Professor Thomas Herbert Kelly, m.comm., phd
Economist, University Administrator & remarkable Academic
ABCS 1918 - 1924

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Thomas Herbert Kelly was born in Aberdare on 1 June 1907. He was the younger son of William Kelly, a native of Torquay, and Ruth Kelly (née Harrison), from Narborough in Leicestershire. Tom’s father had come to Aberdare at the turn of the century to work on the railway, initially as a porter and subsequently as a foreman in the goods department. The family lived at 2, Jenkin Street in Foundry Town. Tom had a brother William Harrison Kelly who was slightly more than one year his senior. Both boys attended the Town Council Elementary School in Clifton Street - (the school now known as Caradog Primary School). The boys transferred to the County School in Trecynon in September 1918, Tom Directly from the Town Council and William from the Higher Standard School in the Gadlys, where he would have studied for one year.

Both boys were clearly of sound academic standing for in their School Certificate Examinations of 1922 Tom passed gaining five distinctions, and William with six, far more than any other boys in their year. Both boys also gained their Stage II of the Institute of Book-keepers examination, with Tom being placed 9th in the United Kingdom rankings1. Tom went on to gain his London Matriculation in 1923, and his Higher Certificate in 1924, again distinguishing himself with, in this case, two distinctions. Tom subsequently left school with a Free Studentship of £60 p.a. for the University of Birmingham.

At Birmingham he gained Bachelor of Commerce, (1st class honours), Master of Commerce and a PhD (1930, at the age of 23). He was successful in gaining several prizes and scholarships to support his studies at Birmingham: Glamorgan County Council Awards; the William Merton Prize and Post-Graduate Scholarships; and the Richard Fenwick Research Scholarship.

He then won a Commonwealth Fund (now the Harkness) Fellowship that enabled him to spend two post-doctoral years, (1930-32), at Columbia University, New York City. It was while he was at Columbia that he met his future wife Evelyn Marjorie Robinson, a Canadian from Saint John, New Brunswick.

Tom did not have to wait long for his first academic appointment, for in 1933 he was appointed to a post at the University of Cape Town in the Commerce Faculty, under the eminent English economist Professor W.H.Hutt. Tom spent 12 productive years in this Faculty, and whilst in Cape Town he married Evelyn in 1934. Subsequently two children were born to the couple.

In 1945, the Kellys moved to the Durban campus of the fledgling University of Natal. They were to spend the next 23 years there. Tom’s achievements at Durban were astonishing and almost too numerous to list here. The post-war days at Natal were pioneering ones and there was much to be done at the new university. The Principal, Dr Ernst Malherbe, was fortunate to have engaged the services of Tom Kelly, particularly in the field of university administration.

Tom served for long periods on almost all the university’s standing committees: finance and general purposes; staffing and estimates; sites and buildings; hostels; library; student discipline; scholarships and loans, and so on.

However, his principal roles at Natal were even more taxing. He spent three separate periods totalling 12 years as Dean of the Faculty of Commerce and Public Administration between the years 1948 and 1966. Whilst acting as Dean, he maintained his full lecturing load, supervised his post-graduate students and maintained a healthy output of academic publications.

In addition to the above posts of responsibility Tom also found time to serve as College Dean of the City Building; as Senate Representative on the University Council; and as Acting Chairman of the Senate (1955-1956). In addition to all these responsibilities, Tom was Warden of two halls of residence for men: Ansell May Hall, where the Kellys lived, and Townley Williams. These posts of course involved the Kellys in many social activities.

Tom Kelly’s teaching covered the disciplines of both commerce and economics. At the University of Cape Town, amongst other topics, he lectured on futures markets at a time when knowledge in this field was sparse. At Natal, he pioneered the teaching of Industrial Organisation and Management. He also taught courses on the operation of markets, including agriculture and international trade. Another field of instruction that he pioneered, again well ahead of its time, was the programme of courses he devised to courage students to develop their presentational and speaking skills.

As would be expected, Tom Kelly published widely in academic journals. His work will be found in the South African Journal of Economics, (SAJE), particularly his paper on South Africa’s international trade, (1954).2

Although he worked in the era of apartheid, Tom contributed to widening access in many ways: by playing his part in the establishment of the Natal medical faculty; as chairman, for seventeen years, of the Non-European Studies Committee; and as Dean of the City Building where students of all races mingled together - to the extent possible at that time. Tom also served on the Council of Fort Hare College, a key institution in higher education for black Africans established in 1916, but taken over by the government in 1959. After the takeover, along with many other academics Tom was not reappointed due to his disapproval of the takeover.

Whilst in South Africa, he served the Economic Society of South Africa as President, Vice President and member of Council, and was President of the Durban Rotary Club and the Cape and Natal Cambrian Society at different times.

In 1968, Tom retired from his post as Professor Emeritus at Natal, when he and his wife took up residence in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Professor Kelly took a teaching post in business studies at Queen’s University in Kingston for four years, until his final retirement in 1972.

There followed two further moves, to Vancouver in 1975, and then to the island of Victoria, where Marjorie, his wife, died in 1982. Tom lived on for a further 17 years in his home and had the pleasure of seeing his five grandchildren grow into adulthood. In his retirement he took an active interest in his local Anglican church, and was a member of the Welsh Society and of the Rotary Club.

Tom Kelly died in Victoria, Canada in 1999 at the age of 92.


Acknowledgements: This account of Tom Kelly’s career is based heavily on the ‘In Memoriam’ published in
The South African Journal of Economics, Vol. 68:2, 2000, by Professor J.P. Niewenhuysen, of Melbourne. We are
grateful for his permission to draw upon his account of Tom Kelly’s life.
(Prof Niewenhuysen was one of Tom Kelly’s post graduate students at the University of Natal.)


  1. See Certificate Ceremony programmes for 1923 & 1925 where both boys get several mentions.
  2. Also of significance was the series of papers he co-authored, with other eminent South African economists, between 1938 and 1940 in reaction to the ‘Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937’.