Review – The Girl Who Loved Ned Kelly
Balmain Town Halll
07 March 2010
Sydney's turned on one of its legendary wet evenings for the occasion, usually something that will keep the punters away, frightened off by the inevitable traffic snarls caused by the bucketloads of water wildly tipped down from the sky. And when we come into the Balmain Town Hall, a hastily-typed up note informs us that 'due to the huge interest generated in the Girl Who Loved Ned Kelly talk, we are unable to provide light refreshments.' So, no tea and bikkies then either.
But who cares about the lack of refreshments or the lashing rain? Certainly not the crowd trickling, streaming, then flooding in. More chairs have to be brought in, at the end of the show it's estimated that there were at least 130 there. Even before the interview with Paul O'Keefe in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The interest had been high; after it the venue had to be changed from the library to the Town Hall auditorium. There's a palpable buzz of anticipation and excitement, and not only from the crowd either, but from Paul, who's feeling the nerves of this landmark talk keenly. This is the launch event of what he hopes will be a continuing tour, and the first time that he will reveal in public the extraordinary story he's so patiently pieced together. The story of The Girl Who Loved Ned Kelly--the story of the lovely, bright, gifted girl who was his great-great-grandmother, and her love for the man we know as our greatest legend, our truest folk hero, but whom she knew simply as Ned. The story of Ettie Hart and Ned Kelly--the greatest Australian love story never told, you might say: until now.
Against a softly diminishing background of Irish music, Paul takes the podium. And, accompanied by an interesting montage of projected photographs and documents, launches straight into an evocation of the last days of Ned Kelly in November 1880, as he reflects on his life and its meaning, and awaits his fate. It is a powerful way to begin, reminding us of the extraordinary place this man holds in the psyche of Australia, and how he has inspired countless movies, books, songs, stories, and continues to inspire and infuriate--depending on your point of view--people from all walks of life, and all backgrounds. This is the public Ned--the Ned who became a legend. But we are about to be introduced to the private Ned--the Ned who loved a young woman as brave as himself, a young woman who was the sister of his mate Steve Hart, a young woman had to keep the story of her first love, and her grief and despair at his death, hidden for the rest of her life.
So the scene shifts to many years later--September 8, 1926, and the death of a 65 year old grandmother in Balmain Hospital, only a few hundred metres away from the hall in which we were now sitting. Ettie Williams, nee Hart, was dying of ovarian cancer only three years after leaving Victoria and coming down to live in Sydney to look after the six children her daughter had left behind when she died after childbirth. Then Ettie died without telling her secret to the world; but her family knew about it. Knew bits and pieces, anyway. It was a family legend, Paul says, and it was backed up by what Tom Lloyd jnr had told historian John Molony, that 'no-one had ever replaced Ettie in Ned's affections.' But it's one thing to have a family legend, it's quite another to prove it. And it wasn't, Paul says, until two things came about that blew the story wide open, that he was caught up in the thrill of detection, of putting together bits of the puzzle.
The crowd is hushed, listening raptly, as Paul tells how how his mother asked him if he wanted to look through some boxes of old family papers that had been stored at the family's Balmain home. It was amongst these old family papers that he was to make the spine-tingling discovery that lie at the heart of this amazing story. It's a discovery that will have State librarians salivating at the thought of getting their hands on it, a discovery that will make the editors of Inside History, who are partnering Paul in this series of talks, say that it's one of the biggest story they've ever had to deal with. For in amongst the great old albums of family photos and letters and old books, there's an old-fashioned scrapbook, beautifully bound its red spine embossed with gold writing. And on the inside front page, the name of its owner, and her address: Ettie Hart, Three Mile Creek Wangaratta.
This is Ettie's scrapbook as a young woman, full of cards from family and friends, clippings from newspapers showing a keen interest in not only the doings of the Kelly Gang but also political developments gripping the Colony of Victoria at that time. They reveal a young woman wth a wide range of interests and a keen mind; but they pale beside the other things that are in the scrapbooks and which appear to be later in date than the clippings, to have been stuck in much later.
These are the poems, short, untitled, full of grief stoically borne and love undying, with an unusual turn of phrase and rich, enigmatic images that make the hair rise on the back of your neck as you listen to Paul reading them out, the first time these poems have been read aloud, probably since they were written. Phrases such as 'like brother you have gone to the home of your rest.' Like brother--like Steve--
The other was the release by the Public Records Office of Victoria of a mass of previously unseen police documents of the time. And the story they told, patiently tracked by Paul through glancing mentions of Ettie by police informers and police, added great weight to the theory of Ettie's romance with Ned.
More, much more, Paul told the crowd that wet Balmain night, and the crowd hung on every word of his very professional yet passionate presentation, and were convinced, as I'd been months ago when I first talked to Paul about his amazing discoveries. Some may say of course that it's not all completely proven; fair enough. But to my mind, it all hangs together extremely well. It presents an altogether convincing picture of the private Ned Kelly--and the lovely girl who was his true love. It is a sad story--and Paul told us that Ettie had a sad life, with her beloved daughter dying too, and losing two of her brothers and sisters--and her first love, of whom she could never speak in public. But at last now it could be spoken, and by someone from her family, which is so fitting and beautiful as is the fact that several other family members were there to proudly hear it--Paul's Mum and Dad, and his younger Brother. only remains to add that Paul was asked lots of questions and mobbed after the talk by an excited crowd. The next talk will be held in Randwick Library on the 12th April 10.30 am - 12.30 pm, also in Sydney, and Paul hopes to take it around many places. Be quick to book him up though, I'm sure he'll be greatly in demand!