As part of my work on Ned Kelly, Joel and I rode down to the State Library. We walked through part of their relatively new permanent exhibition, past the medieval manuscripts, and early Chaucer prints, and took the lift up to the fifth floor. I had never actually seen the Kelly armour, but there it was in a glass case, complete with his rifle and ... a single, tall, cuban-heeled boot. The armour I had seen in a hundred reproductions and images, but this single boot is particularly haunting. It looks as if it has been cut open. It was probably pretty-much blood filled by the time they captured Kelly, who had, despite the armour made of plough-shares, been shot twenty-seven times, mostly in the leg.
The boot is on loan to the Library from the descendants of Jesse Dowsett, to whom it was awarded as a trophy for his role in Kelly's capture. Unlike the extraordinary and iconic armour, shown below in Joel's dramatic floor-view shot, this boot is both an ordinary item of the everyday, while also a semi-sacred relic.
If the armour seems unreal (poised, as I think it is, between influences drawn from medieval romance, the Chinese armour the gang would have seen at the Prince of Wales' birthday parade in Beechworth, and an enchantment with an industrial modernism), the boot belongs to a different order altogether. It's a bushman's riding boot that has been kept as a souvenir of the notorious outlaw, but unlike the armour or the death mask, hasn't been replicated a thousand times. I've only started my work on Kelly (and his associations with Robin Hood), but this is the first time I've seen the boot. Its preservation speaks volumes about the iconic status of Kelly, and the mystique and veneration in which he is held. "Oh yes," said our landlady in Milawa a few weeks ago, "Saint Ned!" And indeed, it looked very much like a saint's relic.
It was a day of firsts, actually. That thing about touring the world and not seeing the things in your own city? One of Melbourne's great tourist attractions is the old Melbourne gaol, where Kelly was hanged in 1880. I must have passed it a thousand times without going in, but today we did. It's a most creepy place indeed, so much so that I forgot to take photos, really, apart from this image of a perspex woman's silhouette that I think is supposed to haunt you; and this three-tiered belt they would considerately strap around you to protect your kidneys while they flogged you.
The gaol has three levels of cells, arranged along either side of a long corridor. The cells are of course tiny, with enormous bluestone flagstones on the floor. Most of them were open; many with displays about the various men and women who'd been imprisoned there: the two Aboriginal men who were the gaol's first hanged men; the Philipino; the Spaniard (who realised he was going to be hanged only ten minutes before the executioner came for him); the Chinese; the women accused of baby-farming and infanticide, and of course, Kelly and his mother, Ellen, who was allowed to visit her son shortly before his death. She was working in the prison laundry when he was hanged. As we walked in and out of these cells, I got quite jumpy. It was bad enough seeing a life-sized figure of a prisoner standing or sitting in his cell; but the spookiest moment was walking into a cell with a narrow mattress on the floor and a grey blanket, not folded up, but in a heap, as if someone had just got up. I found myself almost apologising for intruding, and backing out again.
There was also a two-actor show, dramatising scenes from Kelly's life, that was surprisingly good.
After this we did the tour of the old watch-house, that was used as recently as the 1990s. A young female sergeant marched us in, separated men from women, and locked us up in a cell and turned out the lights. Even with the good-humoured women and children in my group, it was still pretty scary, as was the large padded cell they showed us, too.
Hoping for a good night's sleep tonight, then.