Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Thomas Herbert Kelly (1875–1948)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with William Henry Kelly

Thomas Herbert Kelly (1875-1948), metal merchant, and William Henry Kelly (1877-1960), politician, were born on 17 May 1875 and on 1 December 1877 in Sydney, second and third sons of Irish-born Thomas Hussey Kelly and his native-born wife Mary Ann, née Dick. Thomas, known to his friends as Bertie, was educated at Sydney Grammar School and in England at Eton (1890-95) and Magdalen College, Oxford (B.A., 1898). William went to All Saints' College, Bathurst, and Eton (1893-96).

Thomas returned to Sydney in 1898. On the death of his father in 1901, he became managing director of the family firm, the Sydney Smelting Co., and chairman of the Australian Alum Co. Like his youngest brother Frederick Septimus he was musical and had some lessons from Joachim. He played with the first violins in Roberto Hazon's Sydney Amateur Orchestral Society, but preferred chamber music, playing the violin or viola in several quartets. He became very knowledgeable about music and its history.

Handsome, clean-shaven, with smoothly parted dark hair and large, wide-set eyes, the brothers were dashing young men about town — Willie was known for his physical courage and love of motor cars. They belonged to fashionable clubs: Thomas to the Australian and Royal Sydney Golf clubs and the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron of which he was a committee-member; Willie was a member of the Melbourne Club, the Australian and Union clubs, Sydney, and the Marlborough Club, London. Both married actresses. At Christ Church, Hawthorn, Melbourne, Thomas married a widow Ethel Knight Moore, née Mollison, on 29 August 1903; they lived in the family home, Glenyarrah, Double Bay, until it was sold in 1913. In London William married Olive Miller, better-known by her stage name Olive Morrell, on 25 January 1908; a great beauty, she had toured Australia in 1906 for J. C. Williamson.

The brothers also shared an interest in politics and defence matters. Thomas was defeated for the State seat of Hawkesbury in 1904, but represented Bourke ward on the Sydney Municipal Council in 1906-19. He had joined the Australian Field Artillery in 1905 and, commissioned in 1907, was promoted captain in May 1908; transferring to the Australian Intelligence Corps in October, he was appointed major in 1910. Stationed in Sydney, he commanded the A.I.C. (N.S.W.) from 27 May 1913 until 1919, as lieutenant-colonel from 1 July 1914.

From the 1920s Thomas Kelly was chairman of the Perpetual Trustee Co. and a director of Tooth & Co. Ltd and the Bank of New South Wales. He helped to establish Koala Park at Pennant Hills as a sanctuary and advocated the use of Australian plants and trees in town planning. A committee-member of the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney, he was a lavish host to visiting musicians and a friend of Melba and Verbrugghen. When he built a house at Darling Point in the 1930s he included a large music-room designed by his daughter Beatrice. A good linguist, he was a member of the Dante Alighieri Art and Literary Society. He had a ponderous and didactic manner of speaking at times, but also 'that rare determination to make the best of things'. His brother Frederick (with whom he was very good friends) found him 'a complete philistine about literature & especially poetry'.

Thomas died of cancer in St Vincent's Hospital on 12 May 1948 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £58,944: his wife presented his important musical reference library to the University of Sydney.

William represented Wentworth in the House of Representatives as a Liberal (later Nationalist) in 1903-19. A perpetrator of practical jokes, he at first 'gained a reputation for levity and irresponsibility'. Nevertheless, despite his 'Eton drawl', his party found his 'skill in argument and mordant wit were of incalculable value in a party fight. In baiting a Minister or upsetting the composure of a dangerous opponent he was without equal in the House'. He spoke frequently on defence matters and in 1905 drew attention to German naval expansion; he constantly urged the necessity to contribute to the cost of Imperial naval defence, while strongly criticizing (Vice-Admiral Sir William) Creswell's recommendations for an Australian navy. In 1906 he became Opposition whip and in May 1909 moved the adjournment of the debate on the address-in-reply that led to the fall of the Fisher government.

From June 1913 to September 1914 Willie Kelly was honorary minister and acting minister for home affairs in (Sir) Joseph Cook's cabinet. He was responsible for bringing Walter Burley Griffin to Canberra in 1913 as Federal capital director of design and construction, reversing King O'Malley's decision to use the departmental plan — thereby laying the seeds of future disagreements. Kelly's scheme for a uniform railway gauge, on a basis of the Commonwealth and States concerned contributing to the cost proportionally to the benefit its people would receive, was endorsed by the 1914 Inter-State Conference, but was scrapped by the succeeding Fisher government. In opposition for most of World War I he could do little but encourage recruiting. He retired from politics in November 1919.

For the next forty years Kelly travelled widely, kept an eye on his investments, played bridge at his clubs, and wrote a novel, Winifred Wakes Up (Sydney, 1933), 'a skit on modern foibles'. Separated from his wife, who returned to England with their daughter, he became bitter and very lonely. He died in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital on 27 January 1960 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was valued for probate at £149,545.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Citizen General Staff (Canb, 1976)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1905, p 1987
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1914, 2, p 261
  • Vade Mecum, 25 July 1934
  • Punch (Melbourne), 20 Feb 1908, 17 July 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct 1919, 13 Apr 1920, 4 Aug 1922, 6, 8 Dec 1932, 13 May, 6 July 1948
  • Canberra Times, 14 Nov 1964
  • Jose papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • F. S. Kelly diaries (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Kelly, Thomas Herbert (1875–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 13 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]


17 May, 1875
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


12 May, 1948 (aged 72)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.