Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Burt, Sir Archibald Paull (1810–1879)

by Sheila McClemans

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

Sir Archibald Paull Burt (1810-1879), chief justice, was born on 1 September 1810, the second son of George Henry Burt, planter, of St Christopher in the West Indies. He was educated at a minor public school in England and at 15 was admitted to the Middle Temple. Qualified in 1830, he was admitted to practise at the Bar in St Christopher and Anguilla. He was appointed notary public in 1835 and aide to the lieutenant-governor of St Christopher with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1837. On 4 June 1836 he had married Louisa Emily, daughter of John Bryan, M.D., of St Christopher; they had twelve children.

Burt visited England in 1845 and in November took his call to the Bar of the Middle Temple. He returned to St Christopher, renewed his practice, and became a member of the Legislative Council and of the island's administrative committee. Later he was briefly Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and in August 1848 was appointed attorney-general for St Christopher and Anguilla and took silk. He also served as chancellor of the Anglican diocese of Antigua. In November 1856 he was provisionally appointed chief justice in St Christopher by Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) Hercules Robinson. At the Colonial Office Burt's ability and high merits were admitted but after much correspondence he was disqualified by the rule that no local barrister should be elevated to the bench. In 1860 he was appointed civil commissioner and chairman of Quarter Sessions in Western Australia. He sailed in the Hastings with his wife and five of their children and took up his duties at Perth on 29 January 1861. On 18 June he was appointed chief justice of the newly created Supreme Court of Western Australia.

Since convicts were sent from England to Western Australia in 1850-67 the work of the court was primarily in criminal jurisdiction. Burt was the sole source of independent advice for the governor on constitutional matters and proposed legislation. In these fields he did an important work in a colony which was in a difficult stage of development. Among other voluntary duties he was chairman of the Western Australian committee which prepared an exhibit for the Intercolonial Exhibition held in 1866 at Melbourne; chairman of the Boys High School, the first of its kind in Western Australia; prime mover in establishing the Law Library for the use of legal practitioners and members of the Legislative Council, and later chairman of the committee which managed it; and president of the Weld Club.

In 1870 Burt became involved in a cause célèbre. For professional misconduct he had occasion to discipline a young practitioner, (Sir) Stephen Henry Parker, who retaliated by writing to the press a letter which implied a lack of impartiality in the court. Burt then brought Parker before the court together with the printers and publishers of the newspapers which had published improper comments on the proceedings. Parker was fined and the printers and publishers imprisoned and fined for contempt. In 1872 Burt became involved in another attack on the administration of justice. Lockier Clere Burges, a well-connected northern settler, was convicted of the manslaughter of an Aboriginal and sentenced to penal servitude for five years. The colony was then much divided on racial questions. Petitions were presented to the governor and through the Colonial Office, to the Queen for 'mercy' and for a 'free pardon' for Burges. The governor would not entertain the petitions and reported that the administration of justice had been groundlessly impugned. The secretary of state could find no misdirection of the jury by Burt and no perversity in the verdict of the jury, but reduced the sentence to twelve months, holding that the interests of justice would be thereby served. Although the sentence imposed by Burt had been exactly in keeping with other sentences for similar crimes and his administration of justice entirely free from prejudice or partiality, public opinions on the Burges case were strongly divided. When the excitement ended Burt's administration of the court was admitted to have been beyond reproach.

Burt's integrity, his strength to hold to a decision when rightly taken, and his humane and progressive approach to personal and legislative problems, did much to stabilize the colony and to assist the development of the law in the British tradition. He left the colony only once in his sixteen years in office, and went then to the West Indies to endeavour to salvage the affairs of a partnership into which he had entered with Francis Spencer Wigley when he was a young man. The partnership owned sugar estates and in 1873, contrary to Burt's belief, was found to be bankrupt. He later lost his entire possessions in the West Indies. In London in November he was appointed K.B. by Queen Victoria for his services to the law and to Western Australia. His wife had died at Perth on 20 September 1870. He died at his home, Strawberry Hill, Adelaide Terrace, Perth, on 21 November 1879, and was buried in the East Perth cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • S. McClemans, ‘Archibald Paull Burt: First Chief Justice of Western Australia’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Western Australian Historical Society), vol 6, part 5, 1966, pp 65-83
  • Herald (Fremantle), 7 Feb 1874, 22, 29 Nov, 6 Dec 1879
  • Inquirer (Perth), 26 Nov 1879
  • Supreme Court Perth records
  • CO 239/89, 99-100, 104
  • Burt letters (privately held).

Citation details

Sheila McClemans, 'Burt, Sir Archibald Paull (1810–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burt-sir-archibald-paull-3122/text4643, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 August 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014