Ned Kelly's helmet is one of the Library's iconic collection items
The State Library is home to some of the most important items relating to Ned Kelly – his suit of armour, the original Jerilderie Letter and his death mask.
- was born in June 1855, in Beveridge, Victoria
- died at the gallows in Melbourne Gaol, on 11 November 1880
- was the eldest son of eight children to John 'Red' Kelly and Ellen Quinn
- as a child, saved another boy from drowning – the boy's family awarded him a green silk sash in recognition of his bravery
- was in love with his cousin, Kate Lloyd, whom he visited just days before the siege in Glenrowan
- uttered the famous last words 'Ah well, I suppose it has come to this' or 'Such is life', depending on which version of the story you hear.
How it all began
Ned's criminal life started early. In 1869, when he was 14, he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a Chinese man. The year after, he was arrested again, this time for being a suspected accomplice of bushranger Harry Power. Both these charges were dismissed, but it was too late: Ned had caught the attention of the police.
Some years later, in April 1878, a police officer named Fitzpatrick went to the Kelly home, hoping to arrest Ned's brother Dan for stealing horses. Fitzpatrick claimed that while he was there, Ned shot him in the wrist, although it's unclear whether Ned was even present at the time. Regardless, Ned's mother Ellen was arrested for aiding and abetting an attempted murder.
She was sentenced to three years imprisonment by Judge Redmond Barry (who, two years later, also sentenced Ned to death by hanging). Ned and Dan went into hiding, and were later joined by Ned's friend Joe Byrne, and Dan's friend Steve Hart.
After Ellen's arrest, in October 1878, Ned, Dan, Joe and Steve headed for Bullock Creek, where they hoped to earn enough money to appeal Ellen's sentence by running a whiskey distillery.
However, shortly after their arrival, they received a warning that four policemen were planning to track them down. Ned rode around the surrounding areas and found sets of horse tracks leading to Stringybark Creek, close to where the gang was camped.
The gang ambushed the police camp at Stringybark Creek and found two of the four policemen – Constables Lonigan and McIntyre – around a fire. The gang drew their guns and Ned shot Lonigan. McIntyre surrendered.
When the other two policemen (Sergeant Kennedy and Constable Scanlon) returned, they refused to surrender to the gang. In the exchange of shots that followed, Ned killed Scanlon and, later, Kennedy. From this moment on these four men were officially outlaws: the notorious Kelly gang.
Ned Kelly's suit of armour
The ‘letterbox'-style headpiece and matching body armour worn by Ned Kelly and his gang are recognisable icons that feature prominently in the work of artists such as Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker.
In 1879 – the year before the Glenrowan siege and Ned's ultimate capture – the Kelly gang began constructing the suits of armour from mouldboards, the thick metal parts of a farmer's plough. They acquired these materials in various ways – some were bought; others were offered to them by sympathetic farmers; a few were stolen.
The suits allowed the gang to walk away unharmed from close-range shooting, but they also served a less practical function: they made the gang members – Ned in particular – seem larger, more intimidating; even ghostly. The shock factor of the metal-clad Kelly would have been much to Ned's advantage during the Glenrowan siege.
After the gang was killed and Ned captured, the police officers involved in the capture wanted to keep parts of the suits as souvenirs. Various pieces of the suits were separated, some making their way into private ownership. But after years of research to determine which pieces belonged to which gang member, Ned Kelly's complete armour is now in the Library's collection.
The Library has also created a video featuring a virtual reconstruction of the armour and background to its creation.
The Jerilderie letter
There's no denying that Ned Kelly was a notorious criminal, feared around Victoria and beyond as a robber and murderer. Despite this, he had many sympathisers who believed that he was a symbol of the Australian spirit – an enduring underdog with the courage to challenge the authorities.
This perception was no doubt fuelled by Kelly's ‘Jerilderie Letter', an 8000-word manifesto in which he justifies his crimes and exposes what he viewed as unfair police persecution of himself and his family. Ned dictated the letter to Joe Byrne, who rewrote it in neater handwriting.
The letter was written in 1879, around the time the gang robbed the Jerilderie Bank. Ned gave the letter to the bank's accountant, Edward Living, and told him to have it published. Living, however, hopped on a train to Melbourne and passed the letter on to the police. The letter was eventually uncovered and presented at Kelly's trial in 1880.
Although it uses somewhat rough language and contains little grammar or punctuation, the Jerilderie Letter offers a valuable insight into Ned Kelly's personality. It tells the story of a young man forced into crime by situations beyond his control.
The events the letter describes also provided inspiration for Peter Carey's prize-winning novel, The true history of the Kelly Gang.
Kelly's death mask
In the 19th century, it was common for plaster 'death masks' to be made of the face and skull of executed criminals. At the time, these masks served several purposes.
Firstly, death masks were used for phrenological analysis, whereby the shape of a person's head is studied to determine their character traits. Secondly, they were often put on display in public places to serve as a reminder of the power of the police force.
If ever the police wanted to show off its ability to capture a notorious criminal, it was after the execution of Ned Kelly, who – with his gang – had eluded police for years. So when Ned was hanged, several death masks were made of his skull.
One was put on display in Bourke Street and was no doubt a source of fascination for the Victorian public. Another is now in the Library's collection.