Friday, September 21, 2012

Re-discovering King O'Malley and the spirit of place

Rick Snell
Senior Lecturer in Law
University of Tasmania
Speaker Notes 19 October 2004

Disclaimer and post talk reflections

What follows is a rough extract of my talk given at the Mine Manager’s Offices at Queenstown on the night of the 19th October 2004. Some parts of the talk have been dropped, other parts that were skipped in the delivery have been included.  The morning after the talk I visited the freshly brushed-cut Pioneer Cemetery and later that morning walked to Nelson Falls.  The cemetery reminded me of how fortunate we have been to have reclaimed an important part of our history. I have been to many cemeteries around the world but few as magical as this one.  Yet there was only a single  small sign. Whereas at Nelson Falls, your path is guided, in an unobtrusive way by informative signs and you walk away not only experiencing natural beauty but with a better understanding. It reminded me of the last part of my talk the night before about how much of the King O’Malley story is missing from the West Coast..

I would like to thank Megan Cavanagh-Russell and her team, especially Rachael Hogge, from the Cradle Coast Campus of UTAS for the organization, flowers, great catering and  incredible support to make this talk a reality.  Finally to the audience thank you for your support and the great atmosphere.  I am sure that this is only one of many such joint efforts between the University of Tasmania and the people of the West Coast that will continue to happen.

A second disclaimer and note September 2012

It was always my intention to go back and properly edit this document, tidy it up, add full references and maybe build on some of the themes. However it sunk down into my pile of “Things I might get around to.” I still might get around to it but in the meantime I would like to share it with family and friends ad others interested in history, Tasmania and radical politics.

The following sources were used to compile the talk (many flagged in the talk) but some still to be accurately acknowledged:

·      Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, The Legend of King O’Malley (1974).
·      Dorothy Catts, King O’Malley: Man and Statesman (1957).
·      Max Colwell & Alan Naylor, Adelaide an Illustrated History. Landsdowne Press 1974 (O'Malley biography Pgs 86 - 91).
·      Arthur Hoyle “King O’Malley (1858-1953) Australian Dictionary of Biography at
·      Arthur Hoyle, King O’Malley: The American Bounder (1981).
·      Larry Noye King O’Malley MHR (1985 Neptune Press) a reprinted version  available form

This wonderful exhibition and tribute to King O’Malley is available at

Opening comments

In the past few years I have had the pleasure and privilege of speaking at venues all around the world from Dublin Castle  - where my Irish ancestors were sent in shackles to Van Diemen’s Land  - to inside the Indonesian parliament to a gathering of generals, bureaucrats,  activists and journalists. I have given over 100 public talks and over 200 media interviews – nevertheless I regard this as my toughest and most difficult speaking engagement.

Made more difficult by having my Mum and Dad in the audience. This is the first time they have had the opportunity to hear me speak in person in public.  I would like to take this moment to publicly thank them for making all this possible. Almost 30 years ago they gave me the opportunity to leave this valley on a journey I am still on. Their support and sacrifice made that journey possible and I would like to say thank you to two wonderful people.

To return home – is always a challenge  - to confront and engage with your past and the futures you never followed. Never followed  because you journeyed upon a path that lead away from the valley and the West Coast both in terms of geography and mental exploration.

Those now few and distant years growing up in this valley and on the West Coast shaped, contoured and gave  a special quality to my imagination and spirit.

I have engaged in my activities as an academic, teacher, commentator  and with my audiences in a way determined by my interpretation of the history of the West Coast,  by the spirit of this place and this landscape and by a radical political legacy. 

A political legacy that in part can be traced to King O’Malley and the West Coast.  In the words of Christopher Binks  at page 156, in his book Pioneers of Tasmania’s West Coast it is a legacy that focuses on long “running campaigns for better conditions,  better services, better legislation and better representation.”

I would like to weave 4 threads together in this talk tonight –

First -To rediscover some of the key elements of that larger than life figure King O’Malley who inspired and was inspired by what he encountered on the West Coast. To look at how this legend took West Coast ideas, ideals and values to a wider audience.

Secondly, to explore some of the themes that sparked the idea for this talk in the CD Rom  “Mining the Imagination: Queenstown Spirit of the Place”.

Thirdly to try and understand why King O’Malley was right about the contributions of the West Coast to the beginnings of Australian democracy

Fourthly, if time permits I want to see what place there is for  King O’Malley in the Queenstown, and West Coast of the 21st Century.

A prelude

My interest in King O’Malley began one dark winters night when I and a handful of others attended a talk by the leading Australian historian Manning Clark in the Murray High School library.

 Professor Clark, like some great character from his own books,  swept into the room dressed in a flowing black shoulder cape, wide rimmed black felt hat – dripping with rain – long flowing wispy  grey locks and with a burning enthusiasm for history, King O’Malley and the West Coast. You could see that he was overflowing with the excitement of treading on the same rocks and rain swept hills as King O’Malley had.

For the next hour he transfixed me with the story of King O’Malley – how this one man side show had went from selling insurance to selling a political vision, how he had entertained crowds of miners from the balconies of places like Hunter’s Hotel or from inside the Queenstown Academy of Music.

 How because of the voters of Queenstown and the West Coast – Australia was exposed to, and eventually implemented, ideas like a national bank, aged pensions, the transcontinental railroad, Australia House in London and a purpose designed capital city – Canberra.

Not necessarily all O’Malley’s ideas but few advocated them as loudly and as long as King O’Malley. Few worked as hard to see them transformed from pipe dreams to reality – sometimes diminished in size, capacity and perfection compared to the dreams but nevertheless given life.

Professor Clark left little doubt that the people of the West Coast had done a great service to Australia by pining their political hopes onto this exotic character.

Exotic -whether in his medicine show, spread eagle rhetoric, his eloquent but eccentric dress or his ability to match inherently volatile mixtures in the same mind -
  • A passionate temperance (non-drinking) Christian man who loved to hold hard drinking miners spell bound in smokey pubs and loved to gamble
  • A representative of the working class who made a fortunate as a landlord and speculator
  • A plain speaking honest man who hid his past in confounding layers of fact, fiction and hard to believe myth.
  • A man who did much to advance and support women in politics and life, and left a considerable amount of his estate to a trust to support female home economics students but found it difficult to be in the company of all but a small number of women.

As I engaged with the wider world first as a student and then later as an academic I did so with a mindset inspired by the landscape and people of the West Coast – and armed with the knowledge that despite the isolation of the West Coast, the ugliness of the Queen river we had – in the form of King O’Malley given much to this country (along with a gravel football oval) – and would always have much to offer.

Turning to the main character – King O’Malley

I always think that King O’Malley was like a piece of conglomerate – a highly compacted collection of distinct bits and pieces woven together in a fine but tough matrix.

The life of this amazing, eccentric character can be roughly put into four periods.

  1. His life in America until the late 1880s
  2. His wanderings and life  in Australia prior to 1899
  3. His period as a member of the Federal House of Representatives from 1901-1917
  4. A twilight, but far from uneventful, period until his death in 1954. The last of the first federal members  to die.

This talk, you will be grateful to know, touches only briefly on the first 2 of those stages and concentrates on the third the period 1901-1917. And neglects the last 37 years of King O’Malley’s life.

The first period – The birth of the myth, the construction of the basic elements of the legend of King O’Malley

This is the period most shrouded in myth and endless variations of King O’ Malley’s capacity for story-telling. King O’Malley was born either in Canada or the US. If his birthplace was America it meant that he was illegally a member of the South Australian Parliament for 3 years  and Federal Parliament for 17 years.

Born either in 1854 or 1858 (so either he was near to 100 and waiting or the Queen’s telegram when he died – or he just lived to a very ripe old age).

Brought up by an uncle – began working life at the age of 14 in a small family bank.

Then moved to New York to continue his banking education – a point of pride for O’Malley later in federal parliament as the only trained banker in the whole parliament. Important in respect of his  creditability in his later push to create the Commonwealth Bank.

O’Malley left his career in banking around 1880 to spend the next few years of his life selling insurance, land, temperance  (and even religion) throughout the mid west and west coasts of America . It was in this wandering period that he constructed the elements of the legend ”King O’Malley” –

-       Cowboy persona– clothes, manner, speech - “King O’Malley is a tall man, whose appearance suggests a compromise between a desperado from the cattle ranges, a spruiker from Barnum’s Circus and a Western American statesman wrote journalist George Cockerill ( See  Noye at  page 83).
-       Larger than life story telling (events he was involved in,  people met – claims that he sold  insurance to the Kings of England, Germany and Tsar of Russia).

Two stories about King O’Malley from this period demonstrate his capacity for salesmanship.  The first involved the selling of real estate.  He would come into a new town and put up a sign  “The Whole Earth for Sale by King O’Malley – Come Inside” King O’Malley didn’t do things by half – so he was always selling the best, the biggest, the brightest – whether it be insurance, land, politics, religion or himself.

The second story involved both real estate and religion. At one stage King O’Malley created the  “Waterlily Rockbound Church – Redskin Church of the Cayuse Nation”. King O’Malley learnt that in Texas religious organizations were eligible for substantial land grants if they had a minimum sized congregation. So needed a church and a congregation and miracles.  King O’Malley preferred night time miracles.  O’Malley would stand on back of a wagon, in front of a  hill.  At certain moments there would be sounds of trumpets from the hills or blazing bushes of god would appear on a mountain top. King O’Malley would ascend to the top of the hil and  come back with stone tablets and the word of God. His charade was finally exposed when he fired his Angel, an American Indian who got drunk and told a local newspaper about King O’Malley’s scam.

Stage 2  Arrival and early years in Australia 1888-1899

Shrouded in myth –  O’Malley claimed he arrived with tuberculosis, cured by an aboriginal elder in Rockhampton (see the start of Nancy Catts’s biography) and that he subsequently walked on foot to Melbourne.

Whatever the truth there appeared in Australia a young man – 29 – in cowboy dress,  more accurately  wearing the elegant  American  rancher  eye catching style – prepared to wear  lavender  suits or do whatever it took to be noticed. He had a lexicon of outlandish speech using phrases like “stagger juice”  for alcohol. Some described it as a “wild and woolly style”  speaking style. O’Malley described one opponent as “our lop-eared, lop-shouldered, knock-kneed, slob-sided, ramshackle, bald-headed, poverty stricken, cross-eyed, toothless old contemporary…” ( see Hoyle at  page 12).

He also arrived with money for investment and an eye for politics. The rest of decade of the 1890s was a search to build investments and find a political role.  A short stint in Melbourne was followed by his arrival in Hobart in 1890.  In this period he sold  insurance, gave  a  talk on Irish politics at New Norfolk and became a freemason.

He then travelled to the Zeehan mining fields and later to Launceston to sell insurance.  This period clearly was a time in finding his feet in Australia and looking for opportunities. There is a missing period of 18 months - most likely spent speculating on the Kalgoorlie mining fields – he returned to Melbourne and brought a number of small cottages. For the rest of his life he used these rental properties as the main basis of his income and fortune.

In the mid 1890s he arrived in Adelaide. In many ways a dress rehearsal of his later campaigns on the West Coast of Tasmania. He spent 3 years of getting noticed and selling insurance in South Australia. He was elected to state parliament in South Australia on a weird platform that included advocating for lavatories in railway carriages,  seats for female shop assistants and support for  the Married Women’s Protection League.

O’Malley lost his seat in the South Australian parliament  –  a close election - to a well financed campaign from the hoteliers association – described by O’Malley  as  “These heroic artistic nose-painters, the orphan makers, the goal fillers, the lunatic generators, are the blight of the colony.” He left South Australia in search of another seat  in some other parliament.

Stage 3 in King O’Malley’s life (and final for purposes of tonight’s talk) The West Coast and federal politics

As I wrote in the newspaper article (attached to the end of this talk) King O’Malley arrived in full blown style on the West Coast– the aim was to be noticed.

Whilst he lost his first attempt to gain election to the Tasmanian parliament  in 1899 he had:
·      Picked up on key issues
·      Became better known
·      Decided to concentrate (but not exclusively) on West Coast
·      Saw the need to add miners to the Electoral Rolls
·      Made entertainment one of the key features of his future electoral campaigns

But it was also clear that he found a more radical tune to sing to – Better services, fair treatment,  a societal obligation to support individual effort.

It was on this platform he was elected to the first Federal Parliament.

For the next 17 years represented the interests of the West Coast in federal politics but just as importantly the West Coast kept a political maverick and firebrand on the national stage. During that period whether from opposition, the government backbenches or from the frontbenches of 2 Labor governments King O’Malley mixed his showmanship, buffoonery and love of comedy with a zest for hard work.

When he became Minister for Home Affairs in 1910 – he arrived at the office on his first day at 8 am and had to get the caretaker to open the door – he then wrote in large sized letters on the staff timebook – “King O’Malley 8am.” From that moment on there was always a rush by his public servants to be above O’Malley’s famous sign in line.

He agitated for aged pensions –

“The miner who goes to the West Coast of Tasmania and lives there in a hut, after years of struggling, accumulates nothing. There are thousands and thousands of them but the rich merchant, who does nothing but sends goods over there, accumulates a good fortune out of the miner….Miners find themselves in their old age absolute beggars in the midst of plenty.” (See Hoyle)

He was also an early advocate for universal health care and;
-       Construction of national capital
-       National bank
-       Transcontinental railroad
-       Australia House – Designed to show the Australian flag in the heart of the old country

He was a favourite of Trades Hall but deeply despised by leading members of the parliamentary ALP – especially Billy Hughes – who regarded him as mad, dangerous, a fool or all three.

He was a reformist who pushed for large nation building projects while looking out for the interests of those who fell by the wayside. Sharp-eyed journalists noted the difference in his public clowning and the way he attacked his work and the serious issues of governing. In 1917 he lost the election because his non-conscription/anti-militarism position put a wedge between  him and the voters of the West Coast.

The Spirit of the West Coast

In this part of the talk I want to explore some factors which I feel shaped O’Malley’s politics and vision. Most writers on O’Malley look at his politics and his career as largely being derived internally – and treat the West Coast as simply a stage with a more receptive audience than he had previously found.

My view is different. The coming of King O’Malley to the West Coast saw the merging or partnership of O’Malley’s reformist politics with a particular West Coast vision. Anyone who has tarried for more than a few seconds on the West Coast knows how dangerous it is to speak in generalisations about the West Coast – there have been and will always be very vocal and often very fiery critics who will let you know the world of difference between Queenie and Strahan, Gormie or Zeehan and vast the differences of the first 4 from Rosebery goes without question.

Yet like Binks – in his Pioneers of the West Coast I believe there are many things which support a view about a unique placed called the West Coast.

For decades – till very recent times – the main focus of settlement has been mining or related activities (very few other regions had such a focused activity at the heart of the whole region). So whilst there may be wide gulfs between those who supped at Penghana and those who lived in South Queenstown, or between the miners of tin and those of copper, or the shopkeeper and the widow created by a mining disaster – they shared more in common than those living elsewhere.

The landscape
-       Natural beauty
-       And the man blasted moonscape

Better talkers and writers than me have described the magic of the West Coast. I just know that when I am heading down Mt Arrowsmith on my way to Queenstown I have entered a landscape that swells and lifts my spirits to heights I pine for when I am away from the coast.

Patsy Crawford in her book on the King River and the quotations on the handout express the dramatic  contrast of rainforest and  snow topped peaks with the stripped hills and pollution of the Queen River valley.

The weather and the challenges like snow, bushfires, economic swings all forge a bond of common identity regardless of town, football team, workplace or duration spent on the West Coast. The rain forges new brotherhoods and the threat of job losses new kinships across other lines of separation.

The need for West Coast solidarity to gain access to essential infrastructure or services whether it be:
·      Railroads,
·      Roads
·      Schooling
·      Hospitals
·      Political representation
·      or the dredging of the sand bar at Hell’s Gates

There developed, and I think still remains, a strong degree of distinctiveness between those who work and live on the West Coast to other Tasmanians. I used to introduce myself first as a West Coaster, then Tasmanian – not sure if the same applies today – I suspect it does.

In this unique natural, employment, emotional and political landscape arose a sense of unity, separate identity and a desire for a full community life. The ideal that hard work – whether by forging through horizontal jungle like the prospectors,  building railroads, dams or the hard life of an underground miner - merited access to good services whether communication, education or recreational. And the women also did it tough – from a poem by Peter Hay about a friend who lived at Williamsford –

The house was freezing, the heater broken.
I’d put the kids in the old Valiant
And all day we’d drive Rosebery to Tullah,
Back an forth,
So the car would be warm when my husband knocked off….

Or a lyric from folk singer Phyl Lobl called “West Coast Litany” (also borrowed from Pete Hay’s book Vandemonium Essays):

Beauty lies within the eyes
Of those who choose to see,
Drawing in my head I hear
The West Coast Litany
That taught me how to listen to the rain
And how to be contented
Even though I know I’ve lost my liberty.

This was a region, that recognised the necessity to look beyond individual gain and interest from time to time towards community and regional interest. Whilst the individual, working shifts and playing footy in the winter and cricket in the summer, saving a fortune - might have little need of good roads to Hobart or Burnie an injured neighbour might.

Whilst Hobart based bureaucrats and politicians may underestimate the hurdles from primary school to further education – generations of West Coasters from King O’Malley on have not.

So King O’Malley came across a place he called the Rock of democracy – a place where political representatives of all political persuasions and at all levels of government put community service and community interest first.

It was from that political milieu he forged his thoughts about a people’s bank, a nation binding railway of a civic capital to represent all Australians from Cape York and Albury to Gormanston. Whilst, in King O’Malley’s words living in hell was preferable to living in Linda – the people in Linda still deserved pensions, banking services and to have the opportunity to make their contributions to Australia.

So whilst King O’Malley articulated the vision and sold it like an old time insurance salesman, showman and real estate seller it was a vision transformed by the West Coast.

The final steps in this journey

In the time remaining I just want to reflect on the relevance – if any that King O’Malley has for the West Coast of the 21st century – for the West Coast and King O’Malley a number of centenary marks have already passed and many others will pass in the next months and next few years. King O’Malley has travelled less well than many in the history books – such as Deakin, Fisher, Watson and  Billy Hughes.

He would have rolled several times in his grave with the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank and even with the sale of Telstra.  A bank that pays little recognition to its founder either in terms of history or legacies like scholarships.

Books on or about the West Coast whether it be Patsy Crawford’s – God Bless Little Sister or Blainey’s Peaks of Lyell often only give a brief mention or cameo role to the King.

Canberra has a suburb name O’Malley and the irony of all ironies a prize winning pub called King O’Malley’s Irish Pub – for a temperance fighter and hater of the “stagger juice”

Queenstown has little except “O’Malley’s Restaurant “– now closed and a half torn and burnt sign (about 6 cm by 4 cm) – a size designed for easy reading by O’Malley’s favourite retort to heckler’s that there minds were the size of a Zeehan flea. The Zeehan and Queenstown  Museums  have  minimal displays about this significant national figure.

In other places I would expect to encounter a statute or two, actors wandering the street greeting “Brothers and Sisters” dressed in their Yankee finest or performing from balconies,  or a interactive interpretation centre. The CD “Mining the Imagination : Spirit of Place” comes the closest.

King O’Malley was not the only, or greatest or most worthy of West Coast legends but his national impact is one worthy of claiming for the West Coast.

The following article appeared in The Queenstowner,  Friday 15th October 2004 at page 8

In late January 1900, a one- man political movement stepped off the Queenstown train. It was one of those glorious Queenstown summer days when the ultra sharp blue of the cloudless sky is reflected by the bright white of the exposed quartz on the hillsides. “Tall, with golden beard and moustache,” noted one observer,  dressed like a rich Yankee in a 10- galleon hat, King O’Malley had arrived. This man, whose past would remain a mystery, had arrived fresh from political defeat in South Australia. He came to preach a radical political gospel to a working class still focussed on day- to- day survival rather than stories of a promised land. He was a politician in search of a constituency.

This was a new mining town of buildings and tents, less than 10 years old. Unhesitatingly, King O’Malley strode the main street greeting the locals with “good day brother.” He admired new- born babes and their mothers admired him. He organised and attended political meetings where he set out his demands for old age pensions, miners’ disability pensions and better conditions for workers, free education from primary school to university, construction of government railways, a Queenstown hospital, and a Queenstown branch of the Supreme Court. He moved around the camps and made his way to the little towns of Gormanston, Strahan, North Lyell and Zeehan.

 King O’Malley’s initial goal was a seat in the Tasmanian House of Assembly but even at this stage he was thinking more about laying the groundwork to become a member of the first Federal Parliament.  After two months of hard campaigning, this brash, strutting fashion peacock, who used to advise hecklers to take a good dose of Epsom Salts (or to suggest that their intellects failed to rival those of a Zeehan flea), lost the election to a better- known local candidate by a few hundred votes.

O’Malley had noticed that many of the miners failed to vote because they weren’t on the electoral rolls. So over the next few months he wandered through the hills and small valleys of the West Coast helping to create a new constituency. Miners who had been underground for long hours would stumble out of their mineshafts to be greeted by a tall, immaculately dressed American, although he always claimed he had been born in Canada. Even in the pouring rain he would greet them with “Good evening brothers. Are you on the Roll yet?” Over the campfire at night weary miners would be entertained by the O’Malley’s oratory, a mixture of gospel, history, politics which embodied a radical vision of a working man’s paradise. In fact he had for many years had sold insurance, and he found the switch to politics just required a simple alteration in the sales pitch.  In a region often starved of entertainment, a King O’Malley talk in a hall, from the balcony of Hunter’s Hotel or in a strategic storefront position on a Saturday morning was a highlight of the week.

He worked the West Coast and the North West Coast (including King Island) like a Southern Baptist preacher in the deep south of the USA. When the first Federal election was held, he outpolled Braddon (the former Premier of Tasmania) on the West Coast by over 1,000 votes out of the few thousand cast.  King O’Malley became a member of the first Federal Parliament of Australia.

Over the next 17 years King O’Malley continued to be the West Coast’s member in the Federal Parliament. He was a larger- than- life figure amongst the other political leading figures of that time, who included Barton, Deakin and Billy Hughes. Hughes detested O’Malley with great and bitter passion – which was returned ten-fold by O’Malley, who joined Hughes in the federal Labor Party.

During those 17 years O’Malley was a major driving force behind proposals for aged pensions, the transcontinental railroad, the building of Canberra and the creation of the people’s bank; the Commonwealth Bank. His contribution to these major aspects of nation building were often bitterly resisted or derided, but O’Malley would tirelessly campaign for his ideas. History, bitter rivals like Billy Hughes and time itself have removed most traces of his contributions to these major facets of Australian life. When he died in December 1952 he was the last surviving member of the first Australian Federal parliament.

King O’Malley and his life were full of paradoxes. Often his eccentric speech, clothing and behaviour led people to treat and think of him as a fool rather than a legend.  Yet he had a vision for fair access to services and infrastructure by West Coasters, and it seems strange that there is so little left here that bears his name.

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