The Kelly Gang of bushrangers was formed in April 1878, following a confrontation at the Kelly family home at Greta, in the north-east of the colony of Victoria. After an argument with Constable Fitzpatrick, in which the policeman was slightly wounded, Edward (Ned) Kelly and his younger brother Dan took off to hide in the nearby Wombat Ranges. The brothers were soon joined by two of their friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart.
Portrait of Ned Kelly, 1873
Source: National Museum of Australia
In the following months, police parties continued to pursue the Kelly brothers, not realising that their two companions had joined them. It was a standard police operation, with search parties combing the countryside and suspected friends and collaborators being questioned. Events took a new and dramatic turn, however, on 26 October 1878 when Ned Kelly and his three companions surprised a police party at a campsite near Stringybark Creek and ordered them to ‘bail up’.
In the ensuing gun battle, three policemen – Sergeant Michael Kennedy, and Constables Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlan – were killed by the Kellys and their friends. A fourth officer, Constable Thomas McIntyre, managed to hide and later escaped unhurt.
Within days, the four members of what soon became known as ‘the Kelly Gang’ were declared to be outlaws. The police effort to apprehend the Kellys, an uncoordinated endeavour before these killings, was immediately intensified.
The hunt for the Kelly Gang
The hunt for the Kelly Gang was the biggest and most expensive police exercise in the history of the colony of Victoria, but it failed to produce quick results. Before long, with the usual means at its disposal failing, the police came under increasing pressure to adopt new strategies.
They transferred large contingents of extra police to the North-Eastern District of Victoria; forcibly detained Kelly ‘sympathisers’, to help dissuade local support; and activated police informers and spies.
One of the more interesting tactics, although not a new one, was the employment of Aboriginal men from Queensland to track the movement of the fugitives around the surrounding area, particularly in and out of the rugged terrain of the Wombat Ranges.
This use of Queensland Aborigines was not the preferred choice of the Victorian Police. The Chief Commissioner wanted to capture the Kelly Gang without the assistance of outside organisations. But following the Kelly Gang’s daring and successful raid on the town of Jerilderie on 8 February 1879, it was clear that his police force could not cope with the situation and in fact did need such assistance.
Suit of armour
It was while the Gang was hiding out in the Wombat Ranges that they had the idea of making their famous suits of armour. It is not known where the inspiration came from, but it has been suggested that Ned Kelly was familiar with the novel Lorna Doone, in which the outlaw heroes appear in iron armour. The armour may have been modelled on sets imported for a Chinese street parade in 1873, and probably seen by members of the gang in Beechworth.
The spoils of battle: pieces of Kelly armour after their capture at Glenrowan on 28 June 1880
Source: Victoria Police Historical Unit
The final showdown
The four suits of armour were used only once — at the final confrontation between the Gang and police at Glenrowan, on 28 June 1880. In the early hours of the morning, the four outlaws stood on the veranda of Mrs Jones’s hotel and fired on the police surrounding the building. Later, Ned Kelly left the hotel wearing his armour and engaged in a final shoot-out with the police. He was captured alive after being brought to the ground with wounds to his legs. The other members of the Gang were killed in the siege. Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were dead before a fire consumed the hotel; it is unclear whether they had been shot by police or chose to commit suicide. Joe Byrne had died earlier from a bullet wound to the groin.
Ned Kelly was tried in Melbourne and executed on 11 November 1880 at the Old Melbourne Gaol. By a strange twist of fate, his mother was being held at the same prison, on a three-year sentence that had resulted from the same affray with Constable Fitzpatrick that had led to her son going into hiding.
After being captured by the police, the four sets of Kelly armour had divergent histories. Joe Byrne’s set was given away a couple of days after the Glenrowan siege. The three remaining sets were initially retained by Victoria Police and were possibly mixed up. One set was transferred to the Trustees of the State Library and went on display at the Aquarium until the mid-1950s. This set is still held by the Library and is now on display at Melbourne Museum. The other remaining sets are also on public display: one at the Old Melbourne Gaol, the other in the Victoria Police Museum.
A suit of armour belonging to the Kelly gang is on loan from Museum Victoria for display at the State Library of Victoria.
The State Library of Victoria has identified the suit of armour in its collection as including: Ned Kelly’s helmet and breastplate, Steve Hart’s breastplate (hung as a backplate) and unidentified lappet (or apron). This was achieved through the examination of works from The Australasian Sketcher and the study of the gunshot patterns on the armour.