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William Lockhart Morton (1820–1898)

by J. Ann Hone

This article was published:

William Lockhart Morton (1820-1898), pastoralist, explorer and inventor, was born on 19 December 1820 at Cambusnethan, Lanarkshire, Scotland. His engineering studies at the University of Glasgow were curtailed and he migrated to Port Phillip, arriving in August 1841 during the depression. He was first employed in a boiling-down works on Saltwater River. He then moved around and was working for Anne Drysdale when he first won repute for ingenuity. He constructed an efficient pump and more importantly, a dip for dressing scab in sheep.

In 1845 Morton managed Sutton Grange station, east of Mount Alexander. Late in 1846 he took up a share in Morton Plains (near Birchip), fell out with his partner and for twelve months managed a station at Kyneton before taking up Plains of Thalia where he ran sheep. In 1853 he acquired the adjoining Salisbury Plains but after drought and disease he abandoned both stations in 1855 and moved to Melbourne. At Morton Plains he had invented the swing gate for drafting sheep; on 14 January 1848 he explained the principle of the gate and race in a letter to the Argus.

In July 1859 Morton invited twenty businessmen to invest in a Queensland expedition to the Burdekin in hope of a government reward for finding a good port and harbour. This scheme fell through but later that year Morton and two others explored country north of Rockhampton. His account of the trip was given to the Philosophical Institute of Victoria and published in 1860 as Notes of a recent personal visit to the unoccupied portions of Northern Queensland. To the Royal Society of Victoria he proposed the settlement of the Victoria River district in North Australia, claiming that conditions were suitable though labour would have to be imported. His address was published in 1861 as Suggestions for the Formation of a New Settlement in Australia. He then travelled through Victoria's Mallee district in search of water and pastures and in 1864 explored in Gippsland, returning with rich specimens of copper ore and great expectations. Keen on acclimatization, he had helped to found the Yeoman and Australian Acclimatiser in 1861 and was also active in the Port Phillip Farmers' Society. In 1864 he raised the question of patent rights for his two inventions and so began a press controversy. Some pastoralists claimed to have used the swing gate before 1847 but in 1886 a parliamentary inquiry found Morton the inventor of both the sheep dip and the swing gate.

Morton's journeys to New South Wales and Queensland brought him little reward and he tried for years to acquire land leases. In 1871 he obtained sixty blocks of dry country near Cobar but did not stock the area until 1877. In 1880 Morton and two sons tried north-east of the Torowoto Swamp, forty miles (64 km) from the Queensland border. This venture was also defeated by drought and his sons died of rheumatic fever; of 30,000 sheep, 9000 were mustered and sold for 2s. 9d. each.

Despite tragedy and bankruptcy, Morton remained interested in Australia's development. In 1882 his article, 'Tyranny of Democracy in Australia' in the Victorian Review, pleaded for Federation of the colonies, and in 1884 he advocated separation of the Riverina from New South Wales. About 1886 he moved to Belair near Adelaide to live with his son William Lockhart, a Presbyterian minister. He died on 10 March 1898, survived by one of his four sons and his wife Mary Anne, née Stone, whom he had married in 1849.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Henderson (ed), Australian Families, vol 1 (Melb, 1941)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1886, 1 (D3, D4)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July 1859
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 13 June 1863
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Nov 1864, 7 Feb, Apr, 1 May 1865, 2 Feb 1884, 4 Aug 1885, 20 Feb, 3 July 1886, 4 Nov 1892, 12 Mar 1898
  • Australasian, 9 Jan 1875, 1 Jan 1876, 12 May 1877
  • Once a Month (Melbourne), July 1884–June 1886.

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Morton, William Lockhart (1820–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 December, 1820
Cambusnethan, Lanarkshire, Scotland


10 March, 1898 (aged 77)
Belair, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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