Most Australians associate the name Mackellar with Dorothea, the writer of one of our most beloved poems. But today we’re looking an another Mackellar, Dorothea’s older brother, Keith Kinnaird Mackellar. The Dictionary of Sydney’s recently published a new article by Vanessa Witton which details his life and death.
Keith Kinnaird Mackellar was born in 1880 in the harbourside suburb of Point Piper where the Mackellar children had an idyllic and privileged childhood. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and became a junior officer in the NSW Scottish Rifles at the age of 18. A talented athlete, he was also enrolled as an undergraduate in first year Arts at the University of Sydney in 1899.
When the Boer War broke out in South Africa in 1899, Mackellar joined the Mounted Infantry Unit and left Sydney in January 1900. He wrote detailed letters to Dorothea and his family about life in the war, even writing for Sydney Grammar School’s journal The Sydneian. In one article he wrote:
‘Every day there is something – either we occupy a farm and eat its ducks, or we get fired at from under a white flag, or from out an ambulance waggon, by gunners wearing the red cross. The more we see of South Africa the more we appreciate Australia….’
On 11 July 1900, Mackellar was shot in the head during a skirmish and killed. It is said the Boers lured Mackellar and his men to their farm by dressing in the uniforms of the Australian Light Horse. He was buried at a farm nearby, and then in a cemetery in Pretoria.
Mackellar’s family didn’t hear of his fate for several days. His death deeply affected his younger sister Dorothea for the rest of her life, and it is believed to have inspired her first published poem, ‘When It Comes’, which she wrote at about the age of 15.
The war ended in 1902 and in 1905 the Mackellar family brought Keith’s body home, transporting his remains in a container marked ‘Curios’ to avoid contact with customs and any superstitious sailors. Successfully repatriated, he was buried in the Mackellar family plot at Waverley Cemetery. Of the over 1000 Australian men who died in the war, he was the only soldier who was brought back to Australia.
There are other memorials to Keith Kinnard Mackellar in around the city as well.
Mackellar’s name is inscribed on the Roll of Honour at Sydney Grammar School for those who gave their lives for the Empire, the schoolboys at the time being told that these men represented the ‘White Knights’ of the school. Mackellar was eulogised by his headmaster as having ‘a personality singularly attractive, strength of purpose and power of will.’
His family also commissioned a beautiful stained glass window depicting Mackellar as St George the patron saint of soldiers and memorial plaque that you can see on the northern wall of St James church in the city.
You can read Vanessa Witton’s entry on Keith Kinnaird Mackellar on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/mackellar_keith_kinnaird
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole!
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