The whore who held the mortgage on the Royal Canal

Here is an interesting story that is not, as far as I can see, mentioned in Peter Clarke’s The Royal Canal: the complete story Elo Publications, Dublin 1992, or in Ruth Delany’s Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789–2009 (with Ian Bath) The Lilliput Press, Dublin 2010 or indeed in W E [Ernie] Shepherd’s The Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland: an illustrated history Midland Publishing Limited, East Shilton 1994.

We begin with an extract from the Freeman’s Journal of 15 July 1850:

The topic of the week in the money market has been the advance by Mrs Kelly, whose name has been so frequently before the public in the celebrated will case, of the large sum of £135,000 to the Midland Great Western Railway Company, to enable the latter to discharge the balance of the purchase money due to the Royal Canal Company, being about that amount. Mrs Kelly receives a transfer of the canal direct from the Canal Company, and becomes the first incumbrancer on it, the total cost having been upwards of £400,000. She has, of course, the security of the Railway Company in addition, and as far as Mrs Kelly is concerned, the security may be considered undoubted. The transaction is, however, an advantageous one for the company, as they have agreed to pay Mrs Kelly 5 per cent, while they paid 6 per cent to the Canal Company; there is therefore a diminution of £1,350 per annum in the interest paid by the company.

According to the currency converter here, the loan was worth just under £8 million in sterling at 2005 values. So that was a sizeable amount of money, and I thought a quick internet search might throw up more information about Mrs Kelly and the “celebrated will case”. I note that Vera Hughes of Moate has written a book about Sarah Kelly; the only copies available on Abebooks are rather expensive. Here, though, is one account of her career, there’s a brief estate record here and there’s an Irish Independent account here.

There’s also an account of her death, with details of her life, in a page of the Sydney Morning Herald for 14 July 1856 online here. Its OCR version is a bit tedious to read, so here’s a better version with the story of Sarah Kelly’s life and death. The Herald account is made collated from accounts in other newspapers of the time; I’ve broken up the text to give each newspaper its own heading.

Daily Mail 10 April 1856

For diabolical atrocity […] , and the strange and mysterious circumstances connected with it, this murder will probably cast into the shade for some time the other crimes with which the public have recently been startled. As yet we only know that the unfortunate lady in question was walking on Tuesday afternoon in a field on some property which she had lately taken into her own hands, near Moate, and situate in the county of Roscommon.

She was accompanied by a young man named Streven, her nephew, when suddenly two men, disguised in fernale attire, and having their faces concealed by thick crape veils, approached and, according to the statement made, ordered her nephew to stand aside, and producing pistols, fired, as it is said, simultaneously at Mrs Kelly, who fell to the ground and immediately expired, the contents of the pistols having entered her head and scattered her brains about the ground.

Then come various contradictory statements. Mr Strevan [sic] ran to the house calling out “murder,” and soon after despatched a man and horse for his brother, who acted as Mrs Kelly’s agent. It is said that the labourers working in an adjoining field assert that they did not hear the report of the shots, although it was distinctly heard by the servants in the house; but it, nevertheless, appears nearly certain that this murder has not an agrarian character, and that the suspicions of the police so far do not rest upon the peasantry.

An unidentified “Dublin paper”

The circumstances connected with the murder of this lady, on Tuesday evening, are of a very singular nature, and, although the police authorities have not had sufficient time to institute inquiries, it is not thought that the horrible crime was the result of any agrarian conspiracy, as in the case of the late Mrs Hinds. Mrs Kelly left Dublin very recently for Ballinderry, where she purposed building a new and handsome mansion, and on Monday last, before dinner, walked about the grounds in company with a professional gentleman who was on a visit.

After their return to the house it is stated that she walked out again with a relative, and after some time a shot was heard, which at the moment created no uneasiness. However, in a short time her companion returned, and stated that Mrs Kelly had been brutally murdered. That as they were passing close to a ditch two men dressed in female attire jumped out and warned him to stand aside — that a shot was then fired which took effect on the lady, and that when the assassins went off, he at once fled and gave the alarm. The domestics went at once to the spot, and the unfortunate Mrs Kelly was found lying dead, the head presenting a frightful spectacle.

Another account states that shortly after the murder the police were on the alert, and two persons of respectable station in life have been arrested on suspicion of being parties to the foul deed — several others being also under the surveillance of the police.”

The Freeman’s Journal 11 April 1856

Mrs Kelly’s property of Ballindery is situated about one mile from the town of Moate, in the county of Westmeath. She held 200 acres in her possession, and the management of it was entrusted to her nephew, Mr George Strevens [sic]. Mrs Kelly had been residing in England since last November, and only returned to Ballinderry about a fortnight ago, accompanied by her solicitor, Mr Campion. It is stated that three or four tenants had recently been served with ejectments on the part of the unfortunate lady, but they were not proceeded with.

Mr Campion had brought down five or six stamped agreements, which the tenants were to sign for an increased rent. This was to have been done in the course of a few days; but it is said the tenants were satisfied with the arrangement. However this may be, the police have taken two of them into custody, and also a labouring man named Owen Waters, who was in the employment of the deceased, and who had been absent from work during the part of the day on which the murder took place.

The inquest was opened on Wednesday. One witness only was examined — a girl, who was working in the field where the assassination occurred, and was actually in conversation with Mrs Kelly when the murderers approached her. The witness said there were about twelve girls and two men in the field picking stones. Mrs Kelly came into the field about 4 o’clock, pm, with Mr Campion and Mr George Strevens, her nephew. Mr Campion left the field by directions of Mrs Kelly to settle some account as he was to go to Dublin next day. Mr Strevens went to where the men were picking stones, and Mrs Kelly came over to witness to ask if her mother had made up the clothes she had given her, as she (witness) was to be sent to a situation in Dublin, procured for her by Mrs Kelly.

Just as they were talking, about five yards from the ditch, two men came into the field through the gate, 150 yards from where they stood. They had women’s clothes on and black cloths over their faces with openings, through which she (witness) could see one eye. When Mrs Kelly saw them he [sic] appeared to be much alarmed, and caught hold of the witness, who said ‘Don’t be afraid, Mrs. Kelly; they are only coming to frighten the children’ (meaning the girls, who were picking stones). Mrs Kelly then ran over towards the ditch, and fell; the murderers followed, and, while she was lying on the ground, one man stooped, and fired at Mrs Kelly’s head, what witness thought was a pistol, and then stepped aside upon which his companion did the same.

Mr G Strevens who was about ten yards off, began to shout. The two assassins then went over towards him. He ran away, and did not stop till he arrived at the house, where he informed Mr Campion that Mrs Kelly had been shot dead. The two assassins went back through thp gate by which they carne in, and no one saw them afterwards.

The inquest was then adjourned in order that Dr Mathews might make a post mortem examination. The jury then proceeded to where the murder took place, which is fully half a mile from the house, on the top of a hill, from which there is a view for a mile all round. One of the gentlemen sent for a spade and dug underneath where the brains of the unfortunate lady lay, and there found a large bullet, about eight inches deep in the ground.

The body of Mrs Kelly was removed to Dublin by the first, up-train this (Thursday) morning, in charge of Mr Campion, but her nephew (Mr Strevens) remains here in lodgings, in charge of two policemen. I need not say that the dreadful event has created the most intense sensation in the neighbourhood.

The Dublin Evening Post

The estate of Ballinderry, where the murder took place, contains nearly 1,500 acres. Mrs Kelly had been engaged in draining and improving it. There is little exaggera tion as to the extent of the property obtained by the deceased under the will of her husband, Mr Edmond Kelly, of Rookwood, which had been the subject of such protracted litigation in the cause of Kelly v Thewles, in the Prerogative Court and the Court of Delegates.

Besides landed estates to the value of between £7,000 and £8,000 a-year, Mrs Kelly obtained nearly £250,000 in funded property. In a case in which she had been prosecutrix a few years since, she was stated to have paid £30,000 for investment in share property, which sum eventually she lost. But her chattel property must still have been upwards of £200,000. She had lent £131,000 to the Midland Great Western Railway Company, for which she held a mortgage on the Royal Canal, the property of that company, for which she has been receiving nearly £7,000 per annum. Mrs Kelly, about a year since made a will, which was deposited for safe keeping, at the bank of Messrs Boyle, Low, and Co, where it now remains.

The London Daily News 12 April 1856

There is hardly to be found (says that paper) in the voluminous varieties of French romance a story more full of strange and startling vicissitudes than that which the life of Sarah Kelly might supply. The daughter of an innkeeper in one of the smaller towns of Kent, she had been brought up with as little care as persons of her class too frequently are; and at an early age was seduced by a gentleman of rank and fortune, by whom she was taken from place to place in order to elude pursuit, and ultimately removed to Ireland.

After no very protracted interval the power to charm the veteran roué for whom she had forsaken her father’s roof came to an end; and after a residence of sorne months in Dublin she found herself not only abandoned but turned out of doors, without the ordinary means of subsistence. The circumstances became accidentally known to a well-known practitioner in the Irish courts of law, and by him an action was brought against her betrayer; and, owing to the singular exertions made at the trial by Mr Goold, then a distinguished Nisi Prius advocate, damages were recovered to the extent of severa! thousand pounds.

The means of retrieval from her deplorable position seemed thus unexpectedly opened to her; but it was not so to be. In the course of a few weeks the whole of the sum referred to was lost, by the failure, we believe, of the person in whose hands it had been deposited; and the unhappy woman, whose wrongs had enlisted for the hour the worthless sympathy of the sentimental and the idle,.was once more brought face to face with hunger and privation. Who shall tell the struggles and remorseful efforts that she may have made to escape the gulf of shame into which she was eventually drawn! We dare not dwell upon the fearful theme, or give unguarded utterances to questions that suggest themselves to every humane and merciful mind that has calmly contemplated the terrible temptations that beset despair. Suffice it to say, that for a period iittle short of 20 years this ill-fated woman lived in the condition of an outcast in the city of Dublin, and that at the end of that time she became the mistress, and eventuallv the wife of a Mr Kelly, who had amassed a very considerable fortune by the profession of the law.

On his death, some ten or eleven years ago, questions regarding the right to his real and personal estate were raised by several members of his family. Bills of discovery were filed in Chancery, and suits of ejectment were brought in the common law courts. The proceedings were complicated and protracted, and furnished lucrative employment to the gentlemen of the long robe for several years. Mrs Kelly was on many occasions subjected to searching examination by the practised skill of those retained against her; she had to answer minute inquiries as to endless series of facts, and to explain apparent incongruities and inconsistencies that might have puzzled the brain of any ordinary man of business.

Pitiless imputations of fraud and perjury were hurled at her by her hungry and avaricious competitors for the rich prize at stake; and recourse was remorselessly had to all that in her previous life could tend to shake the credibility of her testimony, or create prejudice against her. Again and again her legal advisers, fearing that at some moment her self-possession would fail, urged her to compromise with her antagonists, and be content to save a portion at the sacrifice of the rest.

But, with a courage and constancy almost unrivalled, she rejected all such recommendations, except in one instance, we believe of very inconsiderable amount. She had not sworn falsely, she averred, and she would prove it. She had not robbed the man who had rescued her from poverty and degradation, and she would make all men own it. She did so, and succeeded in obtaining the final judgment of every court of law and of equity wherein she had been sued.

Latterly she has lived unostentatiously, and almost in seclusion. We have reason to know that she never ceased to retain in her own hands the entire direction of her pecuniary affairs; and monied men whom she from time to time consulted with regard to particular investments, were struck by the accuracy of the varied information she displayed, and the quickness with which she appreciated distinctions or differences of which she had not heard before.

A modest proposal

That concludes the newspaper extracts.

I have every confidence that the cowards who murdered Sarah Kelly are rotting in hell , but I am concerned that there seems to be no memorial to this remarkable woman along the canal whose mortgage she held. She was, after all, a far more interesting character than most of the directors of the Royal Canal.

Accordingly, I suggest that it would be appropriate to have a bridge named after her. A new bridge would be best, but if nothing else is available her name might be attached to Effin Bridge, the railway crossing below Newcomen Bridge.

[royal99]

8 responses to “The whore who held the mortgage on the Royal Canal

  1. Congratulations on turning up another aspect about the canal (and the railways) of Ireland that I had never encountered.

  2. Thanks, but I can’t claim any credit: it turned up by accident. It is interesting, though. bjg

  3. A whore ? Really ?
    No indication of why she was murdered ?

  4. Retired. For speculation on motive, see the articles to which I provided links. I have not read Vera Hughes’s book, which is no doubt authoritative and comprehensive, but she contributed information to the other articles. bjg

  5. Very interesting read. As my husband is a descendent to George Strevens, I had read Vera Hughes book but your article adds more detail of her death. According to Vera’s book, Sarah was murdered by 2 unmarried tenants who later emigrated to Australia.

  6. Thank you. I have Vera Hughes’s book on my AbeBooks wish list but haven’t yet found a copy at a reasonable price. bjg

  7. A most interesting tale, I believe my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandma Mary Maguire was an aunt to John Maguire, one of the alleged culprits named by the Leargas documentary.

  8. Thank you. I didn’t see the documentary but I have just managed to buy a copy of Vera Hughes’s book at a non-extortionate price and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ll amend this account if necessary. bjg

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