The armour worn by bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang 140 years ago might have been inspired by a Japanese samurai suit tucked away in a regional Australian museum.
The Kelly Gang famously wore suits of armour fashioned from ploughs when they went into their final battle with police at Glenrowan in north-east Victoria.
Ned’s steel protective outfit attracted international attention after the gang’s violent demise in a hail of bullets and fire and has become an iconic Australian image.
But exactly what inspired Kelly and his gang to wear armour and how it was made has been speculated on for more than a century.
Six years before the Glenrowan gunfight thousands of spectators had gathered at nearby Beechworth for a carnival which featured a colourful parade of costumes.
And among those to take part in that great November 1874 carnival was a Chinese gold miner wearing a samurai suit.
The armour worn by bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang 140 years ago might have been inspired by a Japanese samurai suit (pictured) now on display at a regional Australian museum
The Kelly Gang famously wore suits of armour fashioned from ploughs when they went into their final battle with police at Glenrowan in north-east Victoria. Ned Kelly’s armour is pictured
The Kelly Gang’s armour protected the bushrangers’ heads and torsos but not their lower arms and legs. Two suits of armour are pictured after the seige at Glenrowan in June 1880
The large local Chinese community had sent hundreds of pounds to their homeland to purchase banners, costumes and ceremonial weapons for the carnival the previous year.
That memorabilia, including the Japanese armour, arrived on the ship Onward at Port Phillip Bay from Hong Kong and travelled overland to Beechworth.
The samurai suit, from the Edo period (1603 to 1868), featured cylindrical breast plates, shoulder pieces and aprons, as did the armour Kelly wore at Glenrowan.
His best mate and future Kelly Gang member Joe Byrne was from Beechworth and would have been almost 18 when he likely attended the carnival.
Kelly himself could also have seen the Japanese armour as he lived in the same district, was not in jail at the time, and was a month shy of turning 20.
Byrne, a regular opium smoker, had many friends among the Chinese miners, was interested in their history and customs and could speak conversational Cantonese.
After Joe Byrne, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were killed and Ned Kelly captured at the Glenrowan seige their armour was mixed up for years. It was re-assembled early this century. Left to right is the armour word by Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart
Police had found five bullet marks on Ned Kelly’s helmet, three on the breast plate, nine on the back plate and one on the shoulder. His armour is pictured left. The samurai suit (right) has been held at Beechworth’s Burke Museum since 1943
However, he was apparently not keen on Kelly’s later idea to don armour for the gang’s last stand at Glenrowan in June 1880.
The heavy armour – Ned’s weighed 44 kilograms – protected the bushrangers’ heads and torsos but not their lower arms and legs. Only Ned’s suit had upper arm plates.
Byrne, Ned’s brother Dan and fourth gang member Steve Hart all wore armour under their oilskin coats at Glenrowan and were killed during the gun battle with police.
‘I always said this bloody armour would bring us to grief,’ Byrne reportedly told Kelly during the siege.
Ned survived but was hanged on November 11, 1880. Police found five bullet marks on his helmet, three on the breast plate, nine on the back plate and one on the shoulder.
The samurai suit is now held at Beechworth’s Burke Museum where guide Graeme McIntosh tells visitors it would have been widely noted at the 1874 carnival and remembered for years.
‘We also know that Joe Byrne was friendly with many of the local Chinese because of his opium addiction and probably had ready access to the armour for close scrutiny,’ he said.
Ned Kelly is pictured left shortly before he was hanged at Melbourne Gaol on November 11, 1880. Joe Byrne (pictured) was Ned Kelly’s best mate and a well-read opium smoker
Thousands of Chinese miners came to Beechworth during the gold rush
The 1850s Victorian gold rush saw thousands of Chinese miners converge on Beechworth, 280km north-east of Melbourne.
Mining camps sprang up as gold was discovered at Spring Creek, Reedy Creek, Silver Creek, the Nine Mile Creek and Woolshed Valley.
At the height of the Ovens Goldfields rush, the Chinese population in Beechworth was about 7,000 out of a total of 30,000 to 40,000 people.
Colonial prejudice meant the Chinese were not allowed to live in Beechworth.
Instead, the town had a permanent Chinese camp, temple, shops and a section of Beechworth Cemetery where some 2,000 Chinese were buried.
Towers built at the cemetery in 1857 were used by relatives and friends for burning paper money in memory of the dead.
A memorial in recognition of the Chinese contribution to society in Australia was erected in the Chinese section of the cemetery n 2010.
Source: Explore Beechworth
‘It has been said that the construction contained wood and bamboo but this is incorrect as the construction consisted of leather and metal.’
Ian Jones, the late Kelly expert and author of the definitive biography Ned Kelly: A Short Life, believed Byrne had seen the Japanese suit, which he wrongly described as Chinese.
‘Even though Joe didn’t like the idea he may have helped design the suits – basing the body armour… on a set of ancient Chinese armour imported for the Beechworth carnival of 1874… ‘ he wrote.
Tom Thompson is a historian who has described and verified Kelly memorabilia for leading auction houses and published three historical books on Ned.
‘Joe Byrne was well read and literate,’ Mr Thompson said. ‘He had several Chinese friends from his early teens, so it is highly likely that Byrne was party to the 1874 Beechworth event.
The Kelly Gang seized the town of Glenrowan in the Warby Ranges on June 28, 1880 with failed plans to derail a police train coming from Melbourne. Kelly (in sketch above) confronted police in a suit of armour but was shot in the legs
‘Considering what the basic armour looks like, it is pretty clear that the Kelly armour had the pattern of the Japanese, with the addition of the full helmet.
‘If this piece went to auction, with the Byrne link, it would sell for $30,000 to $40,000.’
Dan Kelly’s armour consisted of a breast plate, back plate, apron and helmet
Jones suggested Kelly may also have been inspired by something he read in his favourite book, Lorna Doone, a historical romance novel by R.D. Blackmore published in 1869.
That book includes a memorable passage in which a notorious band of outlaws rides with their plunder back to a valley stronghold.
‘Heavy men and large of stature, reckless how they bore their guns or how they sate their horses, with leather jerkins and long boots, and iron plates on breast and head,’ it says.
Mr McIntosh suggested yet another theory. ‘Like all Kelly stories there is always a contrary anecdote to muddy the waters,’ he said.
Descendants of German/Austrian miners from Beechworth claim the Kelly armour design was taken from a European Cuirassiers outfit of helmet and breast plate worn in the same 1874 procession.
‘But this outfit was worn by mounted cavalry and did not use the plate worn as protection for the groin area that the samurai warrior did and is represented in the Kelly armour,’ Mr McIntosh said.
‘So it would appear that the samurai armour has the greater claim to being used as the design model.’
Paul O’Keefe’s great-great grandmother Ettie Williams was Steve Hart’s younger sister and according to family lore, Ned Kelly’s fiancee or wife.
‘I’m not convinced that the Kelly Gang armour was inspired by Japanese samurai armour seen at a parade some years earlier in Beechworth,’ he said.
‘To the point, this theory is totally contradicted some six years later when Joe Byrne was overheard at the siege at Glenrowan yelling at Ned Kelly, “I told you this bloody armour would bring us to grief”.
‘This conversation was overheard after the initial volley of shots were exchanged between the Kelly Gang and the police.
‘So in my opinion, the armour was Ned’s idea. Who or what really did inspire the building of these iconic armours we will never know.
‘But I do know it was an ingenious use of what they had at hand to protect themselves against the latest state of the art weaponry the police had at that time.’
Amateur historian and Kelly enthusiast Bill Denheld also cited the Byrne quote from Glenrowan as evidence the armour was not his idea. But he still thought the samurai suit was significant to the story.
‘Joe lived in the area and very likely Ned, Dan and Steve Hart as well attended the Beechworth carnival,’ Mr Denheld said.
Tour guide Graeme McIntosh said it was a mystery how the samurai suit (pictured in case) found its way from Japan to China but it may have been souvenired after a skirmish in Korea
A police officer adjusts the helmet of Dan Kelly’s armour which is displayed alongside that of Steve Hart at the Victoria Police Museum. Ned Kelly’s armour belongs to the State Library of Victoria and Joe Byrne’s is in private hands
‘Their seeing war armour from the ancient Orient would have made an impression on any young person especially those that were of lower classes, which the British autocracy wanted to retain.’
Items featured in the 1874 parade and subsequent carnivals were donated to the Beechworth District Hospital and Ovens Benevolent Society committees in 1910.
The hospital committees gave the suit of armour, banners and ceremonial weapons to the Burke Museum in 1943.
Mr McIntosh said it was a mystery how the samurai suit found its way from Japan to China in the first place but it may have been souvenired following a skirmish in Korea.
‘The samurai cause was lost with the banning of the armour by Japanese law in 1876,’ he said.
‘Little did they know that a folk hero would resurrect the tradition four years later in a little known town called Glenrowan on the other side of the world.
‘Like the samurai warrior Kelly’s cause was also lost, but dare I say it, Ned Kelly was the last samurai.’
How four outlaws in armour rode their way into Australian history
Ned Kelly (pictured) led a gang of outlaws including his brother Dan, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart
The Kelly Gang – Ned Kelly, brother Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart – caused havoc across Victoria’s north-east in the late 1870s.
Descended from Irish convicts and immigrants, they were supported by other poor farming families persecuted by police and downtrodden by colonial rule.
In October 1878, after the Kellys’ mother had been arrested, the gang shot dead three policemen who had been hunting for them at Stringybark Creek.
In December 1878 they held up a station near Euroa, taking its occupants hostage. The next morning they robbed the local bank after cutting the town’s telegraph wires.
In February the following year the gang took over Jerilderie in southern New South Wales for three days, robbing the bank and locking the local police in their cells.
Back in their home state Ned decided the gang would need armour for his further plans of robbing more banks and rebelling against authority.
He chose to fashion the armour from plough mouldboards – broad and slightly turned steel blades that sit above and behind the cutting edge, or share.
The armour was designed primarily for close-range action on foot but could be worn on horseback.
There is some dispute about whether the four suits were made by sympathetic blacksmiths, fashioned by the gang using a bush forge, or a combination of both.
Once armoured, the gang seized the town of Glenrowan in the Warby Ranges on June 28, 1880 with plans to derail a police train coming from Melbourne.
Byrne, Dan Kelly and Hart were killed in a siege waged from the Glenrowan Inn and Ned, whose armour had saved him from death by police bullets, was captured the next morning. He was hanged on November 11, 1880.
Ned’s suit is now owned by the State Library of Victoria. Dan Kelly and Steve Hart’s armour is held by Victoria Police and Byrne’s is in private hands.