The legacy of George Powell Barnes

By John Telfer, History Writer

One of Warwick’s outstanding heritage buildings is situated on the corner of Palmerin and King Streets, and apart from its war-time history of being seconded to the Australian Army for an important records office, its creator, George Powell Barnes provided his own legacy. George was an astute Warwick businessman, politician, and community leader who had established other retail outlets in Brisbane, Toowoomba, Allora and Yangan. However, he wanted an impressive retail store encompassing all areas of products for the community of Warwick, hence, the Barnes building built in 1911-12, which became known as the “Emporium”. What is little known in the history of his family consisting of wife, Mary Cecilia, and four sons and three daughters, is that two of his sons and two grand -sons created their own history. So, this is the story of two of the Barnes boys Leslie and Franklin, and their sons, Kenneth and Ronald.

Leslie Walter Barnes was born in Warwick on the 12th April 1890, and received his education at Warwick Central and Brisbane Grammar School, before returning to Warwick to work in the family business and later, in farming. With the outbreak of war in 1915, Leslie who had previous experience in the school cadets at Brisbane Grammar, at the age of 25, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 23rd September 1915. Because of his previous experience he was given the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and sent to Enoggera Barracks, Brisbane, for further training with the 4/42nd Battalion, 4th Reinforcements.

On 21st October 1916, Leslie embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT A36 “Boonah” arriving at Plymouth, London, on 10th January 1917. He was then sent to the bombing school at Lyndhurst and finished the course on 24th March. It was here that Leslie became ill and spent time in the military hospital at Tidworth on 24th April and recovered at Larkhill. It was at this time that Leslie met, and eventually married Dorothy West in the Holy Trinity Chapel in Barnstaple, Devon, on 15th May 1917, before his battalion was deployed to France on the 10th August.

Over in France, Leslie was in the thick of the action in the major battles in the push towards the Hindenburg Line. Displaying courage and leadership, he was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty by commanding his platoon after senior officers became casualties”, on 24th September 1917. After receiving a gun- shot wound and bronchial problems, Leslie was evacuated back to No 1 Australian General Hospital at Sutton Veny on 20th February 1918. Also suffering from Bronchial Neuritis, possibly caused by gas attacks, Leslie was eventually repatriated back to Australia at his own expense with his bride Dorothy, leaving England on the SS “Makura” on 16th October 1918. On their return to Australia, Dorothy gave birth to a son, Ronald, on 8th March 1919 at Warwick Hospital.

Once back in Warwick, Leslie quickly distinguished himself with the Warwick Sub Branch of the Returned Soldier’s League. He became a passionate advocate for the returning soldiers to be given preference in local employment. He also moved a motion in a meeting of the RSL Sub Branch that a letter be written to the Loyal Workers of Australia to thank them for their assistance to the members of the AIF during the war. In another example of his dedication to returned men, he asked the RSL Sub Branch secretary to write a letter to prohibit the Socialist, Percy McDonald, from speaking in public as he did not support the war effort. He also asked the senior sergeant of the Warwick police to prohibit him from speaking in public and collecting funds for his cause. Leslie Walter Barnes died in 1973 at the age of 83.

While Leslie Barnes distinguished himself in World War 1, his older brother, Franklin, born in 1883, was to make his name in World War 2 as a mining engineer working for the war effort as an inventor of war weapons. He had moved to Geelong in Victoria working as a mining engineer before going to England in 1939 to patent a gun but, was to gain much more fame when he invented Degaussing (named after an inventor named Carl Frederic Gauss 1777 – 1855) equipment, to protect allied shipping in the English Channel. At this time Germany was using magnetic sea mines to destroy supplies carried by the merchant navy, so Franklin invented a device that would destroy the mines prematurely, when coming into a certain range of a ship. He was credited with saving millions of tons of British shipping and as it was reported in the Warwick Daily News on 14th August 1941.

“His attainments are of such a character as to constitute

invaluable service to the Empire in its present struggles”

Sadly, Franklin’s son Kenneth, a member of the 2/10th Battalion died as a prisoner of war when Singapore was overtaken by Japanese forces in 1942. Ken died at Sandakan, Borneo, on 1st May 1945. In unusual, but tragic circumstances, Ken’s cousin, Bombardier Ronald Barnes, Leslie’s only child, also died as a prisoner of war in Borneo a couple of months earlier, on 14th February 1945.

George Powell Barnes was a great community leader in Warwick who was born in Castlemaine, Victoria, in 1856, before moving to Warwick in his early years. He and his brother Walter built the Barnes building as mentioned earlier, and had it for many years. His home “Glen Lyn” in Palmerin Street still stands today, and was once suggested as a future RSL Sub Branch building, but is today a private residence.

George served as the member for Warwick in the Queensland Legislative Assembly from 1908 until his retirement in 1935; a total of 27 years. He gave the City of Warwick great service as a businessman and politician over many years, until his death on the 9th September, 1949 at the age of 93.

Possibly, George Powell’s greatest legacy was producing two sons in Leslie, who died in 1973, and Franklin in 1949 They must have given George a great source of pride, as well as losing two grand sons in World War 2, who made the supreme sacrifice as prisoners of war. Their names are now etched on the Labuan Memorial in Malaysia.