The Federation Press

Sir William Stawell

Second Chief Justice of Victoria, 1857-1886

Overview

In 1842, a young Anglo-Irish barrister, finding there were “40 hats on the Munster circuit but not enough work for 20”, set sail for the even younger settlement of Melbourne. William Stawell quickly made his mark in the nascent city, becoming Attorney-General within 10 years. He was a leading political figure and Governor Hotham’s chief adviser, as the colony moved towards self-government in the heady, unstable prosperity of the gold rush. He was, wrote the Argus, “The Government”.

The catastrophic treason trials following the Eureka Rebellion should have sent Stawell to political oblivion — but they did not and, soon after, he was elected to the first Victorian Parliament under the new Constitution he had helped to write. A year later, in 1857, he manoeuvred himself into position as the Colony’s second Chief Justice, serving with great distinction for almost 30 years.

The foreword to this biography comments “as a judge, and Chief Justice, Stawell was ideal for his times”. Dr Bennett reveals Stawell as an epitome of Victorian manly virtues: intellect, ambition, energy, bravery, charm, compassion. He shows why detractors would add arrogance, impatience and ruthlessness, and why history sustains the contemporary verdict on Stawell’s death in 1889: “one may see in the life now terminated the history of Victoria personified”.

Reviews

In 1842 he sailed for Port Phillip, and on his death in 1889 he was described as ‘the history of Victoria personified (p. 192)Separation from New South Wales, gold mining and responsible government all hit Victoria at about the same time. Stawell, as attorney-general, was close to the centre of events throughout the Eureka upheaval, and many felt that he was the real government of the colony. He was no friend of the diggers, and his reputation among progressive historians is accordingly besmirched. He was, in fact, an easy man to dislike and more or less pitchforked the incumbent chief justice, A’Beckett, into retiring so that he could grab his job. Bennett defends Stawell as a judge, as a founder of the Victorian Bar and as a practical reformer who helped shape the colony’s legal system. - 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. Viewed in this light, Stawell, certainly as a judicial figure, appears less controversial than some historians have portrayed him. 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... - Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol 8 (2006)

Stawell’s career spanned crucial years and obituaries claimed his history was “really the history of the colony”, his life “the history of Victoria personified”. He has found a biographer to do him justice. - Australian Historical Studies, 126, 2005

Dr Bennett reveals a man of intellect, ambition, bravery, charm and compassion. He also shows why others would describe him as arrogant, impatient and ruthless. An interesting read that by association is a history of the early colony and its politics. - Ancestor Vol 27 No 8 (Dec 2005)

... Of course, things were not entirely the same back then ... When a trial of bushrangers broke down upon a crown witness’s recanting, Stawell [as Attorney-General] initiated another charge and set off with five constables to get further witnesses. It is no discourtesy to Attorney General Debus or Director of Crown Prosecutions Cowdery, but a tribute to our modern highway system, to note that Stawell had to gallop cross-country, swim through a rain-swollen river and travel all night and all the following day to ensure success. ...
And what of Stawell the judge? In his foreword John Phillips, himself Chief Justice from 1991 to 2003, suggests that he was ideal for his times: “In the latter half of the 19th century, what Victoria needed, and got in Stawell, were judges who were able to dispense justice speedily and without elaboration – men who were also well known public figures prepared to lead the community by speaking out in a variety of venues, on the necessity of the rule of law, as the most vital plank in an ordered society”.
Certainly, while Stawell seems to have had a very happy home, he seems to have preferred for his family a crisp Socratic method which have found favour in courts other than Sir Owen Dixon’s. Bennett recounts that, on leave, Stawell and his family holidayed in Europe. One of his boys fell ill and was unable to return to school in London with his siblings. When better, he worried at travelling alone. “Do you know a train when you see it?” his father asked. “Yes” was the answer. “Can you get into it when you see it?” “Yes” “Then where is the difficulty?” ...
Stawell was an Attorney-General happy to reward his own ambition, but the result is a chief justice of vitality and probity, vain perhaps but not lacking in the three qualities – dignity, fairness and a sense of justice – of the ideal judge. - David Ash, NSW Bar News, Winter 2005, 74

The book has interesting material to deal with. Stawell served at diferent times as Victoria’s Attorney-General, Governor, elected representative and Chief Justice for nearly four decades and, consequently, played a significant role in the development of Victoria from a colony to a self-governing state with responsible government. He was a leading politician and Attorney-General at the catastrophic treason trials following the Eureka rebellion ...
The author has documented Stawell’s public life with great clarity and detail ... - Larry Noble, Law Society (NSW) Journal Vol 43/4 (May 2005) 95

Readers of my reviews will already know how much I have enjoyed earlier “Lives”, so it will come as no surprise that this latest offering from Dr. Bennett has been, for me, another fascinating excursion into our past. ...
Stawells’ position in relation to the circumstances in which as Governor (or acting Governor) he could dismiss a government, remain very topical to this day.
Perhaps of equal interest is the detail of how Stawell came to be appointed Chief Justice. In those days, as, one might say, even today, politics has a great deal to do with many appointments. Stawell, contrary to many earlier biographies, had enjoyed a substantial reputation among his peers and had been Attorney General both before and after the separation of Victoria from New South Wales. He was very much a hands on Attorney, frequently appearing to prosecute, drafting legislation, speaking in favour of it in the Parliament and even writing to a magistrate to criticise his failures in properly attesting amendments to depositions taken before him.
Like many earlier subjects of Dr. Bennett’s research, I gained a strong impression that Sir William Stawell was a man who was ahead of his time, one who had a prodigious capacity for work, who was devoted to the law and who was quite unfairly treated by various newspapers of the time ...
Victoria has much more reason than an annual race or a small town to remember this great Australian lawyer and once again, Dr. Bennett has left it to us, the reader, to recognise how significant a figure Sir William Stawell was, in the development of politics and the law in the State of Victoria. - BJM, Tasmanian Law Society Newsletter

Table of Contents

Foreword, by Professor the Honourable J.H. Phillips AC QC
Acknowledgements
List of Illustrations
“Dramatis Personae

“Building Castles in the Air”
“Stawell is Getting on Remarkably Well at the Bar”
“Mr Stawell is Inferior to None”
“A Legislative Declaration of Independence”
“The Attorney-General was the Primary Adviser”
“The People Panted for a New Constitution”
“I Scarcely Know Myself – The Chief Justice”
“Privileges, Immunities and Powers”
“We are Sitting as in London and Middlesex”
“So Great a Debt for Long, Honest, and Arduous Service”

Abbreviations
Notes
Index

Of interest...