I Wore Joe Byrne's Helmet
Some Aussie kids dream of becoming AFL footballers, Olympic athletes, rock stars, world-renowned scientists, or this country’s first republican President. (Ned would love that!) I must admit that I had similar dreams as a kid too. But I also dreamt of wearing one of the Kelly Gang’s iron helmets. It was a dream that I never thought would be fulfilled. My moment came at the recent Glenrowan Siege Dinner – the third annual function of its type, held on the site where Ned Kelly became a legend, and where Joe Byrne died. Joe’s armour was brought into the huge marquee and mantled piece by piece – a fascinating sight in itself.
The men responsible for turning my dream into reality were the owner of the armour, Rupert Hammond, who put his pride and joy on display, and Paul O’Keefe, a great-great grandnephew of Steve Hart, and a direct descendant of Steve’s sister Etty. Paul gave about 20 people the thrill – or the fright – of their lives by placing the helmet on their heads for a few seconds each. It was refreshing to hear Paul say, “It’s everyone’s history. Have a go.” I didn’t need any prompting to ‘have a go’. I just waited my turn, impatiently patient. It was well worth the wait.
I wore Joe Byrne’s helmet for what seemed a brief moment. I thought I had it on for about three seconds. But Angie Baron, a handwriting expert who plans to launch a new book next year, said I was ‘the man’ for about 10 seconds. Maybe I’m splitting hairs over a matter of seven seconds. Maybe I was caught in a time tunnel. One thing is certain: I couldn’t get enough of it. Talk about touchable history!
The thing that really overwhelmed me though was the lack of vision for the wearer of the headpiece. Of the Gang’s four suits of armour, Joe’s helmet has the thinnest slit for the eyes. It has barely half the visage of Ned’s helmet and about a quarter of Dan’s. It is the only slit that slopes in even closer at the bridge of the nose, like some medieval knight’s headgear. You’ve also got to take into account that Joe had been drinking, was very probably pissed, or at least ‘tipsy’. He was also a well-known opium addict, so maybe he’d smoked some dope as well. According to all reports, Joe was completely reckless of his life. It makes you wonder how the Hell he would have been able to see properly with his helmet on, considering that I struggled – and I was as sober as a judge.
I also gained an appreciation of how difficult it would have been for the gang to shoot accurately. They would have needed to hold their guns high, at eye level, to take aim. No easy task for Ned, considering his left arm and right hand had been shot in the first volley of police fire.
The following few sentences are a little self-indulgent, but please humour me. Angie Baron mentioned that I was a similar height and age to the boys, and it got me thinking. She was right. I’m 27; Ned was 25, Joe 23. I’m 6ft. 1in. (187 centimetres) tall; Ned was 6ft. (183cm) and Joe was only a couple of inches shorter. No eerie connection there, but come on, I’m grasping onto anything I can. I’m sure some of you do too. I’m sure you also share my fascination for the armour. But trust me, after wearing a piece of it you look upon it with a new sense of appreciation. And awe.
It wasn’t the first time that I’d come into contact with a sacred relic of the Kelly story. I’ve held Ned’s Colt revolver which he used at Glenrowan. I remember feeling a rough spot on the handle of the gun and discovering that a small piece of it had been shaved off. I asked, “What happened here?” I was told it was where a bullet had blown the tip off the little finger on Ned’s right hand. My little pinky had rested on exactly the same spot. I was gob-smacked. But that was nothing compared to wearing the helmet of Joe Byrne – Ned Kelly’s best mate, right-hand man and lieutenant of the Kelly Gang.
I had entered his head-space. I’d looked though the same narrow eye-slit that Joe had glowered through, in his game, cocky and reckless state, 123 years before. But no matter how long you spend wearing his helmet, imagining, visualising, it is impossible to enter his mind-space. Lucky that, as it would have been an infinitely scary place to be.
Thoughts on 'Besieged: The Ned Kelly Story'
Advanced preview screening at Glenrowan, Friday June 27
It’s almost worth watching this film just to see the exceptional portrayal of a peculiar segment of the Glenrowan siege. Ned Kelly, laying outside the police cordon, is part-conscious, shaking and bleeding profusely from numerous bullet wounds. Flies leech themselves to his wounds. You can almost feel the pain, taste the blood. The scene only lasted a handful of seconds but there was a bit of CSI about it. (You know, the American crime scene investigation show renowned for its graphic content.) Anyway, it was the highlight of an otherwise revisionist documentary directed by Greg, or Gregory (depending on which of the guest speakers had the floor), Miller.
The ‘film’ followed the regular documentary format, interspersing the occasional re-enactment with photographs, footage of the sites as they are today and, most intriguingly, interviews with descendants. The interviews represented the freshest part of the whole production. The descendants sourced were Ellen Hollow (a descendant of Kate Kelly), Roma Crotty, (a descendant of Grace Kelly) and, briefly, Howard Hummfrey (a descendant of Constable Thomas McIntyre). While this was good, interesting stuff, if you are going to do that, go the extra yard and (if possible, of course) speak to more relatives. Not only of the Gang, but also the likes of Sergeants Kennedy and Steele, Constable Fitzpatrick and Sir Redmond Barry, to name but a few possibilities. We might not like all that we hear but at least we would get a rounded picture of the Kelly Outbreak. It would certainly make captivating viewing.
With the film showing Ned saving young Richard Shelton from drowning and the Shelton family presenting him with a green silk sash as a reward, it appeared logical that Richard’s grandson, Ian ‘Bluey’ Shelton would be part of the interview process. ‘Bluey’ a dual premiership player with AFL club Essendon, still lives on the family farm at Avenel and is easily accessible. How easy would it have been to ask ‘Bluey’ about what it means to his family, the legacy, etc? Too easy. But, alas, no. Such an opportunity went begging. This point was rammed home further the next night when Ian Jones delivered a speech explaining the significance of the sash.
I can’t recall any blunders in terms of historical accuracy, but Miller didn’t re-invent the wheel on this one. He says he spent three months filming and “a year of my life” in production of the film, but he basically told us what we already knew. Don’t get me wrong, Besieged is a good introduction to the Kelly story for the uninitiated, and will dispel many of the poisonous myths that arose from the Heath Ledger film. (Maybe schools can use it as a resource). But it certainly lacked the extra punch required to keep the attention of the well-informed legion of Nedrophiliacs out there. It simply wasn’t as explosive, emotionally gripping or as dramatic as it could have been.
In fact, it was passive. Maybe that was Miller’s point. Maybe he was trying to prove that the Kelly Gang was a passive group of boys. But the truth is that without the violence, provoked or not, this website wouldn’t even exist. Much of the essential violence of the story was left out. We saw umpteen shots of the gang riding through the bush while on the run and meaningless footage of town life, with many locals playing bit-parts (a cheer went up in the audience whenever these scenes were shown.) We saw Ned laying in a bath on a verandah, sharing a drink with the other gang members. It placed the gang in a different place, which was refreshing. Who knows? It might have even happened that way. But it hardly adds to the story.
We also had the misfortune of seeing Ned with a beard that looked like a hairy bird’s nest. And what was with the ungainly, straggly, four-inch long hairs trailing down his neck? I might be a little pedantic here but Ned’s appearance and physicality is vital in any portrayal of him, and the film failed in this regard. Subtitles helped to place you in a certain time and place. But there was one exception. In one of the opening scenes, Melbourne Gaol was spelt as Jail. Maybe that was done deliberately to appeal to an overseas market. Miller actually told the gathering that he was planning to travel the world with the documentary. The truth is that it should be labelled AO. Australia Only.
Rating for Besieged: The Ned Kelly Story
6.5 out of 10 for novices
4.0 out of 10 for hard-core followers
I’m sure some of us would have had more patience for the production if we didn’t have to wait so long for it to come on the big screen. The major hold-up (pardon the pun) was a presentation by Bill Denheld and Gary Dean. Regardless of whether Bill and Gary have, as they claim, found the actual sight of the gunfight at Stringybark Creek – Ian Jones has described their findings as “codswallop” – the presentation was difficult to follow, even for people like me who knew the gist of what they were on about. There was plenty of talk about fireplaces and shingle huts. There were also plenty of frowns and “What the…?” expressions in the audience. People commented afterwards that it was excruciatingly long-winded, convoluted and in dire need of purpose.
I mentioned to Bill that it would have been easier to comprehend if he started with something like: “Gary Dean and I have found what we believe to be conclusive proof that the gunfight at Stringybark Creek took place at a different site. We believe the three police were killed over the other side of the creek in a south-easterly direction, X amount of metres away from what has been accepted as the site for the past 125 years. Tonight we will show you how we came to this conclusion and you can make up your own minds.”
That would certainly grab everybody’s attention – well, mine at least. Even if people got lost in the ‘evidence’ somewhere, they’d know what Bill and Gary were trying to do because the premise had been revealed. Instead, we found out the aim of the presentation after about 15 minutes (ie. those of us who were paying attention). This presentation should have screened at the end of the documentary so that people could choose whether or not they wanted to see it. Much like the hostages at the Glenrowan Inn all those years ago, we were a captive audience.
Ian Jones’ Speech
Glenrowan Siege Commemorative Dinner
Saturday June 28, 2003
“The green silk sash. What was it all about? What did it mean? And what has it all got to do with Glenrowan? Well, as you saw from the Heath Ledger film, it was about Ned Kelly saving a boy from drowning… in very deep and very, very clear water for a rain-swollen creek.
“And then, those of you who saw the documentary Besieged last night would have seen the sash floating in a creek. And what was that about? I suspect that to the producers it just seemed like a good idea at the time.
“You see, that green silk sash is a vivid symbol. More than that, it commemorates the moment when Ned Kelly first emerges as a figure that people take notice of. And even more than that, in a shining moment of admiration and approval. No arguments, no controversy. And in Ned Kelly’s life, that was a precious, rare thing.
“Throughout the rest of his years, he would be torn between admiration and denigration – hero-worshipped, demonised, the ultimate hero, the ultimate villain.
“So, what about the sash? It all happened in Ned’s 11th year – 1865. In the little town of Avenel, about 100 kilometres south-west of Glenrowan on the Sydney Road. The Kelly family had arrived there from Beveridge the previous year – Irish ex-convict John ‘Red’ Kelly, his Irish migrant wife, Ellen, and their six Australian-born children – three boys, three girls, with one girl still to come.
“Ned attended the Avenel Common School. Quite a bright boy, he was remembered by one girl as ‘very quiet’, and, according to another classmate, ‘a champion of the weak… who played the game in school and at sport’.
“Among the younger kids at the Avenel school were Richard and Sarah Shelton, children of Esau and Maggie Shelton, who ran the Royal Mail Hotel. 1865 was very nearly a bad year for the Sheltons. It certainly was a bad year for the Kellys. Red Kelly killed and butchered a stray calf, was arrested, tried and fined 25 pounds or six months‚ hard labour. The family couldn’t scrape the money together, so Red was put behind bars – probably in the local lock-up.
“Ellen was pregnant. Young Ned helped her run the farm. The Kellys were always battlers. Things were just getting harder.
“One morning, young Dick Shelton left the Royal Mail Hotel to go to school. (He) took his usual route along a track that led to a footbridge over Hughes Creek, just below the schoolhouse. A huge redgum (had) fallen across the creek, with its trunk chipped flat to provide safe footing. Dick was wearing a brand new straw hat that morning. And as he passed to look down at the creek, swollen by recent rain, the hat came off and landed on a branch just above the surface of the creek. Dick clambered down to get it, slipped and fell into a treacherous boil-hole of swirling water.
“Ten-year-old Ned Kelly was just passing along the opposite bank. He dashed down to the creek, dived in and hauled young Dick to safety.
“Imagine the scene: the two boys, soaking wet, arriving at the Royal Mail Hotel; the almost tearful gratitude of Dick’s parents, commemorated in a handsome gesture. They presented Ned, the young hero, with a superb sash – green silk, more than two metres long, nearly 13 centimetres wide, with a seven-centimetre gold bullion fringe at each end. The sort of sash a flash bushman or a gold-digger would wrap around his waist and knot it at the hip with the fringed ends hanging down.
“It was a decoration for bravery. A proud trophy that became one of Ned’s most treasured possessions. Yet we know of only one occasion when he wore it. Fifteen years later. It was bound around his waist at Glenrowan. If nothing else told us that the Kelly plan for Glenrowan was something of a scale far beyond a mere criminal exploit; if nothing else told us that the attack on the police train planned here was the only prelude to some incredibly ambitious campaign, then the fact that Ned Kelly wore his sash of honour here should have made us realise that he saw the outcome of it all as some crowning achievement.
“Of course, we know now that his plans were for nothing less than a republic of north-eastern Victoria, spearheaded by a pre-emptive strike at his police enemies, who he had lured by the trainload into a carefully planned trap. Here.
“We know how the plan went wrong. Initially through the monumental inefficiency of the police pursuers, who were so slow in taking the bait for the trap that Ned and the gang had to wait more than 24 hours, holding their local hostages in the Glenrowan Inn. Their armour ready for the great final battle, Ned wearing his sash to celebrate the great victory – the day of triumph for him, for the gang, and for all the battlers of the north-east who supported them.
“At last, as the hours ticked by, the gang agreed to release prisoners, including the crippled teacher who warned the police train of the trap it was charging into. And then that ghastly shambles of a siege – a bizarre pre-dawn gun battle.
“The grand mad dream of the republic had become a nightmare. Everything had gone wrong.
“And in the icy dawn of the 28th of June, 1880, Ned Kelly tried to put it right. He had turned armed supporters away from the fight. He had gone back to lead the other members of the gang out of the pub, seen his mate Joe Byrne killed, and now, well outside the police cordon, he prepared to go back again.
“He had been bleeding from serious wounds for more than four hours, his left arm and right foot completely crippled. He was wearing 40 kilos of armour. He had been at least two nights without sleep. The temperature was below zero. And he attacked 34 police in an attempt to rescue the two surviving members of his gang.
“After an impossible half-hour gunfight, he fell from loss of blood with 28 gunshot wounds in both feet, both legs, left arm, both hands and both groins.
“Doctor Nicholson of Benalla thought he was dying but tended his wounds and, as he peeled away Ned’s clothing, found the green silk sash around his waist. He took it as a souvenir of this momentous day.
“Seven hours later, the Glenrowan Inn was burnt to the ground, cremating the dead bodies of the last two members of the gang. Five months later, Ned Kelly was executed.
“And what of the sash? Doctor Nicholson gave it to his son Richard, who, in 1901, took it with him to Scotland. When he died there in 1910, it went to a sister, a Mrs Pole, who eventually sent it out to her sister, Mrs McNab, who lived at Rose Bay in Sydney. At last, in 1973, Mrs McNab donated the sash to the Benalla Historical Society. And, to this day, it is a treasured exhibit at the society’s costume and pioneer museum, on the banks of the Broken River.
“The sash is faded, frayed and still stained with Ned Kelly’s blood. A uniquely precious Kelly relic.
“So back to where we started: what does it all mean?
“In the Heath Ledger film, I got the impression that it represented Ned Kelly’s one moment of glory. A moment of brief, glorious sunshine in a rather murky life. The one occasion when he seized the day and was something more than a victim of injustice and oppression. And the sash, the symbol of that single triumph, was taken from him and claimed by his police enemies in yet another darkly shadowed moment.
“I don’t see it that way. To me, what Ned Kelly attempted to do at Glenrowan was fantastic. Yet it almost succeeded. However, what he actually did her was impossible. His ‘Last Stand’ was an act of extraordinary moral and physical courage. A self-sacrifice of almost superhuman strength and endurance.
“Ned showed bravery in the exploit that won him the green silk sash. The sash of honour. Here at Glenrowan, the promise of that boyhood bravery was fulfilled magnificently. Here at Glenrowan, the sash was not dishonoured.”
InterNED featured regular instalments relating to people still involved in the Kelly story. Here you will read about experts, historians, authors, descendants, and others with interesting tales to tell about their connection with Ned. Compiled by Ben Collins, InterNED gave you an insight into the lives of people who were helping to keep the legend alive.
Ben Collins was the co-author of Jason McCartney: After Bali – the highest-selling non-fiction book by an Australian author in 2003 – which tells of Jason McCarthy’s recovery from horrific burns suffered in the Bali terrorist bombings and his quest to play one last game of AFL football. In 2004, Collins wrote The Book of Success – a series of interviews with Australian leaders in business, sport, politics, science and entertainment. In 2006, he wrote The Champions: Conversations with Great players & Coaches of Australian Football, which included in-depth interviews with the likes of Ron Barassi and Bob Skilton.
Collins started as a cadet journalist with The Courier in Ballarat in 1997 and worked with Fairfax Community Newspapers before becoming one of the original reporters with the Herald & Weekly Times’ free commuter publication, MX, in 2001. He is a full-time writer for The Slattery Media Group, which produces all AFL publications including the AFL Record. The Red Fox is his fourth book and his first biography.
A Byrne family who lived nearby – Ben likes to think they could be related to gang member Joe Byrne – introduced him to the Old Melbourne Gaol and Ned when he was five. One of Ben’s aunties is also a close friend of a woman who married into the Bartsch family, who are direct descendants of Aaron Sherritt’s sister, Julia.
Through this connection, Ben was shown around the Sherritt family property at Sheepstation Creek in the Woolshed Valley near Beechworth – a property that features prominently in Ian Jones’ book, The Friendship That Destroyed Ned Kelly: Joe Byrne & Aaron Sherritt. Ben and Ironoutlaw webmaster Brad Webb designed and edited the catalogue Ned: The Exhibition, written by Ian Jones.