5 million in today's money. It was the biggest pot of cash ever offered for a gang of bushrangers.

Newspaper illustrations of Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. Picture: State Library of Victoria
Newspaper illustrations of Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. Picture: State Library of Victoria

Aged just 25, Ned was the eldest of the four. The gang's rap sheet included thefts, armed robberies and police murders.

But they attracted sympathy from a large portion of the public.

An agreement for Ned to be interviewed by a journalist in person a few months earlier had backfired, when the newspaper refused to publish the story.

And word had come that police were bringing six talented indigenous trackers down from Queensland to hunt the young outlaws.

Every crunching twig among the haunting gums surrounding the Kelly camp might have been a police spy.

As they considered escaping to another colony, or even to California according to one theory, the ticking clock hurried the four men towards their fate at Glenrowan in June 1880.

In the months leading up to the deadly shootout, the burning hotel and the end of it all, a kooky plan was underway among the men who some considered murderers and others considered heroes.

They were making suits of armour.

The unique gear became an icon of Australian bushranging. But questions linger over how they were actually made, and who helped the Kelly Gang design them.

A wood cut depicting Ned in action with his armour during his last stand. Picture: State Library of Victoria
A wood cut depicting Ned in action with his armour during his last stand. Picture: State Library of Victoria

BULLET PROOF

How the Kellys arrived at the idea of armour is unknown.

It is speculated one of the Kellys had seen a display of Chinese armour at a show in central Victoria, or that Ned had visited the museum in Melbourne and had seen a European suit of armour.

Metal was taken from the plates of a plough machine, either stolen or given to the Kellys by sympathisers, chosen because was thick enough to repel bullets.

But the thickness meant the suit would be almost prohibitively heavy.

When Ned's armour was completed it weighed 40kg and needed padding and strapping to wear.

It meant the bushrangers would move slowly, and would not be entirely immune to gunfire. A bullet striking the armour would bounce off, but the impact would feel as if the wearer were struck with a shovel.

A professional blacksmith would have heated the metal to about 1000C to bend and seal the armour.

Photographs of the Kelly Gang’s armour after the Glenrowan siege of 1880, and a policeman posing with the armour. Pictures: State Library of Victoria
Photographs of the Kelly Gang’s armour after the Glenrowan siege of 1880, and a policeman posing with the armour. Pictures: State Library of Victoria

But a scientific analysis of one of the Kellys' armour suits at the Lucas Heights reactor in 2003 found the metal heating was patchy, and the work was done at a temperature of about 750C.

That led to a suggestion that the armour was made using a makeshift workshop in the bush, or by a professional blacksmith working under strained conditions.

And it was made in a hurry.

Ultimately the suits worn by the four members of the Kelly Gang were only used once in the notorious Glenrowan siege.

In Ned's final stand, the coverings proved effective.

Some accounts tell of horrified police who believed the hulking figure, which refused to yield to gunfire, was actually the devil.

Some tell of Kelly slapping his breastplate and cackling as he returned fire shortly before his capture in the misty dawn.

When he finally fell, the other members of his gang dead, Ned was found to be shot in the hand, arms, legs and groin.

But the armour had successfully caught 18 more bullets.

A depiction of injured Ned Kelly being disarmed by police while wearing armour at Glenrowan. Picture: State Library of Victoria
A depiction of injured Ned Kelly being disarmed by police while wearing armour at Glenrowan. Picture: State Library of Victoria

 

THE MYSTERY BLACKSMITH

When the armour was tested in 2003, a descendant of Ned's cousin Tom Lloyd offered a theory.

A tale carried through his family said Lloyd had been involved in making the armour, and that the Kellys had bent the metal over a stringy bark log partly submerged in a creek, to dull the noise and avoid detection.

An obituary from the 1930s surfaced, claiming that Victorian blacksmith Joe Grigg was actually the one who helped the gang make the armour using a professional workshop.

He had claimed Kelly intruded on his blacksmith shop near Glenrowan and coerced him to make the armour out of plough and harvester parts, keeping him locked up and watched closely until the job was completed.

It was written that Grigg was paid by the Kellys for his work, with money likely to have and stolen, and although the police were later told about his involvement, he was allowed to keep the payment.

Ned's armour remains on display at the State Library of Victoria.

It is a reminder of a young man's vain grab at immortality, which earned an immortality of its own.

The owner of the armour has become a Victorian icon, but the owner of the hands who bent the steel and sealed the helmet remains one of the strongest enduring mysteries of the Kelly Gang.

A newspaper illustration of the Kellys’ armour in 1880. Picture: State Library of Victoria
A newspaper illustration of the Kellys’ armour in 1880. Picture: State Library of Victoria

Originally published as Mystery man behind Ned Kelly's armour suit


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