Themes linking Kate Kelly’s time with our own

The The Kate Kelly Project and the  Kate Kelly Song Cycle creatively explore interconnected social, psychological, ecological and heritage themes which link Kate’s time with our own.  These include cultural diversity, environmental degradation, drought, depression, substance abuse, and family violence.

Kate Kelly was a country girl. She was born in Victoria in 1863, into a family of ‘bush battlers’ for whom male violence and delinquency were considered ‘normal’, and at a time when ‘the bush’ was much more culturally diverse than is generally remembered today. She also lived through an era of great conflict in rural Australia … between non-indigenous and indigenous peoples, ‘squatters’ and ‘selectors’, ‘capitalists’ and the ‘bush proletariat’, ‘scabs’ and unionists, settler-nationalists and internationalists, republicans and British colonialists, and predominantly Anglo-Celtic ethnic groups and Chinese migrants.

Many of the environmental challenges we now confront in rural Australia also had their genesis in the Euro-farming and pastoral strategies practiced in this era. The consequences of these past land management policies and practices still haunt we humans and all other species and, along with other risk factors such as drought, flood, bushfires and human-induced climate change, continue to increase stress levels in rural communities and “precipitate anxiety, depression, family breakdown, grief and anger”.

Like many people in rural Australia, Kate Kelly may not have been able to talk about the stress, anxiety, depression and abuse she was experiencing, nor seek or find comfort, empathy and support from those around her. Even today there are many sufferers of depression and family violence who, like Kate, endure in silence—sometimes even until it is too late. It is to these folk, and to our long-suffering land and waterways, that this Song Cycle is dedicated.

Depression and Suicide

While it seems unlikely that Kate Kelly purposely drowned herself in the Forbes Lagoon, she most probably suffered from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Depression was not a diagnosed illness in her day, and few formal support systems existed for people suffering from mental illnesses beyond the so-called ‘lunatic asylums’. There is no reason to assume, however, that the incidence of mental illness in the late nineteenth century was any less than it is today when, at any one time, twenty percent of Australians are suffering from depression or related conditions. This figure may be even higher in rural and remote regions because, as the ABC reported in 2005, “People in the bush face a double whammy: risk factors for depression and other mental illnesses are higher, yet treatment services are fewer and harder to access.”

Many country people still feel very uncomfortable talking about depression and other mental health conditions; and yet everyone has a story to tell about a neighbour, friend or family member, usually male, who made that final choice without ever seeking or accepting help. In 2008, for example, a total of 2,191 Australians are known to have died from “intentional self-harm” (i.e. suicide); 78 percent of them were male. Proportionally more of these men and youths lived in rural or remote communities where, as recent research has shown, males “were 1.3 to 2.6 times more likely to end their life by suicide than their urban counterparts”. Of the farmers who committed suicide, two thirds were men over 55 years of age.

Perinatal Depression (PND)

In 1993 a nurse, Glenis Feltham, wrote to the Forbes Advocate suggesting that Kate Kelly took her own life because she was suffering from post-natal depression. And it is true that Kate exhibited symptoms of what is now called Peri-Natal Depression, or PND, if the evidence given to the inquest into her death by her neighbour, Susan Hurley, can be believed. According to Susan, Kate expressed negative feelings toward her newborn daughter, and had also been drinking—but “only for the past month, since the baby was born”.

Given these symptoms, Nurse Feltham was surely correct in her diagnosis. Such knowledge was not available in 1898, however, and such symptoms do not necessarily mean that Kate Kelly killed herself in the Forbes Lagoon. But the fact remains that some mothers who suffer from PND do take their own lives. As a report in the Medical Journal of Australian reveals, “maternal psychiatric illness is one of the leading causes of maternal death, with the majority of suicidesoccurring by violent means”.

The consequences of these deaths are immeasurably tragic for the woman’s entire family and haunt them for generations.

Even though most of the women who suffer from PND eventually recover, the effects may be long lasting, especially on babies and children who “are particularly vulnerable because of impaired maternal-infant interactions and negative perceptions of infant behaviour.” The consequences of these deaths are immeasurably tragic for the woman’s entire family and haunt them for generations.

Kate had four surviving children: her 5 week old baby daughter, her ten year old son, Frederick Arthur, and two little girls, Gertrude Eileen Ada aged 8, and Ethel Maude who was just four. The baby died soon after her mother, and the three remaining children were collected by Kate’s surviving brother Jim Kelly and taken to Victoria where they raised by Kate’s mother Ellen on her selection at Eleven Mile Creek. The impact of this tragedy on their lives was immeasurable.

Substance Abuse

Research indicates that “the extent of alcohol consumption, particularly at risky levels, is disproportionately higher in rural and remote regions of Australia” than it is in cities and large towns; indeed, alcohol consumption, especially amongst young males, tends to be “inversely proportional to the size of the population”. This is true, in general, in both indigenous and non-indigenous communities. As we regularly see on the television news, alcohol consumption remains a key factor in family violence, assaults and road trauma in rural Australia. It is also strongly associated with “some forms of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety.”

Kate Kelly’s relatives in Victoria, the Kelly and Quinn clans, were famous (or infamous) for their consumption of alcohol and their illicit stills. Like many struggling selectors Kate’s mother Ellen subsidised her farming activities at Eleven Mile Creek with an unlicensed grog shanty. (There were also hidden stills and sly grog shanties along the Lachlan River at this time.) Kate certainly consumed alcohol herself while she was in Forbes, though she may not have been a regular drinker:  her neighbour Susan Hurley alleged that she was “slightly under the influence of drink” on the afternoon she disappeared, for example, and had been drinking during the past month.  Her husband also claimed that he found her “under the influence” when he arrived home on the day before she disappeared: “I remonstrated with her and she promised to reform.” We don’t know what role alcohol (or her husband) played in her disappearance and death, however.

Kate Kelly may also have been using opium compounds, such as laudanum (a potent mixture of alcohol and opium), Godfey’s cordial, or syrup of poppies, to ease her despair. These innocuous sounding mixtures were available over the counter at chemists and corner stores in the nineteenth century, and were often self-prescribed for minor ailments, even for putting babies to sleep. Members of the local Chinese community certainly also consumed and probably grew opium around Forbes, although they preferred to smoke it rather than drink it. There were a number of ‘smoking dens’ in the town in the 1890s, most famously, according to local legend, in the cellars of the now demolished Albion Hotel. Non-Chinese people also frequented such ‘dens’, but there is no evidence to suggest that Kate Kelly smoked opium or was addicted to laudanum, or non-prescribed drugs … although, of course, she might have been.

The non-alcoholic drugs of choice in Central Western NSW and elsewhere in rural Australia these days  include cannabis, amphetamines, crystal methamphetamine (ice) and refined opium in the form of heroin or pharmaceutical opioids, such as oxycodone (popularly known as ‘hillbilly opium’). The detrimental, even life threatening impacts of these substances, including their association with suicide, are well documented, although there are few reliable figures available on the number of users in country areas.   

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence includes physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse in intimate relationships. A recent survey into personal safety by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that “approximately one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence during their lifetime, nearly one in five women have experienced some form of sexual violence and nearly one in five have experienced violence by a current or previous partner.” The ABS report also shows that woman are far more likely than men to experience violence or the threat of violence in their relationships.

Like many women of her class and time, Kate Kelly inherited a family history of violence. Her father, John or ‘Red’ Kelly, had been brutalised as a Irish convict in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and the trauma of this experience may have scarred all his subsequent relationships and those of his children. John Kelly died when Kate was just four years old and her mother re-partnered several times over the next few decades. Kate had few positive male role models in this time, so it is hardly surprising that she married a man who, like so many of her male relatives, often behaved very badly.

What we now call domestic violence was not an offence in the nineteenth century: indeed, women had very few rights and were treated under the law as their husbands’ property. Even though Kate’s husband, William or Bricky Foster, could not be charged with ‘wife-bashing’, a report in a local newspaper in May 1898, five months before Kate disappeared, confirms anecdotal evidence of his propensity for physical and psychological abuse. Circumstantial evidence also suggests that Bricky Foster may have had a role in his wife’s disappearance. He reportedly told the inquest that he visited Kate and children on the night before she disappeared. He also claimed that he returned to Burrawang Station where he was working the following morning, but there is no evidence to corroborate his story. Foster’s movements and his history of violence do not appear to have been raised during the inquest into his wife’s death, but they would certainly be thoroughly investigated in any similar case today; and Bricky Foster himself would be, if not a primary suspect, then at least ‘a person of interest’ to police.

Although support services are now available in country towns for both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, many people who need help, especially in rural and remote communities, are either unable to access it, or are reluctant to seek help because of the social stigma attached to partner abuse. This may have tragic consequences for the entire family … as Kate Kelly’s story so clearly suggests.

 Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety response to terrifying experiences and to the sense of helplessness associated with them. Such experiences can occur in war, natural disasters, sexual assault, road accidents, bullying, family violence, or tragic life events, for example. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, sleeplessness, fearfulness, emotional numbness, nightmares, disturbing memories, nausea, sweating, irritability, angry outbursts, depression, withdrawal, amnesia, self-blame and preoccupation with suicide. According to the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (ACPMH), “More than one-quarter of a million Australians experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in any one year, and around five per cent of Australians have had PTSD at some point in their lives.”

Kate Kelly almost certainly suffered from what we now call PTSD. She not only experienced violence and trauma in her married life, but also in her youth. In her teenage years, for example, police allegedly fired at her as she jumped her horse across a slip-rail fence after delivering supplies to Ned and his gang. She also witnessed the shootout at the Glenrowan Hotel in 1880 between the Kelly Gang and police. She saw Ned fall and, after the fire that razed the hotel, saw the charred remains of her brother Dan and her friend Steve Hart. The Australian folk ballad, Ye Sons of Australia, commemorates her presence at Glenrowan:

The daring Kate Kelly came forth from the crowd
And on her poor brother she called out aloud,
“Come forth my dear brother, and fight while you can”
But a ball had just taken the life of poor Dan.

Kate’s PTSD symptoms may have included flashbacks and nightmares about Glenrowan, along with very painful memories from her life in Victoria, some of which may have been associated with what Kelly buffs remember as The Fitzpatrick Incident, which occurred in 1878 when the now-discredited Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick visited the Kelly homestead. This ‘incident’ was followed by the arrest and imprisonment of Kate’s mother Ellen and her brothers’ decision to become outlaws. Kate may have been haunted by feelings of guilt for what occurred before, during and after Constable Fitzpatrick’s visit, which may also have been a symptom of PTSD.

But the man who may have caused Kate Kelly most trauma, pain and distress was her abusive husband, Bricky Foster. There is no doubt that PTSD is associated with domestic or family violence. A study undertaken in a shelter for “battered women” in 1991 found that 84 per cent of the women exhibited PTSD symptoms, for example. Kate Kelly probably also endured abuse during her pregnancies, which would not only have exacerbated her psychological symptoms, but may have also harmed her unborn babies. Physical abuse during pregnancy is now known to be associated with low birth weight, high levels of stress, substance abuse, poor diet and other risk factors. 

In rural Australia today the primary cause of PTSD may well be serious road accidents, a disproportionately high number of which occur on country roads. For every person who dies in a vehicle crash an average of thirteen other people may be “significantly affected”. They may be haunted by the accident for the rest of their lives unless they receive effective counselling and support. This is not always available in the bush. A study conducted in the regional city of Ballarat confirmed that “a meaningful proportion of road accident victims … do suffer posttraumatic stress symptoms” and that, although many of these symptoms reduce over time, “there are some whose symptoms do persist and some who suffer delayed reactions.”

Land degradation

In the late 1860s Kate Kelly’s widowed mother Ellen selected 88 acres of land on Eleven Mile Creek near Greta in Victoria and settled her large family there. This block has since been described as “a bald patch of dirt not big enough or fertile enough to sustain a livelihood”,[1] yet Ellen Kelly managed to hang on to it and, unlike many of her fellow selectors, eventually paid it off in full.

The Land Acts under which thousands of aspirational farmers like Ellen acquired small holdings in the second half of the nineteenth century were designed to promote closer settlement and break the power of the pastoralists, or ‘squatters’, who controlled vast acreages of Crown Land as sheep or cattle runs. The conflict between ‘squatters’ and selectors, and the social unrest and upheaval associated with it, especially in the 1870s in north-eastern Victoria, has been described as a Land War, and it is this which provides the backstory to the legend of Ned Kelly and his Gang. The C19th land reforms not only caused conflict within predominantly Anglo-Celtic rural communities, but also dispossessed the indigenous peoples of their last refuges and accelerated the degradation of land and water ‘resources’ and the loss of biodiversity begun during the pastoral era.

Ironically, given her family’s vehement opposition to wealthy ‘squatters’ as a class, Kate Kelly was herself associated with several large pastoral stations on the Lachlan. She arrived in the district in around 1886 with the manager or overseer of Warroo Station, Hugh McDougall, who knew her family in Greta. Warroo was owned by Charles Smith MacPhillamy at this time, the son of Charles Marsden MacPhillamy who purchased it from William Lee sometime between 1865 and 1870. According to at least one source, Warroo covered 78,000 acres in 1886, much of it freehold, and carried 43,000 merino sheep.

It is worth noting that Hugh McDougall later acquired his own small river block not far from the old Warroo homestead, and kept in touch with the Kelly family even after Kate’s death. Old timers still remember him. In 1910, probably at the request of the Kelly family, he erected the headstone over her grave and may have paid for it himself. Hugh McDougall also maintained contact with the Foster family, as is revealed by a hand written letter on Warroo letterhead to Kate’s brother-in-law, Arthur Foster, dated 6 December 1923.

Kate was employed not at Warroo, but on neighbouring Cadow Station, one of the earliest runs on the Lachlan. Cadow, or Cadore, was registered from 1840 to Pierce Collits of Mount York who, with his wife Mary, established Hartley Vale’s first hotel, an institution which is still known as Collits Inn. Cadow was taken up on Pierce Collits’s behalf by two of his sons, probably in the 1830s. Surveyor Thomas Mitchell reported meeting James Collits riding along the Lachlan with several Wiradjuri men in 1836. Young Collits told him that he had been looking for “a run for his cattle; but had found none”.

By the time Kate Kelly arrived at Cadow fifty years later, the station was being managed by Edward Jones and/or members of his very large and complicated extended family. Jones is remembered as a man who “never smoked, drank or swore and was known to milk 100 cows a day, turn the milk into cheese and set off by wagon to the Sydney market. He sought no public positions and filled none.”  This sober character arrived at Cadow in the 1840s and, in 1850, married one of Pierce and Mary Collits’s granddaughters, Elizabeth Strickland (nee Scott). It was through her that he acquired the property. Edward and Elizabeth had at least seven children but tragically Elizabeth and two of their youngsters died of typhoid in 1863. Edward then married an English-born governess from neighbouring Bundaburrah Station, Georgina Breathour, with whom he had another nine children. It is not known whether Kate Kelly worked in the main homestead for the older Jones couple, Edward and Georgina, or for other family members who may have been living elsewhere on the station. A small outbuilding, which may have been part of the original Jones homestead, is now popularly believed to be the ‘maid’s quarters’ in which Kate Kelly lived while she worked at Cadow.

The other pastoral property Kate Kelly was associated with, albeit indirectly, is Burrawang Station, which was then a vast estate on the opposite side of the Lachlan River from both Cadow and Warroo. Kate’s estranged husband, Bricky Foster, was employed on Burrawang as a horse tailer at the time of her death in 1898.

Burrawang was purchased in 1873 by Thomas and Mary Edols as “half a million acres of undeveloped land, part leasehold, part freehold”. It included the sites of the present-day settlements of Bogan Gate, Trundle, Yarrabandai, Ootha and Bedgerebong, and eventually boasted two famous woolsheds, a 101-stand blade shed the Edols built in 1875, and an 88 stand shed built in 1889 said to have been “the biggest machine shed in the world” at that time.  (The role of the Burrawang shearers and shed hands in the great Shearers Strikes of the 1890s, and in the growth of the union movement in the bush, is another story that is not yet written, but intriguing anecdotes from this era are still occasionally swapped across farm fences and at the bars of local pubs.)

By 1884 Burrawang Station had shrunk from “half a million acres” to 320,399 acres. Much of the station was still leased as separate runs, the annual rental for which may have ranged from less than a penny to tuppence halfpenny per acre per year.The station nevertheless shore some 270,000 merinos in 1884, and sent a record 5,000 bales of wool by bullock dray to the railhead in Bathurst, from where it was hauled by steam train across the Blue Mountains for its long sea voyage to the European woollen mills.

In the 1890s two important developments occurred which were to shrink the big stations even further and transform thousands of acres of grazing country into broad-acre croplands. The first of these was the extension of the railway to Forbes, Parkes and surrounding centres which gave primary producers easier access to city markets and made farming more viable. The second was the resumption of Crown land by the colonial government for closer settlement.

In 1897, the year before Kate Kelly died, a ballot was conducted by the Forbes Land Board for leasehold land on Big Burrawang. One of the lucky ballotters, Bill Dwyer, drew a block near Gunning Gap between Bogan Gate and Bedgerebong. He pitched his tent on his new farm in the Spring of that year and immediately began digging a well and building his family’s first small house. The Dwyers named their farm Daisy Park after the “vast areas of white daisies” that grew amongst the box and yarran trees on the western side of the block. The eastern half was heavily timbered with box, oak, budda, young pine scrub, cotton and hop bush and wattle, along with dead trees which had been ringbarked years before, as family members recall. In 1887 Bill Dywer found water at 56 feet or 17 metres, but over the next few decades, as more land was cleared and cropped, the water table rose by at least ten feet (3 metres). Land clearance and rising water tables is now a primary cause of salinity in the region, one of the many challenges now being tackled by the Landcare movement and Catchment Management Authorities.

The selectors radically changed the physical environment with their land management strategies, but it was the large-scale pastoralists on stations such as Cadow, Warroo and Burrawang who initiated the transformation of the landscape decades before closer settlement began. The ‘big blokes’ dammed the river and creeks for water storage, excavated irrigation canals, sank tanks, drained wetlands, and ringbarked tens of thousands of acres of trees to increase the carrying capacity of their runs.

From 1881 pastoralists were entitled to include ring-barking of trees on leasehold land as an improvement for which they could claim compensation in the event of ‘their’ land being selected as farming blocks. Not surprisingly, the demand for ring-barkers surged. Much of this work was undertaken by teams of Chinese migrant labourers indentured to Chinese entrepreneurs. In 1886, for example, Chinese work gangs ring-barked 50,000 acres on Burrawang Station for 1/9d per acre. Chinese labourers may also have dug the channels to drain the wetlands along Gunningbland and Goobang Creeks and excavated dams on this and other stations. On Warroo, for example, Chinese labourers dug dams “with shovels throwing [the soil] on a wagon and carting it out”.

More than a century of ring-barking, land clearing, draining, excavating, damming, grazing, ploughing, irrigating, fertilizing, burning, and general ‘monoculturing’ of once rich and complex ecosystems has not only fed and fibred the nation and the world, but has also led to soil erosion, salinity, biodiversity loss, blue-green algae infestations, depletion of ground and surface water, loss of water quality, and the spread of invasive weeds and feral animals, to name but a few of the land management pathologies we now face. This is the legacy that has been left to us.

And so it is that we descendants of all those who have lived and worked in central western NSW, both indigenous and non-indigenous, settler-descendants and more recent arrivals, are now attempting to deal with the ecological problems we have inherited. We are replanting native woodlands on land that was ring-barked and cleared in Kate Kelly’s era, or bulldozed in more recent times; we are restoring or constructing wetlands as habitats for native amphibians and fish; we are re-establishing riparian vegetation and bushland; re-creating habitat for threatened species; and implementing more benign farming and grazing strategies to improve the land rather than degrade it. The landscape is once again being transformed, but there is much more ‘thinking differently’ to be done.

Water and waterways

The Lachlan River is unique because, in most years, it disappears into the Great Cumbung Swamp without any of its water ever reaching the Murrumbidgee; yet this unique river system, all its tributaries, billabongs and wetlands, is now formally listed under the NSW Fisheries Management Act 1994 as an endangered aquatic ecosystem ‘‘likely to become extinct in nature’’ … because of past and present land and water management policies and practices.

Both human and non-human communities in the Lachlan valley have suffered because of the recent drought, especially since so little run-off reached the main river storage, Wyangala Dam. Even by mid-November 2010, after the drought-breaking winter and spring rains, the water level in this dam had only reached 41 percent of capacity. In the absence of river releases, many irrigators and other consumers have drawn on ground water, a fix which has led to more negative consequences for the river system as a whole.

The recent decade of drought and over-allocation of surface water has forced a major rethink about the future of our river systems and how we allocate available water, not only to ensure the wellbeing of humans, but of non-human communities as well: all the endemic plants, animals and microbes which are also part of the river system. At last, it seems, some of we humans are beginning to understand the depth of our interdependency with all other life forms.

The debates, even battles over water allocations are passionate and ongoing in the bush. The 2011 State Landcare Forum’s challenge to ‘Think Differently’ about human impacts on our waterways is now more urgent than ever.

Biodiversity Loss

The ongoing loss of biodiversity through habitat destruction is one of the most immediately alarming inadvertent consequences of land management strategies introduced by European settlers. There is no doubt that Kate Kelly would have seen a much greater variety of flora and fauna species as she rode through the bush than we see now. Along the broad floodplains of the Lachlan, for example, she might have seen bandicoots, koalas, potoroos and other small marsupials which are now locally extinct. Bush turkeys and big mobs of budgerigars and brolgas would have flown in to graze on native grasslands and wetlands, and magpie geese and other migratory birds would have descended by the thousands to break their long flights to and from their breeding grounds. In the past fifty years—in the lifetimes of those of us who are alive today—the loss of native flora and fauna species has accelerated. In that time 44 plant species, 3 native fish, 8 amphibians, 16 birds, 6 mammals, and 4 reptile species that are native to the Lachlan catchment have been listed as endangered or vulnerable under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999; and three threatened ecological communities, including the once extensive Box-Gum Woodland and Grassy White Box Woodland, have been listed under State and Commonwealth legislation. This, as of today, is our legacy to the future.  Our big challenge now is to reverse it.

Climate Change

Human-induced Climate Change remains a controversial subject in the bush, but there is widespread agreement amongst reputable scientists that humans are changing the climate by discharging high levels of carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and from other sources. Agriculture also contributes to Climate Change in ways that are still only partially understood, but opportunities are emerging for rural communities to benefit by reducing their carbon footprints and by participating in carbon markets: that is, to ‘Think differently’ about our shared future.

Wiradjuri Heritage

The clan estates of the Wiradjuri nation stretch from the foothills of the Blue Mountains and the southern Highlands along the valleys of the Macquarie, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee Rivers, to as far west as Lake Cargelligo. The Wiradjuri presence gives the Lachlan River and its catchment an unbroken cultural heritage of more than 40,000 years, as the archaeological remains at Lake Mungo reveal. Wiradjuri descendants know the Lachlan as Galiyarr, or Kalari, and two, perhaps three thousand generations of their ancestors lie buried in its alluvium. For most of its 1500 kilometre journey this river traces the presence of Baiamai, the Wiradjuri’s traditional creation spirit, Wawi the rainbow snake, and the other ancestral beings who shaped and animated these inland plains.

The first European pastoralists who settled in the central west New South Wales acknowledged their debt to the Wiradjuri people. Major Thomas Mitchell reported that young James Collits, who was later associated with Cadow Station, “assured me that, without the aid of the blacks who were with him on horseback, he could not have obtained water”, for example. But the invasion and occupation of Wiradjuri land was far from peaceful. Such was the opposition to the invasion from Wiradjuri clansfolk that, in 1824, Governor Brisbane proclaimed a State of Emergency which, for a brief time, gave ‘whitefellas’ licence to shoot Wiradjuri people on sight. Some remarkable leaders, such as the warrior Windradyne, emerged from this era of frontier warfare. Stories of mass murder, poisoning, rape, violent abuse, repression, enslavement and virulent discrimination abound in local folklore and family histories but, despite the atrocities and institutionalised racism, the pastoral industry depended on the labour of indigenous workers well into the twentieth century.  

In Kate Kelly’s time, Wiradjuri people were very conspicuous in Forbes and surrounding communities, and on the stations, missions and reserves. Some were still practicing their customary lore and religion and actively resisting the influence of Euro-Australians, while others found safety in church or government-run missions. A substantial Wiradjuri community lived on a reserve on the Grenfell Road just out of Forbes in the 1890s, for example, and many lived as fringe dwellers in and around the town. Others successfully integrated with the majority Euro-descendants. But in the early twentieth century many Wiradjuri families were “ethnically cleansed” from Forbes and moved to reserves in neighbouring communities, including Condobolin and Cowra. Forbes is now considered a ‘resettlement’ town. But once again the Wiradjuri language can be heard in the streets, because youngsters are now learning it at school.

Cultural Diversity

The Lachlan Valley and the town of Forbes, in particular, were much more culturally diverse in Kate Kelly’s time than is generally remembered. The Kate Kelly Song Cycle reflects this in its music and lyrics, and in the ‘surprise’ events associated with the premiere. While the majority population was certainly of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English descent by the 1890s, an amalgam we now call Anglo-Celtic, local people’s genealogies were (and are) much more interesting and 

complex than any singular ethnic identity can reveal. People came from all over the world to live and work in inland New South Wales in the nineteenth century and many of these settlers and sojourners mixed their genes with the locals, including the indigenous peoples. In the bush, our genes are much more mixed than many people acknowledge.

The town of Forbes and surrounding centres were also home to a significant predominantly male community of Cantonese speakers from Kwangtung (Guongdong) in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, as has already been noted, and a number of these men stayed and raised families in the region. Chinese migrants worked in almost every industry sector, but in country towns they are especially remembered for their pioneering contributions to commerce and irrigation horticulture. At least two dozen Chinese migrants are buried in unmarked graves in Forbes cemetery, but sadly no records remains to show where these graves are. In the neighbouring towns of Parkes and Condobolin, however, Chinese graves have been restored and the Chinese contribution to the development of these towns has been celebrated.

Kate Kelly almost certainly had friends and acquaintances in the Forbes Chinese community. Her in-laws, the Foster family, lived a few doors from Quong Lee’s General Store which was probably a meeting place, not only for the Chinese community, but for other locals too. Kate almost certainly shopped at Quong Lee’s, which is why the lyrics of one of the songs in the Song Cycle are written in his voice. Even in death Kate was linked to the local Chinese community. Her body was recovered from the lagoon “at the rear of Ah Toy’s residence”, as Senior Constable J.J. Garstang told the inquest; or, as the Forbes and Parkes Gazette put it in the introduction to the inquest report, “at the back of the Chinaman’s Garden opposite the new race course”. Signage has now been erected near this site to acknowledge its heritage significance.

As well as Wiradjuri, Cantonese and a variety of Englishes, Kate Kelly could also have heard French, German, Italian, Hindi, Arabic and possibly Gaelic and Pashto in the streets of Forbes. The town had a significant French population, including a French mayor and French vineyards, in the late nineteenth century; and from the mid-1880s German Lutherans and their Australian-born offspring were arriving in covered wagons from South Australia. One of the business families Kate Kelly worked for in Forbes was headed by a patriarch with the evocatively Danish name of Hans Christian Luthje. Kate could also have called on the services of “Indian Occultist” Nabee Bukksh, who treated “All diseases of the Eyes, Bleeding & Itchy Piles, Rheumatism, Indigestion, Sciatica, & Other Diseases”. Nabee Bukksh was just one of several Ayurvedic medical practitioners who treated patients in Forbes in the 1890s.

The pastoral industry, which was still a major employer in Kate Kelly’s era, was also far more ethnically diverse than is popularly believed. Chinese men worked as cooks, shearers, gardeners, stockmen, ring-barkers and brush cutters, for example. Travelling hawkers, like Jack Nabob, criss-crossed the country in their covered wagons to bring supplies and trinkets to the isolated homesteads, and in the shearing season of 1898, there was at least one “Assyrian hawker” visiting the sheds. Further west the pastoralists depended on cameleers from what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, many of whom also settled in country towns and raised families. These diverse groups tend to be left out of many Anglo histories of Australia, but they will be remembered in the music and lyrics of the Kate Kelly Song Cycle.

The Kate Kelly Project
Posted 4 December 2010

Posted on this page 15 December 2010.

More on The Kate Kelly Project (KKP)
The KK Song Cycle >> 
The KK  Walk >>
On The Death Of Kate Kelly >>
Themes linking Kate Kelly’s time with our own >> 
Kate Kelly On The Lachlan 1886-1898 >>
In Memory Of Kate Kelly 1863-1898 >>
Project partners and acknowledgements >>
Quong Lee’s Store >>

Project media
2008 >>
2009 >>
2010 >>
2011 >>

More on Merrill’s project work >>


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