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Aspinall, Butler Cole (1830–1875)

by Joanne Richardson

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

Butler Cole Aspinall (1830-1875), by unknown photographer, c1863-70

Butler Cole Aspinall (1830-1875), by unknown photographer, c1863-70

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H6048

Butler Cole Aspinall (1830-1875), barrister, journalist, politician and wit, was born on 11 November 1830 in Liverpool, England, the fifth son of James Aspinall, rector of Althorp, and his wife Harriet, née Lake. His father came from a respectable business family and was one of the first Anglican ministers to take part in the education and free trade movements; his published articles served as an introduction to controversy for his son. Aspinall was admitted to the Middle Temple in November 1850. While studying law he was a parliamentary reporter in London for the Morning Chronicle with George Higinbotham and also contributed to the Leader. After admission to the Bar in November 1853 he migrated to Victoria in 1854 to take charge of the parliamentary reporting staff of the Argus. He resigned when refused his 'right' to practise law and soon joined Richard Ireland and Archibald Michie as a barrister at Temple Court, and fellow resident of St Kilda. Michie, then a proprietor of the Melbourne Morning Herald, appointed the newcomer editor. His sharp pen portraits of Edward Wilson of the Argus caused wide amusement. On leaving the Herald he occasionally contributed acute articles on politics to the Age and in 1863 became associated with Melbourne Punch.

Aspinall made his reputation as a radical and a barrister in the aftermath of Eureka. Although new in Melbourne he spoke at public meetings on 13 and 15 January 1855, protesting against Governor Sir Charles Hotham's refusal to grant amnesties to the imprisoned revolutionaries. He acted without charge as junior counsel for several of the defendants tried for treason, and some contemporaries credited him with securing the acquittal of John Joseph, the first man tried; he asked, 'Surely, gentlemen of the jury, you won't hesitate to hang a trifling nigger to oblige the Attorney-General?' Another defendant, Raffaello Carboni, described him: 'The print of generous frankness in your forehead, of benevolence in your eyes … of sincere boldness in your mouth; your height, fine complexion, noble deportment, indicate in you the gentleman and the scholar'. The acquittals were popular and ensured a flood of criminal briefs for the future. As late as 1868 Aspinall went to Sydney to defend John O'Farrell, unsuccessfully, against a charge of attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Aspinall was elected to the first Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1856. Popularity on the goldfields gave him an overwhelming victory for the electorate of Talbot. His election unopposed as chairman of committees largely prevented him from taking an active part in debate, but in 1857 he spoke against provisions for plural voting and residential qualifications in the bill granting manhood suffrage, describing it as a 'promise of universal suffrage, and only ten pages of legal incapacity succeeding it'. He also opposed the 1857 land bill for treating the squatters too generously. In a parliament without parties he was an individualistic radical. Elected to the second parliament for Castlemaine he was from July to November 1861 attorney-general in the Heales ministry. In August he was defeated for three seats before Geelong East accepted him. He was defeated in 1864, but from 1866 was successively member for Portland and St Kilda. He was solicitor-general from January to April 1870 in John MacPherson's ministry. He resigned his seat later that year.

At his best in opposition, his prepared speeches were dull and his inattention to detail and dislike of hard work unfitted him for the routine of administration. 'His instincts are liberal, his sympathies are with the masses', was the verdict of a contemporary, yet his chief value to parliament appeared to be the impromptu witticisms and pertinent comments that enlivened sombre debate. According to Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (London, 1898), Aspinall was 'one of the half-dozen men whose undoubted genius gave the Parliament of Victoria a first place among colonial legislatures'. Judgments by his peers emphasize examples of Aspinall's wit; as the most sought after dinner guest in Melbourne he led a life of gay dissipation that prevented him from achieving the influence his talents deserved. David Blair assessed him as extra-ordinarily handsome, equal as a wit to Sheridan, the 'spoilt child of society [and] one of its saddest victims'.

A mental breakdown in 1871 ended his career; on recovery he returned to England where he died on 4 April 1875. His wife Marguerita, née Carmichael, died six days later in Melbourne, virtually penniless. Of their six children, a son, Butler Cole (1861-1935), was educated at the University of London, admitted to the Middle Temple in 1879 and as King's Counsel was prominent at inquiries into the loss of the Titanic and the sinking of the Lusitania.

Aspinall's sister, Clara, wrote Three Years in Melbourne (London, 1862), a vivacious and very feminine account of her visit to Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Carboni, The Eureka Stockade (Melb, 1855)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • My Note Book, 20 June 1857
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 May 1875
  • D. Blair, ‘Three Melbourne Barristers: A Recollection’, Centennial Magazine, vol 2, no 9, Apr 1890, pp 689-92
  • C. Bright, ‘Butler Cole Aspinall’, Cosmos Magazine, vol 1, no 6, 28 Feb 1895, pp 318-22
  • Table Talk, 8 Mar 1895
  • G. R. Quaife, The Nature of Political Conflict in Victoria 1856-57 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Joanne Richardson, 'Aspinall, Butler Cole (1830–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/aspinall-butler-cole-2905/text4173, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 September 2017.

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

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