‘Sir William a’Beckett’ by J. M. Bennett


Sir William a’Beckett J.M. Bennett, Federation Press, 2001.

This blog is called ‘The Resident Judge of Port Phillip’ as a tribute to the first resident judge, John Walpole Willis, but there were in fact four Resident Judges of Port Phillip. William a’Beckett, the fourth and final one, is an interesting man. His main claim to fame is that he was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, after having served as Resident Judge in Melbourne since 1846.

As proud Victorians, it suits us to forget that until July 1851 the area that we now know as Victoria was instead just the “Port Phillip District” of New South Wales.  La Trobe was a mere ‘Superintendent’; the Legislative Council sat in Sydney where Port Phillip affairs were an afterthought, and all administrative functions were directed from Sydney.  The court was part of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and while the Resident Judge in Melbourne had some degree of autonomy, appeals went automatically to the full Bench in Sydney.  The Resident Judge was still a member of the full court, but distance ensured that in a practical sense he was sidelined from the activities of his brother judges in Sydney.

William a’Beckett was Resident Judge when the Supreme Court of Victoria was finally established under the Supreme Court (Administration) Act 1852. This act brought to an end a rather ambiguous seven-month hiatus where it was assumed, but not definitely stated, that  a’Beckett would continue in his position until Letters Patent were issued by the Queen or colonial legislation would be passed to make him Chief Justice of the new court.  The Colonial Office made it clear that it wasn’t going to issue the Letters Patent or any new Charter, so it was up to the new Victorian legislature to pass the necessary legislation. It eventually did so, and a’Beckett was sworn in as Chief Justice on 24th January 1852, with Redmond Barry (the former Solicitor-General) as first puisne (or assistant) judge, joined by Edward Eyre Williams in July 1852.

This book is part of J. M. Bennett’s  series ‘The Lives of the Chief Justices’ which he started writing in 2001. He plans for it to be a series of 40 volumes eventually: so far, he has written fourteen. He’s completed the first four Chief Justices in NSW, the first three in Victoria, the first two in Queensland Tasmania and Western Australia, and the first CJ in South Australia.  I’ve read four (Forbes, Dowling, Stephen and now a’Beckett).  They are conventional legal biographies with a strong focus on the subject’s work as a judge.I don’t know if it’s my perception, or whether it’s in the nature of the man he’s writing about, but Bennett’s biographies seem to be increasingly ’rounded’ as he goes on.

So why is William a’Beckett interesting?  First, he’s one of the patriarchs of the famous Boyd family, described so richly in Brenda Niall’s group biography The Boyds.  As a result, his name has been handed down (albeit often as a second name) through this multi-talented artistic family.  He emigrated to Australia from England, where he’d had a rather lacklustre legal career because he’d been far more engaged in writing than the law.  He, his wife and three sons arrived in 1836. His mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law accompanied them. His wife died in 1841 leaving him with four sons, and when he was appointed to Port Phillip in 1846, he took the -inlaws with him.  Eight years later he married one of the sisters-in-law, an act that would have been illegal in England, but because the 1835 legislation which forbade it had not been passed in Australia, it was unremarkable here.  I find myself wondering if the strong family focus of the Boyds that Brenda Niall describes so well is prefigured in this extended family constellation from the start.

Second, he was a writer and intellectual outside the courtroom. Some of his poetry is pretty dire, but if he were alive today we’d probably see him as a public intellectual.  He gave lectures to academic institutions, he wrote columns in the newspapers under a pseudonym, and enjoyed dramatic performances, many of which were conducted in a domestic setting.

Third, he “laboured under” a form of paralysis that affected his legs.  It became increasingly worse, but it interests me that although he applied for, and received a period of sick leave in 1853,  he doesn’t seem to have used it as a reason for retirement for many years when others might have done so much earlier.  He was not entitled to a pension until he had served as a judge for 15 years, but there was provision for a shorter period where permanent disability had intervened.  He applied for a pension in 1857, after twelve years service, but he was dudded by Attorney-General Stawell who had welched on his arrangement for a’Beckett to receive a 2/3 salary pension because of permanent infirmity, and instead he only received 1/2 salary.  Nonetheless, after reading of the single-minded quests for pensions by other judges with much lesser claims (John Walpole Willis springs to mind….) I find it interesting that a’Beckett seems to have lived with his disability quite well.

Fourth, a’ Beckett was involved in the establishment of the Melbourne Unitarian Church (an institution close to my heart).  This was highly unconventional for a judge, as Unitarianism was, as the title of  Dorothy Scott’s book denotes “the half-way house to infidelity”. Most judges were associated with the Anglican Church; some with the Catholic church- but a Unitarian connection was most unusual.

It might have been his Unitarian leanings (bolstered by his strong support of the Temperance movement) that led him to take a minority view on the gold discoveries that changed the trajectory for the newly-separated state of Victoria.  In his opening address to the court in his role as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria (as distinct from the Resident Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales for the District of Port Phillip, now Victoria) he, in effect, “talked down” the boost to Victoria of the influx of gold seekers.  I’ve transcribed the whole talk on Trove here (as my little contribution to the good of humanity). In their opening addresses, judges always emphasized the importance of the rule of law to society, but his speech was directed at those who did not race off to the goldfields, emphasizing the importance of a settled community.  The Argus, which was edited by William Kerr (who had been so fulsome in his praise of Judge Willis) was an avowed enemy of this more recent resident judge, and highly critical of a’Beckett for this speech.

Which leads, fifth, to the fact that a’Beckett was the judge who presided over the Eureka trials.  Ah- the perils of being the judge in a case which gets drawn into the dragnet of popular history!  Although a’Beckett is characterized in these trials as being implacably opposed to the diggers, Bennett points out that in an earlier conspiracy trial in January 1855 where six men were charged with displaying placards encouraging lawlessness, a’Beckett instructed the jury that the Bakery Hill gathering had not been unlawful.  However, a’Beckett’s performance in the State Trials was widely criticized by the Argus and especially the Age at the time, and more recently by retired judges Fricke and Sir Arthur Dean.  Bennett rebuts these criticisms:

It is surprising and disappointing that the assessments of two retired judges from Victoria, relying on supposedly legal grounds that seem superficial, have criticized a’Beckett’s management of the trial… Perceiving old laws through modern eyes can be a deceptive course if those laws are expected to have been applied, in their own day, with the same ‘enlightenment’ revealed to later generations. (p 69, 70)

Bennett also spends quite a bit of time on another case, controversial at the time but relatively unknown today relating to George Dunmore Lang, the eldest son of the controversial John Dunmore Lang, who used political interference to influence his son’s trial for embezzlement.

Bennett’s opinion of a’Beckett is generally favourable.

He persevered in his goal of setting high judicial standards despite the almost unchecked licence assumed by the press to attack him in circumstances where, with either decorum or propriety, he could not respond.  The burdens of his office, in the conditions applying in early Victoria, would have tried even a judge in command of robust health.  That a’Beckett managed to win the confidence and esteem of the Bar that had been alienated by Willis; to stimulate harmony among the members of the new Supreme Court Bench; to dispense justice without fear of favour while himself constantly maligned in public; often to maintain an appearance of good humour in the face of illness; and to take courage to perform his duties incisively and to the satisfaction of the great majority of litigants (when, for much of his career, he was entirely alone and without the benefit of consultation or discussion with fellow judges), speaks eloquently for his character, strength of purpose, dedication and resolution.” p. 105.

2 responses to “‘Sir William a’Beckett’ by J. M. Bennett

  1. Whatever the merits of the volumes already produced, Bennett has taken on quite a task. It was interesting to learn a little about A’Beckett. I had no idea of his connection to the Boyds.

  2. Pingback: ‘The Boyds: a family biography’ by Brenda Niall | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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