SAMPSON, Burford (1882–1959)
Senator for Tasmania, 1925–38, 1941–47 (Nationalist Party; United Australia Party; Liberal Party of Australia)

Burford Sampson, soldier, businessman and public servant, was born at Launceston, Tasmania, on 30 March 1882, son of Joseph Tasker Sampson and his wife, Emily Louisa, née Pollard, both of whom hailed from Yorkshire and had come to Tasmania with their respective parents. Joseph Sampson, a grocer whose business was in Brisbane Street, Launceston, died when Burford was five years old. Burford attended the Launceston High School (1893) and the Commercial College (1894-96, dux 1896), then worked with his widowed mother in the grocery store. At about the age of fifteen, he went to Lower Barrington in north-west Tasmania to work as a farm labourer for the brothers Joseph and Joshua Cocker. His long association with the military began in 1899 when he enlisted in the Launceston-based Army Medical Corps. In 1900 he was a private in the 2nd Battalion, Tasmanian Infantry Regiment. Having been rejected for enlistment in an Australian unit for the South African War, he left Tasmania as a stoker on a South African-bound steamer. In 1901 he enlisted in Baden Powell’s elite South African Constabulary. After ‘serving for two years and 65 days’, he received the Queen’s South Africa Medal, and from 1903 was with the British South African Police until his discharge in June 1907. He also spent 1908 working at the Golden Phoenix Gold Mine in Rhodesia.

Returning to Launceston, Sampson was employed first by the timber merchants, J. and T. Gunn, and later by Hinman Wright and Manser. A keen sportsman, he played football for North Launceston and rowed with the Tamar Rowing Club. He also joined the 92nd (Launceston) Infantry, Australian Military Forces, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in November 1913. On 3 June 1910 he married Jane Frances Cocker (seven years his senior), the sister of his former employers, at the Methodist Church, Launceston. There were two children of the marriage, Joseph Cocker (born 5 August 1911) and Richard Grenville (born 12 May 1914).

In December 1914 Sampson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the AIF, serving with distinction throughout World War I, mainly with the 15th Battalion. He landed at Gallipoli on the afternoon of 25 April 1915, was slightly wounded at Quinn’s Post on the night of 9 May, promoted captain the next day and evacuated in July, suffering the effects of a blast from a heavy shell. At one stage he was reported ‘Dangerously Ill’. After a period of convalescence and administrative service in England (where he was joined by his family), he rejoined the 15th Battalion in France in May 1917. Wounded in action in August, he was promoted major in September. From January 1918 he served on the headquarters staff of the 4th Brigade, returning to the 15th Battalion in April. He was acting commander of the battalion during operations in August and September. In October he was sent to the senior officers’ school, Aldershot, where he remained until after the end of the war. His character was well summarised in a report at the conclusion of the course by his syndicate commander:

Determined. Cheerful. Self confident. Quick at coming to a sound conclusion. Conscientious. Very energetic and possesses drive. Possesses weight. Man of the world. Well turned out. Very quick to grasp new ideas. Capacity for imparting knowledge. Shows initiative. Very keen hard worker. Sound military knowledge. Skill in handling of troops good. Progress good. Fit for command.

Mentioned in despatches in 1918, Sampson was awarded the DSO in 1919.[1]

Appointed Officer Commanding AIF troops in Paris on 1 February 1919, Sampson, with his family, returned to Australia at the end of that year. He was, he later told the Senate, ‘little better than a decrepit old man . . . more or less a nervous wreck for a couple of years’. He sought employment and was unsuccessful until he secured the position of manager of a sawmill at Stanley in north-western Tasmania. It proved an unprofitable venture, Sampson losing his ‘deferred pay, war gratuity and other assets’. In 1921 he was appointed assistant state immigration officer, and the family returned to Launceston. There he resumed his sporting and military involvement: as commanding officer (until 1931) of the 51st Battalion, then of the 12th Battalion (the Launceston Regiment); as President of the North Launceston Football Club (a position he retained until 1938); and as starter or umpire for rowing races on the Tamar River. He was a keen golfer and a flying member of the Aero Club. He was also president of the Launceston sub-branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia, and a founding member of the Launceston Remembrance (later Legacy) Club. In April 1929 he played a prominent part in the organisation of relief activities following a disastrous flood. He served as state immigration officer between 1923 and early 1925, and as general secretary of the New Settlers League.[2]

Sampson’s interests and activities became overtly political in 1925 when he was involved in the formation of the Tasmanian Rights League. Between April and August he worked as the league’s assistant secretary and travelling organiser, and it was these activities, he later admitted, which ‘were largely responsible for my election to the Senate’. His first attempt to enter the Senate occurred in July 1925 when he was one of the candidates before a joint sitting of the two houses of the Tasmanian Parliament, following the resignation of Senator Foster. Sampson, relatively unknown, secured only one vote, the vacancy being filled by C. W. Grant. At the federal election in November he won a Senate seat as a Nationalist, supplanting Grant.[3]

His success was due at least in part to the votes of returned soldiers, whose support he had sought. He considered that, ‘irrespective of party, a returned soldier, ably qualified, [should] be regarded, in the main, as more worthy of the people’s franchise than a non-soldier’. In one of his campaign speeches he attributed the birth of his political aspirations to an encounter with W. M. Hughes at a Gallipoli dinner during the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris, at which Hughes had told Sampson that he could best serve Australia in peacetime by entering the federal Parliament. Many years later Sampson wrote to a friend that, during the difficult and tiresome period awaiting demobilisation in 1919, ‘plenty of football and a Mock Parliament helped us out’.

Sampson declared in his first speech on 14 January 1926 that he did not propose ‘to speak at length on the highly technical and tremendously wide subject of defence’ but few of his contributions to debate in the ensuing years failed to at least touch on the subject. He told the Senate in December 1937: ‘I do not want to boast of it, but I know a great deal about war. I have seen its horrors at first hand. I have been in it, smelt it, and felt it’. He frequently urged the need for universal military training, noting, on 30 June 1938: ‘I have been hammering away at this subject since I was elected to the Senate in 1925 . . . although my voice was like a voice crying in the wilderness’.[4] An imperial patriot, he was also an ardent advocate of preference to returned servicemen, private enterprise, increased immigration and strong censorship, and in 1928 was impressed by a visit to Canada under the auspices of the Empire Parliamentary Association.[5]

Despite the image he presented of being a bluff soldier (he was tall, fair-haired and of athletic build), Sampson was also something of an idealist. He was for a time an enthusiastic supporter of the work of the League of Nations and an active member of the League of Nations Union in Tasmania, although by 1938 he had come to regard the league as a failure. He endorsed the motion of Senator Macartney Abbott on the International Thought Exchange, stating:

It has been said that we should confine ourselves to practical things; but I remind honorable senators that all worthwhile things in this world, the things which give some people spiritual vertigo, were conceived in the minds of dreamers and idealists—men whose minds were not trammelled by considerations of pounds, shillings and pence and other material factors.

Not infrequently he enlivened Senate proceedings with a verse or two; the following was addressed to Labor’s Joe Collings during debate on the Customs Tariff Bill of 1933:

That old man I used to know,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow;
With eyes like cinders all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe;
Who rocked his body to and fro,
Who snorted like a buffalo,
Whose words like lava used to flow,
Those winter evenings long ago
When the tariff was debated.[6]

An active backbencher, Sampson had been appointed to the Joint Select Committee on Commonwealth Electoral Law and Procedure soon after his election in 1925. In the course of the committee’s work he travelled widely—from far north Queensland to the south‑west of Western Australia. As a trenchant critic of the Scullin Government, he was a member of the select committee whose report ultimately led to the demise of the Central Reserve Bank Bill. He held his seat in 1931—as a member of the United Australia Party—and in 1935 was appointed Chairman of Committees. Serving as Deputy President, he moved the adjournment of the Senate in September 1937 by expressing the ‘hope that all honorable senators who are seeking re-election will get what they deserve’. Sampson was defeated.

The following year he moved to Melbourne as secretary of the Wine and Spirit Association of Victoria. Upon the outbreak of World War II, he sought both military and Red Cross appointments, becoming Deputy Director of Recruiting at Headquarters Southern Command in Melbourne in May 1940, a position he held until June 1941. At the same time politics continued to attract him. As he later told the Senate: ‘Political life has an effect upon one somewhat similar to that of a drug. You get the taste for it, and it is a horrible thing when you have to go out into the outer darkness’.[7]

Successful at the 1940 election, Sampson returned to the Senate in July 1941 and was soon urging an all-out war effort. From 1941 to 1942 he was a member of the Joint Committee for the Survey of Manpower and Resources, whose members were recommended to Cabinet by the Advisory War Council. He was also a member of the Joint Committee on War Expenditure (1944-46). He called for the conscription of all manpower and resources, the creation of one army, and Australia’s integration into a strategy of imperial defence. In March 1942 he successfully moved for the tightening of regulations governing conscientious objectors, insisting that they serve as non-combatants. In debate on the Australian Broadcasting Commission, he spoke against the possibility of radio stations broadcasting advertisements for contraceptives: ‘Many of us have laughed at Goering’s slogan, “Guns before butter”, but this country might have been better off today had it adopted a slogan, “Cannons before contraceptives”’.[8]

A member of the Constitutional Convention that met in November 1942 to discuss the distribution of powers between Commonwealth and states, he opposed Labor’s Constitution Alteration (Postwar Reconstruction and Democratic Rights) Bill 1944 with another bit of doggerel:

Democracy is making folk
Believe that they are wont
To rule the country for themselves
Whereas in fact they don’t!

He made regular calls for the Government to discipline coalminers and waterside workers, but defence and the needs of a new generation of ex-servicemen and women were paramount as he criticised the Government for seeking to appease the unions rather than give meaningful effect to the principle of preference to ex-service personnel. He also warned against placing too much faith in the United Nations—collective security was a ‘mirage’. His final words to the Senate, on 6 June 1947, echoed a constant refrain, the need to prepare in peace for the rigours of war.[9]

Defeated at the 1946 election, Sampson was refused Liberal endorsement for the election of 1949. He stood as an independent but was defeated. Writing later about the preselection process to friend and former colleague George McLeay, he stated:

You can imagine how dumbfounded I was last March when the Liberal Party Senate Selection Committee turned me down for ‘twirps’ like Guy and Henty . . . there was some dirty intrigue about it all and I was a gone coon before I ever faced the Committee . . . But George, I never realised until battling on my own, the might and power of the parties, financially and otherwise; also the herd-like tendency of the average man and woman.[10]

In 1951 Sampson moved to Sydney, where he continued his interest in defence, writing frequently (sometimes under the pseudonym ‘Samzac’) for the returned servicemen’s publications, On Service and Reveille. His life, defined by war, was also scarred by personal tragedy. Jane Sampson took her own life in December 1932. According to their son Richard: ‘From that time my father virtually gave up living in the sense that he just didn’t seem to care what happened to him. He carried on in the Senate probably as a matter of duty to the electors’. On 23 September 1941, Sampson married Dorothy Jackson, née Gibbons, a widow, at Christ Church, St Kilda, in Melbourne. There were no children of the marriage. Sampson died in Sydney on 5 June 1959, survived by Dorothy and his two sons; a service was held at St Paul’s Church of England, Burwood. His ashes were interred at Carr Villa Cemetery, Launceston.[11]

Tony Marshall

[1] Burford Sampson, The Burford Sampson Great War Diary, Richard G. Sampson, Glenorie, NSW, 1997, pp. 16, 25-7; Kevin Newman, ‘Sampson, Burford’, ADB, vol. 11; Weekly Courier (Launc.), 28 Nov. 1928, p. 4; Examiner (Launc.), 23 Dec. 1893, p. 7, 19 Dec. 1896, p. 7; The editor is indebted to Mr Thomas Gunn, Alumni Officer, Launceston Church Grammar School, for information; CPD, 27 Nov. 1946, p. 622; T. P. Chataway, History of the 15th Battalion Australian Imperial Forces, William Brooks & Co., Brisbane, 1948, pp. 46, 47, 178, 231; Sampson, B.―War Service Record, B2455, NAA.

[2] Sampson, The Burford Sampson Great War Diary, pp. 183-7; CPD, 30 Nov. 1927, p. 2264, 3 & 4 June 1942, p. 1974; Weekly Courier (Launc.), 9 June 1921, p. 15, 8 Oct. 1925, p. 44; CPD, 6 Aug. 1930, p. 5337, 20 Mar. 1930, p. 309; Examiner (Launc.), 9 Apr. 1929, p. 7.

[3] Sampson, The Burford Sampson Great War Diary, pp. 184-5; Weekly Courier (Launc.), 27 Aug. 1925, p. 32; CPD, 5 Dec. 1929, p. 745, 23 Oct. 1935, p. 968, 29 Sept. 1944, pp. 1727-8; Mercury (Hob.), 30 July 1925, p. 6; Examiner (Launc.), 13 Nov. 1925, p. 5, 14 Nov. 1925, p. 5, 25 Nov. 1925, p. 5.

[4] ‘Dear Digger’ (circular letter), Speech delivered to the Mechanics Institute, Launceston, 13 Oct. 1925, Letter, Sampson to B. G. Clennett, 24 Sept. 1945, Sampson Papers, Military Museum of Tasmania; CPD, 14 Jan. 1926, p. 30, 2 Dec. 1937, p. 99, 30 June 1938, pp. 2914-17.

[5] CPD, 7 Mar. 1945, p. 343, 2 May 1930, p. 1381, 28 Nov. 1929, p. 399, 14 Jan. 1926, pp. 31-2, 14 July 1926, pp. 4110-12, 30 Nov. 1927, pp. 2261-2, 1 July 1926, pp. 3688-9, 8 Oct. 1942, pp. 1503-5.

[6] CPD, 28 Nov. 1929, p. 406, 21 Mar. 1930, p. 378, 30 June 1938, p. 2917, 17 Sept. 1936, p. 227, 24 Sept. 1936, pp. 479-80, 26 Nov. 1931, p. 1920, 10 Apr. 1935, pp. 1156-7, 3 Mar. 1944, pp. 1006-7, 14 June 1933, p. 2337.

[7] Examiner (Launc.), 1 Jan. 1932, p. 5; CPD, 15 Sept. 1937, p. 1125; Examiner (Launc.), 5 Nov. 1937, p. 7; Sampson, The Burford Sampson Great War Diary, pp. 186-7; Sampson, B.―War Service Record, B884, NAA; CPD, 18 July 1944, p. 63.

[8] Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939–1941, AWM, Canberra, 1952, pp. 391–4; CPD, 24 Sept. 1942, pp. 809–10, 27 Sept. 1944, p. 1505, 26 Mar. 1942, pp. 436-8, 30 Apr. 1942, p. 679.

[9] CT, 25 Nov. 1942, p. 3; CPD, 22 Mar. 1944, pp. 1740-8, 14 Oct. 1943, pp. 525-7, 27 Sept. 1945, pp. 6014-15, 24 Sept. 1941, p. 432, 19 Sept. 1945, p. 5552, 5 & 6 June 1947, p. 3515.

[10] Examiner (Launc.), 29 Mar. 1949, p. 2, 13 Dec. 1949, p. 3; Sampson, The Burford Sampson Great War Diary, pp. 189–90; Letter, Sampson to George McLeay, 23 Dec. 1949, Sampson Papers, Military Museum of Tasmania.

[11] On Service (Hob.), Aug. 1950, p. 8, Mar. 1951, p. 29; Reveille (Syd.), 1 June 1954, p. 11, 1 Aug. 1954, p. 13, 1 Feb. 1955, p. 25; Sampson, The Burford Sampson Great War Diary, pp. 186–91; Mercury (Hob.), 6 June 1959, p. 10; Examiner (Launc.), 6 June 1959, p. 6, 21 Feb. 1998, p. 24.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 201-206.

SAMPSON, Burford (1882-1959)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1925–38, 1941–47

Chairman of Committees, 1935–38

Senate Committee Service

Joint Select Committee on Commonwealth Electoral Law and Procedure, 1926–27

House Committee, 1927–28

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1929–31

Library Committee, 1929–35, 1941–47

Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill, 1930

Standing Orders Committee, 1935–38

Joint Committee for the Survey of Manpower and Resources, 1941–42

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1941–47

Joint Committee on War Expenditure, 1944–46