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Burt, Septimus (1847–1919)

by B. K. De Garis and Tom Stannage

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Septimus Burt (1847-1919), lawyer, politician and grazier, was born on 25 October 1847 at St Kitts, West Indies, son of (Sir) Archibald Paull Burt, Western Australia's first chief justice, and his wife Louisa Emily, née Bryan. He was educated at a private school at Melksham, Wiltshire, England, and from 1861 at Bishop Hale's school in Perth, where his fellow students included (Sir) John and Alexander Forrest. After serving as an articled clerk to G. F. Stone, Burt was admitted to the Western Australian Bar in 1870 and occupied some of his leisure as captain of the Perth Cricketers in 1871. He wrote in 1875 that he was doing reasonably well, although there was not as yet much work for lawyers in the colony, and what he was doing was 'not likely to lead one to any great distinction'. However, in 1876 he was taken into partnership by (Sir) Edward Stone, son of his former mentor; Stone & Burt quickly established itself as one of Western Australia's leading legal firms. On 13 July 1872, at St George's Cathedral Church, Burt had married Louisa Fanny, daughter of G. E. C. Hare, government resident at Albany.

In October 1874 he accepted Governor Weld's invitation, inspired no doubt by official friendships with his father, to become a nominated member of the Legislative Council. As was probably expected, Burt supported Colonial Secretary Barlee's proposals for self-government, which passed through council but were blocked by the British government. His first political action, however, was to manage a private bill about the temporal affairs of the Church of England.

In January 1879 Burt relinquished his nominee membership of the council; at the general election in 1880 he was returned unopposed for Murray and Williams. As an elected member he both took a more independent line on major issues, and successfully carried through to the statute book private members' bills on subjects ranging from the licensing of firearms and the sale of liquor to the transfer of land-titles and control of scab in stock. However in March 1886 he was temporarily catapulted into the official circle when a long-simmering feud between Governor Broome, Attorney-General A. P. Hensman and Surveyor-General John Forrest, culminated in Hensman's resignation. By accepting Broome's invitation to act temporarily as attorney-general, Burt aligned himself with the 'Government House party', a posture which he maintained in the related controversy over Broome's suspension of Chief Justice Onslow. Burt was impatient of the way quarrels between officials threatened to impede colonial progress, and preferred to get on with the job. His six-month term as attorney-general included the longest and most productive council session to that date. Having resigned his seat to accept office, Burt found himself out of politics when his successor arrived. He was 'rewarded' by appointment as one of Western Australia's two representatives at the Colonial Conference held in London in April 1887 and the subsequent jubilee celebrations. He was also appointed Q.C. In 1881-89 he was a member of the Perth City Council.

In May 1888 Burt sought to re-enter the Legislative Council through a by-election for the seat of Perth, but encountered a demagogic style of politics new to Western Australia. John Horgan, a radical Irish lawyer, sought successfully to mobilize the working class and his fellow Catholics against the Anglican Burt, linking him with the 'six hungry families'. Though Horgan won by three votes in the highest poll recorded in the colony, Burt was returned soon after for the North Province in time to take a leading part in the debates on Western Australia's new constitution.

His conservative inclinations were tempered by an intelligent and pragmatic appreciation of political realities. Thus he argued for an elected rather than a nominated Upper House on the grounds that nominated Upper Houses 'represent nobody, they do little or no work, and their chief duty … is to get out of the way when the popular chamber is coming along'. Burt also startled his friends by rejecting property qualifications for members or electors of the Lower House because the temper of the times was such that manhood suffrage was bound to come before long. To introduce it at once would be to 'cut away all ground for agitation' and to ensure that 'those gentlemen who lived on politics and hoped to get fat on it, would not have a solitary plank left to stand upon'.

In the final tussle with the British government in 1889-90 over the possible partition of the colony and the threatened withholding of control over crown land after self-government, Burt showed himself to be probably the most resolute member of the council. Others were prepared to compromise to safeguard the constitution bill; he argued, correctly as it turned out, that Westminster would give way if Western Australia stood its ground.

At the first election under the new Constitution in 1890 Burt was returned unopposed for the Legislative Assembly seat of Ashburton, which he retained without contest until his retirement from politics in 1900. Both the principal contenders for office as premier, (Sir) S. H. Parker and John Forrest, sought to enlist Burt as attorney-general. Burt committed himself to Parker but, when he withdrew, joined Forrest. They were old friends and business partners but their relationship had been strained by the Hensman and Onslow episodes. Conscious that Burt's abilities complemented his own, Forrest had anxiously sought to repair their relationship throughout 1890 and for the next seven years they worked together closely and harmoniously.

As attorney-general Burt personally drafted most of the legislation during the early 1890s. Although he was not a forceful speaker and suffered from a slight speech-impediment, his cool and precise contributions to debate were a vital counterweight to Forrest's boisterous enthusiasm. When the government's critics seemed likely to tempt Forrest into an indiscretion, 'often might be seen Mr Burt's detaining hand on his leader's coat-tails as he rose excitedly to the fly'. On other occasions Burt would come in towards the end of a debate to defuse opposition by announcing the ministry's willingness to amend or compromise. Although the government was concentrating on development, significant social and political reforms were enacted; Burt sought always to control and channel the demand for such changes rather than to frustrate it and thereby provoke extremism.

Well aware of his dependence on Burt, Forrest begged him to reconsider when he thought of resigning in February 1896, offering part of his own salary if that would help. When Burt finally decided to resign in October 1897 Forrest acknowledged privately: 'You have indeed been my guide, philosopher and friend and I do not know how I shall get on without your friendly advice'. Although Burt remained in the assembly till April 1900 he took little part in proceedings and his career virtually ended in 1897. His decision was due in part to his growing distaste for politics. Western Australia was on the threshold of party politics and Burt had some years earlier declared: 'The tendency of party government … is for the opposing parties to bid below each other for popular favour. It is a form of Government I have always detested'.

The need to provide for his six sons and four daughters through his legal practice and pastoral interests also influenced Burt's decision to leave political life. He was regarded by many as the soundest lawyer at the Western Australian Bar; his opinions were keenly sought, and his courtroom manner, though quiet, was persuasive. In 1899 one grateful client offered him £1000 over and above his fees. Burt's pastoral interests dated from 1877 when he joined John, Alexander and David Forrest in a syndicate taking up a lease of 590,000 acres (238,767 ha) on the Ashburton River. Minderoo station, as this lease was called, became in time an extremely profitable enterprise. Other pastoral properties of which Burt became part-owner included Kadji Kadji, Brick House, Yinniethana, Red Hill and Minne Creek. Well before his death he established members of his family on most of these stations.

Throughout his life Septimus Burt was a staunch adherent of the Church of England, which he served as synodsman, trustee, legal adviser and benefactor. He was a close friend of Archbishop C. O. L. Riley who after Burt's death described him as 'a very generous man who did not like his generosity to be known'; his name has however been preserved in connexion with one of his gifts to the church, the Burt Memorial Hall erected in honour of his two sons killed during World War I. Their deaths saddened his last years, when he was himself often in pain; survived by his wife, four sons and four daughters, he died on 15 May 1919 and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery, Riley conducting the funeral. His estate, valued for probate at £147,357, was left mainly to his family.

Burt was a very private man who disliked the limelight and regarded public life as a duty rather than as a source of pleasure or profit. He rejected such honours as the knighthood offered in 1901 and declined repeated invitations to join the bench of the Supreme Court. His life was lived in accordance with the code he spelled out in a private letter of 1888: 'I endeavour to make the motives of my actions the Glory of God, the welfare of my fellow-man, the honor of my Sovereign and the good of this country. If I can keep to these lines I do not think I can go far wrong'.

His brother Octavius (1849-1940), public servant, was born at St Kitts on 14 December 1849. After his family's arrival in Perth, he was educated at Bishop Hale's school. In 1869 he entered the civil service as a clerk but soon moved to the National Bank. In May 1872 he returned to the civil service, at first as a clerk in the Governor's Office, and then in 1874-77 as private secretary to the governor and clerk to the Executive Council. In 1877-80 he was clerk and keeper of records in the Survey Office.

Burt was resident magistrate for the Toodyay District in 1880-87. During his years in the Avon Valley he won widespread respect, but his rigorous suppression of slygrog selling and illegal gambling irritated many and led to an open feud with the honorary magistrates including S. P. Phillips, the 'Squire of Culham', from which Burt emerged victorious. In his response to a measles epidemic in 1883-84, as later in his career, Burt showed himself unusually sensitive to the plight of the Aboriginals.

In 1887 he became assistant colonial secretary and was promoted in 1890 to the colonial secretaryship with a seat in the Executive and Legislative councils. When self-government was inaugurated a few months later Burt became Western Australia's principal civil servant as under-secretary for the colony. In April-October 1898 he was secretary in the agent-general's office, London. From 1901 until his retirement in 1912 he held the positions of sheriff and comptroller of prisons and also served as a deputy marshal of the High Court of Australia. As Western Australia's chief electoral officer for fifteen years, he conducted the Federation referendum of 1900 and the first Federal election in 1901. In 1903 he was awarded the I.S.O.

In 1877 Burt had married Esther Hare, sister to the wife of his brother Septimus; they had two daughters. Like his brother, Octavius was an active member of the Church of England which he served for more than thirty years as a synodsman, diocesan councillor and member of the cathedral chapter. He was keenly interested in aquatic sports and was for a time a member of the volunteer movement. Survived by one daughter, he died on 1 April 1940, leaving an estate valued for probate at £2881, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • F. K. Crowley, Forrest: 1847-1918, vol 1 (Brisb, 1971)
  • R. Erickson, Old Toodyay and Newcastle (Toodyay, WA, 1974)
  • B. K. de Garis, ‘Western Australia’, P. Loveday, A. W. Martin & R. S. Parker (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • Possum (Perth), 10 Sept 1887
  • West Australian, 9 Mar 1912, 16, 17 May, 5 June 1919, 24 Sept 1932
  • W. F. P. Heseltine, The Movements for Self-Government in Western Australia from 1882-1890 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1950)
  • C. T. Stannage, Electoral Politics in Western Australia 1884-1897 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1967)
  • Burt papers (privately held)
  • biographical cuttings (Royal Western Australian Historical Society).

Additional Resources

Citation details

B. K. De Garis and Tom Stannage, 'Burt, Septimus (1847–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burt-septimus-179/text9227, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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