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first Viscount Dunrossil (1893–1961)

by David I. Smith

This article was published:

first Viscount Dunrossil (1893-1961), by unknown photographer, 1959

first Viscount Dunrossil (1893-1961), by unknown photographer, 1959

State Library of New South Wales, Australian Photographic Agency - 46345 [detail]

first Viscount Dunrossil (1893-1961), governor-general, was born on 10 August 1893 at Torinturk, near Oban, Argyllshire, Scotland, sixth of eight sons of John Morrison, farmer, and his wife Marion, née McVicar. John had worked in the South African diamond fields before selling out to De Beers and settling at Torinturk. Educated at George Watson's College, Edinburgh, in 1912 William entered the University of Edinburgh (M.A., 1920) to study arts and law. His initials W. S., and his love of Shakespeare, earned him the nickname 'Shakes' which stuck to him. In August 1914 he was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery (Special Reserve). At Neuve-Chapelle, France, in March 1915, he maintained communications with his battery, despite being wounded, and was awarded the Military Cross. He rose to captain, was thrice mentioned in dispatches and resigned his commission in August 1919.

Called to the English Bar at the Inner Temple on 19 November 1923, Morrison was private secretary (1922-29) to Sir Thomas Inskip (Viscount Caldecote) who was successively solicitor-general and attorney-general. At South Leith parish church, Scotland, on 22 April 1924 Morrison married Katharine Allison Swan; she, too, was an Edinburgh graduate and was reading for the Bar. Following two unsuccessful attempts (1923 and 1924) to enter the House of Commons as Unionist candidate for the Western Isles, he was elected in 1929 as Conservative member for the Cirencester and Tewkesbury division, Gloucestershire; he was to retain the seat for thirty years.

Morrison took silk in 1934. Appointed recorder of Walsall, Staffordshire, in 1935, he became financial secretary to the Treasury later that year. In 1936 he was appointed minister of agriculture and fisheries, and was sworn of the Privy Council. He was chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister of food in 1939-40, postmaster-general in 1940-42, and minister of town and country planning from 1943 until 1945 when his party went into Opposition.

On the Conservatives' return to power in 1951, Morrison was elected Speaker. He presided over debates on the Suez crisis in 1956 'when feelings rose so high as seriously to threaten the preservation of parliamentary order and the cohesion of the Conservative Party'. That the standing of the institution of parliament remained undamaged was largely due to the personal characteristics and talents which he displayed as Speaker. These skills stemmed from his years at university where he chaired debates and was senior president of the Students' Representative Council.

In 1959 he announced his retirement for reasons of health. There was therefore some surprise when it was announced soon afterwards that he had been chosen to succeed Sir William (Viscount) Slim as governor-general of Australia. Morrison was created Viscount Dunrossil of Vallaquie (on the island of North Uist, Outer Hebrides) and appointed G.C.M.G. that year. He was sworn in as governor-general on 2 February 1960 in Canberra.

The way he approached Australia and Australians in his year of office was shaped by his relatively humble Scottish origins, his non-Establishment education, the egalitarian nature of Hebridean society, and his long-standing friendship with Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies who had recommended his appointment. Lacking an appreciation of the large amount of work involved in vice-regal office, he plunged into his duties with energy and enthusiasm, but at great cost to his health. He and his wife travelled widely throughout Australia and its territories. Lady Dunrossil accepted her own heavy responsibilities, as well as quietly and efficiently assuming additional public duties whenever her husband's illness prevented him from discharging them.

Dunrossil's appearance was impressive, even forbidding, but his personal staff found him warm and friendly. Journalists described him as a very human person with a rich sense of humour. All who met him were struck by his simple sincerity. Survived by his wife and four sons, he died of pulmonary embolism on 3 February 1961 at Government House, Canberra; after a state funeral, he was buried at his family's request in the graveyard of the Church of St John the Baptist, Reid. His eldest son John succeeded to the viscountcy. Lady Dunrossil died in England in 1983; her ashes were interred in a niche in the cover of her husband's grave. Rex Bramleigh's portrait of Dunrossil is held by Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Edinburgh Roll of Honour 1914-1919 (Edinburgh, 1921)
  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1961-70
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth, both Houses), 7 Mar 1961
  • University of Edinburgh Journal, vol 20, no 2, 1961-62, vol 31, no 1, June 1983
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 13 Apr 1960
  • Times (London), 3 Feb 1961
  • Canberra Times, 4 Feb 1961, 22 July 1983
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4, 5, 7 Feb 1961
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David I. Smith, 'Dunrossil, first Viscount (1893–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

first Viscount Dunrossil (1893-1961), by unknown photographer, 1959

first Viscount Dunrossil (1893-1961), by unknown photographer, 1959

State Library of New South Wales, Australian Photographic Agency - 46345 [detail]

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Morrison, William

10 August, 1893
Torinturk, Argyll, Scotland


3 February, 1961 (aged 67)
Yarralumla, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 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.