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George Swinburne (1861–1928)

by Alison Patrick

This article was published:

George Swinburne, by W. B. McInnes, 1920

George Swinburne, by W. B. McInnes, 1920

Swinburne University of Technology, 1111.1/​5113

George Swinburne (1861-1928), businessman, politician and philanthropist, was born on 3 February 1861 at Paradise, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, eldest of three sons and a daughter of Mark William Swinburne, patternmaker, and his wife Jane, née Coates. After his formal education at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, ended at 13, George was apprenticed to J. Williamson & Co., chemical merchants. Although his commercial training proved useful, he wanted to be an engineer like his maternal uncles and, while working as a clerk (1880-82), took himself to night-classes. His spare time was occupied with music lessons (he had a fine voice), political debates, lectures, omnivorous reading, Methodist Sunday School teaching and, before work, the study of shorthand and German. He also went walking and fishing, but took hard work for granted.

In September 1882 Swinburne left home for London, where his uncle John Coates was a gas and hydraulic engineer, and found employment to supply the practical experience he needed. In May 1884 R. Dempster & Sons sent him to Vienna, in charge of seven English workmen, to install a gas-holder and plant. He had self-taught German, night-class engineering theory and eighteen-months experience to support his innate energy, intelligence and tact in enabling him to avert an impending strike, to handle a 'leisurely' workforce of mixed nationalities and to complete his job to Dempsters' satisfaction. In April 1885 he put £300 savings into a partnership with his uncle; when Coates went to Australia in December to start a business there, Swinburne was left in charge in London. In 1886 he joined his uncle in Melbourne.

The first initiative was the Melbourne Hydraulic Power Co. (1887), supplying power to city buildings. Swinburne developed the gas-engineering side of the business into the Colonial Gas Association, linking small municipal gasmakers scattered around Australia into a network with access to the necessary capital and expertise. Prospering through the difficult 1890s, the association launched him on a successful business career. He became superintendent, managing director and finally chairman of directors (Australasia) of Colonial Gas; other directorships included those with Johns & Waygood (1891-1905, 1908-13), the Broken Hill Water Supply Co. (from 1898), the Metropolitan Gas Co. (1898-1911), the National Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd (1910-13, 1924-28; chairman 1928), and the Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co. (1913, 1918-28; chairman 1924-28). Along the way he gained formal qualifications, becoming a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (1897) and of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1914).

These engagements mostly reflected Swinburne's original professional bent, but most of them had also some innovative aspect; it was an interest in innovation, allied with concern for the social aspects of engineering, which took him beyond the business world. Interest in electric power development, dating from an 1897 visit to Germany, led him in 1898 to stand for the Hawthorn City Council. By 1902 he was mayor. Thenceforward his public career limited his business activities; directorships were periodically sacrificed to public obligations.

After standing unsuccessfully for the Legislative Assembly in 1900, Swinburne entered it as member for Hawthorn in 1902 on an 'economy and reform' ticket. Under (Sir) Thomas Bent, he was minister for water supply (1904-08) and agriculture (1905-08). He left the ministry in 1908, with Sir Alexander Peacock and Donald Mackinnon, having found Bent an impossible leader. Swinburne might have become premier in 1908 and again in 1913, but he had no taste for factional politics and was never again a minister, although he made major contributions to debate, such as his speech on the 1910 Education Act. He resigned his seat in 1913. In 1922 he ran unsuccessfully for the Commonwealth Senate on the Nationalist ticket. In 1928 he was elected to the Legislative Council, defeating the young (Sir) Robert Menzies.

Swinburne's short political career included some important achievements. He was appointed minister of water supply in 1904 because the 1901-02 drought had focused attention on irrigation policy for which he had a recognized concern. His Water Act of 1905 placed all State water-supplies under the control of a new statutory authority—publicly-funded and in principle independent of political control—the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. He thought that the public, and not the private landowner, should own running water, that irrigation policy should be a State rather than a local responsibility, that farmers given water rights should be rated accordingly whether they used them or not, and that, in setting up a new system, the State should take over debts accumulated by existing small-scale enterprises. Swinburne had a good analytical mind, he listened to comment and his integrity was absolute. In getting his Act through, he spent much time winning over the country electorate and his speech to the Legislative Council, made by special permission, overcame the council's original opposition. On the closely-allied question of the interstate sharing of Murray River water, he made little progress because New South Wales and South Australia were still havering and Commonwealth participation was also needed, but his draft agreement of 1906 was remarkably close to that finally accepted in 1915. Characteristically, he saw his other portfolio, agriculture, as primarily concerned with educating the Victorian farmer; to this end, he did his best to promote practical agencies—agricultural colleges and high schools, demonstration farms, departmental publications—backing them with support for university chairs in agriculture and veterinary science. Here, too, he set valuable precedents.

After he left the assembly, Swinburne spent more than ten years in government posts, nearly all Federal. In 1913, abandoning all other commitments, he became chairman of the Inter-State Commission which had been planned as a permanent organization investigating and resolving economic conflicts between the States. Under his chairmanship it produced valuable reports, but when a High Court of Australia decision of 1915 invalidated its quasi-judicial powers, Swinburne saw it as an ineffectual body and resigned in 1917. However, he valued its creation of the Advisory Council of Science and Industry, the germ of the future Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. By the time he withdrew, he was deeply involved in war work: he was 1917-18 controller of capital issues, and became chairman of the Defence Department's business administration board, civil and finance member of the Military Board and a member of the Australian Imperial Force Canteens trust.

In 1919-25 Swinburne was a foundation member of the State Electricity Commission. This involvement was significant. He disclaimed any interest in the theory of 'state socialism', but as an engineer he accepted that in the public utility area there were some tasks which, if they were to be done at all, would have to be in public rather than in private hands, and that the supply of electricity from Victoria's brown-coal reserves was one such task. The model for the S.E.C. was his own water supply commission.

As background to these activities—and to others such as membership of the council of the University of Melbourne (1908-13, 1918-28), the Queen's College council and the board of trustees of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery (1910-28), and as League of Nations delegate (1925)—there lay a lifelong interest in education. Swinburne believed that, although basic education should be funded by the state, it could not flourish without maximum local involvement. When in 1907 he followed up the Fink report by giving £3000 to found an Eastern Suburbs Technical College, he persuaded the Kew, Hawthorn and Boroondara municipalities to underwrite it. The future Swinburne Technical College (so named against its founder's wishes) opened in 1909 and became a 'selfish hobby' to which he gave upward of £20,000; he chaired its council until he died. In his eyes the education needed for economic progress should also open intellectual windows; his student plumbers learned architectural history as background to the technique of their craft. He was concerned for the mass of adolescents drifting into dead-end, unskilled, 'uneducative' occupations, and urged the provision of compulsory part-time 'continuation' classes: 'I see no other method of giving equal opportunity than by increasing the facilities of education'. Interestingly, (Sir) William McPherson and Hugh McKay were close friends. All were Nonconformists; all were wealthy self-made engineers; all were convinced that private wealth should be used for public benefit, and that some of it should be channelled into education.

In private and public life, and in his many benefactions, Swinburne had the unswerving support of his wife Ethel, née Hamer, whom he had married at the Collins Street Independent Church on 17 February 1890. The support was mutual, for his confidence in her innate abilities launched her on a considerable independent career of charitable activity. He backed women's suffrage, and he and his wife insisted that their daughters be well-educated, able to support themselves if necessary. There was one persistent shadow. In 1901 a daughter developed osteomyelitis of the jaw. Almost all of Swinburne's public life had a background of acute domestic anxiety, ending only in 1925 when a London surgeon operated on his daughter with triumphant success.

Swinburne collapsed and died in the chamber of the Legislative Council, in which he had only served for three months, on 4 September 1928. Survived by his wife and four daughters he was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £64,321.

The Gladstonian liberalism of Swinburne's youth had stayed with him, expanded by wide reading and generous imagination. His political assets were intelligence, integrity, prodigious energy which taxed his long, thin frame, and instinctive tact and humour. He had a good eye for people: he knew the worth of Elwood Mead, (Sir) Harold Clapp and Tom Cherry, and the university owed him gratitude for his selection of (Sir) Samuel Wadham as its new professor of agriculture in 1925. Nevertheless, Swinburne was no natural politician. He had felt obliged to work with Bent, without apparently realizing that the personal association might have persuaded a suspicious Age that Swinburne could not be as honest as he seemed. The resultant libel in 1908—which cost the Age £3250 in damages—was peculiarly outrageous in that, far from profiting from office, Swinburne served the State for nothing: his whole parliamentary income went unobtrusively to charity. He was a modest man, uninterested in public honours, and a lifelong Methodist with strong, sometimes rigid, principles. At his home, Shenton, no games were played on Sundays. Yet, he was not intimidating. What everyone remembered was his great infectious shout of laughter.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • F. W. Eggleston, State Socialism in Victoria (Syd, 1932)
  • G. Serle, John Monash (Melb, 1982)
  • C. W. Coates, Coates, the First One Hundred Years (Syd, 1985)
  • W. Osmond, Frederic Eggleston, an Intellectual in Australian Politics (Syd, 1985)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1908, p 699
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 July, 8, 9 Sept 1908, 5 Sept 1928
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16, 17, 19 Sept 1908, 26 Aug 1909, 16 Mar 1910, 5 Sept 1928
  • S. Murray-Smith, A History of Technical Education in Australia (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • Swinburne Institute of Technology Archives and Uniting Church, Collins St, Melbourne, Archives (State Library of Victoria)
  • University of Melbourne Archives
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alison Patrick, 'Swinburne, George (1861–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Swinburne, by W. B. McInnes, 1920

George Swinburne, by W. B. McInnes, 1920

Swinburne University of Technology, 1111.1/​5113

Life Summary [details]


3 February, 1861
Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England


4 September, 1928 (aged 67)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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