Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Neville George Barnett (1854–1895)

by E. J. Lea-Scarlett

This article was published:

Neville George Barnett (1854-1895), musician, was born on 3 March 1854 in London, son of Michael Barnett and his wife Emma, née Frost. At 15 he was appointed organist in a London church and received tuition from Dr E. J. Hopkins, organist of the Temple Church. He qualified by examination as a fellow of the (Royal) College of Organists on 2 July 1874, but the claim that he passed both associate and fellowship diploma examinations on the same day is without substance. Immediately afterwards he sailed for New Zealand, hoping to recover from incipient tuberculosis. In Christchurch, as organist of St John's Church until 1879 and then for five years at St Luke's, he achieved great repute as a teacher. At St Luke's he also superintended the building of an organ, and later prepared specifications for the organ in Christchurch Cathedral and supervised its erection. Moving to Auckland he became organist of St Matthew's Church and conductor of the Diocesan Choral Association. In 1885 in Wellington he gave a series of organ recitals during the New Zealand Colonial Exhibition.

Barnett arrived in Sydney in May 1887, ostensibly to take an attractive post, but had to wait until next year before his organ recital at the Centennial Musical Festival at the University of Sydney drew attention to his skill. He was immediately appointed organist of St Mary's Cathedral under John Delany, the director of music. At the cathedral a series of recitals which he gave soon after his appointment helped to raise the funds necessary for completion of the half-built organ. In addition to his instrumental work he acted as a music critic, writing for the Sydney newspapers.

Barnett composed a Mass and a setting of 'Ave Maria' but neither was published. He was the author of treatises on musical history and harmony and published a pamphlet, A Popular Description of the Grand Organ (the Largest Musical Instrument in the World) in the Centennial Hall, Sydney, N.S.W. (1890).

He died on 26 September 1895 at Upper Picton, New South Wales, where he was seeking relief from tuberculosis. Over his grave in the Church of England cemetery a marble cross was erected as a memorial by his friends. By his wife Mary Isabel Constance Rahn, whom he married in Christchurch, New Zealand, he had two sons and three daughters. One son, Percy Neville (1881-1953), author, designer and publisher, became an international authority on book-plates and Japanese colour prints.

Barnett occupies a position of importance in Australian musical life as the first organist of proven qualifications to reside permanently in New South Wales. His competence as a performer and musical journalist established a pattern which found many later imitators.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. Lea-Scarlett, ‘The music of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney’, Organ Society of Sydney, Journal, 2 (1964), 3 (1965).

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Citation details

E. J. Lea-Scarlett, 'Barnett, Neville George (1854–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 March, 1854
London, Middlesex, England


26 September, 1895 (aged 41)
Picton, New South Wales, Australia

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