Matt Kelly - Head Keeper 1945 - 1965
Matt Kelly was born in Dublin into a family of zoo keepers. His grandfather and father were keepers at Dublin Zoo, and Matt and his brother Thomas followed them into the profession. Matt started work at the Dublin Zoo in 1930. He took up the post of Head Keeper at Belle Vue in 1945, and in many ways, he became the face of the zoo over the following 30 years. During the 50s and 60s he was instrumental in moving the zoo away from its Victorian roots and in introducing a wide variety of animals that he gathered in three expeditions to Africa. He wrote regular articles in local newspapers and always encouraged the wider community to become involved in the work of the zoo. He reckoned, that between them, the Kelly's had spent a total of 228 years as zoo keepers.
His time at the zoo was far from uneventful. He was kicked by an elephant, butted by a bison and almost lost his index finger to a crocodile who was after the fish Matt was holding.
In 1946 the day before one of his daughters was born Matt had a close encounter with an adder. The snake slipped out of Matt’s grip and sank its fangs into his middle finger. He made a tournoquet with his handerkerchief - told Gerald Iles, the zoo director not to tell his pregnant wife about the accident and set off to the Royal Infirmary. Unfortunately, the only serum needed to treat the poison was at the London Zoo, so the police were asked to go on an emergency run to retrieve it. Getting the serum also involved getting the London Zoo’s vet back from the cinema. In the meantime the poison had paralized one side of Matt’s body and was affecting his vision. It took 12 hours to get the serum to Manchester, but after it was administered, he gradually regained his sight and the pain subsided enough that, against medical advice, he could get dressed and take a taxi home to see his expectant wife. He was just in time because his daughter was born soon after his arrival.
Matt made three trips to Africa to collect animals for the zoo. In 1960 he returned from Mombassa with a collection of 38 animals, but he came back in plaster after falling down a 5 foot deep car servicing pit and breaking 2 ribs and fracturing a third.
In the end it was his love of animals that actually ended his career. He acquired a respitory disease from a parrot that hospitalized him for weeks and left him with a collapsed lung. He retired in 1975. At that time he said, “I’ve certainly led a full life and now I’m looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet at home. But I wouldn’t have swopped my job for anything. You never knew what was going to happen next.”
He probably had no idea how prophetic those words would be. Eighteen months later the Kelly’s were served with an eviction notice on the house that they believed they had been allowed to stay in, rent free, for life. Matt claimed that he had been given that assurance at the time of his retirement by Mr. Kenneth Andrews the area manager for the company that owned Belle Vue. However, the company disputed Matt’s claim and proceeded with the legal procedure to evict Matt and his wife Helen. Fortunately, on the day of the court case Matt received an offer of a new council house in Eldin Close in Longsight, not far from the zoo so he relinquished his claim on Bamford House that had been the family home.
In 1981 Matt was prominent in the campaign to prevent the closure of Belle Vue and its proposed conversion into a Wimpy housing estate. The media dubbed the campaigners “Kelly’s Heroes”. As we know, this was a fight that Matt and his supporters lost. It was in 1981 at the age of 71 that Matt Kelly died. He left behind his wife Helen, two daughters and three sons.