Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Jane Mulholland and her "Perils of Terrible Days"

Another woman who experienced the Indian Mutiny and personal tragedies, including the loss of infant children, was Jane Muholland (see Shields), wife of Sergeant Robert Mulholland, who was with the 3rd Bengal (European) Light Infantry, later known as the 107th Regiment.

Officers of the 107th Regiment 1865 (National Army Museum)

At the age of 90, she told her story to the Lincolnshire Standard and Boston Guardian, published on 1 March 1924, which speaks for itself:-

Thrilling Boston Story

Old Lady Survivor of Indian Mutiny

Perils of Terrible Days

Bedridden, and rather weak with the burden of her 90 years, Mrs. Jane Mulholland, a soldier’s widow, living at Glenhurst Villas, Brothertoft-road, Boston, can still remember her adventures in the terrible days of the Indian Mutiny, and has been telling them to a Lincolnshire Standard representative.

Mrs Mulholland lives with a daughter who was born on board ship on the return from India 55 years ago. The daughter is Miss Sarah Essex Mulholland, whose second name is that of the ship. Mrs Mulholland is the widow of Sergeant Robert Mulholland, of the 107th Regiment. He died 45 years ago. Sergeant Mulholland, who belonged to Glasgow, married his wife at St Anne’s Church, Belfast, on April 22, 1852. [Newspaper and Irish marriage records show this as April 23, 1852]. They had one child, six weeks old, when the call came for India.

They went out in the sailing ship Sir Robert Sale, following the route of those days round the Cape of Good Hope, and had not been in India long when the Mutiny broke out.

The 107th Regiment was stationed at Agra. It was a “John Company’s” Regiment. That is to say it was controlled by the East India Company, then the rulers of India.

Entrance Gate of the Taj Mahal, Agra, c. 1857-1858 (National Gallery of Canada)

“We were in barracks in Agra,” Mrs Mulholland told me, “but they were burnt down, and then we were all shut up in the fort. We were imprisoned in the fortress ten or eleven months.

“It was a terribly anxious time. The rebels were all round us. Many of them occupied bungalows and others boats, but our men had the big guns trained on them, and they were afraid to attack us in force.

“Colonel Riddle used to come round among us every night, walking about in his slippers to see that all was quiet and safe. He was a very kind gentleman, and did his best to comfort and reassure us.

“Three children were born in the fort at this time. One was mine, my daughter Mary. We got plenty of food. The native bakers made us hundreds of loaves, but there was danger even in the bread. The head baker was in league with the rebels outside, and poisoned the bread. This was detected, and the man was arrested. They tried him by court-martial at once, and handed him outside the Delhi Gate leading into the fort.

“ How did they find out that the bread was poisoned? One of the native helpers split on him, and a lucky thing it was for us, too. They also poisoned the wells, but fortunately one was left untouched. That well was specially guarded all the rest of the time, and we had good water to drink.

“We had work to occupy us, chiefly sewing, but it was a worry in time. I have slept with my clothes on for a week on end.

“A crisis came at last. It was a Sunday morning, and we were ready for the church service when we - the women and children - were suddenly ordered to the quarter guard, and then to the hospital. The soldiers were present all had their firelocks, as we thought in readiness for the rebels. But something far different was intended. It was feared at that time that the fort would fall, and the Sepoys were expected among us, and - well our men were determined we should never fall into their hands.

“There was a large well in the hospital, and rather than that the natives should take us alive it was decided to kill us and put us down the well! It was terrible. Than[k] God the danger passed, and we went back to our old quarters.

“Soon after that we were able to leave the fort and return to the barracks, which had been partly rebuilt.”

After the Mutiny the Mulhollands moved with the regiment to Lando[u]r, in the Himalayas, where their only son was born. He was buried in the Indian ocean, on the voyage home in the Essex, when 4 years of age. The Mulhollands were in India till 1869, when the sergeant was invalided home, and died at Belfast at the age of 48.

Other children were buried in India, one in Belfast, and one at Boston, and only two are left. Mrs Mulholland receives a small pension from the Royal Patriotic Fund; at one time it was 7s. a week, but the old-age pension has reduced it to 4s.

The 1871 Census shows the family living at 13 Preston Street, Liverpool. Robert aged 39 was a Chelsea Pensioner and there are two daughters, Jean and Betsey, born in Agra Bougal, India, and the other, Sarah, who was born “on board ship in Indian Ocean”. 

Sarah appears to have been quite proud of being born at sea on the ship Essex and liked to travel around for work so is easier to track in subsequent Census Returns than her mother. In 1881, she lived with her older sister Amelia, who had married the curiously-named Cuttriss Creak or Crick at the remarkably early age of 13 in India, and was living in Boston. Lincs. In 1891, Sarah was a housemaid for the Managing Director of the Nottingham Patent Brick Company and in 1901 she was a housemaid in Hackney, London

In the 1911 Census, Sarah Essex Mulholland, was aged 42, single, and employed as a housekeeper for a brother and sister with surname Cartwright in Brothertoft Road Boston, Lincolnshire, presumably the same house as mentioned in the newspaper article. Sarah lived to a ripe old age herself, and died in 1961. Her mother Jane had died in Lincolnshire in 1927, aged 93.

The Palace at Agra, from History of the Mutiny, 1858

Monday, October 9, 2017

Elizabeth Mitchell, child of the regiment and a last survivor of the Mutiny

When Elizabeth Ring (nee Mitchell) died aged 90 in 1935, she was one of the last women to have witnessed the first outbreak of the Indian Mutiny.

Her life story is typical of that of a woman who had close connections to a particular battalion and regiment in the army during the mid-19th Century, in this case the 1st Battalion of the 60th Regiment, also known as the King's Royal Rifles.

Her father was George Mitchell, a regimental Master Tailor who would have been in charge of looking after the uniforms, and who had the good fortune to be allowed to take his family with him when he was posted to India.

Although the exact date of Elizabeth's birth is unknown, it was c. 1845-46 that she was born at sea on HMS Neptune. In that era before the construction of the Suez Canal, sailing ship voyages to India could take anything up to six months (Newspaper reports of the time confirm the 1st Battalion of the 60th Regiment sailed in HMS Neptune from Cork in July 1845.)

Elizabeth Mitchell was born on HMS Neptune (Illustrated London News)

When Elizabeth was just three years old her mother died - under what circumstances are unknown but the death rate for Europeans in India was notoriously high from diseases and infections - and so she became "a child of the regiment" which in 1857 was stationed at the cantonment of Meerut.

Child of the Regiment, c. 1854-55, John Everett Millais

Meerut had been established in 1804 and was one of the better places in India, with many delightful bungalows and well-established gardens and although its climate was marginally better than many other military towns, it could still turn hellish in the blistering Indian summer months.

On Sunday 10 May 1857, Elizabeth was about twelve years old. In the morning she may well have attended the 7 a.m. service at the local church, St. John's, one of the biggest and finest churches in all of India. * 

St John's Church, Meerut

In May, the temperature can often be well in excess of 40 degrees C for many days at a time, so it is unlikely the soldiers and their families would have been particularly active on that particular Sunday.

Meanwhile, unrest had been growing for some time in the sepoy ranks. Two months earlier, the sepoy known as Mangal Pandey went crazy and shot at two Europeans and was hanged at Barrackpore. He had many supporters who were angry that the new cartridges for their Enfield rifles were rumoured to be greased with beef and pork fat. As the men were required to bite off one end in order to use them, this was unacceptable, the cow being a holy animal to Hindus and the pig an unclean one to Muslims. 

Enfield cartridges c. 1858

On 24 April, the commander of the 3rd Bengal Light Calvary at Meerut, Lieut. Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth, who had been warned about the problem with the cartridges but chose to ignore it, ordered the sepoys to use them. When 85 men out of a company of 90 refused, Smyth stripped them of their uniforms, shackled them and ordered their imprisonment for 10 years. This humiliation was the last straw, the men mutinied and the police chief Dhan Singh Gurjar was faced with rampaging chaos. He joined with the rebels and released the imprisoned sepoys from the local gaol. And so began the revenge on the European officers of the East India Company. 

They were cut down wherever the mob found them. Some were just relaxing in the local bazaar at a "pop shop" drinking ginger beer and lemonade when they were set upon, shot, or hacked to pieces, with little time to raise the alarm, not helped by the fact the extreme heat kept many of the senior Europeans officers indoors and in an indolent state, completely unaware of what was happening.

From Illustrated London News, The Sepoy Revolt at Meerut, 1857

Even when told by their servants of the rampaging mob, they didn't believe them and it was only in the late afternoon and evening that the true and awful extent of what was happening was discovered, and with several more officers and civilians being killed by marauding sepoys and their followers when they ventured out to evening service at the church. Officers' quarters were looted and set alight.

Illustrated London News. Preparing defences at Meerut.
The women and children, most likely including Elizabeth, stayed in the building on the right.

In addition to army officers and their wives and children, several civilians were also killed in random acts of savagery. The large number of loyal Indians who tried to defend or hide their employers but were also murdered by the sepoys remains unknown.

It was a young regimental bugler called George Ring who was said to be the first to sound the alarm that the sepoys had mutinied. A few years later, Elizabeth would marry George and accompany him on other postings throughout the Empire.

Born in Corfu in 1838, George must have been a 60th Regiment child as well. He attested for the 1st Battalion at Limerick in 1853 at the age of 14 years 9 months. During his time in the army, he served in the East Indies (India) for 6 years 4 months, in Malta for 1 year 6 months, and in Canada for 9 years 3 months.

George left the army in 1877, aged 39. The varied birth places shown in the UK Census Returns for 1881 and 1891 for the children of George and Elizabeth, reflect the time they were based in Ottawa and New Brunswick. George retired as a Serjeant with good conduct badges, an Indian Mutiny medal and a 2nd class certificate of education, but he had suffered a number of demotions to episodes of drunkenness, not uncommon in soldiers' records of that time. As well as being a Chelsea Pensioner, George also worked as a Messenger for the War Office. He died in 1897.

In the Census of 1911, Elizabeth Ring, aged 65, was a widow, living at 37 Handforth road, Brixton, London S.W. She had given birth to 10 children, 3 of which had died. Living with her was one son, Henry, and two grandchildren, also a boarder, Henry Ellerington, aged 64, widower, who had the very modern job of a Licensed Motor Cab Driver, in other words, a taxi driver. 

(What Elizabeth's connection was to Henry Ellerington raises some interesting questions, as Henry was on trial at the Old Bailey for embezzlement the previous year 1910 and by 1913 he was reduced to living in the Lambeth Workhouse!) 

This article is from the Lancashire Evening Post of 27 May 1930:
Mutiny Memories of a Woman
In a quiet street off the Brixton road, a gentle, grey-haired old lady who lives with her daughter, spends much of her time gazing over the 85 years of her life to the thrilling days of her childhood.
She is Mrs. George Ring, who claims to be one of the few women survivors of the Indian Mutiny, in this country.Mrs. Ring was the daughter of Master-Tailor George Mitchell, of the 1st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles, and was born on H.M.S. Neptune while the ship was on the high seas carrying the battalion to India.
Travelling to India was very different in those days from what it is now,” she said, to-day. “It took us over six months, and I remember on the return journey we were days without any water. My mother died when I was three years old, and I was brought up with the battalion. I was 12 years old when the Indian Mutiny broke out, and my father was stationed with the battalion at Meerut. I remember it all as clearly as if it were only yesterday. It happened on a Sunday afternoon, and the alarm was given by Sergeant George Ring, who was the bugler of the Quarter-Guard.” 
Mrs. Ring broke off here and left the most romantic part of her story for her daughter to tell. That little English girl who stood thrilled while Sergeant Ring sounded his call, afterwards became his bride.
During those weeks of the mutiny Mrs. Ring remained at Meerut assisting the nurses and even helping to carry the wounded and dead. Hanging on the wall of her bedroom in her Brixton home are the medals won by her father and her husband during the mutiny.

The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser of 15 May 1935 reports the death of Elizabeth:

Indian Mutiny Heroine Dead
Last woman survivor of the Indian Mutiny 78 years ago, Mrs. George Ring, of Handforth-road, Brixton, has died at the age of 90.
Mrs. Ring, who was at Meerut, later married the bugler who sounded the alarm for the rising.

* Click here for present day images of the churchyard, including some of the graves of the victims of Meerut, including that of Charlotte Chambers, the wife of a Captain in the 11th Native Infantry. The many conflicting versions of her death will be related in a subsequent blog post.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Women and the Indian Mutiny

The Indian Mutiny, 1857-1859, also known as the Sepoy Rebellion or Uprising or First Indian War of Independence, is one of those salient events from British Empire history that has always resonated strongly with me.  The perceptions of it have changed greatly over the past 160 years and, as happens so often with history, its heroes are now considered the villains while its murderous rebels are now glorified as fighters of freedom.

The Mutiny particularly strikes a chord with me because of my own African childhood during the “sunset” of that Empire when colonised countries were beginning to demand self-determination with many of them resorting to violence against resident Europeans in the process.

As a sensitive and highly-imaginative child I remember being really quite terrified when I overhead adults talking of the murders of white families not that far away in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising and being worried that the same thing would happen to us, that our servants would turn and murder us in our beds. (Although we lived in a town with a secure and well-policed environment, my father didn’t take anything for granted and kept both a loaded revolver and a rifle hidden in a cupboard.)

Later at school when we studied the Mutiny on the occasion of its centenary, our teacher did not censor his descriptions of the horrific Cawnpore Massacre in which defenceless white women and children were hacked to pieces by Indian rebels and thrown into a well.

The Well and Monument, Slaughter House, Cawnpore”  [now Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh] 1858. From ‘Murray Collection: Views in Delhi, Cawnpore, Allahabad and Benares’  taken by Dr. John Murray. Picture shows at rear the Bibigurh house in which European women and children were killed and in the foreground the well where their bodies were found

Too well aware that I was living in that disintegrating Empire, it isn’t surprising that the symbolism of this nightmarish tale added another layer of anxiety. And then, to add real immediacy to it in 1960-61, I witnessed first-hand the trauma of white refugees fleeing gang-rape and murder taking place only a few miles away in the Belgian Congo when that country exploded into extreme violence on gaining its independence.

All of which brings me back to my fascination with the Mutiny which is now far removed from living memory but can still be seen as an early harbinger of events destined to take place over a century later in Africa that would impact my own path in life.

There are more than enough published accounts of the battles, sieges and biographies of the men involved in putting down the uprising, including the grisly atrocities and horrific aftermath but, apart from a few diaries or recollections of women from a higher social strata - plus the controversial stories of two female survivors * of Cawnpore - there is not much else from the ordinary women or girls who were caught up in the Mutiny and so this will be the start of a new project to see what I can find about some, if any, of them by way of books, journals, newspapers, genealogical and other sources.

Miss Wheeler *  defending herself against the Sepoys at Cawnpore
by anonymous engraver
published in The History of the Indian Mutiny, c. 1860. 

If anyone reading this has a previously unknown story of a European female ancestor who had connections to what happened in India c. 1857-1859 that they would be happy to share with others, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Queen Victoria puts things right.  Punch, 11 September 1858.

* Ulrica/Margaret Frances Wheeler and/or Amelia/Amy/Ann Horne (later Bennett)

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Desert Queen of the Never Never

History is full of stories of people who have fled far from their origins and made new lives for themselves elsewhere, often using fake names and identities. Not so easy to do these days when most of us leave a trail that is traceable via technology, but it was still quite easy a century or more ago.

Just as Breaker Morant (see my post on my companion blog Digging the Dust) pretended to be someone far grander than a lowly lad from Somerset whose parents ran the local workhouse, so did the woman who was briefly his wife, the inimitable Daisy O’Dwyer, daughter of an alcoholic boot-maker from Roscrea, Tipperary, who created a new persona for herself with highfalutin aristocratic connections.

She’s fallen out of favour these days due to society’s changing perceptions and attitudes, but Daisy Bates was once highly esteemed in Australia, and even received a C.B.E. from King George V, for her long devotion to the Aborigines in remote and inhospitable regions. And although some of her writings and controversial opinions are now discredited, she still warrants respect for her lengthy dedication to the people of the desert, also for recording languages and folk tales in danger of being lost.

The basic biographies of Daisy Bates that are available online vary widely, even the respected Australian Dictionary of Biography carries information that is now known to be incorrect. What is certain is that she was married at least three times without bothering to get a divorce from her first husband, who was that above-mentioned other Australian legendary figure, “Breaker” Morant, aka Edwin Murrant, aka Harry Harbord Morant. 
Image published in North Queensland Register 21 April 1902, following execution of Breaker Morant

When 19 year-old Edwin Murrant met the bewitching Miss Daisy May O’Dwyer, aka Margaret Dwyer, who was five years his senior, and pretty handy herself with Irish blarney about her own humble origins, they must have been a match made in charlatan heaven. Perhaps they were so alike and so crafty they didn’t actually detect the real truth about one another. They married at Charters Towers, Queensland, on 13 March 1884. It all came unstuck when Edwin didn’t pay bills connected with the wedding and took off.

Two legendary Australian individuals, Daisy and the Breaker
Copyright Chris Grosz
from article in The Monthly by Shane Maloney

There is the suggestion in one biography that it was a shotgun marriage and there may have been a child called William who either died or was adopted on the quiet but the genealogical evidence, if any, has been lost. Edwin went his own way - and to what some consider martyrdom during the Boer War - and Daisy went hers, twirling her parasol around fancy Tasmanian country estates and other places where she would rub shoulders with the rich and powerful.

Without bothering to get formal annulment of her marriage to Edwin, less than a year later on 17 February 1885, Daisy walked down the aisle again with Jack Bates, a stock-man from Nowra, New South Wales. Whatever she initially fancied about him soon faded and, while he was off droving cattle, she popped up to Sydney in June 1885 and where she married a merchant seaman, Edward Baglehole, apparently an old flame from her pre-Breaker days. In June 1886, she gave birth to her only child and unless Jack’s presence in Daisy’s life can be matched accurately with a likely date of conception, one must assume the boy’s father was Baglehole.

Curiously - and with a touch of the macabre - she called her son Arnold, which was the name of a previous lover of hers in Queensland, one Arnold Knight Colquhoun, who appears to be another member of the charlatan coterie hiding a lurid past in America and China and who allegedly committed suicide over her.

Although Jack and Daisy did not get on, they did keep up the marriage appearances for several years until Daisy abruptly abandoned both Jack and Arnold in February 1894 and signed on as a stewardess on a barque via Cape Horn to England where she stayed for several years; doing what exactly nobody knows for sure, but it apparently involved visiting more country estates and more parasol twirling.

The various biographers all have their own theories as to this abrupt decision, why a wife and mother would just take off as she did. Some suggested that she was fed up with Jacks itinerant work and inability to provide a proper home for her and that she would stay away until such time as he was properly settled. 

When Daisy finally returned to Australia in 1899, she would call herself a journalist after getting an assignment from the London Times. She also came with a considerable bank balance. Origins unknown. One of her biographers has a theory this was money obtained from Edward Beaglehole’s father for the upkeep of Arnold but there is little proof to back up this idea.

What is somewhat surprising is that Daisy resumed her life with Jack Bates and her son, although it is thought the marriage continued as a convenience in name only and perhaps her long sojourn in England had been with Jack’s approval as a way of seeking out alternative sources of income to prop up the family’s finances after the major depression of the 1890s had nearly wiped them out. Since Daisy destroyed much vital evidence about her life before she died, one can entertain all kinds of speculations as to how this was achieved but without solid proof it has to remain a mystery.
Daisy's work with the Aborigines made her famous
National Library of Australia.

Daisy finally turned her back on her family around 1902 when she embarked on her major transformation in which she was destined to become known as Kabbarli, or grandmother, of the Aborigines. (Quite a number of poems, books, plays, documentaries and even an opera about Daisy Bates have Kabbarli in the title - see list below - and there once had been plans for Katherine Hepburn to play her in a move. )

From then on poor Arnold, no doubt psychologically damaged by Daisy's appalling mothering, wanted nothing more to do with her. His World War I service record file at the National Archives in Canberra has letters from Daisy who wanted to make contact with him but which he deliberately ignored. He moved to New Zealand and did not even attend her funeral in Adelaide in 1951.

Daisy became fascinated with the culture of the Aborigines, a race she was convinced was in the process of dying out and she set out to protect them and salvage their language, culture and legends for posterity. All of this was a major about-turn from her shady past that no doubt once involved getting money out of men in ways that one can only guess at. Perhaps she had a moral epiphany of sorts and found salvation in such work with the marginalized tribal people.

Daisy with some Aboriginal women, South Australian Museum

Her image became famous throughout Australia. Right up until she died in 1951, she still dressed strictly in accord with the Edwardian era and carried an umbrella that allegedly had been picked up by none other than the future King George V when Daisy dropped it during a regal event in Perth. 

Daisy Bates wore this gabardine suit from 1904 until her death in 1951
South Australian Museum Archives

Daisy Bates at Ooldea, Sidney Nolan, 1950
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Even if her reputation has suffered with changing times, Daisy Bates was still unique. She did not involve herself with trying to educate the Aborigines or convert them to some religious faith. She
 did not treat them as specimens with the view to self-aggrandisement. She simply wanted them to stay just as they were, and had always been for thousands of years, and to avoid the contamination of European civilization. In her forty-plus years of living beside them in a tent in the deserts of Western and South Australia, she learned far more about them than many university-educated anthropologists on the occasional field trip ever could. Even if her star has become a little tarnished with time, it is worth remembering her positive contribution in trying to preserve the history and culture of Aboriginal Australia. 

Links to pages for anyone wishing to learn more about Daisy Bates in detail:

The Passing of the Aborigines, written by Daisy Bates

And even more Kabbarli connections:

Kabbarli, the movie.

Kabbarli, a documentary.

Another play, Daisy in the Dreamtime

Saturday, July 1, 2017

"You've got to do better" - Endell Street Military Hospital

Recommended viewing! 

Follow the link to Deeds Not Words.

This great piece of film tells the story of Endell Street Military Hospital in London, staffed entirely by women during the First World War, many of them early sufragettes. It was run by Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of the first British woman doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson).

Imperial War Museum

You not only have got to do a good job, you have got to do a superior job. What would be accepted from a man will not be accepted from a woman. You’ve got to do better.” [Flora Murray]

Monday, May 15, 2017

A courageous and vigilant gatekeeper.

The tragedy of the morning sickness drug thalidomide is well-known in many countries around the world because of its disastrous effects on babies born during the 1960s and 1970s that left them with severe problems, usually missing limbs. Around half of those with the condition died, others had to grow up with prosthetic legs or arms.

What may be less well-known is the story of the vigilant woman pharmacologist and researcher who stopped the drug being released into the United States where it would almost certainly have caused an even wider tragedy.

Whenever governments decide to cut back on those involved in health research - and especially those who do the checks on the safety of drugs before they are released into the community - it is worth reminding them of the story of Canadian Frances Oldham Kelsey who was rigorous in her work with the US FDA. 

Courageous and stubborn, she was committed to do the right thing and refused to give into pressure from the mighty drug companies and thus ultimately stopped thousands more families from suffering the heartbreak and disabilities that afflicted far too many others.

Frances died aged 101 in 2015, just hours after rather belatedly receiving the Order of Canada from the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, just one of the many awards she received during her lifetime - and rightly so.

Our world needs more gatekeepers like this wonderful woman.

Video about her at Acheron

Article from The Smithsonian

Obituary in The New York Times.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ellen Kelly, mother of Ned

(It wasn't intentional that this review of this new biography should be posted on St Patrick's Day although, given its subject matter, it couldn't be more appropriate. I have also decided to post it here rather than on my regular book review page because Mrs Kelly probably carried more buckets for men in her lifetime than anyone today could possibly imagine and for that alone she deserves acknowledgement and respect.)

Mrs Kelly - The astonishing life of Ned Kelly's Mother 

Harper Collins

The taglines on the back cover are succinct: 
"Ellen Kelly. Wife of a convict. Mother to outlaws. Witness to history".
The book, however, is anything but, a hefty hardback of 616 pages and unless readers have strong wrists, I'd recommend waiting for the paperback version or read it on a Kindle.

Gather together a group of diverse Australians to discuss whether bushranger Ned Kelly was a folk hero or just a sadistic criminal and you are very likely to end up with a heated argument as most people tend to see him firmly in one light or the other.

Ellen King, formerly Kelly (nee Quinn), the woman who gave him life, also has a prismatic quality about her. She'd come from extreme poverty and violence in Ireland only to face the same, if not worse, in Australia. Said to be a fearless horsewoman who could ride like the wind, she was full of Irish passion and fiercely loyal to her own kith and kin. During her lifetime of 91 years, she was witness to Australia's transition from a collection of convict colonies into a modern nation, living long enough to witness planes flying overhead and motor vehicles hurtling along what would become the Hume Highway, the main road between Melbourne and Sydney. 

In spite of its title, this epic work isn't all about Ellen and for most of its length includes an almost day-by-day journalistic account of Ned Kelly's spurious activities from an early age plus those of his extensive relatives, friends and enemies, as well as a sundry assortment of shop-keepers, bank managers, politicians, law-makers and law-breakers. There are passages of fictional dialogue and occasionally some truly spectacular purple prose, e.g. this description of Ned when thwarted in Jerilderie:
"The veins in his head are like angry snakes writhing about. His eyes are the colour of rubies and rolling around liked loaded dice."
Ellen lingers in the background, mostly a conduit for all these comings and goings, with her roughly-built cottage being the transit point for events all while she was busy putting up with drunken husbands or lovers, having babies in rapid succession, trying to scratch a living from stubborn earth, keep food on the table and some semblance of order with the squabbling family, lawlessness and general chaos around her. She was blamed for hitting Alexander Fitzpatrick, a policeman, over the head with a shovel for which she was sent to gaol. This was the trigger for Ned's rage at Stringybark Creek and which led to his eventual downfall in the famous iron-clad shoot-out at Glenrowan.

These latter exploits have been written about so many times before that only a die-hard Kelly enthusiast would want to wallow through them in any depth. I must admit to speed-reading a lot of this, my main interest being in trying to get to grips with Ellen herself if at all possible.  There are attempts to show us what Ellen might have been thinking in certain situations, particularly when she was working in the laundry at the Melbourne Gaol as her son swung from the gallows a few feet away, but she remains elusive.

While I am most certainly not of the opinion that only male authors should write about men, female ones about women, sometimes a woman's own personal experiences can help in writing about another woman's journey. I particularly wanted to know how Ellen, already a grandmother at aged 46 and arrested just three days after the difficult birth of her own 12th child, coped with imprisonment and removal from her other children. Those first few days after birth are never easy, let alone the round-the-clock demands of an infant. In a prison where you might be allowed to wash yourself once a week, how did you manage to look after a baby that generates soil daily? Even if Ellen was already used to a spartan life of great hardship, this treatment of her and her little daughter was truly horrific. 

Ned, of course, used his mother's imprisonment to excuse his rampages and murder of three policemen and within these pages a lot of Kelly myths are challenged. He wasn't the anti-establishment "Robin Hood" hero that his supporters believe him to be, but a self-serving, nasty piece of work. The fact that the majority of his victims were individuals also of Irish heritage, many just trying to establish peaceful lives in a new and challenging environment and were not the English imperialists he loathed, says a great deal. What he did to the three men at Stringybark Creek - and his attitudes afterwards - seals the answer for me. That said, not all the Kelly genes were bad and there is some irony that Ned's half-brother John King became a policeman. 

Perhaps because Ellen didn't write and leave any personal expression behind in the way of memoirs or letters, she must remain a bit of a mystery and in spite of all these many pages, I don't feel I have gained any greater insight into her apart from what I've read previously in much simpler or concise booklets published by local historical histories and museums, so it left me wanting.

There were no winners when it comes to the other women caught in this saga. Bridget Kennedy and Maria Lonigan, wives of two of the policemen killed by Ned Kelly, both lost babies after they discovered their husbands had been murdered. Their lives were just as fraught with difficulties and filled with tragedy as Ellen's and because, like their husbands, their names are not recognised, for me they are the forgotten true heroines of this shambolic history.

Five stars for its research and scholarship, but only three for its perceptions.

For those interested in how the Kelly myth still has the power to divide communities in Australia today, here are links to a couple of articles, including excellent speeches made by the top cop of the State of Victoria and a descendant of Sergeant Kennedy.