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Literary links to a nineteenth-century murder.

This article explores an intriguing problem in research for my biography of Australian-born pioneer writer and naturalist, Louisa Atkinson--the tracing of her ostensibly missing step-father, George Bruce Barton. It is based on a paper I gave at the Australian Media Traditions Conference, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst on 22 November 2007.

Louisa Atkinson was a remarkable woman in many ways--not only the first Australian-born woman novelist, and one of Australia's earliest women journalists, but a noted naturalist and illustrator, whose botanical finds were so remarkable several plants were named after her. She was born in 1834, at her father's property Oldbury, at Sutton Forest, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, the youngest child of James Atkinson and his wife Charlotte, a highly educated woman who had arrived in New South Wales as a governess for the Macarthurs. James Atkinson, a noted pioneer of the district, died when Louisa was only two months old, leaving his widow, Charlotte Atkinson, to manage a large estate as well as bring up four young children. Two years later, perhaps propelled by the enormity of managing Oldbury, with its large staff of assigned convicts, and outstations spread as far as the coast, Charlotte married the overseer at Oldbury, George Bruce Barton, in what proved to be a disastrous move.

For my biography, (1) I needed to find out all I could about George Barton, who became step-father to the Atkinson children. Through research on Louisa's mother, Charlotte, I had established that Barton was a violent, unstable alcoholic and that eventually Charlotte and her children had to flee from him. Charlotte then had to pursue a six-year long legal battle in the New South Wales Equity Court against the executors of her late husband's estate, to keep custody of her children and gain financial support for them. The executors, supported by Barton, maintained Charlotte was not a fit person to have custody of her children--for most of the nineteenth century, women's custodial rights, as well as property rights, were largely non-existent. In the course of these long-running legal battles Barton made wild, unsubstantiated claims, including that Charlotte had cohabited with Aboriginal men. I needed to know more about Barton, but I could find no record of where he went after he disappeared from Charlotte Barton's life, nor any record of his death.


I knew he had been called to Sydney in 1836 to appear as the principal witness against convicts charged with murder at Oldbury, but had been too drunk to give evidence, leading to the acquittal of the accused men. One of these accused, John Lynch, some years later, went on to commit a series of extraordinarily brutal murders, near Razorback Mountain, for which he was convicted and hanged. I chanced upon a reference to this crime in the published reminiscences of Sir Roger Therry, (2) a former judge, who had been Assistant Crown Prosecutor in Lynch's case. Although he did not refer to Barton by name, Therry made it clear that Barton's failure to give evidence against Lynch had allowed Lynch to go flee and then to commit a series of notorious murders. Therry stated in his reminiscences that ten years later he had presided at a subsequent trial of this witness (Barton) for a quite unrelated murder.

This was startling information, extremely important in establishing Barton's character and his life after he and Charlotte Barton separated.

I searched in newspaper files and other sources, ten years later--the years around 1846--for any reference to Barton's trial, but I found nothing. A considerable lime later, I found a reference to a list of persons tried on capital charges between 1840 and 1859 (3). This led me to the New South Wales Parliamentary Papers (4) where I discovered Barton had been tried for murder in Bathurst in 1854--18 years, not 10 years as Therry had said, after he had failed to give evidence against Lynch. Once I had this date, it was easy to find in the Bathurst Free Press and the Sydney Morning Herald the lengthy reports of the case that revealed a great deal about Barton's life and character.

The first news item about Barton appeared in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, a paper founded in 1848 and known by this name from 1851, on 14 January 1854. Under the heading, 'A Shooting Affair', it read:

On Thursday last information reached Kelso that Mr Barton of the Yarrows had shot a man in his service named William Rogers, more popularly known as "Brandy Hot", who was lying dangerously ill. D. C. [District Constable John] Waller of Kelso at once started out, having previously applied for medical assistance in vain, and found the man lying in extreme agony with a large hole tom through the lower portion of his belly by a shot with which the gun was loaded. Mr Barton was in bed at the time of his arrival, evidently suffering the effects of over-indulgence, and volunteered a statement to the effect that he was compelled to fire in self-defence, Rogers having entered his bed-room with an axe in his hand with which he threatened to cut him down. Rogers' relation of the affair gives it a very different complexion, conveying the irresistible impression that the deed was committed under strongly excited feelings or temporary delirium or both. Of course Mr Barton was taken into custody, and was brought up for a first hearing on Thursday, when he was remanded for further evidence. The unfortunate sufferer was conveyed to Bathurst Hospital where he now lies in a very precarious state.

On 4 February, the Bathurst Free Press, reported the death of the shooting victim William Rogers, a reaper on Barton's property, and the result of the Coroner's inquest.

After lingering in great agony for a number of days, William Rogers, alias "Brandy Hot", died on Thursday week in hospital. An inquest was held on his body on Friday at the Black Bull Inn, which from the number of witnesses examined and quantity of evidence taken extended to Monday. As there was considerable discrepancy in the testimony of the various deponents all of whom with one solitary exception, Henry Smith, were drank at the time of the occurrence, it would be manifestly imprudent to go into particulars. The verdict found by the [Coroner's] jury against Mr Barton was "manslaughter".

The report concluded: One singular and rather unamiable feature in the conduct of the prisoner is that since the tragical affair he has not expressed the slightest contrition.

Contrition was very important to nineteenth-century observers and expressions of contrition, or their absence, were often commented on in press reports of hangings, but this comment occurred before Barton's trial.

Three weeks later, on 26 February 1854, the Bathurst Free Press recorded the arrival of Mr Justice Therry in Bathurst, the day before the Circuit Court began sitting. When the Court opened the following day, for what the Bathurst Free Press described as probably the heaviest calendar since Bathurst had become an Assize town, the judge said it would be necessary to work both early and late and lunch time would be dispensed with. Barton was among the long list of prisoners to be tried. Among the 30 cases were 9 for horse-stealing, including 5 defendants from Carcoar; 4 for murder, including one Chinese and one Aboriginal defendant; 3 manslaughter cases including Barton's; several cases of stealing and larceny; one of rape and one of sexual assault against a child. The defendants came from Ryalstone, Dubbo, Mudgee, Orange, Molong, Burrandong, Sofala, Avisford and Tambaroora, as well as Bathurst and Carcoar. Only one defendant was a woman.

Although listed for trial for manslaughter, when Barton came before the Court, the charge against him was upgraded to wilful murder of William Rogers at Barton's property at Winburndale. He was defended by Mr Holroyd and the prosecutor was Mr Serjeant. The prosecutor labelled the crime 'one of those disgraceful cases now so prevalent, arising out of drunkenness'. He then explained why he had changed the charge to murder: The prisoner was a respectable man, having a large establishment and several servants about him; and it appeared that on the day in question he had been treating all hands; and that they were all drunk together. There was no doubt the prisoner had shot the deceased; the only doubts were as to the attendant circumstances, and as the only witnesses were all tipsy at the time of the occurrence it was difficult to [re]solve these doubts. He should however place the case before the jury and leave it in their hands.


If such an affair had occurred among the blacks in the interior, at New Zealand, or in any of the Cannibal Islands of Polynesia, it would have been [deemed] one of great atrocity, but it had taken place in the neighbourhood of a civilised town called Bathurst, and such cases must be dealt with by the strong arm of the law. Intemperance was making alarming progress in the colony, and the people were becoming so familiar with it that but little disgrace attached to the evil. He hoped that the number of cases for trial arising from intemperance would be sufficient to open the eyes of the public and lead them to point the finger of scorn at those who were led astray, and that the lesson taught in that court would be that in all cases of crime, the law makes no excuse for drunkenness.

Barton did not take the stand to give evidence during his trial. Evidence by witnesses, including by a woman who was in bed with Barton on the night of the murder, Catherine Byrnes, also referred to as Mrs Molloy, portrayed a confused scene. Barton's plea of self-defence against a threatened attack by Rogers armed with an axe collapsed when the District Constable gave evidence that he had found the axe covered in cobwebs. On the other hand there was no evidence of premeditation by Barton.

Dying depositions were often given particular importance in nineteenth-century trials, being regarded because of the solemnity of the occasion and the almost universal belief in an after-life, as likely to be the truth, and this case was no exception. Although the doctor in charge of Rogers at Bathurst Hospital had failed to obtain a dying deposition, the evidence of Rogers's son, Edward Watson Rogers, was given great importance. Rogers stated that about two hours before his death, his father made the following statement to him: "Barton called me into his room to give me some grog, and when I went inside he refused to let me have any. Upon my saying I would have some, I perceived the woman Catherine Byrnes reaching something to the deceased and the next moment I was shot."

The report continued:

His father and the prisoner had been on intimate terms for four years, and [the day he died] he recollected [his father] saying that he was as much to blame as Barton; and that he could not make out how it was that Barton shot him.

In his summing up, Mr Justice Therry said this statement by the deceased deserved the consideration of the jury because it was supposed to have been made under the solemnity of death, and that statement would go far to [negate] the supposition of malice on the part of the prisoner. Therry continued:

This was one of the most disgraceful affairs that could possibly occur. Here the master and his servants were all drunk together, but although when drunk some men became completely mad yet they are very properly held responsible for their actions under such circumstances, because by their own acts they bring the madness upon themselves. Drunkenness therefore could not be [deemed] an excuse for crime.

After the jury retired, Therry recalled them to point out to them that the prisoner had not appeared to interest himself at all in the fate of the deceased after the affair happened nor even to make any inquiries about him. The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter and Barton was remanded for sentence. Although elements of the material published about Barton before his trial could have been prejudicial, the reports of the trial in the Bathurst Free Press point to the result being a commonsense verdict that confirmed the first verdict of the Coroner's inquest.

As far as my research on Barton was concerned, the most important report appeared in the Bathurst Free Press after the trial, on 11 March 1854, when Barton appeared before Mr Justice Therry for sentence. During his address, Therry revealed Barton's past history when as manager at Oldbury he was called to give evidence for the prosecution against an Oldbury convict, John Lynch, being tried for murder:

The history of the monster Lynch was universally known, but the prisoner's connection therewith perhaps, not so. As assistant Crown Prosecutor he well remembered taking part in Lynch's prosecution at the commencement of his bloody career. The circumstances attending that prosecution were flesh in his mind as on the day they occurred. The prisoner at the bar was one of the most important witnesses in the case--in fact his testimony was all-important. On the morning of the trial he arrived in court about 10 o'clock, drunk, his excuse being that, as he had travelled by the mail all night, he had partaken too freely to keep himself warm. His evidence being indispensable to conviction he (Mr Justice Therry) enjoined upon him (Barton) to go somewhere and sleep off the effects of the liquor and make his appearance at 6 o'clock in the evening. He did so, but how?--so grossly intoxicated that the Court refused to take his evidence. The case proceeded, Lynch was acquitted, and Barton was freed 50 [pounds sterling].

Now mark the consequences, said His Honour. From that period to the time he expiated his crime on the scaffold, this human monster [Lynch] committed fourteen murders, and subsequently acknowledged his guilt in the one of which he was acquitted, when the prisoner's testimony was required. Had that testimony been given, the result might have been widely different and the world would have been spared the terrible series of atrocities which filled up the remainder of his existence. Like a tiger insatiate with blood he [Lynch] tomahawked his victims and cast their reeking carcasses to the wild dogs. Yet sad and melancholy as was the history of this affair, it had evidently made no impression on the prisoner. His career of intemperance was continued, and there he stood convicted of the crime most closely allied to murder. His case was one, accompanied by the most aggravated circumstances, and he was only prevented from passing a more severe sentence upon him by reason of his advanced age and infirm health. His Honor concluded by sentencing the prisoner to 2 years' hard labour in Parramatta Gaol.


In view of Therry's remarks, the sentence appears very moderate and probably reflects Therry's generally humanitarian outlook.

Tracing George Bruce Barton in this way to the pages of the Bathurst Free Press was very important to me in writing the life of Louisa Atkinson. As a very young child, Louisa had lived in the same house as the violent and alcoholic Barton, and, with her family, had fled from him, from the tablelands near Moss Vale down a mountain pass to the relative safety of a coastal outstation on the Shoalhaven River. Later she had watched in Sydney as her mother fought for six years to keep her children during a series of battles in a legal system, heavily weighted against a woman. This information about Louisa Atkinson's childhood and the circumstances of her family life made it possible for me to interpret her novels with greater understanding and insight. For example, she portrayed several of her major female characters as strong and independent women, as her mother had been, and she wrote about the coils of the legal system and the custodial rights over children with extraordinary understanding. One of her novels, Tom Hellicar's Children, is about the fate of children taken from their mother after their father's death.

I also got to study in detail the newspaper reports of a local crime-Barton's shooting of Rogers, as reported in the Bathurst Free Press. Despite some prejudicial comments at the time of Barton's arrest, the reporting of the case was very detailed and appeared to be even-handed. Without any advantage of large-type sensational headlines or photographs--the most in the way of a headline was a running head in capitals, in no larger point than the body of the report--the report of this trial would have made compulsive reading to readers in the Bathurst community, many of whom may have known Barton or some of his workers. The aspects of the case that seem unusual now may not have been so to these readers--they were used to heating of the importance of dying depositions and comments about the demeanour of the accused.

The reports of the case are a vivid recreation of a section of society in nineteenth-century Australia and a source for discussion about social mores. For example, is the absence of damning evidence against Barton a manifestation of mateship, a reluctance to 'dob in'? Or is it instead evidence of the strength of the master/servant relationship arising from Barton's dominating position as employer and provider? The easy morals and drunkenness are a contrast to accounts of life on some other large properties where there was a strict division of the classes and a rigid adherence to manners. It is interesting that the original grant of the Yarrows--2000 acres in the Parish of Peel on Winburndale Rivulet--was made in 1823 to George Innes, whose daughter became the well-known diarist, Annabella Boswell. Her account of events, fashions, the quirks of visitors and the bush around her in a journal written from her uncle's property at Port Macquarie, portrays a very different life from Barton's at the Yarrows.

The detailed accounts of Barton's case which appeared in the Bathurst Free Press were re-published a week or so later in the Sydney Morning Herald where they could hardly have failed to make disturbing reading for Charlotte Barton and her children, bringing back memories of Barton's violent and erratic behaviour.

As no record of Barton's death appears in New South Wales records, he may have moved to another colony after serving his goal sentence, or returned to England, or otherwise disappeared from the record, perhaps by changing his name.


(1) Published as Pioneer Writer: The Life of Louisa Atkinson. Novelist. Journalist, Naturalist, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1990.

(2) Sir Roger Therry, Reminiscences of Thirty Years' Residence in New South Wales. Sampson, Low, and Son, London, 1863, pp. 193-4

(3) H.J. Gibbney and N. Burns, A Bibliographers' Index of Parliamentary Returns 1850-89. Institute of Advanced Studies, ANU, Canberra, ACT, 1969, p.28

(4) New South Wales Parliamentary Papers, 'Persons Tried for Capital Offences, 1840-1859', 1859-1860, vol.2, p. 114
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Author:Clarke, Patricia
Publication:M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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