Fashioned from plough parts, heated in an improvised forge and beaten into shape over a green log, the primitive armour worn by Ned Kelly (1855–1880) and his gang at the siege of Glenrowan is as familiar today as the bushrangers’ exploits.
Over the years, the arresting image of Kelly’s helmet has appeared in many places, most famously in a series of paintings by Sidney Nolan, and in many forms, notoriously as household letterboxes.
The armour was not as effective as the gang had hoped. It was heavy and restrictive (Kelly’s weighed 44 kilograms)—the protection incomplete.
The two-day siege at Glenrowan, Victoria, in June 1880, began after Joe Byrne murdered Aaron Sherritt, a police informer, and the gang (Ned Kelly, his brother Dan, Byrne, and Steve Hart) then took the townsfolk hostage in a local hotel.
Byrne was killed in the ensuing gunfight with the police, the bodies of Dan Kelly and Hart were later found in the ruins of the burned-out hotel. Ned Kelly was captured during an open shoot-out—his famous last stand.
Kelly was sent to trial, found guilty and hanged. But even before his execution there were signs of the development of a folk hero: a massive public petition asked for a reprieve.