THE WOMAN WHO BORE NED KELLY
Mother of Tragedy Interviewed Before Her Death
“ What a Great General Ned Would Have Made! ”
By BARTLETT ADAMSON
early a century ago Ellen, third daughter of Jas. Quinn, was born in Ireland. Like most other people, her birth may be taken as the commencement of her life, but the ruling motive of that life had commenced centuries before in a dim ancestral past.
This is a pity, since the only past sufficiently interesting to dwell upon is the past of a woman with a past.
There are two general views regarding Mrs Kelly. One would glorify her as the mother of an heroic figure. The other stigmatises her as the begetter of a criminal brood. Both views are false, especially the latter.
In her native land she lived in an atmosphere of smouldering revolt until she was ten, when her parents brought her to Australia and settled near Beveridge, some 25 miles north of Melbourne.
There the black-haired girl grew up. As she did so her hair grew down until as a young woman she could sit on it as easily as she could sit a bare-backed horse.
A Matter of Rent
In Ireland during this period there was living a lad named Kelly. There may have been several of them, but we know there certainly was this one. He had an inherited bias similar to that of Ellen Quinn, and he grew to manhood concurrently with the growing spirit of revolt that flared to actual rebellion in the forties. In his small way, he was a participant in that rebellion. He tried to shoot his landlord.
Most of us feel inclined to do something like that every rent day. But in the best-regulated communities it is not actually done, nor even attempted.
However, this Kelly was not living in a best-regulated community.
For the attempt he was transported to Tasmania, whence he reached Victoria and, drifting to the Beveridge neighbourhood, met Ellen Quinn.
Because of his fiery hair, he was known as Red Kelly, and
this, maybe, attracted the fiery heart of Ellen. They married, and
the two families, Quinn and Kelly, went north, eventually settling
at Greta. There the Kelly couple propagated both themselves and
their ancestral grievance, so that when Red Kelly died, somewhile
before the culminating tragedy of ’78 and ’79, he left three sons
and four daughters to share with their mother a contempt for
existing law as being but the law of a conqueror.
This lawlessness, being political instead of criminal in its origin, might have restricted itself merely to the wild deeds of wild youth in a wild country had notConstable Fitzpatrick insulted Kate Kelly, causing her brother Ned, in anger, to fire at and wound him. It might still have stayed at that one act of violence had not the authorities, on the unsupported testimony of Fitzpatrick, sent the mother to gaol for three years for Ned’s impetuous deed.
The Mother in Gaol
It was when Mrs Kelly went to gaol that Ned and Dan, with two mates, started their miniature guerrilla war of protest. That their motive was not mercenary is evidenced by the fact, not generally known but well enough established, that out of the great Euroa Bank robbery the members of the gang retained only £20 each, the balance being divided among sympathisers.
The mother was still in gaol when this futile campaign ended at Glenrowan after having cost upwards of a quarter of a million of money and several lives.
Shortly before her death, a representative of ‘Smith’s Weekly’ visited the scene of the tragedy, and not only succeeded in interviewing Mrs Kelly, but obtained several photos of her, a notable achievement, because this old mother of lawlessness was shy of publicity.
Before this, however, he visited the old home of the Kellys at Greta West, where the family, including Ned, had been reared. The old logged house is still standing, well preserved, and practically unaltered but for the iron roof that has replaced the old bark one. In the back door there is still the slot, two inches by half an inch, that served as a lookout. It gives an excellent view of the country in that direction. At the northern end of the hut is another slot designed as a loophole in the bullet-proof wall and large enough to take the muzzle of a rifle.
In this old home the Kelly boys, as fugitives, once hid for three months, sleeping securely at night in the loft between ceiling and roof, and moving about cautiously by day.
The place is now owned by Thomas Griffiths, whose brother, Edward, married one of the Kelly girls. Mr Griffiths has enlarged the residence by building a wooden cottage just in front of the old one.
Some fifty yards distant is the site where stood the roadside
shanty, run by Mrs Kelly for a time in the very early days, while
nearby, some twenty yards back from the road, is a lonely little willow
tree, beneath which lie the remains of one of Mrs Kelly’s daughters and
her infant child, buried there over forty years ago.
The Old Home
At the time of our representative’s visit, Mrs Kelly was, and for some time previously had been, living in another cottage, also at Greta West, with her remaining son, Jim, who is a bachelor and a grey-bearded man now of 63. Between him and the aged mother there was a strong affection.
“My chief concern,” he explained when the old woman was out of hearing, “is to look after the poor old soul. She has been a great mother to us all, and the least I can do now is to make her happy.”
And when Jim in turn was at a safe distance, the old mother reciprocated: “Jim is just wonderful, a fine son! I want him to go down to Wangaratta. He could earn a good living there as a bootmaker. But he won’t leave me or the old home.”
The old home, as she called it, was not pretentious. It is a small bush cottage with a creeper sprawling over the front verandah, and a general air of being almost too languid to stand upright against the ardours of the sun.
The kitchen was decorated with various photos. One was of the late historic Kate, who became Mrs Foster, while another was that of her son, Fred, who was killed in the Great War. There was also the large photo of Ned Kelly, black hair and luxuriant black beard, taken the day before his execution. Opposite to this, whether in symbolic defiance or as a sign of amity it is difficult to say, was a picture of King Edward, now some time deceased.
In the corner of this room, Mrs Kelly, who, by the way, was an old-age pensioner, was accustomed to spend most of her time, being able to walk only with the aid of a stout stick, which always stood handy for her use. It was with this stick that she pointed to the photo of her favourite boy, the one of whom she was still dreaming, and mumbled:
“Ned was a great son. He was the only dark one of the family. All the rest were red-headed. They took after their father. But poor Ned was black like meself.”
And after some obvious remark as to Constable Fitzpatrick being the cause of all the trouble, the poor old soul added, with the philosophy of age:
“But what’s the use of going over it all? I’m an old woman, and haven’t much more time to live.”
It was a soul-weary utterance.
After all, more than forty years had passed since as a woman of fifty she had lain in Melbourne gaol. It was forty-odd years since, on the very night when Ned and the others were holding up Glenrowan, she had dreamed prophetically that the Gang had been defeated by the bobbies.
The Old Motive
In spite of her extreme age, her hollowed cheeks and sunken jaws, there was a tilt almost of defiance about the poise of her head as she said this, while the straight nose, the sharp firm moulding of the chin, and a glance rather eagle-like from under the shadows of her brows, were all harmonious with the fiery utterance. But that was not the only flashing forth of the old tempestuous spirit.
Back in her corner within the kitchen, she showed that the ancestral bias still lived. The occasion that revealed this was some reference to the resemblance between young Fred Foster, who died as a Digger, and Ned who died as a bushranger: –
“Yes,” she said. “Fred was a game lad. Just like his uncle.”
After a pause, and nodding her grey old head toward the outlaw’s photo, she continued: –
“Ned would have made a great general in the war.”
There was another slight pause, and then as though quite unconscious of the defiant significance of the words, she concluded: –
“A great general, no matter what side he had been on.”
So, at the age of 95, and with the old motive still tugging at her thoughts, she died last week, a sad old figure deserving neither blame nor praise. For she was the begetter neither of an heroic personage nor of a criminal brood, but merely, by force of circumstance, the mother of a tragedy.
April 7, 1923.
The occasion, Mrs Ellen Kelly seated left when she returned home from gaol. The house with wooden chimney flue, bark roof and of crude construction was supposedly built by her son Ned. By this time both sons Ned and Dan were dead. 1880.
Image source required,
2015, The Kelly farm house at 57A Greta or Kelly Gap Road has long been in ruin and only one chimney remains today.
This chimney shown (below) was part of an extension to the house (above)
Image compiled by Bill Denheld 2016 with use of recent chimney view courtesy FB page, Ned Kelly Adventure Tours.
Due to errors in Heritage listings the wrong block has been given protection.
Images compiled by Bill Denheld 2016
A close up aerial of the house site shows the single chimney.
The image shows three chimneys almost in a line running due South to
North, except chimney (right HS of photo) is about 3 Metres east from
the other two. Grid
over image is approx 12 feet or 3 metre squares. The Yellow outline is
most likely Ellen Kelly King's original house footprint. The Red lines
is proposed footprint of buildings added by Thomas Griffiths who owned
the land next door, and before Ellen had died (27 March 1923). The
chimney central is still standing today, but only just.