arts and design

Kate Kelly's role in her family's infamous history has been overlooked for too long

When I was a young person growing up in Forbes in the central west of New South Wales, my uncle told me that Kate Kelly, the younger sister to renowned bushrangers Ned and Dan Kelly, had lived in the town for a number of years. But it wasn’t until 2010 that I discovered that the teenaged Kate had ridden as a decoy for and delivered news and supplies to the Kelly Gang when they were on the run in north-east Victoria from 1878 to 1880. I was instantly intrigued, and jumped down the rabbit hole of research, hot on Kate’s heels.

I have long had an interest in the Kelly family. My creative practice has been visual art since the early 1990s, and in 2007 I produced a series of social commentary paintings that used Ned Kelly and other icons to ask questions about who we are as Australians. A painting from that series, Ned’s Burqa, was a finalist in the Blake prize. So when I was chasing Kate Kelly through my research, I knew I would paint her story, but I never thought I would end up writing it.

One aspect of Kate’s story that intrigued me was the mystery surrounding her death. Kate had arrived in the region in 1885 and was employed at Cadow Station, in Forbes, as a domestic servant under a false name. I was shocked to discover it had been my relatives who hired her. After playing a significant role in the saga of her brothers and suffering relentless fame as a consequence, Kate was found dead in a waterhole in October 1898, leaving behind three young children and an infant. Perhaps her attempts to disappear from the public eye are the reason her story is not remembered very well in history’s pages?

This widely circulated photograph of Kate Kelly was given to writer and bushranger enthusiast Edgar Penzig in the 1970s.
This widely circulated photograph of Kate Kelly was given to writer and bushranger enthusiast Edgar Penzig in the 1970s. Photograph: Allen & Unwin

As I dug further into the details of Kate’s death, I found more questions. The coroner had decided that Kate had drowned but was unable to say how she got into the water. Kate’s husband, who had months earlier been charged for abusing her, was among the last to see her alive. But I was also suspicious of the man who found Kate’s body – he had left the courthouse before providing evidence at the inquest. So was Kate’s death suicide, an accident or murder?

Along the way, I’d been painting Kate’s story. As I toured those works, it became apparent that people held very strong views about Ned Kelly’s little sister, even when they really knew very little about her.

In Glenrowan, the site of the Kelly Gang’s last stand, a woman working at a tourist shop told me that Kate Kelly was just a drunk and there was nothing more to know. At a local history group, an old man told me that I was wasting my time, and that his town was known for more important things than a bushranger’s alcoholic sister.

But I had heard alternative accounts, too. In contrast to those crude assertions, my uncle had told me that Kate Kelly had been a kind woman who would do anything for you. And, as I researched further, it became clear that the people who really knew Kate admired her as a talented and “good” woman, even though it was also clear that the stresses of her tumultuous life had left her with scars.

This engraving featuring Kate Kelly appeared in the French newspaper Journal des Voyages, 1883
This engraving featuring Kate Kelly appeared in the French newspaper Journal des Voyages, 1883. Photograph: Allen & Unwin

I have spoken widely about Kate’s astonishing escapades, including at London’s Central Library in 2018. Audiences are shocked to learn that Kate Kelly was Kardashian-famous in her youth and that her fame only grew as she marched and protested with thousands of people in attempts to spare her brother Ned’s life in 1880. Kate helped to gain signatures on a petition for reprieve and she threw herself at the governor of Victoria’s feet in a meeting, begging him to show mercy on Ned.

Melbourne showman “Flash Jack” Donovan saw Kate’s commercial appeal and the masses flocked to see her perform across Victoria, as well as in Adelaide and Sydney. In Sydney, police shut down Kate’s shows and arrested her. By the time she was 19, the famous waxworks attraction of the day had created a hugely popular effigy of her, in the way that pop-culture icons like Kylie Minogue are now replicated at Madame Tussards.

Somehow Kate Kelly’s story became silent over the years, lost in the shadow of her infamous brothers and through her efforts to escape notoriety. By shining a light on this woman’s life, we can see how she played an important role in a very male-oriented chapter of Australian history. Strangely inspiring, despite the trauma and tragedy within it, Kate’s story speaks to the past as much to the present and deserves to be remembered.

Kate Kelly: The True Story of Ned Kelly’s Little Sister by Rebecca Wilson is out now through Allen & Unwin


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