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King, Catherine Helen (1904–2000)

by Gail Phillips

This article was published online in 2022

Catherine Helen King (1904–2000), broadcaster and community leader, was born on 20 December 1904 at Surrey Hills, Melbourne, second surviving child and eldest daughter of Scottish-born (Sir) Walter Logie Forbes Murdoch, university lecturer (later chancellor), and his Victorian-born wife Violet Catherine, née Hughston, teacher. Catherine began her education at Fintona Presbyterian Girls’ Grammar School, Camberwell, under the headmastership of her maternal aunt Annie Hughston. In 1912 she moved with her family to Perth where her father had been appointed professor of English at the newly established University of Western Australia. She attended Miss Annie’s dame school (Cottesloe High School) for four years, and Perth College until the age of fifteen. After returning to Fintona for her final year, she proceeded to the University of Western Australia (BA, 1927). In 1927 she accompanied her family on sabbatical to Europe and remained to train as a primary teacher at the London Day Training College. There she met and became engaged to a fellow student, Alexander King.

In late 1928 Murdoch returned to Perth and taught at the Raith Church of England School. Alec joined her a year later and they married on 17 December 1929 at the Perth College chapel; they would have three children. At about the same time Catherine began her long association with the Kindergarten Union of Western Australia (KUWA) as a member of its education committee (vice-president 1945–50), and later as part-time lecturer at the Kindergarten Training College. In 1937 she chaired a KUWA committee aimed at improving parenting skills throughout the State. Ten city and eight country parental education groups were established, amongst which King’s own, the Dalkeith Parent Education Group, was the most influential, spearheading a campaign for educational reforms, including the provision of better education and library facilities. The interest generated sparked the formation (1947) of the Western Australian branch of the Children’s Book Council, through which she lobbied actively and effectively for improved access to free libraries.

Radio had been part of King’s life from an early age, as her father was a frequent contributor to Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) programs. From the early 1930s she was heard regularly on air, and in 1937 began a series of talks on recommended readings for young children as part of the women’s sessions on the local ABC station 6WF. Three years later, recognising the opportunity radio presented to expand the reach of parent education, she initiated a long-running series of instructional programs aimed at families, especially in rural and remote communities. The broadcasts included playlets—scripted by King, her husband, and her KUWA colleague Gladys Pendred—illustrating the topic of the day, and featuring child as well as adult participants.

The closing of local kindergartens during World War II led King to approach the ABC with a pioneering proposal for an on-air kindergarten session. Presented by the teacher Margaret Graham and produced by King, the forty-five minute program Kindergarten of the Air was launched in February 1942 and broadcast from Monday to Friday each week. Benefiting from her experience with the playlets, the live session also included children, the first program to do so in Australia. In 1943, personally affected by the lack of access to preschool facilities, she co-founded the Greenhill Kindergarten, using her home as its base.

During 1944 King was invited to produce and present a revived Women’s Session for Western Australia. She accepted, although she doubted her ability to combine the program with ‘the equally important job of being responsible for a home and turbulent children’ (NAA SP1558/2). Alongside a carefully curated classical music playlist, she endeavoured to provide challenging content for women that explored issues beyond the domestic sphere. She called on her extensive network of contacts—from education, volunteer organisations, the arts, and academe—to furnish talks, readings, and reviews. Contributions from the public were encouraged and many discussions were stimulated by topics raised in the ‘Listeners’ Letters’ segment. The program also enabled her to publicise causes she cherished, such as the work of the Save the Children Fund.

King always considered herself an amateur as she never received formal broadcast training, but she had a natural talent in front of the microphone, and a style that listeners found easy to relate to. Her interviewing technique was spontaneous and empathic, producing absorbing discussions with her guests. She believed that talks should be introduced ‘by someone felt as a “friend”’ as it made her audience ‘more ready to listen and “take in”’ what was presented (NAA SP1558/2). Her approach engendered a level of intimacy that resulted in the Perth-based session being arguably more successful than its sister programs in the other States. As one listener wrote, for that ‘golden period … we isolated creatures outback can almost forget the drudgery of farm life in a drought’ (NAA SP1558/2).

Continuing her community work, King was influential in establishing a Children’s Film Council and a Marriage Guidance Council in the State in the early 1950s. She also served on the executives of the Western Australian Women’s Society of Fine Arts and Crafts, and the International Association of Women in Radio and Television. In April 1960 she was appointed to present a half-hour weekly television program, Women’s World, in addition to her radio commitments. After two years, the pressure of organising and compering shows in both mediums became excessive. Believing it was better ‘to do one job decently’ (Lewis 1979, 116), she resigned from her television role.

In 1966 King gave up her ABC position to travel with Alec to Melbourne, where he had been offered a chair in English at Monash University. There she devoted more time to the Save the Children Fund and, after Alec’s death in 1970, embarked on an extended period of international travel, visiting refugee camps and publicising the work of the fund. In 1975 she moved back to Perth. She returned to radio, presenting a weekly talk for the community station 6NR. She also joined Amnesty International, writing letters to secure the release of political prisoners. By then the red curls and cigarette she sported in her younger years had been replaced by white hair and a pipe. Appointed MBE in 1966, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Murdoch University in 1983. Survived by her two sons and one daughter, she died on 2 January 2000 in Perth and was cremated. At her funeral, her coffin was borne out to the tune ‘Blow Away the Morning Dew,’ the theme song of the Women’s Session.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bolton, Geoffrey. ‘Broadcaster Enriched Cultural Life in the West.’ Australian, 20 January 2000, 9
  • Fisher, Catherine. Sound Citizens: Australian Women Broadcasters Claim Their Voice, 1923–1956. Canberra: ANU Press, 2021
  • Gregg, Alison. ‘The Hope of the Future: The Kindergarten Union and the Campaign for Children’s Libraries in Western Australia.’ Issues in Educational Research 3, no. 1 (1993): 17-33
  • Inglis, Kenneth S. This is the ABC. The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932–1983. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1983
  • King, Catherine Helen. Interview by Jean Teasdale, 16 and 20 December 1976. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • Lewis, Julie. ‘Catherine King.’ In Reflections: Profiles of 150 Women Who Helped Make Western Australia’s History, edited by Daphne Popham, 184–85. Perth: Carroll's Pty Ltd, 1978
  • Lewis, Julie. On Air: The Story of Catherine King and the ABC Women’s Session. Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1979
  • National Archives of Australia. SP1558/2, 650
  • Stevens, Melissa. ‘Rights Fight Ends for Broadcaster.’ West Australian, 5 January 2000, 43
  • Urquhart, Mary L. ‘Save the Children … Catherine King, M.B.E.’ In Eye to Eye: Forty Famous Western Australians. Dalkeith, WA: Dookaninny Publications, 1984

Additional Resources

Citation details

Gail Phillips, 'King, Catherine Helen (1904–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/king-catherine-helen-31821/text39278, published online 2022, accessed online 9 December 2022.

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