Author's journey to reveal the 'real Kate Kelly'

After 10 years of travel, research and writing, Rebecca Wilson holds her Kate Kelly biography in her hands.

After 10 years of travel, research and writing, Rebecca Wilson holds her Kate Kelly biography in her hands.

For 10 years now, Rebecca Wilson has been on the trail of Kate Kelly.

She's asked questions in historical societies, dug through the National Library's Trove collection, spent hours in museums and tourism centres, dusted off old books and notes, and sought out certificates and family connections.

Not just to sort the fact from the fiction of the life of Ned Kelly's younger sister, but to find out who Kate was - and tell her story in a biography that has now arrived on the nation's shelves.


Growing up in Forbes, Rebecca knew that Kate Kelly, living under the alias of Ada Foster, had met a tragic end here aged just in her 30s.


She'd heard her uncle refer to Kate as "a good woman, a kind woman", but it wasn't until 2010 that a conversation at a luncheon brought that back to mind and birthed her desire to know more.

Rebecca, an artist now based at Hill End, was exhibiting a body of works on Australian icons that referenced the Kelly mythology. But at this point she determined to find out more about Kate herself.


"I'd argue you wouldn't find a more challenging character to write a biography on," she says now.


"It was so hard to grasp her - like trying to take hold of water."

In the preface to Kate Kelly, the true story of Ned Kelly's little sister, Rebecca describes her work to "catch the essence of Kate Kelly" and tell her story as a pleasure and an obsession.

Kate Kelly is a biography, but Rebecca was determined to make it readable and relatable, to prompt the reader to consider what it would have been like to face the situations Kate faced at such a young age and consider the many facets of her character.

The author described her role as "almost a translator" as she pieced together the many pieces of the puzzle of the Kellys, the era they lived in, and Kate herself.

Kate the skilled horsewoman, the sister, the political advocate who gathered thousands of signatures on a petition against her brother's execution, Kate the performer on stage telling the Kelly story with brother Jim the night of Ned's death.

"After researching her life for over a decade, I believe Kate Kelly should be remembered with admiration and compassion," Rebecca writes in the book's preface.

"This courageous and talented woman struggled to overcome enormous adversity during her extraordinary, tragic and short life."

Rebecca's quest brought her back to the familiar landscape of Forbes over and over again.

"Forbes Family History has been fantastic, and Rob Willis a real blessing," she said.

She found her own family connection through the Collitses who hired "Ada Hennessy" as a domestic servant at Cadow Station from 1885 when she arrived in this region.

Beyond examining Kelly lore, she's interviewed medical professionals to understand Kate's situation at the time of her death, studied the politics of the era to frame the Kellys' actions and even the weather reports.

"I tried to cast a very wide net," Rebecca said. "I was open to finding anything, if there were notes, birth or death certificates, if someone had a story ... you don't know what's going to turn up."

Rebecca relied heavily on oral history, stories passed down about the Kellys and about Kate in Forbes, and was amazed how often historical documentation would provide substance to the legend.

For example the Wright family in Forbes told how their ancestors were woken at gunpoint to shoe the Kellys' horses - and told to shoe Kate's horse backwards to trick the trackers.

"That story is a gem, it says a lot about their ingenuity and resourcefulness," she said.

In doing so, she's found resources that shed light on some of the key moments of the Kelly story, including the relationship between Kate and Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick and the provenance of the pistol bearing the initials KK found under the verandah of a Murga property.

There were also stories that allowed her to understand the other key characters in Kate's life: another key Forbes resource were Rob Willis's recordings of Dave Matthias, who was a neighbour to the Fosters.

"He was crucial in describing Bricky, really helped to bring him alive," she said.

The book, released just last week, has already sparked numerous emails and connections - and that's just what Rebecca hoped.

"One of the goals is that this contributes to a national conversation," Rebecca said.