The Notorious Widow Kelly

Mrs Kelly: The Astonishing Life of Ned Kelly’s Mother
by Grantlee Kieza
HarperCollins, 2017, 624 pages, $39.99

ned IIIn the past five years, there have been two published biographies of Ellen Kelly. Neither has shed much light on the mother of Ned Kelly, beyond portraying her as a long-suffering woman with a large family who was constantly hassled by the wicked police.

Despite what the publicity blurb promises on the cover of journalist Grantlee Kieza’s Mrs Kelly: The Astonishing Life of Ned Kelly’s Mother, the book fails to bring the reader any new knowledge. It is a rehash of the old Kelly myth of persecution and harassment of “the poor widow” Kelly. Kieza not only misrepresents Ellen and Ned’s dramatic story, he does so in an unashamedly partisan and melodramatic fashion:

A spirit of antagonism prevails between the [squatter] families in the grand country houses and the selectors in their bark-slab huts … For the Kellys and Quinns, the police in Victoria are becoming as oppressive as those in Ireland.

Kieza “goodies and baddies” view of nineteenth-century colonial history ignores recent scholarship, which questions the basic assumptions on which his interpretation rests. His version is a mixture of misinterpreted facts and creative imagination, designed to bring drama and sympathy to this shanty-living, lawless family.

Like Peter FitzSimons before him, Kieza accepts Ned as a rebel hero. The north-east Victorian community background is one of conflict, squatter oppression and military-style police occupation. Writing of the Eureka fight, Kieza moralises: “All around Victoria, poor people of the soil, like the Kelly family in Beveridge, feel emboldened to stand up for themselves against unjust laws and harsh treatment.” An admirer of Ned and his family, Kieza excuses the Kellys, Quinns and Lloyds their many crimes, choosing to regard what they did over two decades as similar to agrarian crime in Ireland fuelled by a hatred of the English. The comparison does not hold; there are major differences between the Irish and colonial situations that cannot be glossed over by a blanket analogy of racial hatred and animosity towards the police. When the Kelly clan avoided conviction and jail, as they did on numerous occasions due to perjury or compromised evidence, Kieza believes it was a failure of the police policy of harassment. Failure to convict in Kieza’s eyes is the same as innocence, and he spins a fairytale of angry, colonial Irishmen with an abiding hatred of the English and the police.

Kieza’s Greta community back-story is the Kelly-myth version of Ned and Ellen’s society—a society riven with dissension and driven by conflict between rich and poor. Research into all kinds of relationships and dealings between people in the Greta community shows this myth to be untrue. There was more community co-operation and far less dislike of the police than Kieza or the Kelly myth divulge. Community life was not a squalid “Dad and Dave” existence, barely hanging onto a troubled life on the margins of failure and despair. Nor was it as racially harsh or as socially divisive of people’s lives as Kieza and the Kelly myth would have us believe. It was not a case of crooked policemen and nasty squatters exercising a local tyranny over Greta’s residents. The Greta community fault-line was between the majority of respectable settlers who obeyed the law and a minority of shanty thieves, lawbreakers and larrikins who did not. Ellen and her misbehaving relatives belonged to the latter group. Colonial politics, Irish heritage and a heroic fight for justice had nothing to do with the Kelly clan’s predatory opportunism.

ellen kellyKieza’s book is marred from the beginning by an overly respectful, excuse-finding, reinventing of fiction about a scandalous woman, who was known as “the notorious Mrs Kelly” (left). Empathy for a character is a good thing; shaping a sympathetic story around Ellen’s deceits and fabrications about herself and her family is something else. Kieza writes: “Ellen’s hopes of keeping her family out of trouble seem doomed as Ned’s notoriety dogs him and the police watch his every move.” It’s the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Did the police drive Ned to crime or was Ned a criminal the police had to watch? Ned’s record as a lawbreaker speaks for itself. At twelve years old, he was hiding drovers’ livestock in the bush and returning the animals for a cash reward. Ellen and her children’s lawless behaviour refutes Kieza’s benevolent homily.

Ellen emerges in Kieza’s work as a determined Irish mother of seven children (an eighth child died as an infant) by Ned’s father Red Kelly, an illegitimate child to a lodger, and three children with her second husband George King, courageously fighting against the odds for a better life for herself and her wayward sons and daughters, defiant and with a “thumb your nose” attitude towards establishment values and morality. Ellen is seen as a shining beacon of rural womanhood, although a feminine hero with flaws. She is venerated as representative of pioneer women, taming an unpredictable land and civilising their menfolk. This, of course, is a calumny of most pioneer women, who neither rejected traditional values nor immersed themselves in crime and a shanty lifestyle as Ellen Kelly did.

The truth about Ellen is that she was a sly-grog seller and a sexually promiscuous woman, offering lodgings and providing favours “for cash and presents”, working alongside a well-known Greta prostitute who resided at the Kelly shanty. She was an indifferent farmer, constantly in debt and receiving little money or practical help from her larrikin sons. Ellen was not a respectable woman and the Kelly family was shunned by Greta’s decent citizens. Most Greta residents were law-abiding men and women, some with money, others with very little, who did not commit crime but worked with pride and integrity to establish a rural community they and their children could be proud of. What Kieza fails to mention in his dire-poverty-and-conflict model of farming life in the Greta area, is that most selectors survived the rigours and hardships of settling on the land and prospered. Even Ellen Kelly eventually obtained the title deed to her property.

This review appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Ellen, her relatives and her larrikin brood were part of the criminal underbelly of the Greta community. They were the bullying thieves and rowdy thugs, to be avoided where possible and scrutinised when crime occurred. Rich and poor settlers alike lost horses to the Greta thieves, and the Kellys were invariably involved. There was no conflict between local squatters and the Kelly family. Ned’s Moyhu “Jerilderie Letter” enemies, Whitty and Byrne, were selectors, not squatters. The Kelly shanty was located on land close to Robert McBean’s Kilfera Run. Squatter McBean was well liked by Ned and his relatives, some of whom worked for him. Police interest in Ellen and her lawless relatives was not harassment, as Kieza and the Kelly myth claim. It came about because of the Kelly clan’s long criminal history of assaults, horse and cattle stealing and numerous other crimes.

Kieza points to the visit of Constable Fitzpatrick to the Kelly shanty, to see his girlfriend Kate Kelly and arrest her brother Dan for horse stealing, as a principal cause of the Kelly outbreak. The Kellys lied about what happened and a policeman who had been a friend of the Kelly family was wounded. Ellen joined in the attack on Fitzpatrick by knocking him unconscious with a fire shovel. Ned fired three shots, one of which wounded Fitzpatrick in the wrist. He was plied with grog and held prisoner for around six hours. The Kellys released him only when they believed they had persuaded the wounded policeman to lie about what happened. There was no sexual molesting of Kate Kelly. Ellen threatened Fitzpatrick with “violence from their friends” if he reported the matter. Fitzpatrick’s visit was the spark; but horse and cattle stealing was the smouldering fuse that led the Kellys to bushranging and murder.

Like her son Ned, Ellen had a violent temper and a foul mouth. She struck out physically and verbally at those around her. She faced court several times for fights and the use of threatening language, including once for assaulting her sister in law Annie Ryan nee Kelly. She was suspected of committing other crimes, but the police lacked proof and were unable to bring a case against her. Ellen served time in Pentridge for the Fitzpatrick assault and was still in jail when her son Ned was executed for murdering Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. Kieza waxes poetic on Ellen’s last visit with Ned, when reputedly she told him, “Mind you die like a Kelly!” He dwells on the emotionalism of the encounter to curry reader sympathy for a jailed mother tearfully bidding goodbye to her outlaw son:

Mother and son are able to talk for half an hour about old times and Ellen tells Ned that she always knew he was an innocent man and he will become a martyr for those who cry for freedom.

How could Kieza possibly know what passed between mother and son at their final meeting? These are the melodramatic words of a tabloid journalist, not the balanced words of a careful historian.

The bottom line is that everybody in the Greta community knew who the rowdies and toughs were. Ellen Kelly’s shanty was at the centre of the unruly disorder and nobody but her modern-day admirers believed otherwise. Kieza writes of Ellen in later life becoming a well-thought-of matriarch respected by the Greta community. Her son Jack King/Kelly, Ned’s half-brother, became a West Australian policeman of whom she was proud. This may be true, but it does not excuse or diminish Ellen’s prominence in the Greta criminal community before, during and for many years after the Kelly outbreak.

Grantlee Kieza’s book would have been better served if he had listened to the rarely heard voice of those in the Greta community who speak of Ellen’s turbulent life and times when she was the fiery, wild, Irish shanty woman of local tradition.

Doug Morrissey’s book Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life was published by Connor Court in 2015 and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian History in 2016

9 thoughts on “The Notorious Widow Kelly

  • en passant says:

    Well said! I have had many contrarian debates in which I condemned Ned et al and was roundly condemned in return for not supporting the myth.

    Oh, and Lindy Chamberlain was innocent.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    There was (pre- WW2) saying that every Australian has an Irish grandmother: certainly true in my own case. My maternal great grandmother one Mary Ann Connor. She hailed from County Cork, and fled Ireland initially for New Zealand as a consequence of the so-called ‘potato famine’.
    My friend Liam from university days was born in the late 1930s into a rural Irish immigrant family in Victoria, and while his parents were out working in the fields was given a primary education by his grandmother in the traditional Irish manner. But he did not get the three Rs. Rather he got the four Hs: all history units. These were:
    History 1: what bastards the English were in the 17th Century;
    History 2: what bastards the English were in the 18th Century;
    History 3: what bastards the English were in the 19th Century;
    History 4: what bastards the English were in the 20th Century;
    Also, and for good measure, his grandma threw in a current affairs unit: Current Affairs 1: What bastards the English still are.
    Needless to add, Liam said after this high-powered course, he was ready to go out and strangle the first Englishman he met.
    My own grandmother, in the wisdom that had percolated down to her through her own family history, rarely spoke of ‘the English’. It was usually of ‘the filthy dirty English’, particularly in the context of Irish history. So when I read “Colonial politics, Irish heritage and a heroic fight for justice had nothing to do with the Kelly clan’s predatory opportunism,” I incline to ask Doug Morrissey two questions: 1; How do you know? And 2; How many generations back are we going? Because the further back we go, the closer we get to ‘the troubles’ and further on still, to the Cromwellian conquest, with all its barbarity, that began the British Empire, and the Irish antagonism.
    The historian Russel Ward, in his survey of Australian folklore and folksong that formed the basis of his classic The Australian Legend, reported that he could only find one song in which a bushranger got a bad press. The song was about one Peter Clark, a popular local identity around Murrurrundi, NSW, who was murdered by Wilson the Bushranger. Wilson was eventually brought to justice.
    One of Ned Kelly’s smartest moves on robbing the Glenrowan bank was burning all the mortgages it held. This strengthened the support for him among the locals, and reduced their propensity to assist the police in their enquiries. Centuries before, the Robin Hood of legend was said to have done much the same.
    In this Kelly obeyed the first rule of the guerrilla warrior: always behave in such a way as to increase your grass-roots support in the local population: which is not hard if you are from it anyway.

  • en passant says:

    Sadly the MacBot Troll is back with his erroneous potted history (or is it ‘potty’ history).
    “the Cromwellian conquest, with all its barbarity, that began the British Empire, and the Irish antagonism.” Really?
    The English had carved out fiefdoms in Ireland since the Normans invaded in the 12th Century. Henry VIII was declared King of Ireland despite ongoing unrest. Elizabeth and James both ruled Ireland in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s. Hard to explain your Cromwellian and Empire comments as other than just another fantasy (like sea level rise and climate change) as Cromwell arrived in 1649, departed in 1650 and Ireland was once more under English rule by 1653.

    Having messed up that bit of history you then mess up the Kelly myth. Hint: read the article before commenting on it.
    “In this Kelly obeyed the first rule of the guerrilla warrior: always behave in such a way as to increase your grass-roots support in the local population: which is not hard if you are from it anyway.”
    Kelly was not a ‘guerrilla warrior’: he was a thieving criminal no better than Melbourne’s flourishing African gangs. When do we start eulogising them?
    Who in the local population trying to tame the land, plant crops, raise a family and make a living appreciated their horse and cattle being stolen, being assaulted and robbed and fearful of travel? Oh, yes, the other scumbags in the Kelly clan fraternity.
    “… not hard if you are from it anyway.” Kelly & company robbed the banks in which the farmers savings were deposited and tried to kill dozens of police. I doubt many of his neighbours empathised with the feral Kelly’s. Sorry, but not my kind of hero – and I have known real ones.

    By sheer random chance, one day you will be correct, but it would increase your chances if you used Google to verify your ramblings first.

  • says:

    The left habitually makes heroes and saints out of murderous thugs. Che Guevara is the most odious recent example, he was a psychopathic murderer but is worshiped by the unwashed would be revolutionaries. Ned is cannonised and Ben Hall [who had just a tiny bit of justification for his uncivilised behaviour] is forgotten.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    Well of course it’s the usual story. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
    Ireland’s history has been marked (and definitely scarred) by English colonial domination. In Irish popular consciousness ‘the English’ are not held in particularly high esteem. To my knowledge, there is not one folksong commonly performed in Irish pubs and clubs which glorifies or extols the virtues of the English, though there are plenty that do the opposite.
    Colonialism occurs when the rulers of one country, to be the colonising power, militarily defeat or otherwise displace the rulers of the target, to be colonised country. Technically, the colonised country, including all its people and resources, becomes the property of the imperial (colonising) country.
    “Hard to explain your Cromwellian and Empire comments as other than just another fantasy (like sea level rise and climate change)…
    Well, you live and learn. Politics and the transient needs of players in the coal market decide issues of basic science: like quantum physics and Nature’s settings of the energy levels of electrons inside atoms and molecules (eg of CO2), which in turn decide the heat-trapping properties of such molecules.
    This has to be the greatest scientific breakthrough since that famous naked street run by Archimedes of Syracuse.

    • en passant says:


    • PT says:

      Ian, actual people from Ireland refer to people like you (and your grandmother) as “plastic paddies”!

      The truth is that Ned was a crook! He admitted to stealing 200 horses! Plenty of reason for the police to keep watch on him don’t you think?

      Think of it like this: there were plenty of Irish Catholics in that part of Victoria. Why were the Kelly’s the ones subjected to this “terrible harrasment”? I’ll also let you in on a little secret: English monarchists don’t like Cromwell (many of his victims in Ireland were amongst the latter), the Earl of Clarendon called him a “great, bad man”! I’ll let you in on another secret: land reform in 1903 gave Irish peasant farmers ownership of their lands for less than their rents (which also preserved property rights).

      As for Ned being some guerilla leader (what a joke), he was in Victoria, not County Cork (his mother was from Belfast anyway)! Your “grandmother” talk does not show he was a “victim” but rather explains why many who otherwise know nothing about the case were quite ready to see him as some sort of victim! Both the assaulted policeman, and the judge who sentenced Ned were Irish! Victoria also had its own Parliament with universal male sufferage at the time, and Peter Lalor was a member! The Kelly’s simply used crime to better their lot in life, and tried to use the “poor Irish victim” excuse when caught! The worst is that Ned could have made it straight. But “victim of society” is a common excuse of criminals!

  • ian.macdougall says:

    But “victim of society” is a common excuse of criminals!

    And therefore, never right.

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