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Barnett, Frederick Oswald (1883–1972)

by E. W. Russell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Frederick Oswald Barnett (1883-1972), social reformer, was born on 28 September 1883 at Brunswick, Victoria, twin son of Charles Barnett and his wife Elizabeth, née George, both from Cornwall, England. Charles Barnett, a quarryman, was thrown out of work in the early 1890s after the building boom collapsed. Oswald attended the Albert Street, Brunswick, State School where, after entering the Victorian Education Department in 1898, he became monitor and then pupil-teacher. Although praised by the district inspector and promoted, he resigned in 1902 to become a clerk in the office of the master in equity and lunacy. By 1920 he had qualified as a public accountant and he left the civil service to set up his own practice, later known as F. Oswald Barnett & Co. In 1929 he was elected a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia, of which he became a Victorian councillor. On 6 January 1909 at the Brunswick Methodist Church he had married Elizabeth Mary Hyett: they had four daughters and a son.

Barnett was an active Methodist. In 1923 a visit to an inner-city slum shocked him deeply and, concerned for the welfare of the children in particular, he enlisted the aid of young Methodists in a campaign which led to the establishment of the Methodist Babies' Home in South Yarra in 1929. At the same time he was studying part time at the University of Melbourne (B. Com., 1928); his master's thesis of 1931, based on the result of 150 questionnaires, was published in 1933 as The Unsuspected Slums.

Barnett set up a study-group of forty people drawn from various community organizations, who met weekly in his office to discuss problems of housing reform. His group soon widened its activities to form the nucleus of the slum-abolition movement of the early 1930s. In his public campaign Barnett used a combination of scientifically gathered data and sometimes emotional presentation; he urged his audiences to write to the premier (Sir) Albert Dunstan, who finally agreed to inspect the slums for himself. In 1936 the premier appointed a Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board, of which Barnett was a member: it recommended establishment of a housing scheme run by a commission of experts, a policy which his group had long advocated. When the Housing Commission of Victoria was set up in 1938 Barnett became vice-chairman until 1948, when he declined reappointment.

Barnett frequently contributed to public discussion of housing, poverty and related issues through newspaper articles, public addresses and pamphlets, which included, with W. O. Burt, Housing the Australian Nation (1942) and, with Burt and F. Heath, We Must Go On: A Study in Planned Reconstruction and Housing (1944). In 1941-49 he was a director of the City Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd and chairman from 1946 of its Victorian board, but he was asked to resign when it was known that he was auditor to Australia-Soviet House, Melbourne. In 1952 his was virtually a lone voice attacking proposals for multi-storey flats as public housing, in an address from his familiar platform, the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon at Wesley Church. For a generation he served the Victoria-Tasmania Methodist Conference as a leader of influential Bible classes, as a lay preacher of distinction, and as a member of many welfare committees. He published several collections of verse and a booklet on the divinity of Christ.

In 1962 Barnett formally retired from his accountancy firm. His first wife had died in 1956; in 1959 he married a widow Florence Emily Fowles, née Orr. He died at Box Hill on 3 May 1972 and was cremated. His wife, and the children of his first marriage survived him; his estate was valued for probate at $37,401.

Barnett was a humanitarian, idealist and enthusiast, and an astute organizer and polemicist who influenced the lives of many people; his Methodism had a practical stamp.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Grant, 500 Victorians (Melb, 1934)
  • J. S. Gawler, A Roof Over My Head (Syd, 1963)
  • E. W. Russell, The Slum Abolition Movement in Victoria, 1933-37 (Melb, 1972), and for bibliography
  • New Spectator (Melbourne), 24 May 1972
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Feb, 2, 8 July, 26 Aug, 11 Oct 1935, 28 Dec 1943, 10 Jan, 10 Mar 1944, 22 Nov 1945, 26, 27 June 1946
  • Herald (Melbourne), 10 Feb 1948, 25, 26 Aug 1952, 20 May 1972
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 Feb 1948, 14 Jan, 25 July 1952
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 10, 11, Feb 1948, 25 Aug 1952.

Citation details

E. W. Russell, 'Barnett, Frederick Oswald (1883–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/barnett-frederick-oswald-5138/text8599, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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