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Clayton, Eric Elwin (Sam) (1896–1987)

by Stephen M. Powell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Eric Elwin Samuel (Sam) Clayton (1896-1987), commissioner of soil conservation, was born on 27 July 1896 at Orange, New South Wales, elder child of Robert Ashton Clayton, storekeeper, and his wife Alice Eliza, née Smith, who were both born at Orange. Raised by his widowed mother, Sam was educated at Hurlstone Agricultural High School. He graduated from Hawkesbury Agricultural College in 1914, and in 1915 joined the State Department of Agriculture at Cowra Experiment Farm.

On 22 August 1916 Clayton enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. In 1917-18 he served with the 6th Mobile Veterinary Section in Palestine and Egypt. Following his return to Australia in February 1919, he was discharged from the army in April. He resumed civilian life at Wagga Experiment Farm and then became an agricultural instructor on the New South Wales north coast. On 15 February 1922 he married Marjorie Ella Molesworth Oxley at St John’s Church of England, Wagga Wagga.

Clayton next moved to the State’s southwestern district, where he rose in 1927 to senior experimentalist; the challenges of growing wheat in semi-arid lands led him to fear the effects on the thin topsoil. In the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales (volume XLII) in 1931, he called soil erosion a `serious problem’ that threatened to degrade thousands of fertile properties into `barren wastes’. Two years later the government established a soil erosion committee. Clayton, a tall, lean, outspoken member with a distinctive toothbrush moustache, cultivated support from land users and newspaper readers. His first political sponsor was Roy Vincent, Country Party secretary for mines and minister for forests (193241) in the State government, who sent him abroad in 1936 to study erosion remedies.

The eight-month tour incorporated Britain, Europe, and North America, where the Federal Soil Conservation Service, Washington, under the charismatic Hugh Bennett, left a lasting impression. Back in Australia, Clayton published The Problem of Soil Erosion (1937), demanding `forthright, determined, nationwide action’ to rectify `yesterday’s failure to look more carefully to our land’. His approach emulated Bennett’s combination of central publicity and decentralised action.

Clayton drafted the Soil Conservation Act, 1938, which passed with strong support from (Sir) William McKell. The new Soil Conservation Service, with Clayton as director of a very small founding staff, was based first in the Department of Mines and from 1944 in the Department of Conservation. McKell, while premier, travelled with him through the Snowy Mountains to discuss controls over high-country grazing. Such connections cushioned Clayton from the protests of other agencies when he rode roughshod over them or poached their best technicians. Although Clayton saw erosion as a national menace, Australian responses remained State based.

In 1949 the Soil Conservation Service was brought under the aegis of the new Conservation Authority of New South Wales, and Clayton’s position was redesignated as commissioner. He filled this post until his compulsory retirement in 1961. Continuing to live at Cremorne, he enjoyed fishing and bowls. In 1975 he was appointed AM and in 1984 he received the inaugural Sir William McKell medal for his contribution to soil conservation. Predeceased by his wife, he died on 4 January 1987 at Broadbeach, Queensland, and was cremated. His two daughters and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Breckwoldt, The Dirt Doctors (1988)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 14 July 1938, p 388, 28 July 1938, p 690
  • Journal of Soil Conservation, New South Wales, vol 43, no 1, 1987, p 49
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Apr 1927, p 4
  • Smith’s Weekly, 4 Oct 1947, `Monthly Country’, p 6
  • S. M. Powell, Mothering, Husbandry and the State (PhD thesis, Monash University, 2000)
  • Clayton papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Stephen M. Powell, 'Clayton, Eric Elwin (Sam) (1896–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clayton-eric-elwin-sam-12325/text22141, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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