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Dr Samuel McBurney (1847-1909) - Victoria

Samuel McBurney (1847-1909), educationist and music teacher, was born on

30 April 1847 in Glasgow, Scotland, eldest of the five children of Isaiah

McBurney, I.L.D., and his wife Margaret, nee Bonnar.  His father was classics

master at Glasgow Academy and later principal of a school at Douglas, Isle of

Man; he published a work on Ovid in 1854 and was co-editor of the Cyclopaedia

of Universal History (London, 1855); he went to Victoria about 1881, and died

there on 5 July 1896.

Samuel’s early education included musical training through the Tonic Sol-fa

method.  In 1864-66 he attended the University of Glasgow, becoming a

prizeman in humanities.  He migrated to Victoria in 1870 and taught classics

and mathematics at schools in Kyneton, South Melbourne and Sale.  He moved

to Portland in 1875 and returned to England in 1876, intending to enter the

Order of Benedicts, but a year later married Marie Louise Accleston.  After a

visit to Germany he returned to London to specialise in the Tonic Sol-fa method

of teaching music, passing all the examinations of the Tonic Sol-fa College,

London, and becoming a friend of the founder, John Curwen (1816-1880). 

McBurney returned to Victoria where in 1877 he was appointed principal of a

Ladies’ College in Geelong.  During almost a decade at the college he was an

active member of the local ‘Shakespere’ Society, published textbooks on

English, geography and music theory and began his crusade to propagate the

method in music education.  In 1878 he founded the Victorian Tonic Sol-fa

Association and 1883 organised its first Intercolonial Conference at Geelong. 

From 1884 he began publishing articles on teaching the system in the

Australasian Schoolmaster and writing letters to the press in an attempt to

persuade the Education Department to recognise the method.  In 1887 he

toured the eastern colonies of Australia, conducting lecture-demonstrations and

forming associations in New South Wales and Queensland.  He also collected

material on colonial peculiarities for Dr A. J. Ellis, On Early English

Pronunciation, pt 5 (London, 1889).  McBurney and his wife continued their

lecture tour in New Zealand and North America, and then returned to England. 

To demonstrate the advantages of the system, McBurney passed examinations

at the University of Dublin (Mus. Bac., Mus. Doc., 1890).  Next year he was

elected a fellow of the Tonic Sol-fa College, London.

On his return to Victoria in 1891 McBurney was given a temporary appointment

as inspector of music with the Education Department and continued his

advocacy of the system by giving lectures, offering postal courses and holding

Tonic Sol-fa Summer Schools.  Victoria’s worsening economic situation led to

retrenchments and McBurney’s post in the Education Department was among

those abolished.  In 1894 with his wife he opened a Ladies’ College at St Kilda

and also began teaching music based on the Tonic Sol-fa system at the Blind

Institute, St Kilda Road, using a Braille raised-type notation which he had

devised.  In 1898 he was appointed an examiner in the University of Melbourne

(Mus. Doc., ad eund., 1901).  In 1902 he was appointed to the staff of the

University Conservatorium of Music as teacher of sight singing and ear training.

McBurney was a prominent figure in education as scholar, teacher and author of

many articles and books.  He was widely travelled and interested in languages

and dialects, serving for a time as secretary of the Esperanto Society in

Melbourne.  His compositions, although few and chiefly choral, include cantatas,

part-songs and Australian patriotic songs.  Aged 62 he died on 9 December

1909 at Melbourne, survived by his wife.

Biographical summary by Robin S. Stevens.



Stevens, R. S., Music in State-Supported Education in New South Wales and

Victoria, 1848-1920  (PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 1978).  University

Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1980, No. 80-24820.

 Stevens, R. S., 'Samuel McBurney - The Stanley of Sol-fa',

Unicorn: The Journal of the Australian College of Education,

vol.18, no.3 (September 1992), pp.68-72.