Portrait of Sir Samuel Walker Griffith
News of the day

Northern Star, Tuesday 10 August 1920, page 4



The death occurred at Brisbane yesterday of Sir Samuel Griffith, late Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, and formerly Chief Justice of Queensland.  The deceased, who was 75 years of age, had been suffering from a long illness.  A public funeral will take place on Wednesday, but it has not yet been decided whether it will be conducted by the State or the Commonwealth.

In the death of Sir S. W. Griffith there passed away full of glory the ablest lawyer and one of the cleverest men Australia has yet produced, for although Welsh by birth he was brought to Australia when 8 years of age, and with the exception of several visits to the old country, spent the remainder of his long life in the Antipodes.  From Pugh's "Men of the Time," the following biographical notes up to 1901 are taken -----His Excellency the Right Hon. Sir Samuel Walker Griffith, G.C.M.G., P.C., Chief Justice, was born at Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, on 21st June 1845, and arrived in Australia in 1854 with his father, the late Rev. E. Griffith, a well-known Congregational minister, who, with his family settled, on arrival, at Ipswich; removing after a time to Maitland, and subsequently settling in Brisbane.  Sir S. W. Griffith was educated at Mr. Robert Horniman's, Sydney, afterwards at the High School at Maitland, where he was a distinguished pupil, and subsequently, in 1860, proceeded to the University of Sydney, where he had a brilliant career, taking the B.A. degree with first class honours in classics and mathematics in 1863, and winning, in 1865, the Mort Travelling Fellowship. M.A. 1870.  On his return to Queensland he took up the profession of the law, being articled, to Mr. A. Macalister, Brisbane, with whom he was subsequently associated in politics.  After a trip to England he was, in 1867, called to the Queensland Bar, where he soon acquired a large practice.  He was appointed Q.C. in 1876. He was also a member of the Bars of New South Wales and Victoria.  He held a first rank in the Parliament of Queensland, which he entered in March 1872, as member of the Legislative Assembly for East Moreton. In November 1873, Sir S.W. Griffith was, after the dissolution of Parliament, elected for the newly created seat of Oxley. In August 1874, he was appointed Attorney-General in the Macalister Ministry and in 1876, also Secretary for Public Instruction, being the first Minister to hold that office, which was created under the State Education Act of 1876, of which he was the author.  He continued to hold this office in the Thorn and Douglas Ministries.  In September 1878, he became Secretary for Public Works; but resigned on the defeat of the Douglas Ministry in January 1879.  From 1879 to 1883 he led the Opposition in the Assembly.  In 1878 he was elected member for North Brisbane, for which place he sat until his appointment as Chief Justice in 1893. On the resignation of the McIlwraith Ministry in November 1883, Sir S. W. Griffith formed a Liberal Ministry accepting for himself, the offices of Premier, Colonial Secretary, and Secretary for Public Instruction, and afterwards holding the offices of Premier and Chief Secretary, and for some time that of Treasurer also.  In December 1883, he attended the Intercolonial Federal Convention, held at Sydney, and took a prominent part in the important business of that Convention, which led to the establishment of the Federal Council of Australasia.  In February 1886, he, with Mr. Dickson, represented Queensland at the first session of the Federal Council, which was held at Hobart, and was elected Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Council formed for the transaction of business during the recess.  In July 1886, he was created a Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George. In January 1887, he, with Sir James Garrick, Agent-General for the Colony, was appointed to represent Queensland at the Conference of Representatives of Her Majesty's Colonial Possessions, which met in London in March of that year, under the Presidency of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir Henry Holland, to consult upon questions of general Imperial interest.  In the deliberations, his large experience of intercolonial affairs proved of great value, and it was largely owing to his efforts that some matters of pressing importance, such as the proposals for the administration of British New Guinea, and for the establishment of the Australasian Auxiliary Squadron, were brought to a definite issue.  He was elected President of the Federal Council in the session of 1888, and again in the sessions of 1891 and 1893.  He resigned office as Premier in June 1888, after the General Election, at which he had been re-elected for North Brisbane, and led the Opposition party in the Legislative Assembly, until August 1890, when, on the resignation of the Morehead Ministry, he formed a Government, in conjunction with Sir Thomas McIlwraith, taking office as Premier, Chief Secretary, and Attorney-General, which offices he continued to hold until 13th March 1893.  Sir Samuel was one of the representatives of Queensland in the Federation Convention, held at Sydney in 1891, of which he was elected vice-president.  He was also Chairman of the Committee appointed to frame a Constitution for the proposed Australian Federation.  On the 13th March 1893, on the retirement of Sir Charles Lilley, he was appointed to the office of Chief Justice, the salary of which office had in the session of 1892 been increased, with a view-to his acceptance of the position, to £3500.  On 1st January 1895, he was advanced to the first class (Grand Cross) of the Order of St. Michael, and St. George.  When, his Excellency the Governor obtained leave of absence from the colony, Sir Samuel was ap pointed Administrator of the Government, and on 15th September 1899.  Her Most Gracious Majesty bestowed upon him the honour of appointing him to the office of Lieutenant-Governor of the colony and its dependencies.  In his despatch transmitting the commission under the Royal sign-manual and signet, containing Sir Samuel's appointment, the Right Honourable the Secretary of State for the; Colonics made reference thereto in the following terms: "I have had much pleasure in advising Her Majesty to confer this appointment on Sir Samuel Griffith, in consideration of his long and distinguished services in connection with the colony of Queensland" , and that expression of approval has been heartily endorsed by the people of Queensland and the other Australian colonies.  In 1900 he did signal service in the cause of Federation in adjusting the difference between the Federal delegates of England and the Secretary of State, with respect to the celebrated 73rd clause of the Commonwealth Act.  Was appointed a Privy Councillor on January 1st, 1901.

It is not generally known that but for the bungling of a telegraph employee Sir S. W. Griffith would have been the first Prime Minister of the Commonwealth.  When Sir William Lyne, the then Premier of this State, received a commission to form a-Federal Ministry he wired from Sydney offering Sir S. W. Griffith the leadership, and the latter replied accepting.  But the message was wrongly addressed in the telegraph office to the Federal Coffee Palace, and it remained there unclaimed for a month.  In the meantime Sir William Lyne had received, several refusals in his efforts to form a Cabinet, and accepting Sir S. W. Griffith's apparent silence as another rebuff he made no further approaches to the learned Knight, and the highest political office of the Commonwealth was filled by Mr. Edmund Barton who, on the formation of the High Count of Australia two years afterwards, induced Sir Samuel to accept the Chief Justiceship and joined him on the Bench as senior Puisne Judge.  Until about three years ago Sir S. W. Griffith presided over this highest Tribunal in the land.  Then failing health compelled him to take a long holiday, and although upon his return he still did a little work his career as a Judge was practically ended, and last year he retired into private life showered with compliments and good wishes from Australia's leading professional men and politicians.  He married early in life Julia, daughter of Mr. J. Thomson, Brisbane, and by her had issue one son and four daughters, all of whom survive him.

Austere in his demeanor almost to the point of severity, Sir S. W. Griffith never achieved that popularity gained by his great political rival. Sir Thos. McIlwraith.  Yet he was an eminently just man, loathing anything in the form of wrong doing, and once his confidence was gained he was the most genial of men.  His spare, frame would bespeak delicate health, but he was happy in the possession of a marvellously strong constitution, and would think nothing after an all-night sitting in Parliament of going into the Supreme Court and arguing a case, bristling with legal points until 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and then going back to the Legislative Assembly to lead through another protracted and perhaps stormy sitting.  His reading was omnivorous, the wide range of his learning permitting him to speak several European languages as his mother tongue, and his translation of Dante's "Divina Commedia" has been accepted even in Italy as a classic.  His principal legal publication was a compilation of the Queensland Criminal Code.

Biography of Samuel Walker Griffith

Sir Samuel Walker Griffith (1845-1920), chief justice and premier, was born on 21 June 1845 at Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorganshire, Wales, second son of Rev. Edward Griffith (1819-1891), Independent minister, and his wife Mary, née Walker. Edward served at Portishead and Wiveliscombe, Somerset, after his first pastorate at Merthyr. Then in 1853 an invitation from the Colonial Missionary Society, supported by the prominent colonists John Fairfax and David Jones, took him with his wife and family of two sons and three daughters to Australia. He became Congregational minister at Ipswich, Queensland (1854-56); Maitland, New South Wales (1856-60); and Wharf Street, Brisbane (1860-89). Samuel, despite the brevity of his sojourn in Wales, regarded himself as Welsh; his romanticizing ignored the reality of his English background. He drifted from his father's fundamentalism, as a politician becoming embarrassed by Edward's presence in Brisbane, and joined the more fashionable Church of England after his father died in 1891.

Samuel was educated at Ipswich (1854-55), Woolloomooloo, Sydney (1855-56), and Rev. William McIntyre's school at Maitland (1856-59). McIntyre failed to pass on his rabid Presbyterianism but inspired Samuel's love of the classics. He was dux and gained the nickname 'Oily Sam' from his 'ability to argue on any side of any subject'. Continuing his education in a brilliant arts course at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1863; M.A., 1870), he earned first-class honours in classics and mathematics. In 1862 he won the (Sir Daniel) Cooper scholarship in classics (Professor Woolley assessing him as one of the four best students of his decade), and the (Thomas) Barker scholarship in mathematics. He also studied law, taking general jurisprudence as an extra university course, and on 11 May 1863 became an articled clerk under Arthur Macalister at Ipswich. He was vain enough, when only 18, to apply in July 1863 for the headmastership of Ipswich Grammar School, and was already interested in politics, attending the debates in the Queensland parliament and publishing in 1862 a series of twenty-five critical articles on its members in the Queensland Guardian. He proved a successful articled clerk, accepting increasing responsibilities and representing his master solicitor on circuit in Rockhampton.

In 1865 when he was awarded the highly competitive Mort travelling fellowship from the University of Sydney the Queensland Supreme Court allowed him to interrupt his articles. Chief Justice Cockle's 'peculiar pleasure' in discharging this duty indicated how well known Griffith was in Queensland's small legal fraternity. He arrived in England on 20 January 1866 and spent a month there, visiting art galleries and relatives, before undertaking a 'grand tour' of Europe and then returning to England for a further six months. He had begun learning Italian and was reading French and English works, including Shakespeare. Conscientiously he sought understanding of paintings, claiming that by the end of his stay his taste had become 'strongly set' although his praise covered a wide spectrum including Rubens, Ruysdael, Brueghel and Landseer. In sculpture he gave highest appreciation to the 'wonderful and accurate tension of all the muscles' in the Laocoön group at the Vatican; in architecture he found Paris the most impressive. Politically his visit coincided with the Austro-Prussian War and Italian moves towards unification, and he enjoyed talking with a man who had served 'with Garibaldi against the Papal government'. He was often broke, unrepentant about his drinking and a past liaison with a married woman, and his family saw him as irresponsible, his brother refusing to lend him money.

Back in Queensland Griffith completed his articles at the end of September 1867, immediately sat and passed Bar examinations, and was admitted on 14 October. He was soon busy with briefs, first appearing in a Supreme Court action in 1867 and taking silk in 1876. By 1893 he had appeared in 280 recorded cases; he travelled frequently on circuit to Ipswich, Toowoomba, Rockhampton and Maryborough, and his returns rose rapidly. He had been paid £200 by Macalister in 1867, by 1870 his annual receipts had reached £1000, by 1893 his legal earnings were at least £3500. He appeared in widely varying fields of law, including criminal, property, company and probate.

Socially he had close friends such as C. S. Mein and led an active physical life. He was a Freemason (later a grand master), and prominent in intellectual societies. He became involved again with Etta, but soon after she became engaged he visited Maitland and began courting Julia Janet Thomson. Their marriage was celebrated in St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, East Maitland, on 5 July 1870. The union provided a stable social life for Samuel, especially as their family increased. The couple were rarely separated, but Griffith's letter of 9 November 1873, when Julia took their son and daughter south for seven weeks, reveals beneath his increasingly aloof and cold exterior an emotionally deeply involved husband and father, very conscious of loneliness.

Another change coincided with the marriage; a week after he returned from Maitland in July 1870 Griffith was asked to enter politics. He was closely involved in the Reform League later in that year, and while he declined to contest a seat in April 1871, stood successfully for the seat of East Moreton next year. His political career was to be combined with his work as a barrister until 1893.

Griffith was premier from 10 November 1883 to 13 June 1888, and was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1886. Despite his assiduous country electioneering tours, his support was still dominantly from Brisbane and southern electorates. He advocated the continued unity of Queensland, opposing the developing regional separation movements in both the northern and central parts of the colony. In 1883 his party was close knit and strictly controlled, showing 92.6 per cent cohesion in divisions in the House. By 1888 this figure had declined but so had that of his opponents; the differences between the two leaders were becoming outdated by social and economic changes, particularly the clashes between employers and employees and the end of the long period of economic expansion.

After his government's defeat in 1888 Griffith strengthened his relationship with the emerging Labor Party. At William Lane's invitation he published in the Boomerang of 17 December 1888 an article 'Wealth and want' deploring the domination of the weak by the strong, and stressing as a function of government the protection of the weak. Lane urged Griffith to lead Australian radicals: 'What Pericles was to Athens and Greece such a leader could be to Australia and Queensland'. As a private member Griffith introduced an eight-hours bill in 1889, and a year later two bills comprising an elementary property law seeking to ensure a 'proper distribution of the products of labour'.

After only twenty-two months in Opposition, Griffith became premier again in August 1890 in an unlikely alliance with McIlwraith, the so-called 'Griffilwraith'. Hints of this unlikely alliance had begun in March 1889, related to the splits in McIlwraith's party and the worsening economic situation and in retrospect the sincerity of Griffith's support for Labor must be queried. Certainly he was to compromise during the thirty-two months of the 'Griffilwraith', and during the bitter strikes of 1891 he lost any remaining support from the labour movement. Within the government he was a moderating influence, trying to keep it neutral in upholding the rule of law, and he criticized both labour and employer extremists; yet his government was to use the military and to arrest, try and imprison some of the strikers.

Frustrated, disappointed and confused during his second premiership Griffith had welcomed his translation to the judiciary. He served as Queensland's chief justice from 13 March 1893 to 6 October 1903, a most peaceful decade, during which he was appointed G.C.M.G. in 1895 and to the Privy Council in 1901. He restored the prestige of the Supreme Court by his many judgments, over 400 being reported, of which the majority involved the interpretation of statutes closely followed by practice decisions. He presided over the Kenniff murder trial of 1902, the winding-up of companies such as the Darling Downs brewery and the 1900 James Tyson case. Generally he worked well with his fellow judges, despite disagreements with G. R. Harding, who had hoped to be appointed chief justice, and in the Kenniff case, with Patrick Real.

Griffith made a lasting professional contribution by codifying the Queensland criminal law, a massive task which occupied much of his spare time in 1896-99, Deakin wondering how he had found 'leisure for such a feat while discharging the onerous duties of your office'; he also revised the Supreme Court rules and those for matrimonial and probate cases.

During his sixteen years (1903-19) on the bench Griffith sat on some 950 reported cases, the highest annual number being 90 in 1906. In 1913 he visited England and sat on the Privy Council. He was not over-impressed by the law lords, and renewed his arguments for the appointment of more judges from the Dominions to overcome 'the old insular doctrine of the essential difference in quality between English and Colonial persons'.

Griffith retired to Brisbane where he died at Merthyr on 9 August 1920. Survived by his wife, four daughters and a son, he was buried in Toowong cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £27,335. Fittingly, Griffith's portrait now hangs in the High Court in Canberra where a suburb also bears his name. His intellectual brilliance and achievements especially in law are unchallengable, and despite the equivocacy of parts of his political career he made vital contributions to Queensland and Australia.

See the full biography at the Australian Dictionary of Biography


Discover more