Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: The political assassination of Prime Minister John Gorton – Part 11

John Gorton being sworn in as Prime Minister by Governor-General Lord Casey in January 1968

A “real” bastard in The Lodge

John Gorton was a bastard. He was born a bastard because he was conceived out of wedlock. His father was in a de facto relationship with a woman other than his lawful wife when he was born. While many of his predecessors at The Lodge – as well as his successors – earned well-deserved reputations for being complete bastards, only Gorton’s bastardry was utterly authentic.

John Rose Gorton, father of the future PM

His father was an Englishman named John Rose Gorton with a reputation for being a “Walter Mitty” character. John Rose Gorton married Kathleen O’Brien in Liverpool, Merseyside, but they separated after arriving in Australia. They remained childless.

The adventure-seeking couple left Liverpool at the turn of the 20th century, first travelling to South Africa where John Rose Gorton sold fire engines, owned a nightclub and attempted various schemes to profit from the Boer War. He departed Cape Town in somewhat of a hurry to start nefarious money-making enterprises in Perth, Melbourne and Wellington, NZ. The marriage was mismatched and Kathleen soon tired of his “pot of gold” fantasies and fled to Brisbane. John Rose Gorton pleaded with his estranged wife for a divorce but, as a devout Catholic, she would hear none of it. After a few years of monogamy John Rose Gorton, still residing in Melbourne, began a live-in relationship with another woman named Alice Sinn.

Gorton as a child with his mother Alice Sinn

An official birth certificate recorded that in Melbourne on 9 September 1911 Alice Sinn gave birth to a baby boy named John Alga Gordon (sic). In fact, he was none other than John Grey Gorton, the future prime minister.

On the official birth certificate the father was registered as John James Gordon (sic), aged 36, formerly from Liverpool in England and the mother as Alice Sinn, aged 24, from Port Melbourne. The certificate recorded that John James Gordon, an invented name, and Alice had married in Dunedin, on the south island of New Zealand, on 2 June 1909. The document was filled out incorrectly and essential details were false. The official certificate also recorded that John and Alice had another child, Ruth, who was deceased. This was also untrue – she was alive, and living with Kathleen from an early age.

Today’s matrimonial standards are vastly different. Unmarried relationships are almost as common as married ones and divorces are commonplace. But in the early 1900s when Victorian values dominated social life in Australia, a man and a woman living together out of holy wedlock were widely considered to be sinning against god and on their way to hell and damnation. If they begged the local priest for a divorce things could turn nasty and they may be turned away from communion or confession. However, with a generous donation to parish funds things could be smoothed over.

For little John Gorton, the parental confusion was traumatic. The boy had a father who lived in a fantasy world of contrived upper-class superiority. He had two “mothers”: his birth mother, Alice Sinn and John Rose Gorton’s wife Kathleen, with whom he too later lived. He desperately tried to please all of them. In return, he needed their unconditional love. Sadly, it was not forthcoming. He was pampered to be sure, but he was treated like a household pet and given training rather than affection. The adults were too immersed in their own problems to be worried about him.

Gorton gave permission for his official biographer, Melbourne journalist Alan Trengove, to reveal some details of his troubled parenting in a book published in 1969. The revelation caused a minor sensation for a few days in the media before slipping away. However, the information was not lost on his enemies in the hierarchy of the Liberal Party nor their wives. They shared his out-of-wedlock origins with a mixture of narrow-minded prurience and sniggering satisfaction.

Gorton as a toddler

Initially, I believed Australia had scored a “first” by having an illegitimate PM in The Lodge. To my surprise, I discovered that many other world leaders from hush-hush parenting had risen to the highest office. The British Labour Party had a crop of them: Keir Hardie, the party’s founder was brought up by his mother and step-father (he never knew his biological father), Ramsay MacDonald, British PM on three occasions, and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. In Europe, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt was brought up by a single parent; his mother who was a cashier in a department store (he never knew his father) while France and Italy have an undisclosed number of “illegitimates”.

Scores of studies show that heredity is a powerful force in the lives of men and women. In John Gorton’s case, he had drawn the shortest of straws: he was illegitimate and he felt unwanted. His father and two “mothers” never thought he would amount to anything much. He decided to prove them all wrong.

It should also be noted that Melbourne at the turn of the 20th century was wildly neurotic. The city was shamed by rates of mental illness that were alarmingly high. In the previous century, a huge influx of settlers arrived in search of gold. “Gold fostered the singular pursuit of wealth in the young British colony, changing Melbourne from a frontier town to a metropolis with astounding speed,” wrote Melbourne psychologist Dr Jill Giese. Official population figures show Victoria had 75,000 people in 1851 and 500,000 ten years later. But when collecting alluvial gold in “El Dorado” came to an end it brought “crushing disappointment and bitter psychological blows” to fortune-hunters.

Dr Giese summarised the social disturbing turmoil: “For many, the extravagant anticipations of instant wealth and new beginnings, the miraculous escape from poverty or loss of personal turmoil or loneliness or family strife, failed to materialise. Dreams of better fortunes evaporated under the vast Australian sky, in lives severed from home by immense wild oceans.” She could have been writing about the Gorton family.

The Gortons arrived from Merseyside bristling with dreams of a new and better life. Their idealised existence was shattered by the family break-up followed by the failure of another of John Rose Gorton’s financial schemes. It plunged the couple into disappointment bordering on despair. Although only a baby boy, John picked up “bad vibes” from the family breakdown and the business perils in the city. He lived in a cocoon of boundless optimism and severe depression.

Lake Kangaroo, Victoria – the area Gorton always considered home

On the outside, he was a happy, contented and well-adjusted little princeling who, his father insisted, was “destined for great things”. On the inside, however, the boy was insecure, secretive and frequently depressed. They were childhood characteristics that did not recede as he grew up. On the contrary, they became more and more pronounced.

Falsification of Gorton’s parenting has continued. In 2017, the Commonwealth Government’s official historical website, the National Archives of Australia, has an entry on the 19th prime minister which states: “John Gorton was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1911 and lived most of his childhood in Sydney.” This is incorrect. Why has no one at the National Archives revised it? Why doesn’t the Liberal Party correct the birth details of one of its most fascinating leaders?

Gorton’s life reached a critical turning point when his birth mother Alice Sinn died of tuberculosis when she was 32. He later recalled: “I was 10 years old when my mother died. It shattered my father.”

Gorton Senior took his boy to a suburban train stop in Sydney and introduced him to his real wife, Kathleen, and his sister, Ruth – the first he knew of a sibling. He asked the boy whether he was prepared to live with the woman he had just been introduced to. “You must go with this lady,” he said. “She will look after you.”

“All right,” the boy replied. “The next thing my father said was ‘Goodbye’. He said, ‘I’ll see you’, and walked away and left us there. He went back to Victoria and we went home with his [real] wife.”

Over the years, it was a story John Gorton would tell and retell after long drinking sessions when he was in a reflective mood. It was a bleak episode in his life and one which wounded him greatly. His father, whom he worshipped, walked away from him at a train station with cold indifference. He regarded it as rejection by his father and he couldn’t understand why.

Shore, the Sydney school where Gorton boarded

John Gorton first lived with his new “mother” Kathleen and sister Ruth in the then impoverished southern Sydney suburb of Cronulla in Sutherland Shire before moving to upper middle-class Killara on Sydney’s North Shore (before the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built). His education began at Headfort College, a private school founded in 1918 by Dublin-born Robert Wade (1884-1967), an honours graduate in geology and mathematics from Sydney University. Wade became an Anglican clergyman and taught science at Barker College, also on the North Shore, before opening his own primary school.

After Headfort, Gorton enrolled at one of the State’s most prestigious private schools, Sydney Church of England Grammar School, or Shore. A fellow pupil was Errol Flynn who was expelled for misconduct with female staff: perhaps it was a prelude to his swashbuckling Hollywood career and three marriages. Set in bushland, Shore was a perfect setting for the all-rounder from Melbourne. He played cricket and rugby union, two of the school’s glamour sports, and showed skill and brute strength in the boxing ring.

Boarding at Shore, Gorton refined his ability to write poetry. He wrote short verses in the style of C.J. Dennis, Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson. Later in life, as a senator, a Cabinet minister and Prime Minister, he wrote verses and sent them anonymously to colleagues and the press. It was all part of a very private joke. Other people found it a bit weird.

Gorton paddles canoe in an early morning duck shoot near Kerang

Despite being a good student and excellent sportsman, it is fair to say that young Gorton continued to miss his dad. At 14, an opportunity for them to be reunited arose when Kathleen and Ruth decided to live abroad. The boy told them he wished to return to Victoria to live with his father on his 1200-acre allotment on the western shore of Kangaroo Lake in Mallee country, north-west of Melbourne. Life on the land in the company of his father suited the teenage boy and he prospered physically and academically.

His gilded life story took another leap when his father, John Rose Gorton, announced he had arranged a boarder’s place for him in 1927 at Geelong Grammar School which, even those far off days, was regarded as one of the most exclusive private schools in Australia. Sixteen-year-old John Gorton received the news with mixed feelings. He was being sent away and it seemed like another case of rejection.

There was an uncomfortable explanation for John Gorton’s banishment to Geelong in western Victoria. After the death of Alice Sinn, Gorton’s father formed a de facto relationship with a strong-willed and articulate young woman named Jean Campbell. She became a regular guest at Lake Kangaroo leading to tension with the teenage boy: he craved his father’s attention and his father craved Jean’s.

Geelong Grammar School

Gorton Senior’s “solution” was to send his son to a posh private boarding school and remove him from the life he enjoyed on the orchard – working night and day like a navvy and attending the local state school where he excelled academically and at sport. He was growing up with “knockabouts” whose company he enjoyed. Now he would have to get used to living with the sons of toffs at Geelong Grammar on a 450-acre spread at Corio on the shores of Limeburners’ Lagoon.

His classmates were from The Establishment while he was from the other side of street. He was not anti-Establishment but, pushed by his father, he was in a category called “crypto- Establishment”. Would he have to dress differently or speak differently? Would he learn to fit in or would he be the odd man out? He must have been apprehensive because we know that he packed a collection of long-bladed sheath knives and pistols, which shocked his classmates and staff when it was discovered. It was a bad start. He could have been expelled.

JR Darling, Geelong headmaster

Gorton’s passage into Geelong Grammar was made easier by the newly arrived headmaster James Darling who was an inspirational figure in the school’s evolution. A Christian socialist with social democratic interests, Darling was a surprise choice for the position. At 30 years old he was much younger than the old fogeys on the governing school board and if they knew his political background he may not have been offered the position. Before accepting the job in Victoria, he was chairman of the Godalming branch of the British Labour Party in Surrey, a local Labour councillor and a keen follower of Clement Atlee who became Britain’s post-war prime minister and builder of the Welfare State.

Taught in England by Jewish radical Victor Gollancz, Darling introduced his charges to the ideas of historian Manning Clark who later received the Order of Lenin. According to historian Ken Inglis, Darling remained “on affectionate terms with former pupils who were Communists as well as those who were captains of industry and lords of pasture”. The school’s privileged alumni included media magnate Rupert Murdoch, future Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, Cabinet Minister and Australian High Commissioner in London Sir Alexander Downer, Sydney newspaper owner Warwick Fairfax, Qantas founder Sir Hudson Fysh, Adelaide poet and writer Geoffrey Dutton and communist radical, Meanjin editor Stephen Murray-Smith. One of Gorton’s closest classmates was outstanding landscape artist Russell “Tass” Drysdale whose lasting legacy was to re-interpret the rugged Australian landscape.

Through sheer determination and hard work, Gorton managed to overcome the shocking impression left by the knives and guns incident. He took part in plays, musicals and debates, became a corporal in the cadet corps, a sub-editor on the school magazine and a house captain.

Darling was the driving force in the building of Timbertop, the bushland annex where boys were put in touch with the tough environment and their “manliness”. He took part in risky classes using saws, axes, picks and shovels as well as rock-climbing and tree-climbing. Timbertop’s most famous pupil was Prince Charles, born to become the future King of England and Australian head of state.

Timbertop training, Geelong Grammar

Gorton took part in the school’s distribution of food to poverty-stricken locals people when the Depression struck the region. “Every Friday we used to take baskets of food round to people who were hungry, out-of-work, living in houses without light or heat.”

When asked did he feel it was a case of “us and them”, Gorton replied with some irritation: “God no, I identified with them.”

Without swotting, he breezed through examinations and became a reliable Aussie Rules player, cricketer and rower. With such a tumultuous childhood, how did he manage to remain so socially and intellectual stable? “I just got on with it,” he replied. Alexander Downer remembered Gorton at Geelong Grammar though they were in different houses and rarely socialised. No one considered that the “rough diamond” Gorton would ever amount to anything and his pronounced “Labor” views set him aside from many of the others.

Gorton, seated left, at Geelong Grammar

Headmaster Darling delivered a mixed but ultimately glowing appreciation of Gorton in his final term report: “Very unsatisfactory from the point of view of scholarship; he is really too wilful, I think, and obstinate sometimes rather than strong-minded. He is very capable, has a good mind, strength of character and a most pleasing personality. His promotion as a school prefect has amply rewarded us and I shall regret the loss of his next term in a great many ways. He is, I think, almost certain to make a name for himself in some walk of life but it will be after some fairly heavy ‘knocks’. He will learn by experience. In fact I think he is the sort which learns from experience. Anyway, I am very pleased to have had the privilege of knowing him a little.”

Gorton treasured Darling’s tribute and when he had the chance to repay him, he did. In 1968 Darling was awarded a knighthood “for services to education and broadcasting”, courtesy of Prime Minister Gorton.

The school greatly contributed to Gorton’s political life with one event standing out. As a member of the debating society, he excitedly joined a school excursion to the Victorian Parliament. Leaving the visitors’ gallery, Gorton told his teacher: “Well, sir, if those are the people running Victoria, I don’t wonder we are in the middle of a depression.”

Next week: John Gorton goes to Oxford

© Alex Mitchell

NB: These articles are covered by exclusive copyright with ownership belonging to the author. They can only be reproduced in full or in part by his written permission.

NB: The Weekly Notebook is suspended temporarily while my revelations about Prime Minister John Gorton become my No 1 priority. Coverage of the NSW and Federal Elections, Brexit and Trump will resume shortly. A.M.

6 comments

  1. Really enjoying this series – but did Manning Clark really get an Order of Lenin? The Press Council investigated and ruled that these rumours were false. Perhaps you know something else?

    1. Alex Mitchell replies: Many thanks for your comment. You correctly quote the Press Council finding.
      I read it and followed the whole affair closely. Further evidence years later established Manning did indeed receive an Order of Lenin medal.
      Who sent it to him? Was it forwarded from the Russian Embassy or by a prankster?
      The claim is contested by Manning’s family.
      Thanks for letting me know your concerns.

  2. There are certain inconsistencies in your Gorton story eg you say that his father and his wife separated soon after arriving in Australia and remained childless. So where did Kathleen come from? Also it seems strange that after depositing him with his still wife in Sydney where she was living in working class Cronulla all of a sudden he was being educated and boarding in the most expensive schools and she’d relocated to upper class Kilarra! Same when he returned to live with his father and was sent to Geelong Grammar!! Who paid for these expensive schools?

  3. At least Gorton had some character about him. Much more than the pasty paper dolls we have in parliament now.

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