The Premier and the Pastoralist, William Morgan and Peter Waite

The Premier and the Pastoralist,

William Morgan and Peter Waite


The Premier and the Pastoralist
William Morgan and Peter Waite

James Waite Morgan

This is not your usual or average family history, listing family tree after family tree with little more than dates of births, marriages and deaths. It is much more. This publication is an account of two men and their families who made a large and lasting contribution to South Australia. It is well written and has substance, setting their struggles, successes and failures against the background of the larger picture of what was happening in South Australia when they were trying to make their mark.

At the same time it is an honest account of their lives, the good and the bad, admitting that they made mistakes and that some of their actions are hard, or even impossible to explain. The two men, who became neighbours, friends and later family, had a very different background. One had his roots in England while the other hailed from Scotland. One became Premier of South Australia, but is not well known today. The other became a pastoralist and is still known today although few people would know much about his family life and his contributions to South Australia.

William Morgan, who was to become Premier, was born on 12 September 1829 at Wilstead, north of London, the son of George and Sarah Morgan. He sailed for South Australia on the Glenelg where he arrived on 13 February 1849. It did not take him long to set up shop in Hindley Street. Several other migrants, before and after him, had started out from Hindley Street and done remarkably well for themselves. Among those were Mary and Robert Thomas, John Baker, Dr William Gosse and Robert Fiveash.

In 1851 William and his brother George, who had arrived later, left his shop for the gold diggings at Ballarat. They did fairly well and with his inheritance and proceeds from the diggings William bought Boord’s retail business in Adelaide. By 1854 he was well established and prosperous. In fact he did well enough to propose to Harriet Mathews, daughter of Thomas and Harriet, nee Hurd of Hurd’s Hill, Coromandel Valley. They were married on 7 August 1854 and their first child, Arthur, was born on 30 May 1855. A second son, Lionel, was born on 18 January 1857 followed by a further five children, the last one, Mary in 1869.

After only 10 years in South Australia William’s business had turned out a great success and the family moved from Goodwood to Mitcham where they had a larger house and gardens. All the while the business continued to flourish and now the emphasis was on expansion. Shop keeping was replaced by wholesale only and other avenues were also explored. He became a shipping agent and was highly involved in the wheat trade.

At the age of 38 Morgan became a member of the prestigious Adelaide Club. His proposer was Sir Richard Hanson and seconder was his friend John Hart. Morgan was also instrumental in the founding of the Adelaide Bank and was a director of the AMP. Any spare time was used to improve and beautify his garden at Mitcham with the help of his wife and a gardener. Their stay at Mitcham was a happy one with several children born there and the house full of constant visitors. William Morgan had it made.

His success and status would have been all that anyone could aspire to, but not so Morgan. He still wanted more. In 1867 he bought a new house, Netherby Estate, on an 80 acre block. At Netherby entertainment was almost continuously. There were the usual dinner parties, which included many prominent people, including governors and their wives.

That same year he was elected to the Legislative Assembly and started to show an interest in mining matters, which was to prove his undoing. During his parliamentary career he became involved in the French penal colony of New Caledonia where the now Hon. William Morgan was treated as a person of some importance. He visited the island almost every year, often for lengthy periods, until his death. What had started out as a wheat contract became an almost full time interest in prospecting and mining of copper and gold, sugar refining and rum distilling.

Meanwhile in Adelaide Morgan held the position of Chief Secretary from 3 June 1875 until 25 March 1876 and again from 26 October 1877 until 27 September 1878. In 1878 he also became Premier. Morgan was committed to public works, free trade and a property tax, rather than income tax. He helped provide stability for ‘reproductive works’ which resulted in the building of railways, the development of Port Adelaide, cultural institutions and the damning of the ‘mighty Torrens’. He resigned as Premier on 24 June 1881 but remained in the Legislative Assembly.

During all these years Morgan had shown to be a family man, successful politician and merchant with a wife, seven children, coachman and servants. However there was also the rootless entrepreneur, spending time alone at Noumea with convict servants, occupying his time with mining ventures as well as shipping. It was these ventures that would finally ruin him. With fellow politician and business partner Lavington Glyde, who was involved with the Talisker silver mine, he invested in land at Walkerville and Mount Remarkable to the tune of £300.000.

Morgan’s resignation was caused not by ill health but by his money problems which he had been able to hide from his wife and family. His splendid march through life had come to a sudden halt. As his economic distress was still unbeknown to most outsiders, he was appointed KCMG in early 1883. In an effort to salvage what was left of his fortune he departed for England. While there his health declined rapidly and he died on 2 November 1883 to be buried where he was born, leaving his wife and children in a very strained condition.


Pastoralist Peter Waite was born on 9 May 1834 at Pitcairn, Scotland, the son of farmer James and Elizabeth, nee Stocks. He trained and worked as an ironmonger in Edinburgh before coming to Australia. He arrived in Melbourne in July 1859 and made his way to Adelaide where he joined his brother James at Pandappa station, near Terowie, which he held in partnership with Thomas Elder. As early as 1862 Peter bought Paratoo station from William Dare and David Mundy.

On 25 November 1864 he married Matilda Methuen, his first cousin, born 14 June 1836. She had arrived at Port Adelaide a few weeks before on 7 November on the City of Adelaide. They had not seen each other for five long years. They were married at St Clair in Woodville which the Barr Smiths had rented from J.B. Hughes. After the ceremony and breakfast they set off for Paratoo.

Peter had done extremely well in such a short time, especially for someone who had no previous experience in pastoral matters or sheep husbandry. What is even more remarkable was the fact that he was able to survive the crippling long drought of 1864-1866. With his superb management skills he was able not only to retain his station but also most of his stock.

However, his wife was not at all happy with the conditions and amenities she had to put up with at Paratoo and Waite's frequent and often long absences. They had a new baby almost every year, the first one, Agnes, born on 15 January 1866 and the last, Eva, in 1880. After the death of their third child in October 1869, who had lived for only 12 days, Peter arranged for his wife to have her next children at Glenelg. He was very lucky to have married a woman who stood by him no matter what.

Not only had Peter Waite shown to be a first class manager he was also quick to utilise modern methods in his pastoral pursuits. He believed in planning, organisation and investment, very much like Sidney Kidman who would later run up large accounts with Waite's employer and partner. Taking up leases in the north eastern parts of South Australia, Waite had to fence his runs and build dams or wells long before they could be stocked. Although he had to cope with droughts, floods and labour problems, to name just a few, he was lucky that his transport worries were solved when the railway from Burra was extended to Cockburn and later Broken Hill.

Later, when his employer and partner Thomas Elder made capital available, it was Waite who supervised improvements, labour, transport, breeding and shearing. Waite had the ability to pick his men and get them to do what he wanted without rancour. He was a man of few words but a resolute advocate of the special needs of the pastoral industry and its lessees.

Within ten years of arriving in South Australia he was Superintendent of Runs in the Beltana partnership. Waite had become Elder’s right-hand man. It was also through Elder that Waite came to buy the Urrbrae estate in 1874 and the family was able to move back to the city from Paratoo, which his wife and young children very much appreciated. It was after their move to Urrbrae that they got to know the Morgan family.

Waite became chairman of Elder’s Wool, a position he kept for the rest of his life, and in 1888 chairman of Elder Smith & Co. Early in 1889 Waite set up house in England for the sake of his children’s education and looking for furnishings for the new Urrbrae house that was being built. He returned to South Australia in 1891. During these, and coming years, he was also director of British Broken Hill Mining Company and the South Australian Woollen Company. He had also founded the South Australian and West Darling Pastoralists’ Association.

Peter Waite had carved a brilliant career from the land previously familiar only to the Aborigines and early explorers. He had created and managed a pastoral empire which stretched from Paratoo to Cordillo Downs bordering Queensland. While William Morgan had been a man of the city engaged with its community, Waite’s engagement had been with endless plains, far horizons and sheep.

Peter Waite died at Victor Harbor on 4 April 1922, aged 88. Matilda died at Urrbrae a few months later on 21 November. Their one grandchild married Morgan’s grandson. The name Waite has died out but lives on in his gift to South Australia and the University of Adelaide of his house and estate to found the Waite Agricultural Research Institute.

Both Morgan and Waite were modern in their attitude and innovations, combining success and failure. Both were instrumental in making major political and economic changes affecting almost all South Australians. They were also obsessed, one with mining, the other with pastoralism and land management. Both men were good family men, husbands and fathers.

They made enormous financial gambles. For one they paid off, for the other they didn’t. Both men left a legacy. Waite left both money and the Urrbrae Estate. Morgan left no money or property but a lively bloodline whose members have made their mark in law, medicine, farming and mining, one becoming managing director of Western Mining Company, which discovered and developed Olympic Dam.

This well presented, informative and interesting hard-cover publication by James Waite Morgan has 181 pages, contains many photographs, footnotes, bibliography and index.

Review by Nic Klaassen

The Premier and the Pastoralist by James Waite Morgan
is available at $34.95 from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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