‘My Darling Lis’: John Kenny’s Letters to his Wife Eliza

By Heather Burke

We’ve written before about specific NMP officers who were eulogised in later life (Piecing together the officers’ list and Stanhope O’Connor). In reflecting on the various episodes in long and sometimes highly eventful careers, such accounts tend to portray these men as figures from a “Boy’s own” tale: full of adventure, exploration and “derring-do” in the wilds of a now unfamiliar century.

Such tales cluster around the Sub-Inspectors and those who rose through the ranks, rather than the camp keepers and constables who formed the rank-and-file of the NMP. The latter were the men who literally stayed behind to mind the camps, and were responsible for a variety of tasks, including building and maintaining the structures, and were often hired because of their ability to shoe a horse.

One such man was John Kenny. From the little we know of him he seems to have been largely unremarkable. There were no deeds to distinguish him (either positively or negatively) and he was only in the NMP for a scant seven months. He was posted to a single camp—Cashmere, established to protect a Telegraph Station on the Herbert River—and probably never left it until the evening he wandered away in a ‘delirium brought on by fever and ague’ (QSA563784 1871 Letter from Commissioner of Police to Colonial Secretary 13 September, John Kenny Police Staff file). His body was never found.

His police staff file held in the Qld State Archives contains no official paperwork between his letter of application (‘I am capable of joining in either Infantry or Mounted Police but would prefer the latter in consequence of being thoroughly conversant with the management of horses’ [QSA563784 1870 Letter of Application from John Kenny 26 September]) and the various items surrounding his disappearance and presumed death.

Sandwiched in between the official correspondence about his back-pay and the debts he owed to his Sub-Inspector, Thomas Coward, are several small pieces of paper. Covered in John Kenny’s sometimes scrawled handwriting—complete with eccentric spelling and indifferent punctuation—these have nothing to do with his duties as a campkeeper, but everything to do with his short experience in the NMP. They are not the kind of item that usually makes it into official police staff files, but are all the more valuable because of it.

They are two unsent letters to his wife.

John and Eliza Kenny

John Kenny married Eliza Mary Meade on the 27 February 1870 in Brisbane (Qld BDM). Presumably both hailed from Ireland, since in one letter John imagines how she must have felt on St Patrick’s Day (17 March) and remembers the last time they spent that holiday together: ‘you say that you often thought of last Patricks [sic] day when you and I was [sic] together and the love quarrel you and I had then[,] love quarrels were nothing between you and I[.] I hope we will soon have one together again’.

John applied to enter the Qld Police force in September 1870. He was declared fit and accepted the following month, and posted to Cashmere, probably immediately. By the time he left Eliza was already heavily pregnant with their first child, conceived almost immediately after they wed. His daughter, Mary Margaret Josephine Kenny, was born on the 17 December 1870 (Qld BDM):

My Darling Lis, I received your welcome letter … yesterday and was glad to heare [sic] that yourself and Baby where [sic] getting on so well[.] I am in verry [sic] good health but verry [sic] lonely and miserable and for your Deare [sic] sake, when I come to think of being so far away from you[.] I know you must be verry [sic] lonely since I left but I hope that we will soon meet again[.] Deare Lis you say I must’ve been Disappointed when I heard it was a Daughter[.] I am not the least[,] one is as good as the other[.] [Y]ou say it is so mutch [sic] like me I suppose it is as all the old women said[:] it is just like its Father.

The first page of the letter written by John Kenny to his wife, Eliza, on 15 January 1871 after the birth of their child (from QSA563784, John Kenny police staff file).

What comes through most clearly in John’s letters is his loneliness.

Cashmere was on the Tablelands behind Cardwell. In 1870 there was precious little near it; the closest population centre today (Mt Garnet) wasn’t established until 1882, and when the Herbert river flooded Cashmere was cut off to the west, making Cardwell—50 km away to the east and on the other side of the range—the nearest town.

As the camp keeper, it was John’s duty to remain in camp to protect the stores while the Sub-Inspector and troopers were away on patrol. This meant spending long periods of time alone:

My darling Lis I know you must be very lonley [sic] … and indeed so was I[,] you were not as lonley [sic] as I was all alone heare [sic] by myself and not one to speak to me except a Black fello [sic][.] [T]he Inspector was away so that I was all alone … oh I do long to have you and Baby with me and indeed I wish I could see the happy family as the are[,] all together now. (QSA563784 1871 Letter from John Kenny to Elizabeth Kenny 15 January, John Kenny Police Staff file)

Sub-Inspector Thomas Coward (State Library of Qld APA-74 Album of Carte de Visite Portraits 1868-1875).

His relationship with his superior officer, Sub-Inspector Thomas Coward, was also isolating. Coward must have been a difficult man, since he alienated several fellow NMP officers over the course of his career. John Kenny particularly noted his temper and his ‘tongue’ (presumably meaning bad language):

I feel a little more contented than I have been for some time but still I am very lonley [sic] to be so far away from you[.] I dont [sic] think the inspector is as bad as his touing [sic] but indeed he has a bad one when he comences [sic] but I let him blow away[.] I find it better than to give him impudence[.] [I]t is well that I have good patience. (QSA563784 1871 Letter from John Kenny to Elizabeth Kenny 5 April, John Kenny Police Staff file)

When John was posted to Cashmere he and Eliza had only been married for around eight months: obviously long enough to quarrel, but perhaps not long enough to get to know each other very well. The pregnancy would have prevented Eliza from travelling, but almost as soon as the baby was born he wrote asking her to come north:

… let me know if you will come heare [sic] and I will try and mett [sic] you in Cardwell if I can[.] [Y]ou will have to ride out to heare [sic] as there is so very little dray traffick [sic] to this place you wont [sic] be able to Bring your Box[,] if you do you will have to leave it in Cardwell and goodness nowes [sic] when you could bring it from there[.] [I]f you dont [sic] like to come tell me. (QSA563784 1871 Letter from John Kenny to Eliza Kenny 15 January, John Kenny Police Staff file)

Perhaps he was worried that his earlier descriptions had dissuaded her, since in the same letter he tries his hardest to convince her:

Dear Lis I would have plenty of time to help you to nurse if you were here as I got very little to do[.] I would be quite happy if you where [sic] hear [sic]. … I know you are verry [sic] fond of tematas [sic] there is any quantity of them growing heare [sic] also Pumkings [sic] and sweet Potatoes[.] I think we could live very cheape [sic] hear [sic].

By the time of the second letter—dated 5 April 1871—she had obviously agreed to travel to Cardwell, so there is clearly correspondence from Eliza to John, and presumably from John to Eliza, missing from the sequence. John had borrowed money from Coward to pay for his wife’s travel and urged her to bring several essentials:

… another pair of Blue blankets [because] the winter is very cold hear [sic][.] Bring plenty of clothes for Baby and if you can bring me two or three pair of moleskin trousers since they are so dear up here and 6 pairs of socks for the inspector he did not say what sort[,] bring cotton[.] I gave you a list of my furniture[.] Bring some knifes [sic] and forks the Tea Pot and some cups and saucers. (QSA563784 1871 Letter from John Kenny to Elizabeth Kenny 5 April, John Kenny Police Staff file)

John had managed to last through his first north Qld wet season, although not without its consequences. The closing sentence of his second letter also asks her to ‘Bring 5 or 6 Bottles of Brandy and some tea and sugar if you can good tea and some medicen [sic]’. By this time he may already have been suffering from the fever (presumably something more serious than influenza) which led to his disappearance. He was last seen on 19 April 1871, only two weeks after writing the last letter to his wife.

‘Stop his wife from coming, he has sent for her’

Although in the days after his disappearance, Sub Inspector  Coward and the troopers searched for any trace of John, they found none.

Coward had two immediate worries. The first was that John had met with an accident and died, probably by falling into the flooded Herbert River. He wrote to the Commissioner that ‘I am worried that he has fell [sic] in the river, and since he as [sic] been lost the river is now bank and bank, and I am afraid I shall be unable to find his Remains. On my leaving for patrol he did not complain to me that anything was wrong with him.’ (QSA563784 1871 Letter from Thomas Coward to Commissioner of Police 24 April, John Kenny Police staff file).

The second was that he had to stop Eliza from leaving Brisbane on her long journey north, notifying the Commissioner of the urgency of the situation: ‘I am on my way home – Stop his wife from coming he has sent for her’ (QSA563784 1871 Telegram from Thomas Coward to Commissioner of Police 26 April, John Kenny Police Staff file).

It’s hard to know what Eliza Kenny must have felt on hearing of her husband’s death, although it could be imagined. A black-edged mourning letter to the Police Commissioner from her is an unabashed request for help:

Shortly after my marriage my husband joined the Police force and was subsequently transferred to the north, but from circumstances he was unable to take me with him. As to his fate, you are fully aware and now I am left a widow with an infant and no friends. I humbly request you will take a favourable view of my case and recommend me to the Government for some trifling gratuity. Although I surely have no claim upon the Govt still I feel sure that in common humanity some compensation might be made for so sad a fate, neither myself or my poor little infant having seen my poor Husband before his mysterious disappearance and I am left totally unprovided for. (QSA563784 1871 Letter from Eliza Kenny to Commissioner of Police undated, John Kenny Police staff file)

The Commissioner eventually recommended to the Colonial Secretary that ‘the sum of twenty-five pounds be granted to the widow’ (QSA563784 1871 Letter from Commissioner of Police to Colonial Secretary 1 September, John Kenny Police staff file).

Eliza Kenny married again eight years later to James Dunlop*, but had no more children. It was the second marriage for both, although Dunlop was an old man at the time they wed:

‘Mr. POWER: Why did you marry him?
[Eliza Dunlop] – Because I wanted to.
[Mr Power]: How old was he when you married him?
[Eliza Dunlop] – I do not know. I put him down at 84 years when he died.
[Mr Power}: Then he was about 73 years old when you married him. How long had you known him when you married him?
[Eliza Dunlop] – Three or four months.
[Mr Power]: Was it for love you married him?
[Eliza Dunlop] – For love; I should not have married him if I had not loved him.
Mr. POWER: Then it was love at first sight, I suppose, as you only knew him for three months before your marriage.’ (Brisbane Courier 24 August 1893, p2)

On Eliza’s death in 1935 her property was inherited by her only child, Mary, then the Secretary of the Mater Misericordiae Public Hospital in South Brisbane (Telegraph 4 October 1941, p11).

For once, a police staff file provides a perspective that we rarely get to see: John Kenny’s thoughts and feelings, expressed only to his wife. Why his two letters were never posted to Eliza is unknown, but probably he was simply unable to leave the camp in order to send them. But then, why they were not given to her after his death is even more puzzling, His other effects were bought by a fellow Constable, so it was perhaps the case that there was no collection of property to forward on to her. Whatever the cause of the oversight, without it these letters would never have survived. Through them we have an insight into the experience of an ordinary member of the force. No tales of bravery and derring-do here: just a lonely man who missed his new wife and never got to see his baby daughter.

*Incidentally James Dunlop, when a young man, had been the only survivor of an attack by Aboriginal people on Granville Stapylton’s  surveying party near Mt Lindsay in 1840. He complained of headaches for the rest of his life (Brisbane Courier 24 August 1893, p2; Brisbane Courier 26 August 1893, p3).

6 thoughts on “‘My Darling Lis’: John Kenny’s Letters to his Wife Eliza

  1. Excellent research Heather; always wondered whatever happened to Dunlop after the killings in May 1840; which was very close to Simon Whiley’s farm where you and I met.

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