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Sir Robert Randolph Garran (1867–1957)

by Geoffrey Sawer

Sir Robert Garran had four careers. First he was the brilliant classics student who might have gone on to become a great University teacher; instead this humanist beginning supplied some of the elements of greatness in his subsequent activities—love of and a practising interest in the arts, especially music and literature, a critical but kindly approach to human society and its traditions, an ability to stand outside the narrowing values of the common law. Having acquired the education of a gentleman, he proceeded in the manner of the time to scratch together an education as a lawyer, but had barely started this process when he was caught up in his second career—that of the constitution maker. He was the young assistant to the legal and political giants of the federation movement, but gained stature in the process. As Secretary to the Drafting Committee of the 1898-9 Conventions, he had the most complete access of any man to the "intentions of the Founders," and much trouble might have been saved in subsequent years if he could have been given a special position as the oracle to solve all ambiguities; of those concerned in writing the Constitution, he alone would have been trusted by all to play such a role. Instead he wound up this career by writing the greater part of Quick and Garran's "Annotated Constitution"—a tour de force of accuracy and comprehension, produced at break-neck speed. Garran then started his third and longest career, as chief Commonwealth public servant and legal adviser to successive Federal Governments until his retirement from the office of Solicitor General in 1932. In his own memory, the high spot of this career was his first-war partnership with William Morris Hughes; together they ruled the country with a fountain-pen, and if one criticised Hughes, Sir Robert would say: "Maybe, but I loved him like a brother." Then after retirement came Garran the Father of Canberra, nurturer of its educational, religious and cultural life, and advocate for its political rights. The Commonwealth was fortunate in having through so much of its early history the services of such a man—superbly intelligent, with great practical commonsense, a Christian both in moral rectitude and in loving-kindness, selfless, devoid of any faintest touch of arrogance, priggishness or conceit, with a sense both of humour and of fun. The Australian National University is proud of having Garran among its own Founding Fathers—a member of the Interim Council from its inception, and our first Graduate—an honorary Doctor of Laws. But he was an old man by the time our University began to take shape, and he was mainly concerned to cheer on the younger men in that enterprise. As an educationist, he will be more particularly remembered at the Canberra University College, and the Garran Chair of Law there will be, among many Canberra mementoes (including a road on the Australian National University site) the one likely to please his spirit most.

Original publication

Citation details

Geoffrey Sawer, 'Garran, Sir Robert Randolph (1867–1957)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 February, 1867
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


11 January, 1957 (aged 89)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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