Rodney and Ruth Burton's Genealogy Pages


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500 Class, A Social History of George Burton and his Family: Chapter 9: A Class of Its Own

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.


The South Australian Railways has constituted the principal revenue earning state business undertaking throughout much of South Australia's history. The construction of lines, their maintenance and the operation of freight and passenger services have provided directly and indirectly much diverse employment throughout the colony and state. As well, prior to the industrialisation of the state beginning in the late l930's, the Islington and Mile End workshops together formed South Australia's leading engineering and manufacturing works. Moreover, the Railways has contributed directly to the settlement of large areas of the state and the successful establishment of primary industries, notably agriculture. And for over a century and five generations, George Burton and twenty-eight of his descendants have devoted all or part of their working lives to the South Australian Railways, collectively accruing over five hundred years of service.

The financial importance of the Railways in the early twentieth century was acknowledged by the then Premier, A.H. Peake, in his 1912 Budget Speech.

My duty today is a very pleasant one. It is to carry on the interesting tale which we have been telling, and to which we have been listening for a number of years - the story of the continued prosperity and progress of the state.

We have to rely very largely on the earnings of our railways for revenue. I am aware that that may be a bad policy, but if we do not get the revenue by providing for it out of the workings of a big commercial undertaking, we shall have to make it up by further direct taxation ... Farmers would prefer to pay the present railway freights than have the increased land taxation ... I point out how much we are dependent on our railways for revenue.

At this time the Railways provided about half the total revenue of the state and its earnings amounted to twice the revenue derived from taxation. Record earnings, good seasons, high prices and the development of Crown Lands for agriculture induced Parliament to embark on a major programme of railway construction, the last in the state's history. Of the Loan Bill passed at the end of 1912 Session, nearly one half of the total of £5,600,000 was earmarked for railways. After the droughts, rabbits, depression, overcropping and light rainfall of the l880's and 1890's, confidence and belief in expansion grew slowly in the new century with better seasons, the use of superphosphate, improved varieties of wheat and the practice of fallowing. Farmers and politicians cast envious eyes to the remaining two large areas of the state suitable for agricultural development, the mallee regions of Eyre Peninsula and the Murraylands. Throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century agricultural settlement was to proceed on a scale comparable to the opening of the Northern Areas between 1869 and 1880. Whereas railways in the earlier period tended to follow the agricultural frontier, the South Australian parliament was determined thirty years later to use the state's Railways as a direct instrument of settlement policy. The success of the Tailem Bend-Pinnaroo line, completed in 1906, in opening up virgin country for farming, heralded a period of rapid expansion of the state's railway network and support services.

Islington works had been established in 1883-1884 on just five acres. The locomotive workshops were transferred from Adelaide to Islington and new running shops, fitting sheds, painting and repair shops erected. Islington completed construction of its first locomotive, a class T, number 179, in 1898. At the turn of the century the Islington complex grew with the completion of a number of substantial, stone, specialised workshops. In addition to locomotives, the rolling stock required to carry the harvests and cleared mallee timber of the new settlement areas was to be manufactured at Islington. Adelaide Railway Station was extensively renovated in 1900 and again, some years later, before the present structure was built in 1928. Up to 1910 Adelaide Station handled all passenger and freight services but the latter was growing so rapidly that in 1908 the government secured 180 acres at Mile End in order to transfer completely the freight traffic from Adelaide to Mile End. Locomotive servicing shops were also established at Mile End to which Thomas Burton transferred from Adelaide in 1912. As the railway lines spread digitally into the hearts of Eyre Peninsula, the Murray Mallee and the Riverland, so that no farm was more than fifteen miles from the railway and there were sidings every five miles, the expansion of the Railways provided promising career opportunities for the grandchildren of George Burton. Arthur Robert Burton built rolling stock at Islington; his younger brother serviced locomotives at Mile End; seven young Burtons and Washingtons began metal trades apprenticeships at Islington; another young Burton became a machinist at Islington; Ben Fitton worked as a ganger out of Pata on the Loxton line; Arthur John Freer supervised the construction of bridges on the Monarto-Palmer railway, and Gilbert Martin attended locomotives as they hauled goods and passengers along the expanding state network.

Despite the drought of 1914, the dislocation of war 1914-1919, post-war depression of 1919-1920 and the great influenza epidemic of 1919, when passengers on the Melbourne Express from Victoria were quarantined at Serviceton for a week and eventually both the Melbourne and Broken Hill Expresses were cancelled for two months, the South Australian Railways continued to grow in an effort to meet the transport needs of the state. Everyone was agreed on the vital role of the Railways in South Australia's development but everyone considered himself an expert and sole authority on how the Railways should be run. The problems were legion. The expanding Railways suffered from uncoordinated planning and management with control divided and loosely defined between various departments. There was no permanent construction branch. Financial control was shared with a parliament whose members believed the Railways should generously provide lines, cheap freights and frequent services for their districts and yet state-wide the Railways had to pay their own way. The railway top management was parochial in outlook and occasionally, blatantly incompetent. The permanent way was uneven in quality and broken in gauge. Generally, rolling stock was antiquated and inefficient. The largest locomotive was the venerable Rx class, by now of low tractive power and inefficient. To complete the catalogue of woe, Islington workshops were described as behind the times. Old machinery, steam driven using belts and pulleys, was still in vogue yet electrification was resisted by management. Traversers between shops were pulled by horses as late as 1919. According to critics the place was full of time-servers. Certainly there would have been the usual complement of slack workers and bosses and Ern and Albert Burton remember well the implicitly critical comments that it was a “government job” and it was “not strict”. Circumstances varied from shop to shop and job to job. Ern enjoyed his apprenticeship as a fitter and turner at Islington between 1918 and 1923, agreed the atmosphere was not intense and "you weren't rushing". On occasions one could even move from shop to shop to have a chat. Albert, a machinist, recalled the old-time bosses as fatherly figures, "good old types" who were understanding. As a machinist responsible for maintaining production rates, he had to work "pretty darned hard". This halcyon world of slapping leather belts, humming old machines, chats and paternal bosses was soon to be swept away forever during the whirlwind commissionership of the American, William Alfred Webb, contracted in 1922 by the South Australian government at £5,000 a year to bring the Railways into shape. In less than eight years, from 16th November 1922 to 15th May 1930, the Yankee Chief Railways Commissioner dragged the oft-bewildered South Australian Railways, kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, to the horror and chagrin of many within and without the system.

To most South Australians even aware of Webb's influence, his greatest legacies were the introduction of the large, powerful steam locomotives in the l920's and the construction of the present Adelaide Railway Station in 1928. Only the most trenchant and misinformed of Webb's critics could remain obdurate on first seeing the huge Mountain type, 500 class locomotives, imported from England but built to American specifications. The Pacific or 600 and the Mikado or 700 classes were almost always lumped together by the public as Mountain ty pes and South Australian pride grew in these the largest locomotives to date in Australia. Why, one Mountain type locomotive could haul the-Melbourne Express over the Adelaide Hills to the border and yet two Victorian locomotives had then to take it to Melbourne. Hearts both young and old thrilled to the sight of these powerful, snorting engines black-hulking their dutiful ways past impressed eyes. Yet whilst the locomotives and metropolitan station were the most visible and perhaps best suited symbols of Webb's enormous energies in transforming the Railways, his influence was far more pervasive, leaving virtually no aspect untouched and unreformed. His other major achievements were large freight cars; relaying; bridge construction; yard construction; rail motors; gauge widening; the reconstruction of Islington; duplication of tracks; modern engine depots; water, coaling and ancillary plant. Webb's net of rehabilitation was far flung and lesser areas affected by the reformer with large ideas were road motors; administrative procedures; refreshment services; train control; the South Australian Railways Institute and electric signalling. Given so much change, his American background, his blunt often abrasive manner, his intolerance of fools and time-servers, it is little wonder that W.A. Webb marshalled many enemies intent on his demise. He resigned in 1930, bitterly disappointed with the political obstruction he had encountered and the hostility of the press. Webb's impact, regardless of the efforts to dismantle parts of his programme, was profound. Early in his commissionership he had shifted the locomotive depot from Islington to Mile End and then established there a huge roundhouse, coaling plants, turntable, radial and drop pits. Another big roundhouse and marshalling yard were established at Tailem Bend. Reorganisation of the inefficient workshops at Islington commenced in 1925 with the demolition of some of the old workshops and the retrenchment of nearly four hundred men. By 1927 £1,000,000 had been spent and nearly 1,040 new machines installed. The transformation was dramatic. A single American lathe replaced a series of vintage type turning lathes yet maintained output. One year after the first sackings output of the Islington works had increased by fifty per cent. Islington quickly became one of the leading workshops of its kind in the southern hemisphere. In 1928 Essington Lewis, industrialist, visited Islington and claimed the layout and machine tools were magnificent. The works, covering I05 acres, began building the big locomotives of the 500, 600 and 700 classes, at the time the largest locomotives ever to have been built in Australasia. Islington also produced freight cars, motor bodies, boilers, electric cranes and assorted equipment for the Railways. No doubt Essington Lewis quickly brought Islington railway workshops to mind when he became Director-General of Munitions in 1940.

The quality of working life changed for railway employees under Webb's administration. At Islington supervision by bosses became tighter, more obvious and a man's productive output an object of intense interest for the management. That Yankee was “straightening things up” and the men knew it. The policy of strict hierarchical supervision of men and productivity was maintained in the l930's after Webb's departure. It was enhanced in the strenuous goal oriented, home front days of the Second World War when Islington became a major link in the Australian munitions chain. In addition to its railway work, Islington produced aircraft, landing craft, shells and other paraphenalia of an all-out war effort. Albert Burton experienced fully the rehabilitation drive of the I920's. The old type of boss disappeared to be replaced with many English bosses who were "pretty tough". He was placed on a 630 ton boring machine, manufacturing side rods for the 500 class locomotives. It was very heavy work. The timed-up system was introduced and fellows armed with stop-watches appeared. Albert commenced work on a Cincinatti milling machine, then a Milwaukee, both of which were up to date. Precision was the keynote and work now required checking with micrometers not the old calipers. Albert adjusted quickly to the new demands and was promoted to machinist first class, leaving behind some of his old, more resilient, working colleagues. During the war, in the tool room, he was engaged in milling work for diesel engined landing-craft. In the mad, rushing atmosphere of wartime production "you could not do enough to satisfy the bosses. If you produced one unit per minute, the machines were examined to see if they could be modified to produce two per minute". Albert left in 1951 to pursue a career in the electrical business.

Methods of ensuring control over work output and quality included reprimands, written and unwritten, as well as fines, all of which were dutifully noted in the “culprit's” service record. Penalties could be harsh even before Webb's arrival. On 21st June 1920 Henry Burton was struck off the books for being absent without leave. He left on the 28th of that month but was back one year later, to retire in 1958 as a leading hand boilermaker after forty-eight years' service. Arthur Cyril Cox Burton, who apart from his highly successful apprenticeship years at Islington spent his working life in the mid-north, suffered eight half-day fines in the I930's for various “faults”. 1930 was not a good year for Arthur because on 14th May engine 215T was delayed on account of overheating of the slide bars. On 13th August a train was delayed on account of an engine late out of the locomotive shed. Less than a month later a cylinder head on engine 182 was knocked out. On each occasion Arthur lost half a day's pay. Nonetheless by 23rd February 1939 Arthur Burton was locomotive foreman at Terowie. Sympathy seemed to be in short supply among the bosses. Arthur Fitton was injured on duty and advised on 17th May 1935 to take more care. Ken Fitton's driving habits came under review when on 9th July 1934 he was cautioned about carelessness whilst driving a shop mule, damaging a water meter in the process. It should not be surprising that under such a regime some of the Burtons, not short on temperament and endowed with a strong sense of right and wrong, enjoyed on occasions less than amicable relations with the bosses.

It is claimed that Arthur Robert Burton, brandishing an iron bar, once chased a hapless boss around the shop floor, allegedly in defence of one of his sons. Ern Burton recalls with relish how he used to chase his bosses with his tongue as he fearlessly spoke forth in what he believed. His service record was laconically annotated on 20th December 1933, "unsatisfactory service", which comment still brings a smile to his face. Roy Burton was cycling to work very early one dark morning when he ran into the back of an unlit milk float. Being very powerful, Roy, together with the tongue-lashed milkie, managed to straighten out the bent bike. When his bona fide reason for lateness was given to his boss, he received a written reply some days later saying his excuse was unsatisfactory. Roy penned a reply to the effect that "when a man tells you the truth you don't believe him, and when a man lies, you believe him". He heard no more on the matter.

Occasionally, just, the management could be grateful as when on 12th September 1946, Frank Burton was thanked for his suggestion about placing a cover over the reversing shaft on the 520 class locomotives. One of the more amusing reprimands involved the youngest son of Arthur Robert Burton. Frank, whose temper could match the best in the family, with a rich vocabulary to boot, was a fine tradesman and one who liked to get on with his work. On a cold, winter's day in July 1950, Frank's particular concern was engine 509, a Mountain type. He wanted it shifted to work on it but the driver was not to be seen. In characteristic mood Frank heaved himself into the cab and embarked on a self-help exercise. He quickly discovered that there was a world of difference between familiarity through observation only and actually handling one of the monsters. Frank the impatient drove the massive locomotive into the wall of the Mile End round house. As if he needed telling, he was duly reminded in writing some days later that he did not possess the necessary qualifications to shift engines. His service record notes the incident as "Engine 509 collision with Round house".

A railway career provided many happy, amusing memories. Frank loved working out of Tailem Bend attending breakdowns of locomotives and rolling stock. The variety was stimulating. He was nearly stranded on a remote, unmanned siding in the mallee. The last train for a week blithely steamed past the wildly gesticulating fitter, who was recognised only at the last moment by an amused guard. Late on Black Sunday, 1939, when the temperature reached 117° F in Adelaide, he was greeted by his wife at the gate of their railway house in Tailem Bend with the news, "All the chooks are dead". The reply, "So am I". And there was the thrill when the safety chains went up in the cabs of the big locomotives as they thundered over the Ninety Mile Desert. But then, too, could be recalled the narrow escapes, the gruelling twelve hour wartime shifts, the night shifts disruptive of family life and the feeling of being a small cog in a very large machine. Railway life mirrored the vagaries of life itself.

The South Australian Railways gave qualifications, employment, livelihood, careers and a way of life to many of George Burton's descendants. Some pursued happy and successful careers in the Railways until their retirements. Thomas Charles Burton served fifty years; Henry Burton, forty-eight; Horace Washington, forty-six including war service; Max Burton, forty-four; Arthur Cyril Cox Burton, thirty-nine, and his father, Arthur Robert Burton thirty-eight years. Some, such as Ernest, Albert and Frank, resigned from their relatively long careers, disillusioned with the system, their apparent lack of promotion because of their outspokenness and the advancement of others whom they saw as less practically qualified and as riding on the backs of honest tradesmen. Educated “boys” seemed to be preferred to men who could build and fix things. Yet others in the family secured employment in the Railways during the Second World War or as a stepping stone in their working lives. The descendants of George and Emma Burton can look with justifiable pride upon the years of service given to the South Australian Railways by George Burton, two of his sons, nine of his grandchildren, fifteen of his great-grandchildren and two of his great-great-grandchildren. Some small boys instinctively grasped the magnitude of the achievement. In the l 930's Malcolm Burton would proudly boast, "We own the railways", and when a train came in sight, "My dad built that." Twenty years later, waiting in dad's car at a level crossing as a steam locomotive passed through, his cousins would chorus, "Did you work on that one, dad?" The collective years of service of the family commenced in the late 1870's and are continuing in 1981. A magnificent total of 506 years of railway service have been provided by George Burton and twenty-eight of his descendants. Today, two members of the fifth generation carry on the proud tradition established by George Burton in the early l860's in Brighton, Sussex, England. In 1975 the South Australian Railways was dismembered and divided between the State Transport Authority and the Australian National Railways.

* * * * * * * * *

George Burton's life was profoundly affected by the world's first industrial revolution, in particular the development of railways. From a rural background he stepped boldly forth into the modern industrial world. He and his wife established in South Australia a family which in turn has been greatly influenced by social change. The Second World War was a catalyst in national and South Australian development. It hastened Australia into the affluent, consumer society, it provided the nation with a heavier, more varied manufacturing and industrial base and massive post-war immigration culturally diversified Australian society. The post-war affluence of the I950's induced some of the third generation of family members in the Railways to resign and enter into businesses of their own. Moreover, new educational opportunities of secondary, even tertiary studies ensured that the fourth and subsequent generations could actively participate in the white-collar revolution of post-war Australia. Thus, for example, the three sons of a tradesman became teachers. The old adage was repeated, "You'll always be safe in a government job", but the type of job was unthinkable in his day. Now the career choices and occupational structure of the younger generations of George and Emma Burton are more extensive and diversified. In the l980's, as the technological revolution gathers pace and structural unemployment becomes a significant socio-economic problem, the lives of present generations of the family will be increasingly subject to the buffeting winds of change. One man's response to a similar situation of change in Wales and England in the 1870's was to tackle the problem with a great deal of courage, faith and common sense. He and his family would emigrate. When the new life momentarily turned sour, further reserves of fortitude, enterprise and integrity were called upon. Underpinning all the actions of George and Emma Burton was a fundamental sense of family loyalty, which they successfully passed on to their children. As we grapple with our changing lives, seek to comprehend the pressures of “modern” living and contemplate our children's futures, it is reassuring to reflect not only on the frailties of our forebears but above all on their faith in family and the dignity of honest endeavour.

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

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