Daily Archives: April 11, 2011

Opening of the Supreme Court in Melbourne 12 April

I see that the The Honorable Marilyn Warren AC, Chief Justice of Victoria  is to speak at the RHSV on the 28th April about the opening of the Supreme Court in Melbourne 170 years ago this month.  Look at the header on this blog- this is Liardet’s rendering of the occasion, many years later.  Here’s the uncropped picture:

By all accounts, the first Supreme Court occupied a rather unprepossessing temporary building that was blazing hot in summer and cold in winter.  Here’s what Garryowen (Edmund Finn) had to say about it:

At the south-west corner of King and Bourke Streets there was, in early days, erected a plain-looking, store-like, brick-walled, shingle-covered building, and therein the small business of the Crown Lands Department (controlled by Commissioners) was disposed of.  The entrance at one end faced Bourke Street, and nothing could be less pretentious, less comfortable, or uglier.  In the beginning of 1841, when it was known that a branch of the Supreme Court was to be established in the district, the ruling powers were at their wits’ end as to how, and where, an apartment could be procured for the temporary accommodation of the Resident Judge and his judicial following.  After a good deal of casting about, it was finally resolved to convert this place into a legal “make-shift” and the Crown Lands Commissioners, with their troopers and bailiffs, were hurried off to a wattle-and-daub shed, a rearward appurtenance of the Superintendent’s establishment on Batman’s Hill.  So the barn underwent a partial process of fitting up; and the single-roomed cottage referred to in a previous chapter as a Clerk of Works’ Office behind, was transformed into “Chambers”.  p. 179 This “rookery” then became the Supreme Court, and here it was that the willful and wayward Judge Willis “ruled the roost”. (p. 179)

It certainly had none of the grandeur and visual power of the later, purpose-designed courthouse erected where the Old City Court building now stands in Russell Street.  Instead, it was rather gently derided by the Port Phillip inhabitants:

THE COURT HOUSE:- Some steps should be taken to render this place tenantable.  In winter, parties compelled to attend undergo the operation of freezing, which is materially aided by the chilling draught of air which circulates freely in the building, obtaining ingress and egress through the roof, windows and door.  In the summer, the N.W. Sirocco will scorch the auditory, while the gentlemen of the press will require neither pounce (1) nor blotting paper to absorb the moisture of their hieroglyphics.  Lath and plaster might go a great way to remove this cause of complaint; while the expense would be trifling, the convenience would be great, and prevent many of “the ills which flesh is heir to”. During the present cold weather a machine has been erected on the platform of the Bench, out of sight, bearing a strong resemblance to the tin establishment of an itinerant vendor of roasted potatoes; but whatever heat emanates therefrom must be appropriated to the peculiar cherishment of His Honor’s legs- “Reform it altogether.” Port Phillip Herald, 22 June 1841

You’re hard pressed to find any hint of that first, small Supreme Court building now.

South -west corner King and Bourke Streets, Melbourne, site of the first Supreme Court

Here’s the Port Phillip Gazette report of the occasion of the opening of the court:


The first sitting of this tribunal took place   at the temporary Court House in King street on Monday the 12th instant. As might have been expected on such a momentous occasion, there was a large attendance of the inhabitants drawn together by the importance and the novelty of the scene. After the reading of the Act for the   prevention of ” vice and immorality” the proclamation of the authority of the Court, and the commission of His Honor Judge Willis, and  after he had submitted to the ceremony of  being sworn in, in a full and clear voice the learned judge delivered himself of the following   opening address, which for the legal acumen displayed in its production, and the good feeling manifested in its tone and delivery cannot be too highly spoken of.-

And then he launched into his opening address which you can read through Trove (Sydney Herald, 26th April 1841). Knowing as we do that Judge Willis was to dismissed just over two years later on pretty much the grounds he identifies here,  the speech is steeped in irony for us as readers.  No doubt people at the time heard it differently.

All very stirring, uplifting stuff.  But even at this earliest stage of Willis’ time in Melbourne, the Port Phillip Herald raised a sceptical eyebrow and reserved its judgment about the speeches  for the time being:

The Port Phillip Bar.- Upon the induction of the bar on Monday last, the supply of wig and gown was most promising-white neck- cloths were at a premium-and there was that cheerful diversity of nose and whisker surrounding the table, for which the English bar is so eminently celebrated. Touching the Demosthenian or Ciceronian orations delivered on the   occasion, we say nothing, but pause until time shall have mellowed down those fiery exhibitions usually accompanying maiden efforts.


[1] Pounce, apparently, was a powder used to prevent ink from spreading and blot up excess ink.