Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cobbett, William Pitt (1853–1919)

by F. C. Hutley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William Pitt Cobbett (1853-1919), professor of law, was born on 26 July 1853 in Adelaide, son of Pitt Cobbett, wine merchant, and his wife Caroline, née Richards. Returning to England, his father was ordained priest in 1864 and, after filling various curacies, was vicar of the Church of the Holy Rood, Crofton, Hampshire, in 1874-1901. William Pitt Cobbett was educated at Alleyn's College of God's Gift (Dulwich College), London, in 1869-72, and played Rugby for the school. He matriculated in October 1873 and entered University College, Oxford (B.A., 1876; B.C.L., M.A., 1880; D.C.L., 1887); he won the university amateur middleweight boxing championship.

Admitted as a student of Gray's Inn on 4 May 1875 he was called to the Bar on 18 November 1878. Although he had chambers at 4 King's Bench Walk, Temple, he did not develop a practice but tutored at Oxford and in London—one of his pupils was Sir Edward Grey (Viscount Grey of Fallodon)—and was reputedly one of the best law coaches in London. He published Leading Cases and Opinions on International Law in 1885, a second edition in 1892 and a third in two volumes; and Peace in 1909 and War and Neutrality in 1913. Posthumous editions were produced by others.

On 3 February 1890 he was appointed to the Challis chair of law at the University of Sydney; he arrived in New South Wales later that year. From September he was an ex officio member of the senate; he was chairman of the professorial board in 1900.

Pitt Cobbett, as he was known in Australia, was required to teach jurisprudence, Roman, constitutional and international law; in 1893 financial problems compelled the senate to reduce expenditure and, in order to assist the law school, he also lectured in real and personal property until 1901. He soon became the dominant figure in legal education in New South Wales. Besides being the only full-time teacher in law, he was president of the Solicitors' Admission Board in 1894-1909, and was examiner in various subjects; he also examined for the Barristers' Admission Board from 1891. In addition, in 1903-09, he edited and contributed to the Commonwealth Law Review and to the New South Wales Weekly Notes. The demise of the Commonwealth Law Review coincided with his retirement at the end of 1909.

As a teacher Cobbett was given to trenchant criticism of students' work and was unsympathetic to Ada Evans, the only woman who entered the course during his professorship, but in 1902 he furnished the student common-room in the law school at his own expense. In his speech at the farewell dinner given him by the Sydney University Law Society, he indicated that in view of the progress of American law schools, changes of a drastic character were necessary in Sydney. In 1908 he had won faculty approval to incorporate the department of commerce, but the senate included it in the faculty of arts. Some changes did take place, but in many essential features the law school retains the imprint of Pitt Cobbett. He submitted written evidence to the 1908 Commonwealth joint select committee on privilege, and during World War I he advised the Commonwealth on international law; he also contributed letters and comments to newspapers in explanation of issues arising out of the conflict.

After Cobbett retired he moved to Hobart and worked on a book, to be entitled 'The government of Australia', dealing with the Constitution. However, before it was ready for publication he died of cancer at his home in Holebrook Place on 17 October 1919, and was buried in the Anglican section of Cornelian Bay cemetery. By his will he charged his trustees with Mr Justice W. Jethro Brown, to arrange for the book's completion if it were sufficiently advanced. Brown told the trustees that it would be a mistake to entrust it to someone else, and they presented the bound manuscript to the University of Sydney. Cobbett had given a systematic conspectus of the Constitution as construed by the High Court of Australia up to that time. But Chief Justice Sir Samuel Griffith resigned on 17 October 1919 and the High Court judgment in the Amalgamated Society of Engineers v. Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd case in 1920 would have required major revision of the whole text, and it would no longer have been Pitt Cobbett's book. However, the manuscript gives valuable information about the perception of a learned lawyer of the meaning of the Constitution before the Engineers' case.

His gross estate was sworn at under £75,000, the net value in excess of £65,000. He left property in England, New Zealand, the Federated Malay States, Tasmania and several States of Australia. Pitt Cobbett purported to settle his residence successively on his brother and his cousin in tail male. Under the Real Property Act, no estate in tail could exist in Tasmania, as the Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia had decided. The terms of the will, and the problems which arose in administering his estate, produced another appeal to the High Court from a decision of the Full Court of the Supreme Court of Tasmania, and at least one application to a single judge of the Supreme Court. In his death he joined the large band of distinguished lawyers whose unsatisfactory testamentary dispositions benefited his profession.

In 1909, when the date of Cobbett's retirement was known, Mr Justice R. O'Connor had said 'It would be difficult to estimate what law and Bench of the States owes' to him; and (Sir) George Rich asserted that 'In Pitt Cobbett [the quality of distinction] was manifested in the stuff of the mind; intellectual energy, individuality of thought and utterance and intensity in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge'.

Select Bibliography

  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 18 Oct 1919
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18, 21 Oct 1919
  • Senate and Faculty of Law minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

F. C. Hutley, 'Cobbett, William Pitt (1853–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cobbett-william-pitt-5699/text9633, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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