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à Beckett, Sir William (1806–1869)

Sir William A'Beckett, who died at Upper Norwood, Surrey, on the 27th of June, was descended from an ancient Wiltshire family. He was born in 1806, and was educated at Westminster. Selecting the bar for his profession, he was entered as a student at Lincoln's Inn, and he was called in 1829. For some years afterwards he devoted himself to literature. One of the results of his labours at that time was the Universal Biography, a compilation occupying three large octavo volumes. Subsequently, he left England for Sydney, where he soon acquired practice. In 1841 he held the position of a law officer of the Crown, and in 1846 he was created a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. In February of the latter year he was selected to succeed Mr. Justice Therry as the "resident judge in and for the district of Port Phillip." When separation took place, the learned gentleman became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, and in 1852 he received the honour of knighthood. In February, 1853, having obtained leave of absence for two years, Sir William took the opportunity of paying a visit to Europe. Before his departure, he was presented by the legal profession with an address, in which his virtues, both as a judge and a gentleman, were fully recognised. While absent, Sir William visited the principal cities on the European continent, and published his experiences in a brochure called Out of Harness. He returned to Victoria in January, 1855. He administered the oaths of office to Sir Charles Hotham on the occasion of the inauguration of the Constitution, when His Excellency had to be "reconstituted and reappointed Governor of Victoria," and also to Sir Henry Barkly on that gentleman assuming the governorship of the colony. Sir William remained on the bench until February, 1857, when increasing physical infirmities compelled him to resign his distinguished position.

The esteem in which the learned judge was held by the legal profession may be gathered from what transpired in the Supreme Court, Melbourne, on the 20th February, 1857, when Sir William A'Beckett took his seat on the bench for the last time. The whole of the bar rose, and the Attorney-General of the day, Mr. (now Sir) W. F. Stawell, in presenting an address, thus remarked: – "I have to express the regret of the bar that we shall not have the pleasure of meeting you again as presiding on that bench which you have adorned for a period of ten years. During that time, I do not hesitate to say, you have gained the universal esteem of the bar, not only for your high attainments, but also for your ability and impartiality. You alone, unaided and unassisted, raised the bench to the high esteem in which it is now held, and won for it its reputation for uprightness in all its decisions... Among the members of the profession there is but one common sentiment prevailing – that of respect for your abilities as a judge, and, I might almost say, affection for you as a man."

Sir William, in the course of his reply, said, "The address would have been gratifying to me under any circumstances; but it is all the more gratifying seeing that, with the exception of Westminster-hall, I do not believe that in any part of Her Majesty's dominions is there a more intelligent or respectable bar than in the Supreme Court of Victoria. I congratulate my successor, whoever he may be, on the opportunity given him of commencing his career with such a bench, and with such coadjutors as those now sitting near me."

Soon afterwards Sir William took his departure from the colony. For several years he resided at Surbiton, Surrey, where his taste for literature and art enabled him to turn his "learned leisure" to the best possible account. He married – first, in 1833, his cousin Emily, who died in 1842; and secondly, in 1849, the daughter of Mr. Hayley, of Melbourne. Sir William A'Beckett was brother to the late Gilbert Abbot A'Beckett, the celebrated humorist, and to the Hon. T. T. A'Beckett, M.L.C. He was a great supporter of the temperance movement, and was vice-president of the United Kingdom Alliance to the Liquor Law League. In addition to the works we have mentioned, Sir William A'Beckett was author of The Magistrate's Manual for Victoria, a considerable portion of The Georgian Era, The Earl's Choice, and other poems, &c.

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'à Beckett, Sir William (1806–1869)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/a-beckett-sir-william-2862/text24081, accessed 24 August 2017.

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