The Federation Press

Sir Henry Wrenfordsley

Second Chief Justice of Western Australia, 1880-1883

Overview

Of all Chief Justices in Australia in the 19th century none so demeaned the office as did Sir Henry Wrenfordsley, second Chief Justice of Western Australia.

Moving from an indifferent practice as a Dublin solicitor to a very insecure career as an English barrister, Wrenfordsley won notice for his interest in Conservative politics, twice standing unsuccessfully for Parliament. An able public speaker and a companionable guest at gentlemen’s clubs, he obtained a colonial judicial appointment through patronage.

He served in Mauritius before being appointed Chief Justice of Western Australia and then of Fiji. He acted as a judge in Tasmania and Victoria and finally was Chief Justice of the Leeward Islands. In every office he collided with colonial administrators and fellow lawyers and was in constant dispute with the Colonial Office.

A weak lawyer, he was ridiculed as a “journeyman judge” and a “gallery judge” who turned the court into a theatre. His public career was marked by every bad judicial quality — incompetence, duplicity, interference in politics, laziness, uncontrollable temper, chronic insolvency, and overwhelming self-importance, among them.

Reviews

This one of Trollope’s minor characters transferred to a W.S. Gilbert libretto. His father was a Dublin solicitor who double-barrelled his surname, Sly, which cannot have been good for business. The son elided and elaborated the elements. Wrensfordsley was not without some positive characteristics. He was a qualified barrister, who unluckily lacked both briefs and brevity.

He was a fluent orator, and Disraeli’s Conservatives twice ran him as a candidate in the hopelessly Liberal borough of Peterborough. He also spoke good French, and when his political allies first paid him off with a colonial appointment it was to Mauritius that they sent him. Thereafter he was rapidly shunted around the Empire, amassing a knighthood plus a host of quarrels, grievances and unpaid debts.

The pinnacle of his career was a brief spell as acting governor of Western Australia, which he marked by stealing souvenir crockery from Government House. ‘This gentleman knows how to blow his own trumpet’, noted a Colonial Office minute early in his odyssey. A later assessment was more blunt: ‘the main thing is to get rid of him’. For me, the only cloud in this enjoyable romp was the reflection that I have encountered several incarnations of the subject during my career in academe. - Ged Martin, Reviews in Australian Studies, No 1, March 2006

Like the previous works, [this biography is] informed by detailed references to contemporary sources and [is] a product of Dr Bennett’s extensive searches of primary sources. ...
As in the preceding volumes, there is much of interest.... Dr Bennett has again produced a view of the colonial judiciary from the perspective of a legal historian. ... Of course, the explanatory value of such internal histories is more contentious, and Bennett clearly recognises that [this work] will not be the last word... One limitation of Bennett’s approach is illustrated in his criticism of Wrenfordsley: it was clearly influenced by what was viewed as ‘appropriate’ judicial behaviour. ... Writing biographies of judicial figures in this way provides valuable insights but may, perhaps, not tell the whole story. Yet no matter how these stories are told, recourse is certain to be had to this excellent series of biographies in telling them. - Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol 8 (2006)

One strong trait in Australian society, even today, continues to be the championing of the rogue, the scammer, the little guy trying to get every last bit of gravy from the train before it leaves the station. For this section of society, Wrenfordsley is your man. No act was too base, too mischievous, too conniving or unconscionable for Wrenfordsley to consider beneath him. - Jonathan Abandowitz, Law Society Journal NSW, August 2005, Vol 43 No 7

The lives of our early Judges, were, taken overall, characterised by extremely hard, arduous years of toil, with little regard for personal advancement, or of adequate financial reward. The subject of this book, was the exact opposite.
He was appointed to be the second Chief Justice of Western Australia, having had a most unspectacular and short period of practice at the Bar in England. His appointment was more due to political connections and string pulling, than ability, as we soon see from this book. I think it would be fair to say that he was lazy, incompetent, dishonest, disingenuous, self centred and a person who had amazing luck in being able to keep moving around, both within Australia and elsewhere, including Fiji, the Leeward Islands and even France, thereby also managing to keep several steps ahead of his creditors. He even managed to be appointed as an acting Judge in Tasmania for a year or so.
Wrendfordsley is shown by Dr. Bennett to be a disgrace as a person, and even more so as a judge. Whereas with all the previous books that I have read on our early judges, I would shake my head and feel uncomfortable about how poorly they were treated, I became increasingly cross and frustrated at how such a political opportunist could have gone from one appointment to another, each time demonstrating the undesirable qualities that I have set out above.
Dr Bennett has a special gift of bringing his subjects back to life. Whereas, previously, he has made little in the way of a judgment in relation to his characters, in this book, it seems to me that he holds a similar view to myself. But then again, as his copious references show, he researched Wrendfordsley in his usual detailed manner, thereby perhaps becoming a lot closer to him than even we, the reader of this book, become.
I strongly commend this book to all who share a love of the history of the legal profession. It makes compelling, if not frustrating reading, when one has to remember, that we are actually dealing with a true to life character, not one made up for television. I fear that such a damaged character would be, in fiction, regarded as too improbable to be realistic. Alas, if you read the book you will find that he was not. - BJM, Tasmanian Law Society Newsletter

What makes this work so fascinating is the awful picture it paints of Sir Henry ... Dr Bennett is scrupulous in allowing his subject to condemn himself, in his own correspondence. Quoted extracts from papers like the Mauritius Mercantile Record, the Fiji Times and the Antigua Observer show editors and journalists in the colonies were unafraid ... it would be surprising to find a modern newspaper saying of a sitting judge, as the Perth Inquirer did of Sir Henry that he “signally failed to secure the respect of the legal profession or the confidence and esteem of the public ...”
Part of the book’s fascination ... is the tracing of the career path of an employee in the Colonial service who happens to be a judge. Having failed as a lawyer in Dublin and England, as as a tory political candidate, he was initially appointed to a minor judicial office in Mauritius and, by fostering relationships with his superiors in the Colonies, he eventually rose via judgeships in Tasmania and Victoria, to become Chief Justice of, variously, Western Australia, Fiji and the Leeward Islands. Generally these were for short, and at least finite, periods but in each he worked assiduously to find new champions and further his own career.
Self important, irascible, opinionated, lazy except in his own interests, Sir Henry represents a creature now, thankfully, quite unknown to judicial office. - AW, (2005) 25 Qld Lawyer 255

For those [Chief Justices] considered so far, Wrenfordsley is in a class of his own. As the jacket says, he was “a weak lawyer ... who turned the court into a theatre. His public career was marked by every bad judicial quality – incompetence, duplicity, interference in politics, laziness, uncontrollable temper, chronic insolvency and overwhelming self importance among them. ... This book is a very readable one. I thoroughly enjoyed. - PWY, (2005) 79 Australian Law Journal 313

Table of Contents

Foreword by Professor Roy M Mersky
Acknowledgements
List of Illustrations
“Dramatis Personae”

“I Entered the Colonial Service”
A Short Tour of Mauritius
Three Years in Western Australia
“Thrown Away in Fiji”
A Visit to Tasmania
“A Journeyman Judge”
“The Main Thing is to Get Rid of Him”

Abbreviations
Notes
Index

Of interest...