Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Kelly (1813–1872)

by Annette Potts

This article was published:

William Kelly (1813?-1872), author and barrister, was born in Ireland, son of Andrew Kelly, merchant of Camphill, Sligo County. Ownership of a large bleaching mill generously administered gave the family so favoured a position in the community that, when they lost their property during a financial setback, the local people applied a boycott to force the new owner to sell Camphill back. At some time after 1847 it passed into the hands of Andrew Kelly's brother-in-law, James Madden.

Perhaps this event decided William Kelly to break away from Sligo County, where he had practised as a magistrate and, according to a parish historian, his connexions promised an influential future. On 20 January 1849 he went in the Sarah Sands to America. He was among the first to cross the plains to golden California, and his account of the journey, An Excursion to California Over the Prairie, Rocky Mountains, and the Great Sierra Nevada. With A Stroll Through the Diggings and Ranches of That Country (London, 1851) is, according to Merrill J. Mattes, objective and 'more articulate than most', though sometimes overstated.

Stories of the Australian gold discoveries circulating in England on his return decided Kelly to sail to Port Phillip, where he arrived with his younger brother in the Cherusker on 30 April 1854. After touring the goldfields he expended his energies on a number of ill-fated ventures in Melbourne. He lost money building a stable and livery out of pisé, unsuccessfully entered a competition for the design of a new dock and in the early autumn of 1854 made an abortive attempt to establish a suburban parcels delivery service. According to his own account, he was then in Bendigo for more than a year and helped to work a quartz mill in which he held an interest, again without profit.

During his Victorian sojourn Kelly paid close attention to colonial politics. He wrote many letters to the Argus in support of the free entry of Chinese and in April 1857 fruitlessly stood for the Ovens against John Wood. He eventually reverted to his earlier occupation of reporter, writing Life in Victoria or Victoria in 1853, and Victoria in 1858 (London, 1859). A reviewer in My Note Book, 13 April 1859, thought it 'an egregiously silly book, full of misrepresentations, lies, absurd self-laudations, and twaddle', but for all that his record of Victoria is very entertaining and of much interest.

Despite the title, Kelly left Melbourne in December 1857. London could not contain the fiery and eloquent Irishman for long, and before Life in Victoria was published he was off to the goldfields of British Columbia. His Canadian experiences, however, never got into print as his publishers, Chapman & Hall, did not receive a complete manuscript. Probably on the strength of his American travels, Kelly was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in June 1861, one of his proposers being Sir Richard Burton. On 5 February 1862 he obeyed his own dictum by taking a young wife, though vainly giving his age as 38. He married a 26-year-old Belgian widow, Marguerite Sidonie Mertens, née Durart, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, where he mostly resided until his death there on 4 March 1872. His epitaph recorded that he died 'Fortified by the Rites of the Holy Catholic Church'.

Select Bibliography

  • T. O'Rorke, History Antiquities and Present State of the Parishes of Ballysadare and Kilvarnet in the County of Sligo (Dublin, 1878)
  • M. J. Mattes, The Great Platte River Road (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1969)
  • D. B. Smith, ‘Bushby Journal, 1858-59’, Ned Kelly, the Legend and the Man, 21 (1957-58).

Citation details

Annette Potts, 'Kelly, William (1813–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




4 March, 1872 (aged ~ 59)
Boulogne-sur-Mer, France

Cultural Heritage

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