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Sir William Foster Stawell (1815–1889)

from Argus

William Stawell, n.d.

William Stawell, n.d.

Coburg Historical Society

It is with extreme regret that we have to announce that news was received yesterday of the death, at Naples, of the Lieutenant Governor and ex Chief Justice, Sir William Foster Stawell. To those who were acquainted with the state of his health the announcement was not altogether unexpected. Since his resignation of the chief magistracy in 1886, Sir William has never been strong, and for the last few months he has suffered severely from insomnia and other afflictions of increasing age. In January last he left for Europe, in the hope that change of scene might restore him to some measure of health. These expectations have unfortunately not been realised, for he died at Naples on Tuesday, after five days' illness.

Sir William Stawell was born July, 1815, and was therefore nearly 74 years of age. He was the second son of Mr. Jonas Stawell, of Old Court, in the county of Cork. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where he acquired classical honours and (in 1837) the degree of Bachelor of Arts. With the intention of adopting the law as a profession, he entered himself at King's Inn, Dublin, and Lincoln's Inn, London, and in 1839 he was called to the bar. Mr. Stawell came to the colony in 1842, and engaged in squatting pursuits in conjunction with his relative, Mr. J. R. L. V. Foster. He also practised as a barrister in Melbourne, and soon secured his share of business. He was a great advocate for the separation of the Port Phillip district from New South Wales, and also for the abolition of transportation to Australia, and in the demonstrations which were held from time to time with a view to the accomplishment of these objects he took a prominent part. In 1851, when separation had been secured, and the colony, under the name of "Victoria," was declared independent, Mr. Stawell was created Attorney General. This, of all the appointments made by Governor La Trobe, appeared to give the greatest satisfaction The selection was all the more acceptable because, for some time previous, apprehensions were entertained that the chief law officer of the Crown would be some other than—to use the language of the journals of the day— "the able, conscientious, and high-minded man" ultimately chosen for the position. For five years—the most eventful lustrum in the history of the colony—Mr. Stawell held uninterrupted possession of the Attorney Generalship, and this, notwithstanding considerable modifications in the personnel of the Cabinet, and the changes that were made in the leadership of the Executive. The first Colonial Secretary was Captain Lonsdale, who was superseded by Mr. Potter, who in turn had to give way to the late Mr. W. C. Haines. But with each Mr. Stawell was the Attorney General, and both in that capacity and as a nominee member of the local Legislature—where he distinguished himself as a skilful debater—he discharged his duties in a manner which left its mark deep on the history of the colony. The times were troublous. The influx of the gold-seekers introduced a vast disorganised population to our shores. Society was upset. On one of the diggings the discontented spirits were in open rebellion, and were not put down without serious bloodshed. In such times the Attorney-General of a Crown colony, with his great powers and his great responsibility, had an onerous duty to discharge, and Mr. Stawell never flinched. A storm of unpopularity was directed against him, but he went on, sustained by his own consciousness of right and by the approval of his associates. The learned gentleman took a very active part in connection with the framing of the Constitution Act. His connection with this measure cannot be more accurately put than in the words of his successor:—" The community of the time," says Mr Higinbotham, speaking of the Constitution Act in Toy v. Musgrove, "was apathetic and almost wholly uninformed on all political subjects. In this place, and by the members of the profession of the law, it is not, and I hope it never will be, forgotten, that the foremost, longo intervallo, of the pioneers of Victorian legislation, foremost in capacity, in public spirit, and in unselfish devotion to exacting duties and to unremitting and stupendous labours, was he who afterwards as Chief Justice of this court administered for 29 years the general body of Victorian laws, most of which he had himself designed, prepared, and carried into legislative effect. The fact that Mr. Stawell drafted the Constitution Bill and carried it through the Legislative Council is a fact of which I feel that I am at liberty to take cognisance, and it is a fact which imposes on me, and on every judge who may with me allow himself to notice it, a special duty to seek diligently until we find that of which the name of its author guarantees the existence, namely, a rational and consistent meaning and purpose in the whole and in all parts of the measure." The names which our Houses of Legislature bear were his suggestion. Several public men advocated the titles of "Senate" and "House of Representatives," but Mr. Stawell's view prevailed, and "Legislative Council "and "Legislative Assembly" were the names adopted. A political contemporary (Mr H. B. Chapman) in his pamphlet on "Parliamentary Government," pronounced the learned Attorney-General to be "almost the only efficient man connected with the Government," and it was generally admitted, within a few months of Mr. Stawell first taking office, that his was the mastermind.

In 1856, on the inauguration of the Constitution, Mr. Stawell gracefully accepted the new order of things; and, being invited by influential requisition to become a candidate for the representation of the city of Melbourne, in the Legislative Assembly, he readily responded to the calls, and engaged with characteristic ardour in an election contest, which resulted in his return. His first meeting was held at Astley's Amphitheatre, in Spring street. This building was afterwards known as the Princess's Theatre, the wooden structure which has recently been demolished. The meeting was the occasion of great excitement. Mr Stawell had been the subject of systematic abuse, and he now turned and faced his foes. His courage and his frank explanations told, and the meeting was a triumphant success, and secured for him his election. The contest proved, indeed, that the grumbling was loud and not deep, and that Mr. Stawell had the enthusiastic confidence of the stable sections of society. He was the "still strong man" of the politics of the period. The meeting at Astley's was nearly attended with serious consequences. During the proceedings the stage gave way, and several persons were greatly frightened, if not hurt. In consequence of this mishap the meeting adjourned outside, and the candidate continued his address from a window. The speech was known ever after as Mr Stawell's "leg out of window" oration.

Soon after the assembling of Parliament, Mr. Stawell introduced a bill for "defining the privileges, immunities, and powers of the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly of Victoria respectively." This measure, which simply provided that the privileges then enjoyed by the House of Commons should be the privileges of the Legislature of Victoria, was passed with slight discussion, and was the first bill which received the Royal assent. In February, 1857, Mr William A'Beckett resigned, from failing health, the office of Chief Justice of Victoria, and the vacant dignity was conferred upon Mr. Stawell. By this time the political animosity of the goldfield period had faded away, and the high abilities, the unwavering rectitude, the elevated moral tone of Mr. Stawell were recognised and appreciated throughout the land, and we believe we are correct in stating that his appointment was as satisfactory to the colony at was that of 1851.

In bidding adieu to the Legislative Assembly on the occasion of his elevation to the bench, Mr. Stawell made these remarks — "As I am about to take a position which will preclude me from occupying my usual place in this Assembly, I avail myself of this occasion to address a few words to the members of both the old Council and the Assembly. I see many old and well remembered faces around me, and I must acknowledge the uniform courtesy and kindness always shown to me during the many years I have held the office I am now resigning — an office not the most popular. I have been in this House from the very commencement of a local legislature, and though I do not possess the most patient temperament, I must bear my testimony to the fact that I have received (with only one exception) a uniform exhibition of the patience and kindness of honourable members. In wishing this House farewell, may I express a hope that the same demeanour may still characterise honourable members in all communications one towards the other — that the same free and full discussion of the subjects brought before your consideration will still mark your debates — and that, devoid of personality, all your labours will prove a blessing to yourselves, and tend to promote the welfare of our common country." The new Chief Justice received at the time a fitting testimonial from the citizens of Melbourne, and knighthood from the hands of Her Majesty followed soon afterward.

In 1874 Sir William Stawell obtained leave of absence and proceeded on a visit to Europe. Prior to his departure he was entertained at a dinner by the members of the bar at the Athenaeum hotel. On his return to the colony he discharged the duties of Acting Governor during the absence of Sir George Bowen. The defeat of the Kerferd Service Government in 1875 threw upon him the onus of deciding whether that Ministry was entitled to a dissolution of the Legislative Assembly. His decision was that it was his duty to exhaust the parties in the Parliament before convoking a new Assembly, and he entrusted to Mr Graham Berry the task of forming a new administration. Thus the first Berry Ministry obtained office, but when it proved unable to command a majority in the Legislative Assembly it refused to submit to the rule which Sir William Stawell had adopted being applied to itself. An outdoor agitation was commenced to coerce the Acting Governor to swerve from his principle. A dissolution was, however, refused to the Berry Administration, which then resigned, and Sir James McCulloch formed a new Administration. Sir William Stawell was relieved from duty as Acting Governor by the return of Sir G. Bowen in February, 1877. Since then he has only once been Acting Governor, namely, during the interval between the departure of the Marquis of Normandy and the arrival of Sir Henry Loch, from March to July 1884. Towards the end of 1884, as we have already stated, his failing health obliged him to apply for leave of absence as Chief Justice, when Mr. Justice Molesworth was appointed Acting Chief Justice, and Judge Cope was appointed to act as a judge of the Supreme Court.

After an absence of eighteen months, Sir William again resumed his judicial duties. Several cases were conducted before him but before long it became apparent to him that the health which he had sought he had not found, and that the strain of the judicial office was beyond his powers. Accordingly in August 1886, he placed his resignation m the hands of the Attorney General. With his resignation, Sir William Stawell's association with public affairs may be said to have terminated He was soon after appointed Lieutenant-Governor — an appointment which formed a fitting close to a long and honourable career of public usefulness, but the position did not entail any active service. With the exception of church matters, in which he continued to take a lively interest his declining years were passed in quiet home life, in intercourse with friends, and in appearance at a few ceremonial occasions.

As a judge, it may be said of Sir William Stawell that he was upright, impartial, und assiduous. He always took a deep interest in the material welfare of the colony. He was president of the Philosophical Institute (now Royal Society) of Victoria in 1858-9. He was an enthusiast on the subject of exploring the interior of the Australian continent, and as chairman of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society he actually superintended the arrangements in connection with the Burke and Wills expedition, and on the occasion of the funeral of the lamented explorers, he headed the large band of mourners who followed their remains to the grave. Sir William has been a trustee of the Public Library, a president of the Victorian Deaf and Dumb lnstitution, a president of the Melbourne Hospital and the Benevolent Asylum, and was also officially connected with other charitable objects. He was a member of the council of the University from the time of the foundation of that institution, and on the death of Sir Redmond Barry, who had been for many years chancellor of the University, was appointed as chancellor in his place. This position, after occupying it for some months, he resigned. His Honour has been also a prominent member of the Church of England and has taken a very active part in the deliberations of the Church Assembly in which he exercised considerable influence. Lady Stawell and a family of four daughters and six sons survive Sir William.


The intelligence of Sir William Stawell's death was communicated to the Chief Justice yesterday afternoon during the time that the Court had adjourned for lunch. When the Banco Court resumed its sitting,

The Chief Justice said,—Since the rising of the Court I have received intelligence by telegram of the death yesterday at Naples of Sir William Stawell, lately the Chief Justice of this court. The intelligence came on me with a startling shock. It seems only the other day since some of us parted from him on the mail steamer by which he left the colony for England. At that time we knew that his health was weak, but we did not anticipate, and had no reason to believe, that he was so near to death. I do not intend to speak to my brother members of the profession upon this event at the present. There are few of them who are not familiar with the more recent period of Sir William Stawell's life when he presided in this court. There are some of them — not many — who can turn their memory to a distant period when he presided over the administration of the affairs of the colony of Victoria, at a time when he laid the foundation of that system of law which he afterwards so admirably and ably administered in this court. To me his death constitutes the close of a historical period. I will now only say that I think the history of his life and his splendid example as a judge, as a man, and also as a politician, may well commend itself to the careful study and consideration of all of us, and especially of the younger members of this community. The Court will not continue its sitting today, but will now rise in token of deference to his memory.

Dr Madden said,—I have just this moment learned the news to which your Honour has alluded, and which must come with some sense of affliction to all those members of the bar and the bench who have been associated in any degree with the administration of justice for many years past. One may see in the life now terminated the history of Victoria personified. If one wished for an honourable, efficient, and admirable representative of the interests ot the colony from its birth to the present day it would be difficult to point to anyone more entitled to that distinction than Sir William Stawell. So far as we are concerned he was the embodiment of an able and admirable judge. His faults — and every man must possess faults — all tended in the direction of complete uprightness and his absolute determination that right should prevail. And anybody who suffered for a moment from what they regarded as a weakness, but which was real strength, never had any other feeling than that rectitude and uprightness were the leading features of Sir William Stawell's existence. Coming with the suddenness that this news has come, I feel little able to say what I earnestly thirst to say. On behalf of the bar, I have to express our everlasting regret for the distinguished and admirable judge who has gone from us. I know that these observations are but a weak expression for so great a cause.

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'Stawell, Sir William Foster (1815–1889)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

William Stawell, n.d.

William Stawell, n.d.

Coburg Historical Society

Life Summary [details]


27 June, 1815
Oldcourt, Cork, Ireland


12 March, 1889 (aged 73)
Naples, Italy

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