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Olive May King (1885–1958)

by Hazel King

This article was published:

Olive King, c.1920

Olive King, c.1920

Australian War Memorial

Olive May King (1885-1958), ambulance driver, was born on 30 June 1885 at Croydon, Sydney, youngest daughter of Sir (G.) Kelso King and his first wife Irene Isabella, née Rand. Educated at home, at Sydney Church of England Grammar School for Girls and in Germany, she travelled widely and had a taste for adventure. In 1910, with three male companions, she climbed Mount Popocatapetl in Mexico.

On a visit to England when World War I broke out, Olive King supplied her own vehicle and went to Belgium as a driver with a volunteer field ambulance service. The organizers were suspected of spying and returned hastily to England, leaving her and two other drivers to be arrested; they were released just in time to escape the invading German army. She then joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service and went to France in spring 1915 with the Girton and Newnham Unit. After some six months the unit was sent to Serbia.

They landed at Salonika, Greece, on 3 November and moved up to Gevgelija on the Greco-Serbian border where they established a hospital. After six weeks they were forced to dismantle it hurriedly before the advancing enemy. The three women drivers were left behind when the medical and nursing staff were evacuated but managed to get themselves and their vehicles on to the last train just before the station was bombed.

With Serbia occupied by the enemy, allied forces regrouped at Salonika where Olive King remained until 1918. In 1916 she joined the Serbian Army as a driver attached to medical headquarters. She mastered their difficult language and lived in a hut made from an aeroplane case. For a time her large ambulance was the only vehicle available to transport hospital stores, take equipment and reinforcements to the front line twelve miles away and return with patients. She made many such journeys over hazardous roads and was promoted sergeant in April 1917. In August when fire destroyed much of Salonika, she drove for twenty hours at a stretch, often in danger, transporting civilians, medical personnel, patients and hospital records to safety. For this she was awarded the Serbian silver medal for bravery; a year later she received the gold medal for zealous conduct.

Long distressed at the plight of Serbian soldiers, Olive King appealed to her father for money to set up canteens. The committee he formed quickly raised £10,000; she administered the first Australian-Serbian canteen in devastated Belgrade late in 1918 and opened seventeen canteens to sell food, blankets, clothing and other necessities at cost price or below. Obtaining and transporting supplies presented great problems, for the railway system was in chaos, many roads were impassable and bridges destroyed. Often she slept on top of the stores in railway trucks, lorries and wagons to fend off marauding thieves. The last canteen closed in June 1920. For this work Olive King was awarded the Samaritan Cross and the cross of the Order of St Sava, personally bestowed upon her by King Alexander. She returned to Belgrade in 1922 as a special guest at his wedding.

Back in Sydney in 1920, Olive King was active in the Girl Guides' Association of which she was State secretary in 1925-32 and assistant State commissioner in 1932-42. She received King George V's silver jubilee (1935) and George VI's coronation (1937) medals. During World War II she studied inspection at a Commonwealth government aircraft school and was an examiner at de Havilland Aircraft Pty Ltd in 1942-44.

Physically energetic, she particularly enjoyed ice skating, tennis and surfing. She wrote verse and short stories prolifically, but published little; as a hobby she took up bookbinding in leather. She was devoted to her father and family. Moving to Melbourne in 1956, she died there on 1 November 1958 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Krippner, The Quality of Mercy (Newton Abbot, Devon, 1980)
  • Scottish Australasian, 30 Nov 1920
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 3 Nov 1917
  • State Library of New South Wales printed catalogue
  • family papers.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Hazel King, 'King, Olive May (1885–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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