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King, Charles Denison (Deny) (1909–1991)

by Christobel Mattingley

This article was published online in 2014

Charles Keith (‘Deny’) King (1909-1991), tin miner, naturalist, and artist, was born on 12 September 1909 at Huonville, Tasmania, the third child and only son of Queensland-born Charles George King, farmer and miner, and his Tasmanian-born wife Olive, née Skinner. He was known as Charles Denison King. After he had completed one year of formal schooling, his parents, determined to instil independence in their children, moved to an isolated holding in the Weld Valley, west of Huonville. Home schooled from 1916, Deny developed a lifelong love of nature, bushcraft, and practical skills—prospecting, track cutting, and exploring—while working on the family farm and later at local timber mills with his own bullock team. He gained a diploma in automobile mechanics from the International Correspondence School, Sydney, in 1939.

Insatiably curious about the natural environment, King developed a productive association with the Tasmanian Museum, for which he collected botanical and other specimens, including from the rarely visited Lake Pedder. In 1934, after a bushfire destroyed the family farm, he joined his father at Cox Bight, near Port Davey, where he experienced the heavy manual labour of tin mining. Unafraid of hard work, he relished the challenges of Tasmania’s remote south-west, which became his home for over fifty years.

Early in World War II, on 6 June 1940 King enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. As a sapper in the 2/9th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, he served in the Middle East, the Northern Territory, Queensland, Papua and New Guinea. Building roads, bridges and airstrips, he discovered the potential of earthmoving equipment. While hospitalised by an accident, he met the woman he wanted to marry, Margaret Ann Cadell, an occupational therapist. He was discharged from the AIF on 15 October 1945.

After the war King built a Nissen-style house at his father’s new mining lease at Melaleuca, near Bathurst Harbour, accessible only by sea or by foot. After pursuing a four-year courtship by correspondence with Margaret, courtesy of passing fishing boats, they married at St David’s Cathedral, Hobart, on 5 November 1949.

In 1953 King initiated mechanised mining at Melaleuca, bringing in a Caterpillar D2 diesel tractor by fishing boat. Twice yearly he made the treacherous voyage in his boat Melaleuca, transporting tin to Hobart, bringing back supplies, equipment, and building materials. In 1955 he began the herculean task of building an airstrip to alleviate his family’s isolation. The first aircraft landed in 1957. Unwitting agent of change, King made south-west Tasmania, until then only visited by fishermen and bushwalkers, accessible to mining companies, photographers, journalists, and sightseers. So he built two commodious visitors’ huts.

King’s expert knowledge of the local environment was highly regarded by academics and scientists. He contributed to research with observations about birds, marsupials, and invertebrates. He forwarded many specimens to botanist Dr Winifred Curtis at the University of Tasmania. Among these were new plants Lomatia tasmanica (known as King’s Lomatia)—believed to be the world’s oldest living plant—Euphrasia kingii, the previously considered extinct Banksia kingii, and the orchid Prasophyllum buftonianum. He guided anthropologists to sites used by the Needwonnee people; supplied daily information to the Bureau of Meteorology; and, concerned about dwindling numbers, instigated a recovery program for the orange-bellied parrot. He wrote two articles for The South-West Book: A Tasmanian Wilderness and his passion contributed to south-west Tasmania’s World Heritage listing in 1982.

Quietly spoken with a slow drawl, stocky, and immensely strong, King was renowned for his hospitality, humour, and willingness to tackle challenges. He retired from tin mining in 1985. An accomplished self-taught painter, he held a joint exhibition with daughters Mary and Janet in 1971, and a solo exhibition in 1987. Appointed AM in 1975, in 1990 he received another singular honour, a commendation from the Governor of Tasmania, Sir Phillip Bennett, ‘for his vision and outstanding efforts’ (King Family Papers). Predeceased by his wife (d.1967) and survived by their two daughters, King died of a heart attack on 12 May 1991. His ashes were scattered in Bathurst Harbour.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • King, Deny. Interviews by Jill Cassidy and Karen Alexander, 1990 and 1991. Oral History Collection, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
  • King, Deny. Personal communication with author, 1991
  • King Family Papers. Private collection
  • King, Mary and Janet Fenton (Deny King’s daughters). Interviewed by Christobel Mattingley, 1991-2000. Transcripts. Papers of Christobel Mattingley, National Library of Australia
  • Mattingley, Christobel. King of the Wilderness: The Life of Deny King. Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 2001
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, TX2261.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Christobel Mattingley, 'King, Charles Denison (Deny) (1909–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/king-charles-denison-deny-14850/text26035, published online 2014, accessed online 28 July 2021.

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