One of the most prominent, yet least understood, of Western Australia’s leading citizens of the latter 19th century was Sir Alexander Campbell Onslow (1842-1908), the Colony’s third Chief Justice. This biography offers a new and measured assessment of his character, work and legacies. Descended from an ancient Shropshire family his career as lawyer commenced on his call to the English Bar in 1868.
After 10 years of modest Bar practice, he married and, seeking a consistent income, applied for a Crown appointment overseas. Offered only the Attorney-Generalship of British Honduras (Belize after independence) he accepted and endured years of harsh conditions leaving him with a persistent tropical disease. Most of his lawyer colleagues, from the Chief Justice down, were incompetent and corrupt. Yet Onslow worked diligently, trying to restore the rule of law, promote true justice and protect the disregarded interests of the Mayan (“Indian”) natives.
By 1880 his pleas for transfer to better conditions were granted. He became Attorney-General of Western Australia, only to find little improvement, apart from the climate. The Colony’s administration of justice was in disarray, Chief Justice Wrenfordsley, perpetually insolvent, was a feeble lawyer. Governor William Robinson personally disliked Onslow and made his life difficult. That was as nothing compared with outrageous treatment he received from the autocratic Governor Broome, who tried to precipitate Onslow’s dismissal from the office of Chief Justice to which he had succeeded in 1882.
Onslow has thus to defend his own position and protect the supremacy of the law from constant and brutal attack from Government House itself. To his credit he conducted himself with circumspection and distinction as Chief Justice. Never reconciled to Broome, he was able to establish friendship with Robinson who returned to succeed Broome as Governor.
Onslow’s concern for the community’s underprivileged classes, and his awarding condign punishment to pastoralists who victimised Aboriginal labourers, were outstanding achievements.
Lady Onslow was a leading figure in women’s movements, while she and her husband were accomplished musicians who gave many public performances.
This is the last volume, of his sole authorship, in Dr Bennett’s remarkable 19th century series Lives of Australian Chief Justices.
The Western Australian State Set of Lives of Australian Chief Justices, which includes, Sir Archibald Burt, Sir Henry Wrenfordsley and Sir Alexander Onslow is available for $130.00 – contact us to order.
Foreword by the Honourable Chief Justice Wayne Martin, AC
Author’s Introduction and Acknowledgements
Frontispiece and Dust Jacket
1. “This Strange Little Fragment of Empire”
2. “Shut in By Miles of Mangrove Swamp”
3. “Most Grievous Miscarriages of Justice”
4. Sparring With Governors – Round I
5. Harmony Amid Discord
6. A New Broome
7. Sparring With Governors – Round II
8. Jousting with Journalists
9. “Nothing More One-Sided Was Ever Written”
10. Sir Elliot Bovill, C.J. – An Apparition
11. The Close of the Victorian Era
12. “The Sum of Things”
Appendix A: Observations re (Sir) John Forrest’s Views on the Aborigines Acts 1886 and 1905 (W.A.)
Appendix B: A Public Address delivered by Chief Justice Onslow at the conclusion, in May 1885, of his term as Acting Administrator of Western Australia
Like all of Dr Bennett’s works, this one has also been meticulously researched. It largely seeks to avoid presenting us with conclusions but rather encourages us to decide for ourselves, how we see the subject under discussion. …
I think that it is appropriate to conclude this review with a note of thanks and congratulations to Dr Bennett for producing 16 of these biographical histories. They have all been marked by the highest degree of research, attention to detail and above all, have been great reading.
I have given several of these publications to newly admitted practitioners in the hope that they might thus be reminded about the importance of honesty, integrity and professionalism which are fundamental to legal practice.
Brian Morgan, Law Letter, The Law Society of Tasmania, Winter 2019
This biography of the third chief justice of Western Australia is Dr Bennett’s latest addition to his Lives of the Australian Chief Justices. It has the benefit of a foreword by WA Chief Justice Martin, well-positioned to put Onslow’s own story in a wider theme. …
The reader receives glimpses of colonial life away from political unrest. Onslow and his wife were musical. Sir William Robinson, the younger brother of a NSW governor, served three separate terms as WA governor and composed a number of well-known songs. Onslow arrived during his second term and they didn’t get on. Things changed by Robinson’s third term, and music was no doubt a large factor. …
Dr Bennett’s gives an effective glimpse of a man indubitably of his own time but able to impress real change for the benefit of those who followed.
David Ash, Bar News, NSW Bar Association, Summer 2018
Dr Bennett gives an effective glimpse of a man indubitably of his own time but able to impress real change for the benefit of those who followed. … The volume has the benefit of a foreword by Chief Justice Martin, well-suited to put Onslow’s own story in the wider theme. Also, the chief justice’s observations about Onslow friend John Forrest’s views on race form an appendix.
David Ash, Francis Forbes Society Newsletter, 36, Autumn 2018