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Sir John Stokell Dodds (1848–1914)

The announcement of the death of the Chief Justice, Sir John Stokell Dodds, which occurred at 9.30 o'clock last evening, after a lengthy illness, will be heard with general regret. Sir John Dodds was not a Tasmanian by birth, but apart from this he was, to all intents and purposes, a Tasmanian. He was educated in Tasmania, and his interests had been identified with those of this State throughout his life. When quite a young man he sprang suddenly into the very front rank amongst Tasmanian statesmen at a time when ability of a really high order and force of character were more conspicuously exhibited on the political stage than they are at present. From politics, after a few years in which he did much to mould the course of the future of development of the State, Sir John passed to the judicial bench, and for many years past he held what is from every point of view the highest position in the State, save only that of the King's representative, and even this latter he had filled on important occasions.

Sir John Dodds came of an old North Country family, a fact to which is, perhaps, due to some of the tenacity of purpose and firmness of grip which distinguished him throughout his life. He was born in 1848 in Yorkshire, where his grandfather, was, for many years vicar of Kirkleatham. While still a boy he came to Hobart where his uncle was then in medical practice. His father had died when he was quite young, and the future judge was left to the care of his mother, to whose example and training he ascribed much of his success in life. Sir John Dodds early turned his attention to the profession by which he was to rise to eminence, and soon after he was 16 he began the study of law under the late Mr. W. Pitt.

It was in February, 1872, 42 years ago that Sir John was admitted to the bar. His ability and energy soon brought him into a very prominent position in the legal world in Hobart, and in a few years he built up a very large practice. The law did not, however, take up all his time, he believed in the saying, "A sound mind in a sound body," and during these earlier years took a very active part in sport. In particular, he was a very active and successful rower. He was one of the earliest members of the Derwent Rowing Club, and was that club's first secretary. As a member of that club's crews he shared in many hard-won victories. As a cricketer, too, he made his mark in those days, and his interest in these and other brands of sport always remained very keen.

For six years, from 1872 to 1878, Mr. Dodds, as he then was, devoted himself to the business of the law. Curiously enough, considering the brilliant success of his political career, he never, during those early years, gave any special attention to, or took any interest in, political matters, but when he was persuaded to stand for East Hobart, he at once won the confidence of the electors.

In 1878 Mr. Dodds was returned as an Opposition member, the Giblin Ministry being then in power. The result of his return, and that of Dr. E. L. Crowther, was to upset the balance of power. The Giblin Ministry left office, and was replaced by a new Government, in which Dr. W. L. Crowther was Premier. Within a month of his return Mr. Dodds took the portfolio of Attorney-General in the new Ministry.

When Mr. Dodds first entered Parliament parties were very evenly balanced in the Assembly, and the Crowther Government could not carry on with its "miserable majority of one." Those were difficult times. In a subsequent coalition Government he retained his old post of Attorney-General. The coalition Ministry proved a greater success than coalition Ministries are apt to do. The necessary taxation was imposed, and things were kept going. In 1881 Mr. Dodds at last yielded to Mr. Giblin’s still continued pressure, and agreed to take the portfolio of Treasurer and Postmaster-General. The financial position had by now so much improved that the new Government was able to launch out into a progressive scheme of public works for the development of the State. In 1884 Mr. Giblin resigned the Premiership, and was succeeded by Mr. Douglas. Mr. Dodds took this opportunity, after three years as Treasurer, during which he had made his mark in that capacity, of going back to his old position as Attorney-General. At the same time Mr. Dodds was unanimously elected as leader of the House of Assembly. In 1886 Mr. Douglas resigned the Premiership to accept the position of Agent-General. This gave rise to an interesting constitutional point. Mr Douglas was desirous of nominating Mr Dodds to form a new Administration, but wished to couple with this a provision that a certain member should be Premier. Mr. Dodds objected to any such provision, not because he wanted to be Premier himself, but because, as leader of the party, he claimed the right to unfettered action in forming his Government. Mr. Douglas stuck to his condition, and advised the Governor to send for Dr. Agnew (afterwards Sir James Agnew). Dr. Agnew tried to form a Government but failed. Mr Doddss was then sent for and formed an Administration. Having carried the important constitutional principle for which he was contending, Mr Dodds generously gave up his claim to the Premiership in favour of Dr Agnew, contenting himself with his old position of Attorney-General.

In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee, Mr. Dodds was appointed to represent Tasmania at the Colonial Conference in London. While on his way to London he received a cablegram offering him the senior puisne judgeship, rendered vacant by the death of Mr. Justice Giblin. Mr. Dodd accepted the offer, and his political career, meteoric in its brilliancy, but comparatively brief, was closed, and a new and much longer chapter of service to the State in a judicial capacity was opened, a chapter now just closed after the lapse of 28 years.

During the next 12 years Mr. Justice Dodds occupied a place on the Bench as Senior Puisne Judge, while he was called upon to act for a while as Chief Justice in 1894, and was Lieutenant-Governor in 1888. In 1898 he was appointed Chief Justice, a position he filled with the greatest credit and distinction ever since.

Side by side with his judicial duties as Chief Justice, Sir John was also called on from time to time to act as the Sovereign's representative in Tasmania. And it so happened that this occurred precisely during the most stirring and history-making periods. For instance, it fell to Sir John's lot to set the seal upon a work he had taken a hand in during his political career many years before, when he represented Tasmania on the Federal Council of Australasia. As the Queen's representative, he signed the bill by which Tasmania, in 1901, became one of the States of the Commonwealth of Australia. Sir John Dodds was acting as Governor, too, during the stirring days of the war in South Africa, when Tasmanian contingents were being sent forward. It is hard in these times of peace to realise the burning fever of patriotic enthusiasm which animated everybody at that time.

It was at this time that, after several other attempts in the same direction had been made, but failed, Sir John took up the matter of raising by public subscription a sum huge enough to equip and send out from Tasmania a contingent of mounted infantry. In this he was entirely successful, and the result was a remarkable performance for a little place like Tasmania.

Sir John Dodds was acting as Governor when Queen Victoria died, after a reign of 64 years, and at the time of the accession of King Edward VII. Both were occasions calling for a special knowledge of procedure, and in both Sir John discharged his high office with the greatest success. To his lot, too, fell the duty of entertaining the present King and Queen during their visit to Tasmania. This delicate and important task he and his family discharged to the entire satisfaction of their Majesties, who were pleased to express the great pleasure their stay here had given them.

One way of summing up Sir John's most remarkable career is to quote the words of the then Premier (Mr. Solomon) in welcoming Sir John on his return to the Bench after a leave of absence. Mr Solomon pointed out that no other man in Tasmania had achieved such a record as Sir John had. No man, certainly, had filled as many important public positions. For many years he filled the position of Chancellor to the University. No finer addresses of their kind have ever been heard in Tasmania than those which Sir John, as Chancellor, delivered at the annual University Commemoration. Sir John Dodds, apart from his manifold service to the cause of education in this State, first as Minister, and later as Chancellor of the University, always showed a deep and active interest in all branches of art, literature, and music, he had for a number of years been president of the Art Society of Tasmania, and local artists owe much to his support and discriminating patronage. In earlier days he was president of the Literary and Debating Society, then a power in the land, and he had also been connected with various musical societies. As Sir John was an Englishman by birth, though also a good Tasmanian by adoption and lifelong service, it was only fitting that he should be president of the Royal Society of St. George. Of the many important public and semi-public positions Sir John had held, he had filled them all with honour to himself and to the great advantage of the community.

In some respects his success in political life is even more startling than his success as a judge, for he came into politics without previous training or experience, and took a leading position from the very start, and this, too, at a time when our State Parliament was unusually full of men of high ability. He had a great record of constructive statemenship to his credit during his nine years of Ministerial office.

In short, it may be said of Sir John Dodds that he has done the State some service, and that his magnificent record of accomplishment is fully appreciated by those in whose interests he worked has been made evident by the many expressions of opinion, both public and private, which have been uttered from time to time. Of late his health had been unsatisfactory, but until quite recently he cherished the hope that he would be able to resume his duties on the Bench.

In 1867 he married Emma Augusta, daughter of the Rev. James Norman, and widow of the late Mr. Gatehouse. Lady Dodds predeceased Sir John. He leaves two sons, Warren and Norman Dodds.

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'Dodds, Sir John Stokell (1848–1914)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 June 2024.

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