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Hanley, Kitty (Kate) (c. 1845–1917)

by Michael Bennett

This article was published:

Kitty Hanley (c. 1845–1917), Wiradjuri matriarch and midwife, also known as Kate, was probably born on the Lachlan River in Wiradjuri Country, most likely between Forbes and Condobolin, New South Wales, in the mid-1840s. Copper Hill, a ceremonial site on the northern outskirts of Molong, is listed on her death certificate as her place of birth; however, while it may have been a place of spiritual significance for Kitty, it is unlikely to have been her birthplace. Little is known about her parents. Her father, Henry Hanley, may have been a convict assigned to one of the early pastoralists. Her Aboriginal mother is known only as Nancy.

Kitty grew up on the frontier with warfare flaring at times to the north along the Bogan River and south along the Murrumbidgee River as Aboriginal people and European invaders fought over land and scarce water. The colonisers temporarily abandoned properties along the Bogan River, but regrouped and returned in the 1850s, never to leave. They increasingly employed Aboriginal labour over the next two decades, both Aboriginal men and women taking on roles in the pastoral industry, riding horses and looking after sheep and cattle.

By about 1870 Kitty was living with an Aboriginal man known as King (Phillip) Solomon on Mungery, a sprawling station on the Bogan River downstream from Peak Hill. Mungery means swampy black soil in Wiradjuri, and Wiradjuri and other Aboriginal people had long gathered here for ceremonies. Other Wiradjuri names, such as gobondery (place of native willow) and dilladerry (place of spears), were adopted as European place-names.

Kitty and Solomon had three children, Edward, Jane, and Alexander. Born on Mungery in the early 1870s, they were taught traditional bush skills, such as tracking, from an early age. Later, Alexander adapted these skills to work for the New South Wales police as a tracker. There was cultural business for Kitty and her family to attend to during their time on Mungery. An initiation ceremony was held at the northern end of the Herveys Range in early 1872, twenty-five miles (40 km) east of Mungery. Although Kitty’s sons were probably too young to participate, the ceremony was an opportunity for Wiradjuri families from the central west to reconnect and keep their culture strong. Sentinels, who were adorned with light yellow feathers from the topknot of a white cockatoo, patrolled the edges of the initiation ground (which were often marked with carved trees and circular earth mounds) to keep prying eyes away. Four young men were initiated in a ceremony that culminated with one of their front teeth being knocked out.

Solomon died in the mid-1870s. Approaching her mid-thirties, Kitty faced the difficult task of raising three young children as a widow. She formed a relationship with Robert ‘Bogan Bob’ Robinson, an English boundary rider aged in his fifties. The couple settled on Bullock Creek, which flows into the Bogan River downstream from Mungery. Their first child, Amy, was born there in about 1877, and a son, George, followed two years later. Robinson then found secure work on Graddle, a pastoral station adjacent to Mungery, and Kitty and he decided to marry. A Presbyterian ceremony was performed at Graddle on 8 October 1879. The newlyweds and children were given Vine Cottage to occupy by the Strahorn family who owned the station and employed Robinson, and they set about consolidating their life together. They earned additional income by catching fish and selling it to local families for a few shillings or in exchange for tobacco, a common practice among Aboriginal people in the district. In the coming seven years, Kitty gave birth to a further six children.

Childbirth was usually deemed women’s business or grandmother’s law, with the mother attended and supported by female relatives. Kitty’s daughter Jane, then aged around twelve, helped with the birth of her brother Robert in August 1882 and with her youngest sister, Eliza, six years later. But there was a wider Aboriginal support network for Kitty to call on as well. When Charles was born in September 1884, Kitty was helped by Sarah Smith (née Hill), a young Aboriginal woman from Wando Wandong who travelled to Graddle from nearby Oaks station. Sadly, Charles lived for only a month before dying from convulsions. He was taken to Forbes for burial; his brother Edward dug the grave and his father witnessed the burial.

Putting tragedy aside, Kitty assisted Smith the following year with the birth of her son; it was a role she would perform many times in the coming years. Kitty and Robert’s eldest daughter, Amy, formed a relationship with Charles Burns of Tomingley; their eldest surviving son, Robert, was born on 4 April 1895 at Graddle, with Kitty acting as midwife. While birthing practices varied across Australia, Aboriginal midwives usually assisted with the practical delivery of the baby and post-partum care, and also performed important ceremonies before, during, and after the birth to ease the mother’s labour, reduce pain and bleeding, and signify the child’s spiritual connection to their Country and their totemic identity.

Kitty’s relationship with Robert began to break down soon after their grandson’s birth; she and the children left Graddle and moved forty miles (65 km) south-east to Obley. There she met John May Merritt, a gold prospector and selector who had been born at sea in about 1860. Kitty and her younger children moved to Merritt’s selection at Killaloolah, six miles (10 km) north of Obley. Their relationship could be tempestuous. Following an argument in July 1897, Merritt attempted to take his own life by cutting his throat from ear to ear with a razor. Kitty calmly picked up a packing needle and twine (usually used for potato bags) and sewed up the wound. Merritt was taken to Dubbo for treatment and the attending doctor ‘found the wounds so expertly stitched that, beyond prescribing a restorative, it was unnecessary to do anything’ (Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate 1897, 2). Merritt praised his wife, declaring her a ‘clinical seamstress’ (Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate 1897, 2). The recipient of generations of Wiradjuri medical knowledge, Kitty would have known to apply a eucalyptus solution to aid healing. Their relationship calmed after that, and Merritt helped with raising Kitty’s two youngest children, William and Eliza, both of whom took his surname.

Family remained a focus for Kitty. She helped with the birth of Amy’s second child, a boy named George Augustus John Burns, at Obley, on 3 May 1899. Two months later she assisted with the birth of Edward’s third child, Annie Adelaide Solomon, also at Obley. Sometimes she travelled further afield to assist with births. In late May 1905 she helped her youngest daughter Eliza with the birth of her first child, a daughter named Ellen May Towney, at Mungery, travelling there by horse and cart. On the way home, she stopped at Tomingley for the birth of Edward’s fifth child, Henry Wilfred Solomon. She helped with at least seven births between 1885 and 1908, and there were probably many more that were not recorded.

Kitty’s world had been thrown into turmoil in October 1901 when her daughter Amy was violently assaulted on the southern outskirts of Dubbo while returning to Obley with her son Robert. She may have gone to town to obtain supplies or visit relatives at Talbragar Aboriginal Reserve, three miles (5 km) north of town. The culprit was a Queensland Aboriginal man named George Phillips (alias Charles Ryan) who worked as a horse-breaker. Amy spent several weeks in Dubbo Base Hospital recuperating. At the trial in January 1902, Robert, not yet seven years old, testified, confirming that Phillips was responsible for the attack. To the relief of Kitty and her family, Amy recovered and Phillips was convicted and sentenced to six years gaol.

On 11 February 1917 Kitty died at Bulgandramine Aboriginal Reserve. Her funeral was held in the Church of England section of the Peak Hill general cemetery the following day, witnessed by her daughter Amy and son-in-law William Towney. Her dedication to family produced a long lineage. Genealogical research conducted in the 2010s identified over 630 descendants. Many still live near the Bogan River, where Kitty spent much of her life, at places such as Peak Hill, Dubbo, and Wellington, but some have moved further afield to Sydney, Queensland, and South Australia.

 

Michael Bennett is of English and Scottish descent. He was born on Gadigal (Eora) Country and grew up on Wiradjuri Country.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Bennett, Michael. Pathfinders: A History of Aboriginal Trackers in NSW. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2000
  • Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate. ‘Attempted Suicide.’ 17 July 1897, 2
  • Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate. ‘Dubbo Quarter Sessions.’ 29 January 1902, 3
  • Nash, David. ‘Comitative Placenames in Central NSW.’ In Indigenous and Minority Placenames: Australian and International Perspectives, edited by Ian D. Clark, Luise Hercus and Laura Kostanski, 11–38. Canberra: ANU Press and Aboriginal History Inc., 2014

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael Bennett, 'Hanley, Kitty (Kate) (c. 1845–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hanley-kitty-kate-30782/text38129, published first in hardcopy 2021, accessed online 19 September 2021.

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Solomon, Kitty
  • Robinson, Kitty
  • Merritt, Kitty
  • May, Kitty
Birth

c. 1845
Lachlan River, New South Wales, Australia

Death

11 February 1917
Bulgandramine, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

general debility

Cultural Heritage
Occupation
Properties