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500 Class, A Social History of George Burton and his Family: Chapter 4 Fishmonger to Boilermaker: Arthur Robert Burton

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.


Arthur Robert BURTON

b. 19 April 1863, Brighton, Sussex, England

d. 1 August 1933, Adelaide, S.A.

m. 25 November 1890, Adelaide, S.A.

Lily Annie Cox

b. 15 November 1868, Adelaide, S.A.

d. 14 March 1926, Adelaide, S.A.


1. Edith Florence May BURTON, b. 16 December 1891, d. 3 January 1954

2. Henry George Robert BURTON, b. 14 August 1893, d. 29 August 1972

3. Roy Thomas Leslie BURTON, b. 27 August 1895, d. 2I July 1937

4. Arthur Cyril Cox BURTON, b. 24 July 1897, d. 7 May 1952

5. Ernest William BURTON, b. 27 April 1902

6. Albert Stanley BURTON, b. 26 August 1904

7. Harold Kenneth BURTON, b. 8 October 1906, d. 28 October 1927

8. Frank Reginald BURTON, b. I January 1911, d. 2 November 1970

When Arthur Burton returned from Western Australia in the late 1880’s he sought a number of jobs to support himself. It was while hawking fish in the western streets of Adelaide that he first met a striking, red-haired young lady, Lily Annie Cox. Her father, Henry Paul Cox, was a stonemason and her mother, Elizabeth Ruth Cox, was very busy with home duties. The family lived in Market Street. The development of the relationship between Arthur and Lily soon had the novice fishmonger considering a more secure form of employment. On 27th January 1890 Arthur commenced service in the South Australian Railways as a striker at the Adelaide railway workshops. Towards the end of the year, the twenty-seven year old bachelor and his twenty-two year old former customer married on 25th November in the home of the bride’s parents.

The first of eight children, their only daughter, Edith, was born at Market Street one year later and their first boy, Henry, was born in their own home in Washington Street, Hilton, in 1893. It was back to mother’s for Lily’s third confinement in 1895 and two years later yet another son was delivered at Washington Street. By the time Arthur and Lily had had their “first family”, Arthur was working at the expanding lslington railway workshops, having transferred from Adelaide on New Year’s Day, 1892, and was earning seven shillings a day. To cut travelling time and associated costs, Arthur sold his houses in Washington Street, Hilton, in 1899 and eventually moved to Kintore Avenue, Chicago, as it was then known, just opposite the Islington works. Here the Burton family lived in a timber-framed, galvanised iron house which Arthur had built himself. He also completed the later additions as his family expanded. In addition to the house allotment, Arthur and Lily owned the adjoining lot.

It was in Chicago that Arthur and Lily had their “second family”, all boys, between 1902 and 1911. Lily bore children over twenty years of her life and whereas all deliveries were completed safely either in her mother’s or her own home, misfortune struck with the seventh child, Harold, who was born with a form of cerebral palsy. Two explanations of Harold’s condition have been advanced within the family. The first suggested that it was brought about when Lily slipped on very wet ground in the backyard and fell heavily whilst she was pregnant with Harold. It is highly unlikely that he would have been affected in this way. The second explanation, similar to the first and more firmly adhered to by members of the family, concerned the manner of Harold’s delivery. In the days when the nearest doctor was at Fitzroy and phones in ordinary houses were uncommon, midwives were the rule at childbirth. It was believed that the local midwife accidentally dropped the newly arrived baby on to the floor, causing his permanent physical and mental weakness. If that was the case, however, injuries to the head would have had to have been severe, with perhaps unconsciousness for several weeks. It was not until the time approached when normal children began sitting up and crawling that Lily and Arthur realized with shock the affliction of their Harold. They were told he would not survive his seventh year. Whether Harold’s condition was caused externally or internally, it evoked enormous energy and compassion from his parents who refused to have him placed in an institution. Harold’s homemade wheelchair embodied his father’s fierce, practical loyalty and his self-reliance.

By 1907 Arthur was classified as a framemaker’s assistant and was paid at the rate of eight shillings a day with which he had to support his large family. At lslington he worked on chassis construction for the rolling-stock of the state railway system. He had inherited his father’s prodigious strength and developed it during his travels in Wales and Western Australia. He often lifted alone the steel girders which formed the base-frame of the various carriages and trucks. Arthur established a reputation as one of the best frame builders at lslington, despite his never having completed formally a metal trades apprenticeship. Thus in 1917 he was classified only as a boilermaker’s assistant. Three years later he was frame builder on fifteen shillings a day and then, on 29th December 1923, on the strength of his outstanding practical skill, he was accepted as a boilermaker. When Arthur retired on 19th May 1928 he was earning eighteen shillings and fourpence a day. He was granted a pension of £104 per annum.

Chicago was an appropriate name for the area in which Arthur and Lily Burton raised their family. Like its American counterpart it had a reputation for being “wild”. Undesirable, even criminal elements from Bowden and Brompton were wont, so it was alleged, to hang out in the district, a fact known to the police. There were just two other houses in Kintore Avenue, the area was sparsely settled by low cost housing and lent over to mixed farming. Arising out of the often swampy flats below the rises of “superior” Prospect, Enfield and Blair Athol, the relatively new industrial workshops of the Islington railway complex looked as incongruous in its rural setting as a new water-driven textile mill in the English countryside. Disreputable Chicago was, nevertheless, a paradise for the Burton children.

They attended the Nailsworth School on the Main North Road, about two miles from home, though Albert, for the last years’ of his schooling, and Frank attended the newly opened and closer Chicago School. As the boys trudged off to school, shepherding little Ern, they might decide to head straight up the hill along Clifton Street in the hope of getting a “willy” or ride on the hay wagons travelling along the Main North Road towards Adelaide. Hanging precariously on the bags draped over the sweet smelling though prickly load, the schoolboys had to be careful not to be caught by the whip-cracking, irate driver suspicious of his horses’ sudden struggling up the hills.

There were many opportunities to earn money in the district: grubbing out the ubiquitous horehound which infected the area, olive and pea picking on the farms or collecting mushrooms and selling them at the lslington gates when the men streamed out after work. Sometimes father would help by hawking their natural harvest within the works. Money so gained could be spent on the local picture shows or on a tram ride to Adelaide, some refreshments and a session of ice-skating. Henry had saved diligently from his apprentice’s wages and proudly purchased a new bike which would save his fares when he cycled into the School of Mines on North Terrace for his studies. He was heart-broken when it was stolen on the first night.

Amusements were never far away for a bunch of imaginative boys and neighbouring children. The sewage farm lay on the western side of the railway works and was a readymade playground thoughtfully provided by the government. Leaping from wooden strut to wooden strut which held the long disposal channels together was dangerous and exhilarating. It was also very wet and hilarious, for all except the victim, when he misjudged the variable distances between struts. That night father would exclaim, “So you’ve been over the sewage farm again!” and the belt would come off and be soundly applied to the offenders’ backsides. The boys reckoned it went twice around dad’s middle as it always seemed to reach them. If the yabbies were not biting in Broad Creek or the watermelons not worth taking from Manuel’s farm, the yards of the Islington works were a sure source of fascination and pleasure. Here the youngsters played on the old locomotives put out to pasture, with one lad posted to warn of the approaching watchman. As they leaped among and drove in their minds some of the very first little locomotives in the colony’s history, the boys soaked up a feeling for things mechanical and enhanced their prospects of entering railway careers.

For the older boys and their acquaintances, there were human targets upon whom youthful energies could be expended and senses of humour exercised. One popular figure of fun in the district was the German missionary, Peining, who performed social work among the more depressed, poorer members of the Chicago community. Incidentally, even during the childhood of the author, the good Lutherans of Renmark, among them his future wife, donated old clothes for the needy denizens of Kilburn. Fortunately the author never got to wear the cast-offs of his future in-laws! Peining also contributed to the culture of Chicago by showing weekly pictures in a local hall. One dark night the Burton boys unhitched the horse from his trap, ran the shafts through a wire fence and then harnessed the patient animal again. For good measure they clothed the dumb beast by placing a large pair of trousers over its forelegs. The bewildered missionary must have had his worst fears of the youth of the district confirmed that night.

The varied often insecure nature of Arthur’s own working life had impressed on him the value of early securing trade qualifications. Six sons had to be provided with a start in life and a secondary education was not in the gift of their father. Furthermore, the state’s largest engineering workshops were just across the road. Therefore, Arthur Burton quite naturally, strongly encouraged his boys to register their names, once they had turned ten years of age, with the Government Labour Bureau for apprenticeships in the South Australian Railways. Once a month their cards would have to be stamped. After they had finished their primary schooling, they would receive the call to sit for a test, the successful completion of which would ensure their embarkation upon apprenticeships in fields chosen for them. Thus, the South Australian Railways gained Henry as a boilermaker, Roy, a boilermaker, Arthur, a fitter, Ernest, a fitter and turner, and Frank, a fitter and turner. Both Albert and Frank commenced as youth labourers at Islington, the former not completing an apprenticeship but working his way up to a machinist first class. The third generation of Burtons were continuing the tradition begun by their grandfather, George, in England in the middle of the nineteenth century. Apart possibly from Albert, it was not as though the boys required all that much persuasion by their father or by the precedent of tradition. The Burton boys had grown up with the whistles of Islington regulating their days, lived the experiences of work at the tea-table and familiarised themselves with the noise and bustle of the works when they were still at school. The railways were a tangible aspect of their lives.

In 1909 Arthur and Lily’s eldest child and only daughter, Edith, married Ben Fitton. The young couple lived nearby in Chicago, Ben working as a motor mechanic for Duncan and Fraser the motor firm. He was considered one of the best mechanics in this new field and was always a wizard with engines. Ben later joined the railways as a ganger and the family, now including five children, moved to the siding of Pata, nine miles the Adelaide side of Loxton. Edith’s younger brothers spent many a happy holiday at Pata, pumping their way into Loxton with the men on the hand-trucks in order to go fishing. Then Ben, Edith and family moved to Pyap on the Murray where Ben maintained the pumping engines on the Degaris estate. The Fitton children thrived on the river and adapted readily to the freer way of life. Their Uncle Frank Burton, younger than two of the Fitton children, was on holiday at Pyap when the children were enticed into a most attractive orchard. Young Frank swore he had never tasted such delicious pears. “Look out, someone’s coming!” and before the juice had time to dribble down his cheek, the Fitton children, with feet like leather, were haring painlessly over the prickle strewn terrain. Caught in the Garden of Eden, Frank bellowed for assistance. Mercifully, his older nephew doubled back and piggy-backed uncle and his soft, city feet out of danger. When her mother died in 1926, Edith and family moved back to Chicago to help out the family. Eventually the Fittons settled at Eden Hills in the Adelaide Hills. The river was in their blood, however, and holidays at Mannum were much enjoyed and reminisced over by the Fittons and Burtons. Today, a number of the Fitton family have retired in Mannum on their beloved river.

The difficulties of Lily Burton’s task in looking after a large family were compounded when daughter Edith left home, and by the constant attention demanded by her handicapped son, Harold, who had little control over his body. All the boys had their set jobs and she was ably supported by her husband. Arthur would fire and top up the coppers on washing day, Saturday, when battle was enjoined with all the overalls. On Sunday Arthur would take charge of the preparation and serving of the midday roast. He was also the cook and dispenser of porridge at breakfast on weekdays. On his way to work in good time, he would arrive to pick up his block just as the five minute warning whistle sounded at ten minutes past seven. At this whistle, those of his sons who were working would come pounding through the back box-thorn fence and dash breathlessly through the entrance to grab their numbered blocks in the nick of time. At knock-off time, quarter to five, the men and boys who had been waiting expectantly like racehorses at the starting stalls of the various workshops would stampede for the trains or gates, hurling their blocks into the bins to be sorted for the morrow. Waiting at the back fence, the younger Burton boys would greet their weary father, who wordlessly would extend his fingers for them to hang on to. At the evening meal the family was ranged from the smallest on father’s left to the biggest on his right. Arthur had made a breadknife at work, at least two feet long, and if anyone at the far end of the table wanted a slice, he simply passed it down on the end of “dad’s breadknife”.

The cost of living was reduced by producing many of the family’s food requirements. Father established and tended a large fruit and vegetable garden, his ladyfinger grapes being much enjoyed by the Washington children when they visited early in the year. Poultry, a cow and even pigs were introduced into this industrial family’s rural holding. While Lily was baking for the week, Arthur might decide to muster the boys and kill one of the pigs. The strong, muscular Roy would help his father despatch the animal. The younger Burton boys, armed with saucepan lids, would scrape the bristles off the slaughtered beast once it had been soaked in very hot water. The resultant meats and joints would be smoked in the chimney above the fire. This tradition of rural self-sufficiency was carried on for a time by Frank Burton when he moved in 1945 to a couple of allotments of land at Blair Athol, just up the hill less than a mile from the former family home. On what once had been extensive farms he raised chickens and calves while working in the railways.

Late one night Ern thought he heard and saw a figure at the window. He aroused his father and with eyes widening, watched as Arthur Burton, in his night-shirt, picked up an inch square iron bar from the wood fire furniture and slipped behind the curtain to await the nocturnal desperado skulking about Chicago. It was just as well he never showed and missed the opportunity of meeting the man who could haul steel girders about the shop floor. To his family Arthur was a tower of strength, not only physically but in his attitudes and convictions. Intensely loyal to his family, he was a disciplinarian but fair and he exemplified the value of hard work and indebtedness to nobody. He was religious, belonging to the Plymouth Brethren, and for a while the family walked into the Adelaide meetings every Sunday, afterwards visiting the Coxs in Market Street. Arthur was sufficiently broadminded, however, to encourage his sons to take advantage of any of the non-conformist churches or meetings which happened closer to home. His abiding love of choral music was satisfied when he purchased a cylinder phonogram for the family’s pleasure and built up a collection of cylinders. Several annual holidays were taken away from home by camping in the sand dunes at Semaphore for a week or two at Christmas. Together with holidays at sister Edith’s, they engendered a love of camping and travelling among the Burton boys.

The mid-1920’s were a time of personal loss for Arthur. He lost his mother in 1925 and his patient, faithful, hard-working wife in the following year. It was said that she would have been spared more years if it had not been for her selfless, maternal devotion to her disabled son. Harold died one year later just after his twenty-first birthday. Enduring such losses, Arthur retired in 1928 into a world quite different from that of a few years before.

Accompanied by his youngest son, Frank, he shifted from one married child’s home to another, enjoying the company, the cards, crib of course, and his pipe, but he was never completely settled. It was as though echoes of the impermanence of his earlier years were now faintly sounding for the older man. Arthur lived to see his youngest son married and later, just before he died, held briefly his newest grandchild, Frank’s daughter Laurel. When Frank, stuck for words, remarked, “She’s got red hair”, his father replied, “It’s a good colour”. Perhaps Arthur was thinking of his dear Lily. He passed away in Adelaide on 1st August 1933.

Throughout his last years, Arthur Burton’s belief in maintaining family ties shone through. He had much earlier, with typical doggedness, taught himself to read and write. From Peterborough, where he was staying at first Ern’s and then young Arthur’s, he wrote in 1932:

Victoria Street

Peterbrough, aug

Dear Frank and Marjorie

just a line hopping you are well and doing well, as i am at presant we have had very cold weather the first three weeks i was hear, i had to hug the fire all day. we had some snow the same time you had it at mount Lofty. this last week was lovely and fine but raining today. i have put in the monig at Erns i am shifting to Arthurs to day. they have a frew littel jobs for me to do it will pas the time, for there is not much doing up hear we have some good games of cards Maggie and Flory ware very pleased with the photoes you sent them Maggie said she was pleased you had them taken for she would like to have you, she said she would write to you, well Frank i have run out of tobaco i bought a stick up hear i dont like it i wish you would send me up a pound of pure mixture you cam get it at the shot corner king william street and hindly st 10/6 a pound i will fix it with you wen i get back they all up hear wish to be remembered to you all down there, tel them i am ok i hope you visit them i think you ought to keep in tuch with one another look after yourselves

Love From Father

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

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