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John Henry Kelly (1895–1983)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

John Henry Kelly (1895-1983), farmer, public servant and rural-industries consultant, was born on 17 May 1895 at Hornsby, Sydney, eleventh of fourteen children of Irish-born parents Henry Edward Kelly, railway ganger and later funeral director, and his wife Mary, née Monaghan. Jack received his early education at the Good Samaritan convent school, Campbelltown, and at the Christian Brothers’ school, Lewisham, where he found the discipline hard. He was intelligent but `wild and unmanageable’ and after his authoritarian father enrolled him at St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill, as a first step towards the priesthood, he ran away from home at the age of 12. (Six of his eight sisters became nuns.) Posing as an orphan, he was taken in by a family at Jesmond, near Newcastle, with whom he stayed for about six months while working at a coalmine. A year later, after labouring in a variety of rural jobs mainly on the Liverpool Plains, he was apprehended by the police and returned home.

Leaving school at 15, Kelly found employment as a conveyor-belt operator at the Darling Harbour wheat terminal, as a general hand for a well-boring contractor, and at an abattoir. In 1912 he was gaoled briefly for refusing to carry out his compulsory military training, but on the outbreak of World War I he tried to enlist, only for his father to refuse permission. He went to Brisbane and worked at Thomas Borthwick’s freezing works before joining the Australian Imperial Force on 1 July 1915. Sailing for the Middle East in September, two months later he was posted as a temporary corporal to a composite light horse regiment that fought in Egypt as part of Western Frontier Force; he was wounded in the foot on 13 December. After recovering, he saw action in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns, serving as a sapper in the 1st Field Squadron and then as a driver in the Anzac Mounted Divisional Train. He was discharged from the AIF on 27 September 1919 in Sydney.

Impressed by the Rothschild settlements of small farmers in Palestine, Kelly was granted a 134-acre (54 ha) farm in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in August 1921. On 26 November at St Matthew’s Church of England, Manly, Sydney, he married Gwenllian Mary Morris Jenkins. He soon became involved in local politics and journalism. The first president (1928-29) of the Wade Shire Council, he opposed the `home maintenance area’ and `living maintenance’ concepts of land settlement as they presupposed a `peasant standard’. In 1930 he unsuccessfully contested the State seat of Murrumbidgee for the Country Party. He farmed throughout the difficult 1930s and averred that the rural crisis was the result of `too many farmers on too many farms which are not economic units’. In January 1939 he organised a convention at Griffith to examine the possibility of diverting westward the waters of the Snowy River and suggested that a national survey of Australia’s water resources be undertaken.

On 15 July 1940 Kelly enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He stood again as a United Country Party candidate for Murrumbidgee in 1941 but came last in a field of five. Serving as a clerk in the RAAF, he rose to temporary sergeant before being discharged on 31 March 1942. Next day he enlisted for full-time duty in the Volunteer Defence Corps as an acting staff sergeant. Stationed in the Wollongong area, he was promoted to warrant officer, class two, in June, commissioned as a lieutenant in October 1943 and made temporary captain in November. In March 1944 he was posted to headquarters, Newcastle Fortress, as a staff officer. He resigned his commission on 31 October and, at the invitation of Ben Chifley, joined the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, Canberra, in January 1945, soon becoming a foundation member of (Sir) John Crawford’s Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Using his previous experience as a soldier settler, he helped to plan the War Service Land Settlement Scheme and played an important part in preventing the establishment of farms that were too small.

In 1948 Kelly undertook the first survey of the beef cattle industry in northern Australia. He travelled extensively and met much hostility in his investigations, especially when he commented on the plight of Aboriginal stockmen and the deficient land management of absentee landlords, but his BAE report of 1952 was generally well received. It recommended greater government involvement in the north, the abandonment of the inefficient and wasteful open-range system of cattle-raising in favour of smaller properties, the use of the brigalow country of Queensland for beef cattle and fodder crops, and a better deal for Aboriginal workers. He next completed surveys of the region of the Ord and Victoria rivers in the North-West and the Leichhardt-Gilbert area of Queensland in 1954, and with Dr Rex Patterson conducted a study on the road transport of cattle that led to a Commonwealth program of developing beef roads. In 1959 he underwent an operation to save his sight. He retired in 1960, but continued his research as a consultant.

An indefatigable worker and enthusiast for northern development, Kelly gave interviews, lectures and broadcasts, and published his views in newspapers, journals and BAE reports. His ideas and vision were articulated in Struggle for the North (1966), which showed how the ownership of the northern cattle lands and their mineral resources had been acquired by international monopolies and large financial consortiums. His provocative Beef in Northern Australia (1971), in which he maintained that the north could support three times its cattle population if the government imposed more stringent controls on leaseholders, was the outcome of a research fellowship (1967-70), held in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University, and funded by the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Spade-bearded, spare and fit, with precise diction and a twinkle in his eye, `Kelly of the North’ had an immense gusto for life, work, friends and fun. An expert bushman, he loved the outback, enjoyed a drink and was a renowned talker and storyteller. A highly practical economist and agrarian reformer, radical in most things, he identified with the battler and the underdog. He died on 9 April 1983 in Canberra and was cremated; his wife, three of their four sons and their daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • People (Sydney), 21 Nov 1951, p 24
  • Canberra Times, 13 Mar 1968, p 23, 30 May 1974, p 3, 27 Aug 1981, p 3, 11 Apr 1983, p 7
  • Courier (Canberra), 15 Jan 1970, p 2
  • Australian Financial Review, 22 Apr 1983, p 28
  • series B2455, item Kelly J H, series A9301, item 32328 and series B884, item N391298 (National Archives of Australia)
  • M. Pratt, interview with J. H. Kelly (transcripts, 1971 and 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • Kelly papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Kelly, John Henry (1895–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 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]


17 May, 1895
Hornsby, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


9 April, 1983 (aged 87)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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