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Akehurst, Arthur Purssell (1836–1902)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Arthur Purssell Akehurst (1836-1902), public servant and magistrate, was born on 13 September 1836 at Pimlico, London, eldest son of William Vialls Akehurst, surveyor, and his wife Anne Purssell, née Stone. Arthur was educated at Taunton Grammar School, Somersetshire, and migrated to Geelong, Victoria, about 1850. He started work as a law clerk, intent on obtaining articles, but in November 1852 Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe appointed him clerk of the bench and registrar of the small debt court at Buninyong, where his father was now postmaster. In 1853 he was transferred to Ballarat.

The young man enlisted as a special constable and with the militia took part in the bloody suppression of the Eureka stockade. On 3 December 1854 a digger named Henry Powell, who had not been in the stockade, received sabre and bullet wounds while standing at his tent. Troopers then galloped over the injured man and he died soon afterwards, but not before he had implicated Akehurst. An inquest's verdict was that Akehurst had killed him. This Akehurst denied; he was charged with murder but the case was dismissed when Powell's dying deposition was ruled inadmissible. Raffaello Carboni was among those who believed Akehurst got off on a technicality. He remained a popular villain, his career in positions of authority and matching personal style in no way diminishing his reputation. He was provoked to defend himself in writing when, in 1874, the firebrand radical Francis Longmore accused him in parliament of being 'a magistrate who had got his position by murdering people on the gold-fields'.

His midlife career was less eventful. Transferred to petty sessions at Geelong in 1855 and thence to Beechworth, in 1865 Akehurst was appointed police magistrate, warden and coroner at Wood's Point, then a gold-mining centre. He went to 'the Irish colony' of Kilmore in 1866 and in 1873 was one of five law officers directed to report on the courts of the colony. From Kilmore he was appointed relieving police magistrate at Melbourne in 1876. A victim of (Sir) Graham Berry's 'Black Wednesday' in 1878, only with 'great difficulty' was he restored to the public service.

He was a surprising non-medical choice in 1884 as chairman of the Central Board of Health, following the forced resignation of Dr Richard Youl. Responding to mounting public and professional concern at the incidence of infectious disease, Akehurst came to the view that the local authorities were at fault. Through new legislation he proposed, initially, to discipline and then to bypass them altogether with a full department of health with increased powers under a responsible minister. As a member of the royal commission into the sanitary conditions of the metropolis of 1889 he influenced its recommendation to create a department of health. Political opposition, marshalled by the City of Melbourne's town clerk Edmund FitzGibbon, transformed the outcome and required Akehurst's removal. The following year he was made secretary of the Crown Law Department. Subsequently, he served on the locomotive branch inquiry, the Synnott inquiry board and the retrenchment committee, which was the government's pruning knife during the 1890s depression.

Akehurst's career was varied and controversial. To Premier Sir George Turner, whose political parsimony he implemented, he was 'an honest conscientious man, but certainly a very hard man, who was determined that the public servants under him should strictly do their duty'. Of average height and slender, Akehurst wore a greying beard in old age and became 'grave but courteous', adopting 'the characteristics of an English gentleman' who was 'loyal to his church and state'. His nephew A. W. H. Akehurst remembered him as a martinet (like his father before him), 'a terror to evil doers' as a police magistrate and warden, and that as a department head 'it was known he would dismiss the inefficient (and unlucky)'.

Baptized a nonconformist, Akehurst became an Anglican after he married, on 5 April 1856 at Christ Church, Geelong, Irish-born Charlotte Mary Armstrong. He died of bronchitis on 27 June 1902 in his residence at St Kilda and was buried in the local cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife and their son and daughter survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £8273. Akehurst had outlived most of his gold generation contemporaries, with whose radical and aspirant democratic values he had little natural sympathy.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Carboni, The Eureka Stockade (Melb, 1855)
  • Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian Series (Melb, 1878)
  • D. Dunstan, Governing the Metropolis (Melb, 1984)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 23 June 1874, p 461, 13 Aug 1874, p 910, 6 Oct 1887, p 1527
  • Australasian Medical Gazette, Aug 1884, p 264
  • Table Talk, 17 Apr 1896, p 4
  • Clerk of Courts (Victoria), Chronicle, 22, no 3, Sept 1982, p 13, no 4, Dec 1982, p 13
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1854, p 6, 15 Dec 1854, p 5
  • Ballarat Courier, 29 Aug 1890, p 3
  • private information.

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Akehurst, Arthur Purssell (1836–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/akehurst-arthur-purssell-12769/text23033, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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