Rodney and Ruth Burton's Genealogy Pages


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500 Class, A Social History of George Burton and his Family: Chapter 1 Steam, Soot and Cinders in Sussex

Written in 1981 for the Burton Family Reunion held on 25th October 1981 at Walkerville, Adelaide, South Australia. Winner of the S.A. Family History Award for 1981.





By Rod Burton



Winner S.A. Family History Award 1981



ISBN No. 0 9593827 0 4

© Copyright Rod Burton

Printed in 1981 by Amanda Imprint

168 Angas Street


South Australia 5000



This book has been written for the Burton Family reunion to be held on Sunday 25th October 1981, at the YMCA Hall, Walkerville, Adelaide. On that day, one hundred and three years ago, George Burton and his family first stepped on to South Australian soil in order to begin a new life. At the time of publication their descendants numbered 677 of whom 596 are still living. The Burton, Washington and Freer families carved happy and reasonably comfortable lives from the opportunities offered them. In particular, their contribution to the important role of the South Australian Railways in the development of the state has been most impressive. Hence the title of this book.

In early August 1980 it was decided definitely to pursue the twin aims of a book and a reunion, to be ready in just over a year. Ideally, they would be three years late: 1978, the centenary of the Burton's arrival, would have been most appropriate. It was felt, however, that a start had to be made before it was too late and no grandchildren of George and Emma Burton survived. Motives were numerous: to find out about forebears, to define their involvement with the railways, to provide a record for our children, to meet our family. Though the magnitude of the task was appreciated, in retrospect, how mightily we dared. It would not have been possible without teamwork.

A Burton Family Reunion Committee was formed in early 1981. On a hot February Sunday, with the temperature hovering on 42°C, plans were keenly laid and jobs assigned: Graham Burton, chairman; Geoffrey Burton, secretary; Max Burton, treasurer; Rod Burton, historian-researcher and members Viv, Ken, Bob, Trevor and Dean Burton. A number of meetings, newsletters and many hours of hard work later, the original plans are about to be realised.

It is impossible here to acknowledge individually the contributions of all those responsible for the completion of this book. The ready donation by family members of time, information, documents, photographs and money was wonderfully reassuring and much appreciated. Grateful thanks must however go to Kingsley Ireland, John McKee and John Summerton for their invaluable assistance. To the committee and their wives, heartfelt thanks are due for their willingness in researching and collecting material. The task was made much easier by the splendid, unstinting exertions of Geoff Burton who uncomplainingly took on, often at short notice, jobs both large and small, simple and complex, and duly completed them in most efficient manner. To Max Burton acknowledgement is due for his photographic work, his initial research on railway service and his guidance in the early days. Finally, mere words are insufficient to express the gratitude I feel towards my wife Ruth for her art and statistical work and the onerous compilation of the family index. Add proofreading, editing, layout design and myriad sacrifices and one still falls short of her contributions to this family history.

This book serves its purpose if, as happened in its writing, it opens windows on to our family’s past and provides the reader with new views and different perspectives on old familiar scenes. All aboard then, may the journey be enjoyable and help the reader make a little more sense of his or her world.

Rod Burton



The bellringers greeted each other in familiar tones and trudged up the little hill of the parish church, St. Nicholas’s. Being wider awake, one wondered whether the crowd gathering at the new station would see anything at all, what with the expected spectacle of steam and smoke having to take place in a heavy sea-mist which had enveloped the resort town for hours. But with a sense of service nurtured for generations since the sixteenth century at least, they began ringing the bells of the Brighton fisherfolk’s favourite landmark. It was half past six o’clock in the morning of the 21st of September 1841 and they were heralding the official dawning of the Age of Steam in the English county of Sussex.

By the time the first up-train of the London and Brighton Railway Company departed from the crowded terminus at a quarter to seven o’clock, the household at Pickstone Farm, Heathfield, some twenty miles north-east of Brighton, was astir. The farm kitchen presented a scene of heightened bustle and excitement to Mark Burton as he kept checking his clock on the mantel over the wood stove. His wife, Mary, supervised their twin daughters, Martha and Mary, eleven years of age, as they served porridge and hot milk to the rest of the family. The chatter of the children was almost impenetrable as Mark once again estimated how long it would take the family to get by cart to Hayward’s Heath, some fifteen miles away. He was interrupted by his father, Thomas, enquiring what had to be done while they were away. Whilst suitable jobs were negotiated by the menfolk, Mary, after a quick look out of the low, small kitchen window, decided she would take baby George, just over twelve months, on this extraordinary excursion. The weather held out the promise of a beautiful, sunny autumn day. Her mother-in-law was willing to tend the infant but the sunshine would do him good.

The boys, Thomas, nine, and David, seven, had talked of nothing but the coming railway for weeks past. Their bachelor Uncle Edward, who lived with his parents next door, had fuelled their already overheated imaginations with apocryphal stories of the horseless carriages which belched fire, smoke and soot as they roared along iron rails at twice the speed of a mail coach. This sort of talk, much embellished by the boys, had spread to the girls, especially impressing young Sarah aged five. Even father had been infected by the enthusiasm of the children and it was an easy matter in the end to succumb to their pleas because of his own natural curiosity. Would the railway stop cows from giving milk, scorch the earth and prevent hens laying? How could it possibly benefit small lease-holders such as himself?

As Harriett, the eldest child at thirteen, cleaned up little Ruth, three, and baby George after their encounter with the porridge, mother and the girls turned to clearing away and washing up. The two brothers, Mark and Edward, with some relief took the noisy boys out to harness up the horse and to fit out the cart with seats, bags and hay. They were eventually joined by Mary, her daughters and baby. The food, milk, beer, water, eating utensils, extra clothing and blankets were loaded. At last, with waves, the bawling of George and yells from the boys, the laden cart eased out the gate and into the muddy lane. The old couple, Thomas and Elizabeth Burton, both seventy, turned assuredly to the comforting routine tasks of their years, Thomas fleetingly wondering what his world was coming to. Now where was that basket for the eggs?

It was a memorable day for the Burton family. The children revelled in their first long journey away from home and drank in the panorama which slowly unfolded as Blacky clip-clopped resignedly along country lanes and through the hamlets of Cross in Hand, Framfield, Uckfield and Newick. The children were awed by the crowds of country folk who had gathered from miles around at Hayward’s Heath. Father positioned the cart parallel to the shiny new tracks on a slight rise just down from the village and there they ate an unusually substantial dinner of bread, cheese, onions, eggs, ham and jam puddings.

The family had just finished their repast when there came a distant whistle, and then the owners of the craning necks were astonished as the first down-train from London hurtled south carrying in its ten carriages the Directors of the Company, their official guests and friends. “Good Lord!” exclaimed father to nobody in particular; “My!” said mother; “Hell’s bells!” uttered Uncle Edward and “Did you see it?” and the like from the gaping boys. Finally, “Oh, dear” came from mother as little Sarah, overwhelmed by the occasion, was sick over herself and the edge of the cart. The second train which soon followed was equally fast, arriving at Brighton in a claimed one hour and three quarters, but the family, especially the children, had more time to absorb in their mind’s eye this new phenomenon in their lives.

To home at Heathfield the children chattered, finally slept and the adults discussed the day’s outing. Their speculations, if any, on how the new railway would affect their lives were private. If Blacky was thinking anything apart from a rub-down, watering, feeding and his comfortable stall, he might have been sympathising with his upper class colleagues, the London-Brighton coach horses. When the cart creaked to a halt in the yard of Pickstone Farm at nightfall, the person whose life would be most influenced by the Age of Steam was innocently fast asleep in his mother’s tired arms. Within two hours, after the adult exchange of news, supper and scolding of weary children, George was joined by the whole household.

That night Brighton celebrated with most of its houses illuminated and a fireworks display in Ireland’s Royal Gardens. At the banquet provided by the Town Commissioners for the Directors of the Company at the Old Ship, the speeches extolled the virtues of the railway and the grand future now opening before the town and its people. Whilst the more exuberant promises bordered on the rash, nonetheless Brighton’s future was rosy.

For centuries a fishing port and farming village, Brighton had developed from the late eighteenth century as a fashionable seaside resort for the upper classes, inspired by the example of royalty. With fast, reliable coach services, Brighton offered the upper classes the health benefits of fresh sea air and sea water bathing. The Directors of the London and Brighton Railway Company promised an upsurge in this clientele and did their best to encourage such traffic by providing very comfortable first class carriages and even first class passenger trains only, whereas third and fourth class carriages were hardly better than cattle trucks being uncovered, some even without seats! Undeterred by such blatant discrimination, the middle and lower classes seized the democratising opportunities provided by the faster, cheaper, steam train travel. Brighton was transformed into a popular, seaside resort, now a relatively cheap day excursion from the metropolis.

The London-Brighton coach traffic was delivered a mortal blow almost immediately. Magnificent coach horses, once priced between sixty and one hundred guineas, could now be bought for ten or less. By the 1830’s, a helter-skelter trip by coach from the capital to the coast could be achieved in four and one half hours and a more leisurely journey in six hours. Even the mixed class train stopping at all stations between London and Brighton took only two and a half hours. In 1823 up to forty-eight coaches ran between London and Brighton every day and twenty-six on other roads out of the town, as well as drays, wagons and carts. A single, defiant coach ran as late as November 1845 and a local era passed.

The three years of construction and the £2,000,000 spent on the railway were clearly worthwhile and Sussex participated in the third and most spectacular wave of British railway mania, that between 1844 and 1847. A line from Brighton to Lewes was opened in June 1846 and before the end of the same month, a line was opened eastwards as far as Hastings. The west coast line from Brighton to Shoreham was extended to Worthing in 1845, to Chichester in 1846 and Portsmouth in 1847. Just six years after the opening of the London and Brighton railway, as many as fifty-four passenger trains were starting from or arriving at Brighton every day, as well as many goods trains, and the station was always thronged with people.

If the 1840’s saw the dramatic beginning of a new era in transport in Sussex, then this was merely a reflection of the national scene. The first railway promotion mania began in 1824-1825 with the opening of George Stephenson’s Stockton-Darlington railway when the railway age can be said to have begun. In the five years to 1830, seventy miles of railway were opened. The second mania peaked in 1836-1837 and in the seven years to 1837 between four hundred and five hundred miles of railway were opened to traffic. The third and final bout of railway mania occurred between 1844 and 1847 when more than 2,000 miles were opened. Construction reached a crescendo in 1847 when more than a quarter of a million men, mostly Irish “navvies”, were employed in building 6,455 miles of railway. They were the most physically powerful men in Britain, each reputed to be able to lift some twenty tons of earth to a height of six feet in a day! Total railway expenditure, including working expenses, was running at a level which was more than the declared value of British exports and roughly a tenth of the total national income. On the average of the five years 1846 to 1850 it was estimated that 600,000 persons depended directly or indirectly on the wages arising from the building of the railways, a number roughly equal to the total population engaged in the factories of the United Kingdom at that time!

The skeleton of the British railway system had been established by 1850. In an impressively short period the Age of Steam had arrived. Not only was the relative physical isolation of Sussex being rudely breached, but the world vision of those of its inhabitants who cared to look began to broaden rapidly. That powerful, evocative symbol of the world’s first industrial revolution, the steam locomotive, commenced to haunt with breathless haste and brash whistle the preindustrial landscape of parish, village and farm. This old world where countless generations had sought to keep body and soul together, to live, love, procreate and die, this world of intimately known byways, practices, customs and limitations, had provided the formative landscape, both physical and psychological, for the Burtons of east Sussex.

Thomas Button, as the family surname was then spelt in parish records, was baptised during the reign of King George the Third on 5th May 1771 at Hellingly, the son of John and Sarah Button. His parents, John Butten (sic) and Sarah Romary, had been married at Chiddingly on 30th September 1754. Thomas was five years old when the American colonists declared their independence from the mother country and eighteen at the outbreak of the French Revolution across the Channel. He was working as an agricultural labourer in the Parish of Arlington when, at the age of twenty-four, he and Elizabeth Lambert, of the same Parish, were married by banns on 15th October 1794. Though the newlyweds were unable to sign their names, their marks were witnessed by Henry Wood and John Hilton. Elizabeth, baptised at Arlington on 12th July 1772, was the daughter of Henry Lambert and Elizabeth French, who were also married at Arlington on 5th August 1770. Unbeknown to the happy couple, on that very day half a world away, Captain James Cook and his crew were preparing to continue their exploration of the east coast of New Holland, after an enforced beaching of their ship, the Endeavour, to effect repairs to the hull.

A visitor to the very small village of Arlington in the mid-1960’s described its church as “remarkable”.

Dedicated like the Priory at Lewes to St. Pancras, it has a fine Saxon nave. It was much enlarged in the twelfth century, when the pilgrims began their journeys along the Roman way under the downs from the west, bound for Canterbury and the new shrine of St. Thomas Becket. The church is full of clues [for the historian] — like the carved heads of Edward III and his queen above the east window — like the great dug-out chest of the twelfth century — and the murals of the fourteenth century, which have survived faintly here in spite of Cromwellian whitewash and the way in which arch laps in style on style .

The same visitor was fortunate to come upon the church at an opportune time.

Not everyone can hope to make a first visit to the church on the ideal day, pushing through the gate in clear September weather and finding the place decked out for Harvest Festival with hay-rakes and crooks and large marrows, pots of jam, banks of Michaelmas daisies, and over all the smell of straw and apples.

Nearly two hundred years ago, when Thomas and Elizabeth were married at Arlington, the church already had accrued a venerable character and was strongly rooted in the way of life of its parishioners.

The young couple moved almost immediately some eight miles to the Parish of Warbleton where, between the years 1795 and 1813, almost the duration of the Napoleonic Wars, they had twelve children. They comprised eight boys and four girls, including two sets of twins, the elder, Ann and Thomas Button, baptised on 11th November 1798, and the younger, Sarah and John Button, baptised on 26th December 1808. Mark Button, the fourth child, was baptised on 28th September 1800. From the baptism, marriage and burial records of the Parish register, Warbleton was the home of a number of members of the Button family, either “indirectly”, that is laterally, related to Thomas Button or “directly”, that is, his children, namely William, Reubin and James, and their children in turn. The register clearly shows a change in the spelling of the surname in the 1820’s from Button to Burton.

Mark Burton did not stay in Warbleton. As a bachelor of Waldron Parish, he and Mary Mepham, spinster, of the same Parish, were married by banns at Waldron on 27th December 1827. Neither Mark nor Mary was able to sign their name. Witnesses were William Burton, presumably Mark’s younger brother, who had clearly altered his name from Button to Burton, and Jane Mepham. Still tied to the land, Mark and Mary set up home near Heathfield. Yet the new village was just three miles from Waldron and Warbleton and only nine from Arlington. Heathfield, known locally as Heffle, annually held the famous Cuckoo Fair on the 14th of April. Originally, as local tradition would have it, an old woman released the first cuckoo from a basket and the beginning of summer was thus officially proclaimed. In this rural world of local speech and custom, so near and yet so far from London, Mark and Mary Burton, farming seventeen acres at Pickstone Farm, Heathfield, had eight children including one set of twins, Martha and Mary, baptised on 28th February 1830 at Heathfield Independent Chapel, where most of the children were baptised.

Sons Thomas and David, in the natural order of rural affairs, began to share the load of farm work with their father and neighbouring farmers. Martha and Mary helped in the domestic branch of the farm enterprise and never married, though Mary did have a son, John, who lived with his mother at her parents’ home and endeared himself to his grandfather, Mark. In the course of time Harriett married a Thomas Turner, and Sarah, a Charles Knowle. The joyous family occasions were balanced with the demise of the aged grandparents. Elizabeth Burton was buried at Warbleton parish church on 10th September 1850 and Thomas Burton died in the 1850’s. Their grand-daughter, Ruth Burton, may also have died in this period as later records are devoid of references to her.

The children of Mark and Mary Burton may have received some formal schooling: if so, the lessons were lost on young George who could not read or write beyond signing his name and a few personal details. Perhaps the attractions of the fields, hedgerows, lanes and village, coupled with the duties of home, provided George with the education he desired and his parents could afford. His was the unenviable position of youngest son in a large family of an only moderately successful leaseholder. The best Mark could do for his boy in the circumstances, if the lad was so inclined, was to equip him with a trade. Whether it was to be rural based or to be hitched to the wagon of industrialisation, the trade of blacksmithing stood astride the old and new worlds. In time, the fateful choice enabled George to set the family’s future on a course both to the new industrial world and literally, to the New World. By the early 1860’s George Burton was a young man of imposing stature, with a powerful physique and possessed of that most practical appellation, blacksmith. He was an employee of the Brighton Railway Factory.

Eligible bachelor George, living at 14 Alfred Terrace, Brighton, met an attractive, friendly young woman, Emma Burt, who lived at 23 Ann Street, daughter of a shipwright. Emma had been born on 23rd April 1842 at New Shoreham. Her father, Robert Burt, had practised his trade of boat building in what was virtually the port of Brighton, situated as Shoreham was on the mouth of the River Adur, just to the west of the resort. Indeed the Shoreham-Brighton line was the first completed railway in Sussex, having been opened in May 1840. The journey took about fifteen minutes. Even today, Shoreham is Sussex’s only commercial port. Emma’s mother, Isabella, formerly a laundress, had died in the later 1850’s, survived by her husband, son, also named Robert, and daughter. Young Robert Burt was two years older than Emma.

Almost twenty-one years after the bells of St. Nicholas’s, Brighton, had signalled the tethering of Brighton to London by iron rails, they rang again for George Burton and Emma Burt who were married by banns on 30th August 1862. A family friend on the groom’s side, Henry Stredwick, and a relative of the bride, Sarah Dixon, acted as witnesses. The young marrieds lived at 14 Upper Lewes Road where the following year their first child, Arthur Robert Burton, arrived early on 19th April 1863. George Mark and Isabella Mary Burton were also born at Brighton on 13th May 1864 and 2nd November 1865 respectively. Emma’s joy at the safe arrival of their first daughter turned to sorrow three weeks later when her father died in Brighton at the age of seventy-five. George and Emma’s fourth child, another boy, Thomas Charles, was born at Holtye, near the village of Hartfield, close to the Kent-Sussex border, on 13th August 1867.

Perhaps Thomas was born at Holtye whilst Emma was staying at her brother’s home during a visit to keep in touch after their father’s death less than two years before. More probably, however, George, Emma and their little children had begun the life of a family whose head was a peripatetic blacksmith. Robert Burt was a mariner and when he was away at sea his house would have been unoccupied. George would have to pick up work mending ploughs, repairing farmstead iron-mongery and shoeing horses. It could not have been an easy decision to leave the security of steady employment in a respectable trade in a prospering resort town whose population was soaring from 46,000 in 1841 to reach 99,000 in 1871. Holtye was certainly a backwater by comparison. Without doubt deteriorating relations with his masters would have been a significant reason for George quitting the railways. From I847 to 1869 the locomotive superintendent at Brighton was John Chester Craven, a tough, ruthless, hard-faced engineer from the north. He was a “terrible man” and his tyrannical and erratic supervision inspired fear in his men. One engineman who incurred the wrath of Craven after an accident for which he was not to blame, rather than face the ire of his boss after another accident, twice attempted to commit suicide. George Burton was made of stronger mettle but he was not putting up with that nonsense. He left the Brighton Railway Factory. Robert Burt’s empty house beckoned in Holtye.

The decision having been made to take to the road, it was difficult to call a halt. From Holtye, Sussex, George, Emma and their young brood moved to south Wales which region, economically, was concentrating increasingly on the coal and iron industries. Rich in both resources, Wales promised employment in the early 1870’s for an eager, hard-working smith. On the move with an illiterate father, there was little opportunity for much formal education for the children, apart from a little book learning from mother. This was especially so for Arthur and probably George, the eldest children. Some of Arthur’s earliest memories were of carrying his father’s tools and lunch to the mines. Whether father and son were engaged underground or on the surface workings is not clear. More childish activities for the young Burtons included mud slides down the hills which may have been the slag heaps of the mines. The family was impressed by the Welsh attitude to life and work and readily assimilated their love of choral work. Isabella would lie in her bed at nightfall and early in the morning and listen to the beautiful singing of the miners and boys as they tramped between home and work. Skipping to the window, the young girl would watch dreamily as the harmonious singers filled the air with music to the beat of their boots on the shining wet cobblestones of the village, the lighted candles on their hats and the flickering of their lanterns creating an enchanting scene. The family’s love for and taste in music was indelibly imprinted during their sojourn in south Wales. Isabella sang well, her father had a beautifully rich, baritone voice and Arthur’s love of choral music never left him.

Despite the obvious attractions of the region, the future of their family must have increasingly preoccupied George and Emma. In the mid and later 1870’s, the boys were of an age when training for a trade should begin or have begun and the foundations laid for a secure job. The economic situation was not favourable, even for father, as the rate of growth was declining. Having witnessed the ups and downs of the iron industry first hand and seen the effects of unemployment and under-employment in the Welsh villages, George and Emma sought for an alternative which would provide a more secure job base and a more settled life for the family.

Moreover, family ties were weakening. Both Emma’s parents were dead with only brother Robert surviving. George’s parents too were dead. When he was twenty-one, his mother, Mary Burton, died at Pickstone Farm on 1st November 1861, aged sixty-four years. Mark Burton, perhaps knowing that his demise was imminent, made his last will and testament on 15th July 1867 and died on the 25th of the same month. He left his clock to his beloved grandson John, son of Mary Burton. After Mark Burton’s eldest son Thomas had taken at a fair valuation, for his own use, what he required of the personal assets and effects of his father, comprising “household goods, furniture, farming stock and tackling”, the rest was to be converted to cash and divided equally between Mark’s children, Harriett, Mary, Martha, Thomas, David, Sarah and George. If Thomas was to continue to hire and live on the farm, he was to allow his sister Mary and her son John to reside there also, but the census collector found no Burtons at Pickstone Farm when he called in 1871. The executor of Mark Burton’s will was his friend Gideon Carpenter of World’s End Farm, Hellingly, and Mark’s personal effects were valued under £300. Thus, with no parental ties binding them and a concern for their family’s future in the face of a stagnating British economy, George, the young man who had stepped from Heathfield to Brighton, and his wife Emma, now contemplated a truly daunting leap to a life in a new country.

They were not alone in their thoughts. In the period 1871 to 1880, net emigration from England to Wales numbered 164,000 people, but the gross loss was something like three quarters of a million. For the years 1876 to 1880, when exact statistics first began to be compiled, net migration from the British Isles was running at 87,000 people every year. Of these 28,000 went to Australia and New Zealand, 8,000 to British North America, 4,000 to “other places” and 47,000 went to the United States. Of the 28,000 who went to Australia and New Zealand in 1878, six were George, Emma, Arthur, George, Isabella and Thomas Burton who were bound for South Australia. The colony was experiencing the third economic boom in its short history, a prosperity based on its expanding wheat and pastoral frontiers. Colonial politicians were determined those frontiers would be serviced by a railway network to take the wheat and wool to ports for transhipment to the mother country. Great Britain, having experienced years before its own railway mania, was now exporting its investment capital, railway technology, locomotives, rails, engineers and skilled mechanics to develop the transport infrastructure of its colonies, its suppliers of raw materials of the industrial revolution. Promised free passage for himself and his family and with excellent prospects of employment for himself and his sons in an expanding, prosperous, God-fearing colony, George Burton was ready to face the challenge of the New World.


Owner of originalRodney Burton
PlaceAdelaide, South Australia, Australia
Linked toFamily: BURTON/BURT (F28)

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