Story: Morton, Frank

Page 1: Biography

Morton, Frank

1869–1923

Journalist, writer

This biography, written by Dennis McEldowney, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Frank Morton spent only 9 of his 54 years in New Zealand. During that time he shocked, stimulated and entertained New Zealanders and was then largely forgotten. Born on 12 May 1869 in Bromley, Kent, England, the son of a plumber, James Morton, and his wife, Rhoda Hookham, Morton was educated at Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, and emigrated with his family to Sydney at the age of 16. Apprenticed as an engineer, at 20 he went to sea on an American windjammer, travelled in Asia, and took up journalism on the Straits Times in Singapore, where, on 5 August 1891, he married Louise Susan Chicherley Holloway. For some years they lived in Calcutta, Louise's birth place, before returning to Australia in 1894.

During a succession of newspaper jobs in Brisbane, Sydney and Hobart, Morton also contributed to the Bulletin and became friendly with its famous literary editor, A. G. Stephens. He developed an airy facility for poetry in difficult verse forms and, like his contemporary Hugh McCrae and the illustrator Norman Lindsay, countered Australian wowserism with Greek paganism, populating his writing with satyrs and centaurs, unicorns and fauns.

In 1905 Morton moved to Dunedin, New Zealand, to work on the Otago Daily Times. He enjoyed his time there, preferring even 'a puritan paper in stuffy Dunedin' to the Australian atmosphere of 'backbiting' and 'petty jealousy'. By 1906 he was again restless and talked of taking up a job offer in New York. He moved to Wellington in 1907 and set up as a freelance journalist. Morton seems to have been in difficult circumstances at this time. He had little money; he 'got into a hole with a lady' and was embarrassed when the story became public; and he was apparently unpopular among newspaper people. A plan to move to London came to nothing.

Morton was a frequent contributor to the liveliest journal in New Zealand, C. N. Baeyertz's outspoken monthly, the Triad, and by 1909 was associate editor, working from Wellington while Baeyertz remained in Dunedin. From then until his death Morton wrote the greater part of every issue under his own name, his initials, a number of pseudonyms (including 'Epistemon' and 'Selwyn Rider'), and no signature at all. With extraordinary versatility he wrote poetry, fiction, historical reconstructions, gossip columns, cookery columns, current comment, book reviews. He opposed conservative respectability and whatever he thought of as humbug and cant.

Morton's prose was supple and allusive, and, when his intelligence was fully engaged, cogent and effective. On off-days he could be all style and no substance. He still contributed outside the Triad, especially to Australian journals, and in 1910 became theatre and music critic of the New Zealand Times, shattering the tradition of respectful reviews of touring companies in daily papers. In consequence he is said to have been thrown out of Wellington's opera house.

It was sometimes claimed that Morton became the dominant force in the Triad, but this was never true in the New Zealand period. Baeyertz was in control, but they complemented one another. It was sometimes difficult to distinguish what each of them wrote; Morton even wrote some of Baeyertz's 'Obiter Dicta' column. They shared most opinions and both delighted in being outrageous. Neither was a nationalist; they regarded New Zealand as an extension of Britain, subject to the same norms. Morton lacked Baeyertz's depth of knowledge of music and voice production, but he extended the Triad's literary coverage, keeping its readers informed of developments abroad. With his fin de siècle dexterity in verse form, he detested new movements which threw all that over. An assault on the 'revolting insanity' and 'perverted drivelling' of vorticism, Blast, and the poetry of Ezra Pound drew an indignant reply from Pound himself.

Consistency often receded before Morton's need to shock. He declared himself the meekest slave of the sweet creature Woman, but was sarcastic and rude to particular women; he blamed the women's vote for puritan legislation, but called himself a feminist. He dedicated a volume of poetry, Laughter and tears (1908), to Sir Joseph Ward, 'Australasia's most democratic Premier', and wrote a political novella, The angel of the earthquake (1909), to point a moral which to a modern eye is proto-fascist. A third book from his New Zealand years is Verses for Marjorie (1916).

When Baeyertz moved the Triad to Sydney in 1914 Morton went with him and resumed his place in Australian literature. He contributed to several magazines, virtually ran the Triad and published volumes of love poetry.

Frank Morton was a small, bald, bespectacled man with 'thick, sensuous lips', who dressed as a fashionable dandy. Although he cultivated a reputation as Bohemian and roué, and 'drank to excess frequently', friends insisted he was in reality a quiet, home-loving man, devoted to his wife, three sons and two daughters. He died in Sydney on 15 December 1923.

How to cite this page:

Dennis McEldowney. 'Morton, Frank', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m63/morton-frank (accessed 16 October 2018)