In 1939 a brief biography of Octavius Skinner Burton, cavalryman and Victorian Police inspector, appeared in the VHJ. Burton had served in the Austro-Hungarian War prior to joining the Victorian Police. He diverted from police work at Bendigo into the Volunteer cavalry as a staff officer. Made redundant a decade later, Burton managed to return to the Victorian Police, eventually winning his own district in Geelong. Neither especially flamboyant or distinguished, nonetheless Burton gave 27 years of devoted service to the colony during some of its most interesting times. This article provides a modern retrospective on this most interesting colonial Victorian.
Octavius Skinner Burton (1823-1895)
Cavalry Staff Officer and Police Inspector
In 1939 the tireless recorder of Victoria’s military history, Defence Department clerk and librarian Robert Knox Peacock, wrote a brief, one page article about a Victorian Volunteer officer and policeman, Octavius Skinner Burton.1 Since that time a considerable amount of research on Burton’s history has been conducted by a descendant, Hugh Sloane, with the help of others interested in Burton’s story. This Burton retrospective benefits from Sloane’s research and other information which has come to light since 1939.
Quintessential cavalryman and Victorian Police Inspector Octavius Skinner Burton was christened in Beaumaris, Wales in September 1823, the eighth (hence Octavius) of ten children. Burton was a descendent of well connected and established families with Irish antecedents, the St. Leger and Burton families (his parents were married in Dublin). His father, Francis Pierpont Burton, had served as a Captain in the Royal Staffordshire Militia.2 Little is known of Octavius Burton’s formative years. It was later said that he was ‘educated at Winchester School and connected by blood with several of the most distinguished general officers in the British army’. He may well have attended a school in Winchester, although he does not appear on the register of the famous Winchester College.3
When he was 25 however, his credentials were sufficient for him to be accepted into the Austrian Army as a cadet. It was a typical outcome for a youngest child in those times to enter the Army but in his case it was not to go to the Woolwich Military Academy. Burton did, however, follow a well-established tradition of British and Irish men of good families to enter the service of the Austrian Army. It was here that he received his first training as a cavalryman, and on the hardest training field of all – the battlefield. During 1848-49, when he was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant, he
served in the infantry and then with two famous regiments, the Walmoden Curassiers and the Radetsky Hussars. The tradition continued after Burton. By the early 1850s there were no less than eleven English and Irish officers in the Walmoden Curassiers. 4
According to a resume of his service related in the press many years later by his father-in-law, Burton ‘saw much active service…during the Austro-Hungarian war. Was present at the bombardment of Vienna… was present in 23 pitched battles including celebrated charges of Babolna and Moor…’ [Vienna was bombarded in October 1848 as the Imperial forces retook the city from revolutionaries]. 5 The latter charges were both recorded in a classic book of cavalry tactics:
At Balbona they [the Hungarians] tried to make a stand; one of their regiments formed a square, but was at once ridden over and destroyed by two squadrons of Walmoden cuirassiers, who advanced on the charge without the assistance of artillery; and this…was the only instance …in which cavalry broke a square without first bringing artillery into play.
In front of Moor, about 1200 or 1500 yards from the wood, a line of heights intersects the road at right angles; on these [the Hungarian commander] formed his troops and placed his guns so as to command the outlets from the forest . He had 5000 men under his orders, consisting of four battalions of infantry, four squadrons of cavalry, and ten guns. His object was to prevent the enemy [the Austrian Imperial forces] from getting out of the wood…After two hours’ fighting, however, one of the enemy’s batteries established itself on a height on the right of the road, and by a well-directed fire did much execution on the Hungarian left. At this moment Ottinger [Austrian cavalry commander] arrived with his cavalry brigade (consisting of two or three regiments), dashed
at the Hungarian position, and swept all before him. In an instant our bravest infantry regiments were broken and in full flight… Our hussars… threw themselves upon the enemy’s horse…a desperate hand-to-hand fight ensued. The [Hungarian] hussars left half their number on the field. We lost, altogether, 1400 or 1500 men killed, wounded and prisoners, and six guns. 6
Ottinger’s brigade included Radetsky’s Hussars – and Burton. Josef Graf Radetsky is better remembered today by a Strauss military march. The major campaign against Hungary was yet to come; it culminated in the Hungarian surrender in August 1849. Burton was in the thick of it. Family lore offered that Burton suffered from frost bite sustained following injury on the battle field. Whether this occurred at Moor, fought in the winter of 1848, or a later winter skirmish is unknown.
In any event, by 1850 he was home and wondering what to do next. Certainly the Irish famines would have left scarce comfort if he had hoped for any succour from family connections there. At about this time, the new Victorian Government, faced with a burgeoning population and the desertion of many of its policemen, both courtesy of the discovery of gold in the colony, advertised for policemen in England. Governor La Trobe formed a special corps of police cadets in late 1852 as a means to help overcome a growing law and order problem, both in Melbourne and the countryside.
Just as British and Irish officers in the Austrian Army was a well-established route for younger sons, so was a well-travelled path to the Australian colonies to serve as police officers (Robert O’Hara Burke, had also been an Irish officer with the Austrian Hussars before becoming a policeman in Victoria in 1853). The young veteran Burton, no doubt restless after his Austrian adventures, responded to the call and emigrated for Victoria, arriving in Port Philip on the Sir Henry Hardinge on 19 July 1853. The records show that he was an independent traveller with the rank of
Lieutenant, but did not travel with the cabin passengers.7 No sooner had he arrived than he was appointed as a Police Inspector by the Governor of Victoria at a salary of £300 a year – Burton’s appointment as Lieutenant was dated 9 August 1853.8 This speedy appointment so soon after his arrival indicates that he emigrated to this end.
His rank of Inspector and the huge salary for the time belies the first reference to him as a Cadet Lieutenant and then Sub-Inspector (he was promoted on 1 January 1856). He was assigned to the goldfields around Bendigo. The first reference in The Argus to Lieutenant (as the police sub-inspectors were then called) Burton is in July 1854 when he arrests a drunk. 9 In early 1856 Burton is still in the Bendigo district, receiving a visit in his Epsom quarters by Catherine Hayes, the Irish balladeer and operatic singer, who was touring ‘ the wonders of Bendigo’. He presented her with ‘emu and other skins’. By contrast, two weeks later he is breaking up a ‘general scrimmage’ initiated by Chinese miners at Eaglehawk. 10
Whether it is as a result of good service or whether Burton’s cavalry experience was noticed (or rather, not forgotten), in late 1856 Burton is found in charge of mounted drill at the Victoria Police depot at Richmond, where he was known as ‘Dandy’ Burton.11 He is also recorded in September 1856 as ‘Inspector Burton’ in a court case in Melbourne. Burton was called to give a character reference for an errant Police Constable who had driven a Police van through a crowd of electors being addressed by the Government Returning Officer for the Central Province. Burton refused to give it and the officer was sentenced to one month’s hard labour. 12 Burton re-appears in June 1857 when he is listed among the hundreds of official guests invited to attend the Governor’s levee at the Exhibition Building on the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne. 13
The Victorian Yeomanry Corps had been formed in October 1855 with 73 Volunteers. Burton’s transfer to Melbourne and the establishment of this mounted
unit, Victoria’s first, provided him with the avenue he was looking for to re-engage his martial skills. On 31 July 1857, Burton formally transferred to the Volunteer Force as a paid staff officer. His appointment as Captain and Adjutant of the corps followed in September 1857, with the appointment back-dated to 1 January of that year. This suggests that his involvement in the corps began from soon after he was assigned to the Police Depot at Richmond, and may have allowed him back-pay accordingly.14 By May 1858, on the occasion of the Queen’s Birthday review on the field near Prince’s Bridge when 50 Volunteers paraded along with the redcoats of the 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Regiment of Foot, Burton’s work was already in evidence:
Of the Volunteer Companies we have great pleasure in saying that a very marked improvement was observable since they were prominently before tho public last year, both in their general appearance and their training. The Yeomanry Corps were…exceedingly well mounted, and as a rule the horses showed a great amount of careful training.15
As the full-time Adjutant and Captain in his cavalry unit, Burton’s salary was now substantial at £450 p.a.; it was to remain unchanged until 1867. 16 This stability and his new found status allowed him to marry, on 16 June 1858 at St. Peter’s Church.17 His bride was Esther Hull, daughter of William Hull, a retired wine merchant from Somerset who later became a MLC in the Victorian Parliament from 1860-1866. The Hulls had arrived in the colony in February 1842; by 1855 he was the Stipendiary Magistrate for Richmond and lived at that time in Clarendon Street. The Police Depot was nearby, at the corner of Punt and Wellington Roads. At that time there was not much in the way of development between the two locations.
So Burton may have made the acquaintance of the Hulls through the Police (Burton also lived at Richmond, probably at the Police Depot), military circles (Hull claimed
a long association with the 40th Regiment), socially or through the Freemasons. Hull was a member of the Order; it is not known however whether Burton was. For Burton, aged 35, it was a good marriage in all respects and it only ended with his death in 1895. The Burtons moved into a house next to and possibly owned by, Esther’s father, at 75 Bridge Road, Richmond between Punt Road and Lennox Street.
Burton became a central figure in the Volunteer cavalry forces for the next decade. The Volunteer forces continued to evolve with each new political iteration and almost every new war scare (of which there were many in Victoria in the second half of the 19th century). During the 1860s, the war in New Zealand also waxed and waned and hundreds, perhaps thousands of volunteers, many of them from the local Volunteer forces, went from Victoria to fight or as military settlers in New Zealand. In October 1860, Burton resigned from his position as Adjutant.18 This was the normal step for men of the local forces, especially officers, who wanted to volunteer for service in New Zealand.
Persistent Burton family lore says that Burton did serve in New Zealand, perhaps with a detachment of the 40th Regiment. However, even though this was the period when the 40th Regiment was deployed to the Taranaki area for operations, there is no record of service, news report, shipping record or any other evidence in Australia or New Zealand that Burton actually went at this time.19 He was certainly known to be in Melbourne in late November and early February 1861, and there may have been another reason for his resignation – the re-organisation of his Corps.
On 12 January 1861 Burton was appointed Captain and Adjutant of the 1st, or Royal, Victorian Volunteer Cavalry, or, as it became better known, the Prince of Wales Light Horse, commanded by Major Caleb Anderson. 20 Certainly Burton was interested in what was happening in New Zealand and perhaps his intention had
been to go but his new appointment came first. In August 1861 for example, he attended a presentation on the campaign by a Victorian Volunteer officer with the Taranaki Militia. Although he had no children at this time, Burton was not, despite his salary, well off and may not have been able to afford military adventures at his own expense.
In 1862, Burton became the Adjutant of the Victorian Volunteer Cavalry and his official station became Geelong.21 In this capacity he travelled to places such as Schnapper Point, Dandenong, Kyneton, Heidelberg, Ballarat and Castlemaine – and of course Melbourne – to drill and enrol cavalrymen. Ironically, much of his work was to enlist replacements of the men from his ranks who were volunteering to fight in New Zealand. He commanded escorts for official parties and occasions, attended the inevitable levees and balls, oversaw manoeuvres at the Easter camps and reviews of Volunteers, acted as range superintendant at matches of the Victorian Rifle Association, and served on the Committees of the Volunteer Sword and Fencing Club and the Melbourne Anglers’ Club. In May 1865, he was appointed as Cavalry Staff Officer of the Local Force of Volunteers. Nothing much changed for him except his title; his salary remained the same.22 Over these years the Burton family grew – from their first child in 1864 to eight children by 1877, with the third born in Geelong in 1867.
For a veteran of real war, the peace time routine must have been somewhat frustrating. However, in early 1866 Burton was finally able to get across to New Zealand via Sydney (he departed for Sydney 8 March), while on full pay and on official leave, and spent a month there, no doubt much to his personal satisfaction. By this time the 40th Regiment had not only long ago left Australia but also New Zealand service. Burton is recorded as being welcomed by the staff of General Sir Trevor Chute (the British Commander in New Zealand at the time) at Patea, north-east of Wanganui on the North Island.23
Burton arrived only a few days after Chutes’s Wanganui-Taranaki Region campaign had been successfully concluded and so Burton does not appear on the medal rolls for this service. Burton returned to Victoria on 7 April 1866.
Burton continued his usual duties through the balance of 1866 and through 1867, such as converting the field artillery to horsed artillery, supervising examinations for non-commissioned officers in Clunes, and umpiring a Naval Brigade cutlass drill competition at Sandridge. Then, in November 1867, he was appointed the primary escort officer for the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to Victoria. Burton would have enjoyed being in the centre of the large scale sham fight and Volunteer review put on for the Duke’s benefit on Christmas Day on the ‘Footscray plateau’.24
With the departure of the Royal visitor, another reorganisation of the Volunteer forces found the staff officer positions eliminated. Burton’s role as cavalry staff officer was one of those, but on 1st July 1868 he was able to be re-appointed to the Victorian Police Force with his old rank of Sub-Inspector. However, his smooth return to Police ranks raised eyebrows and questions were asked in Parliament, especially when the Police Commissioner directed that two other police officers were to be reduced in rank to make room for him. It appeared that Burton had been allowed to retain his rank and name in the Victorian Police in 1857 when he had become adjutant of the Yeomanry Corps against any redundancy from that position in the future. The Government of 1868 felt obligated to accept this agreement and directed the Commissioner to re-instate Burton. The reluctant Commissioner in turn may have reduced the two other officers to ensure that the Government was criticised for the decision. 25 The truth behind this unusual chain of events may never be known, but the influence of Burton’s father-in-law cannot be discounted.
In any event, it was not long before Burton was in the thick of police work in the city area, being noted attending a large fire in Carlton in December 1868, and other public order cases in the city throughout 1869 and 1870. By late 1870, Burton found himself working under Superintendent Hare, in the districts of Richmond, Prahran, St. Kilda, South Yarra, and Sandridge [Superintendant Francis Augustus Hare, was later wounded at the siege of the Kelly Gang at Glenrowan in 1880].26 At one point in a court hearing, a female witness turned on Inspector Burton:
The inspector stood aghast at the torrent of vituperation that was suddenly poured upon his devoted head, and the magistrates were fairly puzzled what to do, when, by a happy inspiration, it occurred to them to inflict a fine upon the defendant of 10s. for misbehaviour before the Court, and in default, three days’ imprisonment. The effect was magical, the box was at once vacated, and the woman left the court as speedily as she could after paying dearly for her freedom of speech. 27
Between 1871 and August 1877, when he was transferred to Geelong, Burton lived at Emerald Hill in South Melbourne. He was regularly reported in the media as he involved himself effectively in every aspect of police work in those districts. His experience in crowd control was often in use. In 1873 he was made an Inspector of Distilleries and although the role attracted no additional salary Burton applied himself to the additional tasks with his usual efficiency.28 This, and his good Police work, merited his promotion to Inspector on 19 August 1874 and his own district, Geelong. There Burton hit his stride as his own man. His promotion was timely; by the time he came to Geelong, Burton was the father of seven children. He was of course no stranger to Geelong, having been stationed there when he was adjutant of the Victorian Volunteer Cavalry. He attracted additional duties, becoming, in 1879, an Assistant Inspector of Fisheries.29
One of his most public duties in Geelong was crowd control for the arrival of dignitaries at the railway station for the Geelong Industrial and Juvenile Exhibition in December 1879 where ‘the police, under Inspector Burton, had some difficulty in providing suitable standing room for the spectators in the nave and aisles.’30 A year later, Burton was superannuated on 31 December 1880 at the age of 57 amidst a general economic restructuring of the Police Force in Victoria and was forced on to his Police pension. Burton took his retirement in Geelong. In 1882 he applied unsuccessfully to be the Collector for Geelong Hospital. The local press noted him as: ‘a well known resident of Geelong, highly regarded both here and in the country for his energetic habits and gentlemanly address.’31 At least one of his children was admitted, in 1883, to the Junior School of Geelong Grammar School as a day-boy.32 Burton clearly felt at home in Geelong.
For whatever reason, perhaps because of failing health or family pressures or both, by late 1890 Burton had re-located to St. Kilda in Melbourne, where he lived at Westbery Street until his death – of a ‘most painful and neurotic disease’ – on 24 February 1895, aged 71 (the cause of death is very difficult to read on the certificate, but includes the word ‘cerebral’). Probate, granted on 21st April 1895, showed that he had a £500 life insurance policy from his father-in-law’s insurance company but that Burton himself left modest assets, just £7 in ‘jewellery and trinkets’, and £14 in his next pension payment. His widow, Esther, also received £130 from the Police Widows Fund.33 Obituaries were published in both The Age and the Herald. His funeral was well-attended with pall bearers from amongst family and close professional friends; Burton was laid to rest in the St. Kilda cemetery.
Octavius Skinner Burton was one of the early characters of the Victorian Police Force and the Volunteer forces. He served for 27 years in those colonial forces and
was witness to the burgeoning of the goldfield districts and Geelong as well as ‘marvellous Melbourne’. As a police officer, Burton was conscientious and dutiful. No doubt his experiences in the Austro-Hungarian War had developed in him a powerful sense of discipline and a certain toughness, qualities which he brought to both police work and to cavalry staff work in Victoria. While it may now be said that the early Volunteer forces in Victoria were as much social as military, Burton was one who did bring higher professional standards to it, while being trusted with serious responsibility as escort commander for the royal visit of 1867. The Argus said of him that: ‘Captain Burton, although a strict disciplinarian, was of a genial, kindly temperament, and was much liked by those who had business or social relations with him.’34
1 Peacock, R. K., ‘Octavius Skinner Burton’, Victorian Historical Magazine, Vol.17, No.3, April 1939, p.95.
2 The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. XVIII July-December 1842, London 1842; Certificate of Registry of Marriage, St. Mary’s Church. City of Dublin, per RCB Library, Dublin, March 2007.
3 Hull, W., letter to The Herald, 18th July 1860.
4 Rumbold, H., The Austrian Court in the Nineteenth Century, Methuen & Co., London, 1909, p.165.
5 Hull, W., op.cit. and Sheehan, J., ‘German History 1770-1866’, Oxford History of Modern Europe, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989, pp. 696-99.
6 Nolan, L.E., Cavalry – Its History and Tactics, Thomas Bosworth London, 1853 – reprinted by Westholme Publishing, Yardley, USA, 2007, p.57 [Balbona] and pp.198-199 [Moor – quoting Klaptka, History Of the Magyar War].
7 Unassisted Shipping Index, Fiche No.42, p.1, PROV.
8 Statistics and Civil Establishment of the Colony of Victoria for the Year 1856, Govt. Printer, Melbourne, 1858.
9 The Argus, 10th July 1854, p.3.
10 The Argus, 14th January 1856, p.5 and The Argus, 30th January 1856, p.7.
11 Sadlier, J., Recollections of a Police Officer, G. Robertson, Melbourne, 1913, p.70.
12 The Argus, 6th September 1856, p.5.
13 The Argus, 22nd June 1857, p.4.
14 Victoria Government Gazette, No.100, 1st September 1857, p.1631.
15 The Argus, 25th May 1858, p.5.
16 Birch, A.N., and Robinson, W. (Colonial Office), The Colonial List for 1867, Harrison & Sons, London, 1867, p.113.
17 Marriage Registration 1517, Folio 755, ‘Marriages solemnised in the District of St. Peter’s Melbourne’, Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria.
18 Victorian Government Gazette, No.138, 30th October 1860, p.2045.
19 The Argus, 13th August, 1861, p.5.
20 Victorian Government Gazette, No.6, 11th January 1861, p.57.
21 Victorian Government Gazette, No.60, 16th May 1862, p.831. Burton’s will was signed in Geelong on 3rd November 1863; see VPRS7591 P20002 232, PROV.
22Victorian Government Gazette, No.46, 5th May 1865, p.1014.
23 The Argus, 19th January 1866, p.6, and The Argus, 26th February 1866, p.5. The Taranaki Herald, Vol. 14, Issue 706, 10th February 1866, p.3 notes his arrival.
24 The Argus, 27th November 1867, p.6 and The Argus, 27th December, p.5.
25 The Argus, 27th June 1868 p.5 and 1st July 1868, p.6.
26 The Argus, 9th August 1870, p.5.
27 The Argus, 28th October 1870, p.5.
28 Victorian Government Gazette, 10th April 1873, No.28, p.622.
29 Victorian Government Gazette, 5th December 1879, No.117, p.2808.
30 The Argus, 19th December 1879, p.6.
31 The Geelong Advertiser, 15th August, 1882, p.2.
32 Corfield, J., Geelong Grammarians, Vol. 1, 1855-1913, Geelong Grammar School, Corio, Vic., 1996, p.400.
33 Probate O.S. Burton 21st April 1895, VPRS 28, File 57/170S, PROV
34 The Argus, 1st March 1895, p.6.