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How a collection of old boxes became anthropological gold.

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

They were a treasure buried in dusty boxes, left by a woman who had died, for a real estate agent who didn't know what to do with them, but kept the notes and research photos and pillowcases stuffed with 20 years of letters. They turned out to be part of the most significant breakthrough in the field of anthropology for more than 50 years.

Caroline Kelly-Tennant in 1926. Courtesy: The Ration Shed

The anthropologist was Caroline Kelly-Tennant, better known as Carrie, who was one of the first anthropologists to study Aborigines whose parents had confronted white civilisation. She was born Emilie Caroline Tennant Watson in 1899 in Manchester, England.

She came out to Australia in the early 1920s and performed in theatres and produced plays around Brisbane and Sydney. In 1929 she married Francis Angelo Timothy Kelly at St James Church of England, Sydney, honeymooning in the Northern NSW village of Kyogle, located at the base of the Border Ranges.

After leaving an extensive career in the theatre, in 1931 Caroline enrolled in anthropology at the University of Sydney, gaining her qualifications. For the next 40 years she undertook fieldwork among Aboriginal communities in New South Wales and, for four months in 1934, at Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement, Queensland.

Caroline Tennant-Kelly at Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement 1934. Courtesy: Caroline Tennant-Kelly Collection, Fryer Library

Caroline had an insight into the Aboriginal culture that few white people would have been privileged to see. She made numerous proposals to the Aborigines Protection Board and the premier of the day, Sir Bertram Stevens, acknowledging the traditional authority of elders and recommendations for a full-time protector of Aborigines, replacing education and training towards assimilation in respect for Aboriginal culture.

Caroline retired to Kyogle in 1987, some time after her husband died. Local real estate agent Grahame Gooding was tasked with finding the 90 year old a small property where she could grow herbs. Over the next couple of years Grahame stayed in touch with Caroline, doing small jobs for her around the house and listened to her stories of her work with the Aborigines.

When Caroline died, Mr Gooding told the Lismore Northern Star newspaper the family had taken all her personal possessions but he was left with the boxes of her work.

"I am not trained in that field but thought there were things in there that would be of interest to people - I just didn't know who." Mr Gooding told the Northern Star.

It wasn't until 20 years later, when University of Queensland PhD student Kim de Rijke placed an ad in the Northern Star looking for anyone who had any information on Ms Tennant-Kelly. Mr Gooding knew then he had found the right people.

Caroline's collection of work detailed daily life on Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement in Queensland 1934, recording kinship practices, traditional ceremonies, language, territorial knowledge and genealogies.

Those dusty boxes became the filler for so many large holes in today's anthropological studies. The collection has been catalogued and recorded for the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland.

Caroline is buried in the Catholic section of the Northern Suburbs cemetery in Sydney. Photo: Northern Cemeteries website


  • 'The bohemian and her mission', The Sydney Morning Herald, April 17, 2010

  • Heather Radi, 'Kelly, Emily Caroline (Carrie) (1899–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 30 May 2020.

  • 'UQ gains anthropological research', The Northern Star, April 7, 2010,, accessed 30th May, 2020

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