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Robert Vandeleur Kelly (1843–1913)

by Patricia Morison

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Robert Hume Kelly

Robert Vandeleur Kelly (1843-1913), medical practitioner and army officer, and Robert Hume Vandeleur Kelly (1878-1951), army officer, were father and son. Kelly senior was born on 26 July 1843 at Glencara, Westmeath, Ireland, son of Robert Hume Kelly, barrister, and his wife Isabella Olivia, née Isdell. He was educated at Bonn, Prussia, and in 1855-60 at The King's School, Parramatta, New South Wales; the headmaster of the school, Rev. F. Armitage, was his brother-in-law.

Kelly studied medicine in Edinburgh (L.M., L.R.C.P., 1873) and worked as a dispensary medical officer for six months in Glasgow and four years in Ireland where he was also assistant surgeon to the Westmeath (Rifles) Militia. After his marriage on 13 June 1877 at Horseleap, Westmeath, to Anne Holmes Fetherstonhaugh according to the rites of the Church of Ireland, he moved to Warwickshire, England, as medical officer, Castle Bromwich District, Aston Union, and as surgeon to the Militia Medical Department. Appointed F.R.C.S. in 1880, he joined the South Staffordshire Regiment as surgeon in 1883. In 1885 he returned to Westmeath.

In 1889 Kelly migrated to Sydney. He established a city practice and for nearly five years was an 'outdoor' surgeon to Sydney Hospital; he often acted for Dr Paton, the government medical officer. He was commissioned as a partially paid surgeon captain in the Military Forces of New South Wales on 12 October 1889 and promoted surgeon major on 9 January 1896.

Kelly was a founder of the St John Ambulance Association in New South Wales in 1890 and later a Knight of Grace of the Order which he served strenuously all his life. In April 1894 he delivered a paper on army ambulance organization to the United Service Institution of New South Wales, proposing recruitment of a special force from civilian ambulance services, including surgeons, nurses and stretcher-bearers equipped with sprung, mule-drawn, covered wagons like 'those used for carrying Grand Pianos' and independent of Army Service Corps transport. The proposal was commended by Lieutenant-Colonel (Sir) William Williams and was probably the origin of the field ambulances which made the New South Wales Army Medical Corps impressively mobile in the South African War. It may also have been the origin of the Army Nursing Service Reserve which Kelly helped Williams, Colonel R. E. Roth and Miss E. J. Gould to organize.

With the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel Kelly commanded two contingents of the N.S.W.A.M.C., embarking with the Second Contingent on 17 January 1900 and with the Third Contingent on 17 March 1901. He served in the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, including actions at Johannesburg, Pretoria, Diamond Hill and Bethlehem. He was mentioned in dispatches and appointed C.B. in 1902. A junior colleague described him as 'a fairly witty Irishman with a pretty taste in literature', and 'a gentlemanly, kindly figure-head [who] really knew nothing of actual management'.

After the war Kelly practised medicine at Auburn. He died of cerebral haemorrhage at Balmoral on 15 October 1913. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he was buried in the Anglican section of Thirlmere cemetery.

His son Robert was born at Erdington, Warwickshire, on 13 April 1878. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, he was commissioned second lieutenant, Mounted Rifles, Military Forces of New South Wales, on 21 March 1896 and left for South Africa with the First Mounted Rifles on the same day as his father, 17 January 1900. He served till April in the Orange River Colony in actions at Poplar Grove and Driefontein.

On 23 May 1900 Kelly obtained a commission as second lieutenant, Royal Artillery, British Regular Army; he was promoted lieutenant in 1907, captain in 1911 and major in 1914. He served with the Royal Artillery Ordnance Corps in World War I, from 14 February 1917, when he was promoted lieutenant-colonel, as assistant director of ordnance services. For eight months in 1917 he was attached to 1 Anzac Corps, Australian Imperial Force.

Twice mentioned in dispatches, he retired on 6 December 1922 and returned to Sydney. It is believed he never married. Kelly died at Cremorne on 23 January 1951 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Medical Services in the War 1914-18, vol 1 (Melb, 1930), 3 (Canb, 1943)
  • L. M. Field, The Forgotten War (Melb, 1979)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1899, 5
  • United Service Institute (New South Wales), Journal, 6 (1894)
  • Town and Country Journal, 29 Oct 1913
  • R. Scot Skirving, Memoirs (Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • E. Gould papers (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Patricia Morison, 'Kelly, Robert Vandeleur (1843–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 July, 1843
Glencara, Westmeath, Ireland


15 October, 1913 (aged 70)
Balmoral, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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