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Kate Kelly in The Central West

The Streets of Forbes are linked to gentleman bushranger Ben Hall but those who've visited the cemetery there can spend time at the graveside of another leading figure from Australian folklore, Ned Kelly’s sister, Kate. She'd come to the area in 1885 on the recommendation of Mr McDougall of Waroo Station, Yass. The Riverina district was a standard stopping off point if you were travelling from Victoria to New South Wales and Ned, Dan and others had made the journey to and from Wagga Wagga and Yass many times. Mr McDougall is possibly the same man mentioned by Charles Henry Chomley, author of The True Story of the Kelly Gang, (Melbourne 1900), as the character at Euroa, to whom Ned Kelly returned a watch. Chomley was, in fact, Police Commissioner H.M. Chomley and as Brian McDonald has noted, gives an accurate account of the Kelly Gang. The headstone on Kate’s grave was erected by McDoughall, “who was very fond of Kate.”

Kate worked in several positions around the Forbes district: as a domestic at Cadow Station, west of the town and for Forbes pioneers, such as Mr. J. Gunn, butcher and Mr. J. Luthie & Sons, undertakers. In 1886, when she was 22 years old, she was employed as a domestic by the Prow family, who ran a general store in Rankin Street, Forbes. The Prows had ten children and with the death of Mrs Prow, Kate's reputation for hard work must have been well earned. Tradition has it that she ran messages from the family home in Lachlan Street around to their premises in Rankin Street - a General Store on one side of the road and a warehouse and produce store on the other. Prow’s warehouse sold buggies and windmills and it's believed she met her future husband, William 'Brickie' Foster there. Foster was a horse trainer and blacksmith who ran livery stables nearby, at the corner of Rankin and Court Streets.

Burnt by her years in the public spotlight, Kate adopted a pseudonym in Forbes and when she married 'Brickie' Foster in 1888, she became Ada Foster to most of the community. In 1880, after Ned's execution, Kate had told newspaper reporters that, "the way the whole family had been harassed for years made her wish 'she had never been born.’” Small wonder that she sought the anonymity of a less exceptional life in less exceptional circumstances.
Foster was part of a family of several brothers, with long links to the town. Kate’s beauty and reputation for sweetness of character within the intimacy of the family circle brought her more than one suitor in the area and at least two of the Foster brothers appear to have courted her. Long term resident of Forbes, David Mathias, whose parents befriended both Kate and the Fosters, recalled that her marriage to ‘Brickie’ led to an estrangement with his brother Arthur, with both men, thereafter, referring to each other as “the queer fella.” Another brother, Ted Foster, in his reminiscences of Kate, described her as “a favourite with everyone.”

Kate was 25 when she married ‘Brickie’ on 25th November 1888 at the Church of England in Brandon Street, Forbes. The name Ada appears on the marriage certificate and birth registrations of their six children; Frederick Arthur (15th March 1889-1916), Gertrude Eileen Ada (9th July, 1890), Arthur Douglas (1891), Ethel Maude (1895?), Ruby Ellen (11th April 1897) and Catherine (September-December 1898). Three of the children, Arthur, Ruby and Catherine died in infancy and are said to be buried with their mother, in the grave at Forbes Cemetery. As Ted Foster wrote: “Owing to her notoriety in the past and to avoid identification and curiosity because of her early exploits, she was known outside the family as Ada Foster.”

Marriage did not bring the hoped for peace of mind and her distance from the close-knit Kelly family seems to have been a factor is some difficult years in Forbes. Still an outstanding horsewoman, Kate spent some of her time breaking in colts in an area now known as South Circle Park. She was, no doubt, interested in the arrival of St Leon Brothers and Kruger’s Circus appearance at Forbes in August 1891 and the arrival of the Mammoth Globe Circus and Looper & Brown’s Wild West show in November of the same year.

When she delivered her last child, Catherine, late in 1898, Kate was alone. William Foster was in Burrawang, training horses. Post-partum depression, then known as ‘milk fever’ is believed to be responsible for a bout of depression that led to her death. The valiant Maggie Skillion, whose presence had been a bulwark against the world, had died two years before. With three young children to care for and a new baby in hand, Kate seems to have given up. The inquest into her death heard evidence from a neighbour, Susan Hurley, who had last seen Kate at her residence on 5th October, “slightly under the influence of drink.” Kate asked her to care for the five weeks old baby, whom she did not “like ... because it was on the bottle.” This same neighbour gave good reports of Kate’s general sobriety and disposition and gave no reason to suspect she had been suicidal.

Kate went missing on 6th October and ‘Brickie’ Foster was called home the following day. He stated he had seen her on the 4th October, “under the influence of drink” and that she had promised to reform. It seems he went looking for Kate but such was the state of their marriage that he felt able to leave again, knowing she was still missing. He did not return to Forbes until 14th October when her body was found floating in the Forbes lagoon, “at the back of the Chinaman’s Garden, opposite the new racecourse.” This was Ah Toy’s residence, located off the Condobolin Road.
Kate was floating face downwards in the lagoon and appeared to have been in the water for several days. This active, beautiful young woman had at last come to rest, not by foul play, according to the findings of the inquest, but through misadventure. The road to this sad end was paved with the burdens of her gender – daughter, sister, wife – she had done her best to respond to the extraordinary circumstances of her life. The men who could have protected her had failed, not through choice in every case, but through fate.

One man was left to care for her memory, her brother Jim. He travelled to Forbes to collect her children Frederick, Gertrude and Maude and take them to live with their grandmother, Ellen Kelly, at Eleven Mile Creek. Their widowed father remained in contact and visited his children from time to time. In 1911, the journalist, William Cookson recorded an interview with Ellen Kelly, who commented on these events.

“Jim does what he can for us. But he cannot do much. He’s a man, Jim. There are not many like him. Most men marry long before they get to be his age. Men who live in the bush should have a wife to keep them company. But for my sake Jim has never married. He has kept single to keep me, and it is hard work, because the times are very bad, and the land is very poor—it won’t grow anything, scarcely, except a few sheep. Yes: Jim is a man, every inch of him.
“It …pains to think of the old, old times - the old, good times when we were all happy together. My head …Oh, dear …Ah, no one knows what it is to suffer as I have suffered—no one. Not many could have lived through it. Sometimes I wish I had not. But there are the children. When Kate died - that was in New South Wales, at a place called Forbes - her children were left destitute. Her husband was a blacksmith, but he was away at the time. It was more than 10 years ago that Jim one day found a telegram waiting for him at the post-office with the news that Kate had died …Such an awful death, too! All alone, with no one to help her when she became delirious. Oh, the poor darling! Oh, the cruelty of it.”

Sobs shook the aged woman’s meagre frame as she spoke. But there was indomitable resolution beneath that weak and wan exterior, and the mother of the outlaws forced back the welling tears and proceeded, in almost even tones:
“We had very little money; but Jim had his wagon team, so he harnessed up his horses straight off and set out for Forbes. It was 400 miles away. He got there in six days, and was home again in another seven. He travelled 60 miles a day. And we took over the charge of those children, that’s Kate, there (indicating the eldest of the three), and she’s the image of her mother – except - well, I don’t think she’s quite as good-looking.”

Little Miss Kate blushed rosily at this and said she knew she wasn’t - that it wouldn’t have been right. She was a prepossessing little girl, her demeanour strongly characterised by that quiet self-reliance that comes so early in life to the children of the bush. But it suddenly occurred to her that she was not dressed ‘for company.’ The surprise of the visit had put that fact back in her mind for a while. So she demurely withdrew into the neighbouring apartment, and presently re-emerged with face bright and shining as soap could make it, and a fragment of ribbon round her shapely throat. She was dressed now and ready for any social emergency. And there was abundant evidence of self-consciousness of the fact.

Cookson also interviewed Jim Kelly.

“Yes; it was true,” Jim told him. “Kate’s children wanted a home … so they had to have one. It was nothing …The roads were not hard to find …and there were always short cuts …No; I had not much food …Sometimes water was scarce. It was a time of drought …But it was nothing …Nothing at all …When you keep going you must get there, some time.”

The tall, grave bushman’s gaze is straight ahead. But the brown eyes see far beyond the reeking mist-clad ranges that shut off the landscape in rolling banks of dim-coloured foliage and fog. He, no doubt, sees before him the grim panorama of that dreary journey over those hundreds of arid miles, and himself, with the anguish of his dearest sister’s shocking death, and the pressing needs of her little ones gnawing cruelly at his heart strings, and urging him ever onwards, and to greater and still more self-sacrificing exertions. Yes, he made the journey to Forbes in six days. He took seven to return. Beyond doubt this gaunt bushman could tell of the hardships that that one day’s shortening of his journey meant. But he will never tell - not he. His gaze, inscrutable, but thoughtful, is still on the mountains when we ask him what was the manner of his sister’s death. For it had been reported in many places that she was not dead, but living and prosperous.

“But Kate?” we ask. “Had she no friends?”

The kindly brown eyes grew stern. “She married a blacksmith. They lived at various places. Then they went to Forbes. There was no one, it seems, with her when she had her last baby - only the children. The husband, we have heard, was away. It must have been awful for her …They found her dead, in a waterhole … The doctor said it was milk fever, and she had gone mad … The baby … did not live … Both were dead and buried when I got there. Though I hurried. Yes … I hurried. Oh, God! Yes! But … someone will answer for all this. Many of the people who brought about our ruin are dead. They are answering for it now …We’ve done with the opinion of the world on what has happened. The courts and the royal commissions, with the help of the police, have decided that.”

Elizabeth Butel

The town of Forbes stand on land traditionally occupied by the Wiradjuri people. In 1817 explorer John Oxley passed through the area, probably the first European to do so. He was closely followed by a number of adventurous early settlers who commenced the development of rural industries that have continued to be the mainstay of the area right up to the present time. This development was interrupted for a time by the discovery of gold, which attracted prospectors in large numbers. A tent township with a population of more than 30,000 quickly sprang up.

While increasing the population gold also brought with it people who lived outside the law, preying on the numerous travellers who made their way to and from the diggings. The names of the bushrangers Ben Hall and Frank Gardiner are closely associated with Forbes.

Above: The Lachlan River where Kate Foster, a sister of Ned Kelly, drowned in 1898 - Fore more on this story please click the following link

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