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Robert Kelly (1845–1920)

by Dirk Van Dissel

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This is a shared entry with William Stanley Kelly

Robert Kelly (1845-1920), pastoralist and politician, and William Stanley Kelly (1882-1969), sheep-breeder and agriculturalist, were father and son. Robert was born on 6 May 1845 at Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills, third son of William Kelly, farmer and pioneer settler of 1838, and his wife Jane Christian, née Caley. He was educated at Montague Ambrose's school at Hartley and J. L. Young's Adelaide Educational Institution. He became a grazier and farmer in the Riverton district in the mid-north of South Australia, taking up Merrindie station, Giles Corner.

In 1891-93 he represented Wooroora in the House of Assembly where he succeeded his brother Hugh Craine Kelly (1848-91). Robert had been a member of the pastoral lands royal commission in 1891. In 1893 the government passed the Pastoral Act and set up the Pastoral Board to which Kelly was appointed, at a salary of £450, to mediate between the Crown and pastoralists. Although the Kingston government was dubious, the board successfully and usefully recommended lowering rents. In 1905 Kelly became a member of the newly inaugurated Land Board and, also, the Advances to Settlers Board. From about 1915 he administered the Drought Relief Act, which prevented the wholesale abandonment of much of the mallee country. In 1917 he retired.

Robert Kelly died of cancer in Adelaide on 26 October 1920, survived by one son and five daughters; his wife Mary, née Goldsack, whom he had married on 21 July 1870, had died in 1894. Kelly was buried in Payneham cemetery.

William Stanley was born on 24 August 1882 at Merrindie and educated at East Adelaide Public School and Prince Alfred College. From 1901 he was in charge of the property. On 10 February 1909 at North Adelaide he married Ada May Dawson. With the development of the frozen meat trade, Kelly and his father bred sheep and lambs for export. William studied the lamb trade in New Zealand and imported from there selected English Leicesters which became the basis of a pure-bred stud. Some years later a Dorset Horn stud was added. The English Leicester stud was sold in the 1920s, and the famous Merrindie stud now consists of Poll Dorsets.

Encouraged by Professor G. C. Henderson, for six years Kelly studied arts by correspondence at the University of Adelaide. In April 1917 he enlisted as a private in the 48th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, seeing active service in France in 1918 where he was wounded. He later lectured, as a lieutenant, for the A.I.F. Education Service, writing the textbook Beef, Mutton and Wool (London, 1919). He returned to Australia in 1919 and next year had 'a serious breakdown'.

In 1922-24 he was chairman of the South Australian Advisory Board of Agriculture. In 1929 he became a member of the Commonwealth Tariff Board in Melbourne. Kelly steadily supported the board's opposition to the high duties on imported goods imposed by the Federal government; he believed that extreme protection artificially propped up inefficient industries, invited retaliation from overseas buyers of Australian primary produce, and increased farmers' expenses.

In May 1940 Kelly and his wife arrived in England to do war work. He arranged the distribution of blankets, the gift of Australia, to air raid victims, and in 1940-41 represented the Australian Wool Board on the International Wool Secretariat in London. From his return to Australia in 1942 Kelly was in Canberra as an adviser on primary products to the Commonwealth prices commissioner Professor (Sir) Douglas Copland, and was his representative on the Agricultural Standing Committee and the Australian Meat Commission.

On the advice of the commission, he recommended to Copland the regulation of the price of meat per pound. This was rendered partly ineffective by butchers selling meat at excessive prices on the black market; both Copland and the commission backed Kelly in a controversy with butchers. He also secured a government subsidy of £6½ million for the troubled dairy industry.

In 1945-53 he was a co-opted member of the advisory council of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and its successor, and in 1950 he reported for the Western Australian government on price control difficulties; in 1951-53 he was chairman of the Joint Dairying Industry Advisory Committee. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1951.

When the Australian Mutual Provident Society began to develop the Ninety Mile Desert in the upper south-east of South Australia by the addition of trace elements in the late 1940s, it benefited from Kelly's expertise in developing similar country on Kangaroo Island. For three years he was chairman of the society's land development committee. In 1952-60 he represented Australia's rural industries on the Consultative Committee on Import Policy. He continued to deplore the excessive protection of secondary industry and advocated massive expansion of rural industries.

His travels as a member of the Commonwealth Tariff Board until 1940 had alerted Kelly to the dangers of soil erosion. For over thirty years he advocated the planting of trees; on his own property he placed thousands of native and other trees, and influenced many to do the same. After retiring Kelly published in Adelaide Rural Development in South Australia (1962), his autobiography, Remembered Days (1964), and a biography of his wife who died in 1955.

Kelly died on 5 June 1969 and was buried in Riverside cemetery. He had been a devout Methodist. He was survived by two daughters and two sons, one of whom, Charles Robert Kelly, was a member of the House of Representatives for Wakefield and minister for the navy and for works. In 1977 he endowed the Stan Kelly Memorial Lecture to be delivered biennially at the Australian National University, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • Pictorial Australian, Mar 1891
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Nov 1920
  • Observer (Adelaide), 30 Oct 1920
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 June 1960, 14 Nov 1961, 6 June 1969.

Citation details

Dirk Van Dissel, 'Kelly, Robert (1845–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 July 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

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