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à Beckett, Sir Thomas (1836–1919)

by R. G. De B. Griffith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Sir Thomas à Beckett (1836-1919), judge, was born on 31 August 1836 in London, son of Thomas Turner à Beckett. The family arrived at Melbourne in the Andromache in January 1851. He had been at private schools in England and in Melbourne went to a private school run by Rev. William Trollope, although he found the move disrupted his education. After leaving school he became a clerk in the office of the master in equity. Soon afterwards he decided to return to England to complete his legal education because he considered the course of subjects at Melbourne unnecessarily large and too abstract to be useful. With his cousin, William Arthur Callander à Beckett, he travelled to England by way of Suez, horse caravan to Cairo and ship to London, where from May 1857 to November 1859 he studied at Lincoln's Inn. There he read in the chambers of Thomas Terrell and later H. W. Stiff and for some time lived with his cousin in chambers at Gray's Inn. With the highest honours he won a studentship at Lincoln's Inn, where he was called to the Bar in 1859. After extensive travel in Europe he returned to Melbourne in June 1860. 

à Beckett was admitted to practise at the Bar in Victoria on 16 August 1860 on the motion of (Sir) Archibald Michie and in 1863 joined the Melbourne Club. At the Bar à Beckett progressed with steady success. His family name was well known in and outside the law; his father was a leading solicitor, a member of the Legislative Council and a prominent Anglican layman; his uncle Sir William had retired as chief justice in 1857. However, à Beckett himself entered practice with characteristic deliberation and economy of planning. Doubting his ability to get on with juries which, incidentally, he disdained until he had presided at jury trials when on the bench, he decided to specialize in equity. In the office of the master in equity he had obtained some practical experience and his training in England had centred on the law of property and the law of equity. Such a preparation was well suited for practice in the Equity Court presided over by Mr Justice Molesworth, a sound equity lawyer who was also moulding probate practice and mining law. There were good opportunities for a competent equity junior to specialize and gain experience. The plan succeeded and, with the benefit of sound competition, after five years practice à Beckett was earning well over £1000 a year and was a rising equity junior. On 28 December 1864 he married Isabella, the daughter of Archibald Michie.

Although hard working, à Beckett did not take his work over-seriously. He was a keen oarsman, hunted very occasionally, walked, cycled and played tennis. The social circle in which he moved contained many well-known families and he was undoubtedly popular and friendly. From 1864 to 1872 à Beckett was a law reporter and in 1867 published a textbook, Introduction and Notes to the Transfer of Land Statute of Victoria. In 1872-79 he was Melbourne correspondent for The Times and in 1874-81 lecturer in the law of procedure in the University of Melbourne. His reputation and practice in equity steadily increased, and he often appeared as junior to Edward Holroyd, then the acknowledged leader of the equity Bar. à Beckett's habit was to arrive in chambers at 10 a.m., take half an hour and a sandwich for lunch and leave chambers at 5 p.m. Then followed an interval of recreation or exercise of some kind before arriving home at 7 p.m. After dinner, always with a few glasses of wine, he slept for two hours and then worked until midnight or 1 a.m.

In 1881 Holroyd was appointed to the bench and à Beckett emerged as a leader of the equity Bar, enjoying an extremely large practice although he never took silk. On 6 May 1886 Molesworth resigned and George Webb was appointed in his place. On 29 September Mr Justice Higinbotham was appointed chief justice in place of Sir William Stawell, who had resigned that day; à Beckett was appointed a puisne judge in Higinbotham's place on 30 September 1886. In 1887 he became a member of the University Council.

On the bench à Beckett proved an admirable judge. He sat in all jurisdictions and showed himself to be a sound lawyer, patient and methodical. But it was in the law of equity that he displayed special skills. The passage of years did not tarnish these qualities and he remained extremely popular with the Bar. His judgments were accorded great respect by all, including his brother judges; in particular he was greatly admired by Sir Leo Cussen, himself an outstanding lawyer, who took the opportunity when necessary to consult him on matters of probate practice. His enthusiasm for exercise persisted and it is recorded that he and his associate took their bicycles with them on circuit and sometimes cycled between circuit towns. In 1909 à Beckett, who was then senior puisne judge, was knighted. He continued in office until his retirement on 31 July 1917.

Time has confirmed the great contributions of à Beckett to the law of Victoria. To the end of his career he remained a well-liked and greatly respected judge, accustomed to inject wit and harmless humour into a day's work in his court, but not given to bear irrelevant and unnecessary argument. Contemporary opinion was unanimous that he remained good tempered, obliging and courteous. Henry Bournes Higgins declared, 'I have not known any man better balanced … or more endowed with common sense, kindliness, humour'.

In appearance à Beckett was short, well framed and of medium build, with dark features and a beard. Off the bench he was devoted to his family and always interested in sport and recreation. He played tennis up to his last years. He died at his home in Orrong Road, Armadale, on 21 June 1919, survived by his widow, two sons and three daughters.

A portrait by Max Meldrum is in the Supreme Court Library, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • P. A. Jacobs, Judges of Yesterday (Melb, 1924)
  • Victorian Law Reports, 1886, 1909, 1915
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 June 1919
  • Thomas à Beckett memoirs (privately held).

Citation details

R. G. De B. Griffith, 'à Beckett, Sir Thomas (1836–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/a-beckett-sir-thomas-2860/text4073, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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