Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ethel Knight Kelly (1875–1949)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Ethel Knight Kelly (1875-1949), actress and author, was born on 28 January 1875 at St John, New Brunswick, Canada, elder daughter of Scots parents William Knight Mollison, merchant, and his wife Margaret, née Millen. She was brought up partly in Britain, but her education was sketchy, consisting of piano, elocution and French lessons twice a week at St John. She loved reading, especially the novels of 'Ouida' and Rider Haggard.

From childhood Ethel 'enjoyed dramatic action'. In December 1893 she played the lead when her three-act play, A Mischievous Miss, was staged at St John. It was a roaring success as she had satirized the 'local society in general and one or two families in particular'. While very young she married a Mr Moore and lived in New York. Widowed within a year, she was engaged to play with Olga Nethersole and Maurice Barrymore in Camille in 1894. For some eight years she was associated 'with the best companies in the United States', using her maiden name. Her favourite roles were Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac and Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew.

Engaged by J. C. Williamson, Miss Mollison arrived in Sydney on 14 March 1903 and opened in the farcical comedy, Are You a Mason?, on 11 April. In June the company left for Newcastle and New Zealand. In Sydney she played Cio-Cio San in David Belasco's Madame Butterfly at the reopening of Her Majesty's Theatre on 1 August, before going to Melbourne. At Christ Church, Hawthorn, she married Thomas Herbert Kelly on 29 August. She left the professional stage in October.

Between 1904 and 1913 Mrs Kelly bore two sons and two daughters. An Edwardian beauty, with a vibrant personality, wit and boundless energy, she soon established a reputation for 'original ideas'. She helped to arrange elaborate fancy-dress balls and acted in matinées to raise money for the Women's Hospital, St Vincent's Hospital and Lady Dudley's Australian Bush Nursing Scheme. She visited India and on her return wrote a book, Frivolous Peeps at India (1911).

During World War I Mrs Kelly, among her many fund-raising activities, organized a dolls' carnival for which she 'reproduced in miniature a whole theatre of Russian ballet'. She acted in matinées, notably as Lady Teazle, with Cyril Maude, in The School for Scandal (in September 1917) and in her own play, Swords and Tea (February 1918). On several occasions with Margaret Gordon, she was the 'speaking voice' in Henri Murger's 'La Ballade du Désespéré'. In May 1918 she played Mrs Manners, the 'match-making mother', in the amateur film, Cupid Camouflaged. She organized the Elizabethan musical water pageant on 16 October 1918 and, as Queen Elizabeth accompanied by her court and madrigal singers, travelled slowly down the harbour on the royal barge (a brilliantly lit ferry). Ethel Kelly loved clothes and always ensured that every detail was historically correct.

From 1919, while their sons were at Eton and Oxford, the Kellys made frequent visits to Britain and Europe. In November 1922 Mrs Kelly was asked by (Sir) Joynton Smith to conduct the woman's page of Smith's Weekly at a salary of £1040. Late in 1923 she was allowed as a journalist to visit Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt and sent reports to Smith's. It also inspired her to write a novel, Why the Sphinx Smiles (London, 1925).

From about 1925 Mrs Kelly lived mainly at Florence, Italy, while supervising her daughters' education. She wrote another novel Zara (London, 1927) and her memoirs, Twelve Milestones (London, 1929). While in Italy she became a Roman Catholic. She returned to Sydney in 1934 at her husband's request; they built an Italianate villa at Darling Point. In 1937 she was president of the Pageant of Nations advisory committee for Australia's 150th Anniversary Celebrations.

During World War II Ethel Kelly was president of the French-Australian League of Help and the Victoria League, a vice-president of the St John Ambulance Association and the French Red Cross Societies, honorary treasurer of Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a committee-member of the Actors' Benevolent Fund and a trustee of the Women's and St Vincent's hospitals and the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales. She helped to raise money for all of them — and for many other causes.

All her life Ethel Kelly enjoyed meeting and entertaining 'interesting people' and shared her husband's love of music. She collected antique furniture, Persian rugs and rare Venetian wine glasses. She died in her flat at Darlinghurst on 22 September 1949 and was buried in the Catholic section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. A son and two daughters survived her. In the early 1920s Longstaff painted her wearing a Spanish shawl, a pose that accented her small stature, dark hair and eyes, and determined chin (she always liked a definite answer) and the faintly exotic aura that always clung to her.

Select Bibliography

  • Theatre Magazine, 1 May 1913
  • Home (Sydney), Dec 1920, 1 Sept 1921
  • Daily Sun (St John, Canada), 2 Dec 1893
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Mar, 13 Apr 1903, 25 Sept 1909, 1 June, 4 Dec 1918, 29 Sept 1921, 22 Aug 1938, 4 Aug 1948, 29 Jan 1949
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 15 Aug 1903, 19 Dec 1914, 9 Feb, 22 June, 26 Oct 1918
  • West Australian, 2 May 1934
  • Truth, 18 Sept 1910
  • Bulletin, 11 Jan 1912
  • Smith's Weekly, 2 Dec 1922
  • F. S. Kelly diaries (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Kelly, Ethel Knight (1875–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 January, 1875
St John, New Brunswick, Canada


22 September, 1949 (aged 74)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, 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.