Murton entered Kew at the age of 20 in April 1873, leaving a year later to take charge of the newly formed Botanic Gardens at Singapore on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Hooker. He spent three months with G.H.K. Thwaites in the Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya, Ceylon, before proceeding to Singapore, taking with him donations of plants from the Ceylon Botanic Gardens.
A very young man when he took charge, he was a skilled and avid horticulturalist. He corresponded with the agricultural societies and botanic gardens in the East, from Hong Kong and Brisbane to Mauritius, obtaining exchanges of plants. He also corresponded with Kew and received many plants for the Gardens from their collections.
His stay in Singapore was relatively short, resigning his position in 1880. He then assisted the Director of the Royal Gardens at Bangkok.
His time at Singapore is evident in the planting, as he added greatly to the collection. He set up exchange programs with other gardens worldwide, receiving plants, and sending plants of local origin, chiefly orchids. He travelled widely and frequently in the Malay Peninsula, contributing a great many new and exotic species to the Gardens.
Murton established a library and herbarium and laid the foundations for an Economic Garden. He also set up an ill-fated zoo in the Gardens.
Notably, it was Murton who received from Kew the first seedlings of Para rubber from Kew in 1879. Most of the rubber in Malaya has come from this original introduction. He reported his concern over their slow rate of propagation, a problem which a subsequent director, the better-known, Henry Nicholas Ridley, would solve.
Another Kewite, Nathanial Cantley, followed him in taking charge of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Murton died in Siam after a brief illness following a fall, aged just 29 years old.
He is credited for successfully transforming the Botanic Gardens at Singapore from a recreational space into a scientific research centre during his time there. He was commemorated in the genus Murtonia but this was later placed in Desmodium (Fabaceae).
A photograph of James Murton and his staff of gardeners in 1877 appears in Tinsley (1983) pp 26-27.
Desmond, R. (1994), Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturists, Taylor & Francis & The Natural History Museum, London, p. 509.
Singapore: City of Gardens, William Warren & Luca Invernizzi Tettoni (2000).
Tinsley, B. (1983), Singapore Green: A History and Guide to the Botanic Gardens, Times Books International.