Elise Barney

Elise Barney (1815-1883), postmistress, was born at Lisbon, Portugal, the daughter of Mary and Major James Rivers. She married Lieut John Edward Barney, son of a drawing master at the Royal Military Academy, on 6 November 1833 at St Mary's, New Ross, Ireland. A son, Edward Whiston Rivers, was born at Paisley Barracks, near Glasgow, in 1838 and a daughter, Helena Louise, at St Helena in 1843.

The family arrived in Sydney on the Ganges on 1 September 1847 to join John's brother George, a former major in the Royal Engineers and civil engineer under Governors Bourke and Gipps, who had been commissioned to establish a new convict colony at Port Curtis. The settlement was abandoned before their arrival and on 1 March 1852 John was appointed the first full-time postmaster at Brisbane, possibly due to the influence of George, who was then Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands and Member of the Legislative Council. John died on 25 November 1855. His widow was appointed to his position following an established practice in New South Wales country post offices. In 1858 the position provided accommodation plus 175 pounds in salary and 110 pounds in commission on stamps. Whiston, who was 17 in 1855, assisted her and was formally appointed one of her two assistants on 1 January 1859.

Between 1855 and 1859 Brisbane's population grew from 2500 to 7000, and the post office became the centre of a rapidly expanding postal network as country districts were settled. Mrs Barney was well-regarded for her courtesy, efficiency and hard work. When Queensland became a separate colony in 1859 she became, as GPO postmistress, the head of the new Queensland postal department, directly responsible to the Colonial Secretary and from March 1860 to the Acting Postmaster-General and Treasurer, R. R. Mackenzie. He found her 'over-burdened with work' and raised her salary to 350 pounds. Whiston Barney became second class clerk at a salary of 200 pounds.

As a 'lady' occupying a well-paid public position in the rapidly developing capital, Elise Barney was more vulnerable than her New South Wales counterparts to patronage politics. By 1862 the work of the postal department had expanded sufficiently to require a full-time head and a postal inspector. A member of the emerging squatter faction, Thomas Murray-Prior, was appointed to the combined position of Postmaster-General and Postal Inspector on 4 January. Mrs Barney remained Brisbane postmistress but Murray-Prior became increasingly anxious to consolidate his uncertain control over his office by removing the Barneys. Whiston Barney resigned under pressure on 4 April 1863 and Mrs Barney was removed to a separate money order office on 2 April 1864, on the grounds that it was anomalous to have a lady in charge of the GPO. With help from her many influential friends, she retained her salary and an allowance of 100 pounds for accommodation.

The total breakdown in communication between Murray-Prior and Mrs Barney allowed the embezzlement of money order funds by a clerk nominally under her supervision and Mrs Barney went on leave of absence in December 1864. Following a public service inquiry, the government found both Murray-Prior and Barney to blame, but concluded that it was undesirable for her to continue her appointment. A further parliamentary select committee chaired by R. R. Mackenzie exonerated both, but Mrs Barney was retired on a pension at her present rate of salary which was capitalised at 2000 pounds. She lived in Gipps Street, Fortitude Valley, until her death on 5 July 1883.

Desley Deacon