Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Barbara Jane Baynton (1857–1929)

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Barbara Jane Baynton (1857-1929), writer, was born on 4 June 1857 at Scone, New South Wales, youngest daughter of John Lawrence, carpenter, and his wife Elizabeth, née Ewart, who had arrived in Sydney from Londonderry, Ireland, as bounty immigrants in the Royal Consort on 9 November 1840. However Barbara later alleged that her father was Captain Robert Lawrence Kilpatrick of the Bengal Light Cavalry. By 1866 the Lawrences had moved to Murrurundi. Educated at home, Barbara enjoyed the works of Dickens and the Russian novelists; she became a governess with the Fraters at Merrylong Park, south of Quirindi. On 24 June 1880 at Tamworth Presbyterian Church she married Alexander Frater junior, a selector. Next year they moved to the Coonamble district, where she bore two sons and a daughter.

In 1887 Frater ran off with Sarah Glover, a servant in his household; Barbara took her children to Sydney, instituted divorce proceedings and was granted a decree absolute on 4 March 1890. Next day at St Philip's Church of England, claiming to be a widow, she married a 70-year-old widower Thomas Baynton, who was a retired surgeon with literary and academic friends who visited his home at Woollahra. Financially secure, Barbara began to add to her husband's collection of Georgian silver and antiques. Robust and vigorous, overflowing with vitality, she also began to write short stories, verse and articles for the Bulletin. Her first story, 'The Tramp', was published in December 1896. A. G. Stephens became a close friend.

After failing to find a publisher in Sydney for her collection of six short stories, in 1902 Barbara Baynton visited London where, with the help of Edward Garnett, the critic, Bush Studies was published that year by Duckworth & Co. She did not romanticize bush life and showed a savage revulsion against its loneliness and harshness. 'A Dreamer', 'The Chosen Vessel', 'Scrammy 'and' and 'Squeaker's Mate' are chilling tales of terror and nightmare, built up detail by detail rather than by atmosphere and the supernatural. Stephens reviewed Bush Studies in the Bulletin, 14 February 1903: 'So precise, so complete, with such insight into detail and such force of statement, it ranks with the masterpieces of realism in any language'. To Vance Palmer, 'Bush Church' and 'Billy Skywonkie' had 'a robust masculine humour'. Writing powerfully, with economy of style, Baynton used certain symbolic and recurrent themes, notably the strong maternal instinct, the loyalty of the dog, the isolation of the bush and a bitter insistence on man's brutality to woman, which gave unity to the stories and lifted them above the plane of simple realism.

In 1903 Barbara Baynton returned to Sydney where her husband died on 10 June 1904, leaving her his whole estate, valued for probate at £3871. She began investing on the Stock Exchange, particulary in the Law Book Co. of Australasia Ltd of which she later became chairman of directors. An astute businesswoman, she also bought and sold antiques and started her fine collection of black opals from Lightning Ridge. She contributed occasional forceful articles to the Sydney Morning Herald on the 'Indignity of Domestic Service' and other women's issues. She spent the next years between Australia and London, where she lived 'in a succession of increasingly fine houses', surrounded by Chinese lacquer, Chippendale furniture, ornate porcelain and silver. Something of a celebrity in literary circles, she entertained lavishly and knew many famous people. She found time to write her only novel, Human Toll (London, 1907) which, despite its melodrama and 'unsure management of structure', included in A. A. Phillips's opinion 'some of her most characteristic writing … and maturer insights into human behaviour'. During World War I she opened her house in Connaught Square to British and Australian soldiers, and in 1917 published Cobbers, a reissue of Bush Studies with two new stories, including 'Trooper Jim Tasman'.

On 11 February 1921 Barbara Baynton married Rowland George Allanson-Winn, fifth baron Headley, president of the Society of Engineers and of the Muslim Society in England, and a sportsman. Next year he became bankrupt. Outraged when he refused the throne of Albania, she returned to Melbourne in a huff. She built a house at Toorak, near her daughter Penelope who had married (Sir) Henry Gullett in 1912, and furnished it with Queen Anne and Georgian pieces. Bored with it, she sold its contents with such success that she returned to England and brought back another shipload of antiques. Dark, with heavily lidded, watchful eyes, she loved jewellery, especially opals and pearls, and beautiful clothes. With considerable charm, 'a devastating wit', a caustic tongue and a domineering personality, she had the ability to amuse and impress people. W. M. Hughes found her 'a remarkable woman'.

Lady Headley died of cerebral thrombosis at her home at Toorak on 28 May 1929 and was cremated. Her estate was sworn for probate at £160,621. She was survived by her first and third husbands and by two sons and a daughter of her first marriage; a son by her second husband had died in infancy. Robert Guy Frater, her second son, inherited her adventurous spirit: he went to the South African War at 15, raised soldiers for a Chinese warlord, served in the Archduke Ferdinand's bodyguard at Sarajevo and, with his brother, fought with the British Army in World War I. Her portrait by John Longstaff is held by the Frater family.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Krimmer, ‘New light on Barbara Baynton’, Australian Literary Studies, Oct 1976, and for bibliography
  • Supreme Court, W. J. Windeyer divorce note books, 1889 (State Records New South Wales)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Baynton, Barbara Jane (1857–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Allonson-Winn, Barbara
  • Frater, Barbara Jane
  • Lawrence, Barbara Janet
  • Headley, Lady

4 June, 1857
Scone, New South Wales, Australia


28 May, 1929 (aged 71)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death


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