Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Clifton, Marshall Waller (1787–1861)

by A. C. Staples

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Marshall Waller Clifton (1787-1861), civil servant, colonizer and colonial politician, was born on 1 November 1787 at Alverstoke, Hampshire, England, eldest son of Rev. Francis Clifton and his wife Rebekah Katherine, daughter of Rev. Isaac Moody Bingham, M.A. After education at home, Clifton entered the Admiralty where he was soon promoted secretary to the Victualling Board. In 1811 he married Elinor, from the Quaker family of Daniel Bell of Wandle House, Wandsworth, uncle of Elizabeth Fry and of Edward, father of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Between 1812 and 1835 they had fifteen children, one of whom died in infancy. Horticulture was Clifton's abiding interest, earning him the respect of those associates who were members of the Royal Society. As a 'gentleman well acquainted with various branches of Natural Science' he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 5 June 1828, supported by seventeen signatories including J. W. Croker, (Sir) John Barrow and (Sir) John Franklin. When the Victualling Board was reorganized in 1832 he retired on a pension of £600 and moved to France where living was cheaper for a large family.

In 1840 the Western Australian Co., pledged to the principles of colonization propounded by E. G. Wakefield, appointed Clifton chief commissioner of its proposed settlement at Australind on Leschenault Inlet about ninety miles (145 km) south of Fremantle. The decision to launch this project was the result of five years of activity by a group in London earlier known as the Western Australian Association. With such powerful recruits as William Hutt, M.P., Wakefield and Sir James Stirling, the association formed itself into a company in 1839 to buy from Colonel Peter Lautour and Stirling two conditional grants totalling over 160,000 acres (64,750 ha) in the Port Leschenault district. With an eye to government aid the company lobbied for official consent to compensation in land for conveying emigrants to the colony. Thus stimulated, the Colonial Office on 12 October 1839 published bounty regulations specifically designed for Western Australia to be administered under the strict supervision of the agent-general for emigration. Next, the company persuaded the agent-general to recognize it as a great colonial landholder which might benefit from the regulations. It planned to resell to shareholders a small part of the original purchase, to use this fund for transporting labourers, to claim more land in compensation for that expense, and to enjoy the profits which would flow from the consequent appreciation in value of the balance of the land, as promised by the Wakefield theory of colonization.

Surveyors had been sent in the Island Queen in August 1840 and Clifton was preparing to leave when confusion was created by news from the Swan River. First, Governor John Hutt had resumed the Lautour grant because the time of conditional occupancy had expired; second, Lieutenant (Sir) George Grey had strongly urged that Australind be established at Port Grey, three hundred miles (483 km) north of Fremantle. After the restoration of some measure of confidence in the project Clifton left England in the Parkfield with instructions to go to Port Grey by way of Port Leschenault, where he arrived in May 1841 with his family, officials, settlers and immigrant labourers. He immediately left on horseback for Perth, where he had the satisfaction of being instructed by Hutt to abandon the Port Grey project because the area was unsatisfactory. Hutt's resumption of the Lautour grant was revoked, though the correctness of his action was later vindicated.

In spite of this inauspicious start the next two years brought much progress. Clifton's surveyors planned a city and portion of Lautour's grant was surveyed into 100-acre (40 ha) blocks for which settlers paid £1 an acre. In 1842 two more shiploads arrived but then the land applications dried up, with barely five hundred people, nearly all labourers, brought out instead of the planned one thousand a year. The company virtually ceased operations in 1843 and Clifton's position was retrenched. The promoters drew some wry satisfaction from a land grant in compensation of the £6000 spent on the introduction of labourers. In spite of all the criticism levelled at the company and its promoters, the economic depression of 1842-43 in Britain was not foreseen and contributed greatly to the cessation of applications for Australind land. Under these conditions the company was bound to fail; its only asset, land in the wilderness, remained unsaleable for years. But the immigrants, left without employers, suffered intense hardship.

Clifton found himself and his family abandoned in the Australian bush. He had built an attractive home, Upton House, on his own land and was able to eke out his pension by raising cattle on unoccupied company land or land leased from the crown. Appointed magistrate of the territory and justice of the peace, Clifton maintained a lively interest in public affairs, became a member of the Wellington Road Trust and remained an enthusiastic supporter of the Wellington Agricultural Society. His application for the governorship on Hutt's departure should be judged in the light of his administrative experience and of the Australind plan which had envisaged a greater population than the Swan River settlement by 1846.

Governor Charles Fitzgerald on his arrival in 1848 had attempted to counteract settler influence by appointing the merchant, Lionel Samson, to the Legislative Council in 1849; Clifton was also nominated but not appointed until 1851. With Thomas Brown of York he was welcomed by Fitzgerald as representative of his district. This immediately attracted the attention of a hostile press which, surprisingly, attacked Clifton and Brown for posing as representatives. Yet both had objected to the governor's description, for like most settlers they were very conscious of the difference between governors' nominees in Western Australia in 1851 and elected representatives who formed the majorities in the Legislative Councils of other Australian colonies. Clifton drew further attacks by daring to support a move to increase the salaries of officials, the only section of the community which suffered from the rising prices and prosperity brought by the convict system. Obviously inspired correspondence appeared in the newspapers attacking the new councillors. Clifton counter-attacked by having a petition forwarded from Bunbury praying the governor to accept a higher salary, but the Inquirer in 1851 organized an 'Address of the Colonists to the Press' with over five hundred signatures collected throughout the colony. Clifton's success in 1854 in obtaining an allowance for councillors while in Perth on legislative business caused further irritation.

Clifton clearly feared the introduction of elections, basing his objections on the excitement easily aroused by a mischievous press. He favoured an increase in the number of non-official members and advocated firm control of expenditure by the Legislative Council instead of the Executive Council. With the marked improvement in revenue in 1853 Clifton successfully moved that the colony should finance all the colonial deficit and pay all official salaries; furthermore the non-official members should be increased to a bare majority to force the governor to use his double vote to maintain control, but his proposals were spoiled by an economic recession in 1854.

In the Legislative Council Clifton repeatedly led the Opposition, supported by Samson and Joseph Hardey with the occasional assistance of Judge William Mackie. He took upon himself the function of address-in-reply, following the governor's speech with a long oration heavily spiced with Clifton advice, referring to a wide range of public affairs. He adopted a liberal position on most political matters, whether opposing capital punishment for all but premeditated and atrocious murder, or objecting to the extension of magistrates' power of search.

The next governor, (Sir) Arthur Kennedy, showed little sympathy for the colonial point of view. He angered the merchants by increasing customs duties, in spite of opposition by Samson and Clifton who suggested that revenue be raised by higher taxation. Kennedy's contemptuous reception of a memorial from the Chamber of Commerce caused Samson to resign from the council in 1856; at the same time Clifton, as the protagonist of locally produced wine, supported the governor's bill to reduce consumption of beer and spirits. The Perth Gazette and the Inquirer fiercely attacked the governor and twisted a comment by Clifton on drunken ticket-of-leave men into a general charge of drunkenness among farmers. Opposition to the publicans' bill became allied with the growing demand for representative government. An energetic press campaign, in letters, editorials and public meetings throughout the colony, prepared the way for a monster meeting of protest in Perth in August. To the disgust of many country delegates the merchants dominated the meeting, most of which was devoted to the bill. Kennedy could not be denied his victory; the number of hotels and grog-shops was greatly reduced. Kennedy's irritation when defeated in the Legislative Council was again shown in 1858 during the 'Battle of the Roads' when Clifton carried a resolution for the local appointment of a supervisor to obviate planning by military officers.

Clifton was regarded as the spokesman for settlers in the southern districts, where the majority was composed of Australind immigrants with little capital and few chances of employment on wages. On the council he was the most outspoken opponent of the pastoral interests and advanced Wakefield's proposal to tax large estates to reduce their size, to promote development but with the added purpose of ensuring that the owners should contribute their fair share of taxation which, Clifton claimed, was paid chiefly by the middle and lower classes. These views were anathema to the pastoralists, one of whom angrily insisted that with such sentiments Clifton 'might claim a distinguished position among the Socialist and Communist fraternities of the continent'.

With his southern farmers in mind Clifton had expressed delight at Fitzgerald's practice of allowing the sale of ten-acre blocks for £10, and in 1858 persuaded the council to amend new regulations proposed by Kennedy. Such independence the governor refused to tolerate: in the absence of one councillor, he recommitted his regulations and defeated the amendment. This tactic so disgusted Clifton that he resigned in October. As a private citizen he lent his support to demands for representative government, admitting his conversion to elections as the only defence against official domination. After two years of happy retirement he died at his home on 10 April 1861.

Without misrepresentation by the press, Clifton might have led a determined body of opinion favouring liberal views on finance and constitutional development against the settler influence which became entrenched for the rest of the century. Dubbed 'King Waller' by Rev. John Wollaston for his grand manner and arrogance when crossed, Clifton seems to have commanded great respect rather than affection, though his hospitability was bountiful and his spirit elastic. He was widely known for his horticultural experiments. His vigorous intellect and long administrative experience added weight to his opinions, advanced with rare skill in debates and belying the shortness of his stature. His aim was the welfare of the majority rather than the increasing prosperity of the wealthy. His strong-minded wife continued Quaker observances all her life and helped to influence their descendants. Among them were his grandsons, Robert Cecil Clifton, I.S.O., under-secretary for lands, and Harry F. Johnston, surveyor-general; and their sons, Edmund Cecil Clifton, registrar of titles, and Frederick Marshall Johnston, Commonwealth surveyor-general.

Select Bibliography

  • A. C. Staples, ‘Marshall Waller Clifton’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Western Australian Historical Society), vol 6, part 4, 1965, pp 53-74.

Citation details

A. C. Staples, 'Clifton, Marshall Waller (1787–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 March 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018