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Elise Barney (1810–1883)

by Manfred Cross

This article was published:

Elise Barney (1810-1883), postmistress, was born on 21 October 1810 in Lisbon, Portugal, eldest daughter of Captain James Rivers and his wife Mary, née Martin. On 6 November 1833 at St Mary's Cathedral, New Ross, Ireland, she married John Edward Barney, army officer. His regiment was transferred in July 1839 to St Helena, where he had responsibility for the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte until the Emperor's remains were removed to Paris in 1840. After Barney's service in South Africa in the Kaffir war the family returned to England in 1846.

Next year John's brother Lieutenant-Colonel George Barney was appointed superintendent of a proposed convict colony of North Australia and offered John an appointment. The latter sold his commission and the family embarked for Sydney in the Ganges, arriving on 1 September 1847. By then North Australia had been abandoned, but the pastoral industry offered opportunities. He applied for the lease of Kogan Creek station, north-west of the Darling Downs. Attack by Aborigines caused the family to return to Moreton Bay, where Barney was appointed commissioner of crown lands on 28 October 1849 and a magistrate on 30 January 1850.

With the commencement of direct immigration to Moreton Bay and the expansion of pastoral settlement, Barney was appointed postmaster on 1 March 1852. Brisbane was the focus of the postal service in what became Queensland. It was the only centre with a full-time postmaster, a letter-carrier and town delivery. Under Captain Barney the number of offices increased from nine to eleven. He died on 25 November 1855. His wife, who had assisted him when his health began to decline, succeeded him on the following day. By December 1859, when Queensland was separated from New South Wales, there were fifteen post offices; she received a generous testimonial from the secretary of the General Post Office, Sydney. It was obvious that a postal inspector was needed and Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior was appointed on 6 November 1860; he became postmaster-general on 4 January 1862. The Brisbane G.P.O. now served twenty-five offices. Elise's salary increased to £350. She and Murray-Prior became incompatible after he forced her son (Edward) Whiston to resign from his position as her clerk in 1863.

She remained postmistress until 2 April 1864 when she was transferred to the money order branch. There, however, her principal assistant proved to be dishonest, and a deficiency of £648 was identified in December. A public service investigation found that lack of proper supervision rested on both Murray-Prior and Mrs Barney. Each was directed to contribute half the loss and Mrs Barney was to be retired. However, (Sir) Robert Mackenzie, formerly minister in charge of the postal department, moved in the Legislative Assembly for a select committee into the organization and management of the post office. This found that neither Mrs Barney nor Murray-Prior should be held responsible for the defalcations and drew attention to the inadequate accommodation and shortage of trained staff. On 31 December 1864 Mrs Barney retired, with a gratuity of £2000, to her house in Gipps Street, Fortitude Valley. There, survived by her son and daughter, she died of diphtheria on 5 July 1883; she was buried in Toowong cemetery with Anglican rites. The Brisbane Courier acknowledged her role as 'giving entire satisfaction, and making many friends by her lady-like demeanour and the kindliness of her disposition'. During her time as postmistress the postal service had expanded to serve forty-five offices.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Radi, 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • K. Jobst, The Barneys 1835-1865 (Brisb, 1997)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1865, p 1035
  • Historical Society of Queensland, Journal, 1, no 2, Feb 1916, p 76
  • Moreton Bay Courier, 26 Nov 1855, p 1
  • Brisbane Courier, 7 July 1883, p 4.

Citation details

Manfred Cross, 'Barney, Elise (1810–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 12 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rivers, Elise

21 October, 1810
Lisbon, Portugal


5 July, 1883 (aged 72)
Fortitude Valley, 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.