Ellen Kelly was born in Ireland in 1832, and migrated to Australia with her family in 1847. She married John Kelly and had eight children, two with other men after John's death. This left her son, Ned, as the undeclared ‘head' of the family at 12 years of age.
Ellen had a wild and independent spirit, much of which Ned inherited. In 1865, John was jailed for killing a neighbour's cow that had wandered onto their property, and he died shortly after his release. Ellen took out her fury on the neighbouring man's wife, screaming wildly:
‘You Bible thumper, you witch!' I yelled at her, ‘are you happy now? Got enough for your bloody heifer? ...scared, eh? I wish you were a widow soon, like me!'
– Ellen Kelly
Jones, I 2003, Ned Kelly, a short life, Lothian Books, South Melbourne, Vic.
Although she formed relationships with other men and married two of them, Ellen battled for most of her life to bring up her family on her own. Much of her time was spent negotiating the unwanted attention of the police, who were keen to prosecute any members of the family they could.
In 1878, Ellen was arrested and sentenced to three years in the Old Melbourne Gaol for allegedly assaulting a police officer, whom the Kelly family claim was drunk and made a pass at daughter Kate. She was working in the jail laundry in 1880 when she was told that Ned had been arrested after the showdown at the Glenrowan Inn. It is said that she broke down and wept bitterly in an unexpected show of emotion.
She was allowed to visit Ned in his cell on the eve of his execution, and described their meeting:
I had not seen Ned for two years and I was shocked at the grimness in his face. He was still weak, his face was full of bruises, his hands were bandaged. He could not walk and laid in bed. But those dark, hazel eyes were still the same, still sharp, sparkling, though the lines about them had deepened.
– Ellen Kelly
Balcarek, D 1984, Ellen Kelly – an historical novel as told by Ellen Kelly, Farlell Pty Ltd, Glenrowan, Vic.
When Ellen was released from jail she returned to her home, where she continued to raise her children and grandchildren. She was a remarkably strong woman who lived to become a respected member of her community until her death in 1923.