What was not known to the police when they began shooting indiscriminately at the Glenrowan Inn was that Ned, Dan, Joe and Steve were wearing the armour that they had fashioned from the plough mouldboards.
(Click on images to enlarge)
Left to right:
armour worn by Ned Kelly, State Library of Victoria;
armour worn by Joseph Byrne, private collection;
armour worn by Dan Kelly, Victoria Police Museum;
armour worn by Steve Hart, Victoria Police Museum.
Ned Kelly’s armour, front and rear views.
Sketch by Thomas Carrington.
The armour, an iconic symbol of Ned Kelly, is also a puzzle. The reasons for the creation of the armour remain unknown. Certainly the intent was to repel police bullets but, given the disadvantages, it is difficult to see how the armour was perceived as giving an advantage. The armour did not cover the legs, arms or hands; it was extremely heavy (Ned’s suit, the heaviest, weighed 44 kilograms / 97 pounds and he was obliged to wear a cloth, padded skull cap to take some of the weight of the helmet); and it required assistance to be put on and taken off. The armour also made shooting more difficult and required extra horses for transportation.
After the siege at Glenrowan had ended, the police wanted the armour destroyed. Fortunately it has been preserved and remains partly in government ownership and partly in private ownership
Testing of the armour has revealed creation in a bush forge with lower temperatures than in a professional forge. Although the police tried to find out who had assisted with the making of the armour, they were never able to do so, not surprising in that any persons who had assisted could have been charged with offences carrying the death penalty.
When the first exchange took place at Glenrowan it was dark, visibility was poor and the police were unaware that the gang was wearing armour under their long oilskin coats. It was impossible to work out which figure was which in the darkness.
When the battle began by the police firing upon the inn, Ned was in the open. He yelled at the police “Come on, I’m Ned Kelly and I’m made of iron.” The police had no knowledge of what he meant by this. The same voice also called out “Fire away you beggars, you can do us no harm.”
There was dispute subsequently as to which side fired first. Superintendent Hare maintained that the police only fired after being fired upon. Ned’s version was that they only fired after a number of volleys from the police, during which he was shot in the elbow, foot and hand.
Dan and Steve appeared out of the dark and Ned sent them inside to the inn. Joe Byrne followed and he was also sent into the inn. All had bullets clanging off their armour as they did so.
Inside the inn, which was still taking fire and was still populated by the hostages, Joe Byrne reassured the hostages that they would be alright. He moved to the bar and poured himself a whisky, making a toast “Here’s to the bold Kelly Gang” when a bullet passed through a gap in the armour, hitting him in the groin and severing his femoral artery. He fell to the floor and died of blood loss a few minutes later.
Outside the inn the police continued firing into the stringybark hut, mindless of the civilians inside. The son of Mrs Jones, the innkeeper, was shot in the back and her daughter in the side of the head. Mrs Reardon, the wife of the platelayer who Ned had threatened with tickling by his revolver, ran outside with their baby and children a number of times but was driven back by gunfire. When she tried again, her young son was shot by Sergeant Steele, later to die. In a somewhat puzzling defence, he would subsequently claim that he had shot at Mrs Jones, the innkeeper. He said at the time “I have shot Mother Jones in the tits.” James Reardon later said that when the prisoners put a white flag out the window, the police immediately fired three bullets through it. Constable Arthur threatened to shoot Sergeant Steele himself, shouting at him “If you fire at that woman again, I'm damned if I don't shoot you!”
Martin Cherry, a civilian, was also shot dead by the police. Two wounded civilians would later die from injuries received from police fire at Glenrowan.
When Ned had sent the others into the inn, he had remained outside. His elbow smashed by a bullet wound, he held his rifle at arms’ length and returned fire at the gunfire flashes. Bullets bounced off his armour but the police were still unaware of the presence of concealed armour. Seeing the signal rockets accidentally launched, Kelly made his way into the bush and was absent for four hours. It is generally believed that he went to warn his supporters not to start the rebellion and that the launch of the rockets was accidental, not to be regarded as the activating signal. It is also believed that after having warned his supporters, he made his way back towards the inn but passed out in the bush from loss of blood.
At about 5.00am, with the beginnings of light and with a heavy mist all around, a figure came out of the bush. The police did not know what it was. It looked like a human figure wearing a long oilskin coat but it was very much taller than a man and with a head that did not resemble any human head. The figure made its way towards the police, firing a revolver as it did so.
Sketch by artist Thomas Carrington of the Australasian Sketcher of Ned Kelly’s last stand.
Carrington was at the scene and witnessed the events.
Ned emerges from the bush, shooting at the troopers.
Constable Arthur, who had threatened to shoot Sergeant Steele if Steele shot at civilians again, came to the conclusion that the figure firing at them was a madman with a “nailcan” on his head. “Go back, you damn fool; you’ll get shot,” shouted Constable Arthur. The figure, only thirty metres away from Constable Arthur, responded “I could shoot you, sonny” and fired at Arthur but the shot went wide.
At Ned’s trial, Senior Constable Kelly (no relation) stated that Ned was difficult to see in the early dawn, that shots fired at the figure seemed to have no effect and that this had caused him, Constable Kelly, to yell out “Look out boys, it’s the bunyip. He’s bulletproof.” (The bunyip is a fearsome mythical creature in Aboriginal legend that lives in swamps, waterholes and billabongs, Until the mid 19th century it was believed by some settlers to exist).
Arthur, a crack shot, fired at the figure’s head but it had no effect. It kept coming in a slow, lurching motion, one step after another.
According to Constable Kelly’s later evidence, as the figure advanced it continually struck its helmet with its revolver “so that it rang like a bell.”
Evidence was also later given that railwayman Jesse Dowsett called out “It’s old Nick himself.” Someone else called out “It’s a ghost.”
Arthur fired twice more at the head, again without bringing the figure down.
The figure made its way towards the inn.
Dowsett later testified that Kelly called “Fire away you bloody dogs, you can’t hurt me.”
Dowsett saw Constable Kelly and Sergeant Steele circling around the figure and called on the figure to give itself up. The figure replied “No, never while I have a shot left.” From 5 metres, Dowsett shot the figure in the head, saying “How do you like that, old man?” The shot had no effect. Instead the figure made its way forward, leaned over the log where Dowsett was taking cover and said “How do you like this?” and fired at Dowsett.
Ned Kelly’s helmet after the Glenrowan siege and battle. Note the bullet dents.
Helmet now in the possession of the State Library of Victoria.
Steele fired twice at the figure’s legs with his shotgun and the figure fell to the ground. Steele fired again at point blank range, hitting the figure’s hand and hip. The figure got off another shot as it lay on the ground. Dowsett grabbed the figure’s revolver and Constable Kelly removed the helmet, revealing for the first time that the figure was Ned Kelly. Seeing who they had, Steele grabbed Kelly by the beard and throat and wanted to shoot him to avenge his fellow officers at Stringybark Creek. Constable Bracken, the local Glenrowan constable, told Steele “You shoot him and I’ll shoot you. Take him alive.” It was the second such warning that Steele had received that day. Steele instead kicked the severely wounded Kelly in the groin.
The 1881 Royal Commission recommended a demotion for Steele because of his “highly censurable” behaviour in not having tracked the Kelly Gang in 1878 It made no mention of his behaviour at Glenrowan.
Kelly had five serious wounds and twenty five shotgun pellet wounds.
Kelly in custody shortly after capture.
Photograph of the log against which Ned Kelly was arrested, taken 2 days after Kelly’s capture
After Kelly had been brought down in the shootout, Dowsett asked Kelly why he returned when he could so easily have gotten away.
Kelly replied “A man would have been a nice sort of dingo to walk out on his mates.”