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Sir George Eccles Kelso King (1853–1943)

by Hazel King

This article was published:

Sir George Eccles Kelso King (1853-1943), businessman, was born on 30 December 1853 in Sydney, seventh child of Rev. George King and his wife Jane, née Mathewson. He was educated at Calder House, leaving school young because of his father's financial difficulties. After working briefly as a jackeroo in Queensland, he returned to Sydney and joined the Bank of New South Wales in 1870. Transferring to the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney as a clerk on 27 November 1872, he served at Parkes, Carcoar, Bathurst, Cootamundra and elsewhere. He acted as gold-buyer for the bank and once was chased by bushrangers whom he managed to outride. In 1876 he became managing clerk of Henry Beit & Co., Sydney stock and station agents. On 9 April 1879 he was married, by his father, to Irene Isabella Rand in St John's Church, Wagga Wagga.

In December 1877 Kelso King had become secretary, with a salary of £350, of the new Mercantile Mutual Insurance Co. Ltd which opened for business in Pitt Street on 10 January 1878. During its first six months King was the company's only employee: as well as setting up the office he issued 971 policies. He had a lifelong willingness and ability to work long hours at high pressure. Within a year he had established branches in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide but, proving unprofitable, they were closed by 1882; the company confined its operations to New South Wales until a branch was reopened in Melbourne in 1901. He took a personal interest in the staff and established an officers' provident fund. To mark his seventieth birthday, he eventually donated shares and government bonds to the value of £3000 to create an endowment fund to assist staff members in personal difficulties.

In 1880-81 King managed the Anglo-Australian Investment, Finance & Land Co. Ltd at a salary of £400. He was early associated with Walter and Eliza Hall, whom he met travelling in a Cobb & Co. coach. Later he acted for Walter Hall in many of his business activities, and was his executor. He assisted his widow with her affairs and to plan the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust of which he was an original trustee.

King also became a director of many companies including Mount Morgan Gold Mining Co. Ltd, the Electrolytic Refining & Smelting Co. of Australia Ltd, Metal Manufacturers Ltd, Australian Fertilizers Pty Ltd, Illawarra & South Coast Steam Navigation Co. Ltd, the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd, Beale & Co. Ltd and the Bank of New South Wales (1929-40), chairman of Mort's Dock & Engineering Co. Ltd and Brisbane Theatres Ltd, and first managing director of the Australian General Insurance Co. Ltd from 1912.

A prominent Anglican, King was a lay canon of St Andrew's Cathedral and church warden of All Saints, Woollahra, a member of the Church of England Property Trust and Sydney Diocesan Board of Finance, honorary treasurer of a number of church funds, and a governor of The King's, Trinity Grammar and Canberra Grammar schools. He was chairman of the executive committee of the State branch of the Boy Scouts' Association in 1922-43, a trustee of Royal Naval House, honorary treasurer of the New South Wales branch of the Navy League, president of the Royal Life Saving Society, commander of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and, from 1937, president of the New South Wales branch of the St John Ambulance Association. He was a foundation member of the Australasian Pioneers' Club (president, 1928-43) and belonged to the Australian and Union clubs. He was president of the Royal Empire Society and a benefactor of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Knighted in 1929, he was known as Sir Kelso.

An active Freemason, King had been initiated on 7 June 1878 in the Prince of Wales Lodge, Sydney, and became worshipful master in 1885. He was influential in establishing the Provincial Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons in 1889 and became grand mark master mason of New South Wales (1892-95).

After the death of his first wife in 1900, King lived in a flat in Macquarie Street until he purchased Quambi, Edgecliff, in 1917. On 13 November 1907 at Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne, he had married Alicia Martha Kirk (d.1956); she was a cousin of Eliza Hall, who had become her guardian when she had been orphaned at 14. Like her husband Alicia King was active in charitable and community organizations. She was assistant State commissioner for the Girl Guides' Association in 1925-31.

When young, King belonged to a rowing club and rode a 'bone-shaker' bicycle. Throughout his life he regularly walked part way to work. Fond of the theatre, he was a regular 'first nighter' and an opera subscriber whenever companies visited Sydney. He enjoyed choral music and was a patron of the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney. In his later years increasing deafness prevented his enjoying such pleasures. Abstemious in habit, he drank no spirits but enjoyed wine; Australian wine was served at his table long before it became fashionable. A patriotic Australian, he was at the same time intensely loyal to Britain, sentiments in which he saw no incompatibility.

Far from being stuffy and self-righteous, King was invariably courteous and had a sense of fun and a charm of manner which endeared him to many friends. He died in his sleep at his home Kilbronae, Point Piper, on 7 February 1943, and was cremated after a service in St Andrew's Cathedral, where his ashes were interred. He was survived by his wife, their son and daughter and by two daughters of his first marriage; one, Olive King drove an ambulance in World War I. His portrait by Longstaff, commissioned in 1928 to mark its jubilee, is held by the Mercantile Mutual Insurance Co.

His elder sister Georgina King (1845-1932) published pamphlets and articles in the press on geology and anthropology and dissipated much energy in waging in vain a long and bitter campaign for recognition. She was a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society of Australia and a friend of Daisy Bates and of Rose Scott, with whom she was a founder of the Women's Club and the Women's Literary Society.

Select Bibliography

  • A. de Brune (ed), Fifty Years of Progress in Australia 1878-1926 (priv print, Syd, 1929)
  • H. Mayfield, Servant of a Century (priv print, Syd, 1978)
  • Century, 12 Feb 1943
  • U. Bygott and D. Branagan, University of Sydney Archives Record, Jan, Sept 1982
  • Mercantile Mutual Insurance Co. Ltd Archives, Sydney
  • State Library of New South Wales printed catalogue
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Hazel King, 'King, Sir George Eccles Kelso (1853–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 December, 1853
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


7 February, 1943 (aged 89)
Point Piper, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.