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à Beckett, Sir Thomas (1836–1919)

Sir Thomas a'Beckett, who, until his retirement on July 31 1917, was senior puisne judge of Victoria, died at his residence, Orrong road, Armadale, on Saturday night, after a long illness. He was a son of the late Mr. Thomas Turner a'Beckett, formerly registrar of the Diocese of Melbourne, and was in his 83rd year, having been born in London on August 31, 1836.

Lady a'Beckett, who survives her husband, is a daughter of the late Sir Archibald Michie. The family consists of two sons (Mr. Thomas A. a'Beckett, a member of the legal firm of a'Beckett and Chomley, and Mr. Gilbert a'Beckett a well-known barrister who recently returned from the war) and three daughters. The funeral, which will be conducted by A. A. Sleight, will be at the St. Kilda Cemetery this afternoon at a quarter past 3 o'clock.

It may safely be said that no judge was ever more personally popular with the members of the bar than the late Sir Thomas a'Beckett. The feeling entertained towards him was more than deep esteem—it was rather a love for one who in all things showed himself as the possessor of a lovable personality. Always good-tempered, obliging, and courteous, never allowing himself to be ruffled, but smiling in circumstances where a less happily tempered man would show that he was sorely tired, he won the affection of all; while at the same time his great ability in dealing with the problems that came before him also evoked genuine admiration for him as a judge.

Sir Thomas was trained for the law, and after admission to the English bar at Lincoln's Inn at the age of 23 he in the following following year commenced the practice of his profession in Victoria and speedily made his way to the front. At the age of 50 he in 1886 accepted appointment to the Supreme Court bench. In 1909 in recognition of his eminent services, he received the honour of knighthood, being created a knight bachelor. By his position on the bench he was debarred from taking part in public affairs, but such movements as he could participate in, he was always ready to show his sympathy. He was chosen as a member of the council of the Melbourne University in 1887, and took considerable interest in the welfare and advancement of that institution during the many years with which he was connected with it.

As a judge he will be remembered as being particularly sound and clear. His grounding was essentially in equity. During the 26 years in which he practised in the courts his chief work lay in that branch, and for some time with the late Sir Edward Holroyd, he was a leader of the equity bar, which at that time included Mr Webb (afterwards Mr. Justice Webb) and Mr. Lawes. Mr. Justice Holroyd preceded him on the bench, and in the interval, till he was himself elevated, Mr. Justice a'Beckett was recognised as head of the equity bar. So in the period of over 30 years that he served upon the bench he came to be recognised as one of the greatest equity judges Australia has known. Sometimes counsel, who preferred to look at matters rather from the point of view of common law practice than of equity, did not always appreciate the more direct methods which his equity training might lead him to adopt and felt objection to the desire he indicated to shorten a case by cutting corners, or his disregard to the attitude of cross-examining counsel. But, on the whole, it was felt, even in these things, that he was probably acting in the right direction. That the results generally went to prove this may be accepted, for probably there is no judge whose decisions have been less frequently disturbed by the High Court or by the Privy Council and certainly none whose considered judgments were received by the courts of appeal with deeper respect and attention.

That desire for directness which has been referred to as a marked characteristic is reflected in his judgments, and they have always been remarkable for lucidity and perspicuous statement. He possessed, too, in a marked degree, the gift of felicitous and forcible expression, of saying that which he had to say in the fewest words, and those the words which would most clearly and most strongly convey to his hearers or to readers of his judgments, just the idea he wished to put before them. This was paticularly noticeable in considered judgments, in which he defined the principles of law involved and their application to the particular case in which he was dealing. Essentially a strong judge, he took strong views upon questions which came before him, and when he had made up his mind upon an issue it was not an easy matter to shift him. His deep knowledge of the law and capacity in applying its principles were combined with an equally strong appreciation of the strength and the weakness of human nature that helped much in fitting him for his position.

Sir Thomas a'Beckett had the saving grace of humour. It was frequently indicated by some dry and piquant remark from the bench, and almost every member of the bar has some story of him in his non-judicial character that revealed in some way that kindly humour that so brightened his general outlook in life, and helped with other traits, to make his such a lovable character. That considerateness of others which was part of his nature was shown very often by the manner in which he dealt with witnesses of all classes in the courts over which he presided. Whether it was an involved technical civil suit; some unravelling of a sordid story in the Criminal Court, or the telling of a tragedy of wrecked lives in the divorce jurisdiction, the timid, nervous witness desiring to put his or her testimony properly before the Court was oftentimes relieved and assisted by the kindly tone of Mr. Justice a'Beckett, just as his hatred of sham and subterfuge gave to other witnesses with whom he was not satisfied a view of the judge in sterner mood.

In 1916 the members of the bar took the opportunity afforded by his 80th birthday, and the completion of 30 years on the bench, to present to the judges of the Supreme Court, with his permission, a portrait of himself to be placed in line with portraits of other judges in the Supreme Court library. The portrait which depicts Sir Thomas a'Beckett in his robes, was an excellent piece of work of Mr. Max Meldrum. The unveiling was made the occasion of a little demonstration at which some congratulatory speeches were made. On his birthday, members of the bar assembled in the conference room at the Law Courts to express their regard for him, and the hope that he would be spared to long exercise his functions as a judge. He was very much touched by the warmth of the reception which was accorded to him, and said that, while in the ordinary course of things he could not expect to remain long with them he still hoped that some time would elapse before he would feel called upon to retire from office. It was on July 2, 1917, that he submitted his resignation as a judge to the government. He had been on holidays, on account of illness which would not expire until July 15. But he had returned to the bench where he wrote his resignation. He left his office finally on July 31. Sir Alexander Peacock, who was Premier at the time, expressed the opinion that Sir Thomas a'Beckett had, throughout his judicial career evinced a fine public spirit and had been highly appreciated by the legal profession.

He was a great lover of manly sport. Until within the last two years he was very fond of a game of tennis and played regularly with friends, his activity oftentimes putting a test upon men much younger than himself. Able to play the game himself, he was at all times an interested onlooker at important tennis matches, and missed few if any, of the games for the Davis Cup. As a cyclist he had travelled all over Victoria. He frequently took his cycle with him when on circuit, and with his associate (Mr. Thomas Pennefather) journeyed from one circuit to another.

Original publication

Citation details

'à Beckett, Sir Thomas (1836–1919)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/a-beckett-sir-thomas-2860/text24089, accessed 22 September 2017.

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