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Sir Charles Newton Barton (1907–1987)

by Kay Cohen

This article was published:

Sir Charles Newton Barton (1907-1987), commissioner of main roads and co-ordinator-general of public works, was born on 5 July 1907 at Bowen, Queensland, eldest of three sons of Queensland-born parents John Barton, bank clerk, and his wife Louisa Burnett, née Pott. An outstanding student at Maryborough Grammar School, Charles studied civil engineering at the University of Queensland (BE, 1929). While at university, living in Emmanuel College, he represented the State in rowing. In 1929 he joined the bridge branch of the Queensland Main Roads Commission; three years later he transferred to the design staff of the new bridge board, under the direction of (Sir) James Holt, who was then supervising the construction of Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point (later Story) bridge. With few opportunities for promotion, he resigned in 1935 to establish the firm of (J. A.) Pollock & Barton, consulting engineers, in Mackay; he was to remain a partner until 1959. On 6 August 1935 at St Thomas’s Church of England, Toowong, Brisbane, he had married Enid Louisa Emily Wetherell, a clerk.

Having served in the Citizen Military Forces since 1925, Barton was appointed lieutenant, Corps of Australian Engineers, in 1931 and promoted to captain in 1935. On 28 October 1939 he was called up for full-time duty with the 42nd Battalion as a temporary major. Seconded to the Australian Imperial Force on 1 May 1940, he was made second-in-command of the 2/15th Battalion. He was captured in Libya in April 1941 and spent the remaining war years as a prisoner in Italy and Germany. Remembered as being a strong, quietly dependable presence, he occupied his time reading, becoming proficient in Italian and conducting courses for camp inmates in science and engineering. He was repatriated in June 1945 and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 4 September. Rejoining the CMF, he commanded the 31st Battalion (Kennedy Regiment) in 1948-52 and the 42nd Battalion (Capricornia Regiment) in 1952-57 as a lieutenant colonel. In 1954 he was appointed OBE. He was honorary colonel of the 31st Battalion (1959-60), the Australian Cadet Corps, Northern Command (1961-66), and the Queensland University Regiment (1966-72).

When Barton was appointed commissioner of main roads on 1 January 1960, he moved back to Brisbane. Characterised as `a strategic thinker and policy planner’, he was the `new broom’ who introduced a private sector appreciation of the need for operational and attitudinal changes to achieve a more efficient, responsive department. Averse to centralised and bureaucratic empires, he delegated decision-making and accountability to district offices, and ensured that local authorities were consulted in the planning of public works. He emphasised the value of improving technical skills. Under his direction, the criteria for funding different road categories were revised and in 1963 the Road Plan of Queensland, a comprehensive classification of roads for forward planning and funding purposes, was completed. Barton again made organisational changes when implementing the recommendations of Wilbur Smith & Associates’s `Brisbane Transport Study’ (1965) for an extensive metropolitan highway and freeway network. He was chairman (1961-63, 1968) of the Australian Road Research Board.

On 1 January 1969 Barton took up the position of co-ordinator-general of public works. Although he disliked the `game’ of politics, he was adept at it. The exhaustive background reports he commissioned from his professional staff gave him a strong information base, and he used his department’s dominance of the wide-ranging inter-departmental committee system to advantage. In what was then criticised as a revolutionary change, he oversaw the devolution of the engineering design and construction function of the Department of the Co-ordinator-General to other government authorities, thereby returning it to its core planning and co-ordinating role. In 1971-72 he influenced new legislation which further loosened the department’s previously pervasive control over State public works. His preference for decentralised planning gave rise to new entities administered by departmental co-ordinators. These regional co-ordination councils established under his direction proved, however, to be ineffectual and were disbanded soon after his retirement on 31 December 1976. Barton had been knighted in 1974.

Sir Charles was inaugural chairman of the Port of Brisbane Authority (1976-79) and of the Queensland Local Government Grants Commission (1977-79), and a member (1976-78) of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. He was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, which awarded him the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medal in 1978. In 1968-69 he was president (life member 1977) of the Queensland division of the Australian Institute of Management. He was a member (1969-77) of the University of Queensland senate. A tall, reserved man with a distinguished military bearing, he earned the respect and loyalty of friends, colleagues and staff.

Although dedicated to his work, Barton achieved a balanced life, keeping up sporting and other recreational interests and deriving particular enjoyment from topical, often spirited, discussions he had with fellow members of his clubs: the Queensland, Johnsonian and United Service, Mackay. President (1980-82) of the Boy Scouts’ Association Queensland branch council and a trustee (1969-86) of the Queensland Cancer Fund, he was also active in the Rotary Club of Brisbane and in the Legacy clubs of Mackay and Brisbane. He served as president and national director of the Queensland branch of the Australia-Britain Society, and on the parochial council of St Andrew’s Church of England, Indooroopilly. Afflicted by Parkinson’s disease towards the end of his life, he died on 31 March 1987 at Auchenflower and was cremated. His wife survived him; there were no children.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Cossins (ed), Eminent Queensland Engineers, vol 2 (1999)
  • Queensland Roads, June 1969, p 1
  • University of Queensland, Alumni News, July 1987, p 17
  • series B883, item QX6198 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Kay Cohen, 'Barton, Sir Charles Newton (1907–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 July, 1907
Bowen, Queensland, Australia


31 March, 1987 (aged 79)
Auchenflower, 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.