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à Beckett, Sir William (1806–1869)

by E. G. Coppel

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

Sir William à Beckett (1806-1869), chief justice, was born on 28 July 1806 in London, eldest son of William à Beckett, solicitor, and his wife Sarah, née Abbott. He was educated at Westminster School and entered his father's office. Called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1829 he supported himself for some years by writing. He contributed biographical articles to The Georgian Era (1832-34), produced A Universal Biography (1835) based on published works, and with his brothers Thomas Turner and Gilbert of London Punch published the Censor and the Literary Beacon. On 1 October 1832 at St Pancras, London, he married Emily, daughter of Edward Hayley.  

Possibly because of lack of success at the Bar à Beckett migrated with his wife and two sons, his mother-in-law and two more of her daughters, and in May 1837 in the City of Edinburgh arrived at Sydney. There his progress at the Bar was so rapid that in March 1841 he was appointed acting solicitor-general with a salary of £800 and the right of private practice. Although by the date of his call to the Bar he was second in standing in the Supreme Court of New South Wales his appointment was not confirmed by the Colonial Office until March 1843. Next year, when Sir William Burton moved to Madras, à Beckett was commissioned an acting judge of the Supreme Court in July; the permanent judge appointed in England had not arrived in September when the death of the chief justice, Sir James Dowling, created another vacancy, so à Beckett remained on the bench. In 1845 the Colonial Office overruled his appointment and suggested his transfer to Port Phillip as resident judge, a provisional appointment pending decision by the Privy Council on the petition of Judge John Willis that he had been wrongly removed from office. In February 1846 à Beckett accepted his transfer to Melbourne. Although in June the Privy Council advised against Willis's amoval and the Queen revoked his appointment in September, in October à Beckett's position was made permanent.

Emily à Beckett had died in Sydney on 1 June 1841, survived by four sons. They went to Port Phillip with their father and Emily's mother and sisters. On 30 October 1849 à Beckett married Matilda Hayley, the youngest of the family. This marriage to a deceased wife's sister would have been void in England under Lord Lyndhurst's Act of 1835, but Acts of the British parliament passed after 1828 did not apply in New South Wales and the marriage was therefore 'voidable only by sentence of an Ecclesiastical Court'.

à Beckett remained as resident judge until the Supreme Court of Victoria was created by an Act of the Legislative Council on 6 January 1852. On 24 January he was appointed the first chief justice of the new court. The Queen signified her approval and on 24 November conferred a knighthood on him. In that year he published in Melbourne The Magistrates' Manual for the Colony of Victoria and, as 'Colonus', a pamphlet deploring the moral and social effects which the pursuit of gold was producing.

In conducting the business of his court à Beckett won the admiration of the legal profession. His reported judgments show a sound grasp of principle and a capacity to adapt the doctrines of English law to the novel conditions of the colony. The judgments are written in an admirably clear style and most of them, whether delivered in Sydney or Melbourne, survive in printed form. Although no reports were published in Victoria between December 1851 and October 1856, the weekly Victorian Law Times and Legal Observer, which then appeared, included reports of current decisions and some cases decided in 1853-55.

From 1843 à Beckett suffered from some form of paralysis in the legs, reputedly derived from an injury while playing cricket at Lord's. The affliction worsened and in February 1853 he was granted two years leave. With his wife and sons he went to England, where he consulted physicians but found no relief from his condition. However, the family managed to travel on the Continent, à Beckett being lifted into and out of the carriage by his sons. Notes of their tour through Switzerland and Italy were published as Out of Harness (London, 1854).

On his return à Beckett built a substantial two-storied house in Clarendon Street, East Melbourne. In February 1855 he presided over the trial of two of the miners charged with high treason arising out of the rioting at Ballarat, now known as the Eureka Stockade. His charge to the jury favoured a conviction, but popular feeling had more effect with the jury who brought in a verdict of not guilty. In ill health à Beckett retired in February 1857 on a pension of £1500. He lived in Melbourne until 1863 when he moved to England. He lived at Surbiton near Hampton Court Palace and later at Upper Norwood, Surrey, where he died on 27 June 1869.

Throughout his life in Australia à Beckett had continued to write in prose and verse. In Sydney for six months from 12 August 1837 he edited the weekly Literary News and in 1839 he published his Lectures on the Poets and Poetry of Great Britain. While judge he did not think it proper to write under his own name but often contributed to the Port Phillip Herald as 'Malwyn' until the Argus exposed his identity; he then ceased to write for the press. His poem celebrating the safe return of the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt was published in a supplement to the Port Phillip Herald, 2 June 1846, and reprinted in Garryowen, The Chronicles of Early Melbourne. Perusal suggests that à Beckett was no poet, whatever his own opinion may have been. As early as 1824 he had published The Siege of Dunbarton Castle: and Other Poems; it was a failure but he consoled himself with the reflection that a similar experience had not prevented Byron's genius from being later recognized. In England in 1863 he published The Earl's Choice, a long tale in verse, sentimental, priggish and rather boring. à Beckett was also a music lover and a keen patron of the theatre. In 1855 he wrote the prologue declaimed by Gustavus Brooke at the opening of George Coppin's 'Iron Pot' at the Olympic Theatre in Melbourne. He strove nobly to develop cultural life in the young colony, was ever ready to speak at Mechanics' Institutes, and was a staunch supporter of George Rusden in his campaign for the National system of education. A close friend of Bishop Charles Perry he regularly attended divine service, though he was said to have Unitarian leanings. In Melbourne he supported the Total Abstinence League and later in England became vice-president of the United Kingdom Alliance 'to procure the total and immediate legislative suppression of the traffic of Intoxicating Liquors as Beverages'.

A portrait by Henry Moseley, presented by John Dennistoun Wood in 1867, is in the Supreme Court Library, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 24- 25
  • Reserved and Equity Judgments of the Supreme Court of New South Wales Delivered During the Year 1845 (Syd, 1846)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Judgments of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, for the District of Port Phillip1846-51
  • E. G. Coppel, ‘The First Chief Justice of Victoria’, Australian Law Journal, 27 (1953-54)
  • T. T. à Beckett, family memoirs (privately held)
  • CO 201/413/382, 309/2/2723, 13/5630, 17/10437.

Additional Resources

Citation details

E. G. Coppel, 'à Beckett, Sir William (1806–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/a-beckett-sir-william-2862/text4079, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 December 2014.

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

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