Wandering down Kelly Street today with its quaint little cottages, it is easy to imagine living there in the 19th century. The street is named after James Kelly, an energetic adventurer, who circumnavigated the island in 1816 in an open 5-oared whaling boat, naming Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour on the West Coast. A skilled seaman and successful whaling entrepreneur, Kelly became both Pilot and Harbourmaster for the Derwent in 1819.
Until the 1830s, whale oil was the most valuable commodity exported from Hobart and the industry employed shipwrights, sailmakers, ship chandlers, coopers making barrels, smiths, wharf labourers, watermen ferrying cargo to and from the ships, pub owners and lodging house keepers. Workers needed to live close to their jobs and in 1834, Kelly subdivided his land in Battery Point into small allotments for workers’ cottages. Kelly’s Steps created easy access to the waterfront.
Life here was tough. Families were large, often two generations lived in one cottage and money was tight. Small grocery shops and schools were scattered around the area. A private school run by a Miss Hogg operated in the 1860s at Number 34. Number 33 was a little grocery store operated by the wife of James Merchant, previously a mariner who turned to boatbuilding after injury prevented his return to sea. Women often supplemented the family income by taking in washing and sewing or by doing processing work in the various fruit preserving, canning and juicing enterprises scattered around the waterfront.
There were eight in the family, four boys and four girls …
My father had a job at the Marine Board as a Petty Officer. He used to operate the bridge, you know, through Constitution Dock. All the little boats would come in and out … Press the button, it goes up. Press the button, it comes down.
I remember on Sundays we used to take his Sunday roast down to him for his lunch. We’d have church in the morning, go home for a cooked lunch. We’d have a cooked tea as well. …
[We went up and down Kelly’s Steps a fair bit.] It used to be frightening at night time running up and down there and of course there was a lot of murders going on in those days … I remember the murders, I can’t tell you who, but I remember the murders happening down there. Even in Princes Park, we had a few murders there too … .
– Lynn Bluett talking about his childhood in the 1950s