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19th Prime Minister of Australia, John Grey Gorton (1911-2002), was in kinship and foster care as a small boy.

There is some confusion about the birth details of John Grey Gorton. He may have been John Alga Gordon who was born in Victoria to English born John James Gordon, a clerk, and Australian born Alice Gordon. But then John James Gordon seems also to have been John Rose Gorton who married Kathleen O’Brien in 1894 in London.

Kathleen refused to divorce John Rose, even after he was living with Alice. When he was twenty, John Grey Gorton’s father told him he was born in Wellington. It’s not clear whether he was or not.

As a small boy, John Gorton lived with his grandmother in Port Melbourne as his father was often away on business, with Alice. At some point, his father took him to live in Sydney with him and Alice.

The three of them stayed in an apartment at Edgecliff, overlooking Rushcutters Bay, and John was enrolled at the Edgecliff Preparatory School. They were happy days (Hancock p. 7).

But in 1919, Alice contracted tuberculosis. On her death certificate, she is recorded as the wife of John Rose Gorton; the couple allegedly married in New Zealand when Alice was twenty-two. John Grey was cited as the only child of the couple, and yet Kathleen was raising his sister, Ruth.

Devastated at the death of Alice, John Rose decided to return to Melbourne and he left John Grey with his sister Ruth in the care of Kathleen.

Kathleen and the two children lived first in Cronulla and then moved to Killara on the north shore.

Life at Killara was good, with John Grey attending a local school and joining the scouts. In 1924 he left the local school (Headfort College) to attend Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), soon boarding full time. John Grey finished school in 1926 and worked for his father at Kangaroo Lake in Victoria – until his father enrolled him as a boarder at Geelong Church of England Grammar School in 1927. He then went on to study at Oxford University in the UK.

Although John Grey Gorton’s material circumstances as a child were comfortable, there were difficulties.

…it is unlikely that ‘many’ of young John’s generation were obliged to shift between cities and between homes, were parked with their grandparents, lost their ‘real’ and adored mother at the age of nine, were farmed out to a foster mother who never wanted them, and endured the repeated absence of an idolised father (Hancock p. 19).

Gorton trained as a fighter pilot after enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1940. He then did service in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Papua New Guinea and Darwin before he was wounded in a crash. He was discharged from the RAAF in 1944.

Gorton subsequently served in local government for the Kerang (now part of Gannawarra) Shire Council from 1946-1952. He shifted to federal politics after successfully standing for a Senate seat in Victoria in 1949, a seat he retained until 1964.

John Grey Gorton was elected Liberal Party leader in 1968—and thus became Prime Minister on the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt. Three years later he resigned his position.


Hancock, Ian. John Gorton. He did his way. Sydney: Hodder, 2002.

“John Gorton.” Australia’s Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia.

“John Gorton.” Prime Ministers of Australia. National Museum Australia.

Image available here.