Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

The Disappearing Woman [July 10]

If you haven’t heard of Ned Kelly, indeed if you haven’t developed a passionate view on the question of whether he was a murdering criminal deserving of capital punishment or a folk hero martyred by the criminal murdering Victorian justice system, you probably don’t deserve to be called an Orstrayan.

[Ned Kelly]( has made it into our cinematic canon, been fictionalised by some of our best novelists, eulogised by some of our best songwriters, and taught on the school syllabus. Ned has inspired local tourism ventures all over country Victoria, and every year a bunch of eminent lawyers get together to re-enact his criminal trial.

But what of his sister Kate?

It’s a cliché to say that history often ignores women, but clichés usually become clichés because they are true. These days, few Australians have any knowledge about what happened to the pretty teenager whose resistance to police sexual harassment fuelled some of the ensuing conflict between her bushranging brother and the local constabulary.

While the process of festishising dead Ned’s body parts and armoury was getting underway, Kate Kelly was getting on with her life. According to novelist and scholar Merrill Findlay, after Ned’s death Kate briefly became a teenage celebrity:

‘(She was) as famous, perhaps infamous, as many of today’s celebs. People queued to meet her and to watch her ride. They bought postcards of her in her mourning outfit, a fashionable black silk riding habit. And then she disappeared. She fled her fame, her family, her friends, the north-eastern Victorian hill country she had grown up in; she changed her name several times; and then re-emerged, in the mid-1880s, on the flat inland plains of central western NSW.’ (

The story of Kate’s life once she reached NSW has become an all-consuming interest for Merrill Findlay. Her research into Kate’s life and tragic death in the NSW town of Forbes inspired her to write a series of poems about ‘Mrs Catherine Foster’, as Kate was known during this time. Merrill then commissioned award-winning New Zealand composer Ross Carey to set her five poems to music, and together they have produced the Kate Kelly Song Cycle.

But wait, there’s more.

Merrill wanted to share this story with the local community in Forbes, where she herself now lives, and for the past year she has been working to create an arts festival during which the Kate Kelly Song Cycle will be premiered in early September 2011. She has enlisted the support of a range of community organizations and creative artists to help produce this ever-growing community festival:

‘The inaugural Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival will be held beside the Forbes Lagoon, central western New South Wales, on 3-4 September 2011, as the opening event for the NSW Landcare & Catchment Management Forum. It will be directed by Stefo Nantsou, resident director with Sydney Theatre Company, and feature the premiere of The Kate Kelly Song Cycle … plus live musical performances from Classical to Country, a Lantern Parade, an Arts & Crafts Village, a Writers & Readers Tent, a Farmers & Landcarers’ Tent, a Healing Arts Alley, art exhibitions, ‘slow food’ stalls, wine tastings in the Festival Lounge, markets, sports and much much more.’

When Merrill Findlay’s novel, ‘The Republic of Women’ (pub. UQP) was launched in Melbourne in 1999, she invited me to sing an aria from Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’, an opera about a woman haunted by her past, desperate to create a new life for herself, but who comes to a tragic end.

A decade later Merrill invited me to sing the inaugural performance of the Kate Kelly Song Cycle, a chamber opera about another woman haunted by her past, desperate to reinvent herself, but whose life ends in a mysterious tragedy:

‘The premiere takes place beside the very lagoon in which the body of Ned Kelly’s sister Kate was found in October 1898. This legendary woman’s story is told from diverse perspectives in this new work, including that of her abusive husband Bricky Foster, and Quong Lee, the grocer at whose corner store she would have shopped.’

The Festival is only the latest in a long list of Kate Kelly projects inspired by Merrill Findlay.
She has also been largely responsible for initiating:

– The Kate Kelly Walking Trail and occasional Kate Kelly Heritage Tours in Forbes
– A campaign to stop the demolition of the historic Quong Lee’s Store next to where Kate’s inlaws the Foster family lived from the 1860s and where Kate herself would have shopped
– A leaflet about Kate’s life in Forbes which is now distributed through tourist outlets
– Signage and landscaping near where Kate’s body was found, including a walking trail

Other ongoing benefits from the growing interest in Kate Kelly include:

– Restoration and revegetation of the lagoon foreshore where Kate’s body was recovered
– Rehabilitation of remnan native grasslands near the lagoon
– An increased awareness of the richness of the region’s indigenous and non-indigenous cultural heritage and histories
– Several new ‘tourist destinations’
– A heightened sense of place within the local community

So if you’re anywhere near Forbes during the first weekend of September, I invite you to come and celebrate the life of Kate Kelly with us, and meet the people who’ve worked so hard to create a place for this ‘disappearing woman’ in Australian history.

(See ABC radio website for a review of the Kate Kelly Song Cycle premiere)
(Addendum: In 1982 English-born Australian writer Jean Bedford wrote a controversial novel based on the life of Kate Kelly entitled ‘Sister Kate’, but is no longer in print. And Frank Hatherley wrote a comic play called ‘Ned Kelly’s Sister’s Travelling Circus’, last performed in 1980)