Why Canberrans remember King O'MalleyJuly 01, 2014

One look at a black-and-white photograph of King O'Malley and the first thing that would come to mind was Grigori Rasputin, a mystic and private adviser to Nicolas II of Russia. Both sported beards. They were influential figures too. Only Rasputin's piercing eyes would tell the difference. O'Malley's, on the other hand, were authoritative yet laid-back. But his appearance belied his character.

King O'Malley had no idea if he was born on 3rd or the 4th of July 1854. He chose the 4th later on. He came from Quebec, Canada, or so he claimed, but records revealed that it was Valley Farms, Kansas. Many would believe that he was an American, as he chose July 4 as his birthday. But O'Malley wanted everyone to believe that he was a British subject. Destiny agreed.

O'Malley contracted tuberculosis from Rosy Wilmot, his first wife, and upon learning that he had six more months to live, decided to sail to Queensland. He had no idea what would lie ahead, until he met and befriended Coowonga, an aborigine, who nursed him back to health. This second chance on life reinvigorated him; he worked as an insurance salesman and preached Christianity and temperance. He quickly won followers among conservative citizens, the female populace in particular. But it wasn't his appearance that won them over.

"O'Malley's monstrously overgrown persona seemed to be inhabited simultaneously by a spruiker from Barnum's three-ring circus, a hell-and-tarnation revivalist, and a four-flushing Yankee Congressman. He was a moderately big man, auburn-haired with watchful grey eyes and a red-brown beard, wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat, blue-grey suit with huge lapels and a low-cut vest, loose cravat with a diamond collar stud, and in the centre of his cream silk shirt-front a fiery opal," said historian Gavin Souter.

O'Malley was a novelty during his time. He was elected to public office sooner than he expected, his rise was nothing short of meteorical. It was his being a radical democrat, which was opposed to the affluent landowners who dominated colonial politics. He became a controversial figure who authored the law banning alcohol. It was due to his Christian beliefs, where O'Malley achieved a pyrrhic victory. But he would most be remembered for his lobbying for Canberra as national capital of Australia.

The rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney was imminent after the gold rush of 1851. The Federeration of Australia resulted to Melbourne being named the capital, but Sydney became the most populous. A compromise was reached, where the new capital must be located in New South Wales, its distance to Sydney was the same as Melbourne's. Canberra fit the critera. It wasn't his fault that the place was initally criticised for resembling more of a village, until succeeding statesmen thought of urban planning and promoting the city. Canberrans still remmeber O'Malley for this, as one suburb is named after him. A pub is also given a name in his honour.

O'Malley lived to be 99, outlived his political contemporaries.

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