Tom’s tall tales from the box seat


Driver Kelly would tell hobgoblin stories by the way, especially of the ‘little one-legged man of Bottle Forest’, whose footprint it was considered uncanny to come across. No one would camp anywhere along the road if the little mark of his stump foot was to be seen.

Coaching in western NSW during the 19th century. Picture: Supplied

ALTHOUGH supposedly handy with the whip, the real story of Thomas Kelly’s career as a coachman is littered with incidents of erratic driving, and accidents, which in the end left him a cripple.

The son of an Irish convict, Tom is arguably second only to the legendary James Waterworth as the Illawarra’s best-known coach operator. However, unlike Waterworth, who plied the Campbelltown to Wollongong route at the same time, Kelly – for reasons that will become apparent – never secured the lucrative, government mail contract.

The Sydney railway arrived at Campbelltown in 1858 – 30 years before Wollongong. As a result, a coach road – built in the late 1850s via Appin and over the notorious Bulli mountain – became the preferred route between Illawarra and Sydney.

Coach stops were provided for passengers at the pubs in the main service centres like Appin, Bulli, Woonona and Wollongong. The coaches at times were forced to negotiate flooded creeks and rivers, passengers and their vehicle were occasional singed by bushfires, and drivers were constantly on the watch for ruthless highway men or bushrangers. In wet conditions, passengers were sometimes forced to jump from their seats and help push the coach out of muddy bogs. To counter those unpleasantries, Tom would entertain his passengers from the box seat with captivating yarns or stories. He became famous for his tall tales.

james waterworth
James Waterworth, Tom Kelly’s rival, who plied the Wollongong Campbelltown route during the 1870s. Picture: Supplied

Tom plied the Wollongong/Campbelltown route alongside Waterworth, the mail contractor, during the 1870s. While Tom’s reputation as a story teller was legendary, he never seemed to be able to match the status of his rival. However, he did manage to compete with Waterworth along the same route for almost a decade.

Tom’s passion for horses began at an early age, and by 19, in 1858, he worked as a ‘carman’, delivery goods by horse and dray to Illawarra homes and businesses. The following year he was a member of the Wollongong Turf Club. He would spend the remainder of his working life around horses.

With his wife, Tom brought-up a young family in Campbelltown, while operating a successful coach line business between Wollongong and Campbelltown Railway Station. In 1871, at the age of 32, he was running coaches from Wollongong on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and returning from Campbelltown on Tuesdays and Fridays. By 1877 the yarn-telling coachman was running his coaches daily between Campbelltown and Wollongong. He had become “a great favourite with his passengers”, with his entertaining stories. A passenger of Tom’s recalled in the Sunday Times on November 29 1908:

To many an old colonist, among very happy memories is that of a coach journey, taken perhaps when only a child, from Campbelltown along a rather dreary road, only enlivened by a few farms, a windmill or two and the bullock teams going to or returning from the great South district. Driver Kelly would tell hobgoblin stories by the way, especially of the “little one-legged man of Bottle Forest”, whose footprint it was considered uncanny to come across. No one would camp anywhere along the road if the little mark of his stump foot was to be seen. But when the top of the Pass came in view, and the bellbird and “coachman’s whip” gave one a musical welcome, the musk tree and the flowering gums spread a fragrance around, and in the far-off the smoke of the village by the sea and its house-tops could be discerned, how delightedly the tired travellers realised that they were nearing their journey’s end, and declared that the world was very, very beautiful, and nice to lie in.

A coach descending a mountain pass, similar to that of Tom’s during the late 19th century. Picture: Supplied

While the scenery of Bulli Pass was spectacularly attractive, the mountain road’s steepness had to be respected. Not surprisingly, one of Tom’s first serious accidents occurred on the mountain pass in 1877. The Kiama Independent reported on December 25:

On Tuesday last a very serious accident was sustained by Mr Thomas Kelly’s Day Coach, whilst descending the Bulli Mountain Pass. Very shortly after commencing the descent from the top of the mountain, one of the hind wheels of the coach bilged inwards to such an extent that the brake wholly lost its hold of it. This having occurred, the coach pushed forward on to the pole horses, which took fright in consequence, and dashed away down the Pass, pushing the two leaders before them. They had not gone far when the whole team were almost at full gallop. We may here state that there were eight passengers in the coach, including three ladies, an infant, a little girl, Mr. Hugh Taylor, M. P., of Parramatta, and two other gentlemen. Mr Taylor and one of the other gentlemen passengers were on the box with Kelly, who was driving. Seeing the imminent danger that presented itself, Kelly handed Mr Taylor the reins of the leading horses, whilst he (Kelly) endeavoured to arrest the pace of the polers. The united efforts of Kelly and Mr Taylor, however, proved unavailing to stop or even steady the mad career of the affrighted team down the mountain. The furious pace was continued until the place known as the ‘Elbow’ was reached, and here an almost certain prospect of a capsize presented itself. And unfortunately the worst expectations were realised, for on reaching the sharp turn one of the leading horses tripped and fell, and no sooner had he done so than the whole team, coach, and passengers went over the side of the road with a crash, the coach turning over not less than two or three times before it finally settled. The horses also turned somersaults in a similar manner, the pollers finally becoming fixed heels upper most, and the leaders almost inextricably jammed in a network of vines. And as regarded the passengers and driver, they were thrown everywhere, all having sustained injuries of more or less extent, except the infant and the little girl, who fortunately escaped almost if not altogether scatheless. Some of the passengers were very much out and bruised, and were bleeding profusely, the scene being altogether a most startling and painful one. It was found, however, that all were able to scramble on to the road, with the exception of a lady from Macquarie River, who was rendered quite helpless by her injuries. The noise made by the coach in coming down the mountain was so great that it was distinctly heard at the Bulli Colliery, which is situated at no great distance to the southward of where the capsize took place. Perceiving that an accident must have occurred, several men rushed over from the colliery to the scene of the mishap, and willingly rendered all the assistance they could under the circumstances, such kind assistance being as much needed as it was generously and voluntarily given. At the request of Mr. Kelly, one or more of the miners went off to Bulli to secure a vehicle in which to have the passengers conveyed to Wollongong. In the meanwhile several of the miners’ wives from the neighbourhood reached the scene with some refreshments for the unfortunate passengers. After some considerable delay, Mr. Bennett of Bulli arrived with his coach, and conveyed the greater number of the passengers to Wollongong, where they received medical attendance. Mr. Kelly informs us that the accident resulted from a cause over which he had no control, the wheel which bilged inwards from the brake being a new one that had been on the coach only about a fortnight. The spokes became loose in the nave, and turned inwards, hence the cause of the mishap. All the passengers to whom we have spoken attach no blame whatever to Kelly for the accident, but, on the contrary, say that he did all that could have been done under the circumstances. The coach, or rather all that remained together of what had been the coach before the accident occurred, was brought into town for repairs, which will require to be somewhat extensive.

While the reporter was at pains to make it clear that Tom was in no way at fault, it does seem the young whip at times was risky behind the reins. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald editor on May 6 1937, a writer, who travelled with Tom on several occasions, recalled how he was at times “a bit foolhardy”:

At first he [Kelly] drove for Cobb and Co. but later, I think he owned his own line of coaches. As one who on several occasions travelled with him, I have recollections of ‘Tommy’, and especially of one dare-devil freak of his. Many travellers from Sydney to Wollongong preferred to travel by train to Campbelltown, and then by Kelly’s coach to Wollongong, and thus escape the sea trip. I am writing, of the mid seventies, when Kelly was quite an institution, and a great favourite with his passengers. Especially from Appin to “the Pass” he would entertain them with tales of stirring adventures in earlier days, some amusing and some uncanny. He was a great driver, as one would expect, but at times a bit foolhardy. One day, he had only two passengers, a female inside the coach, and I was sitting next to him. As we began to descend the hill, which in parts was very steep and rough, the woman passenger called out, “Please, Mr. Kelly, drive carefully, not too fast.” His response was to slip his foot off the brake, crack his whip over the leader’s ear (he was driving a unicorn team), and with a shout of “Get up,” sent his team full gallop down the hill. The poor woman shrieked with terror, as we tore along, and the coach swaying fearfully at one sharp turn, I thought we would plunge over the edge and land among the tree tops 70 feet or more below the road. We were nearly through Bulli before he could rein his team up, he then said to me, “Guess that passenger will not tell Kelly again how to drive.” I replied that it was a mad thing to do and “you may kill someone if you try it again.” Not long after I learned with genuine regret that poor old Tom Kelly had met with a bad accident, on the hills, the coach had crashed over the edge, and was badly smashed, as was also Kelly, who was a cripple for the rest of his days.
I am, etc.. F.G.N. Hurstville, April 9 1937.

Less than a year after this incident, Tom, who was living in Campbelltown, had another serious accident on the mountain road. The Kiama Independent reported on October 11 1878:

An accident, which might have ended most terribly and fatally, occurred to Mr Thomas Kelly’s coach on Tuesday last, whilst coming down the Bulli Mountain, on its usual trip from Campbelltown to Wollongong. It appears from the particulars kindly furnished us by Mr P. Hammer, jun., who happened to be riding down the range, a little ahead of the coach, at the time, in company with Mr. A.M. Casey, jun., that when the coach had commenced the descent, on the southern side, Mr. Kelly, the proprietor, who is well-known as an experienced and careful whip, and was driving at the time, by some means got the reins of the leaders entangled, either in the turrets of the hames or the collar buckles. Which ever way it was, Mr Kelly lost all control over his horses, which started down the range at a most terrific pace. There were four passengers in the coach, including a lady Mrs Swan from the Macquarie River, who had a little child in her arms. One of the male passengers managed to jump out of the coach, and escaped unhurt. Mr Hammer, hearing the noise caused by the coach on its downward career, turned round, and saw that, evidently, the driver had lost control over his horses, judging from the terrible pace at which they were approaching. His own horse became frightened and restive, and bolted at a mad pace down the mountain, in front of the coach. Mr Casey was not so fortunate, as the horse he was riding seemed to have become too frightened to move, the result being that the coach cannoned against him, overthrowing the horse and his rider, both of whom, however, escaped without any material hurt. It appears that the road is excavated in the lace of a precipice, and that on the one side there is a sheer descent of several hundred feet. There have been several accidents ons this same piece of road, in consequence of which the Roads Department were induced, some months ago, to erect a strong post and rail fence on the brow of the precipice. To this foresight, in the present instance, the passengers in the coach were indebted for their preservation from a terrible and appalling death. The infuriated horses, faster continuing their mad career for about half-a-mile, finally came in violent contact with the fence. The violence of the concussion threw all the passengers out of the coach. Mr Kelly, who had pluckily stuck to his charge during the terrible ordeal, was thrown down among the horses, and, strange to say, though he received a severe shaking and some ugly contusions, was not seriously injured. The other male passengers escaped with a few trifling bruises, while, singular to say, Mrs Swan, with her baby, escaped without any injuries whatsoever.

lb cobb and co coach accident 1880
Tom Kelly was involved in at least three major coaching accidents during his career.

Tom’s turbulent career came to a dramatic end in 1882 when he was involved in his third serious coach accident within six years – this time along the Appin Road between the Loddon River and Kings Falls. This time, Tom’s daring driving caused him to lose his leg, after his coach hit a binding rail of a culvert. Tom was thrown from the box and the wheels of his vehicle passed over one of his legs, fracturing both the lower bones.

His passengers, a Mr and Mrs. Stumbles from Kiama and their infant child, Rev Father Athy and a Mr Moore – although thrown violently onto the road – escaped serious injuries. The Kiama Independent reported Friday 9 June 1882:

The unfortunate driver was conveyed to his residence at Campbelltown, and thence to the Sydney Infirmary. It appears that one of his thighs was broken so badly that the limb had to be amputated. Kelly was quite sober at the time of the accident, and was only driving for a few nights to oblige one of the regular drivers, who was ill.

While Tom’s career on the Bulli Mountain roads was cut short at the age of 43, his passenger driving days were not over. With his wife Catherine, Tom moved to Sydney where he drove cabs and omnibuses. However, it wasn’t long before he was in strife yet again for his driving techniques. The Sydney Evening News reported on June 14 1884:

Thomas Kelly, driver of the cab in which the lady was injured last Sunday, in Oxford-street, through a tram collision, emphatically denies that he is responsible in any way for the accident, and his statement is supported by eye-witnesses.

Tom remained in Newtown for a few years, driving an omnibus, before heading to Perth in Western Australia. Before he left Sydney however, he added yet another accident to his list. This time it would end his driving career forever. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 19 1888:

Shortly after 10 o’clock on Saturday morning an omnibus, driven by a man named Thomas Kelly, whilst proceeding along the Newtown-road in the direction of the city, was run into by a tram motor ‘which’ was proceeding in the same direction. The force of the collision threw the driver off his seat on to the roadway, along which he was dragged for some little distance, and one of the wheels of the vehicle passed over his leg, causing a fracture of the ankle. He was taken to the Prince Alfred Hospital by Constable Swan, and his injuries were attended to by Dr Hancroft. Several of the passengers who were in the omnibus were more or less shaken, and the conveyance itself was considerably damaged. The Newtown police are investigating the matter.

Tom was now a cripple, and, without a source of income, he travelled to Perth with his wife and son James in the 1890s. The gold fields were luring many from the eastern colonies of Australia seeking their fortune. However, Tom was not to find fortune in Western Australia and he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor while in Perth. He underwent at least two operations to remove the tumor at the Victoria Park Hospital without success.

The unbearable pain forced Tom in the early hours of March 28 1899 to strip naked and throw himself off Perth’s Causeway Bridge. He was found floating in the Swan River with the bandages from the operation he had to remove the cancerous growth still wrapped around his head. The West Australian reported the inquest into his death on April 12 1899:

Sidney Bickford said that on the morning of March 28 he was crossing the Causeway at about 1.30 o’clock, when he saw a pair of boots, a coat, and cap tied to the railing. He looked over the side, and saw the body of a man lying in the water. He returned to town and informed the police. Constable Leen said that he proceeded to the spot, and saw the body of a man lying in water two feet deep. He removed the body to the morgue. Dr Miskin said that he made a post-mortem examination of the body, and found that death had resulted from asphyxia by drowning. Deceased had been suffering from a large malignant tumour, which was quite incurable, and which would have a depressing effect on the man’s mind. James Kelly, son of the deceased, deposed to the identity of the body. His father had been operated upon for a malignant cancer on two occasions. Once the deceased had said that if he thought he was not going to get better, he would do away with himself. He always seemed very despondent. Constable Douglas said that the deceased had told him that he would be better dead than suffering as he was. The jury returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased came to his death by suicide while in a state of unsound mind, caused by the cancer from, which he was suffering.

Fittingly Tom’s body was taken to the morgue by a horse borrowed from a cabman. The Western Mail reported on Friday March 31 1899 that before the police cart was despatched to The Causeway, cabman Thomas Atkins had his horse requisitioned; “it being alleged that none of the horses remaining in the waterside police stables were fit to perform the duty of pulling the cart”.

Tom himself couldn’t have brought one of his stirring adventure tales to a better conclusion.

© Copyright 2019 Mick Roberts

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8 replies

  1. Great story about Tom Kelly who was my great great grandfather. I can correct one error in the story. Tommy’s wife Catherine Agnes Kelly nee Murray died in Perth 28th October 1916 and was buried at Karrakatta Cemetery. Catherine’s father was Patrick Murray, a convict who was on the transport ‘Hive’ (2) which ran aground at Wreck Bay in December 1835.

  2. Thank you for this story.My great great grandfather Benjamin Rixon forged the trail thats known as Rixons Pass down to Woollongong and owned the Appin Inn from where he started a coach business. I have always wanted to hear some of the stories about those adventures.
    Another grandfather was a publican in the Orange,Bathurst area during the gold rush days.His name was Jacob Rittmeester, having pubs at Stuart town,Cudal and a few other towns.

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