Rodney and Ruth Burton's Genealogy Pages

Family: George BURTON / Emma BURT

m. 30 Aug 1862


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500 Class, A Social History of George Burton and his Family: Chapter 3 Wheat Stacks and Smoke Stacks in the Granary of the South

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.


For newcomers to the colonial scene, securing employment and housing was of paramount importance. The nature of their experience in getting a job and a place to live was often crucial in forming positive attitudes to their new social milieu and in justifying the decision to leave the old world for the new. Moreover, success would minimise strains on family relationships already tested by the upheaval of emigration. Happily the arrival of the Burton family in South Australia in 1878 was most timely. The colony was enjoying a prosperity unprecedented in its short forty-two year history.

South Australia had always enjoyed the natural advantage of suitable agricultural land relatively close to the coast because of its two penetrating gulfs. Then, liberal land selection procedures since 1869, introduced originally to counter emigration eastwards of some of the colony’s farmers, facilitated agricultural settlement during a decade of good seasons throughout the 1870’s, until a period of droughts and downturn of prices of agricultural produce commenced in 1882. This third wave of agricultural expansion was not to be the last, but it was certainly the most “intense, rapid and important”. By the time South Australia celebrated its jubilee in 1886, the agricultural limits had been pushed nearly 150 miles northwards. Between 1869 and 1884 almost two million new acres had been put into cultivation, ninety-five per cent of which was in the new northern wheat area. The settled area of the colony had been far more than doubled in just fifteen years. In 1884 South Australia’s harvest of fifteen million bushels was equal to that of Victoria and New South Wales combined. Wheat was now the great staple, followed by wool, with copper in a minority position.

Such spectacular development generated in many quarters stentorian cries for roads, bridges, ports and railways in order to move the harvest. Government, having been involved from the colony’s inception in facilitating its development, was obliged to help provide the infrastructure of the booming colonial economy. During the “golden” decade the rate of public investment in railways, much of the capital being raised on the London market, showed that colonial politicians were willing to answer the calls of their electorates for transport and communication facilities. Apart from a brief burst of activity in 1867-1869, little was achieved in railway development in the 1860’s. However, a long period of rising investment began during 1872-1873, to turn definitely down in 1887. After a relatively quick decline during 1887-1888, the level of investment subsided gradually until the end of the century. The pattern of public railway investment in South Australia was reflected in the miles of railway opened in the same period. In the boom years of the 1870’s regional railway networks were constructed centred on the ports of Port Pine, Wallaroo, Port Wakefield, Kingston and Beachport. Adelaide sounded a centralist warning, however, with an extension of the northern line to Hallett in 1878 and of the Kapunda line to Morgan, in what ultimately was proven a futile attempt to capture the river traffic from Victoria and New South Wales and to direct it to Port Adelaide. The development of the railway network continued throughout the 1880’s despite the stagnation, indeed southwards retreat of the northern-most wheat frontier which commenced in 1882-1883 with the onset of poor seasons and droughts. Regional networks were connected by the questing iron tentacles of Adelaide. Mount Gambier and Naracoorte were connected at Bordertown to the Adelaide-Melbourne line, completed in 1886, and the Wallaroo-Port Wakefield, Port Pine and Port Augusta regional networks were connected to the capital by the extension of its northern line through Terowie, Peterborough and Quorn to Oodnadatta. To exploit the silver, lead and zinc treasures of Broken Hill, a railway was built from Peterborough, thus linking the silver city with its smelters and port at Port Pine on Spencer’s Gulf. South Australia had 133 miles of railway open in 1872. Sixteen years later, 1,500 miles of railway were open to traffic.

If Adelaide’s growing dominance of the South Australian economy can be detected in this period, so too can its growing demographic strength. Adelaide began to attract a higher proportion of the immigrants arriving in South Australia. Fifty per cent of those who arrived between 1871 and 1876 were resident in Adelaide in 1881. Fifty-eight per cent of immigrants who arrived in the second half of the decade settled in Adelaide. By contrast, the country was favoured much more by immigrants who arrived before 1871 as sixty-four per cent of those still alive in 1881 were country dwellers. In the 1870’s the long term relative growth rates of Adelaide and the country began to change in favour of Adelaide. In absolute terms, the population of metropolitan Adelaide in 1871 numbered 61,361, constituting 33.1 per cent of the colony’s population. A decade later, Adelaide’s population soared to 103,942 or 33.76 per cent of the whole. George Burton and his family arrived in South Australia as part of an urbanising wave of immigrants and were destined to live in the capital, servicing the transport network of a colony based on primary production. Catching the last years of a remarkable economic boom, before the downturn of the last decades of the century, the Burtons settled in an established, rapidly expanding, provincial city of the Empire, connected by electric telegraph to the mother country, flushed with success and boasting the amenities of thoughtful planning. Adelaide proudly paraded before its visitors the Botanic Gardens, parklands, striking public buildings such as the Town Hall and General Post Office, a University, Model Schools and Institute, photographers’ studios, horse trams, steam trains, churches, hotels, shady bluestone villas and Australia’s first water-borne sewerage system. It was an impressive catalogue for a “farinaceous village”. Optimism, opportunities and solid prosperity were the keystones of this city of the south.

The South Australian Register reported just six days after the family’s arrival that:

immigrants who have arrived here of late have found no difficulty whatever in procuring employment, and contractors for railway and other undertakings are certainly not oversupplied with workmen.

However George was no navvy and with his trade and experience in the Brighton Railway Factory he quickly gained employment as a blacksmith in the railway workshops located in the yards of the Adelaide Railway Station near North Terrace. Nor did the family have to board or rent a house for long as by 1880 George had purchased an allotment in Formby Street, Hilton, and built a two-roomed “weather-board cottage”. In this period the rate books of the West Torrens District Council bore annual testimony to the growing popularity of this inner western area as residential suburbs for commuters either walking or catching the horse trams to work in Adelaide. While father worked in the railway workshops in Adelaide, Arthur and George, unqualified as tradesmen, picked up jobs here and there as casual labourers or worked on the many farms surrounding the new residential developments in the area. Isabella probably worked at home with Emma whilst Thomas, the youngest at eleven, completed his primary schooling. Fortune smiled on the newcomers and their cup overflowed on 23rd March 1881 when Emma was delivered, at home, of a fine baby girl, named Ella Sarah. The arrival of daughter Ella was both a culmination of the auspicious start in the colonial life of the Burtons and an act of great faith on the part of George and Emma in their family’s future in South Australia. In under three years they had gained security of employment, a roof of their own over their heads and a new, colonial-born addition to the family. If there were any doubts in the proud father’s mind they concerned his two boys who were unable to hold down steady jobs, whether by inclination or by force of circumstances he was unable to decide.

The Adelaide Railway Station’s imprest book for 1880-1881 recorded that between August 1880 and January 1881, George Burton was paid wages ranging from £10 8s to £10 per month. According to his service record, on 10th May 1882 he was earning 10s 6d per day but this was reduced on 1st October of that year to 10s per day. Settling in to the new work regime and relating to his new work-mates at the railway workshops would not have been too difficult for George. His bosses, the foremen and superintendents, were British, personally recruited by the South Australian government from various British railway companies during the 1870’s. The working procedures were therefore largely British. The machines were British-made, as were the locomotives. Furthermore, many of the employees in the Adelaide railway workshops were also British. It was not until the early twentieth century, when George’s grandchildren began entering the South Australian Railways, that the British influence waned somewhat.

On 27th November 1882, at the age of fifteen, Thomas Burton followed his father into the colonial railway becoming an apprentice fitter on 1s a day. It was an important step for the boy as it would equip him with a trade, an opportunity not enjoyed by his older brothers. It meant also that young Thomas, of the second generation, was the first to affirm the commitment made by his father George when he moved from Heathfield to Brighton some twenty years earlier. George had established a reputation as a skilled, reliable smith and was pleased to be able to assist Thomas in securing an apprenticeship, but father and son enjoyed only a few months of each other’s company trudging to and from work with their tins of lunch and billies of tea. Very shortly after Thomas commenced fifty years of service with the South Australian Railways, George Burton was struck in his left eye by a steel splinter. Loss of sight in the injured eye presented no alternative. In the days before factory legislation, industrial safety awareness and workers’ compensation, George retired with no benefits, no pension and a record of less than four years’ service with the colony’s railway. Well, if a promising railway career was accidentally cut short in late 1882 what was a forty-two year old, one-eyed blacksmith to do? There was a family including an infant to support and a living to be made.

George Burton, the smith from Sussex, was reputed to be able to lift a grown man standing on a long-handled shovel. He could match this physical prowess with an anvil hard determination to work by his skilled hands. Moreover, his sense of family loyalty had been forged in a succession of moves from Brighton to Holtye, through numerous Welsh iron and coal mining towns, thence South Australia. Those colonial domesday books of material endeavour, the assessment books, recorded that by March 1883, so soon after his accident, George had purchased an allotment in Hilton, on Rowlands Road, built there an iron smith’s shop and commenced business in his own right. Reminiscent of the Holtye days, George was servicing the machinery of the nearby farmers, mending or making ironmongery for local householders and shoeing horses of the district.

This fine example of parental enterprise and familial loyalty was invoked as worthy of emulation after George and Emma had been told what they had feared for some time. Arthur and George, now young men in their early twenties, were determined to seek their fortune elsewhere. They were planning to travel to Western Australia. Their parents agreed that father’s business was too small to provide them all with secure employment, but could they not try yet again for steady jobs here in South Australia with the family? Yes, the South Australian economy had slipped into the doldrums in the mid 1880’s; yes, they realized the two boys were unskilled but would the situation be any better in the west? Whom did they know there? Why so far away? And so the argument continued. On reflection George realised that he had finally to relent. It was ironical that his own peripatetic career as a blacksmith had deprived Arthur and George of a formal education, of qualifications as tradesmen and set an example of the wandering life. The family’s continual shifting in the 1870’s had bred in the boys a certain rootlessness. It was doubly ironical as he, Emma and the two girls waved farewell to their questing sons and brothers, while their ship was towed from the wharf at Port Adelaide, where the family had landed some seven years before. The tears were for a family parted and an uncertain future.

The restlessness and desire to seek employment through travel must have been strong in Arthur and George. There had been reports of gold strikes and rushes in the Kimberley district in 1886 as the counter-clockwise gold trail began moving around the coast of Western Australia, culminating in the fabulous finds of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in the 1890’s. The Kimberley strikes were followed by those of the Pilbara in 1888 and Geraldton in the Murchison district in 1890. Whatever the inducements; gold, adventure, a change of scene, better job prospects, they were sufficient for Arthur to lay aside his vow never to travel by sea again after his experience on the Hesperus. Watching the receding familiar figures on the wharf, there were naturally some regrets, particularly for Arthur upon whom his father had developed more responsibility and consideration. His father’s last words had been a request for Arthur to look after his younger brother, the kind of remarks the brothers were in part escaping from in the fraternal companionship of their exhilarating trip west. The ropes cast off at the wharf symbolised the maturing nature and growing independence of George’s family.

The Burton boys may have reached the Pilbara goldfields in the western colony’s north-west during the rush of 1888. Certainly Arthur’s reminiscences included the spectacular sight of four hundred gallon, square iron water tanks whistling through the air, aerial displays not uncommon on that cyclone prone coast. However, if they ventured on to the fields, they must have seen singularly unsuccessful as not a speck of gold dust salts the few anecdotes. More likely they moved from one casual labouring job to another in the pastoral regions of Western Australia. On one job, tank sinking or fencing, they were supplied with rations and had to fend for themselves. The inexperienced pair cooked a kerosene tin of rice which swelled alarmingly. For days they lived on squares cut from the granular mass until it went bad. On another occasion they were employed for a sufficient time for them to try their hand at gardening. Fresh vegetables were to be anticipated with relish. They planted celery and then had to move on. When they returned, they discovered huge celery plants the trunks of which, according to Arthur, tasted as good as the more usually acceptable tender stalks.

As they gravitated towards Perth, a string of jobs behind them and a growing wealth of experience on their shoulders, the question which had not left them alone in South Australia became a nuisance. Arthur felt increasingly that for all the wonders of their travelling, the new experiences and the opportunities to be their own boss, they were still no better off in the long run than they had been in Adelaide. Besides, letters from Isabella had informed them of her marriage and birth of her first child, a boy. Thomas had finished his apprenticeship and was now a fully qualified fitter in the railway. Father’s blacksmith shop was still moderately successful. Wiser for his intercolonial experience, Arthur was nonetheless happy to return to Adelaide to see his growing family. George, on the other hand, decided to stay. He felt his prospects in Perth were good and it may be that he had already met his future wife. No amount of persuading could convince the other party. In the circumstances the brothers agreed regretfully to part. Arthur and George had always been close but their life on the track together had increased their mutual respect and affection. Arthur looked forward in anticipation, to being reunited with his family; in some dread, to facing for the second time the vagaries of the Great Australian Bight, and, in discomfort, to breaking the news that George had decided to stay in Perth. As the brothers shook hands and said farewell, they little realised that George would never again meet any of his family.

The return of their eldest son was a great joy to George and Emma, tempered though it was by the absence of the young George. The homecoming was especially cheering to Arthur’s sister, Isabella, who had just lost her second child aged six months. Arthur, the returned wanderer, enjoyed the novel sensation of holding his first nephew, Allen George, eighteen months, son of Isabella and William George Washington who had married in 1886. In the next ten years the rest of George and Emma’s children were also married. Arthur Robert Burton to Lily Annie Cox in 1890; Thomas Charles Burton to Charlotte Jane Hayward in 1892, on Thomas’s birthday; George Mark Burton to Harriet Harris, in Perth, Western Australia, in 1892; and, Ella Sarah Burton to Arthur John Freer in 1896. As their children married and started having families of their own, George and Emma were blessed with a growing brood of grandchildren, the last being born in 1914. Happily, for the aging grandparents, the Burton, Washington and Freer families were to see much of each other in the thirty years to 1920.

Now their children were embarked on lives of their own, George and Emma, in their early fifties, assessed their own future. Business at the forge had slackened, constituting an uncertain investment of George’s physical powers in his later years. In 1894-1895, after twelve years of smithing, he sold his blacksmith’s shop on Rowlands Road, Hilton. He also sold their original home in Formby Street to their married son, Thomas. The house comprised four rooms, two having been added, by George, a few years after moving in. George, Emma and young Ella probably stayed for a while with Thomas. If so it must have been a tight squeeze. Thomas and Charlotte had had their first child, Frances, in April 1893 and Charlotte was expecting their second in mid-1895. Arthur, Lily and their young family were close neighbours. At least as early as August 1893, Arthur had purchased a house in nearby Washington Street. He also owned the house next door which he let. Isabella, William and their family lived in Adelaide on the premises of Goode, Durrant and Company, where William worked as a storeman.

The pressure eased at Formby Street when in 1896-1897, George and Emma shifted a short distance away to Brooker Terrace, Richmond, where George began purchasing nearly three acres of Crown Land under the Workingmen’s Block scheme. The originator of the scheme in 1884 was G.W. Cotton, a member of the House of Assembly and socialist reformer. It was thought that blocks of twenty acres or less would provide a solution to the problems of poor wages and irregular employment and act as a means of combating what Cotton saw as a coming working class revolution! Though the colonial capitalist system had been tested by the strikes, depression and droughts of the 1890’s, reform, not revolution, was in the air. As in many land schemes of closer settlement in Australia, whereby a yeoman class of smallholders was to be created, Cotton’s scheme ran into many difficulties. The realities of South Australia’s climate ensured that only those blocks in the Adelaide Hills taken up around the newly created township of Mylor were successful and later emphasis in the scheme centred on the irrigation areas of the Murray. For his part, George Burton, fifty-six years of age, youngest son of an English small leaseholder, was taking up the challenge of the soil which had exercised generations of his forefathers. In the autumn of his life, George became a very successful market gardener, three miles from the heart of Adelaide. After his daughter, Ella, married, she and her husband also lived in the timber-framed, weatherboard house built by George on Richmond Blocks.

The former blacksmith, often with some grandchildren in tow, became a familiar sight in the western district of Adelaide as he hawked fruit and vegetables from the back of his canvas hooded, two-wheeled dray. Supplementing his own produce with that purchased from the East End market, George embarked on his rounds and established a reputation as a respectable, honest trader. Son-in-law Arthur Freer sank a bore and George constructed his own windmill which was timber-framed and had four vanes of galvanised, corrugated iron. By means of this handy device George irrigated his market garden using a network of iron and wooden channels. He dug a cellar behind his home, covering it with a gabled roof. Here were stored his homebrewed beer, wine, smoked meats, milk, eggs, butter, fruit and vegetables. The best pictures on the wall, according to Arthur Freer, were the sides of bacon and the hams. Self-sufficiency, sale of excess produce and an enterprising business sense ensured that George and Emma were reasonably comfortable in their old age. They also shared in the developing amenities of the area as it developed in suburban fashion. Their district council struck a sanitary rate in 1901, a police rate in 1905 and electric lighting was available from 1912.

For their grandchildren, visiting Grandpa George and Grandma Emma was like travelling to a farm. In the enlarged world of a child’s eyes, Grandpa was a huge, bluff character, comfortable to be around. He was like a mountain capped with snow. Grandpa would push his huge fingers through his hair, claiming that this massaging preserved the condition of his white mane. The characteristic of white hair was passed on to his daughter Ella, his grandson Arthur Burton, often called Snowy, and two great grand-daughters, Joyce Waller (nee Freer) and Lorna Moulds (nee Freer). Lionel Washington recalls accompanying Grandpa for several years down to the Patawalonga area, Glenelg, at Christmas time and selling cherries to the delighted campers settled on the banks near the water or in the scrub around the sandhills. Some of the cheekier Freer boys trained a pet magpie to cry out “Here comes old wall-eye”, to the stick waving annoyance of Grandpa as he walked down the back yard of his home in the morning. In more leisurely moments, when the married children with their families came home on weekends, musical evenings were in order. Accompanied by Arthur Freer and the older grandchildren on various musical instruments, family singing was enjoyed by all. Long would be the memories of Grandpa’s baritone voice and Isabella’s fine singing, as the three generations rendered “Sussex by the Sea” and many other favourites. Richard Washington would recall years later a small audience of younger grandchildren listening expectantly to Grandpa George sing a song involving the rendition backwards of the alphabet, culminating in an always startling fortissimo “A”! Recalled also was the generosity of Grandpa as he slipped a penny to a grandchild, anxious to avoid Grandma Emma who, on discovery, would insist it was too much and should be exchanged for a half-penny. Christmas was an especially happy time for the family with young minds vividly impressed when the pudding, surrounded by dried raisins, was soaked in brandy and lit. Small fingers would hesitantly explore the blue flames and experiencing no pain, lift out the warm raisins and pop them into laughing mouths. Inside the pudding were small china figures of dolls, crescents, bells and horse-shoes. To this day, grand-daughter Grace Quinn’s family continue the Christmas ritual of the pudding and raisins and not so long ago, small china figures were unearthed in Grace’s garden, echoes of English Christmases long since passed.

To some of her grandchildren, Grandma Emma’s undisguised English accent was difficult to understand but not so her superb and copious cooking, especially her sweets and cakes. She was a kindly, gentle soul, a ready ear for troubled hearts and a pillar of strength and understanding for new members of the family such as Margaret Williams, when she came out from England after the war to marry Horace Washington. Grace Freer used to love visiting her grandmother on Sunday afternoons after Sunday school. At this time, Emma, a widow, still lived in the old home in Brooker Terrace, well looked after by a Mr. and Mrs. Eaves and their children. Grandma Emma would invite Grace into her “sattin” room and whilst she crocheted, would talk with the young grandchild seated below her on a hassock. Emma used to have very long hair drawn back very tightly and would often complain of headaches. When the Freer girls persuaded her to have it cut and arranged in a looser style, she claimed it was far more comfortable and the headaches disappeared. On one occasion when feeling poorly, she asked Grace to wash her feet and remarked to her young helper, “Remember dear, in life you are once a lady and twice a baby”. The old lady, with beautifully soft, clear skin and a fascinating thumb which was split into two down to the nail, enjoyed good health and suffered only a short sickness before she died at home in the presence of her children Thomas and Ella on 8th December 1925. Emma Burton would always be remembered by Grace and many of her other grandchildren, a lot of whom she had helped deliver, as “the most wonderful, lovely old woman who ever lived”.

By 1913 George, aged seventy-three and conscious of his advancing years, again took stock of his and Emma’s changing situation. By 1900 both Thomas and Arthur had sold their houses, the former moving to 17 Bagot Avenue, Mile End, and the latter to Kintore Avenue, Chicago, now Kilburn. Ella, Arthur and their seven children moved out of her parents’ home in 1912 and into their own house built at 155 Burbridge Road, Hilton. On 20th January 1913, George sub-divided his three acre block into three pieces and ten allotments, creating Burton and Arthur Streets in the process. He entrusted his eldest son Arthur with the disposal of the allotments. By 1927-1928 the last allotment had been sold and the family now possessed only sentimental ties to the former, prosperous market garden.

George Burton, unable to read and write, nonetheless followed closely the course of the 1914-1918 war, listening to his daughter Isabella read newspaper accounts of the fighting. Despite his lack of education, he was able to discuss developments with considerable insight and charted the allies’ progress or lack of it with pins on a map. On 7th July 1917, George had drawn up his last will and testament. In it he appointed Arthur sole executor and trustee. He was to administer and dispose of the estate for Emma Burton’s benefit. When Emma died, the remainder of the estate was to be divided equally between the three children Arthur, Isabella and Ella. In 1921 the net estate was worth £365.

Active mentally to the last, George predeceased his faithful wife by seven years, passing away on his seventy-eighth birthday on 14th July 1918. At the funeral, eight grandsons bore the coffin of the travelling smith from Heathfield.

The Adelaide Chronicle, 3rd August 1918.

Mr. George Burton of Richmond, died last week after a long residence in the district. He was the youngest son of Mr. Mark Burton, of [Pickstone] Farm, Heathfield, Sussex. He left a widow, three sons and two daughters, 26 grandchildren, and II great grandchildren. He was 78 years old and had been in the state for 40 years.

Owner of originalRodney Burton
Linked toFamily: BURTON/BURT (F28)

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