Judge Willis Casebooks on the web

The Judge Willis Casebooks website is up and running!

The address is http://historyvictoria.org.au/willis/index.html   You can access it through RHSV’s website, but believe me- it’s much quicker to go directly!

RHSV website

One of the treasures of the RHSV is the Judge Willis Casebooks.  There are twenty-six in total, mostly from Willis’ time in Sydney.  They were one of the earliest acquisitions of the Society,  coming through James Palmer Savage in 1909, with one donated later in 1931 by Savage’s daughter when she found it in the family home.  The website presents the casebooks relating to Port Phillip trials, with a particular focus on the criminal trials rather than civil trials.

The casebooks are Willis’ own notes that he took either during or after the trials over which he presided.  As such, they are rather opaque because they are jottings of what Willis perceived to be particularly significant during the trial.  They are, if you like, a little window into his framing of what he heard.   Most cases start with his summary of the evidence given by each witness.  He notes the questions raised in cross-examination, and a brief summary of the responses. He briefly notes the arguments raised by counsel in summing-up, and any laws and cases they make reference to.  At the end of each entry, he notes the verdict.

To see the notebooks themselves, click on the ‘Transcripts’ section of the site.  There you have a choice- the typed transcripts with a commentary, or scans of the original document. If you click on the scans, you’ll see a PDF image of the book, in all its scrappy, underlined and scribbled out glory.  These are personal working documents, not intended for publication (and in fact, I can’t begin to imagine what Willis would say if he knew…..)


The real strength of this website is that His Honour Paul Mullaly has written a commentary to go with each transcript.  He contextualizes the case and  explains the points of law that Willis has identified.  For the non-lawyers amongst us, this is invaluable.  He has followed up the case in the Public Records Office holdings, and read the newspaper reports that followed the trial.  In this way, he has fleshed out what would otherwise be raw material into a fuller, coherent artefact.

Box 55 is a grab-bag of documents that had originally been placed with the casebooks.  Among other things, it contains his preparation for addresses to the jury, petitions from some of the people who appeared before him and character references.  Justice Mullaly has cross-referenced these loose documents against the case book entries, and again provided a commentary here too.

Under the Support Materials tab, you’ll find some background material on Willis and Port Phillip that I prepared for the site.

The website was launched last night by the The Honorable Chief Justice, Marilyn Warren.  His Honor Paul Mullaly then spoke about his long labour of love in researching and preparing the material on the website, and [here comes some shameless self-promotion!]  I spoke about the transnational career of John Walpole Willis.


I finished off my presentation by saying :

In these casebooks, we see a hard-working, conscientious judge with his sleeves rolled up.  If you’re looking for evidence of Willis’ career of “follies and consequent disasters”, you won’t find it here…Instead, you’ll find a court at work.  In the sloping hand that filled the pages of these casebooks, and especially through Justice Mullaly’s commentary, you’ll find a judge who had a sharp mind, kept up to date with current developments across the empire, and knew his law.  There are no similar documents from the Canadian or British Guianan phases of his career.  These casebooks shed a unique light, and serve as a reminder that, despite all the controversy attached to John Walpole Willis’ transnational career, he was ultimately a Judge, in a courtroom, with a duty to perform justice.


11 responses to “Judge Willis Casebooks on the web

  1. Congratulations. I’m really looking forward to investigating these – and I think a wee bit of shameless self-promotion is well deserved!

  2. Congratulations Janine … good for you. Glad you told us about your role.

  3. I had the good fortune to be there and I can tell you that Janine’s presentation was exceptional, and extremely well received by those in attendance.

  4. Congratulations and well done. Under these circumstance, self promotion should always be without shame (shame-less). You’ve much to be proud of.

  5. Congratulations Janine…….it was quite by chance that I heard John Faine introduce you today as I was driving.
    Does this mean your book/thesis is practically finished?

    Thank you for your unstinting work.

    And now to read the casebooks………..!!!

    You have preached the EVANGLE and I for one am converted.

    Kirk Alexander

    • Thank you Kirk. No…the thesis is not finished but the end is in sight, and now that there’s renewed interest in the casebooks, I have every incentive to get a wriggle on.

  6. Congratulations Janine and thanks for sharing! A tremendous amount of valuable work has gone into the Judge Willis Casebooks site. It is a valuable contribution to Australian history, and it looks like it may be of interest to family historians as well.

    Did you know that your blog has been listed in the Inside History magazine’s annual list of ‘Top 50 blogs you need to read’? The list is in the current issue of the magazine.

    • I’d been told about the Inside History magazine ranking. What a surprise! Although I don’t know that people will get a lot of family history from my blog. Still, it’s nice to get the publicity

      • The title of the article is “50 blogs you need to read” and the intro says “Inside History’s 3rd Annual Genealogy Blog Awards are here! With the help of established geneablogger Jill Ball, we’ve compiled our best 50 blogs from around the world on all things history and genealogy.” Most of the blogs listed are not family history ones. I think the idea is that these are blogs which would be of interest to family historians. Inside History do a great job of providing a meeting place for historians and family historians. This Top 50 is a good example of that. Family historians can learn from historians more about the context in which their ancestors lived in the past.

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