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Edmund Barton

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Edmund Barton

The Right Honourable
Sir Edmund Barton
1st Prime Minister of Australia
Elections: 1901
In office
1 January 1901 – 24 September 1903
Monarch Victoria
Edward VII
Governor-General Marquess of Linlithgow
Baron Tennyson
Preceded by Position Established
Succeeded by Alfred Deakin
Justice of the High Court
In office
5 October 1903 – 7 January 1920
Nominated by Alfred Deakin
Appointed by Baron Tennyson
Preceded by Position Established
Succeeded by Hayden Starke
Minister for External Affairs
In office
1 January 1901 – 24 September 1903
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Position Established
Succeeded by Alfred Deakin
1st Leader of the Protectionist Party
In office
1 January 1901 – 24 September 1903
Deputy Alfred Deakin
Succeeded by Alfred Deakin
Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly
In office
3 January 1883 – 31 January 1887
Preceded by Sir George Wigram Allen
Succeeded by James Young
Member of the Australian Parliament for Hunter
In office
30 March 1901 – 16 December 1903
Preceded by Seat Created
Succeeded by Frank Liddell
Member of the New South Wales Parliament
for Hastings and Macleay
In office
23 November 1898 – 1 March 1900
Preceded by Francis Clarke
Succeeded by Francis Clarke
Member of the New South Wales Parliament
for East Sydney
In office
11 July 1891 – 3 August 1894
Serving with Varney Parkes
Succeeded by District Abolished
In office
28 December 1882 – 2 March 1887
Serving with Henry Copeland
Preceded by Arthur Renwick
Succeeded by William McMillan
Member of the New South Wales Parliament
for Wellington
In office
14 December 1880 – 28 December 1882
Preceded by John Shepherd
Succeeded by David Ferguson
Member of the New South Wales Parliament
for University of Sydney
In office
26 August 1879 – 14 December 1880
Preceded by William Windeyer
Succeeded by District Abolished
Personal details
Born (1849-01-18)18 January 1849
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, British Empire
Died 7 January 1920(1920-01-07) (aged 70)
Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath, New South Wales, Australia
Resting place Waverley Cemetery, Sydney, New South Wales
Nationality British subject
Political party Protectionist
Spouse(s) Jane Mason Ross
Children 6
Education Fort Street High School
Sydney Grammar School
University of Sydney
Religion Anglicanism

Sir Edmund Barton, GCMG, KC (18 January 1849 – 7 January 1920) was an Australian politician and judge. He served as the first Prime Minister of Australia and became a founding justice of the High Court of Australia.[1]

Barton first became an MP in 1879, in the Parliament of New South Wales. He contributed solidly to the federation movement through the 1890s, eventually contesting the inaugural 1901 federal election as head of a caretaker Protectionist Party federal government. No party won a majority; however, the government was supported by the Australian Labor Party, against the opposition Free Trade Party.

Barton resigned as Prime Minister in 1903 to become a judge of the High Court of Australia, serving until his death in 1920.


  • Early life 1
    • State political career 1.1
  • Campaign for federation 2
    • 1891 National Australasian Convention 2.1
    • Attorney-General for the second time 2.2
    • Australian Federal Convention and Referendum 2.3
  • First Prime Minister 3
  • Judicial career 4
  • Death and family 5
  • Honours 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Early life

Edmund Barton aged 17

Edmund Barton was born in Glebe, New South Wales, the ninth child of English parents William Barton, a stockbroker, and Mary Louise Barton (née Whydah).[2] He was educated at Fort Street High School and Sydney Grammar School, where he was twice dux and School Captain and met his lifelong friend and later fellow Justice of the High Court of Australia, Richard O'Connor. He graduated with first-class honours and the University Medal in classics from the University of Sydney, where he also demonstrated considerable skill as a cricketer in batting, but not in fielding. He was also an active founding member of the Sydney Rowing Club.[3] Barton became a barrister in 1871. On a cricketing trip to Newcastle in 1870 he met Jane (Jeanie) Mason Ross, whom he married in 1877.[4][5]

In 1879, Barton international cricket's first riot. The publicity that attended the young Barton's presence of mind in defusing that situation reputedly helped him take his first step towards becoming Australia's first prime minister, winning a state lower house seat later that year.[6]

State political career

In 1876 Barton stood for the Legislative Assembly in the poll of the graduates of the University of Sydney (who were required to wear gowns for the occasion), but was beaten by William Charles Windeyer 49 votes to 43.[7] He was defeated again for the same seat in 1877, but won in August 1879. When it was abolished in 1880, he became the member for Wellington, from November 1880 to 1882, and East Sydney, from November 1882 to January 1887. At this stage he considered it "almost unnecessary" to point out his support for free trade.[5]

In 1882, he became Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. He was aged only 33, and was the youngest person to have been chosen presiding officer of any Australian legislative chamber. In 1884 he was elected President of the Protectionist government, despite his previous support for free trade. This government lasted only until March, when Parkes formed a government again.[9]

Campaign for federation

1891 National Australasian Convention

Barton aged 34

Barton was an early supporter of federation, which became a serious political agenda after Henry Parkes' Tenterfield Oration, and was a delegate to the March 1891 National Australasian Convention. At the convention he made clear his support for the principle that "trade and intercourse ... shall be absolutely free" in a federal Australia. He also advocated that not just the lower house but also the upper house should be representative and that appeals to the Privy Council should be abolished. He also took part in producing a draft constitution, which was substantially similar to the Australian Constitution enacted in 1900.[5]

Nevertheless, the protectionists were lukewarm supporters of federation and in June 1891, Barton resigned from the Council and stood for election to East Sydney and announced that "so long as Protection meant a Ministry of enemies to Federation, they would get no vote from him". He topped the poll and subsequently voted with Parkes, but refused to take a position in his minority government. After the Labor Party withdrew support and the government fell in October 1891, Parkes persuaded him to take over the leadership of the Federal movement in New South Wales.[5]

Attorney-General for the second time

Dibbs formed a Protectionist government and Barton agreed to be Attorney-General with the right of carry out private practice as a lawyer. His agreement was based on Dibbs agreeing to support federal resolutions in the coming parliamentary session. His attempt to draft the federal resolutions was delayed by a period as acting Premier, when he had to deal with the 1892 Broken Hill miners' strike, and his carriage of a complex electoral reform bill. He introduced the federal resolutions into the House on 22 November 1892 but was unable to get them considered in committee.[5]

Meanwhile, he began a campaign to spread support for federation to the people with meetings in Corowa and Albury in December 1892. Although he finally managed to get the federal resolutions considered in committee in October 1893, he then could not get them listed for debate by the House. In December, he and Richard O'Connor, the Minister for Justice, were questioned about their agreement to act as private lawyers against the government in Proudfoot v. the Railway Commissioners. While Barton resigned the brief, he lost a motion on the right of ministers to act in their professional capacity as lawyers in actions against the government, and immediately resigned as Attorney-General.[5]

In July 1894, Barton stood for re-election for Randwick (the multi-member electorate of East Sydney had been abolished) and lost. He did not stand for election in the 1895 elections because he needed to support his large family during a period when parliamentarians were not paid. However, he continued to campaign for federation and during the period between January 1893 to February 1897, Barton addressed nearly 300 meetings in New South Wales,[10] including in the Sydney suburb of Ashfield where he declared that "For the first time in history, we have a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation". By March 1897, he was considered "the acknowledged leader of the federal movement in all Australia".[5]

Australian Federal Convention and Referendum

In 1897, Edmund Barton topped the poll of the delegates elected from New South Wales to the Constitutional Convention, which developed a constitution for the proposed federation. Although Sir Samuel Griffith wrote most of the text of the Constitution, Barton was the political leader who carried it through the Convention.[5][8]

In May 1897, Barton was appointed for the second time to the Legislative Council on Reid's recommendations to take charge of the federation bill in the Upper House. This gave Reid's Attorney-General, John Henry Want, a free hand to oppose the bill. In September 1897, the convention met in Sydney to consider 286 proposed amendments from the colonies. It finalised its draft constitution in March 1898 and Barton went back to New South Wales to lead the campaign for a yes vote in the June referendum. Although it gained majority support, it achieved only 71,595; 80,000 was the minimum number for it to pass.[5]

In July 1898 Barton resigned from the Upper House to stand against Reid for election to the Legislative Assembly, but narrowly lost. In September, he won a by-election for Hastings and Macleay and was immediately elected leader of the opposition, which consisted of a mixture of pro-federation and anti-federation protectionists. In January 1899 Reid gained significant concessions from the other states and he joined Barton in campaigning for the second referendum in June 1899, with Barton campaigning all over the state. It passed 107,420 votes to 82,741.[5][9]

In August 1899 when it became clear that the Labour Party could be maneuvered into bringing down the Reid Government, Barton resigned as leader of the opposition, as he was unacceptable to Labour, and William Lyne took his place. He refused an offer to become Attorney-General again. He resigned from Parliament in February 1900 so that he could travel to London with Alfred Deakin and Charles Kingston to explain the federation bill to the British Government. Around the same time on 15 January 1900 Barton published a 28-page United Australia magazine to disseminate an informative narrative for the propositions of a future Federal Government that he hoped to lead.[11] The British Government was adamant in its opposition to the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council as incorporated in the draft constitution; eventually, Barton agreed that constitutional (inter se) matters would be finalised in the High Court, but other matters could be appealed to the Privy Council.[5]

First Prime Minister

Edmund Barton, first Prime Minister of Australia, ca. 1901
Sir Edmund Barton Memorial in Barton, Australian Capital Territory
Photo in 1898 of the future 1st Prime Minister of Australia Edmund Barton aged 49 and 2nd Prime Minister of Australia Alfred Deakin
The first and second Prime Ministers of Australia, Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin, amongst the 1901 cabinet

Few people doubted that Barton, as the leading federalist in the oldest state, deserved to be the first Prime Minister of the new federation. However, since no federal Parliament had yet been established, the usual convention of appointing the leader of the largest party in the lower house could not apply. The newly arrived Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, instead invited Sir William Lyne, the premier of New South Wales, to form a government.[5][8]

Hopetoun's decision, known as the Hopetoun Blunder, can be defended on grounds that Lyne had seniority. Still, Lyne's long massive opposition to federation until he changed his mind at the last minute caused him to be unacceptable to prominent federalists such as Deakin, who refused to serve under him. After tense negotiations, Barton was appointed Prime Minister and he and his ministry were sworn in on 1 January 1901.[5][8]

Barton's government consisted of himself as Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs, Charles Kingston as Minister for Trade and Customs, Sir James Dickson as Minister for Defence, and Sir John Forrest as Postmaster-General. Richard O'Connor was made Vice-President of the Executive Council and Elliott Lewis was appointed Minister without Portfolio. Only ten days into the life of the government, Sir James Dickson died suddenly; he was replaced on 17 January as Minister for Defence by John Forrest, and James Drake was brought into the ministry as Postmaster-General on 5 February.

The main task of Hunter in the new Parliament (although he never lived in that electorate) and his Protectionist Party won enough seats to form a government with the support of the Labour Party. All his ministers were elected, except for Elliott Lewis, who did not stand for election and was replaced by Sir Philip Fysh.[5]

An early piece of legislation of the Barton government was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which put the White Australia policy into law. The Labour Party required legislation to limit immigration from Asia as part of its agreement to support the government, but Barton had promised the introduction of the White Australia Policy in his election campaign. Barton stated, "The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman".[5] One notable reform was the introduction of women's suffrage for federal elections in 1902.[12]

Barton was a moderate conservative, and advanced liberals in his party disliked his relaxed attitude to political life. A large, handsome, jovial man, he was fond of long dinners and good wine and was given the nickname "Toby Tosspot" by The Bulletin.[13]

For much of 1902, Barton was in England for the coronation of King Edward VII. This trip was also used to negotiate the replacement of the naval agreements between the Australian colonies and the United Kingdom (under which Australia funded Royal Navy protection from foreign naval threats) by an agreement between the Commonwealth and the United Kingdom.[5] Deakin disliked this arrangement and discontinued it, moving for a substantial expansion of Australia's own navy in 1908.[14]

In September 1903, Sir Edmund Barton left Parliament to become one of the founding justices of the High Court of Australia. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by Deakin on 24 September.

Judicial career

Sir Edmund in 1903 aged 54 as second Justice of the High Court of Australia.
Sir Edmund in 1914, aged 65.
Bust of Sir Edmund Barton by sculptor Wallace Anderson located in the Prime Ministers Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens
Official photograph of the first session of the High Court of Australia in the Banco Court, Supreme Court of Victoria, 6 October 1903. The mounting is autographed by the three foundation justices, from left to right, Edmund Barton, Samuel Griffith and Richard O'Connor

Barton was one of only eight justices of the High Court to have served in the Parliament of Australia prior to his appointment to the Court; the others were Richard O'Connor, Isaac Isaacs, H. B. Higgins, Edward McTiernan, John Latham, Garfield Barwick, and Lionel Murphy. Barton was also one of six justices to have served in the Parliament of New South Wales, along with O'Connor, Albert Piddington, Adrian Knox, McTiernan, and H. V. Evatt.

On the bench Sir Edmund was considered a good and "scrupulously impartial" judge and adopted the same position of moderate conservatism he had taken in politics. Along with his colleagues Griffith and O'Connor, he attempted to preserve the autonomy of the States and developed a doctrine of "implied immunity of instrumentalities", which prevented the States from taxing Commonwealth officers, and also prevented the Commonwealth from arbitrating industrial disputes in the States' railways. They also narrowly interpreted the Federal Government's powers in commercial and industrial matters.[5]

After 1906, Sir Edmund increasingly clashed with Isaac Isaacs and H. B. Higgins, the two advanced liberals appointed to the court by Deakin. Like Sir Samuel Griffith, Barton was several times consulted by Governors-General of Australia on the exercise of the reserve powers.[15] In 1919, although ill, he was extremely disappointed to be passed over for the position of Chief Justice on the retirement of Griffith.[16]

Death and family

Sir Edmund Barton died from heart failure at the Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath, New South Wales. He was interred in South Head General Cemetery in the Sydney suburb of Vaucluse (see Waverley Cemetery). He was survived by his wife and six children:[5]

  • Edmund Alfred (29 May 1879 – 13 November 1949), a New South Wales judge
  • Wilfrid Alexander (1880–1953), first NSW Rhodes Scholar (1904)
  • Jean Alice (1882–1957), married Sir David Maughan (1873–1955) in 1909
  • Arnold Hubert (3 January 1884 – 1948), married Jane Hungerford in Sydney 1907; he later emigrated to Canada
  • Oswald (8 January 1888 – 6 February 1956), medical doctor
  • Leila Stephanie (1892–1976), married Robert Christopher Churchill Scot-Skirving in London 1915


Barton refused knighthoods in 1887, 1891 and 1899, but agreed to be made a

Parliament of New South Wales
Preceded by
William Windeyer
Member for University of Sydney
District abolished
Preceded by
John Shepherd
Member for Wellington
Succeeded by
David Ferguson
Preceded by
Arthur Renwick
Member for East Sydney
Served alongside: Griffiths
Succeeded by
William McMillan
Preceded by
Sir George Wigram Allen
Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly
Succeeded by
James Young
Preceded by
Sydney Burdekin
Member for East Sydney
Served alongside: Reid
Succeeded by
District abolished
Preceded by
Francis Clarke
Member for Hastings and Macleay
Succeeded by
Francis Clarke
Political offices
Preceded by
Sir George Bowen Simpson
Attorney General of New South Wales
Succeeded by
Sir George Bowen Simpson
Attorney General of New South Wales
Succeeded by
Charles Gilbert Heydon
New title Prime Minister of Australia
Succeeded by
Alfred Deakin
Minister for External Affairs
Party political offices
New political party Leader of the Protectionist Party
Succeeded by
Alfred Deakin
Parliament of Australia
New division Member for Hunter
Succeeded by
Frank Liddell
Legal offices
New title Justice of the High Court of Australia
Succeeded by
Sir Hayden Starke

External links

Further reading

  • Papers of Sir Edmund Barton / digitised and held by the National Library of Australia
  • Hughes, Colin A (1976), Mr Prime Minister. Australian Prime Ministers 1901–1972, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, Ch. 2. ISBN 0-19-550471-2


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  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t
  6. ^
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  8. ^ a b c d
  9. ^ a b c
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  11. ^ Julian Fitzgerald On Message: Political Communications of Australian Prime Ministers 1901 - 2014 Clareville Press 2014 p 23
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ Donald Markwell, "Griffith, Barton and the early governor-generals: aspects of Australia's constitutional development", Public Law Review, 1999.
  16. ^ Markwell, "Griffith, Barton and the early governor-generals", Public Law Review, 1999.
  17. ^
  18. ^


See also

The Barton Highway in Australia, connecting the Hume Freeway to the Australian capital, Canberra, was named after Sir Edmund. The Division of Barton in New South Wales is named after him, as is Barton, Australian Capital Territory, a suburb of Canberra close to Capital Hill which is the location of many government departments and national institutions, and the headquarters of Australia's main political parties. The Edmund Barton Building is a government office building in that suburb.

In 1951 and again in 1969, Sir Edmund was honoured on postage stamps bearing his portrait issued by Australia Post.[17][18]

In 1905, the Japanese government conferred the Grand Cordon, Order of the Rising Sun, and Sir Edmund was granted permission to retain and wear the insignia. The honour was presented in acknowledgement of his personal role in resolving a conflict concerning the Commonwealth's Pacific Island Labourers Act and the Queensland protocol to the Anglo-Japanese Treaty.[5]

[5] in 1900.University of Cambridge from the LL.D. was already a knight when he briefly became prime minister in 1939.) He received an honorary Earle Page in 1963; various others were knighted after leaving the office; Sir Robert Menzies (He was the only prime minister to be knighted during his term of office until [9]

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