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Raymond William Kelly (1906–1977)

by Sandra Harvey

This article was published:

Raymond William Kelly (1906-1977), detective, was born on 3 February 1906 at Wellington, New South Wales, eldest of six children of native-born parents Hugh Nicholas Kelly, a labourer who became a brewer, and his wife Agnes Constance, née Lynch. After leaving Wellington District School at the age of 15, Ray 'toughened up' in the Broken Hill mines. From there, he drifted through northern New South Wales and Queensland, working on various cattle properties. In Sydney on 3 July 1929 he fulfilled a childhood ambition by joining the New South Wales Police Force. A fit, solid man, almost six feet (183 cm) tall and weighing 12 st. 4 lb. (78 kg), he began probationary duties on foot patrol in the metropolitan area.

Five months later, while on bicycle patrol at Newtown, Kelly identified and chased a stolen car. The driver turned into a dead end, reversed, knocked Kelly off his bicycle and through a plate-glass window, and then attempted to run him down. Kelly managed to fire five shots at the car, killing one man and injuring the other two. His bravery earned him the first of eight commendations and the nickname, 'The Gunner'. In 1931 he again made headlines when, as part of the riot squad, he stormed a barricaded house at Newtown under a volley of gunfire during an eviction siege. In the ensuing mêlée his skull was fractured with an iron bar and he spent several weeks in hospital.

At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, on 8 April 1933 Kelly married Mary Philomena Agatha Barnes, a salesgirl. Promoted to constable (first class) in 1938, he was made a detective in 1941 and remained in plain clothes for the rest of his career. He was mainly based at the Criminal Investigation Branch and developed a reputation as a tough policeman who was cool under pressure. Priding himself on his extensive contacts among criminals, he believed that a detective was only as good as his informants. The nature of some of those contacts, however, as well as his later financial position, led to rumours and allegations of corruption, particularly after his death.

Even as a detective, Kelly cut a glamorous figure; he sported fine suits, wore spectacles and combed his slick, black hair back on his head. He was variously respected, admired, envied and hated. In February 1950 he arrested the armed robbers Darcy Dugan and William Mears for shooting a bank manager after breaking out of gaol. Dugan became notorious as an escapee and Kelly was to recapture him three more times. A number of criminals accused Kelly of obtaining confessions by verbal intimidation: Frederick 'Chow' Hayes (arrested by Kelly in 1952 for killing a former boxer Bobby Lee) yelled from the dock, 'I hope to live for the day when Kelly dies of cancer of the tongue'. Years later Hayes admitted committing the murder. In March 1953 Kelly, then head of the safe-breaking squad, encountered a bank robber Lloyd Day and two associates driving through Drummoyne. In the ensuing chase the police car was rammed and Kelly shot and killed the armed bandit. Kelly served in Queen Elizabeth II's bodyguard on her 1954 tour of Australia.

On occasions his persuasive manner made a gun unnecessary. In 1955 he boarded a cruise ship off Sydney Heads for a 'chat' with Billy Hill, an English gangster who had hoped to emigrate to New South Wales. Following their brief meeting, Hill remained on board and returned to England. Next year Kelly won the Peter Mitchell award for outstanding performance. In 1959 he led the successful hunt for two dangerous escapees Kevin Simmonds and Leslie Newcombe who had beaten a prison warder to death.

Promoted to inspector in 1960, Kelly continued to direct his network of informants with considerable effect, culminating in January 1966 in the recapture of two infamous Melbourne criminals wanted for murder, Ronald Ryan and Peter Walker. Less than a month later Kelly retired. More than eight hundred people—including politicians, judges, publicans, bookmakers, criminals and police—gave him a standing ovation when he addressed his farewell dinner. The premier (Sir) Robert Askin commented: 'no fictional detective could hold a candle to Ray Kelly'.

In retirement Kelly pursued real-estate interests and enjoyed playing golf. He also advised large commercial organizations on robbery prevention and designed a car alarm. In January 1975 he was appointed M.B.E. Survived by his wife and son, he died on 11 August 1977 at his Fairlight home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Hickie, The Prince and the Premier (Syd, 1985)
  • D. Hickie, Chow Hayes (Syd, 1990)
  • R. Hay, Catch Me If You Can (Syd, 1992)
  • B. Jenkings, As Crime Goes By (Syd, 1992)
  • Police Department of New South Wales, Report, 1951, 1956, 1960, 1966, 1978
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Oct 1953, 25 Oct, 21 Nov 1959, 7, 9 Jan, 30 Sept 1966, 2 Jan 1975, 12 Aug 1977
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 Jan 1958, 4 Feb 1966, 12 Aug 1977
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 25 Oct 1959
  • Sun (Sydney), 16 Nov 1959, 7, 11-12 Jan 1966
  • Mirror (Sydney), 18 Feb 1961, 4 Feb, 16 May 1966, 2 Jan 1975, 12, 15, 17 Aug 1977, 11 Mar 1980
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 9 Jan 1966
  • Kelly police service record (New South Wales Police Media Unit, Sydney)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sandra Harvey, 'Kelly, Raymond William (1906–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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