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Morphett, Sir John (1809–1892)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Morphett (1809-1892), by Thomas Lawrence

John Morphett (1809-1892), by Thomas Lawrence

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B61199

Sir John Morphett (1809-1892), landowner and politician, was born on 4 May 1809 in London, a son of Nathaniel Morphett and Mary, née Gliddon, of Cummins, Ide, Devon. His father came from a Kentish family and was a London solicitor. After leaving school at 16 Morphett joined a London commercial office and at 21 entered the counting-house of Harris & Co., in Alexandria, Egypt.

Morphett returned to London in 1834 with his younger brother George and, through Dr Edward Wright, became interested in the South Australian Association, then pressing for the establishment of a colony in southern Australia, on the principles of systematic colonization advocated by Edward Gibbon Wakefield. On the passing of the South Australian Act (4 & 5 Wm IV, c. 95), Morphett issued a four-page circular, Reasons for the Purchase of Land in South Australia, by Persons Resident in Britain; With a View to the Removal of Labourers, and the Profitable Employment of Capital. In this pamphlet he declared his intention of migrating and his readiness to act for purchasers of land. He also advertised in similar terms in the Globe and Traveller, 30 July 1835. In September 1834 he joined the South Australian Literary Association, and was soon elected to its committee. By 1835 he was one of the most energetic advocates of the new province.

Morphett sailed in the Cygnet and arrived in South Australia in September 1836. Two months later with Lieutenant Field and (Sir) George Kingston, he discovered the River Torrens. He considered Kangaroo Island unsuitable for permanent settlement but reported favourably on the mainland after two visits, his letter being published in London in pamphlet form. At the crucial meeting on 10 February 1837 Morphett's votes were decisive in confirming the site of Adelaide. In July 1837 in support of the resident commissioner, (Sir) James Fisher, against Governor (Sir) John Hindmarsh, he joined the committee which established the Southern Australian and his report on these matters was published next year in London. Hindmarsh later complained that Morphett was largely responsible for his recall. In 1839 Morphett had a part in selecting six special surveys, mostly for his English friends and for the Secondary Towns Association. With his Mediterranean experience he believed that wool-growing was more suited than agriculture to South Australia, but he also knew that the colony needed men of capital. He threw his weight behind every good cause; in 1840 he became treasurer of Adelaide's Municipal Corporation, helped to found the Agricultural Society in 1844, gave support to the Collegiate School of St Peter and acted as attorney for the Society for Propagating the Gospel in foreign parts. He became a local director of the South Australian Banking Co., and served on the committee of the English Railway Co. His office on North Terrace was thronged by men seeking level-headed advice on land and commerce and he was a popular chairman at public meetings.

Morphett's political career was long and distinguished. In 1843 he became one of the first non-official nominees in the Legislative Council. In 1846 he was one of four who walked out in protest against the mining royalty proposals, but later he proposed the bill for state aid to religion. Next year he visited England, returning in time to oppose Earl Grey's federal plans and local moves for vote by ballot. When the Legislative Council was reformed he was again nominated and in August 1851 he was elected Speaker. In the first elections under responsible government in March 1857 he won a place in the Legislative Council. In 1861 he was chief secretary in the two short Thomas Reynolds ministries, resigning because he was unable to support the moves to dismiss Judge Benjamin Boothby. In 1865 he became president of the Legislative Council, and retained the post until his retirement from politics in 1873.

On 15 August 1838 Morphett married Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of J. H. Fisher. He was knighted in 1870, and died at his house, Cummins, Morphettville, on 7 November 1892, survived by six daughters and four sons. Portraits include a crayon drawing by Samuel Laurence in the possession of H. C. Morphett, Adelaide. As a prominent founder, his name figures large in South Australia's toponymy.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Morphett (compiler), The Life and Letters of Sir John Morphett (Adel, 1936)
  • A. Young, ‘Thornton Leigh Hunt (1810-73) and the Colonization of South Australia’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, vol 59, 1957-58, pp 71-77.

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Citation details

'Morphett, Sir John (1809–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morphett-sir-john-2483/text3337, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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