The Kennett tragedy


2638 Kennett Tragedy Isolation Tent OK
2638 Kennett Tragedy Father Smith, Vic Peace and Ditto the dog OKBy JOHN P MD SMITH
February 14 to 17, 1936 in Alice Springs were days of unbelievably searing heat in the middle of an Australian summer. It was against this backdrop that one of the Northern Territory’s saddest dramas unfolded.
Constable John (Jack) Kennett had joined the NT Police in 1928 and by 1932 was in charge of the police station and repeater station at Charlotte Waters.
The Overland Telegraph Repeater Station was the most southerly in the Northern Territory. Constable Kennett was a carpenter by trade and had served in the AIF during WW1. He enlisted in the 43rd Battalion in mid-1916, which was a mainly South Australian battalion and fought on the Western Front until the Armistice.
He lived at Charlotte Waters with his wife Isabel and their children, Jack, Joyce, Jim, Bill and Rosslyn.
Constable Kennett worked very hard, did a lot of outback travelling with the most onerous task he had to perform being the taking of Aboriginal children from their mothers and seeing that they were placed at The Bungalow. This was something that distressed him a great deal.
How could it be that in this totally isolated environment there could occur an outbreak of Diphtheria?
A family passing through Charlotte Waters met up with the Kennett’s with one or more of that family unknowingly carrying the Diphtheria infection. The disease is highly contagious and can be passed to another person by coughing or sneezing. It is an especially dangerous illness for children.
It wasn’t long after the family left that Isabel Kennett noticed that her eighteen-month old daughter Rosslyn was coughing, suffering from shortage of breath and had a high temperature. She rang her husband, who happened to be in Alice Springs asking him to come to Charlotte Waters immediately.
Dr Riley, the resident government medical officer, and Father Percy Smith, the Anglican priest in Alice Springs both now assumed significant roles in a desperate attempt to save the Kennett children. Father Smith knew the Kennett family quite well having visited them on more than one occasion at Charlotte Waters.
He tells this story.
Jack Kennett came to me and asked me to take him to Charlotte Waters. In the meantime, the doctor could not be found in the town. It was discovered that he had left that morning for Horseshoe Bend Station. Having agreed to take Constable Kennett I had first to mend a back spring in my Ford V8 utility.
Having fixed the spring we were ready to start out at 2pm. Our party consisted of Jack Kennett, Vic Peace, Sandy, the Constable’s Aboriginal tracker and myself.
The road used in those days was along the railway line through Maryvale Station, over the dreaded Depot Sandhills to Horseshoe Bend, then past Old Crown Station through New Crown Station to Charlotte Waters.
The only people to be contacted in those two hundred miles, except for the railway gangs, were at Maryvale and Horseshoe Bend.
There were massive sandhills for about fourteen miles, high walls of sand which ran east-west. These were quite formidable for a car.
2638 Kennett Tragedy children at St John’s OKThe north side of these walls were usually cut out with the prevailing wind, so that driving south towards them we were faced with a sheer wall of sand anything up to six feet at the top.
The technique was to let half the air out of the tyres as soon as we came to the sandy country. Then before we could attempt to charge the sandhills, it was necessary to walk up to the top to make a graded trail with a spade, and if you had it, to place lengths of coconut matting in the tracks for the wheels to grip.
At the first of these steep pinches we caught up with Claude Golder and the doctor who had made several charges trying to dash over this sandhill known as Smith’s Pinch and probably the worst of them.
However, Constable Kennett was an experienced driver in sand and having made some careful preparation we got over without trouble leaving the other car to follow in our tracks. After sailing over eleven of these sandhills we came at dusk to Horseshoe Bend Station.
While we were having our meal Claude Golder and the doctor arrived. Just before we were ready to start off Mrs Kennett rang to say that the little girl was worse.
The doctor spoke to her over the phone and summing up the symptoms, said he suspected Diphtheria and that he would go to Charlotte Waters with us.
We sped into the night. After a few miles we were out of the sandy country and then we had to pump up the tyres. It took us until 3am to reach Charlotte Waters.
The all important thing was the little girl’s health. The doctor quickly diagnosed her as a Diphtheria case and dangerously ill. He advised her immediate transportation to hospital at Alice Springs.
So after hurried preparations and a meal we set out on the return journey an hour after we had arrived. This time Constable Kennett drove his own car and Mrs Kennett went with him nursing the sick baby.
I left my offsider, Vic Peace, behind to look after the other children, Jack, Jim and William. The doctor came in my car.
It was for us a day of misfortune. Before daylight we took a wrong turn and when the sun arose discovered we were west instead of north. We had already gone thirty miles off course and had to retrace our steps.
In the meantime the other car had gone ahead and we had a waterbag full and all of the provisions.
We were soon at the Yellow Cliffe’s Crossing of the Finke River. Here we stuck fast in the loose sand in trying to pull out of the crossing. This was about nine o’clock in the morning and here we stayed all day!
At 5pm we decided to walk towards Horseshoe Bend feeling sure that someone from there would come out looking for us. The heat and the flies did not improve conditions for walking at this time of the year and we had only half a bag of water left.
We walked on, resting every now and again, until midnight. The doctor thought it best to go on ahead as I began to knock up. He took a good drink from the water bag before he left it with me. From then on I walked and rested at intervals and was cheered on by the presence of my dog Ditto.
I lay down in the sand and very foolishly used the water bag as a pillow. I awoke from a restless doze to find water trickling down my neck and discovered that the cork had come out of the water bag and it was now empty.
As soon as it was dawn I was tormented by flies and the increasing heat intensified my thirst. The little dog was tonguing badly but kept running ahead and then back to me. I was in no way apprehensive but only rather exhausted.
By 9am I had walked so far that I thought Horseshoe Bend should be close, but there was not the faintest clue that my habitation could be anywhere near, as all one could see was sand.
Then I stumbled under the shade of a low shrub, exhausted, and I must have slept for a few minutes with Ditto nestled alongside me. I was awakened by the roar of an engine and was overjoyed to see the Horseshoe Bend truck coming towards me. I was immediately given a spot of brandy and the dog had a cooling drink.
Mr Elliott said: “We’ll have to push on to get the doctor over to Rumbalara to catch the train. He is rather anxious about Joyce Kennett and wants to get back to Alice Springs. Horseshoe Bend is just a quarter of a mile away.”
The doctor had got into Horseshoe Bend half an hour before and they were hurrying him off to the train. He told me the sad news that Rosslyn Kennett had died in her mother’s arms ninety miles from Alice Springs. The poor mother had to carry her lifeless babe to the journey’s end.
2638 Kennett Tragedy Two Jacks OKI then walked on a few hundred yards … and there was the homestead! A rest and a meal put both Ditto and me on our feet again. We had walked twenty-eight miles.
Shortly after Gus Elliott returned to the homestead the telephone rang and it was Vic Peace calling to tell me that two of the boys had contracted sore throats and what was he to do?
I rang Alice Springs and got the doctor who had not long arrived. His instructions were to get the children to Alice Springs as soon as possible. So I contacted Charlotte Waters and told Vic to have the children ready and that I would go back for them as soon as I could.
Gus Elliott did not take long to pull my car out of the sand. We turned south again and made a new track across the sand.
Mr Elliott allowed an Aboriginal boy named Lazarus to come with me. Near New Crown we met a car coming north and they had our party on board.
A man named Alby had called at Charlotte Waters and my friend had told him of their plight and he had no hesitation in bringing them to me. So all transferred to my car and we turned north again and on to Yellow Cliffe’s Crossing.
By this time it was dark and we wanted to take no risks with the sandy bed. So Vic and Lazarus lit flares and stood on the north side to show me the new crossing. We had no trouble getting across and sped on to Horseshoe Bend.
After a brief rest we were up and on the road by daybreak. It was now Sunday, February 16, three days since we’d left Alice Springs.
When we came closer to Alice Springs we found Constable Kennett with two other men. They had come down the road to meet us, anxious about our safety.
The Constable’s car, in which they had travelled was immobile with a broken crown wheel. As the car could not be shifted, all crammed into my utility, five men, five children and a dog. We got safely to Alice Springs arriving at 12:30pm.
Here we found that Joyce Kennett’s condition had grown worse and she too had developed Diphtheria.
As these were infectious cases the AIM Hospital [now known as Adelaide House, next to Flynn Church in Todd Mall] could not take them and so she and the two boys with sore throats were tended by the AIM sisters in a private house.
Constable Kennett had arranged to charter a plane to take Joyce to Adelaide. Joyce however did not go to Adelaide as she became too ill to move and the next day she passed away.
Mrs Kennett was also suffering and was treated for Diphtheria. Good care ensured that the boys and their mother recovered.
The Methodist Minister, Rev Harry Griffith, had conducted the burial service for Rosslyn in my absence. As I read the burial service over Joyce, the Constable and I were the only ones who stood close to the graveside as the other mourners present had to stand three feet away because we were still in isolation.
Father Smith and Constable Kennett remained in isolation in the temporarily established Diphtheria outbreak isolation area at the AIM Hall along with others who had come in contact with Diphtheria sufferers.
In 1950 Jack Kennett passed away at the age of 54. Father Smith conducted his burial service at the Alice Springs Town Cemetery, not far from the graves of his two daughters.
Photos (from top): 1936 very scarce photo: The temporary Diphtheria outbreak isolation area at the AIM Hall, Todd Street, Alice Springs • 1936 – Outside Church of the Ascension – Father Smith, Vic Peace and Ditto the dog • 1941 First children to reside at St John’s Hostel, Alice Springs. Jack Kennett (Jnr) aged 18 and wearing glasses, is standing next to Father Smith • 1943 Constable John (Jack) Kennett (R) with his son John (Jack) Kennett (Jnr).
John P McD Smith is the son of Father Percy Smith (1903-82), first resident Anglican priest in Alice Springs in 1933. John has written his father’s biography, “The Flower in the Desert.”


  1. What a sad story but thanks for sharing this great local history – reminds us of how tough times were in Central Australia in the 1930s.

  2. What a tragic story yet still a powerful account of human endurance. I take my hat off to Dr Riley and Father Smith.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here