Last week, I related the story of Joyce Burgess (nee Kelly) in the blog ‘The Last Living Inmate of Peel Island Lazaret’. Today I follow up her story with that of her brother Emmett Kelly (nicknamed in my writings as ‘Ned’. To reiterate: Emmett, then aged 9 years, and a sister, Joyce, were admitted to the Peel Island lazaret in 1928, just a few weeks after their mother, Marion. His sister, Joyce, was paroled later that year after her disease went into remission, and his mother, Marion, died in 1930 and was buried at Peel in an unmarked grave. This left Emmett, then aged 11 years, without a family on Peel Island – a severe handicap to start out in life.
However he took his daily dose of Chaulmoogra oil, the only treatment then available, and eventually after two years of negative monthly blood tests, his Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) went into remission, and he was pronounced disease-free and allowed to leave Peel in 1931.
Because he was still a minor and an orphan, he was required to be cared for by the State, and should have been sent to a State Orphanage. However, being an ex-patient of Peel Island, and because it was known that children were particularly susceptible to Hansen’s Disease, young Emmett was sent to Westbrook Prison Farm instead. Here, the warder continued to administer his daily prophylactic dose of Chaulmoogra Oil and when Emmett reached the age of 17, he was released and returned to his home-town of Mackay. However, Emmett’s disease returned (as it often did). We can only imagine his feelings about returning to the Peel Island Lazaret for a second time in 1938.
This time, Emmett’s Hansen’s Disease was more severe. Already it had affected and softened his nasal bones resulting in the gradual collapse of his nose. The skin of his forehead had thickened, and his features were gradually assuming the ‘lion face’ of those suffering from the more advanced forms of the disease. Nevertheless, his fighting spirit remained undimmed, and his skill with words was to prove a great asset in securing a better deal for himself and his fellow patients on the island. He was also adept at repairing patients’ radios, and when the ‘official’ radio repair patient died, Emmett took over the job. He was also a keen fisherman and was later to purchase his own fishing boat that he named the ‘Cygnet’. His other Peel pastimes included SP bookmaking for other patients taking bets on mainland horse racing, and exchanging fish and mud crabs he had caught for illicit alcohol supplied by boaties.
When the Lazaret at Peel Island closed in 1959, Emmett and the remaining small number of patients were transferred to the South Brisbane Hospital (now called the Princess Alexandra Hospital). Emmett died there on August 24th, 1981 in ward G1. Like all institutions, his passing marked the end of an era. His absence was noted with sadness by many of the hospital’s staff. Most knew that he had been a patient at Peel Island, and that his mother had died there. Few could fully appreciate the courage and determination he had shown to live to the fullest his unique and almost totally institutionalised life. After his death, the hospital authorities converted his flat at ward S12 into a Staff Recreation Club. It sported a big bar, which was named ‘The Emmett Kelly Bar’ in his honour. Emmett would have been pleased at this gesture!
Reference: ‘Peel Island History – A Personal Quest’