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George Swinburne (1861–1928)

With tragic suddenness Mr. George Swinburne, M.L.C. for the East Yarra province, collapsed last evening in the Legislative Council Chamber and died in a few moments. The Council had resumed after the dinner adjournment, and the debate on the second reading of the bill to amend the Health Act was in progress. Mr. Angliss was addressing the House, and Mr. Swinburne was in his usual seat on the front gangway bench. He was preparing to follow Mr. Angliss, and was turning over some papers in his hand when his head suddenly fell hack. Dr. Harris lifted Mr. Swinburne's head, but the incident took place so quietly that few of the other members noticed it, and Mr. Angliss proceeded with his remarks for some seconds.

Attempts by Dr. Harris to revive Mr. Swinburne were not successful, and he collapsed upon the bench. Consternation spread among members, and the sitting was suspended, and Dr. Harris, with Dr. Argyle, who was summoned immediately from the Legislative Assembly Chamber, made attempts at resuscitation. It was recognised at once that Mr. Swinburne's condition was exceedingly grave, but for some time the efforts were persevered with until it was evident that nothing could be done to restore animation. Dr. Harris said that death had probably occurred very shortly after the collapse.

Sir Frank Clarke (President of the Legislative Council) and Sir William McPherson (leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly), who were close friends of Mr. Swinburne, were in attendance at the time of his death, and Sir William McPherson undertook the painful duty of conveying the sad news to Mrs. Swinburne. The death caused a profound sensation in and about Parliament, and when the news of Mr. Swinburne's death reached the Legislative Assembly the adjournment of the House took place.

References to Mr. Swinburne's career were made in the Legislative Assembly before the House adjourned. In the Legislative Council, where members had seen the melancholy end of their fellow member there were no speeches. When the body had been removed to the President's room Sir Frank Clarke took the chair, and the motion for the adjournment of the House was agreed to in silence.

Mr. Swinburne appeared to be in excellent health during the day, and he was in a particularly cheerful mood. He had returned only at the week-end from a tour of the Mildura district, on which he had been accompanied by his wife and a daughter. At dinner last night he conversed animatedly with the Premier (Mr. Hogan), and other members of both Houses, and several times made jokes. Afterwards he expressed a desire to play a game of billiards, remarking that, although he had scarcely touched a cue for 12 months, he felt fit to play an excellent game. He showed a keen interest in the debate on the bill to amend the Health Acts and interjected once or twice. While Mr. Angliss was speaking he smiled and whispered comments to Mr. Saltau, who was seated next to him. At half-past 8 o'clock he left the Chamber, but returned shortly before 9 o'clock. The collapse took place a few minutes later.

Mr. Swinburne was born near Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, on February 3, 1861. He was educated at the Royal Grammar School, and for several years attended evening classes in engineering subjects. His father and all his relatives were engineers. At the age of 23 he was sent by a Yorkshire firm of hydraulic and gas engineers to Vienna, in charge of a large contract there. He left England in 1886, and with his uncle was interested in many engineering installations throughout Australia and New Zealand. He was instrumental in forming the Canning Jarrah Timber Company in Western Australia, and for 15 years he was chairman of the Broken Hill Water Supply Company. He was director of the Metropolitan Gas Company, chairman of Johns and Waygood Ltd., director and chairman of the Mount Lyell Company, the National Mutual Life Association, and several other companies. For nearly 20 years he was on the council of the University of Melbourne, and one of the trustees of the Public Library, of which he was elected president last year. With Mrs. Swinburne, who was the daughter of the late Rev. D. J. Hamer, former Minister of the Collins street Independent Church, Mr. Swinburne founded in 1908 the technical college at Hawthorn, which bears their name. To this institution he and Mrs. Swinburne gave nearly £20,000.

In 1898 Mr. Swinburne was elected to the Hawthorn Municipal Council, and was mayor of the city in 1902-3. On the retirement of Mr. R. Murray Smith in November, 1900, he stood for the Hawthorn seat in the Legislative Assembly, but was defeated by his fellow-councillor, Mr. R. T. Barbour. In the election of October, 1922, however, he defeated Mr. Barbour by 864 votes. As member of the Public Accounts Committee he undertook a great deal of work of inquiry into the 1903 budget of the Premier, Mr. (afterwards Sir William) Irvine, who had been fiercely attacked with allegations that the Budget figures were inaccurate. Upon the report of Mr. Swinburne's committee the Premier was vindicated. Mr. Swinburne went to England in 1904, and while there was asked by Mr. (afterwards Sir Thomas) Bent to join the new Ministry that he was forming. Mr. Swinburne was Minister for Water Supply and Agriculture (1904 to 1908), and as such left his mark on the legislative history of the State. He was one of the originators of the irrigation policy which has transformed parts of Victoria, and it is claimed that he was the first man in any country other than Egypt and India to make all the waters of the State the property of the Crown.

On the retirement of Mr. Stuart Murray, who was the chief engineer of water supply, Mr. Swinburne invited Mr. Elwood Mead to become chairman of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. Mr. Swinburne took an active part in the licensing legislation of 1906, and was largely instrumental in the appointment of a Licensing Reductions Board, which he regarded as a most effective manner of eliminating many liquor evils. A further contribution to social reform was his part in the amendment of the gaming and betting laws. In the 1907 elections he was returned for the Hawthorn seat by a very large majority, but in the following year his majority had dwindled to only six votes. In the election of 1911, however, his majority swelled again to 4,750.

As Minister for Agriculture Mr. Swinburne showed how a business man and a metropolitan member could devote himself to country interests, and he took an active part in developing every proposal calculated to assist the farmer and producer. In conjunction with a committee of butter factory managers, he obtained a reduction of butter freights, and in 1907 was instrumental in obtaining a new postal contract with the Orient Steamship Co., providing for 2,000 tons of refrigerated cargo space. He resigned from the portfolio in 1908, but as a private member took an active part in debates, platform work, and committees.

During Mr. Swinburne's visit to England in 1912 he was one of the representatives of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce at the Empire Conference and on behalf of Australian Chambers of Commerce he introduced a motion urging the reconsideration of the "Declaration of London." In 1913 he accepted a position on the newly created Commonwealth Interstate Commission, on joining which he resigned all of his directorships and sold all of his shares in companies which might affect his position. When the High Court, in the appeal on the wheat case, declared the appointment of the commission ultra vires, Mr Swinburne decided that he did not care to remain on a merely advisory body. In 1915 he was invited by the Labour Ministry to take charge of the new war regulations concerning the formation and reconstruction of all companies and the issue and erasing of all new capital, a heavy task, for which his wide commercial, financial, political and interstate experience had well fitted him. In January, 1918, Mr. Swinburne was asked by Mr. W. M. Hughes (then Prime Minister) to become chairman of the new board of business administration of the Defence Department, and Mr. Swinburne nominated the late Mr. H. V. McKay and Mr. C. H. Reading of Sydney, as his colleagues. He remained chairman of this board until March, 1920.

Mr. Swinburne's next important appointment was to the new State Electricity Commission. As his onerous duties with the military board had undermined his health, and he needed a rest, he twice refused to consider the request from Mr. Lawson and Sir Arthur Robinson that he should be one of the Electricity Commissioners, but Sir Thomas Lyle and Mr. McKinstry refused to become members of the commission without him. For eight years he gave unceasing attention to the whole business of establishing the Yallourn enterprise, with which he was associated from the passing of the act to its successful development and he retired only when he was satisfied that the commission had placed the undertaking on a sound financial basis.

In November 1920 Mr. Swinburne was appointed by the Federal Ministry as one of the original members of the new Commonwealth Bank Note Issue Board to control the £58,000,000 notes issue. When the call came for him to stand is a Nationalist candidate for the Senate at the election in 1922 he resigned his position with this board, but although he headed the poll on the Nationalist side the three Labour candidates were elected. In 1925 he was one of the delegates representing Australia at the League of Nations Assembly at Geneva, where he acted on the technical organisation and finance committees and several sub-committees.

Mr. Swinburne re-entered the political arena an June, when he was elected as representative of the East Yarra Province of the Legislative Council in succession to Mr. J. K. Merritt, who resigned. He was a member of the Institute of Civil, Mechanical, and Gas Engineers, and was associated with his brother, the late Mr. William Swinburne, in the engineering firm of J. Coates and Company. When Mr. Swinburne joined the Interstate Commission in 1913 he transferred the whole business and several of his directorships to his brother, who died three years later.

Of Mr. Swinburne's four daughters the eldest is the wife of Mr. Russell Martin, barrister; the second is the wife of Dr. Clifford Ellingworth, an Australian, who is head of the West London Hospital. Miss Gwendolen Swinburne is an authoress and one of the leaders of the Girl Guide movement in Victoria. Miss Margaret Swinburne is the youngest daughter.

Tributes in Parliament

In moving the adjournment of the Legislative Assembly Mr. Hogan (the Premier), on behalf of the Ministry, referred to Mr. Swinburne's long record of public service, and emphasised the conspicuous work which he had done as a member of the State Parliament. Mr. Swinburne, he said, had also been a keen educationist, and had been a member of the University Council. In addition to primary education, he had assisted technical education, and the Swinburne Technical College was a great monument to him (Hear, hear.) "Mr. Swinburne was a very honourable gentleman, actuated by the highest motives," concluded the Premier, "and by his death Victoria has lost one of its most distinguished and valuable citizens."

Sir Alexander Peacock (the Speaker) referred feelingly to his long association with Mr. Swinburne, both as a Minister of the Crown and as a private member. Mr. Swinburne, he said, had devoted his life to the service of the State, and had never spared himself. Probably the public did not fully recognise the very great sacrifice made by public men.

In the absence of the leader of the Opposition (Sir William McPherson), who was one of Mr Swinburne's most intimate friends and had hurried from the Chamber when the news became known, Dr. Argyle said that probably no man in Victoria had rendered more signal service than Mr. Swinburne. The tragic manner of Mr. Swinburne's collapse—he had been in his place in the Legislative Council, ready to join in the debate—brought home to members how very much he must have given up in the service of the State. (Hear, hear.) Possibly this had worn out his strength, causing him to drop in his place, still doing his duty to the State which he had served so well.

Messrs. Allan (leader of the Country party) and Dunstan (leader of the Country Progressive party), Prendergast (Chief Secretary) and Toutcher (Nat., Stawell and Ararat) also paid tributes to Mr. Swinburne.

At a quarter to 10 o'clock the Legislative Assembly adjourned, as a mark of respect until this afternoon.

Members of the Legislative Council, who were deeply affected by Mr Swinburne's tragic death, found it hard to express adequately their regret and their admiration for his services to the State.

The Minister for Forests (Mr Beckett) said that all the Labour members of the Council had been glad when Mr. Swinburne had been elected, for he was an ideal type of man to represent the electors. In the brief time that he had been in the Council he had endeared himself to every member of it. Mr. Swinburne had been a man of great ability, unswerving rectitude, broad sympathies, and endearing personality. He had served the State well.

Mr. Cohen (unofficial leader) expressed profound regret at the passing of Mr. Swinburne. He had brought to the discussions of the Legislative Council a wide range of knowledge and a sincere wish to serve the State which would be much the poorer for his death.

Mr. Lawson, M.L.A., said that not only the political, but also the business educational and philanthropic life of the State had suffered a loss.

Expressing deep sorrow at the death of Mr. Swinburne the President of the Legislative Council (Sir Frank Clarke) said last night:—"Mr. Swinburne was a close personal friend of mine. I deplore his death, not only for my own sake but for the sake of the whole community. He was a man who set a wonderful example in his public and private life. His generosity was well known and the Swinburne Technical College will stand as his memorial. It was chiefly owing to his advocacy of the extension of irrigation that our northern water supply system is now so extensive. I was a colleague of Mr. Swinburne on the council of the National Gallery of which he was president and there his loss will be seriously felt. His death will also mean a great loss to the House because there is no doubt that he was one of the most able and experienced men in the Chamber."

"I feel that the State has lost a valuable citizen, and will be the poorer for his death," said the Minister for Public Works (Mr. Jones) last night. Mr. Jones added:—"We have witnessed a very tragic occurrence this evening. While Mr. Swinburne has been a member of the Legislative Council for only a brief period he has been a leading public figure for many years, and had rendered the State very great service as a Minister of the Crown, as a member of Parliament, and as a member of the Electricity Commission and other important bodies. I personally feel his loss very much because he was a man for whom I had a very great personal regard. He was a colleague of mine on the Melbourne University Council and on some of the committees, and I learned to know his great worth from the standpoint of education." Mr. Jones added that the Legislative Council would meet to-day but only urgent business will be dealt with.

Original publication

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Citation details

'Swinburne, George (1861–1928)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 February, 1861
Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England


4 September, 1928 (aged 67)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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