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Charteris, Archibald Hamilton (1874–1940)

by J. G. Starke

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Archibald Hamilton Charteris (1874-1940), international lawyer, was born on 22 April 1874 at Glasgow, Scotland, eldest son of Matthew Charteris (1840-1897) and his wife Elizabeth, née Greer. He belonged to a distinguished academic family: his father was senior professor of materia medica at the University of Glasgow, his uncle Archibald Hamilton Charteris was professor of biblical criticism at the University of Edinburgh in 1868-98, and his younger brother Francis James (1875-1964) became professor of materia medica at the University of St Andrews. His other brother, John (1877-1946), was chief of intelligence to Field Marshall Earl Haig.

Charteris was educated at Edinburgh Collegiate School, the Moravian Brothers' school at Neuwied near Koblenz, Germany, and the University of Glasgow (M.A., 1894; LL.B., 1898). After working in law offices in Glasgow, in 1904 he became a member of the Faculty of Procurators, Glasgow, and in 1904-19 was lecturer in public international law and international private law at the university. An active council-member of the International Law Association, he met the leading international lawyers, and published in its Transactions. In a notable paper read to the association in 1910, he compared the Scots procedure as to criminal indictments with the corresponding English and French practices. He was also a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. During World War I he worked in the trade division of the Admiralty, then for the War Trade Intelligence Department, gaining first-hand experience of the operation of the naval blockade of Germany in 1916-18 and the associated legal problems. In 1919 in Berlin he became legal assistant to the resident agent of the clearing house for enemy debts.

In 1920 Charteris was appointed to the new Challis chair of international law and jurisprudence at the University of Sydney law school. At St Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, Paddington, London, on 10 January 1921 he married Marguerite (Margaret) Rossiter, from Devonshire; they arrived in Sydney in the Osterley on 27 February. Fluent in French and German, a good linguist and broadly cultured, Charteris inspired his students and embellished his lectures with his wit and wartime experiences, and was always approachable.

Outside the university, Charteris fostered in Australia an interest in international law, already to some extent generated by the establishment of the League of Nations in Geneva and the Permanent Court of International Justice in The Hague. He acted as Australian correspondent of the British Year Book of International Law, to which he had contributed a classic study of merchant vessels in foreign ports and national waters in its first volume (1920-21).

Charteris also contributed many authoritative articles to law journals including several on Australian immigration laws, and to the press, notably the Sydney Morning Herald. In his radio broadcasts he reached a nation-wide public, and was described by (Mr Justice) W. S. Sheldon as 'far and away the best broadcaster in this country'. He became president of the New South Wales branch of the League of Nations Union in 1923 and of the short-lived Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law in 1933. He represented Australia at the third conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations at Kyoto, Japan, in 1929 and at the British Commonwealth Relations Conference at Toronto, Canada, in 1933. The law school published in 1940 a selection of his lectures, entitled Chapters on International Law, which has been of lasting value. That year he launched his monthly notes for the Australian Law Journal.

Careless in his dress, Charteris had an 'incorrigible elfishness', and was one of the most colourful legal and academic figures in Sydney: 'a great scholar and a very lovable man', he published a notable book on Scottish wit and humour, When the Scot Smiles, in Literature and Life (London, 1932). Survived by his wife and son, he died of emphysema at his home at Turramurra on 9 October 1940 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • Australian Law Journal, Oct 1940, 216
  • Blackacre (Sydney), Michaelmas, 1941
  • Charteris papers (University of Sydney Library).

Citation details

J. G. Starke, 'Charteris, Archibald Hamilton (1874–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/charteris-archibald-hamilton-5564/text9487, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 July 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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