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Marshall Burdekin (1837–1886)

by Shirley Humphries

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This is a shared entry with Sydney Burdekin

Marshall Burdekin (1837-1886), by unknown photographer

Marshall Burdekin (1837-1886), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Marshall Burdekin (1837-1886), barrister and politician, and Sydney Burdekin (1839-1899), pastoralist, landlord and politician, were the third and fourth sons of Thomas Burdekin, Sydney merchant, and his wife Mary Ann, née Bossley. Their father arrived in Sydney in 1828, established a branch of Burdekin & Hawley, ironmongers and general merchants of London, acquired a vast amount of real estate in Sydney and other parts of the colony, and died in 1844 leaving a large fortune to his widow, four sons and daughter. He had been a co-sponsor of the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt’s ventures into northern Australia; in appreciation Leichhardt named the Burdekin River and district in north Queensland after him in 1849.

Marshall Burdekin was born on 11 April 1837, probably in Sydney where he was baptized and where his brother Sydney, born on 18 February 1839, was also baptized in the Church of England. Both were educated at Cape's School, Darlinghurst, and at the University of Sydney: Marshall (M.A., 1859) and Sydney (B.A., 1859).

In 1859 Marshall was called to the Bar of New South Wales and of Queensland in 1861. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1863 for Liverpool Plains, having declared himself 'dead against Protection'; next year he became member for the Williams. He was a loyal follower of Charles Cowper, who in January 1866 appointed him colonial treasurer. Henry Parkes and James Martin immediately and effectively used this action to force the resignation of the Cowper ministry, which had been attacked for reversing the traditional colonial policy of free trade; the Assembly expressed its 'entire disapproval' of the appointment, which was compared by Martin to the Roman emperor's choice of his horse as consul. The attorney-general, John Hubert Plunkett, was unaware of the appointment and resigned because of it. Although Burdekin was young, inexperienced and a mediocre speaker and had been known as 'the dummy of Liverpool Plains' and 'the incapable of the Williams', the governor, Sir John Young, considered he had 'good character and fair abilities'. Burdekin was not re-elected at the February election and, apparently in poor health, served only one more term, representing East Sydney in 1867-69. Most of his life thereafter was spent abroad. In December 1875, while revisiting Sydney, he was appointed a commissioner for New South Wales at the Philadelphia International Exhibition of 1876. He left America in July 1877. While there he had a severe illness and for the rest of his life suffered ill health. He died in England on 10 November 1886, unmarried, but making careful and generous provision for his friend Elizabeth Louisa Fisher, who had for many years 'devoted her life almost entirely for my benefit'.

Sydney Burdekin was for some years articled to a solicitor, but was apparently not admitted to practice. For many years he managed the pastoral runs which he and his mother held in Queensland and northern New South Wales. He was most closely associated with Attunga, near Tamworth, where he stayed for long periods planning improvements and supervising their implementation with evident success, for when he sold out in 1875 he claimed that Attunga was returning him £9000 a year. As well as attending to the family's real-estate empire he was a director of a number of public companies, and after permanently returning to Sydney became increasingly involved in public life.

Although in 1867 Burdekin had written to a friend disclaiming any political ambitions, he served almost continuously in the Legislative Assembly in 1880-94, representing in succession Tamworth, East Sydney and the Hawkesbury. Believing, like Marshall, that political loyalty was important, he usually supported Parkes on major issues. He was an active and prominent member of the free trade movement; when the short-lived Free Trade and Liberal Association was formed in 1889 he gave it rent-free offices in one of his city buildings. He used his wealth in electioneering and was renowned for the picnics and other favours he distributed to his constituents. Despite his support of the free trade party some justification was apparent for the charge that in the 1889 elections Burdekin had induced some of his supporters to 'plump' for him instead of spreading their votes over the free trade 'bunch'. Like Marshall, he was not a gifted debater, but he contributed sound speeches on his favourite subjects of tariffs, taxes, and economy in the civil service. In the disposal of crown lands he advocated consistently and with seeming sincerity the cause of the 'little man', an unexpected attitude in one who, as a squatter, had done his best to see that the blocks on his run were arranged to be as unattractive as possible to the 'locusts', his private label for selectors. Unlike Marshall, he was a strong opponent of a property tax, and in the 1884 East Sydney by-election went so far as to say that ad valorem duties were preferable to direct taxation. He was the successful spearhead of a strong campaign against (Sir) George Reid in that election, and was backed by a polyglot political group of free traders, protectionists and Orangemen. The Bulletin's comment was apt:

There is a rich party named Burdekin
Who in the House is now heard agin:
He posed democratic
But he's—well—erratic
And, perhaps, may go back on his word agin.

In 1892 he helped the Labor newspaper, Australian Workman, to survive by lending its directors £98. Next year the Trades and Labor Council censured the directors for accepting the loan and claimed that they had used their influence to prevent Labor opposition to Burdekin at a by-election for the Hawkesbury in 1892.

Burdekin was an alderman of the Sydney Municipal Council in 1883-98; as mayor from January 1890 to April 1891, when he resigned to visit Europe, he was able to put into practice the administrative measures which he felt would achieve the judicious economy that he had always advocated, insisting on an overall plan instead of the earlier piecemeal efforts. Burdekin was a director of Sydney Hospital in 1878-99 and a member of the Aborigines' Protection Board in 1887-99. In 1885 he was appointed a magistrate for the colony of New South Wales and in 1890-91 presided over the royal commission on the city and suburban railways. Interested in sport and music, he held office in the Sydney Liedertafel as vice-president in 1888-91 and as president in 1892-99. On 24 January 1872 he married Catherine, daughter of Keyran Byrne, farmer of Attunga, and his wife Catherine, née Balkin: they had eight children. He died on 17 December 1899, survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, one of whom, Florence, married Alexander Hay.

Tributes to Sydney Burdekin's benevolence and affability abound. Marshall's character in maturity is more enigmatic. Their mother, devoted to both, found comfort in Sydney's steadiness, but deplored the objects of Marshall's misdirected generosity.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission on City and Suburban Railways (Syd, 1891)
  • Sydney Municipal Council, Reports and Proceedings of Committee & Council Meetings (Syd, 1888-1900)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1863-94
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1881-94
  • Bulletin, 1, 22 Mar 1884
  • Empire (Sydney), 1863-67
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1863-99
  • Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 1892, 1899
  • NSW Supreme Court, roll of barristers and solicitors, 1824-76 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Burdekin papers, 1784-1956 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Shirley Humphries, 'Burdekin, Marshall (1837–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Marshall Burdekin (1837-1886), by unknown photographer

Marshall Burdekin (1837-1886), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Life Summary [details]


11 April, 1837
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


10 November, 1886 (aged 49)

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