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Barton, George Burnett (1836–1901)

by John M. Ward

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

George Burnett Barton (1836-1901), lawyer, journalist and historian, was born on 9 December 1836 in Sydney, the second son of William Barton and his wife Mary Louisa, née Whydah, and elder brother of Sir Edmund. Barton's early schooling seems to have been from his mother. He attended William Timothy Cape's school and, after working in a solicitor's office, was coached by Rev. J. B. Laughton for the matriculation examination of the University of Sydney, which he entered on a scholarship in 1853. His career there was marred by public disputation in the Empire with Professor John Woolley on his courses and examination. The senate decided against Barton and ordered his name to be removed from the university books. Barton had already gone to England, where he was admitted to the Middle Temple on 20 April 1857 and called to the Bar in 1860.

On returning to New South Wales he practised journalism rather than law. Deafness may have discouraged him from the Bar, although he was always a lively conversationalist. His early writings included some satirical sketches on current topics and poems, which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere. Probably in 1864 he became editor of the new Sydney Punch, which was intended to adapt London methods to colonial themes. He also wrote for the Empire and contributed literary and historical articles to a variety of periodicals.

In July 1865 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Sydney, Barton married Margaret Isabella, aged 22, the eleventh child of Thomas Parnell, a farmer and grazier of Maitland. A month earlier the Cowper government, recognizing his merits as a journalist and a lawyer, had appointed him commissioner of stamps at £500 a year. The appointment ended when Barton admitted that he had contributed to Punch in October and November an anonymous burlesque, 'Jupiter and Ganymede', ridiculing the ministry. He and his friends protested vigorously against the government's intolerance of satire, heavily humorous and not at all savage; twelve years later the incident was quoted by Sir Henry Parkes against some of those responsible.

In 1865 Barton was appointed reader in English Literature, University of Sydney, at £50 a year. His inaugural lecture on 6 March 1866, published as The Study of English Literature, emphasized the importance of the classical studies over which Woolley had presided so successfully. In that year Barton also published Literature in New South Wales (with extensive bibliographies) and edited The Poets and Prose Writers of New South Wales. Both were important summaries and, though neither had severe critical standards, Barton did not praise Australian literature merely because it was Australian. Because neither his books nor his readership earned him sufficient income, Barton had to continue with journalism and attempted repeatedly to obtain another salaried post under the government. In 1866 he asked to be either examiner of titles or parliamentary librarian. If given the latter post and provided with a clerk to answer members' inquiries, he would have taken a low salary while he used the books for his own writing and built up the collection.

In 1868 Barton's university appointment ended and he went to New Zealand to edit the Otago Daily Times, which had been founded in 1861 and had run into difficulties over the editorial policies of Julius Vogel. In October 1870 Barton published articles alleging that the Telegraph Department delayed news telegrams for his paper until summaries had been given to the pro-government press. By methods bordering on the illegal, the government found evidence to identify Barton as author of the articles and prosecuted him for libel. In 1871 he was committed for trial; the case was dropped, and Barton issued a writ claiming £5000 for malicious prosecution and published The Telegraph Libel Case. He resigned from the Otago Daily Times and was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor on 21 July in Dunedin. Some of his work was in court. He edited many legal works, including The New Zealand Jurist and The Practical Statutes of New Zealand (1876). By 1878 he had moved to Christchurch, practising as a solicitor.

In the 1880s Barton was in Sydney contributing to the Sydney Morning Herald, Evening News and other newspapers and practising in law. In 1887 he was appointed to bring out a new edition of the Official History of New South Wales (1883). In February 1888 he proposed to the government that a larger history be written, based partly on the transcripts that James Bonwick had made in London. Soon afterwards he proposed that he himself be appointed head of a New South Wales Public Records Office. The government agreed that he should write a 'History of New South Wales from the Records' in fifteen volumes. The project foundered in bitter acrimony, with allegations of delay and expense against Barton and of illiberality against the government. Only the first volume, Governor Phillip, 1783-1789 (Sydney, 1889), was completed by Barton. A second, Phillip and Grose, 1789-1794, was compiled by the journalist, Alexander Britton. The government then decided, on the advice of its History Board, that the records themselves should be published without the commentaries, extracts and narratives planned by Barton.

Meanwhile journalism supplemented his income. His articles in the Australian Star on William Charles Wentworth were based on the records but so laudatory that they aroused strong opposition. Barton worked hard on his articles, which included such subjects as Federation, criminal law reform, Asian immigration and Australian history.

His posthumously published The True Story of Margaret Catchpole (Sydney, 1924), first appeared in articles in the Evening News. Another popular work was his contribution to the second volume of J. C. Ridpath and E. S. Ellis (eds), The Story of South Africa (Sydney, 1899). In it Barton described how Australia and New Zealand became involved in the Boer war and the part played by their forces. He also edited some of the other contributions, making it a competently organized study.

As the Federation movements gained strength, with his brother prominent in them, Barton's enthusiasm was stirred. Before the 1891 convention he produced the topical 'Historical Sketch of Australian Federation', printed in the Yearbook of Australia, 1891. With Parkes, Barton also prepared for the New South Wales government The Draft Bill to Constitute the Commonwealth of Australia (Sydney, 1891), which paraphrased, with comment from United States and Canadian precedents, the bill adopted by the 1891 convention.

Barton's last comments on Australia were gloomy. Writing in the Imperial and Asiatic Quarterly Review on 'Troubles of Australian Federation', he bitterly criticized 'the degeneracy of Australian parliaments', the 'dismal failure' of responsible government and the lamentable rise of an ambitious, class-conscious labour movement. Barton feared that the Labor Party would gain control of the federal parliament, amend the Constitution to destroy State rights and introduce radical 'class legislation'. In 1899 he clashed with William Holman and Professor William Pitt Cobbett when they attacked the principle of equal representation of States in the senate. Barton was a State-rights man, greatly preferring the American federal constitution to the Canadian. In 1901 he became editor of the Werriwa Times, a protectionist newspaper published in Goulburn. He caught severe influenza and died in Goulburn Hospital on 12 September. A week later the Bulletin described him as 'the first purely literary man produced by New South Wales'. His literary criticism certainly had lasting interest. He was a careful editor and a good working journalist especially when promoting or attacking a cause. He was survived by two sons and two daughters of his first marriage, by his wife Laura Maude, née Wilshire, whom he had married at Bondi in 1900, and by their infant son.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1890
  • Empire (Sydney), Dec 1856
  • Senate minutes, 1853-57 (University of Sydney Archives)
  • Edmund Barton papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • George Burnett Barton papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Barton, George Burnett (1836–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barton-george-burnett-2949/text4279, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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