Kelly, Sarah (1801–56), landowner and murder victim, was born Sarah Birch in Ramsgate, Kent, England, sixth child of John Birch, husbandman and innkeeper, and his wife Elizabeth. At the age of 15 she was seduced by Joshua Paul Meredith, an Anglo-Irish gentleman who took her to London and then to Dublin, where they set up in Portobello Hotel on the Grand Canal and then in Ranelagh before settling for sixteen months in a house in St Stephen's Green, where Sarah gave birth to a son in 1816. They then moved to a large house in Kilcock, Co. Kildare, but Meredith tired of her and arranged through a solicitor that he would give her £200 a year and put her up in lodgings in Exchequer St., Dublin, until she returned to England. In the event she and her son were left in Duke St., Dublin, and given £1. Abandoned and destitute, she contacted her family in England, and her father brought an action against Meredith claiming £2,000 damages. The case was tried at the Four Courts on 22 April 1819, and Chief Justice Lord Norbury (John Toler (qv)) found in her favour. However, Meredith, who apparently died in 1821, seems never to have paid the damages. Her son died about this period. She spent the next seven years in Dublin, where she worked possibly as a prostitute in a brothel or was kept as a mistress by a wealthy protector.
She had the good fortune to attract Edmund Kelly (1765–1845), an extremely wealthy, elderly lawyer from Kiltoom, near Athlone. In 1828 he took her to Kiltoom, where they lived two years before moving to his Rockwood estate, near Athleague. They were married (15 April 1838) at St Werburgh's church, Dublin. Sarah later claimed that this was their second wedding and that they had met and married privately in England in 1823, but neither documents nor witnesses were ever found to corroborate this. Kelly died (27 February 1845) at his estate in Uckfield, Sussex, and left his entire property to his wife, except for the estate of Knockanahinure, Athlone, which went to a cousin. Sarah's inheritance included Rockwood, Kiltoom, Ballinderry estate near Moate, Uckfield, and a townhouse in Baggot St., Dublin, and totalled over 2,000 acres. The sum of £5,600 was left for her until the will was proved – fortunately, since it took eight years of legal battles before she could inherit. She faced a significant challenge from her husband's cousin, Elizabeth Thewles, in what was one of the most widely reported cases of its day. On 8 July 1852 the lord chancellor found in Sarah's favour, concluding that her husband had known of her life before she met him and therefore that she could not have deceived him, and that his business transactions proved that he had been in sound mind at the time of making his will.
Sarah Kelly's victory was decisive but she had not long to enjoy it; on 8 April 1856 she was murdered at her Ballinderry estate by two masked men. This created a sensation; a reward of £100 for information was offered by the lord lieutenant and £500 by her nephew, but there were no convictions. The case remained unsolved until 1977, when a Kilbeggan man, supported by letters from his uncle, revealed to a local historian, Jeremiah Sheehan, that the murderers were his grandfather, John Maguire, and another of Kelly's tenants, Pat Casey. Sheehan disclosed this in his book South Westmeath: farm and folk (1978), citing newspaper reports and local hearsay to the effect that Sarah Kelly had been a harsh landlord, responsible for numerous evictions and for seizing crops in lieu of rent.
Sarah Kelly's remains were buried beside her husband's in Kensal Green cemetery, London. By her will she divided her considerable estate between her own family and left nothing to the Kelly relations.