Ethel Kelly

Ethel Knight Kelly (1875-1949), actress and author, was born on 28 January 1875 at St John, New Brunswick, Canada, elder daughter of Margaret (born Millen) and William Knight Mollison, merchant. She was brought up partly in Britain; her education at St John was sketchy, consisting of piano, elocution and French lessons twice a week. She loved reading, especially the novels of 'Ouida' and Rider Haggard.

From her childhood Ethel 'enjoyed dramatic action'. In December l893 she played the lead when her three-act play, A Mischievous Miss, was staged at St John. It was a roaring success as she had satirised the 'local society in general and one or two families in particular'. While very young she married a Mr Moore and lived in New York. Widowed within a year, she was engaged to play with Olga Nethersole and Maurice Barrymore in Camille in 1894. For some eight years she was associated 'with the best companies in the United States', using her maiden name. Her favourite roles were Rozanne in Cyrano de Bergerac and Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew.

Engaged by J. C. Williamson, Miss Mollison arrived in Sydney on 14 March 1903 and opened in the farcical comedy Are you a Mason? The company went to Newcastle, New Zealand, back to Sydney, and to Melbourne, where at Christ Church, Hawthorn, on 29 August, she married Thomas Herbert Kelly, metal merchant. She left the professional stage in October. Between 1904 and 1913 Mrs Kelly bore two sons and two daughters. An Edwardian beauty, with a vibrant personality, wit and boundless energy, she soon established a reputation for 'original ideas'. She helped arrange elaborate fancy-dress balls and acted in matinees to raise money for the Women's Hospital, St Vincent's Hospital and the Australian Bush Nursing Scheme. She visited India and on her return wrote Frivolous Peeps at India (1911).

During the 1914-18 war Mrs Kelly, among her many fund-raising activities, organised a dolls' carnival for which she 'reproduced in miniature a whole theatre of Russian ballet'; she acted in matinees, including in her own play Swords and Tea. She organised an Elizabethan musical water pageant in October 1918 and, as Queen Elizabeth accompanied by her court and madrigal singers, travelled slowly down the harbour on the royal barge (a brilliantly lit ferry). Ethel Kelly loved clothes and always ensured that every detail was historically correct.

From 1919, while her sons were at Eton and Oxford, the Kellys made frequent visits to Britain and Europe. In 1922-23 Mrs Kelly conducted the woman's page of Smith's Weekly and was allowed as a journalist to visit Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt. It inspired her novel, Why the Sphinx Smiles (1925). From about 1925 Mrs Kelly lived mainly in Florence, Italy, while supervising her daughters' education. She wrote another novel, Zara (1927), and her memoirs, Twelve Milestones (1929). While in Italy she became a Catholic. She returned to Sydney in 1934 at her husband's request; they built an Italianate villa at Darling Point. In 1937 she was president of the Pageant of Nations advisory committee for the 150th Anniversary Celebrations.

During World War II Ethel Kelly was president of the French-Australian League of Help and the Victoria League, a vice-president of the St John Ambulance Association and the French Red Cross Societies, honorary treasurer of Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a committee-member of the Actors' Benevolent Fund and a trustee of the Women's and St Vincent's hospitals and the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales. She helped to raise money for all of them - and for many other causes. She enjoyed meeting and entertaining 'interesting people' and shared her husband's love of music. She collected antique furniture, Persian rugs and rare Venetian wine glasses. She died on 22 September 1949.

Martha Rutledge