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Emily Caroline (Carrie) Kelly (1899–1989)

by Heather Radi

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Emily Caroline (Carrie) Kelly (1899-1989), theatre producer and anthropologist, was born on 24 April 1899 at West Didsbury, Manchester, England, one of four children of Robert Francis Watson, warehouse manager, and his wife Caroline, née Tennant. Young Caroline acted in little theatre at Manchester and Birmingham. After moving to Australia in the early 1920s, Carrie Tennant, as she was known, performed for charity in Sydney. In 1925-26 she had elocution lessons with Barbara Sisley in Brisbane. There Carrie was fired from her first professional appearance—at the Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane, in `The Snapshots of 1926’—for `rotten’ acting. Back in Sydney she started a play-reading circle for radio 2KY, and produced two series of one-act plays at Burdekin House, taking the leading role in her own Outback. This work and her other one-act plays Reprieve and Secrecy were published in Three Plays for Little Theatre (1930). On 23 January 1929 at St James’s Church of England, Sydney, she married Francis Angelo Timothy Kelly, a copywriter with Ferguson Advertising Co. Ltd, shortly to become editor of Health and Physical Culture, and later an advertising agent.

In 1929 Carrie Kelly opened the Community Playhouse in St Peter’s Church hall, Darlinghurst. On 7 December her troupe of experienced actors performed Echoes (1918) by Adrian Consett Stephen. Intending to foster an Australian theatre tradition, she ran competitions for the best Australian one-act play, promising that all entries would be performed. It proved a recipe for disaster. The many entries for her second competition over-taxed her players; performances were under-rehearsed; judges disagreed. In 1931 Tennant transferred to the Aeolian Hall, incorporating her players into the Australian Play Society.

On the final night of her third one-act competition, Lady Game, wife of the governor Sir Philip Game, left at interval denouncing the `distasteful moral tone’ of the plays she had seen, one being Tom Moore’s `No Robbery’. `Does Lady Game object to “Carmen”, to “Madam Butterfly?”‘ Tennant retorted. Disheartened, she abandoned Australian theatre. Producer of more than seventy one-act and five full-length plays, she had created opportunities for coming authors—Les Haylen’s Two Minutes’ Silence (1933) was the basis for a film by the McDonagh sisters—and more generally for promoting theatre. She included Shaw and Ibsen in the Community Playhouse’s repertoire.

In 1931 Kelly enrolled in anthropology at the University of Sydney (Dip.Anth., 1945). Margaret Mead had persuaded her that it was a great field for women `interested in the betterment of humanity’. This was a sustaining belief. Forty years later Kelly wrote that anthropology taught tolerance and was `far more important than throwing ironmongery at the moon’. Under Peter Elkin’s supervision she undertook fieldwork among Aboriginal communities in New South Wales and, for four months in 1934, at Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement, Queensland, where she discovered the tenacious nature of Aboriginal memory. The elders guarded their religious secrets `very jealously’, she wrote in a paper delivered in January 1935 to the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science.

With Elkin as mentor Kelly proposed to the Aborigines Protection Board in 1936 a scheme for social re-organisation of its reserves, intended to combat apathy. Promoted as the application of anthropological knowledge to problems of administration, it was a modest proposal for a social club with acknowledgment of the traditional authority of elders and for occupancy rights for cultivators within reserves. Before she reached Burnt Bridge Settlement, near Kempsey, in August 1937, to implement her scheme, the board’s policy of concentration had brought about confrontation with the Moseleys and distress for recent arrivals. Kelly’s critical 1937 report supplied ammunition for others—Elkin, the Association for the Protection of Native Races and feminist organisations—to demand changes. Contrasting the situation at Burnt Bridge with that at Wreck Bay, Kelly stressed the importance of the availability of paid employment and criticised the exclusion of Aborigines from work relief.

When the parliamentary select committee on the administration of the Aborigines Protection Board (appointed in November 1937) lapsed without reporting, Kelly continued to badger the premier, (Sir) Bertram Stevens. He admitted to `infrequent contacts’ with Aborigines and commissioned advice from the Public Service Board, which consulted Kelly and Elkin and adopted their recommendations for a reconstructed board to include an anthropologist and for the appointment of a full-time protector of Aborigines.

Kelly’s writing subtly shifted direction. An early emphasis on education and training implicitly directed towards assimilation was replaced by respect for Aboriginal culture. She warned missionaries in 1944 that the Aborigine accepted from Christianity only that which fitted his `old way’. Later she was outspoken against forcing Aborigines into factories and cities, `trying to … turn them into greedy grasping people in our own image’.

Between 1942 and 1948 Kelly wrote several reports for the Commonwealth government on the assimilation of immigrants—Jewish refugees, `orphaned’ children and non-British migrants. Noting prejudice, anti-Semitism and tensions between Australian Jews and new arrivals, she was emphatic about the need to `condition’ public opinion before any large-scale immigration.

Kelly gave lectures on the social aspects of town planning at the universities of Sydney and Melbourne. She is remembered as an intellectually stimulating teacher at Sydney Kindergarten Teachers’ College but her academic career petered out. Her interests shifted to urban planning and she ended her working life in the employment of the State Planning Authority of New South Wales, advising on housing projects south of Sydney. Always a lively controversialist she advocated the restoration of the verandah as the `children’s place’, corner shops for people to meet, and grants to young couples to build granny flats.

Reputed to have been living as a semi-recluse in a caravan, Caroline Kelly died on 1 September 1989 at Kyogle. Following a requiem Mass at St Mary’s Catholic Church, North Sydney, she was buried in the Catholic section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. Predeceased by her husband, she was survived by her adopted son.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Wise, The Self-Made Anthropologist (1985)
  • Association for the Protection of Native Races, Annual Report, 1937-38, p 9
  • Hecate, vol 24, no 2, 1998, p 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Sept 1931, p 15, 28 Apr 1932, p 13, 27 July 1937, p 22, 19 Aug 1958, p 26, 21 June 1960, p 7, 21 Oct 1971, p 8, 12 July 1972, p 7
  • B.P. Magazine, 1 Mar 1932, p 26
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 18 Aug 1970, p 16
  • series A434, item 1950/3/44230, series A436, item 1948/5/330, series A441, item 1952/13/2687, series A441, item 1952/13/2684, series A1336, item 39459, and series A2998, item 1952/105 (National Archives of Australia)
  • New South Wales Aborigines Board Protection, Minutes, 1936­37, reel 2792, frames 226-305, and Premier’s Dept Special Bundles, Treatment of Aborigines in New South Wales, reel 1862, frames 424-494 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Carrie Tennant papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • A. P. Elkin papers (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Kelly, Emily Caroline (Carrie) (1899–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Tennant, Carrie
  • Watson, Carrie

24 April, 1899
West Didsbury, Manchester, England


1 September, 1989 (aged 90)
Kyogle, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.