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Alice Hazel King (1908–1997)

by B. H. Fletcher

This article was published online in 2021

Alice Hazel Kelso King (1908–1997), historian, was born on 18 October 1908 in Sydney, elder child of locally born (Sir) George Eccles Kelso King, underwriter, and his Victorian-born second wife, Alicia Martha, née Kirk, who was related to the philanthropist Eliza Hall, née Kirk. The family moved in 1917 to the eastern suburbs, where Hazel spent most of her life. Educated initially by governesses and then at Ascham School, she studied music at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music and abroad; during the 1930s she performed as a vocal recitalist. Following her father’s death in 1943, she assumed responsibility for her mother, learning typing and shorthand and taking employment with medical practitioners.

A turning point came after World War II. In 1949, after completing her education privately, King matriculated to the University of Sydney (BA, 1953; MA, 1956). Her family commitments had diminished and the university, with increased numbers of mature-age students, including returned service personnel encouraged by the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, pointed to a new and fulfilling life. Graduating with honours in history, she embarked on research for a master’s degree. Her mother died in 1956, and the following year she went to St Hugh’s College, Oxford (DPhil, 1960). In 1960 she was appointed a lecturer at the University of Sydney, where she taught early modern European history until her retirement as a senior lecturer in 1974.

King was a dedicated teacher, stern but well liked by colleagues and students. Her scholarly reputation rested on her work on early colonial New South Wales. An empiricist, she was a meticulous researcher with an unexcelled knowledge of original sources enhanced by having earlier worked at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, under the supervision of Marjorie Jacobs classifying recently discovered archival material. Her master’s thesis was on police administration in early New South Wales, but her forte was biography. Her Oxford thesis, published in revised form in 1971, became the standard treatment of Governor Sir Richard Bourke.

Descended from colonists of standing, King had a natural affinity with members of the establishment. After retiring she published in 1980 an illuminating account of Elizabeth Macarthur and the world she inhabited. Nine years later there appeared Colonial Expatriates: Edward and John Macarthur Junior. Among other scholarly contributions were articles in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, including one on her father. Family connections also underlay her book One Woman at War (1986), which contained the edited letters of her half-sister Olive, a woman with wide interests who, finding Sydney ‘stultifying’ (King 1986, 1), offered her services overseas as an ambulance driver during World War I, courageously serving close to the front line.

King’s interests in Australian history extended well beyond research and writing. Determined to promote what was then a far from popular subject, she joined the Royal Australian Historical Society (RAHS) in 1954, working assiduously as an office bearer and serving as the society’s first female president between 1982 and 1984. Thereafter she undertook duties in its library. A creative and steadying influence, she steered the RAHS through unsettled times and did much for the local history movement. As co-editor of the society’s journal from 1964 until 1991 she strove to ensure that while meeting the needs of amateurs it maintained scholarly standards.

Like her parents King was civic-minded. She helped to promote Zonta, an organisation for professional women, and joined the New South Wales branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, publishing brief histories of both. She was also on the board of Ascham School and was an extraordinarily busy person, always seemingly in a hurry. Throughout she acted unassumingly from a sense of duty and not for self-advancement. She never flaunted her social background and was well liked and highly respected. Becoming a fellow of the RAHS in 1974, she was appointed AM in 1985.

Hard-working, ‘immensely thorough and … highly ordered,’ King had ‘a degree of reserve that prevented one knowing her really well’ (Fletcher 1998, 3). Ill-health struck her late in life and she died on 3 December 1997 at Randwick. A widely attended service, held five days later at St James’s Anglican Church, was indicative of the regard in which she was held and of her family connections with the Anglican Church, which dated from the days of the nineteenth-century cleric Robert Lethbridge King. She was cremated and her ashes were sent to Armidale, the home of her brother Nicholas and his family.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Cable, Kenneth J. ‘Alice Kelso King, 1908–1997.’ Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 84, no. 1 (June 1998): 1–9
  • Fletcher, Brian. ‘Eulogy for Dr Hazel King.’ History, no. 55 (March 1998): 3
  • Fletcher, Brian H. Magnificent Obsession: The Story of the Mitchell Library, Sydney. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2007
  • James, Alfred, ed. Much Writing, Many Opinions: The Making of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1901 to 2001. Sydney: Royal Australian Historical Society, 2001
  • King, Hazel, ed. One Woman at War: Letters of Olive King 1915–1920. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1986
  • National Library of Australia. MS3673, MS Acc00.109, MS Acc97.105, Papers of Rae Else-Mitchell, 1914–1995
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Royal Australian Historical Society (Sydney) archives
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 8842, King Family Further Papers, Being Mainly of Dr Hazel King Regarding Kelso King, ca. 1841–1982

View the list of ADB entries written by Alice Hazel King

Additional Resources

Citation details

B. H. Fletcher, 'King, Alice Hazel (1908–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2021, accessed online 23 February 2024.

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