Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Clayton (1833–1933)

by Eric Richards

This article was published:

William Clayton (1833-1933), sawyer, was born on 9 April 1833 at Manchester, England, son of Benjamin Clayton, a Catholic hand-sawyer from Yorkshire, and his Protestant wife Ellen, née Jubb. Aged 7, William began as an errand boy for a fishmonger at one shilling a week plus his dinners; he then assisted a pastry-cook before being employed in a dye works. In 1844 his father was killed in a log fall at work; his employer paid his funeral expenses and gave the widow £1 a week for 3 months, reducing to ten shillings a week. At 11 William was taken on at a weaving factory, working from 5.30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 7 till 4 on Saturdays. In his memoirs, written seventy years later, he spoke of the plight of even younger children in the cotton and silk factories; the 5-year-old chimney-sweeps were even worse off. At 15 Clayton was apprenticed to his father's former employer, making packing cases and trunks. He later recalled belonging to a union that campaigned against Saturday afternoon work, a strike in 1847 and the appearance of Chartists at Manchester that decade.

At 16 Clayton thought of migrating to the United States of America but became ill with smallpox. On 26 June 1854 at Manchester he married Mary Ann Court, a cotton-winder. The disruption of the cotton trade during the Crimean War caused them to seek an assisted passage to Australia. Mary gave birth to twins en route and the family reached Port Adelaide in the Grand Trianon in March 1855. William had earned £2 as a steward during the voyage. Unable to find employment, his family destitute, Clayton accepted charity. Eventually he worked as a sawyer in Port Adelaide, taking on extra labour filling railway trucks until fatigue, heat and flies curtailed his regime. In 1856, through a Manchester connexion, he accepted work at Gawler, cutting timber for railway sleepers. Clayton's mobile ways continued and he took to the road as a sawyer and digger between Adelaide and Mount Gambier and as far as the Snowy River, New South Wales, before settling at Robe about 1860 on an acre (0.4 ha) of land with a two-roomed slab house and a four-roomed storehouse.

In 1864 the couple, with four children, sold up and returned to England. It was an unfortunate homecoming: he could not find work in his old trade as case-maker. At a reunion at Selby, Yorkshire, family relationships fell apart and all was soured. William and Mary resolved to go back to Australia and the emigration commissioners approved a second assisted passage, with the proviso that it be the last. The Claytons arrived in South Australia in the Trevalyan in March 1866 and William was soon sawing at Victoria Creek, sometimes working on his own account, still tramping for employment. After a job in a Melbourne hotel he based himself at Mount Gambier, where he constructed telegraph lines and worked for Adam Lindsay Gordon. The peripatetic sawyer never accumulated savings. His wife died in 1912.

At 80 Clayton penned his remarkable memoirs in semi-literate prose. Held in the Mortlock Library, Adelaide, they cover in vivid and candid detail the career of a working man from the 1840s to the Depression of 1929 and provide documentation of life in the formative years of colonial development. Clayton died on 13 August 1933 at Glen Osmond. Three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Eric Richards, ‘Immigrant Lives’, 1836-1986’ in E. Richards (ed), The Flinders History of South Australia: Social History (Adel, 1986)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 Aug 1933, p 10.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Eric Richards, 'Clayton, William (1833–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 5 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 April, 1833
Manchester, Greater Manchester, England


13 August, 1933 (aged 100)
Glen Osmond, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.