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Mort, Thomas Sutcliffe (1816–1878)

by Alan Barnard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Thomas Sutcliffe Mort (1816-1878), by unknown photographer

Thomas Sutcliffe Mort (1816-1878), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 14476

Thomas Sutcliffe Mort (1816-1878), businessman, was born on 23 December 1816 at Bolton, Lancashire, England, second son of Jonathan Mort and his wife Mary, née Sutcliffe. Brought up in a close family circle in Manchester in aspiring middle class ideals and comfort, he received a sound and practical education. However, his father did not succeed in Manchester and when he died in 1834 his estate was not sufficient to give his sons the start in life that they expected. For many years the eldest son William met outstanding demands on the estate from his clerk's salary. Thomas too had become a clerk with no prospects when he was offered a position in Sydney which he saw as a way to restore the family fortunes. In February 1838 he arrived at Sydney in the Superb and was later followed by his younger brothers Henry (1818-1900) and James (d.1879).

Mort became a clerk in Aspinall, Browne & Co., later Gosling, Browne & Co., and gained extensive experience in local and international commerce with an eventual salary of £500. At Christ Church St Laurence on 27 October 1841 he married Theresa Shepheard, daughter of James Laidley. In September 1843 he set up as an auctioneer and soon prospered in general and wool sales. He was not the first to auction wool in Sydney but innovated regular sales where wool alone was offered, drawing specialized sellers and buyers together in an orderly manner. In the late 1840s he auctioned livestock and pastoral property at specialized sales, gave credit to selected purchasers and later provided finance for running expenses. In the 1850s he provided facilities for growers to consign wool through him for sale in London. These additions completed an integrated set of services to pastoralists that formed the pattern for later wool-broking firms.

Meanwhile in 1848 Mort was associated with the Australian Mutual Provident Society and in 1849 he joined a committee to found a company to promote sugar growing at Moreton Bay and next year was a member of the Sydney Exchange Co., a director of the Sydney Railway Co. in 1851, floated the Great Nugget Vein Mining Co. in 1852, helped to finance Henry Parkes's Empire, and subscribed to the Sydney Gold Escort Co. By 1850 Mort had become the premier auctioneer in Sydney and was already wealthy enough to satisfy his early ambition. He experimented with partnership arrangements hoping eventually to retire from active business. In 1850-51 he was in partnership with Alexander Campbell Brown as Mort & Brown. In 1855 Mort & Co. was formed to run the wool sales and consignments which were handled in London by his brother William; its partners originally included his brother Henry and J. V. Gorman and in 1860 Benjamin Buchanan. Mort & Co. was reformed in 1867 with Mort, his son Laidley, Henry and Buchanan as partners. In 1856-67 pastoral financing was undertaken by T. S. Mort & Co. in which his partner was Ewan W. Cameron. Mort's wealth was multiplied many times in the 1850s as a result of inflation and successful speculation in pastoral properties.

In March 1855 Mort's dry dock at Waterview Bay (Balmain) opened for business; by 1856 he had sunk some £80,000 into it. Built to accommodate the largest vessels then expected to enter the port, it provided facilities sufficient to induce the companies operating the regular overseas mail services to put steamers on the Australian run and make Sydney their terminus. However, for many years profits were disappointing. The dock was grossly over-capitalized; its scale reflected Mort's misplaced faith in the future demand promised by the pressure on ship-repairing services by the peak gold rush traffic. Owned until 1861 by a partnership that included Captain T. S. Rowntree, the dock was leased to various shipping companies, ship-repairers and engineers.

In 1860 Mort somewhat unwillingly had acquired the Bodalla, originally Boat Alley, estate near the mouth of the Tuross River. Still recovering from long ill health and debilitating hypochondria started by a riding accident in 1855 and intensified on his visit to England in 1857-59, he saw in Bodalla both a potential country estate for his retirement and a challenge to his concept of the productive purposes of capital. He planned to make it into a model of land utilization and rural settlement: a tenanted dairy estate run as an integrated whole. He had the beef cattle on Bodalla removed, land cleared, river swamps drained, fences erected, farms laid out, imported grasses sown, provided milking sheds and cheese- and butter-making equipment and selected tenants. Butter and cheese of steadily improving quality were produced for the Sydney market. Within a decade tenants were not prospering as share-farmers and Mort chafed under their right to make production decisions. In the early 1870s the whole estate was back in Mort's hands, run as three farms with hired labour. Specialized labour, first-class facilities, efficient stock control, careful stock-breeding programmes and controlled blending of milk from different breeds and farms all paid off in higher quality products.

In 1862 Mort was a founding director of the Peak Downs Copper Mining Co. in Queensland and the Waratah Coal Mining Co. at Newcastle. In 1866 he decided to make direct use of the dock himself partly for reasons of profit, partly to generate more business for William his agent in London and partly to develop an operating business that he could leave to one of his sons. He put in even more capital, added iron and brassfoundries, a patent slip and new facilities for boiler-making, blacksmithing and engineering. He brought in Thomas Macarthur, a marine engineer, as working partner and renamed the firm Macarthur & Co. The emphasis on marine engineering was still misplaced and when Macarthur died in 1869 Mort developed the general engineering side. His dock manager was James Peter Franki whose experience in railway and mining engineering drew orders to build bridges, crushing machinery and retorts. They assembled imported railway locomotives and in 1870 put into service the first wholly locally produced locomotive. As sole owner of the dock, Mort offered his employees in 1870 a half-share in it to improve labour relations. Some agreed to buy shares and for two years the dock's affairs were managed by a committee of Mort, Buchanan, Franki and four leading hands. The arrangement was made formal in 1872 by the creation of Mort's Dock and Engineering Co. with those men as shareholders and in 1875 the company was incorporated with limited liability. In 1874 he had become a director of the new Sydney Exchange Co. and built a tin-smelting works at Balmain.

In the mid-1860s Mort began to look to refrigeration as a possible solution to three main problems: as a pastoral financier he was vulnerable to falling wool prices on the value of pastoral assets; as owner of a large engineering plant, he was anxious for manufacturing orders; and as a milk and butter producer he wanted better access to the Sydney market. From 1866 until 1878 he financed experiments by E. D. Nicolle to design and produce refrigeration machinery suitable for use in ships, trains and cold-storage depots. Successful land trials prompted a premature public subscription to finance a trial shipment of frozen meat to London in 1868; another subscription was opened in 1875 for a shipment that was loaded in the Northam in 1877 but removed before sailing because of a mechanical defect. Although their machinery was never used in the frozen meat trade, Mort and Nicolle developed commercially viable systems for domestic trade which were brought together in the New South Wales Fresh Food & Ice Co. formed in 1875. They included a slaughtering and chilling works at Bowenfels in the Blue Mountains, a cold store at Darling Harbour, milk depots in the Southern Tablelands, and refrigerated railway vans for meat and milk. The refrigeration venture, on which Mort spent over £100,000 and from which his return was negligible, points up more sharply than any other the business judgments and character of the mature Mort. Like the dock and Bodalla, the investment was a community service that could not be justified after the event by normal economic criteria.

Mort enjoyed his wealth and it gave rein to a natural flamboyance which, often hidden in his personal dealings, was epitomized in his house Greenoaks, Darling Point, where it flowered in Gothic extravagances. In 1846 he had bought the land and built the house. In his 1857-59 visit to England Mort attended a sale at the earl of Shrewsbury's Alton Towers. Among other acquisitions were Elizabethan armour, old English coats of mail, a cabinet that had belonged to Marie Antoinette, antique oak furniture and about 120 pictures. On his return he engaged Edmund Blacket to make additions to the house including an art gallery which with his gardens were open to the public. A keen gardener, he won many prizes at the flower shows in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1851 he served on the committee of management of the Australasian Botanical and Horticultural Society and in the 1870s became president of the Horticultural Society of New South Wales. He was also a vice-president of the Agricultural Society in 1861-78. He was a commissioner for the 1873 London International Exhibition and in 1876 for the Philadelphia and Melbourne Exhibitions.

A strong High Churchman, Mort was one of the most prominent Anglican laymen in Sydney. He gave the land for St Mark's Church, Darling Point, commissioned Blacket to design it and contributed generously to its building and upkeep as well as to the building of St Andrew's Cathedral and St Paul's College, University of Sydney. He was a founding fellow of the college and a warden of St Mark's. He was also the founder of Christ Church School in Pitt Street and a friend of Bishop Patteson.

Mort died on 9 May 1878 from pleuro-pneumonia at Bodalla where he was buried; he was survived by five sons and two daughters of his first wife and by his second wife Marianne Elizabeth Macauley, whom he had married at St Mark's on 30 January 1874, and by their two sons. His goods were valued for probate at £200,000 but the income and capital realizations distributed to his beneficiaries totalled some £600,000. On 14 May a meeting of working men in Sydney resolved to show the esteem and respect in which they held his memory; as a result his statue, sculpted by Pierce Connolly, stands in Macquarie Place.

Mort's brother Henry, company director and pastoralist, represented West Moreton in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly until the separation of Queensland and West Macquarie in 1859-60. In 1881-1900 he was a member of the Legislative Council.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Barnard, Visions and Profits. Studies in the Business Career of T. S. Mort (Melb, 1961).

Citation details

Alan Barnard, 'Mort, Thomas Sutcliffe (1816–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mort-thomas-sutcliffe-4258/text6777, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 27 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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