This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966
John Burnett (1781-1860), civil servant, was baptized on 8 September 1781 at Peterculter, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the son of James Burnett of Countesswells and his wife Elizabeth, née Grant. He was appointed in March 1826 the first colonial secretary of Van Diemen's Land, the Colonial Office's third choice. He arrived in Hobart Town on 22 November 1826 with his wife and nine children, He was not a brilliant administrator, but at least in the early years he seems to have been conscientious. Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur's first impression was that 'Mr. Burnett … if inexperienced in business, appears to be a Gentleman of unbending integrity'. Despite his zeal, Burnett soon proved to have an exaggerated concern for his health and a treacherous memory which obliged Arthur to convey to him all instructions in writing.
Soon after arrival Burnett confessed to Arthur: 'So extremely sensitive is my nervous system that everything which agitates my mind immediately affects my bodily health, and brings on illness.' In 1832 he had to take several months sick leave, while John Montagu, who afterwards succeeded him and whom he later regarded as an enemy, acted for him. Having lost all hope of an appointment at home, Burnett told Arthur that he was resigned to ending his days in Van Diemen's Land, even if exile shortened his life. Next year he was seeking to exchange his office for another in some colony where the duties were less arduous, and the lieutenant-governor recommended his request; the secretary of state agreed to it, should opportunity arise.
Several times Arthur showed great forbearance with Burnett's deficiencies, but he could not overlook a deception with which Burnett attempted to cover a serious breach of the land regulations. He had located a maximum grant on the South Esk; the Caveat Board, understanding that the land was leased to Roderic O'Connor imposed a fine of 6d. an acre. Burnett paid the fine and the grant was issued subject to non-alienation. Arthur then heard that he had sold the land to O'Connor. The lieutenant-governor agreed to avoid the scandal of an inquiry when Burnett admitted his deceit and asked for twelve months sick leave. The Colonial Office held that Burnett was unfit for office and refused a pension.
Burnett and O'Connor then fell out and engaged in a pamphlet and newspaper war which brought the details of the case before the public. In 1837 Burnett sought an official reinvestigation; when the Caveat Board partly mitigated his guilt, he returned to London where he argued his cause to such effect that in 1841 the Colonial Office offered him the post of sheriff of Van Diemen's Land, notwithstanding 'that part of the original accusation which has not been repelled is not regarded by Lord John Russell as a trifling or venial matter'. Burnett had already declined the offer of the post of registrar of Berbice in British Guiana at £1000 a year, but he accepted the shrievalty. In November 1841 he was given an extension of leave to undergo another operation for 'the local complaint with which I am afflicted'. He returned to Hobart in January 1843.
Burnett twice sought to be indemnified from public funds for expenses in actions brought against him as sheriff. In 1845 Sir John Eardley-Wilmot refused to support him, arguing that in any case the whole business of the office was performed by the under-sheriff, and that the salary of £500 would be reduced by more than half when Burnett died or retired. In the second case in 1848, Sir William Denison conceded his right to indemnity, but later refused to recommend legislation to protect the sheriff from such contingencies; with fees, he said, Burnett received £800, which should be adequate to cover such cases. Burnett's perennial financial worries may perhaps be explained by his lack of business sense and the size of his family. The colonial secretary's salary of £1000 was in 1827 raised to £1260, but in 1845 he revealed that he was obliged to make remittances to England in repayment of loans he had been forced to contract while deprived of office, and in his will he stated that many years before he had purchased an annuity of £440 from an uncle in Jamaica; this had not been paid since 1830, and therefore amounted, with interest, to a debt of £5000. His wife, a daughter of Sir Henry Browne Hayes, had borne him four sons and five daughters. At his death, his estate amounted to £1130.
In 1855 the new governor, Sir Henry Young, made an inspection of the Hobart gaol, for which the sheriff was responsible; horrified at the conditions, he decided that Burnett, at 73 and with his many infirmities, was no longer fit for his job. Despite his protests, Burnett was obliged to retire at the end of the year on a pension of £500.
Burnett died of influenza on 10 July 1860; he had held office as colonial secretary for nine years and a half, and as sheriff for fourteen years. An unheroic figure, dogged, querulous and afflicted with hypochondria, he represents one side of colonial public service: self-seeking mediocrity.
P. R. Eldershaw, 'Burnett, John (1781–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burnett-john-1855/text2155, accessed 25 May 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966