Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Charles King (1817–1870)

by C. A. McCallum

This article was published:

John Charles King (1817-1870), town clerk and politician, was born on 10 July 1817 at Dromara, County Down, Ireland, the son of Henry King (d.1840), a landed proprietor and farmer, and his wife Martha Jane, née Henry. He was educated at the Belfast Royal Institute and Belfast College and was intended for the Presbyterian ministry. Deciding against this vocation, King sailed in 1838 for Australia. In Sydney he was so impressed with what he heard of Port Phillip that he returned to Ireland, married Elizabeth Johnston, of Annandale, Scotland, and sailed again for Australia with his parents and members of his family. He arrived in Melbourne in the Salsette in January 1841 and immediately set up as an auctioneer and commission agent in Elizabeth Street. Later he briefly served as government auctioneer.

When the Melbourne City Council was established in December 1842 King was appointed the first town clerk at £250 a year. He held office at a time when sectarian differences were strong and vocal. Although personally criticized, King served the council well, if unobtrusively, through its formative years. In March 1851 King resigned and was chosen to visit England as the agent of the Australasian League at a salary of £600. His primary task was to convince authorities in England that the colonists wanted the complete cessation of transportation of criminals to Australia; he was also to stimulate steam navigation between the two countries and to encourage the flow of capital and of emigration. His early report that Earl Grey was unalterably committed to continue transportation brought King much criticism, but Grey's loss of office in 1852 and the flood of capital and labour which followed the discovery of gold in Victoria soon combined to bring about all that was sought by the league. The remainder of King's seven years in England were spent in lecturing and in acting as buyer and agent for the Melbourne City Council.

King returned to Victoria in 1857 and commenced business with his brother as an ironmonger in Collins Street. He also entered politics and was returned for Evelyn in the general elections for the Legislative Assembly in 1859. In October he was included in William Nicholson's cabinet as vice-president of the lands board and commissioner of public works, but in November his business failed and he resigned his portfolio and seat in parliament.

For the next five years he practised as auctioneer and agent, and in 1864 he became business manager of the Argus. In 1866 a chest illness began to trouble him seriously and his condition steadily declined. While returning from a health visit to Tasmania he died at sea on 26 January 1870; his death was attributed to chronic bronchitis and a liver complaint. He was buried in the Presbyterian section of the old cemetery in Queen Street. He was survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, one of whom later married F. W. Haddon, editor of the Argus.

King was pale-faced, tall and spare, with mild looks that belied his determination and capacity. Opponents called him a master of intrigue, but others pointed to his gentlemanly demeanour, ready tact, and competence for public business.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 Jan 1870
  • Haddon papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • King papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

C. A. McCallum, 'King, John Charles (1817–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 July, 1817
Dromara, Down, Ireland


26 January, 1870 (aged 52)
at sea

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