Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

William Mogford Hamlet (1850–1931)

by H. H. G. McKern

This article was published:

William Mogford Hamlet (1850-1931), chemist and bushwalker, was born on 20 August 1850, at Southsea, near Portsmouth, England, elder son of William Hamlett, stay maker, and his wife Rebecca, née Mogkford. Young William modified both his middle and surnames. Intended for a commercial career, he was apprenticed in a Bristol shipping firm, but early developed an interest in science. He attended evening classes in chemistry and physics at the Bristol Trade and Mining Schools (Polytechnic), then trained at the Royal College of Chemistry, London, under Sir Edward Frankland, F.R.S., obtaining in 1873 first-class honours in inorganic chemistry and winning the Queen's medal.

Next year, with his widowed mother and brother, Hamlet moved to King's Lynn, Norfolk, where he was an analytical and consulting chemist. In 1875 he was elected a fellow of the Chemical Society, London. His appointment as borough analyst in 1877 led to commissions in the fields of water, foodstuffs, drugs and forensic work. A mounting interest in the microbiological researches of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch inspired him in 1880 to take up a research appointment in chemical microbiology in London with the brewing and distilling firm Watney & Co. In 1881 he became a chemist with the Sara Creek Gold Mining Co. Ltd in the Dutch colony of Suriname in tropical South America. Bouts of malaria forced him to return to England late in 1882. Ill health persisted and, advised to seek a warm, drier climate, he left London, reaching Sydney in the Commonwealth on 14 February 1884.

Hamlet speedily found employment as a lecturer in chemistry for the New South Wales Board of Technical Education. On 1 January 1885 he succeeded E. H. Rennie as assistant to the government analyst, within the Department of Health. Hamlet was government analyst of New South Wales from 1887 to 1915. His major responsibilities were the policing of legislative standards for foodstuffs, water, drugs and medicinal preparations. It was his forensic work in criminal cases, however, as well as his public lectures on diet, which led to his becoming a public figure. He lectured also for the University Extension Board.

A member of the government's Anthrax Board, Hamlet was a scientific witness and participant in experiments on anthrax in sheep at Junee in 1888. In 1892 he was a member of a board of enquiry into lead poisoning at Broken Hill. He had been elected to the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1887, and served on its council in 1891-1915; he was president in 1899-1900 and 1908-09. In 1888 he had been elected a fellow of the Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland. He strongly supported the foundation in 1889 of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, to which he contributed papers; at the 1892 meeting in Hobart he was president of section B (chemistry and mineralogy), and at the 1898 Sydney meeting he was a member of the council as well as section B secretary.

On 19 April 1887 at St Thomas's Church of England, North Sydney, Hamlet married English-born Ada Murray. They had five children. The family lived at Mosman; later William and Ada moved to Glenbrook in the lower Blue Mountains. From Glenbrook he travelled daily to the city where in 1919 he established a practice as an analytical and consulting chemist.

Hamlet promoted walking for exercise and mental recreation, a leisure-time activity he had long practised during his years in Britain, in the tradition of the European Romantic movement. In 1895 he was a co-founder of the Warragamba Walking Club, of which his friend Professor John Le Gay Brereton was also a member. Another walking companion was Henry J. Tompkins, a colleague from the Department of Health, who was first secretary of the club and author of the walking handbook With Swag and Billy (1906). Hamlet and his companions largely used roads or tracks—then undisturbed by motor traffic. On long rambles, each day's march was planned to reach overnight accommodation by evening. He walked twice from Brisbane to Sydney (1907 and 1913) and in 1912, with Tompkins, from Sydney to Melbourne along the Princes Highway, covering some 750 miles (1200 km) in thirty-three days: on one day Hamlet, then 62, and Tompkins walked thirty-six miles (58 km).

Hamlet was of small stature, with a moustache and short beard. Precise and cultivated in speech, he was a lover of good English, widely read and an accomplished organist. He was politically conservative, an active Anglican and a loyal monarchist. He died on 18 November 1931 at Glenbrook and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife, two daughters and a son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. McKern, William Mogford Hamlet 1850-1931 (Syd, 1995), and for bibliography
  • Hamlet papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • personal knowledge.

Additional Resources

Citation details

H. H. G. McKern, 'Hamlet, William Mogford (1850–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 12 July 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]


20 August, 1850
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


18 November, 1931 (aged 81)
Glenbrook, New South Wales, 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.

Passenger Ship
Key Organisations
Political Activism