Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Samuel McBurney (1847–1909)

by Robin S. Stevens

This article was published:

Samuel McBurney (1847-1909), educationist and music teacher, was born on 30 April 1847 in Glasgow, Scotland, eldest of the five children of Isaiah McBurney, LL.D., and his wife Margaret, née Bonnar. His father was classics master at Glasgow Academy and later principal of a school at Douglas, Isle of Man; he published a work on Ovid in 1854 and was co-editor of the Cyclopaedia of Universal History (London, 1855); he went to Victoria about 1881 and died there on 5 July 1896.

Samuel's early education included musical training through the Tonic Sol-fa method. In 1864-66 he attended the University of Glasgow, becoming a prizeman in humanities. He migrated to Victoria in 1870 and taught classics and mathematics at schools in Kyneton, South Melbourne and Sale. He moved to Portland in 1875 and returned to England in 1876, intending to enter the Order of Benedicts, but a year later married Marie Louise Accleston. After a visit to Germany he returned to London to specialize in the Tonic Sol-fa method of teaching music, passing all examinations of the Tonic Sol-fa College, London, and becoming a friend of the founder, John Curwen (1816-1880). McBurney returned to Victoria where in 1877 he was appointed principal of a Ladies' College in Geelong. During almost a decade at the college he was an active member of the local 'Shakspere' Society, published textbooks on English, geography and music theory and began his crusade to propagate the method in music education. In 1878 he founded the Victorian Tonic Sol-fa Association and in 1883 organized its first Intercolonial Conference at Geelong. From 1884 he began publishing articles on teaching the system in the Australasian Schoolmaster and writing letters to the press in an attempt to persuade the Education Department to recognize the method. In 1887 he toured the eastern colonies of Australia, conducting lecture-demonstrations and forming associations in New South Wales and Queensland. He also collected material on colonial peculiarities for Dr A. J. Ellis, On Early English Pronunciation, pt 5 (London, 1889). McBurney and his wife continued their lecture tour in New Zealand and North America, and then returned to England. To demonstrate the advantages of the system, McBurney passed examinations at the University of Dublin (Mus. Bac., Mus. Doc., 1890). Next year he was elected a fellow of the Tonic Sol-fa College, London.

On his return to Victoria in 1891 McBurney was given a temporary appointment as inspector of music with the Education Department and continued his advocacy of the system by giving lectures, offering postal courses and holding Tonic Sol-fa Summer Schools. Victoria's worsening economic situation led to retrenchments and McBurney's post in the Education Department was among those abolished. In 1894 with his wife he opened a Ladies' College at St Kilda and also began teaching music based on the Tonic Sol-fa system at the Blind Institute, St Kilda Road, using a Braille raised-type notation which he had devised. In 1898 he was appointed an examiner in the University of Melbourne (Mus. Doc., ad eund., 1901). In 1902 he was appointed to the staff of the University Conservatorium of Music as teacher of sight singing and ear training.

McBurney was a prominent figure in education as scholar, teacher and author of many articles and books. He was widely travelled and interested in languages and dialects, serving for a time as secretary of the Esperanto Society in Melbourne. His compositions, although few and chiefly choral, include cantatas, part-songs and Australian patriotic songs. Aged 62 he died on 9 December 1909 at Melbourne, survived by his wife.

Select Bibliography

  • Register (Adelaide), 2, 3 May 1899
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 5 Aug 1899
  • R. S. Stevens, Samuel McBurney and the Introduction of the Tonic Sol-fa Method of Teaching Singing into Victorian State Schools (B.Ed. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1971).

Citation details

Robin S. Stevens, 'McBurney, Samuel (1847–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 April, 1847
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


9 December, 1909 (aged 62)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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