On Saturday, February 22, 2019, the Greta Heritage Group held the second of what is planned to be an annual Ned Kelly themed event to raise funds to maintain and modernise the 104 year-old Greta-Hansonville hall. The previous theme was Max Brown’s Australian Son, this year the topic was The Armour: The Myths, The Facts.
Tickets for the event were sold out quickly this year and the numbers were bigger than the previous event. Support came from various quarters, with the Ned Kelly Vault in Beechworth loaning out their replicas of the armour to be displayed at the event. Each attendee received a goodie bag with postcards, a printout of documents pertaining to the armour, a copy of Chester Eagle’s The Armour and as a final sweet treat there was a small packet of Minties.
The event opened with a reading by Alan Crichton of a poem he had written about the armour that evoked the wild notion of the so-called Republic of North Eastern Victoria and the idea of the gang as “Knights of old”. There’s no doubt that Crichton has a gift for the written word and it was a perfect piece to set the mood.
The first presentation was Noeleen Lloyd’s run-down of the history of the armour. The story of the mysterious creation of the four iconic suits of iron and their subsequent misadventures through the siege of Glenrowan then years of being bounced around various owners, being jumbled, having bits stolen or acquired on the sly, attempts to destroy them and then eventually being recognised as culturally significant enough to display, is an incredible tale in itself. Noeleen’s talk covered this concisely, cleverly and without any need to discuss the moral arguments about the actions of the bushrangers or police.
The second presentation was by blacksmith Nick Hawtin. Hawtin was tasked with creating exact replicas of the armour for the township of Jerilderie and in so doing gained some fascinating insights into how the armour may have been constructed. After a video of the Catalyst report on tests performed on Joe Byrne’s armour was shown, Nick spoke about his experience in studying the minute details of each suit and analysing the materials and process. He identified that while the majority of the steel was from plough mouldboards, there was also sheet metal used and likely much of it was scrap metal from various blacksmiths. By incorporating his knowledge of the craft, culture and history of blacksmithing, he was able to recognise the methodology used, the likely tools used and subsequently offer some valuable insights into the process. By virtue of the processes used it is incredibly unlikely that the suits were constructed in the bush or by one person. If the story of the suits being constructed by a creek have any validity, he supposed that it was that the armour was adjusted there rather than constructed in the bush. There was enough material in Nick Hawtin’s account to fill a decent sized book and hopefully some day we can get a published account of his knowledge.
The third presentation was by Brad Webb of ironoutlaw.com. He discussed Ned Kelly in popular culture, drawing upon early etchings in illustrated newspapers through to film, television and comics, but especially comics (Webb believes Ned Kelly provided inspiration for the superhero The Invincible Iron-Man). There is no doubt that the Kelly armour has captured the imagination of countless people around the world and continues to do so.
At this time there was a brief change of pace as Nick Hawtin got his forge fired up to demonstrate the difficulty in adequately heating steel of the thickness and type used for the armour. After several minutes of cranking a fan to heat up the coke the crowd was ushered inside for lunch to emerge again when the metal was heated. It was evident from the demonstration that a bush forge would have been impractical and inadequate in heating up the sheets of metal used to craft the armour, further asserting that the bulk of construction must have occurred in blacksmith shops, likely by multiple smiths.
The final presentation was by artist Joe Zapp, who had been painting a portrait of Ned throughout proceedings. He discussed his work and his fundraising before auctioning off the painting and some prints. Zapp uses an impressionist style to create images quickly and expressively. The result is a stylised portrait that is endowed with feeling and movement. The sale of his work raised a fair amount for the hall and no doubt the buyers will be pleased as punch with their purchases.
It was fantastic to see so many people turn out for the event and demonstrating their mutual love for the Kelly story while supporting the fantastic work done by the Greta volunteers. While the Kelly story seems to often bring out the worst in people online, in person it seems to be a very different situation and it’s nice to be reminded that a mutual appreciation for history and folklore can be a wonderful tool for uniting people rather than a device for dividing them.