Skip to content

The armor of an Australian outlaw, a bit like Iron Man

Born in 1855 in Beveridge, Victoria, Australia, Edward “Ned” Kelly was the eldest son (and third child) of Irish immigrants John Kelly and Ellen Quinn, a poor farming couple who had eight children.

Ned Kelly is 10 years old when he saves another child from drowning. His father died when he was 12 years old. At 16, he was sentenced to three years in prison for concealing a horse that was allegedly stolen. He then worked in a sawmill and then in construction.

In 1878, Ned Kelly attacked and injured the policeman Alexander Fitzpatrick who was trying to arrest his brother Dan following a horse theft and who was also trying to seduce his sister Kate. Ned and Dan Kelly flee, joined by their friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, before confronting the four police officers who have come to arrest them at Stringybark Creek. Three policemen are killed (including Thomas Lonigan) and one policeman escapes. The Kelly gang are declared outlaws.

There followed the break-up of two banks in Euroa in 1878 and in Jerilderie in 1879 with the destruction of mortgage documents and the distribution of money to the poor, which contributed to the notoriety of the Kelly gang. A notorious criminal, thief and assassin according to the powers that be, Ned Kelly has many supporters who help him and who hide him and his gang.

In their last confrontation with the police at Glenrowan in 1879, the four members of the Kelly gang constructed their own armor from pieces of agricultural implements (ploughshares) screwed together and held together by leather straps at the shoulders. Wounded despite his 45-kilo armor (which does not protect his legs), Ned Kelly is the only one to survive. He was captured, tried within half an hour for the murder of policeman Thomas Lonigan at Stingybark Creek, then executed by hanging in Melbourne on November 11, 1880. He was 25 years old. His last words would be: “So goes life”, according to a witness.

An unfair trial

The judge who decided Ned Kelly’s sentence was none other than Redmond Barry, who founded the Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1848, the University of Melbourne in 1853 and the State Library of Victoria (Melbourne) in 1854 He is renowned for the harshness of his sentences. He has already sentenced Ellen Kelly, mother of Ned and Dan Kelly, to three years in prison for helping her sons during the attack on policeman Alexander Fitzpatrick, even if the testimony of this policeman is questionable.

Redmond Barry is remembered less for his many cultural activities than for condemning Ned Kelly to death, according to Wikipedia. He died of pulmonary congestion twelve days after the execution of Ned Kelly. His statue now stands in front of the State Library of Victoria.

Past and present, many Australians believe Ned Kelly did not get a fair trial, including in a recent poll. At the time, thousands of supporters demonstrated in the streets of Melbourne and petitions demanding his pardon collected 32,000 signatures. But it’s a waste of time.

Like his armor, his plaster death mask is now part of the library’s collections. It was customary to make several death masks after hanging for the purposes of phrenology, a pseudoscience consisting in studying the character of an individual according to the shape of his skull.

The Jerilderie’s Letter

Ned Kelly sees himself as the defender of Irish Catholic immigrants exploited by an arrogant and unjust Protestant Anglo-Australian ruling class. He justified his actions in self-defense in a letter of about 8,000 words dictated in 1879 to his friend Joe Bryne, who then rewrote it more readably over 56 pages.

Instead of being printed and widely distributed as directed by Ned Kelly, this letter, known as Jerilderie’s Letter (named after one of the banks he robs), is kept by his emissary, copied twice and handed over to the police, with a summary of the letter published in the newspapers of the time after the execution of Ned Kelly.

Published in its entirety only in 1930, the original letter joined the collections of the State Library of Victoria in 2000. The events described in this letter are the inspiration for the best-selling novel The True Story of the Kelly Gang (True History of the Kelly Gang, 2000) by Australian writer Peter Carey (whose archive also belongs to the library). The novel received the Booker Prize in 2001 and was adapted for film in 2019 by Australian director Justin Kurzel.

Besides Ned Kelly’s armor, his death mask and his Jerilderie’s Letter, the library’s collections also include family photos, law enforcement telegrams and photos, miscellaneous letters, newspaper articles, minutes of the 1880 Royal Commission deciding the fate of Ned Kelly and much more. heard the multiple articles and books (documentaries, biographies, fiction, poetry, drama, comics, children’s books) on Ned Kelly from his execution to the present day. Many of these documents are digitized.

A popular icon

Over the years, Ned Kelly has become a mythical character with undeniable courage in the face of police harassment. It embodies the resistance of the oppressed against the authority in place, namely the British Empire. He is often compared to Robin Hood (the Robin Hood of the southern hemisphere, according to Ha-Ha, street artist in Melbourne) or to Billy the Kid, a young Irishman who emigrated to the American West, who also became an outsider. law and killed by law enforcement at the age of 21.

Ned Kelly’s life inspires many films. A first film from 1906 by the Australian director Charles Tait, which would be one of the first feature films in the history of cinema (with a probable duration of 60 minutes), initially banned from broadcasting as the personality of the hero is controversial , then long lost. A 20-minute fragment discovered in the late 1980s is now part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World heritage.

Much later, in 1970, the English director Tony Richardson offers the main role of his film Ned Kelly to Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones.

Ned Kelly’s life also inspires TV series, plays, poems, songs, t-shirts, prints, paintings (including famous paintings by Australian artist Sidney Nolan, exhibited in Paris) , statues and street art in Melbourne and elsewhere. The years pass but the myth continues to grow.

Photo credits: Victoria Library; Image: Left, portrait of Ned Kelly, coll. National Archives of Australia. On the right, engraving by James Waltham Curtis, coll. State Library of Victoria. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.