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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kelly, Ellen (1832–1923)

by Jacqueline Zara Wilson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Ellen Kelly (c.1832–1923), matriarch and mother of Ned Kelly, was born in County Antrim, Ireland, fourth of eleven children of James Quinn, farmer, and his wife Mary, née McCluskey. Ellen had an adventurous spirit that rebelled against any confinement and led her often to play truant from school and roam the countryside—a practice that left her able to read but not to write, and with a lifelong affinity for horses and the land. The Quinns, then numbering ten, reached Port Phillip as assisted migrants in July 1841.

After a period of menial work in Melbourne, James took the family north to rented farmland at Brunswick, then in 1849 a further 30 miles (48.3 km) to Wallan. Lively and slim with black hair and grey eyes, and an expert horsewoman, Ellen caught the eye of 30-year-old John 'Red' Kelly, an Irishman who had been transported to Van Diemen's Land for theft in 1841. Defying her father, Ellen took up with Red, and fell pregnant to him in May 1850. They married on 18 November at St Francis's Catholic Church, Melbourne, and moved into their own cottage on the Quinns' Wallan property.

Their first-born, a girl, survived only briefly. In 1853 Red set off alone to the goldfields, where he made enough to buy a farm near Beveridge. Ellen had a daughter Anne and in December 1854 a son, who was named Edward after Red's brother. The extensive Quinn and Kelly clans tended to skirt the fringes of the law, and for Ellen and Red financial difficulties, several moves, further births and mounting police attention set a definitive pattern. Red began drinking heavily. In 1865 he stole a calf and served four months in gaol. The following year he died, an alcoholic, of oedema, leaving Ellen with seven children aged from 18 months to 13 years.

As she struggled to raise her children on inferior farmland, she became notorious for her sometimes-violent temper, resulting in several court appearances. After moving her family into the far north-east of Victoria to stay near relations, she leased a selection of 88 acres (35.6 ha) there and sold 'sly grog' to make ends meet. The bushranger Harry Power became a family friend, introducing 14-year-old Ned to the life of a bandit. In 1869 Ellen took a lover, Bill Frost, and became pregnant, he promising marriage. The baby—her ninth—was born in March 1870, but Frost did not keep his word. Trouble with the law increased, with several of Ellen's siblings and offspring suffering periods of imprisonment.

Late in 1872, with Ned in prison, she met George King, a 23-year-old Californian horse-thief, and once more fell pregnant. On 19 February 1874 they married at Benalla with Primitive Methodist forms. She had three children by King. Alice, the last, was born in April 1878, six months after King abruptly deserted them, and only days before Constable Fitzpatrick arrived at the Kelly home to arrest Ellen's son Dan for horse-theft. Set upon by Ellen (wielding a spade) and probably Ned, Fitzpatrick brought charges of attempted murder; she was sentenced to three years in prison.

A model prisoner, Ellen was allowed, after Dan's death and Ned's capture, to visit Ned in the prison hospital and later in the cells, seeing him for the last time on the eve of his execution. According to tradition, she said 'Mind you die like a Kelly, son'. Released in February 1881, Ellen returned home to scenes of incipient civil rebellion; the authorities feared a pro-Kelly uprising. Constable Robert Graham, however, gained her confidence and persuaded her to calm her sympathizers. She settled down to become, for the first time in her life, a respectable community identity—although she was never able to rise to even modest prosperity.

Her daughters Maggie and Kate died in the late 1890s, leaving Ellen to raise three of her grandchildren, helped by her son James. He continued to live with her, caring for her in her old age. She died on 27 March 1923 at Greta West and was buried in Greta cemetery with Catholic rites. Of her twelve children, a son and daughter of her first marriage and a son and two daughters of her second survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • J. McQuilton, The Kelly Outbreak 1878-1880 (Melb, 1979)
  • M. Lake and F. Kelly, Double Time (Melb, 1985)
  • I. Jones, Ned Kelly: A Short Life (Melb, 1995)
  • N. Kelly, The Jerilderie Letter (Melb, 2001).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jacqueline Zara Wilson, 'Kelly, Ellen (1832–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Ellen Kelly, 1917

Ellen Kelly, 1917

State Library of Victoria, H2003.25/5

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Quinn, Ellen

Antrim, Ireland


27 March 1923
Greta, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence