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Maxwell Jon (Max) Kelly (1935–1996)

by Jill Roe and Beverley Kingston

This article was published online in 2020

Professor Max Kelly, 1996, by Scott Wajon

Professor Max Kelly, 1996, by Scott Wajon

State Library of New South Wales, P1/2197

Maxwell Jon Kelly (1935–1996), historian and urban preservationist, was born on 12 December 1935 at Warrnambool, Victoria, one of two children of Victorian-born parents Neil Williams Caldow Kelly, linesman, and his wife Margaret Anderson, née Doak. Max attended Warrnambool State and Warrnambool and District High schools. After winning a scholarship to Geelong Teachers’ College, he studied commerce at the University of Melbourne (BCom, 1958). A friend from those days, Barbara McGilvray, described him as handsome, charming, and confident.

Having tutored part time in economic history at the university, Kelly travelled to Europe, where he studied Italian history and language before commencing postgraduate work at the London School of Economics (1961–62). He began to supplement his student allowance by working as a model in England and Europe, assignments in Italy marking the beginning of his lifetime delight in that country and its style. Travellers on buses along the King’s Road in London could scarcely avoid seeing him on a massive billboard advertising cigarettes, but he did well out of modelling for knitting patterns too. In London he realised that he was gay; after returning to Australia in 1966, he lived for some years with the drama critic Brian Hoad.

For a brief period Kelly trained as an editor with Beatrice Davis at Angus & Robertson Ltd, before returning to economics as a postgraduate at the University of New South Wales (MCom, 1971), where he also taught economic history. While restoring an old terrace house in Heeley Street, Paddington, he became fascinated with its architecture and history. Soon he was involved in the campaign to save Paddington from the threat of freeways. His master’s thesis on the subdivision of Paddington was later revised and published as Paddock Full of Houses: Paddington 1840–1890 (1978).

In 1971 Kelly was appointed as a lecturer in contemporary economic history and urban history with an environmental emphasis at Macquarie University; he would be promoted to associate professor in 1986. While he was completely at home lecturing on the significance of the Bretton Woods agreement to the world economy, he delighted in the historical detail to be found in rate books, tram tickets, and real estate agents’ records. To walk the streets with him was a revelation. ‘Look up,’ he would say, and then point out some small but significant detail in a facade.

Kelly was one of the founders, and the first president, of the Sydney History Group, established in 1975 to share research papers that were subsequently published in the group’s collections, and to conduct walks through historic precincts. He was active in the New South Wales branch of the National Trust, and, as president from 1986 to 1988, oversaw the purchase and restoration of Juniper Hall, Paddington, financially over-ambitious though it may have been. In a regular column in the Sydney Review, he pressed for improved planning laws and the preservation of Sydney’s heritage, which he saw as belonging to the people. Increasingly he came to think of Sydney’s maritime heritage as similar to that of Venice, with Sydney as the maritime centre of the South Pacific. So he fostered campaigns to restore Cadman’s Cottage properly, and to save Pyrmont Bridge, the Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo, and the Rocks. With the support of Premier Bob Carr he became the founding president of the History Council of New South Wales, created in 1995 in an attempt to provide a more inclusive and forward-looking peak body for history and heritage organisations than, for example, the Royal Australian Historical Society or the National Trust, both of which were seen as old and exclusive. Kelly’s energy extended also to publishing, setting up his own Doak Press (named for his mother). Initially intended to publish his Paddington history, it subsequently produced other volumes, including Faces of the Street: William Street Sydney 1916 (1982), after he discovered the photographic record made by the Sydney City Council in 1916 before the demolition of the south side of William Street for widening.

Witty and ‘hospitable,’ Kelly had ‘a generosity of spirit that endeared him to a great many people’ (Pearson 1996, 13). He died from a heart attack on 12 August 1996, not long before his planned retirement, at the flat in Potts Point he then shared with the architect and illustrator Tony Fragar. Kelly was cremated; his coffin arrived for his funeral in the old ‘ute’ he had persisted in driving to ferry supplies for his ongoing renovations. He is remembered for the tenacious application of his skills as a trained historian to the understanding and preservation of Sydney’s heritage. An exchange scholarship between Sydney and Venice was established in his name, and the Max Kelly award bestowed by the History Council of New South Wales commemorates him.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, Shirley. ‘Maxwell Jon Kelly, 1935–1996.’ History, no. 49 (October 1996): 15
  • McGilvray, Barbara. Personal communication
  • Pearson, Christopher. ‘Protector of Architectural Inheritance.’ Australian, 26 August 1996, 13
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Roe, Jill. ‘Maxwell Jon Kelly 1935–1996.’ History Workshop Journal, no. 44 (Autumn 1997): 290–92
  • Roe, Jill, comp. and ed. Guide to the Papers and Works of Max Kelly. [Sydney]: Australian History Museum, Macquarie University in association with the State Library of New South Wales, 1998

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jill Roe and Beverley Kingston, 'Kelly, Maxwell Jon (Max) (1935–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 21 June 2024.

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