Isabella Mary Kelly | Gun-toting sadist or female pioneer

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FROM bridges and parks to mountains and lakes their names live on, but have you ever wanted to know more about the people behind these place names….

Isabella Street runs through the heart of Wingham and features a mix of historic buildings, modern shops and popular cafes.  

The street is named after a fascinating female figure who is shrouded in legend.  Outrageous tales of her described as a ‘gun toting sadist’ and even a ‘sex-hungry tyrant’ who forced convicts to join her harem have endured for a century and a half.

In 2005 local historian Maurie Garland attempted to set the record straight with his book The Trials of Isabella Mary Kelly: Her Legend and the Truth.

In the introduction to the book, Emeritus Professor of History John Ramsland admits that her life had all the ingredients of a myth but that she was the victim of: ‘the embellishment of half-truths and falsehoods and the uncritical fabrication of gossip.’

Her name has even been confused with Kate Kelly the sister of the iconic bushranger Ned Kelly.

A play was written based on the book... Putting Isabella on stage. Written by Maggie Young, it debuted at the Wingham Town Hall in 2014 but proved so popular it was eventually performed in Sydney at the Cell Block Theatre in Darlinghurst...Isabella city debut a hit.  Wrongly accused of stealing her own cattle in 1859, Isabella Mary Kelly was imprisoned for 12 months at Darlinghurst Gaol, now the site of the Cell Block Theatre. She later received £1000 in compensation from the Government and at the time wrote of the harsh conditions as:

“ Exceedingly cold and damp – so much so that the very clothes under me on the bed were mouldy and damp.”

Isabella Mary Kelly was always going to draw attention to herself – she is unique in the history of NSW.  She was the only single female who was a settler in her own right.  She was entirely without any bond of marriage, nor was there a male companion in her life.  She chose a life as a settler in a remote district of the colony. 

Orphaned at the age of eight, her brother took her to London where a Justice of the High Court became her guardian.   

In 1834 she sailed into Sydney as an independently wealthy woman, claiming the move was for health reasons and by 1838 had purchased 895 acres of land on the northern bank of the Manning River for £223.  Isabella called her property Mount George (today, Mount George is a small village located approximately 24 km west of Wingham).   

The stock on her station consisted of horses, cattle, cows, sheep and a few pigs.  But her speciality was horses, although society disapproved of women breeding horses.  She was highly skilled as a breeder and handler but once again these traits could simply not be tolerated in such a male dominated society and became fodder for more outrageous stories.

Isabella Kelly was disliked by many of her neighbours.  They resented a woman who did “men’s work” and often referred to her as “masculine” or even “wanton with a whip”.  She was known to have a temper and would not allow men to stand over her.  

In 1851, her house - one of the best in the district - was mysteriously burned down while she was away on business, with no hint of who was responsible.

The last years of her life are as full of mystery as her early years but we know she returned to England after selling her property on the Dawson River in 1865.

In a note written by Isabella Mary Kelly from London in 1867 she expressed deep sadness after an absence of thirty years.

“Strange to say that nearly all my friends are dead.  There are only two families left out of the many I knew before.”

She returned to Sydney some time between 1868 and 1870.

Her death certificate records her death on June 24, 1872, caused by “decay of nature”.

This story What’s in a name | Isabella Mary Kelly first appeared on Wingham Chronicle.