Story: Morton, Katherine Elizabeth

Page 1 - Biography

Morton, Katherine Elizabeth

1885–1968

Journalist, writer

This biography was written by Janet McCallum and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Katherine Elizabeth Morton, better known as Elsie K. Morton, was born on 5 October 1885 in Melrose, Devonport, Auckland, the daughter of William Edmund Morton, an accountant, and his wife, Elizabeth Ayerst Bishop, a strongly religious but liberal woman. The fourth of five children, Elsie had four brothers. When she was nine the family moved to the then isolated Papakura area, where her fascination with writing began. An early influence was a family connection, Sarah Jane Biss, who wrote under the name Joyce Jocelyn.

Elsie was educated privately and attended English lectures at Auckland University College in 1906. Her first articles as Elsie Morton were published in 1907 in the New Zealand Herald. In 1909 she joined her brother William in San Francisco, where she worked after qualifying as a stenographer. Returning home in 1912, she contributed special articles and occasional short stories to the Herald and Australian journals.

With the First World War came sorrow and success. Her brother Alfred went missing at Gallipoli in May 1915; his body was never found. This loss profoundly affected Elsie, whose personal outlook was shaped by the experience. The following year she became a junior reporter at the Herald, 'on the same footing as the men, at the then fabulous salary of £4 a week'. She found the work arduous: 'Long hours, uncertain meal hours,…out day and night in all weathers, any and every kind of job bar murders, fires and the sordid routine of the criminal courts.' But she loved it. Devoting herself to her career, she never married.

A popular feature writer, Morton used trips on general news business to collect copy for articles in the Herald's Saturday supplement. She was one of the first to promote the attractions of the Auckland west coast. By 1926 she was the only woman member of the New Zealand Journalists' Association employed as a senior reporter by a city daily newspaper. She then took a year off to work freelance, and ran practical journalism courses for the League of New Zealand Penwomen, later known as the Penwomen's Club, of which she was a founding member and vice president. She was particularly proud to be assigned by the Herald to report the royal tour of the duke and duchess of York in early 1927. For this she received the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935.

The Herald re-employed her in mid 1927 to reorganise its children's page under the heading 'Boys and Girls'; she edited it for nearly 10 years. A page for older children was later added; both attracted many contributors, including future writers M. H. Holcroft, Ruth Park and Gloria Rawlinson.

Morton used her pen whenever possible to support a good cause. She incorporated in the children's pages the successful yearly appeals for the midwinter 'Comfort Ship' and the 'Santa Claus Sleigh' campaigns. She had begun these appeals in 1925 to help the St John Ambulance Brigade and other Auckland charitable organisations. Morton was deeply concerned about the preservation of historic buildings and native trees, and she was also a major promoter of animal welfare in Auckland; she helped to re-establish the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1926.

It was said of Elsie Morton that 'probably no journalist in New Zealand has such a large circle of reader-friends'. Her first book, Along the road (1928), a selection of her articles 'redolent of the New Zealand air and landscape and radiant with a brave philosophy', created a New Zealand record, reaching a fifth impression within two years. Over 3,000 copies were sold. Her second, Joy of the road (1929), sold over 2,000. A keen photographer, Morton illustrated her own books.

In 1937 she resigned from the Herald to attend the coronation of the duke and duchess of York, travelling for over a year in Europe, the Middle East and North America. Back home by 1939, she made popular lecture tours throughout New Zealand, and for six years broadcast talks on the 1ZB programme 'The Friendly Road', displeasing the conservative Herald management and older family members. She published compilations of radio talks and articles on her overseas travels in A message from England (1942), Far horizons (1943) and Sunrise at midnight (1948), and brought together a collection of essays on gardening in Gardening's such fun! (1944).

Morton now worked as a freelance writer, and until well into her 60s travelled throughout New Zealand. From these trips and research came books such as Fun in Fiordland (1950) and A tramper in South Westland (1951). Her most successful book was Crusoes of Sunday Island (London, 1957), the story of the Bell family who settled on Raoul Island. The book ran to several editions, was serialised in English, South African and New Zealand newspapers, and was reprinted by A. H. & A. W. Reed in 1964. Walt Disney bought the rights, but no film was ever made.

Morton wrote articles until the week before she died, on 21 August 1968 at Auckland. Her style was enthusiastic, and for later tastes too sentimental, but in her heydey it was immensely popular. 'All through my writings,' she said, 'I've tried to emphasize mercy and tolerance and kindness. I think they're the blessed things of life.'