Title: Kate Kelly: The True Story of Ned Kelly’s Little Sister
Author: Rebecca Wilson
Genre: Biography, history
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 16th February 2021
Synopsis: Kate Kelly has always been overshadowed by her famous brother Ned, but the talented young woman was a popular public figure in her own right. This moving biography tells her astonishing story in full for the first time.
Kate Kelly, the daring sister of legendary bushranger Ned Kelly, was mysteriously found dead in a lagoon outside the NSW town of Forbes in 1898.
At the inquest, Kate’s husband Bricky Foster claimed that she was addicted to drink and frequently spoke of suicide. However, a neighbour testified that she had only known Kate to drink since the recent birth of her baby and that she never spoke of suicide. Was it suicide, accident or murder, and why had she changed her name to Ada?
While only a teenager, Kate rode as a messenger and decoy for the Kelly Gang, and was present at the gruesome Glenrowan siege. After Ned’s execution, she appeared at public gatherings around Australia. Huge crowds came to see her talk and ride, and she helped to popularise the Ned Kelly story as a celebrity in her own right. Then she disappeared from the public eye.
Rebecca Wilson is the first to uncover the full story of Kate Kelly’s tumultuous life. It will surprise anyone who thought they already knew the story of Australia’s most famous outlaw.
Everyone knows the story of The Kelly Gang, particularly Ned and Dan Kelly, the two bushranger brothers. As with many of our bushranger stories, histories and legends, the story of the Kelly Gang focuses primarily on the escapades, capture and death of Ned, and we all know who his mother was. Yet even as someone who has read about and studied Australian history, I had never heard anything, or very much, about Ned Kelly’s little sister Kate, and her role in the Kelly Gang and the evolution of their legend.
When Rebecca’s biography begins, Kate’s body has just been found in 1898. At this time, she was known as Ada, and had left behind several children. Questions about what had happened, and eventually, why she had changed her name came out – and from there, the book moves back into Kate’s teenage years, and her time supporting her brothers and the Kelly Gang, as well as what happened to Kate throughout these years, and how she coped with all the changes, the arrests and helping her mother raise their young family, leading up to Ned’s eventual arrest and execution in 1880.
Kate’s story is one of those hidden and untold stories of women in history. Rebecca’s account doesn’t shy away from Kate’s history, or that she loved and tried to help her brother Ned, or whatever she went through. Not all is known, as Rebecca has had to work with the available sources, but in doing so, she has given a voice to a woman oft ignored – and her significant role in forming the legend of the Kelly Gang in the years after Ned’s death with her brother Jim. The evolution of this legend stemmed from the shows the siblings did and has become what we know it today. This is an interesting thing to consider – how the legend started, and Kate Kelly’s story indicates how it started and why, and shows that even then there was a keen, perhaps almost morbid interest in the story alongside the determination of the police to put a stop to memorialising a criminal. Yet at the same time, perhaps understanding where the Kelly legend began will help us to understand the origins of the legend and provide a historical basis for undertaking criticism and further studies. I feel that this has contributed some understanding of the legend to history whilst not justifying what the Kelly gang did. Through gaining an understanding of the role of women in this period of history in general as well, we can see how legends and historical records are formed, and how ideas are cemented about certain figures.
Kate was no angel, yet her story is complex and interesting – and Rebecca points out that her story is one that hasn’t been told. It doesn’t apologise or justify the crimes of the Kelly Gang, but portrays Kate as human. She is a sister, a mother and is someone who has to learn to cope with all manner of dark and uneasy things in her life leading up to her death – assumed by many to be suicide. Yet as Rebecca’s book and author’s note indicates, there is no answer to what really happened – and those who know are long dead. Kate’s story is complex and tumultuous. Nothing is simple or straightforward for her, and what makes her story an intriguing addition to Australian history and the history of the Kelly Gang is the role of women in the lives of bushrangers and the creation of Ned’s legend, though there are more facets to this legend as well.