John Maynard’s Aboriginal Stars of the Turf is described as celebrating ‘the significant and exciting Aboriginal involvement in Australian racing history. Amongst the many Aboriginal jockeys highlighted in the book are Merv Maynard, Norm Rose, Frank Reys, Richard Lawrence ‘Darby’ McCarthy and Leigh-Anne Goodwin, Australia’s first female Aboriginal jockey to ride a winner at a metropolitan track’.
Recently research by Wiradjuri woman Denise Hayes has led to the discovery of another star of the turf – her great grandmother’s brother, Percy Kennedy. Percy Kennedy was born in 1874, the son of David Kennedy and Amelia nee (Bryant) a Wiradjuri family living from the 1880s at Warangesda mission Darlington Point NSW. While a number of David and Amelia’s children remained at Warangesda or in the Darlington Point area, Percy moved to Melbourne where Denise has established he became a respected steeple chase jockey in the 1890s, working primarily in the stables of Mr J. E. Brewer. Fellow jockey Bobby Lewis, who described Percy as ‘a racing identity and fine horseman’ wrote in his memoirs that ‘I suppose everyone who has had much to do with racing in Victoria knows the dark-skinned Percy.’
By the 21st century Percy’s move to Melbourne and marriage to a non Aboriginal woman were largely unknown to his Kennedy family in NSW. Denise did find another relative – a first cousin once removed, who knew of him but most of the family, even the oldest, were unaware of Percy’s history after leaving NSW.
Percy’s career and idiosyncratic character is documented in contemporary newspapers which record him riding in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth and include one account testifying to his quick wits and bravery.
In connection with the fight between Selim
and Forward at Caulfield last week (says the
Sportsman) a specially plucky bit of work has
escaped notice. While the horses were at their
maddest Percy Kennedy, the coloured lad who
rode Selim when he won his first welter race,
rode up to the fighters and at great risk seized
Forward by the nostrils. The horse reared up
suddenly, dragged Kennedy out of the saddle,
and tried to trample on him. But the lad held
on in the gamest possible manner, and
succeeded in parting the fighters. The opinion
of an eye-witness is that but for Kennedy’s
gameness Selim and Forward would have torn
one another to pieces. The Brisbane Courier 22 December 1894
Denise found that Percy had only one child – a son born 1897, also named Percy. He volunteered for the first AIF on 6 July 1915 and died of tuberculosis in England on 16 September 1916. Prior to this he had served in Egypt and France.
Percy junior was under age when he volunteered – only 18 – and his father’s consent is recorded with his enlistment papers. His mother had died before the war. However comparison of this letter of consent with later correspondence between Percy senior and AIF base records suggests that the consent letter could in fact have been written by the younger Percy.
The letters in the service record of his son are the last evidence of the existence of Percy Kennedy so far located. These records help in charting Percy’s addresses in the early 1920s but details of his later life have proved elusive. If as Bobby Lewis said ‘everyone who has had much to do with racing in Victoria knows the dark-skinned Percy’ perhaps somewhere there is more information about the early career and subsequent history of this unusual man.
Percy’s brother David Kennedy volunteered for WW1 but was discharged as medically unfit. He was at least 44 when he tried to enlist. Percy’s nephew Sidney/Sydney Wilson served in WW1 with the Light Horse and in the militia in New Guinea in WW2.
My thanks to Percy’s great grand niece Denise Hayes and latterly to great grandniece Anita Bayliss
Philippa Scarlett 9 March 2013