Ned Kelly Connection?
by Linda Butler
This article was originally published in the August 2002 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
On 26 March this year I was at home in Canberra watching the main evening news, with just my dog for company.
A news item came on about a Christie's auction held that day in Melbourne, which featured some Ned Kelly family photos. Ned Kelly was the most famous of all Australian bushrangers, so the item was interesting to a history buff like me.
There were some close-up shots of a few of the photos, and I quite literally jumped out of my chair when I realized that the last one shown was a photo that was instantly recognisable as being of my grandmother's cousin, Mary SOLE, taken when she was about five years old. I have a copy of this photo, and some of you may have seen it on the Sole Society's website:
Well you can imagine I was a bit excited about a possible connection between our family and an Australian icon like Ned Kelly - who has been immortalised in films, plays, and books (including last year's winner of the Booker Prize - Peter Carey's The True History of the Kelly Gang). However, the dog didn't seem to share my excitement, so I rang my aunt who usually knows everything there is to know about our family, but she was as much in the dark about a possible connection as I was.
The answer came via the internet. I quickly found the Christie's site and their comprehensive catalogue for that day's auction. Lot no.145 came with the following description:
"LITTLE MARY SOLE C.1900. Sepia souvenir photograph, 135 x 95mm, on red-printed mount, "Little Mary Sole - Eroni Bros Circus - Pusteria Studios, Dean St, Albury". A copy held by the Melbourne Performing Arts Museum, reproduced, St Leon, The Circus in Australia, and Greaves, The Circus Comes to Town.
Mary Sole (b. 1892) was a child prodigy of the Australian circus world. Her family first worked with the Eroni Bros Circus (a branch of the Perry family), then became partners in the business and eventually set up their own circus, establishing a dynasty. Mary Sole (later billed as "La Belle Marie") performed as an aerialist until she was 50. Her granddaughter, Susan Perry Harrison, was an internationally famed aerialist in the 1970s and 80s.
Inclusion of Little Mary's photo in the Kelly/King family collection suggests some early link with circus life. A faintly scrawled pencil inscription on the back of the mount includes "Ellen Grace Knight" and "Wines Corners(?) Rushworth". Ellen Knight (nee Kelly/King) and her husband, Walter, ran a wine cellar at Rushworth."
Looking through the descriptions for a number of other photos offered for sale at the same time, it soon became clear that the connection was a circus one. Ned Kelly's younger half-brother, Jack King (who went by the name of Jack Kelly), was a fellow circus performer. He and his wife Violet joined another well-established Australian circus, Wirths, in the 1890s with a trick riding and stockwhip act. As many of the circus families inter-married, and performers appeared with various companies, Jack Kelly no doubt crossed paths with Mary and her extended circus family on numerous occasions.
I had hoped to discover a distant connection with Ned Kelly, perhaps by marriage, but that was not to be. However it was still fascinating to learn that our two families had crossed paths some hundred years ago in the country towns of New South Wales and Victoria as the circuses toured "outback". It will enliven the family history if I ever find time to write it.
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