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Sir Edmund (Toby) Barton (1849–1920)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Sir Edmund (Toby) Barton (1849-1920), federationist, first prime minister and judge, was born on 18 January 1849 at Glebe, Sydney, third son and youngest child of William Barton and his wife Mary Louisa, née Whydah; his eldest brother was George Burnett Barton. William had arrived in Sydney from London in 1827 as accountant to the Australian Agricultural Co. After a quarrel with Sir William Parry, he had resigned in 1832 and his subsequent career as a financial agent and sharebroker was chequered. With nine children to be provided for, his wife, who was exceptionally well educated, ran a girls' school in the 1860s. Edmund, known as Toby to his schoolmates, was educated at Fort Street Model School for two years and in 1859-64 at Sydney Grammar School, where he began a lifelong friendship with Richard O'Connor, and was school captain in 1863 and 1864.

In 1865 Barton matriculated at the University of Sydney. Next year he won a prize for classics and the £50 (William) Lithgow scholarship. In 1867 he studied under Professor Charles Badham, who gave him a lasting love of Greek and Latin, and won the (Sir Daniel) Cooper scholarship. He graduated B.A. in 1868 and M.A. (by examination) in 1870. He learned to debate at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts. From May 1868 he had worked for a solicitor Henry Bradley and from June 1870 with a barrister G. C. Davies. On 21 December 1871 he was admitted to the Bar. Although slow to get briefs, in May 1872 he was junior counsel for the defence of the notorious murderer Alfred Lester.

As a boy Toby had loved fishing and cricket; a fair batsman, but an atrocious fieldsman, he played for the university in 1870 and 1871. Later he organized several intercolonial matches and umpired in some major games including New South Wales v. Lord Harris's English XI which was interrupted by a riot. In 1870, when visiting Newcastle with a team, he confided to his diary that 'Jeannie Ross is beautiful, and sings like a bird, and is a dear'; they became engaged in 1872. He warned her: 'You do not know the depths of my poverty and the slenderness of my chances'. In 1875 he accompanied Sir Alfred Stephen on circuit to Grafton as his associate; later that year he was briefly an acting crown prosecutor, and again in 1878, but failed in other efforts to get a government appointment. On 28 December 1877 at the Watt Street Presbyterian manse, Newcastle, he married Jane (Jean) Mason Ross, daughter of an English engineer and hotelkeeper.

In 1876 and 1877 Barton was defeated for the University of Sydney seat in the Legislative Assembly, but won it in 1879. Although he generally opposed the Parkes-Robertson coalition ministry, he strongly supported its 1880 Education Act. In November he was elected unopposed for Wellington, and won East Sydney in 1882, thinking it 'almost unnecessary' to say that he was a free trader.

On 3 January 1883 Barton became Speaker. In a turbulent parliament, he displayed a sound knowledge of constitutional law and T. E. May's British Parliamentary Practices. The youngest Speaker yet, he revelled in the clubbable atmosphere of parliament and earned the Bulletin's nickname, 'Toby Tosspot', but was able to give clear decisions at 5 a.m. after disorderly sittings. He displayed quickness of perception, tact, courtesy and firmness. Next year he was forced to introduce new standing orders to control such rowdy and abusive members as David Buchanan, John McElhone and Adolphus Taylor, who was twice suspended from parliament by a vote of the House; the second time Barton had to order his removal by the serjeant-at-arms. Taylor claimed his suspension was illegal and won £1000 damages against him; the decision was upheld by the Privy Council.

In September 1885 Barton told Lachlan Brient, editor of the Daily Telegraph, of his 'determination not to be permanently “shelved”' after the defeat of Sir Alexander Stuart's ministry. Despite Governor Loftus's opinion that Barton was the probable leader of an emerging strong third party, Brient's intrigues to bring about a coalition ministry between him and (Sir) George Dibbs came to nothing. Barton refused the attorney-generalship under Dibbs and was again elected Speaker. Bradley urged him to give more attention to his professional career: 'there will be directly no man at the General Bar but Salomons to compete with you!' Whatever hard work and 'late hours and late habits' the Speakership involved, it was compensated for by a salary of £1200. In the years 1883-86 his earnings at the Bar had been £720, £630, £1114 and £901.

On 31 January 1887 Barton resigned as Speaker, and on 2 February was nominated to the Upper House. He rejected Parkes's offer of the vice-presidency of the Executive Council and leadership of the government in the Legislative Council. On 25 May he regretfully refused office as attorney-general, because he could not bring himself 'to concur in the financial projects of the Government'. However in January-March 1889 he held that portfolio in the Dibbs Protectionist ministry and, as ex officio leader of the Bar, he took silk on 8 March. In October he chaired the first National Protection Conference held in New South Wales but declined leadership of the Protectionist Party.

From the early 1880s Barton spent many convivial hours at the Athenaeum Club, where 'wit sparkled while the wine flowed freely', with fellow members such as Jules Francois Archibald and William Bede Dalley, Julian Ashton, Louis Becke, Thomas Butler, and (Sir) James Fairfax. Here in the mid-1880s he discussed a Federal legislative body with Andrew Inglis Clark. Handsome, with 'finely chiselled features', curling black hair starting to grey and 'beautiful black eyes that glowed with enthusiasm', Barton grew portly with age and good living, but still enjoyed fishing. Part of his charm was his generosity, even temper and ability to keep silent; his conversation rarely lacked 'humour or wit'. An omnivorous reader, he loved the theatre—especially Shakespeare and the opera—and appreciated music and art. He was a fellow of the university senate in 1880-89 and 1892-1920, and a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales.

Ardently believing in Australia's destiny as a nation, Barton congratulated Parkes in October 1889 on his Tenterfield address, and at a crowded meeting in the Sydney Town Hall in November, supported Federation. Familiar with Clark's draft constitution, sent to him on 12 February 1891, he criticized Parkes's proposed resolutions for the National Australasian Convention: he thought it 'of the highest importance that just proposals' should be formulated at once on the New South Wales fear of 'surrenders' on the seat of government and possible 'dismemberment' against its consent.

As a delegate to the convention in Sydney in March, Barton impressed Alfred Deakin and (Sir) John Downer with his address on the Federal resolutions. He urged, that the 'territorial rights' of the colonies should remain intact and, on the divisive question of protection, took it 'as a matter of course' that soon after Federation 'trade and intercourse … shall be absolutely free'. Believing that the Lower House should rest 'upon universal suffrage', he advocated that the second chamber should also be representative and argued that the power of such a senate to amend money bills would cause less friction than an outright veto. He begged the convention and colonial parliaments to 'secure the abolition of the jurisdiction of the Privy Council'. When Clark succumbed to influenza, Barton became a member of the drafting committee, and 'strenuously and industriously' devoted himself to its work, winning the praise of its chairman Sir Samuel Griffith.

He soon had to uphold the draft constitution bill against (Sir) George Reid, who maintained that certain clauses were unfair to New South Wales. On 12 June 1891 Barton resigned from the Upper House and in the general election contested East Sydney with Reid. He astounded political circles when he announced that 'So long as Protection meant a Ministry of enemies to Federation, they would get no vote from him'. He bitterly attacked Reid and asserted that on Federation 'Mr. Dibbs is a daily conundrum. What can we do but give him up?' Praised by the Sydney Morning Herald for his stand on principle, he topped the poll.

In the new parliament Barton voted in all major divisions with Parkes, who remained in office with Labor Party support. In August, again refusing office, he explained that he did not see its acceptance 'as a public duty' at that time. The government fell in October, and Parkes persuaded him to take over leadership of the Federal movement in New South Wales.

On 23 October Barton became attorney-general, with the right of private practice, in Dibbs's new Protectionist ministry, which was lukewarm towards Federation. Assailed on all sides, he defended himself: 'if the question of Federation is to be satisfactorily handled … its conduct should be in the hands of a Minister, and that Minister, an ardent Federationist'. He had extracted a promise from Dibbs of ministerial support for the Federal resolutions, to be introduced early in the next session. However, his acceptance of a protective tariff to remedy the large treasury deficit roused a storm of criticism and charges that he was putting 'provincial protection first, and Federation in the dim future'. Many free traders in his electorate felt betrayed.

Barton worked hard and late to introduce order and punctuality into his department. Also acting premier while Dibbs was in England from April to September 1892, he had to contend with the Broken Hill miners' strike. He refused to send military forces to keep order as he wanted to 'avoid undue causes of irritation', but did dispatch fifty policemen. When the leaders were charged with conspiracy in September, he instructed the crown prosecutor to conduct all cases 'with absolute fairness', but accepted advice to transfer the trial to Deniliquin, as no Broken Hill jury was likely to convict, thus provoking the antagonism of Labor members and the Australian Worker. Preoccupied with the strike, hindered by indifferent colleagues, and encumbered with a complex electoral bill, Barton was unable to introduce the Federal resolutions until 22 November: he finally carried them on 11 January 1893. Frustrated in his attempts to get the draft constitution bill considered in committee, he was caught up in the depression and bank crisis in May and had to pilot the bank issue and current account depositors bills through the assembly.

In December 1892 Barton had visited Corowa and Albury and, with local co-operation, had set up branches of the Australasian Federation League. In July 1893 the Central Federation League was formed in Sydney; blaming Barton for failing to get the draft bill considered in parliament, Parkes disapproved of him seeking support from the people. Throughout the winter Barton was attacked in the press by Parkes and Bernhard Ringrose Wise. Exhausted, he visited Canada from July to September.

In October the resolutions were finally considered in committee, but the adjournment was carried. They had not been restored to the order-paper by December when Barton and O'Connor, minister of justice, were challenged in the House for holding briefs against the Crown in Proudfoot v. the Railway Commissioners. He immediately returned his brief and Governor Sir Robert Duff reported that 'the matter would have ended there', but Barton defended the right of cabinet ministers 'in their professional practice, to appear against a government department' in the courts. The adjournment was carried against them and Barton immediately resigned.

An able attorney-general, he had gained valuable administrative and ministerial experience, but his reputation as a Federation leader had suffered and both free traders and Labor members now distrusted him. In the general election of July 1894 he was defeated for Randwick. When Reid precipitated another election a year later Barton told Parkes that 'a return to active politics would be just now disastrous to the interests of my family'; throughout the 1890s his finances were precarious. However, reconciled with Parkes, he campaigned for him.

Barton devoted the next three years to tireless work for Federation. He left the organization of the leagues, springing up all over the colony, to non-political enthusiasts—but was always willing to give advice—while he 'stumped the country', addressing some 300 meetings. He was helped by a band of 'young disciples' such as Atlee Hunt, (Sir) Robert Garran and (Sir) Thomas Bavin; Garran recorded that at Ashfield Barton triumphantly asserted that 'For the first time in history, we have a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation'. He kept in close touch with prominent federationists in other colonies and by March 1897 he had become 'the acknowledged leader of the federal movement in all Australia': his prestige had been vastly increased by 'his years of patient advocacy'. He was elected to the Australasian Federal Convention, first of forty-nine candidates.

On 22 March the convention met in Adelaide. Barton was elected leader and, later, chairman of the drafting and constitutional committees. Night after night Barton drove the drafting committee to exhaustion but it produced a constitution by mid-April. He was alert, patient, willing to explain, to intervene and to make notes of amendments for drafting. He was rarely provoked, except by (Sir) Isaac Isaacs, whom he rebuked as 'a pedant'; he unwisely neglected some of his suggestions.

Before Reid left to attend Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, he recommended Barton's appointment to the Legislative Council to take charge of the draft bill. Barton demurred as 'he had been sitting for months as arbitrator' in McSharry v. the Railway Commissioners, and could not withdraw from the case because of the 'enormous hardship' to both parties. However, Reid considered his continuance as sole arbitrator 'perfectly consistent', and he was appointed to the council on 8 May. This freed John Henry Want, Reid's attorney-general, to attack the draft bill in a council already intransigently opposed to Federation. So many damaging amendments were carried that on 26 August Barton refused to have anything more to do with the mutilated bill and claimed 'you might as well say you would improve a horse by cutting his legs off!'

When the adjourned convention met in Sydney in September to consider the 286 amendments proposed by the colonial legislatures, Barton kept the delegates to their task. The convention reconvened in Melbourne on 20 January 1898. The summer was hot and by March the members were irritable and weary of inconclusive debates on finance, rivers and railway freights. Barton kept on until the drafting committee was satisfied, but blunders crept in: he defended the wording that trade and commerce should be 'absolutely free'. John La Nauze has paid tribute to Barton's achievement. 'There were men in the Convention more eminent and more industrious in their common professions; more learned in constitutional law; equally devoted in the preceding decade to the profitless cause of federation; more prominent and experienced in politics. Yet he led them all, with an authority never questioned, and sustained by the visible and irrefutable example of plain hard work and conscientious devotion to a task'.

The convention finally rose on 17 March and Barton returned home to campaign for the referendum to approve the draft constitution bill. Strong opposition from leading businessmen and the Daily Telegraph was reinforced when Reid adopted an equivocal attitude. In June the referendum failed by 8504 votes to reach the required minimum of 80 000. Barton, who had been warned by Governor Hampden, realized that concessions would have to be made if New South Wales were to accept the constitution.

On 22 July 1898 Barton resigned from the council to stand against Reid in the general election. He advocated three modifications to the bill: the Federal capital to be in New South Wales, cancellation of the (Sir Edward) Braddon clause on finance, and removal of the three-fifths majority at a joint sitting to resolve a deadlock. No match for Reid's wit, he was narrowly defeated in 'a historic political duel'. In September he won a by-election for the Hastings and Macleay assembly seat after a bitter campaign against Sydney Smith, who was assisted by James Henry Young.

Back in the assembly Barton was immediately elected leader of the Opposition and soon had to face fierce criticism for his association with the McSharry case, which had lasted for more than two years. At the head of a motley group of Federalists who were also protectionist and of protectionists who were anti-Federation and anti-Reid, Barton, somewhat inconsistently with his reputation as 'Australia's noblest son', now pursued tactics of harassment against Reid and turned a blind eye to the obstructive antics of his dubious supporter William Crick, thereby endangering the new Federal resolutions. After Reid had won important concessions at a premiers' meeting in January 1899 and carried the Enabling Act for a second referendum in April, he and Barton campaigned together. Leaving the main railway lines, Barton drove through the bush in a buggy, speaking at towns, villages and homesteads, often driving through the night. On 29 June 1899 the draft constitution bill was approved by 107 420 votes to 82 741.

In August it seemed likely that Reid would be defeated in the House; Barton resigned as leader of the Opposition as, unacceptable to the Labor Party, he could not form a government. He refused the attorney-generalship when, after complex manoeuvring, (Sir) William Lyne, a strong opponent of Federation, became premier. He resigned from parliament on 7 February 1900.

In March Barton, accompanied by his wife, arrived in London as leader of the Australian delegation invited by Joseph Chamberlain to explain the constitution to the Imperial government. Instructed to press for its passage without amendment through the British parliament, he soon found that Chamberlain, backed by influential pressure from Australia, was adamant on restoring the right of appeal to the Privy Council. Barton and the other delegates wasted no opportunity to publicize their cause; they accepted numerous invitations to speak, and stressed that the bill had been approved by the Australian people. Chamberlain offered a compromise whereby the settlement of constitutional issues would be left to the High Court, while the right of appeal to the Privy Council was restored for other cases. The Earl of Jersey told Barton that the concession 'could only have been obtained by tact, firmness & the confidence you inspired'.

Barton was elected an honorary member of twelve famous clubs in London and awarded an honorary LL.D. by the University of Cambridge. Back in Australia by September, he corresponded with the Colonial Office about the details of the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia. It was widely believed that he would be first prime minister, although Sir Frederick Darley complained to Sir Samuel Way: 'Barton is bad enough, though I suppose he is certain to be C.[hief] J.[ustice]; but he is not so bad as either Kingston or Symon. Barton does not command respect here. He is undoubtedly an able man, and might have been a distinguished man at the Bar, but he is too lazy to work, and has therefore but little experience. He is unfortunately in very impoverished circumstances … a sum of money has been collected … for the benefit of his wife and his children's education'.

However, Barton thought it 'his duty to remain in politics for a time', and it came as a shock, both in England and Australia, when on 19 December 1900 the Earl of Hopetoun, the governor-general, asked Lyne to form the first Commonwealth ministry. Barton refused to serve as attorney-general and, after frantic use of the telegraph by Deakin, Lyne failed to form a ministry; Barton was commissioned to do so and on Christmas Day named his cabinet, which included his friends Deakin and O'Connor, Kingston, and the three premiers (Sir John) Forrest, Sir George Turner and Lyne. Barton himself was prime minister and took the portfolio of external affairs: it was fitting that Australia's first prime minister was native-born.

The proclamation of the Commonwealth on 1 January 1901 was followed by banqueting and great celebrations, but before the royal tour of the Duke and Duchess of York could begin, Barton had the elections to win to become prime minister in his own right. He opened his campaign at West Maitland on 17 January with a statesmanlike speech: he favoured moderate protection to raise sufficient money for the States and the Commonwealth and would resort to direct taxation if extra funds were needed in an emergency. He infuriated many Queenslanders by declaring for 'a white Australia', but this was an electoral masterstroke in the other States, both unifying and liberal; he favoured old-age pensions and conceded female suffrage to his more radical colleagues. On 24 January he was appointed a privy councillor.

Barton was elected unopposed for Hunter, and all his ministers were returned. In the House of Representatives he had to depend on the Labor members for a majority; in the Senate he was in a minority. Parliament was opened in Melbourne on 9 May by the Duke of York. The first session was largely taken up with procedural matters; however Barton carried the Immigration Restriction Act, and the Pacific Island Labourers Act which provided for the repatriation of Kanakas. The early introduction of this legislation pleased Labor, was cheap to implement (unlike old-age pensions) and tested the fledgling Commonwealth's power against the Colonial Office, which insisted on the substitution of a European for an English language dictation test. Barton acted swiftly to conciliate the Japanese acting consul-general H. Eitaki, who claimed a conflict between the Act and the Queensland protocol to the Anglo-Japanese Treaty. In 1905 Barton was granted permission to retain the insignia of the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun (first class). In December 1901 he had acceded to an official British request to send a Commonwealth contingent to the South African War.

It took all Barton's tact and courtesy to manage his team of leaders, whom he did not try to discipline. Moreover, to the despair of his private secretaries Hunt, then Bavin, he gave too much time to 'importunate callers', forgot engagements, had no love for administration, and had never enjoyed political intrigues or manoeuvring. His hold on parliament was precarious, and he 'had somehow to contrive a different majority for almost each piece of legislation'. He took a keen interest in setting up the Commonwealth Public Service and securing for it 'only the most competent of officers'. Despite a warm association with Hopetoun, he delayed in putting to parliament the question of an £8000 allowance for the governor-general, and permitted the bill to be amended out of recognition. Hopetoun resigned, but Barton had already left for England to attend the delayed coronation of Edward VII and the Colonial Conference of 1902. Already a convert to the Admiralty's policy of fleet concentration, he negotiated a new naval agreement: mainly actuated by considerations of expense and practicability, he believed an Australian navy was for the future and pledged £200 000 to maintain the British squadron based on Sydney. The new agreement provided for more modern ships and for the local training of Australian seamen as part of the Royal Naval Reserve.

Having refused a knighthood in 1887, 1891 and 1899, Barton now accepted the G.C.M.G. He also received the freedom of the City of Edinburgh, an honorary D.C.L. from the University of Oxford and was made an honorary bencher of Gray's Inn. On his way home he visited the Pope and accepted from him a medallion; for this he was scurrilously attacked by Rev. William Dill Macky, who organized a petition signed by 30,000 Protestants.

As minister of external affairs Barton was primarily concerned with immigration, but he took a deep interest in questions connected with the Pacific. Although early in 1901 he had asserted that Australia could have 'no foreign policy of its own' and implied that the Empire should speak as one, he equally believed that the British government should adopt the Australian point of view on the Pacific Islands. With 'a greater sensitivity for imperial diplomacy in the midst of the Boer War' than other ministers such as Deakin, he tried to damp down public agitation for an aggressive policy while, from as early as February 1901, he pressed the Colonial Office to appoint an international tribunal to settle land disputes with the French in the New Hebrides. In August he sent Wilson Le Couteur there, as Australia's first spy. As the Colonial Office did nothing, and he received no promise of action at the Colonial Conference, his attitude hardened. In 1903 he refused the British suggestions of a joint protectorate or partition, and urged the Colonial Office to acquire the New Hebrides either by purchase or treaty. He offered to pay 3 per cent annually on £250 000 for their acquisition and all costs of administration. After he left office he recommended to Hunt that if the Colonial Office continued to do nothing, the government should publish the correspondence.

In January 1903 Barton clashed with the governor-general Lord Tennyson over the role of his official secretary (Sir) George Steward in confidential communications with the Colonial Office, and reminded the governor-general 'that it was his duty to accept the advice of his Ministers'. Although parliament was proving difficult to manage, Barton was able to carry the Naval Agreement Act after a prolonged struggle in committee. In July Kingston resigned over differences in cabinet about the conciliation and arbitration bill. On 23 September 1903 Barton resigned and a few days later became senior puisne judge of the new High Court of Australia. Way told Darley: 'Barton seems to me to have a judicial mind, though he certainly has not powers of lucid expression … [he] did not want to leave politics, but his friends wanted him to go to the Bench to provide for his family. His party was getting dissatisfied with his leadership'.

Hunt, while noting his chief's 'brilliancy of perception', had complained of the difficulty of getting work done and of his 'want of personal energy, his disregard of time, both his own and other people's, his habit of taking so much to drink that he becomes slow of comprehension and expression'. He had always worked with 'amazing concentration and speed' but irregularly, and often late at night. Bavin later wrote of Barton as prime minister: 'He was impatient of questions of detail. Though he was always genial, he was too easy going to bother about humouring weaknesses or vanity of other members. He had little or no interest in the game of politics for its own sake. But it would be quite wrong to suppose that this means his term of office was a failure … He not only played the chief part in planning the machine and inducing the people to accept it, but he took the leading part in bringing it into action'.

Barton proved an unexpectedly good and 'scrupulously impartial' judge; possessing 'one of the keenest and quickest of intellects', he readily grasped the essential issues and arguments in a case and discussed them in court with perception and courtesy in his 'rich and beautifully modulated voice'. The width of his reading in British and American appeal cases was displayed in his sound constitutional opinions. He also proved a careful expositor of the many branches of private law needed for non-constitutional cases, which made up most of the court's appellate jurisdiction. At first he and O'Connor relied heavily on Griffith's greater learning and experience; Barton frequently concurred or adopted joint opinions, 'often pocketing his own reasons for the judgment', but from 1906 he increasingly wrote separate opinions and developed a characteristic style, on occasions strongly dissenting from his colleagues. In 1911 he was acting chief justice.

With Griffith and O'Connor, Barton shared a 'balancing' view of the Federal system on most constitutional questions and endeavoured to preserve autonomy for the States. They devised the doctrine of 'implied immunity of instrumentalities', which prevented the States from taxing Commonwealth officers, and also prevented the Commonwealth from arbitrating industrial disputes in the States' railways. They also developed the doctrine of 'implied prohibitions' and narrowly interpreted Federal powers in commercial and industrial matters, but in the steel rails and wire-netting cases in 1908 they held that the Commonwealth's fiscal powers included competence to tax goods imported by State governments. Barton fully agreed that the Commonwealth's defence power included extensive control of the civilian economy in World War I. He particularly desired to keep Commonwealth industrial arbitration power within narrow bounds, and began the laissez-faire interpretation of the guarantee of freedom of interstate trade which later prevailed in the court. Chief Justice (Sir) Adrian Knox claimed that Barton's 'mastery of constitutional law and principles was unsurpassed, and to this he added a thorough knowledge of the principles of common law'.

The High Court sat in all the State capitals—Barton often stayed or dined with old friends and colleagues and now had time to go to the races. He continued to enjoy 'the warm pleasures of life' and in the summer law vacations took his family to Tasmania. An affectionate husband and father, Barton had a special affinity with his eldest daughter Jean, who in 1909 married (Sir) David Maughan; Hunt frequently recorded how much he 'loved children'. In 1915 Sir Edmund visited England with his wife and daughter: his son Wilfred, who had been the first New South Wales Rhodes Scholar, was serving with the British Army in France. On 10 June Barton was sworn into the Privy Council by the King and sat on its Judicial Committee in several cases. In 1919 he was disappointed at not succeeding Griffith as chief justice.

Barton died suddenly of heart failure at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains on 7 January 1920, and after a state funeral service at St Andrew's Cathedral, was buried in the Church of England section of South Head cemetery; he had been a Freemason. He was survived by his wife, four sons and two daughters, and his estate was valued for probate at £6565. His portrait by Norman Carter hangs in Parliament House, Canberra, and one by John Longstaff is in the High Court, Sydney.

The adulation of his supporters gave Barton much to live up to: as a politician he had lacked astuteness and, probably, ambition, and as a barrister neglected his profession for politics. Yet for twelve years he gave all his energy to the cause of Federation and in 1897-98 rose to the heights of oratory, dedicated leadership and sustained hard work. As prime minister he played an important part in setting up the Commonwealth administrative machine and in making Federation a practical reality. As a High Court judge he was distinguished and alert to ensure that the Constitution should function smoothly. For a 'lazy' man, his achievements were great. Moreover he lived life to the full and always enjoyed the company of his fellow men. Knox claimed that it was 'given to few men to inspire as he did, a feeling of affection in those with whom he came into contact in every phase of life. This rare gift, springing from a nature richly endowed with the Divine gift of sympathy, conferred upon him a distinction all his own'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Reynolds, Edmund Barton (Syd, 1948)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Hopetoun Blunder (Melb, 1957)
  • R. Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth (Syd, 1958)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Melb, 1972)
  • M. Rutledge, Edmund Barton (Melb, 1974)
  • R. Norris, The Emergent Commonwealth (Melb, 1975)
  • N. Meaney, A History of Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1901-23, vol 1 (Syd, 1976)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1893, 1572, 1897, 3459, 1898, 1062, 1121
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 27 (1919-20)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 Sept 1897
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1927
  • C. Cunneen, The Role of Governor-General in Australia 1901-1927 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1973)
  • E. Barton papers (National Library of Australia), and correspondence, and collection of news-cuttings, 1900-20 and vol 203 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bavin papers, Deakin papers, Groom papers, Atlee Hunt papers and Novar papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • External Affairs, correspondence, 1901-03, A6, A8, and New Hebrides correspondence, A35, A1108 vols 2, 3, 10, 11, 14 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Sir Samuel Way, PRG 30/4 p74, 30/5/7 p168 (State Records of South Australia)
  • printed catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Barton, Sir Edmund (Toby) (1849–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 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

Edmund Barton, 1901-03

Edmund Barton, 1901-03

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L24689

Life Summary [details]


18 January, 1849
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


7 January, 1920 (aged 70)
Meadlow Bath, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.

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