Whether you believe him to be nothing more than a criminal or a proud Australian icon, looking upon the tranquil face of the infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly, is a truly surreal experience. Ned’s death mask is just one of many items that comprise the biggest collection of Kelly artifacts in the world and it’s all here in the Beechworth Vault.
The Vault is a serious piece of history itself. Built in 1856 for precisely 892 pounds, the Vault is housed in the Sub-Treasury building and remains a strong testament to the strength of the Gold Rush era. These days, its impenetrable walls have traded massive gold nuggets for the biggest collection of Ned Kelly artifacts in the world. You’ll find original reward posters, pieces from the Kelly homestead, suits of armour from both the Heath Ledger and Mick Jagger movies and Sidney Nolan’s last painting of Ned, but here’s a few items you won’t want to miss …
The original table from the verandah of The Ann Jones Inn in Glenrowan
This table has indeed been through a lot. When the Kelly gang first arrived to what would be their last stand, the table was dragged out onto the verandah of the Ann Jones Inn to make room for the gang to dance. As the siege began, the table caught some bullets that penetrated straight through the wood, leaving bullet holes you can see today. Finally, this artifact narrowly escaped going up in flames as the Inn was set alight. With all her scars to prove it, this table helps tell Ned’s wild story.
Ned Kelly death mask
Undeniably the most fascinating piece in the Vault’s collection, Ned Kelly’s death mask captivates people not only because they can see the exact face of the bushranger - every lump, bump and hair - but because of its original purposes, truly compelling signs of the times...
Death Masks in the 1800s were quite a common practice in the name of a pseudoscience called phrenology: the study of lumps and bumps on the skull to point to mental traits. Kelly’s death mask was of particular interest as a way to explore his criminal tendencies, so an hour after he was hanged, his hair and beard were shaved and plaster was applied to his whole head. The very next day, the people of Bourke Street in Melbourne were looking straight at Kelly’s death mask, complete with scientific explanations of how the shape of his head and face told of criminal inclinations.
The death mask also provided a form of propaganda, a way of showing the bushranger-obsessed public how the police and authorities handle criminals.
“Betty” was Ned Kelly’s Snider-Enfield .577 calibre rifle he stole when the gang held up he National Bank in Euroa. While it’s not clear where the name came from, it is clear that Betty was Ned’s favourite - he even engraved a K on the butt of the rifle.
As the Glenrowan siege drew closer, Kelly gave a whole swag of guns away to Kelly sympathisers - including his beloved Betty - as he and the gang believed they didn’t need the extra firepower due to the strength of their armour.