The Armour: The Myths, The Facts (review)

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.

Adrian Younger, master of ceremonies

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.

Alan Crichton

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.

Noeleen Lloyd

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.

Nick Hawtin

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.

Brad Webb

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.

Nick Hawtin demonstrates the ancient art of blacksmithing

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.

Joe Zapp with the painting he created during proceedings

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.

10 thoughts on “The Armour: The Myths, The Facts (review)

  1. Aidan, thank you for your write up of the event. Have seen elsewhere where others just talk about what a good time they had or how much they learned without actually giving detailed blow by blow information to enlighten those who could not attend. As for people getting along in person at events versus not getting along online, it is pretty obvious that some of the frogs are not gonna jump but so high in person because they might just figuratively (or literally!) get cut off at the knees versus trolling online from the relative safety of their “pad.”

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  2. Being the presenter of that forging story I must correct your statement. I never stated that the armours where 1000 c at any point. I stated you needed above that to fire weld which no armours have.
    The presentation as you have stated never debunked the idea at but showed reason and probable cause of why blacksmithing and techniques was required. I won’t continue to comment to people who are commenting on snippets about the whole presentation in general. Kinda like the snippets on the Ned History.

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      1. Not a problem. Feel free to contact ironoutlaw for a transcript if you want one. As stated in the whole presentation the green tree branch was not eliminated. Sometimes practicality overrides theory.
        Being ill I could have presented better but that’s the roll of the dice. I was humbled by those who attended and supported the day I hope they all took away another way of looking at it and not just all they read from others. To explain the theories then show a practical demonstration showed exactly what I was trying to present . My presentation as stated may not be correct. But as also seen. I was the featured smithy in the catalyst episode.

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  3. I am interested in the claim that the demonstration supported the idea that “the bulk of construction must have occurred in Blacksmiths shops”.

    I wasn’t at the Seminar but wonder if any mention was made of the findings of The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation(ANSTO)? This was reported in Ned Kelly Under the Microscope. They tested Joe Byrnes suit at a number of places using “neutron diffraction, XRay diffraction and gamma XRay fluorescence spectroscopy”- among other methods – and concluded that the Joes armour had NOT been made by a blacksmith but by amateurs in an open bush forge. The article explains that certain changes happen to the crystalline structure of steel if its reheated above 723 degrees centigrade, and these changes were NOT found in Joes armour. A blacksmith would have heated the steel to well above 723 degrees to make it easy to work. Instead it appears that Joes suit was only heated to between 500 and 700 degrees at which temperature it would have been a dull red colour. Their results suggested the side plates had been “cold worked” – in other words not heated at all – because the tests showed that metal to be highly stressed.

    Obviously, these test results only strictly apply to Joes suit, but given they all are quite similar in design and appearance it would seem reasonable to imagine they were all made the same way.

    So, given the science on the subject, wouldn’t you think that what the demonstration showed was that what the Gang achieved on their bush forges was even more remarkable, given how incredibly hard it is to work steel like that without the benefit of a real blacksmiths forge?

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    1. Yes, this was addressed in the talk and the paper by ANSTO was included in the goodie bags. What Mr. Hawtin pointed out was that there was evidence in that study that also concluded parts may have been heated to temperatures close to 1000 degrees and for prolonged periods, which is not possible in the average bush forge. What Hawtin concluded was that it was possible that portions were adjusted in the bush after the initial construction where higher temperatures used for cutting the steel and hard surfaces for flattening sheets and rivets weren’t necessary.
      I would love to do an interview with him to go into more detail. Science data can prove some things but it can only provide a portion of the story.

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      1. Thanks Aidan. Could you provide the reference to the ANSTO paper that was in the Goodie Bag? Ive read a 2003 report but believe there was an earlier one as well that I cant seem to track down.

        I wonder if you can point out where exactly in the goodie bag ANSTO Report is the conclusion that parts may have been heated to close to 1000 degrees because in the 2003 paper that I have read, and in NK Under the Microscope which was published in 2014 there is no such conclusion. Maybe if you get to interview Mr Hawtin you cold ask him where he got that from?

        In fact heres a couple of quotes from the 2003 paper

        “Individual hammer blows are readily identified: indeed, the armour is so crudely fabricated that it would seem to be unlikely that it could be the work of a professional blacksmith.”

        “4. Conclusions
        The armour was made from good quality rolled steel similar to that found in plough-shares. It was fabricated under a low heat (dull red, 600 to 700oC) for several hours, and not to white hot as would have occurred in a blacksmith’s forge. This gives support to the belief that the armour was fabricated over a bush fire and formed over fallen trees. The nature of the hammer blows and the degree to which cold-working has occurred supports the notion that the armour was made by amateurs.”

        I agree Science cant always tell the whole story but I think its important to be accurate about what story it IS telling.

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