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George Barney (1792–1862)

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George Barney (1792-1862), soldier and engineer, was born on 19 May 1792 at Wolverhampton, England, the son of Joseph Barney, drawing master at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and Jane, née Chandler. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in July 1808, and served in the Peninsular war and in the West Indies, where he took part in the capture of Guadeloupe in 1815. In Jamaica he had several years experience of civil engineering. He was promoted second captain in 1813 and captain in 1825.

He arrived in Sydney in the British Sovereign with his wife and three children in December 1835 with a detachment of Royal Engineers. Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke soon added to his military duties, which included the charge of convict buildings and various civil works, among which were the removal of obstructions to navigation in the Parramatta River. In August 1836 the Colonial Office disapproved Bourke's proposal that Barney should receive an allowance of £500 a year for performing the duties of civil engineer. In February 1837 Bourke informed the Colonial Office of the works on which Barney was or should be employed: a circular quay at Sydney Cove, a breakwater at Newcastle, pier harbours at Wollongong and elsewhere, repairs of roads and bridges throughout the colony.

In May 1836 Barney had reported to the master-general of ordnance that the contractors for public works were mere workmen with no capital, employed under a 'pernicious' system of monthly advances; that green timber was commonly used in buildings; that he had been informed that if public works were closely inspected the contractors would cease work; and that there was no plan of any description in the engineer's office. Barney sought an increased establishment including three officers. In September 1837 the Colonial Office at last approved the payment to Barney of £500 a year for superintending civil works.

Meanwhile in September 1836 Barney had reported that the defences of Sydney were 'in a very dilapidated state' and in 1839 the master-general of ordnance called upon him to report on measures needed to protect the ports of New South Wales against 'desultory attacks from foreign cruisers'. In September Barney recommended that £5000 be provided for construction of batteries and blockhouses for the defence of Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Port Macquarie and Port Phillip and sought the appointment of two more engineer officers. The British government agreed to send out one additional officer, but would not adopt the plans for defence works. However, Governor Sir George Gipps, himself an officer of engineers, had already allotted Barney, now a major, 140 convict labourers, and these were at work clearing sites for guns, received in April 1840, at Pinchgut Island and Bradley's Head in Sydney Harbour. After considerable negotiation between the colonial government and the Ordnance Department the site of the George Street barracks was disposed of and a new site allotted in Paddington, where in 1841 the building of new barracks (Victoria Barracks) was begun under Barney's supervision. They were occupied in 1848, though work continued for some years.

Lieutenant-Colonel Barney was succeeded in command of the Royal Engineers Department in New South Wales in January 1843 by Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon, but Gipps retained Barney in the position of colonial engineer. In May 1844 he returned to England and served at Woolwich. Gordon worked out new fixed defences sited at the heads of the harbour, but Governor Sir William Denison, also an engineer officer, in 1855 reverted to Barney's plan; the keystone in the last arch in the base of the tower at Fort Denison was laid by Barney on 24 July 1856 and the fort completed in 1857. Barney had been elected president of the School of Arts in 1839, and in 1841 became chairman of directors of the Gaslight Co. and a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales.

Barney went on half-pay in April 1846, soon sold his commission, and in September arrived in Sydney in the William Hyde, having been commissioned by the secretary of state for the colonies, Gladstone, in May as superintendent of a new convict colony of North Australia. Barney sailed north in the Cornubia and in November chose Port Curtis as the centre for the new settlement. On 8 January 1847 the Lord Auckland sailed for Port Curtis with eighty-eight persons including Barney and his family, the chairman of Quarter Sessions, W. W. Billyard, six other officials and a detachment of one officer and twenty-two other ranks of the 99th Regiment. By 31 January all stores had been landed, and on 26 February the Thomas Lowry arrived with stores and fifty more troops, and some more civilians. It was mid-summer. It rained heavily. The temperature in the tents reached 110 degrees day after day. The colonists were tormented by mosquitoes. The Aboriginals were hostile. Some of the settlers complained that Barney was dilatory and indecisive, and that for the first uncomfortable weeks nothing was done. The Sydney Morning Herald denounced the creation of a convict settlement whence 'hordes of marauding and blood-thirsty reprobates' would pour southward. Gideon Lang wrote that because there would be no private employers in the north the government would have to meet the enormous expense of maintaining farms and plantations. In the Atlas Robert Lowe lampooned the plan and, in particular, Barney himself. In July 1846 Earl Grey had succeeded Gladstone as secretary of state and in November wrote to inform Sir Charles FitzRoy that the government had decided to abandon the settlement. Barney and his officers were to be recalled and employed by the government in New South Wales. Meanwhile their salaries were to be paid until one year after their arrival in Sydney. The venture had cost £15,402. In July 1847 Barney finished a report of his stewardship in which he defended his choice of the site and his administration.

On 1 January 1849 Barney was appointed chief commissioner of crown lands and in October 1851 was nominated to the Legislative Council of which he had been a member briefly in 1843 as colonial engineer. On 11 October 1855 he was appointed surveyor-general in succession to Sir Thomas Mitchell. Barney died at The Priory, St Leonards, Sydney, on 16 April 1862 and was buried in St Thomas's cemetery.

He had married Portia Henrietta Peale in Grenada, West Indies, about 1817. They had one son and four daughters. His widow died on 26 January 1883.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 17-22, 25, 26
  • J. F. Hogan, The Gladstone Colony (Lond, 1898)
  • Eastern Command, Short History of the Military Forces in NSW from 1788 to 1953 (Syd, 1953)
  • A. B. Shaw, ‘Fort Denison, Sydney Harbour’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 23, part 5, 1937, pp 382-87.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Barney, George (1792–1862)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Barney, c.1860

George Barney, c.1860

National Library of Australia, 23182499

Life Summary [details]


19 May, 1792
Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England


16 April, 1862 (aged 69)
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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