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George Powell Barnes (1856–1949)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Walter Henry Barnes

George Powell Barnes (1856-1949), and Walter Henry Barnes (1858-1933), businessmen and politicians, were born in Castlemaine, Victoria, sons of Hiram Barnes and his wife Catherine, née Dawes; George was born on 20 September 1856 and Walter on 7 September 1858. Their father was a senior driver for Cobb & Co. and in 1865 took sixteen coaches from Bathurst to Brisbane; in 1868 he inaugurated the Brisbane-Gympie-Maryborough run. Both boys were educated at the Ipswich and Brisbane Normal schools; Walter completed his education with Rev. C. Ogg at the Presbyterian College, Brisbane.

George worked in T. F. Merry's Toowoomba store in 1868 and later held similar jobs at Gympie, Brisbane and Warwick. After opening his own store at Warwick in 1874, he married Merry's daughter Mary Cecilia in 1879; they had eight children. In 1880 he laid the foundation of his business success by joining Walter and Merry in a produce firm, Barnes & Co. Ltd.

Walter worked first for Cobb & Co., then with Uhl's saddlery in Brisbane. He left the Postal Department in 1884 to work for Barnes & Co., managed the company's Roma Street store in Brisbane and then became managing director. On 5 June 1888 he married Katherine Edmonds; they had one son. Barnes won the Legislative Assembly seat of Bulimba as a ministerialist in 1901 and held it until 1915. He regained the seat in 1918 and held it until 1923 when he successfully transferred to the near-by seat of Wynnum and held it until his death. He was secretary for public lands in the Philp government of 1907-08 and, although he was initially left out of W. Kidston's first ministry, in June 1909 he was appointed secretary for public instruction and in October was also given responsibility for public works. When D. F. Denham succeeded Kidston in February 1911, Barnes became treasurer and secretary for public works. He held these offices until the government's defeat in 1915.

As secretary for public instruction, Barnes managed the bill to establish the University of Queensland in 1909, although Kidston was its chief architect. His most controversial action as a minister was his passing in 1912 of the Industrial Peace Act in the wake of the general strike. Despite his assurance that its 'liberal provisions' would render all future strike action unnecessary, the Opposition leader David Bowman described it as 'the worst, the most tyrannical, and most coercive Bill that has ever existed in any part of Australia'. The labour movement regarded him henceforth as a class-biased reactionary.

While he never attained government leadership, Walter Barnes was the subject of an unorthodox method of selecting an acting premier. In 1914 Denham decided to visit England. Normal practice required that he should nominate a deputy to preside in his absence. There was such keen competition for the position between Barnes and (Sir) James Blair that Denham, reluctant to exercise his right of appointment lest it cause further discord in the ministry, organized a ballot of government members. The fact that Barnes won the election handsomely suggests that had he and the government not been defeated in 1915, he might well have eventually become premier.

After his defeat Barnes concentrated on business but maintained a close interest in public affairs. At the height of the conscription controversy in 1916, he wrote to the Brisbane Courier accusing two State ministers of making disloyal speeches. When he returned to parliament in 1918, the Labor Party was firmly entrenched in government; in January 1920, he was elected deputy to E. H. Macartney, leader of the Opposition. In 1924 the previously faction-ridden non-Labor parties united to form the Country Progressive National Party which, under the leadership of A. E. Moore, ended Labor domination of Queensland politics by its victory at the 1929 general election. Because the new party lacked ministerial experience, Moore overlooked Barnes's advanced age and made him treasurer. Known for his financial and economic caution, orthodoxy and conservatism, Barnes considered the Depression was caused by waste and government extravagance; only by reducing public expenditure and the costs of production, he argued, could Queensland be led out of its economic difficulties. He was an implacable opponent of the 'pump-priming' policies of Federal Treasurer Theodore and was a vigorous advocate of the Premiers' Plan. When the Moore government was defeated in 1932, Barnes held his seat with a reduced majority. The difficult years of office had seriously affected his health, however, and he died in Brisbane on 19 February 1933. Buried in South Brisbane cemetery with Methodist rites, he left an estate valued for probate at £6862.

George Barnes was politically less conspicuous but commercially more prominent than his younger brother. He entered parliament in 1908 as the farmers' representative for Warwick, having failed to take the seat in 1906 and 1907. Subsequently he joined successively the Liberal, Nationalist, United, and Country Progressive National parties, but held Warwick until his retirement in 1935. His parliamentary duties as a back-bencher were light, and he expanded Barnes & Co. into one of the major produce firms in south Queensland and diversified into flour-mills and dairy-farming. He was preoccupied all his public life with closer settlement and railway expansion. He died at Brisbane on 9 December 1949, leaving an estate valued for probate at £6384, and was buried in Warwick cemetery with Methodist rites.

George Barnes was a long-serving member of the Warwick Shire Council, while his brother was a Coorparoo shire councillor for twenty-five years and was five times elected chairman. Both were devout Methodists. George was a total abstainer and a temperance leader, while Walter was president of the Brisbane City Mission and of the Young Men's Christian Association; his close involvement with the Church earned him the sobriquet 'Bishop Barnes'. George was also involved with a plethora of community and industry groups in Warwick, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Co-operative Dairying Co., the School of Arts and the Technical College.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • K. A. Austin, The Lights of Cobb and Co. (Adel, 1967)
  • Brisbane Courier, 19 Apr 1907
  • Queenslander (Brisbane), 23 May 1929, 23 Feb 1933.

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Barnes, George Powell (1856–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 September, 1856
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia


9 December, 1949 (aged 93)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.