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William Robert (Nuttall) Maloney (1854–1940)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Robert Maloney (1854-1940), by unknown photographer, 1900s

William Robert Maloney (1854-1940), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23365766

William Robert (Nuttall) Maloney (1854-1940), humanitarian and politician, was born on 12 April 1854 at West Melbourne, son of Jane Maloney, née Dowling, then and later being supported by her brother-in-law W. J. T. 'Big' Clarke. Jane had married Denis Maloney in Sydney in 1847 and they later joined the Californian gold rush. Maloney was entered in the baptismal register as William's father, but he and Jane had parted. Many people came to assume that Clarke was the father and he provided for the boy in his will.

William attended a primary school in West Melbourne and the Errol Street National School. After a year in New Zealand he joined the Colonial Bank of Australia, left to spend a year or more at Scotch College, then rejoined the bank. At the Turn Verein he became an accomplished gymnast and was introduced to socialist ideas by German migrants. About 1874 he and his mother took up a selection at Longwarry, Gippsland, and over several years cleared 100 acres (40 ha).

Returning to Melbourne, Maloney attended night-school, matriculated, and in 1880 began a medical course at St Mary's Hospital, London (L.S.A., M.R.C.S., 1885). He became resident obstetric physician at St Mary's and later house surgeon at the Lock Hospital; London's poverty horrified him. He spent much time in Paris and in 1883 joined Tom Roberts and J. P. Russell on a walking tour in France and Spain; throughout his life he enjoyed associating with artists. Russell painted a fine portrait of him, now in the National Gallery of Victoria. Maloney adopted a Bohemian style: cream silk suit, red or yellow tie or bow-tie, panama hat, waxed moustache and goatee beard. He continued to travel widely all his life, eventually to Russia when 83.

He returned to Australia in 1887 and took a medical post on a Western Australian railway-construction works. Settling in North Melbourne next year he opened a general practice, and in March 1889 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for West Melbourne on behalf of the Workingmen's Political League, largely on the railwaymen's vote. Thus he began his fifty-one-year stint as a Labor parliamentarian. Partly bound by the Trades Hall Council's programme, Maloney added woman's suffrage, old-age and invalid pensions and republicanism. That year he introduced reputedly the first bill in the Empire for woman's suffrage; in 1908, when the Victorian parliament belatedly complied, 20,000 women signed an address of gratitude to him.

Maloney's philosophy was always misty but he was essentially an international socialist in the European social democratic tradition. In the 1890s he threw himself indiscriminately into the activities of radical groups such as the Social Democratic and Single Tax leagues and the Knights of Labor, presided over May Day celebrations, and was active in the Australian Natives' Association. Then and later he was often an executive member of the Progressive Political League, the Political Labor Council and the Victorian Labor Party. A butt of the press, seeming too extreme and eccentric to be taken seriously, he was indeed rash, tending to make wild accusations which he would graciously withdraw; in January 1891 a duel with Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Price seemed imminent.

Old-age pensions was his chief cause, the anti-sweating movement next; in 1898 he chaired a royal commission on the Melbourne tramway employees' grievances, attempting to remedy outrageous working conditions, and later was president of the tramwaymen's union. On 2 November 1892 at the Melbourne Registrar's Office he had married Minnie Grace Pester (d.1934) of Ballarat; although agnostic, he insisted on Catholic baptism of their two children.

About 1896 'the Little Doctor' established at the Queen Victoria Market the North Melbourne District Medical Club (later, the Maloney Medical Institute, which continued until about 1950). In this refuge he treated for the most part a 'pathetic assortment of human wreckage'. From about 1907 he retained assistants but continued to regularly counsel the distressed. He reportedly lost his M.R.C.S. in 1897 for internationally sponsoring an 'electric healer'. He fell foul of the local branch of the British Medical Association for advertising 'advice and medicine, 3s. 6d', and probably also for his support for Mrs Bessie Smyth's campaign for birth control.

In 1901 Maloney stood for the Federal electorate of Melbourne and was soundly beaten by Sir Malcolm McEacharn. In 1903 he stood again and lost narrowly; on appeal a new election was granted and in March 1904, amid intense excitement, he defeated McEacharn by 810 votes; Sir Rupert Clarke was prominent on his platform. Maloney held the seat until his death, blocking the ambition of A. A. Calwell, who however greatly admired him. He was one of the 'torpedo brigade' which aimed to found the Commonwealth Bank; King O'Malley and Andrew Fisher were both his good friends. He was temporary chairman of committees (1910-17), a member of royal commissions on the pearling industry (1913) and the electoral laws (1914), of the joint committee on public accounts (1914-17) and of caucus executive (1914-31). He supported the White Australia policy and became obsessed with the Japanese threat. He was an anti-militarist, however, who vehemently resisted participation in the South African War, but joined the Australian National Defence League in 1906. He unhappily took more than his share of recruiting campaigning in World War I, but was a staunch anti-conscriptionist.

Maloney was often regarded as a light-weight politician and was never a serious contender for ministerial rank. Passing crazes such as bimetallism and Douglas Credit attracted him. Yet he was long before his time as campaigner for pensions, the maternity allowance and child endowment. He was essentially a social worker, not a class hater; he loved humankind, fought inequality and pressed the rights and needs of the poor.

He continued his fund-raising and his care for children, the aged, the unemployed and returned soldiers; he was president of the League of Child Helpers and, in the Depression, of the Melbourne Unemployed Committee. He gave away much of his income. In 1935 he made a film, as an appeal for milk for crèches and free kindergartens. About one thousand people of diverse backgrounds attended the eightieth birthday celebration in the town hall of one of Melbourne's best-loved citizens. In 1940 Maloney led the eight-hour day procession as the senior Labor pioneer. He died at St Kilda on 29 August that year and, after a state funeral, was cremated. His son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Clarke, ‘Big’ Clarke (Melb, 1980)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 16 Jan 1897
  • Punch (Melbourne), 19 Sept 1912, 1 Jan 1925
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 Aug 1924
  • R. B. Cutting, The Little Doctor. A Biography of Dr William Maloney (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1974), and for bibliography
  • S. Merrifield collection (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Maloney, William Robert (Nuttall) (1854–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

William Robert Maloney (1854-1940), by unknown photographer, 1900s

William Robert Maloney (1854-1940), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23365766

Life Summary [details]


12 April, 1854
West Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


29 August, 1940 (aged 86)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, 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.