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Walter Oswald (Ossie) Burt (1893–1969)

by Peter Balmford

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Walter Oswald (Ossie) Burt (1893-1969), solicitor and company director, was born on 8 September 1893 at Warrnambool, Victoria, eldest child of Horace Percy Burt, tailor, and his wife, Mary Jane, née McSweeney, both Victorian born. Oswald was dux of the local state school in 1907 and of the high school in 1910. Having been articled to Arthur Phillips in Melbourne, on 2 May 1918 Burt was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria. He had married Esther French on 18 August 1917 at the Presbyterian Church, Koroit.

From 1923 Burt practised as a solicitor in Collins Street, Melbourne, in partnership with George and Rupert Frederick Bullen (Bullen & Burt from 1926). Burt became an authority on mining law and a leading company lawyer; he had considerable success during the 1930s in reconstructing insolvent companies. He was to introduce to Victoria the factoring of debts and the 'ownership' of flats through different classes of shares. When R. F. Bullen withdrew from the partnership in 1942 Burt continued to practise with other partners as Oswald Burt & Co. until 1959; he then served as a consultant to the firm until his death. A merger in 1979 established Middletons Oswald Burt.

Having accepted an invitation in 1934 from F. Oswald Barnett, Burt joined a group of forty people who studied the problems of slum-housing in Melbourne and examined possible solutions. In conjunction with the Labor Party's slum abolition committee, the group persuaded (Sir) Albert Dunstan's government to set up a Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board in 1936. Both Barnett and Burt were appointed to it. The board's report (much of it written by Burt) led to the Housing Act, 1937, which established the Victorian Housing Commission, and to the Slum Reclamation and Housing Act, 1938, which Burt largely drafted.

Appointed a part-time member of the Housing Commission, Burt drew up the Housing (Standard of Habitation) Regulations of 1938. With Barnett, he wrote Housing the Australian Nation (1942); with Barnett and F. Heath, We Must Go On: A Study in Planned Reconstruction and Housing (1944). Barnett later claimed that the government of T. T. Hollway considered them 'too socially minded, too pink in fact'. Burt and Barnett announced in February 1948 that they would not be available for reappointment to the commission. By this time Burt and other members of the commission were somewhat disillusioned by the social problems that had emerged when tenants were moved from slums to new estates.

Admitted as a barrister in New South Wales in October 1948, Burt was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, London, in November 1951. He became a director of numerous companies, among them City Mutual Life Assurance Ltd, Davies Coop & Co. Ltd, National Trustees, Executors & Agency Co. of Australasia Ltd, Kelly & Lewis Ltd, Factors Ltd and White Crow Ltd; he was sometime chairman of Davies Coop, White Crow and Factors Ltd.

A founder in 1956 of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) and in 1965 of the Australian Council of National Trusts, Burt drafted the constitution of each of these bodies. With Sir Daryl Lindsay, he persuaded the Federal treasurer Sir Arthur Fadden to have the Income Tax Assessment Act amended in 1957 to allow tax deductibility of gifts to the National Trust. For about thirty-five years Burt had pursued an interest in the fine arts, forming an important collection of Australian Impressionist paintings: Jack Manton was to buy twenty-four of them from Burt's estate which were subsequently purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria.

'Ossie' Burt died on 11 April 1969 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His wife survived him. Their only child Alan, a flying officer with the Royal Australian Air Force, had been killed in action on 31 January 1942. A portrait of W. O. Burt by (Sir) William Dargie is held privately and the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) has a drawing of him by Alan Moore.

Select Bibliography

  • E. W. Russell, The Slum Abolition Movement in Victoria 1933-37 (Melb, 1972)
  • P. McCaughey and J. Manton, Australian Painters of the Heidelberg School (Melb, 1979)
  • R. Howe (ed), New Houses for Old (Melb, 1988)
  • Council of Trustees of National Gallery of Victoria, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no 21, 1981
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 June 1925
  • F. O. Barnett, I Remember (typescript, 1964-65, Library of the Housing Division, Department of Planning and Housing, Melbourne)
  • R. L. Eilenberg, Oswald Burt & Co (typescript, 1985) and copy of letter from W. O. Burt to Matthews Pty Ltd (funeral directors), 22 Mar 1968 (privately held).

Citation details

Peter Balmford, 'Burt, Walter Oswald (Ossie) (1893–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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