King O'Malley

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The Honourable
King O'Malley
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Tasmania
In office
29 March 1901 – 16 December 1903
Serving with Edward Braddon, Norman Cameron, Philip Fysh, Frederick Piesse/William Hartnoll
Preceded byNew seat
Succeeded byDivision abolished
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Darwin
In office
16 December 1903 – 5 May 1917
Preceded byNew seat
Succeeded byCharles Howroyd
Personal details
Born3/4 July 1854
possibly Quebec, Canada; possibly Kansas, United States
Died20 December 1953 (aged 99)
Albert Park
NationalityAmerican Australian
Political partyAustralian Labor Party
Spouse(s)Rosy Wilmot, Amy Horton (also Garrod)
OccupationInsurance salesman

King O'Malley (3/4 July 1854 – 20 December 1953) was an Australian politician. He was a member in the South Australian House of Assembly from 1896 to 1899, and the Australian House of Representatives from 1901 to 1917. O'Malley was also Minister for Home Affairs in the second and third Fisher Labor ministry.[1]

O'Malley was a very visible figure in Australian public life during the early years of Federation. He is particularly remembered for his role in the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank, the selection of Canberra as the national capital, and taking the 'U' out of the name of the Australian Labour Party.


O'Malley was not quite certain about his own birthday. He claimed it was either 3 or 4 July 1854, but he chose to celebrate it on 4 July.[2] O'Malley claimed all his life (in public at least) to have been born at the Stanford Farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada, which would have made him a British subject, but it is more likely that he was born at his parents' farm in Valley Falls, Kansas, United States. Late in his life, in a letter to the widow of the former Labor MP James Catts, O'Malley wrote "I am an American". According to O'Malley, his parents were William and Mary (King) O'Malley.

O'Malley was educated at a primary school in New York City, and then worked in his uncle's bank and as an insurance and real estate salesman, travelling widely around the United States. While in Texas O'Malley founded a church, taking the title of "First Bishop of the Waterlily Rock Bound Church, the Red Skin Temple of the Cayuse Nation" in order to take advantage of a government land grant then being offered to churches. In 1881 O'Malley married Rosy Wilmot, who died from tuberculosis shortly before she was due to give birth in 1886. O'Malley found he had contracted the disease from her and in 1888, having been given six months to live, he sailed for Queensland, Australia.

Group photograph of all Federal Labour[3] Party MPs elected at the inaugural 1901 election, including Chris Watson, Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes, Frank Tudor, and O'Malley.

Landing at Port Alma, O'Malley apparently took up residence in a cave at Emu Park, where he befriended an aborigine, Coowonga, who cared for him until he recovered. Once healthy, O'Malley decided to walk the 2,100 km from Emu Park to Adelaide in South Australia, arriving in 1893. In South Australia he again worked as an itinerant insurance salesman, also preaching evangelical Christianity and temperance.

In 1895 he settled in Gawler, South Australia, and at the 1896 election he was elected as a member for Encounter Bay in the South Australian House of Assembly as a radical democrat, opposed to the wealthy landowners who then dominated colonial politics. Calling himself a follower of Christian Socialism, his most popular platform among conservatives was to rid hotels of barmaids "hired for their physical attributes rather than their prowess in drawing ale". Although O'Malley was unsuccessful at the time, laws were passed in 1909 to require registration of barmaids, who had to be a member of the owner's family.

O'Malley's narrow win in 1896 has been credited to his popularity among religious leaders and conservatives for his extreme puritan views, but it seems his popularity with women voters was a bigger factor. Women were much taken by his appearance and O'Malley's "oratorial buffoonery" was the popular topic of discussion throughout South Australia. He called hotels "drunkeries", alcohol was "stagger juice", opponents were "diabolical rapscallions" and he referred to himself as the "bald headed Eagle from the Rocky Mountains".

O'Malley was defeated at the 1899 election, and the following year he moved to Tasmania, the smallest of the Australian colonies. There, a tall, fashionably-dressed American preaching the Gospel and radical democracy drew immediate attention, and he was elected at the 1901 federal election as a member for Tasmania, along with four others. In 1903 he was elected as the member for Darwin. Although there was no Labour Party[3] in Tasmania at this time, he joined the Labour Party Caucus when the Parliament assembled in Melbourne.

Historian Gavin Souter describes O'Malley at this time:

O'Malley's monstrously overgrown persona seemed to be inhabited simultaneously by a spruiker from Barnum's three-ring circus, a hell-and-tarnation revivalist, and a four-flushing Yankee Congressman. He was a moderately big man, auburn-haired with watchful grey eyes and a red-brown beard, wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat, blue-grey suit with huge lapels and a low-cut vest, loose cravat with a diamond collar stud, and in the centre of his cream silk shirt-front a fiery opal.

O'Malley was clearly one of the more prominent and colourful members of the Parliament, but his radical ideas were not widely accepted, and many regarded him as a charlatan. He became a prominent advocate of a national bank as a means of providing cheap credit for farmers and small businessmen.

He was not a member of Chris Watson's first Labour ministry in 1904, or of Andrew Fisher's first ministry in 1908. But in April 1910 the Caucus elected him to the ministry of Fisher's second government. In the same year he married again, to Amy Garrod.

O'Malley drives in first peg of Canberra
O'Malley at the naming of Canberra ceremony

O'Malley became Minister for Home Affairs, and played a prominent role in selecting the site of the future capital of Australia, Canberra. He declared American architect Walter Burley Griffin winner of the town planning competition. On 20 February 1913, O'Malley drove in the first peg marking the start of the development of the city. He was also present at the ceremony for the naming of Canberra on 12 March 1913.

As a teetotaller he was responsible for the highly unpopular ban on alcohol in the Australian Capital Territory. He could also claim credit for beginning the building of the Trans-Australian Railway from Port Augusta to Perth.

O'Malley also agitated for the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, a state-owned savings and investment bank although, contrary to his later claims, he was not the bank's sole creator. He later wrote that he had led a "torpedo squad" in Caucus to force a reluctant Cabinet to establish the bank, but historians do not accept this. Prime Minister Fisher was the bank's principal architect. Partly to allay fears of "funny money" aroused by O'Malley's populist rhetoric, Fisher ensured that the bank would be run on firmly "sound money" principles, and the bank as established did not provide the easy credit for farmers that the radicals desired.

O'Malley's other legacy was the spelling of "Labor" in the Australian Labor Party's title in the American style. He was a spelling reform enthusiast and persuaded the party that "Labor" was a more "modern" spelling than "Labour". Although the American spelling has still not become established in Australia, the Labor Party has preserved the spelling.

Labor was defeated at the 1913 federal election, and when it returned to office at the 1914 federal election, O'Malley was not re-elected to the Cabinet. In October 1915, however, Fisher retired and O'Malley returned to office in the first ministry of Billy Hughes, again as Minister for Home Affairs. But a year later the government split over the determination of Hughes to introduce conscription to fill the ranks of Australia's armed forces in World War I. Although he was not an active anti-conscriptionist, O'Malley was pressured by Hughes to resign his portfolio but he refused to do so. He finally lost office on 13 November 1916 when Hughes and twenty-four other Labor members walked out of the Caucus and formed the National Labor ministry.

Hughes called the 1917 federal election, and O'Malley was heavily defeated in his northern Tasmanian seat of Darwin by former Labor colleague Charles Howroyd, a conscriptionist who was running for Hughes' Nationalist Party. O'Malley suffered a swing of almost 15 percent, and was one of many Labor figures swept out in that year's massive Nationalist landslide. He stood unsuccessfully in the seat of Denison in 1919, and in Bass in 1922, but he was never again returned to elected office. Although he was only 63 at the time of his defeat, he retired to Melbourne and devoted his time to building up his own legend, particularly in relation to the Commonwealth Bank, and to polemical journalism on a variety of pet causes. He lived to be 99, outliving his nemesis Hughes by 14 months. At the time of his death he was the last surviving member of the first Australian Parliament and last surviving MP who served when Edmund Barton was Prime Minister. Furthermore, he was the last surviving member of Andrew Fisher's second Cabinet.

O'Malley's importance in developing the national capital is remembered in Canberra with the suburb of O'Malley being named after him. A pub in Canberra, King O'Malley's Irish Pub in Civic, is also named after him – a tongue-in-cheek reference to his sponsorship of the unpopular alcohol ban in the Australian Capital Territory during Canberra's early years.[4]

O'Malley is the subject of a 1970 musical play The Legend of King O'Malley by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 October 2010. Retrieved 5 February 2011.
  2. ^ "KING O'MALLEY CHEERY AT 99". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 4 July 1953. p. 1. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
  3. ^ a b As noted further on in the article the spelling of "Labor" in "Australian Labor Party" was not adopted by the party until 1912.
  4. ^ "Prohibition in Canberra: King O'Malley and the 'dry' capital". Your Memento. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 10 April 2013.

Further reading[edit]

  • Arthur Hoyle, King O'Malley – The American Bounder, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1981
  • Larry Noye, O'Malley MHR, Neptune Press 1985 (a short and very admiring biography)
  • Max Colwell & Alan Naylor, Adelaide an Illustrated History. Landsdowne Press 1974 (O'Malley biography Pgs 86 – 91)

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
George Fuller
Minister for Home Affairs
1910 – 1913
Succeeded by
Joseph Cook
Preceded by
William Archibald
Minister for Home Affairs
1915 – 1916
Succeeded by
Frederick Bamford
Parliament of Australia
New division Member for Tasmania
1901 – 1902
Served alongside: Braddon, Cameron, Fysh, Piesse
Division abolished
Member for Tasmania
1902 – 1903
Served alongside: Braddon, Cameron, Fysh, Hartnoll
New division Member for Darwin
1903 – 1917
Succeeded by
Charles Howroyd