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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edwards, William Burton (1856–1925)

by Ann G. Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William Burton Edwards (1856-1925), public service inspector, was born on 26 May 1856 at Launceston, Tasmania, son of William Frederick Alexander Edwards, broker, and his wife Charlotte Mary, née Burton. The family lived in New Zealand in 1862-68 before moving to Melbourne where Edwards attended St Paul's School and Wesley College, his father operating a wood and coal yard at Windsor.

After working at the South Yarra post office from 1872 Edwards joined the Victorian Postmaster-General's Department in March 1875 as assistant telegraphist at Stawell; in 1878 he was transferred to the Melbourne central telegraph office. He became the first secretary of the Telegraph Operators' Association when it was formed in 1886 to combat the stifling of promotion opportunities for telegraphists by the 1884 reclassification of the public service; at least some of the grievances had been removed when he relinquished office in 1888. In 1891 'appointments' clerk in the correspondence branch, Edwards was made senior clerk and acting inspector of accounts in 1897, chief clerk under the Commonwealth, and in March 1907 chief inspector of the inspection and inland mail branch.

Dignified and quiet, 'W.B.' was a just man of keen perception and great efficiency. Lauded for his management of the model post, telegraph, and telephone office at the 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, he also handled the distribution of 250,000 copies of the Commonwealth constitution bill, and proved equally able as a returning officer for the first election of the Public Service Association's divisional representatives and as Commonwealth electoral officer for Victoria in 1906-07. Throughout his departmental career he displayed marked ingenuity: in 1884 he conceived the idea, taken up with great success, of issuing a post office Christmas card; in 1890 he initiated a scheme for the appointment of a regular relieving staff and he later reorganized sick-leave arrangements.

On 1 July 1908 Edwards left the postal department to become Commonwealth public service inspector. In 1916 he was appointed acting public service commissioner on the retirement of D. C. McLachlan; he held the position until the formation of the Commonwealth Public Service Board in 1923, when he retired. Edwards's talent for innovation deserted him during his periods as acting commissioner: conscious that he lacked the calibre of McLachlan, he adhered rigidly to precedent, attributing the consequent decline in the authority of his office to the use of arbitration within the public service. He died of hemiplegia on 23 May 1925 at Elsternwick; the Argus wrote, 'There was no day in which his work was completed within 12 hours, and he practically lived for the service'. A Freemason since 1897, and at his death worshipful master of the Wesley Collegians' Lodge, Edwards was buried in St Kilda cemetery after a Masonic funeral. His first wife Ellen Elizabeth, née Henderson, whom he had married on 7 June 1882 according to Free Presbyterian forms at Windsor, died in 1892. He was survived by his second wife Mabel, née Mueller, whom he had married on 1 June 1893 at St John's Anglican Church, Windsor, and by three sons of this marriage and a son and a daughter of the first.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Caiden, Career Service (Melb, 1965)
  • Australian Commonwealth Post and Telegraph Association, Transmitter, 18 July 1908
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25, 26 May 1925.

Citation details

Ann G. Smith, 'Edwards, William Burton (1856–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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