Ned Kelly – ‘The Man with the Iron Head’

May 2, 2021

Like Jackson Pollock’s painting Blue Poles, Ned Kelly’s armour has been given a refurb during the lockdown period. Now it’s back at the State Library of Victoria on (free) display in the South Rotunda until the end of 2021. But there are still major unanswered questions 140 years after the Shoot out at Glenrowan about how Ned could breathe inside a solid metal canister with a narrow eyeslit through the standoff and then the shootout.

The Library also has one of Ned’s death masks made hours after he was hanged just over 140 years ago. The Library site has a good range of photographs, drawings and documents relating to the siege at Glenrowan that ended with the standoff and then shootout with the police of which Ned was the gang’s only survivor – only to be hanged a few weeks later.

As Carolyn Fraser, Senior Curator at the Library, says in an interview with Channel 9 news, there is still ‘huge debate and contention’ around Kelly. Was he a republican Robin Hood hero with a political agenda about land rights in settler colonial Victoria? Or was he an antihero – ‘a central character in a story, film or drama, who lacks conventional heroic attributes’ as the Oxford Dictionary has it? Probably he was both.

And there is much that is yet unresolved about the armour itself.

Kelly’s headless body went missing until found in a mass grave at Pentridge Prison in 2011. His head is still missing but we can see from photographs taken in 1880 and his death mask that he was stocky man with a short neck, usually covered by a heavy beard (shaved off before the mask was made the day after his death).

There are many images of Ned Kelly’s helmet online these days including a 6 minute video from the State Library of Victoria that shows clearly (in the last 2 minutes) that there were two layers of metal across the wearer’s face, both of them rigidly fixed.

There was a narrow rectangular ‘letterbox’ opening that would have allowed somewhat blinkered vision. It sat above the nose. (In one of the four helmets there is a moveable visor and the underplate sat under the nose.)

There is another SLV video made in 2011 that shows the armour against a background of Kelly and his death mask. Note that the widest circumference of Ned’s head is not around his forehead but around his broad cheeks and strong nose. Ned also had a short, thick rather than slender, neck.

The top of the head was open to the air. It has been suggested that this would permit a flow of air into the mask, but that was also lined with padded cloth to lessen chafing.

A video on the SLV site says that the back plates ‘sit quite high up on the shoulders.’ The video shows holes made in the top and bottom edges of the helmet and says they were ‘to secure the protective [cloth] lining.’ Since the holes in the bottom were only in the front, it would seem that the padding would have come down over the face in an attempt to protect it from chafing.

The flange of Ned’s rigid visor is always shown in contemporary illustrations as sitting on his breastbone.

All the contemporaneous drawings of the shootout show Ned with a heavy coat over his armour and the helmet sitting squarely on his shoulders with no apparent provision for airflow.

The gang trimmed their hair and probably their beards, but the photograph taken of Joe Byrne after death shows there was plenty of hair left below his chin, which would have at least partially obstructed air coming in from below the visor.

Some have suggested that the holes on the top edge of the helmet were to secure leather straps that, sitting on top of the cap Ned wore, would help to keep some of the estimated 8kgs weight of the helmet from his collarbone and shoulders.

Bill Denheld, a retired Melbourne product designer who is well versed in Kelly material and makes one-third replicas of the helmets told me ‘The holes were about 6-8 mm dia (1/4 -5/16 inch) so it is possible only leather boot laces were fed through the holes in a crisscross pattern and woven through padding from side to side to hoist it up. The leather boot laces may have been described as strap or belting, but with only two holes at each quadrant, its hard to see how straps were to be held tightly taut.’

In 2003 Joe Byrne’s armour was closely studied by a team brought together under CSIRO auspices. Using metallurgical analysing equipment at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation facilility at Lucas Heights, they concluded that it had most likely been made by the gang and their supporters on bush forges rather than by blacksmiths.

Professor Gordon Thorogood said ‘Definitely. It looks like it’s been made by people who haven’t had the time to sit down and work outhow they’re going to do it. So yeah, definitely it was made by the Kelly Gang. Yeah, there’s no doubt.’

But they didn’t explore the question of how the wearers breathed in a heavy metal can weighing 8kgs sitting firmly on their shoulders and breastbones with, in Ned’s case, a cloth lining.

Other sources of information of course are the contemporaneous observations published immediately after the siege. But as the well-regarded Kelly historian Ian Jones wrote in his 1996 biography Ned KellyA Short Life

More police, reporters, a clerk-of-courts and a doctor had reached the group and the moments following Ned’s fall would be lost in a confusing pastiche of straight-out error, glory seeking and perjury.’

Jones reports that Ned’s armour was taken off him as soon as he was captured, and that he had complained ‘that the helmet he wore was choking him’ just after he was shot down.

The whole saga lasted at least four hours, during which Ned fainted at least once. He was able to rest every now and then. While his fainting was attributed to blood loss from wounds on his arms and foot, the claustrophobic helmet may well have had a lot to do with it.

Sidney Nolan painted his first Ned Kelly series when he himself was AWOL from the wartime Australian Army. Thirty five years later he is shown in a film made by Les Seymour for his 60th birthday trying on a replica Kelly helmet. Like Mick Jagger in his film of Ned, he handles the headgear like it was a top hat made of cloth. Nolan called Ned ‘the man with the iron head’ but his depictions of the helmet were widely at variance with the reality. Such are myths made, Ned might have said.

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