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King, Robert Arthur (1886–1960)

by Frank Farrell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Robert Arthur King (1886-1960), saddler, labour official and politician, was born on 9 April 1886 at Launceston, Tasmania, son of Robert King, tailor, and his wife Louisa, née Barrett. Young Bob left school at 13 and was apprenticed to a saddler, but he found limited opportunities in that trade and took work in coastal shipping. At St John's Anglican Church, Launceston, on 2 November 1910 he married Florence (Floss) May Mullins. Persuaded by E. H. Farrar to join the Australian Saddlery Trade Employees' Federation, King moved to Sydney late that year. As A.S.T.E.F. president he was involved in the union's restructuring and modernization, inspired by a whirl of socialist ideas.

Joining the executive of the Labor Council of New South Wales, King was its assistant-secretary (1923-30) and organizer (1930-34). He saw the labour movement as needing that style of open discussion engineered by the visit of the British socialist Tom Mann. King succeeded J. S. Garden as secretary of the Labor Council in 1934. Two years later they prevented an attempted takeover of Radio 2KY by their former political hero J. T. Lang. As secretary of the board of control, King extricated 2KY from its financial difficulties and 'was bookkeeper and everything else, except the technician and announcer'. He was to be president of the Australian Federation of Commercial Broadcasting Stations in the 1940s.

The revival of militancy on the industrial front was matched by a growth of united front politics on the left. In 1938 King attended the May Day celebrations in the Soviet Union. He also worked with A. S. McAlpine to involve labour in progressive social action. Bob, as he was known to friends and acquaintances, combined with the Catholic right against the communists after 1945 and managed to remain unopposed as secretary in successive elections until the bitter years of conflict preceding his retirement in 1958. In his prime he was 'a blunt, forceful speaker' and a relentless, quiet achiever.

King had always seen politics as important in pursuing the interests of organized workers. He served on the Australian Labor Party's State executive (1927-28, 1939-52). Nominated to the Legislative Council in 1931 during the dramatic confrontation between Lang and Governor Sir Philip Game, he was elected to the reconstituted council for twelve years in 1934 and re-elected until 1960. King had been briefly expelled from the Labor Party by a special conference in August 1936. He supported R. J. Heffron in manoeuvres against Lang's leadership of the parliamentary party, and was a delegate to most A.L.P. federal conferences between 1936 and 1953. In the postwar era of rising anti-communism King co-operated with the right, but, as a committee-member of the Australian-Russian Society until his resignation in 1948, he was under surveillance by the Commonwealth Investigation Service.

His extensive commitments included serving as vice-president (1935-57) of the Australasian Council of Trade Unions, and as a member of the Commonwealth War Workers' Housing Trust (1939-45), the New South Wales Committee of Advice on Man Power (from 1941) and the Commonwealth's Immigration Advisory Committee (1945). King attended the meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions in Paris in 1945 and conferences in Geneva of the International Labor Organization (1945 and 1947). He served on the royal commission of inquiry into the gas industry in 1948-49.

In his sixties King's brown hair had whitened; a slight stoop and hesitant walk suggested failing health, but he was alert and still in control. Grasping their historical significance, in 1955 he persuaded the Labor Council to donate its pre-1940 records to the Mitchell Library. When he retired as secretary of the Labor Council in 1958 he was appointed manager of Radio 2KY and a director of Radio 2HD, Newcastle. He died on 27 February 1960 in Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay, and was cremated; his wife and two daughters survived him. In a public tribute Heffron praised King for being 'an excellent type of Australian citizen' who had given 'a lifetime of service in the interests of trade unionism and Labor politics'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour (Syd, 1981)
  • B. Nairn, The 'Big Fella' (Melb, 1986)
  • G. Freudenberg, Cause for Power (Syd, 1991)
  • R. Markey, In Case of Oppression (Syd, 1994)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 8 Mar 1960, p 2774
  • Labor Council of New South Wales, Yearly Report, 1922-23, and minutes, 23 Nov 1922, 23 Jan 1930 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27, 29 Feb 1960
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 28 Feb 1960
  • AG 119/79 item 935 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'King, Robert Arthur (1886–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/king-robert-arthur-10743/text19041, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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