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“Making an exhibition of yourself”

The Illustrated Australian News, no. 291 July 1880, published Julian Ashton’s sketches of Ned and Kelly together following his capture at Glenrowan, and noted:
“the following morning arrangements were made for forwarding Ned Kelly to Melbourne by train. Preparatory to leaving, Mrs Skillion and his sister
Appeared on the platform for the purposes of bidding him farewell. Kate Kelly is a somewhat remarkable woman, and has borne a conspicuous part in connection with the Kelly Gang. Though suspected and closely watched by the police, they have never been able to sheet home to her a charge of assisting her brothers, and there cannot be a doubt that she possessed considerable pluck, powers of endurance and loyalty to her misguided brothers…”

These scenes were echoed throughout the Australian press… So when Kate Kelly and her brother Jim appeared at the Apollo Hall, polite Melbourne society was “outraged”. Ned Kelly had been hung that morning. Posters appeared around Melbourne, announcing the event.


The Exhibition was something of a tableau vivant with Kate and the others sitting motionless on a stage while curious onlookers filed past and conversed with them. Estimates for the crowds who’d waited outside Pentridge Gaol that morning were in the thousands and some of these may have paid the shilling to have a closer encounter with the family. At the time of Ned’s death she was 17, described as “five feet four inches high, slender build, dark complexion and hair - thin features, dark piercing eyes, very small chin, fairly good looking and a reserved manner, when in Victoria generally dressed in dark clothes.”

This was not Kate’s first public appearance. In July 1879, in Beechworth, 200 people had “thronged to see Aaron Sherritt, Mrs Byrne, Maggie Skillion and Kate Kelly who had come from Tarrawingee the previous night.” It had been noted in Melbourne that the much-travelled Kate Kelly had caught the Friday night train back to Beechworth.

The day after Ned’s death, the Argus, reported:
“A disgraceful scene took place last night at the Apollo Hall, where Kate Kelly and her brother, James Kelly, were exhibited by some speculators. They occupied arm-chairs upon the stage, and conversed with those present. The charge for admission was one shilling and several hundreds of persons paid for admission. The movement is said to be a private speculation, the hall having been let to the person showing the relatives of the executed bushranger by the Georgia Minstrels whose lease had not yet expired.”

The exhibition of the family was fostered by disparate groups, some driven by political motives, others by the desire to capitalise on their notoriety. After Ned had been sentenced to death, Kate, Maggie and Tom Lloyd, had applied for help through the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. As she’d aided and abetted her the Kelly Gang during the outbreak, now Kate pleaded fruitlessly for his life, even willing to go on her knees before the Governor to beg for mercy.

Newspapers reported sightings of her somewhat as they might report the movements of a celebrity. "Miss Kelly appears well in health, though pale,” wrote one newspaper. “She was tending a child, which she, however, consigned to its mother and conversed pretty freely. A habit of cautious reticence seemed, however, to have become her nature, and while her eyes would gleam with intelligence, they had a certain shy sense of pleasure she felt in baffling inquiry.... with regard of either herself or any other member of her family. She denied that there was ever any offence to be laid to her charge, unless it was that of sympathising with her brother, and said that the way the whole family had been harassed for years made her wish 'she had never been born’.

Within weeks the Bulletin, (20 November) was announcing: “Kate Kelly and her friends have formed themselves into a show and have been holding shilling levees at Melbourne with great success. They say they only want to get enough money to enable them to leave the country. If Kate wants to make money she ought to start a whisky-mill. Perhaps some enterprising landlord will yet try to make a Hebe of her.”

The Sydney Morning Herald (26 November) reported a KATE KELLY EXHIBITION, noting that the gentlemen who’d mounted it, “James Gregory Tomkins and James Pringle were summoned, at the instance of sub-inspector Anderson, for that on the 23rd November, on the premises at the rear of no. 128 Pitt Street in Sydney, they did permit a woman, Kate Kelly, and a man named James Kelly, relatives of the notorious criminal, Edward Kelly, who was recently executed in the neighbouring colony, to the great damage and common nuisance of all persons therein inhabiting and passing, and to offending, and against the peace of the Queen.”

The growth of fairs, entertainments and sideshow displays had created generalised anxiety among authorities in the colony. How much greater did they fear the disorder that a public display by the Kelly family could provoke. Sydney had seen its first international exhibition the year before Ned’s death at the Garden Palace in the Royal Botanical Gardens and such exhibitions had become associated with an emerging sense of nationhood. The rural sideshows of English fairs had established themselves in Australian cities because there were simply not enough people in country areas to justify them. The Kellys, with their superb equestrian skills, were no strangers to these.

Regarding the Kate Kelly Exhibition, the Sydney Morning Herald continued, “Sub-Inspector Anderson deposed that he laid the information; on Monday night he saw a number of persons coming from the premises referred to and going into them; there were boys from 12 to 20 years of age, girls of the larrikin and disorderly classes; he had to station some constables to keep order on the footpath; he considered the exhibition of the relatives of Edward Kelly a gross outrage, and highly injurious to public morals.

Sub-Inspector Camplin went to the premises mentioned on Monday afternoon and saw Tomkins and asked that was being fixed up; saw the exhibition there that evening, saw James Kelly riding on a horse and leading another into the shed; heard a man named Donovan standing at the entrance calling out: ‘The renowned Kate Kelly, mounted on her pony Oliver Twist, and Jim Kelly, mounted on Ned Kelly’s grey mare Kitty, and upon the saddle which Ned Kelly rode. Admission 1s. There’s no fraud about this. These are the genuine persons – no waxworks here,’ and remarks of the kind.
Case remanded one week; bail allowed to such of 80 pounds and two of 40 pounds. A promise was also given that the exhibition should not take place in the meanwhile.”

In their summary of the news, the Sunday Mail, (27 November) wrote:
“The Police have interfered in the Kelly Exhibition in Sydney as being demoralising to the youthful part of the population and a nuisance to the neighbourhood in which it is held.”

The Bulletin carried several reports:

“Kate and Jim Kelly tried to show last night in King Street, but the police put a stop to the affair.”

Their Page 4 Notes had these snippets: “Sir Henry Parkes says that all those who didn’t vote for him would have supported Ned Kelly.”

“Kate Kelly has invested in a fashionable riding habit at a leading house.”

“While Kate Kelly was holding a reception the other evening the footpath became so crowded that a number of respectable citizens took to the road.”

“James Kelly and his sister are staying at the Guild Hall Hotel. We saw Jim on Sunday night and asked him his opinion of the political situation. But he made no reply.”

Jottings from Melbourne, Page 5, noted that:

“Every woman in the community was shocked at Kate Kelly’s unfeeling conduct on the night of the day on which her brother was executed.”

Page 9 Notes carried another report of the attempted Exhibition, on the corner of King and Campbell Streets.
“Last Saturday night the Kelly gang stuck up the whole of Campbell Street. This street was positively blocked with every rank and sex, all eager to feast their eyes on the fascinating spectacle of a rough bushman and his helpless sister. O curae hominum? What trifles form the cares of men; and ditto as regards the women. Unless prevented by the authorities these talented artists show this week, and we venture to remark that their opening night will bring a greater crush than an Irving Shakespearean reading or a Sims Reeves and Santly concert.”

On 2 December 1880, under Accidents and Offences, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

“The brother and sister of notorious bushranger Ned Kelly have paid a visit in Sydney for the purpose of exhibiting themselves and some of the relics of the bushranging conflicts; but the police interfered, and the exhibition has been stopped…”

The Bulletin, 11 December wrote:

“The sister of Fitzpatrick – the constable who had the first dispute with the Kellys; resulting as they say, in their taking to the bush – called on Kate Kelly, while in this city. She asked for assistance, but it was not given her.”
“According to Kate Kelly’s statement to a Bulletin reporter, the lives of Lieut. O’Connor and his black trackers were several times at the mercy of Ned Kelly and his gang. Frequently the coloured men and their white chief passed within a few yards of bushrangers, and all the time were covered with a rifle.”

A week later, 18 December 1880, they commented:

“When people say the Kelly troupe were solely patronised by the larrikin class they live like the special correspondent of a daily sausage wrapper. As a proof of this I may mention that one of the most influential men in this city was met the last night of the show by Frank Warden, who asked if he had been in to see the Kellys. ‘Been in,’ reprised the influential party, ‘why I go in ten times every night. That costs me half a sov., but what of that; Jim gives me all his his old pipes and Kate throws me ten of her brightest smiles. ‘Holy Snakes!’ cried the tall divine as he stepped briskly off, ‘I’d better clear from this, for verily the spirit is weak, and the flesh may get it down and dance on it.”

On 8 January, 1881, they had this to say in Brief Mentions:

“The Port Adelaide News states that Kate Kelly has been engaged as barmaid by a publican in Hindley Street, Adelaide.”

Later in the same issue, they wrote:

“It is rumoured in New Zealand that Kate Kelly are going on a ‘starring’ tour in that colony shortly.”

The Wagga Advertiser, 8 January stated:

“The reports that Kate Kelly was at Oberon is contradicted, she being at Adelaide, and will leave for Greta in a few days.”

In the same issue they reported:

“The Kelly incidents have been worked into a drama, which is nightly produced at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, under the title Ned Kelly, or Perils in the Bush.”

The Adelaide Advertiser 7 January:

“In connection with a telegram which appeared in the Advertiser on Thursday, stating that Kate Kelly was at Oberon, NSW, visiting the caves, we have received a call from a licenced victualler, who states that Kate Kelly is now in Adelaide, and that her bought her over from Sydney some three weeks ago. He states that he engaged her as a barmaid, but that she had not acted in that capacity owing to a difficulty that has arisen in connection to her appearance in public, and that she has such remained as a guest in the house, and will leave Adelaide for Greta again in the course of a few days.”

The Advertiser further stated that: “A telegram from Sydney, re Kate Kelly at Oberon raised surprise, as she has been identified by many people in Adelaide where she is staying at Lang’s Galston Hotel.”

Along with the notoriety, there may have been some satisfactions as Jean Bedford, wrote in her award winning novel of 1982, Sister Kate: “Her time in Sydney, with crowds following her as she rode with Jim along the water’s edge at Woolloomooloo, the cheers and red faced admiration after the shows, had stayed with her, the only painless memory.”

Little wonder, in the forthcoming years, that after these attempts to take some control over her life through public exhibitions, Kate’s movements became more secretive, even to the extent of using aliases to conceal her identity.

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