Madame, Mistress, and Martinet: The Life of Sarah Kelly

James F Ward has crafted an excellent documentary about the life of Sarah Kelly a Victorian adventuress and notorious landlady who met her demise in a Westmeath field at the hands of two assassins. Read about the author/documentary maker here.

 

The documentary is just below and an accompanying introduction below that again.

Madame, Mistress, and Martinet: The Life of Sarah Kelly

(Featuring James Ward as narrator, Emily Clare Kelly as the voice of Sarah Kelly, with contributions from historians Vera Hughes and Carla King)

The complex, and contradictory life-story of the Victorian adventuress Sarah Kelly, serves to highlight the circumspect realities of women’s’ lives in the 19th century; and, also the nature of Ireland’s place in the British world of the day. In one sense, Sarah’s story is also that of an Ireland in transition; of a people rediscovering their self-determination, and re-imagining their identity, in the wake of the great famine of the 1840s. It also illustrates in a dramatic fashion the intrinsic link between place and identity in the Irish psyche.

Sarah’s story began far from the simmering socio-political tensions of colonial Ireland, in Broadstairs, a town on the Kentish coast, around 1801. She was one of eleven children born to John Birch – an inn-keeper at best, or perhaps in truth, a mere tavern tapster (bar-tender). The Birch family was solidly working-class. Sarah’s eldest brother William was apprenticed to a cordwainer; her elder sister Mary married an illiterate labourer named George Strevens in 1809, while another, Harriet, wed Richard Bailey, a sailor. Ironically, Sarah’s destiny elevated the Strevens and Bailey families to the strata of landed-gentry; their names would become synonymous with authority, wealth, and hereditary social-privilege, in the Irish midlands, until the second-world-war.

The examples set by her elder siblings’ marriages, indicated a future of limited possibilities for the young Sarah. However, the level of education received by the Birch children insured that each could read and write – a distinction for the age in terms of the family’s social-class and circumstances. By the age of fifteen, Sarah’s elemental education underpinned a precocious, intelligent personality. In addition, her social-ambitions – within the limited society of provincial Broadstairs – were infused with the romantic sensibilities of the age, and an adolescent instinct for independence and adventure. Such ambitions were legitimized not only by her wit, but crucially, through the charisma imparted by the emergence of an uncommon form of beauty.

Such ambitions were legitimized not only by her wit, but crucially, through the charisma imparted by the emergence of an uncommon form of beauty.

The trajectory of the teenage beauty’s destiny was altered forever when she encountered an Irish-born gentleman named Joshua Meredith. Meredith was little more than a teenager himself; however, he had come into his fortune, and had all the material equipage and social gravitas his wealth could afford. Meredith had come to Broadstairs from London to enjoy the country diversions favoured by privileged Georgians. The potency of Sarah’s charms, in terms of capturing the regard of powerful men, was first proven by Meredith’s covetous desire for the flattered teenager. In an episode which mirrors the flight of the profligate Wickham, with the pernicious teenager Lydia Bennett, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Meredith abducted Sarah and fled with her to London. When pursued by members of Sarah’s family, the couple escaped to Ireland, where they settled at auspicious addresses in County Kildare and in Dublin city.

The nature of Sarah’s relationship with Meredith, and the couple’s clandestine flight, transgressed social mores, in terms of acceptable female behaviour. Unlike Austen’s Lydia Bennett – whose perceived respectability was saved by a hastily negotiated marriage – Sarah was without powerful associates and depended on Meredith’s passion alone to sustain their relationship. Unfortunately, Meredith quickly tired of the naive teenager, returning to the carefree life of a privileged rake. Soon after arriving in Ireland Sarah found she was pregnant. Meredith turned on her, realising that her background make her an utterly unsuitable partner in the eyes of his family and wider society.

The trajectory of the teenage beauty’s destiny was altered forever when she encountered an Irish-born gentleman named Joshua Meredith.

Sarah spent much of her pregnancy under lock-and-key. The doctor who later attended on her, found an anaemic, listless, neglected girl. The birth of a son (Sarah’s only child), brought a brief change in Meredith’s attitude, with renewed promises of marriage. However, he soon resolved to be rid of her. Meredith proposed a settlement for Sarah and her son – this never manifested. The bereft teenager and her infant son were cast out onto the streets of Dublin, with a mere one pound note to sustain them indefinitely. Sarah’s actions had resulted in alienation from her family, and her options in terms of a material means of survival, were now decidedly limited. Popular legend asserts that she spent much of the subsequent decade working in brothel-based prostitution, or installed as the mistress to a man of substantial rank. During this period, Sarah’s son disappeared forever from the landscape of her life: most likely dying in early childhood.

During this period, Sarah’s son disappeared forever from the landscape of her life: most likely dying in early childhood.

Sarah’s biographer Vera Hughes, believes that the Meredith affair and the subsequent precarious years she spent in prostitution, were formative in terms of her character. The naive teenager grew into a capable, driven woman; possessing a ruthless determination to insulate herself from poverty. She effectively achieved this aim when she met and captivated Edmund Kelly (1765-1845): a very wealthy, ageing lawyer and landowner from county Roscommon. In 1828, Sarah was installed as Mistress of Kelly’s Roscommon estates; she was introduced locally as ‘Mrs Kelly’. However, the couple were not officially married – according to surviving records, and contrary to Sarah’s later claims – until 1838. Sarah re-established contact with her family in Kent; she transplanted several nephews to Ireland – installing them as heirs-apparent on Kelly’s estates, in the years prior to his death.

The naive teenager grew into a capable, driven woman; possessing a ruthless determination to insulate herself from poverty. She effectively achieved this aim when she met and captivated Edmund Kelly (1765-1845): a very wealthy, ageing lawyer and landowner from county Roscommon.

Sarah proved a highly effective business manager: her considerable efforts resulted in the further growth of the Kelly fortune.  However, Sarah’s name was recorded in folk- memory as a despotic landlord, with little understanding of, or compassion towards, her struggling tenants. Sarah’s reign coincided with the devastating famines of the 1840s; the years which followed were ones of considerable anxiety for Ireland’s surviving rural population. However, violent acts of retaliation against members of the landlord-class were, in fact, rare. Following the mass eviction of tenants, at Sarah’s bidding, in east Roscommon, unexecuted plots were formed locally to have her assassinated.

In the mid-1850s, Sarah turned her attention to developing the Ballinderry estate, in south Westmeath (purchased by Edmund Kelly in 1840). Her reputation, and subsequent behaviour, produced a justifiable mindset of paranoid-anxiety and slow-burning contempt among the estate’s tenants. The historian, Dr. Carla King, assesses that Sarah’s vulnerability was possibly greater that of most landlords of the era: she was an isolated woman, widowed, with a dubious past. She was a foreigner, with a poorly developed understanding of the culture, and the ingrained protocols by which rural society functioned. Also, she was not part of the land-owning establishment, (the Gaelic and post Cromwellian elite who constituted her midland neighbours) and so, didn’t benefit from any customary form of deference or respect.

During 1855-56, the tenants at Ballinderry were inflamed by insinuations that Sarah was planning to clear the estate of its occupants. The strength of the established community at Ballinderry, in terms of its identity’s immovable association with the estate; and its sharpened post-famine instinct for mortal survival, is illustrated by the manner in which it planned and successfully executed a plot to dispatch Sarah to the seat of divine justice, in April of 1856. On April 8th, the tense, expectant silence of conspiracy, was cloaked by cold, blustering winds, which sent intermittent showers of hail clattering onto the hard, grass-less surface of the estate’s ‘hill field’.

That afternoon, Sarah – accompanied by a small entourage – entered the ‘hill field’, to inspect ongoing works. The field was occupied by wall-building labourers and a group of stone-picking tenants. Presently, Sarah observed two female figures emerging from an adjacent field. As the unidentified persons approached, from a distance, Sarah’s wits detected danger and she took flight. However, in her panic, she stumbled and fell. The one-time teenage beauty, intoxicated by the heady scent of carnal passion, and the infectious carelessness of wealth and privilege, lay, as a world-worn, middle-aged woman, in the dirt of a Westmeath field and awaited her fate. The obscure figures were in-fact, two male assassins, disguised in rudimentary female clothing – their faces concealed. The atmospheric tensions in ‘hill field’, erupted into chaos, as tenants fled before the purposeful, barefooted strides of the assassins, as they descended upon the defenceless Sarah. Within moments, the contents of two pistols shattered Sarah’s skull – she died instantly. In local-lore, it was said, that the shots were fired so close to Sarah’s head that they ‘blackened her bonnet’.

Within moments, the contents of two pistols shattered Sarah’s skull – she died instantly. In local-lore, it was said, that the shots were fired so close to Sarah’s head that they ‘blackened her bonnet’.

As waves of political and cultural change engulfed Ireland, during the seventy years subsequent to Sarah Kelly’s murder, the districts around Ballinderry remained relatively passive, in political terms; generally inactive with regard to involvement in seismic upheavals such as the War of Independence and the Civil War. However, by the 1930s, a newly-crystallised definition of Irishness – defined by the dominant political ideology of the Irish Free-State – had solidly established itself in the district: uncompromisingly Gaelic and Catholic.

Sarah’s murder amounted to a litmus test, which measured the political legitimacy of the native population’s ability to exercise self-determination. The response to Sarah’s death, by the authorities, arguably demonstrated a deficit in terms of the developing of Victorian policing (multiple suspects were arrested and questioned: they included members of Sarah’s family) – the murder remained consummately unsolved. Sarah’s biographer, Vera Hughes, points out, that remarkably, despite the large, life-changing sums offered in reward for information, no one turned informer – while many knew the identity of the assassins.

Hypothetically, an unspoken accord directed the responses of pivotal factions: in the eyes of established society Sarah was a tainted woman of dubious origin, who’s death was of little wider consequence; to her newly-gentrified heirs, Sarah became the ‘Anne Boleyn’ of their history, a necessary evil, whose reality had to be erased, in order to create the necessary illusion of their dynasty’s legitimacy and respectability. In the popular imagination Sarah was reduced to the protagonist of numerous spine-chilling bedtime-stories: the personification of the Victorian, gothic novel’s interpretation of the demonic, craven witch; the unholy Eve, corrupter of society’s pillars and its very moral-fabric. Like Sarah’s heirs – the Strevens and Bailey families – her tenants were keen to leave their one-time mistress to the past: Sarah’s relatives quietly complied with this aim; proving a dispassionate, generally unoffending presence.

Sarah’s demise saw the beginning of the Bailey family’s (descendants of Sarah’s blood-nephew) era at Ballinderry; however, paradoxically, it also foretold its accelerated end. The descendants of many of Sarah’s tenants (including her assassins), not only remained on the estate, but also prospered. Some came to represent an emerging class of Roman Catholics whose social and economic aspirations were inspired by the quintessentially Victorian, middle-class model of existence, represented by families like the Baileys. (A legal-action taken in 1912, by a Catholic family resident at Ballinderry – on behalf of their ‘attractive’ daughter – against a prosperous businessman, who was the son of another local household, over an unfulfilled promise of marriage, had all the hallmarks of a drawing-room comedy-of-manners; it demonstrated a closing-of-the-gap, in terms of lifestyle and prospects, between the Catholic majority and their Anglo-Irish neighbours.) After a timely, Edwardian flourish, Ballinderry and the Baileys succumbed to the socio-political changes afoot in Ireland; and to challenges facing Britain, both economically and socially.

In 1939, Ballinderry House, its contents and what remained of the estate, went ‘for a song’. Among the residue of the house’s contents was a portrait-in-oils, depicting a pretty, demure, virtually anonymous blonde: the subject was none other than Sarah Kelly. Sarah’s reputation, in life and death, had swung dramatically from infamy to obscurity. Madame, Mistress, and Martinet: The Life of Sarah Kelly addresses some of the defining events in the dramatic life this extraordinary Anglo-Irish Victorian. Neither of the documentary’s contributors, Mrs. Vera Hughes, or Dr. Carla King, attempt to revise history and portray Sarah as a hapless victim; on the contrary, Sarah emerges as a complex woman: attractive, talented, capable and driven – more than the one-dimensional spectre of the tyrannical landlord – yet, perhaps incapable of rising above the injustices and abuses which defined the tragic circumstances of her early life. In conclusion, Sarah’s life could is seen as an ultimately misguided, vacuous delusion; or in contrast, a near heroic triumph over the multiple adversities she faced and surmounted – not the least of which, was her gender.



James F Ward is a Freelance Journalist, writer and Public Relations Consultant. James was born in Galway. He attended school in County Westmeath; later moving between London, New York and Dublin. He has studied at the London Middlesex University and at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin. James has an MA in Journalism and Media Communications from Griffith College Dublin. He writes fiction for adults and children; along with factual works on history, politics and aesthetics. With an academic background in design history and practice; in 2011, James is launching a blog on aesthetics and design: ‘The Gentleman Thief’. He is currently working as a PR consultant in Dublin.

Image Credit:
Some rights reserved by Paul of Congleton

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