SWINBURNE, George (1861-1928)

politician and public man
was born at Paradise, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, on 3 February 1861. His father, Mark William Swinburne, who married Jane Coates in 1860, was then a draughtsman in the Armstrong works at Elswick, working for a salary of 27s. a week. Later he improved his position, and in 1892 established his own business as a brass-founder, engineer and coppersmith. His son was educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and in 1874 became apprenticed to a chemical merchant. His apprenticeship completed he became a clerk in the same business, studied engineering in the evening, shorthand and German before beginning work in the morning, and he also joined a debating society. On Sundays he taught a class in a Methodist Sunday school. In 1882 he went to London to a position in the gas and mechanical engineering business of his uncle, John Coates. Three years later he was taken into partnership and was able to put £300 of his own savings into the business. His chief recreation was music and in June 1885 he was one of the choristers at the Handel festival held in the Crystal Palace. In politics he was an ardent Gladstonian, and in 1886 became election agent for the Liberal candidate for South Saint Pancras who was elected after a strenuous campaign. Swinburne found electioneering a great strain, "a game not worth playing—ended in weariness, sleepless nights and restless days". In December 1885 his uncle had gone to Melbourne and found the prospects so good that Swinburne followed him and arrived in November 1886. His business was to secure contracts for erecting gas plants for the firm of John Coates and Company. In 1887 the Melbourne Hydraulic Power Company was formed, and in 1888 a similar company was established in Sydney. Swinburne was engineer and manager to the Melbourne company until 1897. He visited England in 1891 and fortunately withdrew most of his capital from Melbourne to help his father and brother in starting a business. He thus practically escaped the effects of the breaking of the land boom and the bank crisis of 1893. In 1897 he visited the United States and Europe, studied the development of electricity in competition with gas, and decided that each would have its own place.
Swinburne was elected a member of the Hawthorn municipal council in 1898, four years later became member for Hawthorn in the legislative assembly, and sat as a supporter of W. H. Irvine. There had been a severe drought in Australia and the policy speech foreshadowed "important works for the conservation and distribution of water in the arid areas". It seemed almost providential that an engineer of the capacity of Swinburne should have come into the house at this juncture. The earlier experiments initiated by Deakin (q.v.) had not really been successful, and it was clear that their organization and principles would need careful revision. Swinburne had made a study of Victorian irrigation and realizing the great cost of storing the winter rains for summer use, held strongly that the water charges should take the form of a rate payable, not only by those who used the water, but by all whose land was in a position to benefit by irrigation. In November 1903 Irvine's health was so seriously affected by over-work that he was compelled to resign the premiership, and Bent (q.v.) who succeeded him gave Swinburne the portfolio of minister of water-supply. Swinburne was in England at the time but he collected all the available literature on the subject and studied it on the voyage out. He then visited the irrigation settlement with leading officers of his department. The whole problem was full of complications, but Swinburne was able to have the drafting of the water bill begun in June 1904. It involved the appointment of the state rivers and water supply commission to undertake the control and management of all state water. The bill passed through the assembly but lapsed in the council. In the meantime it met with much opposition and Swinburne had to travel through the country and convert the malcontents. In 1905 it passed the assembly again and Swinburne was asked to attend the council and explain the provisions of his bill. With some amendments the bill was passed by the council. This act was Swinburne's greatest achievement, regarded with admiration wherever irrigation is practised. Swinburne had become minister of agriculture in November 1904 and was also of great assistance to Bent as treasurer. As minister for agriculture he realized as no one had done before that the most important function of the department was to educate the people. It has been carried on ever since with this in view, and is an outstanding example of the wise working of a state department. Much of the credit for this is due to Swinburne, who revitalized a department that had not previously been sufficiently encouraged by the government. He was mainly responsible for the foundation of chairs in agricultural science and veterinary science at the university of Melbourne, but the latter chair has since been abandoned. Swinburne also had the handling of the Murray Waters agreement, and his obvious sincerity and knowledge were great factors in bringing about agreement. In 1907 Bent visited England and Swinburne was leader of the assembly during his absence. After Bent's return the ministry's position weakened, and Swinburne and four other ministers resigned on 31 October 1908. During the negotiations for the reconstruction of the ministry advances were made to Swinburne to take over the leadership of the party, and Bent offered to retire in his favour, but Swinburne, tired and overworked, could see no way of reconciling the conflicting interests in the party and declined the offer. He had felt the strain of a motion of censure on him moved in September. Behind this motion were severe attacks made on his probity by the Age newspaper. The motion in the house was defeated by a large majority, Swinburne brought an action against the Age, and in 1909 obtained a verdict for £3250 damages and costs. The Age took the case to two higher courts but was defeated in each case. Syme (q.v.) its proprietor had practically been a dictator in politics for many years. His mistake on this occasion was to attack a man who was not only perfectly honest, but had the courage to go into the witness box and the ability to withstand the cross-examination of two of the ablest barristers of the time. Swinburne in fighting this action did a great service to the state.
On 31 July 1913 Swinburne retired from parliament to become a member of the inter-state commission appointed by the federal government. A host of matters was referred to the commission, and Swinburne thought it right to resign from all his directorates and practically abandon the business career in which he had been so successful. Much work was done by the commission and it is due to a suggestion made by this body that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research was eventually established. But a judgment of the high court had so reduced the power of the commission that in July 1917 Swinburne decided to resign. He was doing much war work and was chairman of the board of business administration of the defence department, and later was civil and finance member of the military board. In 1919 when the electricity commission was instituted Swinburne was appointed one of the four commissioners, with Sir John Monash (q.v.) as chairman. He resigned this position in 1925, when most of the initial difficulties of using brown coal for power generation had been surmounted.
Swinburne was always a hard worker but he was never too busy to find time for additional things of importance. He was a driving force in the establishment of the Eastern Suburbs technical college at Hawthorn, and one way and another contributed over £15,000 to it. Its name was afterwards changed to the Swinburne Technical College. He became a member of the council of public instruction after he left state politics, and especially encouraged decentralization and technical education. He was for some years on the council of the university of Melbourne and was also one of the trustees of the public library, museums and national gallery of Victoria. In April 1928 he became president of the trustees and much was hoped from him in this position. He had been a candidate for the Commonwealth senate in 1922 but the Labour candidates in 1922 were elected, and in 1928 he was elected to the Victorian legislative council. On 4 September 1928 he was in his place in the council chamber when he suddenly collapsed and died. He married Ethel Hamer on 17 February 1890 who survived him with four daughters. His bust by Paul Montford (q.v.) is at the national gallery, Melbourne. His second daughter, Gwendolen Hamer Swinburne, published in 1919 A Source Book of Australian History, and in 1923, Womanhood in the Life of the Nations.
Swinburne was over six feet in height, thin, slightly angular, friendly in manner, tactful, alert, enthusiastic, and completely honest. He loved music, poetry and painting, was sincerely religious, though he never pressed his views on other men, and his many charities were never talked about. His clear-thinking and orderly brain, great grasp of detail and an immense capacity for work, made him a first-rate business man. He could have had any honour he desired but was content with the feeling that he had done his best for his country. He was only a few years in parliament, but the influence of his work was long felt, and every organization he was connected with owed much to him.
E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne a Biography; The Argus, Melbourne, 5 September 1928; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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