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Cowper, Sir Norman Lethbridge (1896–1987)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Norman Lethbridge Cowper (1896-1987), solicitor and army officer, was born on 15 September 1896 at Roseville, Sydney, second son of Australian-born parents Cecil Spencer de Grey Cowper, solicitor, and his wife Alice Mary, née Dodd. Descended from Governor Philip Gidley King, and from Rev. William and Sir Charles Cowper, Norman attended Chatswood Preparatory School and then Sydney Grammar School, where he was a prefect and won the Salting exhibition for 1915. At the University of Sydney (BA, 1918; LL B, 1923) he excelled at debating and won a Blue for hockey.

Rejected by the Australian Imperial Force, Cowper worked as a jackeroo on several outback stations to overcome the residual effects of rheumatic fever. He succeeded in enlisting on 17 June 1918 but was discharged, medically unfit, two months later. Returning to the university in March 1919, he was articled to his father (d.1919) then to Alfred Hemsley, partners in Allen, Allen & Hemsley. On 6 June 1923 he was admitted as a solicitor; he became a partner in Allens in 1924.

At St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point, on 17 June 1925 Cowper married Dorothea Huntly (`Honey’), daughter of the poet Hugh McCrae; they lived at Wivenhoe, Wahroonga, for sixty-two years. Honey was one of Ethel Anderson’s `Turramurra Wall Painters’.

In the late 1920s Cowper joined the Wahroonga branch (president, 1930) of the National Party. In 1930 he was a delegate to the State and National conventions and a founder of the `1930’ Club. Next year he was elected to the council of the State branch of the party. He also joined the Old Guard. As a joint candidate for the United Australia Party, he stood unsuccessfully for the Federal seats of North Sydney (1931) and Wentworth (1940). In March 1932 he helped to draft the constitution of the UAP and in 1933-37 served on its standing committee on policy, chaired by (Sir) Bertram Stevens. A superb mimic, Cowper told `devastating anecdotes’ and belonged to Justice Bert Evatt’s lunch club.

Cowper and his wife visited Britain and the United States of America in 1935; he made many friends and business links, including the Dulles brothers, partners in the big New York legal firm Sullivan & Cromwell, which later sent work to Allens. Liberal-minded, he was outraged by the Commonwealth government’s treatment of Mrs Mabel Freer, who was alleged to have committed adultery with an Australian army officer serving in India. After she failed a dictation test in Italian, the minister for the interior, Thomas Paterson, refused her admission to Australia in December 1936. Cowper lodged a writ of habeas corpus on her behalf in the High Court of Australia. Justice Evatt dismissed the writ but made plain his disapproval of the minister’s executive decision. In June next year cabinet countermanded the minister’s action.

On 26 May 1939 Cowper was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Militia; he rose to major and carried out part-time duties. He transferred to the AIF in May 1941 and served with the Armoured Division at home. Joining the Australian Provost Corps (military police) in March 1942, he served as army provost marshal, New Guinea Force (September 1943-May 1944) and Northern Territory Force (July-November 1944). As a lieutenant colonel from 20 November he held the same position at Advanced Allied Land Forces Headquarters, Hollandia and Morotai (January-May 1945). Back in Sydney, with, according to John Wilkes, `a fund of stories about his experiences’, he was placed on the Reserve of Officers on 11 July 1945.

Abandoning his political ambitions, Cowper concentrated on rebuilding his career and rehabilitating Allen, Allen & Hemsley, which had suffered attrition of personnel and business. He discouraged nepotism, sought to recruit talent and tolerated no carelessness. Cowper wrote in clear, concise English and encouraged its use in the drafting of legal documents. His ability to reduce issues to non-threatening proportions enabled him to reassure his clients.

A specialist in commercial law, Cowper looked after the firm’s most important client, the Bank of New South Wales. In 1947 the Chifley government announced its intention to introduce legislation to nationalise the trading banks. Cowper immediately retained as many counsel as possible (to deprive the government of their advice) for the impending challenge in the High Court, and briefed (Sir) Garfield Barwick and (Sir) Frank Kitto. The case was won in 1947. The Cowpers spent nine months in London while the case was before the Privy Council, which eventually upheld the High Court’s decision.

Through professional connections Cowper was a director of many companies including Gilbert Lodge (Holdings) Ltd (chairman, 1950-79), Australian Fixed Trusts Pty Ltd, New Guinea Goldfields Ltd, Development Finance Corporation Ltd and Permaglass Ltd (chairman, 1969-77). Essentially `a man who believed in professional and public service’, he was a council-member (1940-41 and 1945-60), office-bearer, and president (1958-59) of the Incorporated Law Institute of New South Wales. From 1951 Cowper virtually ran Allens; he succeeded Arthur Allen as the senior partner in 1963. His important clients included Kaiser Walsh Perini Raymond, one of the consortiums that constructed the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme. When he retired on 30 June 1970 he had done much to modernise Allens.

Hoping to promote a more rational understanding of public questions, Cowper was a foundation director (1932-69) and chairman (1933-37) of the Australian Institute of Political Science. He contributed numerous papers to its summer schools in Canberra, chaired its conferences (notably on the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in 1958 and 1968), and wrote pamphlets, and articles and book reviews for the Australian Quarterly and the Sydney Morning Herald. A councillor of the State branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in 1933-41 and intermittently thereafter, he was a delegate to its Commonwealth council (president 1949-50). From 1964 he served as chairman of the Council on New Guinea Affairs; in 1968 he attacked the government’s `equivocating policies’ on independence for the Territory.

Appointed CBE in 1958 and knighted in 1967, Cowper was president (1969-72) of the Australian Club and a member of the University Club. He remained a major influence behind the scenes in non-Labor politics. In 1959 he sat on the Richardson committee of inquiry into the salaries and allowances of members of the Commonwealth parliament; the committee’s recommendation for increased payments raised a storm of protest. On 29 October 1975, during the political crisis triggered by the Senate’s refusal of supply to the Whitlam government, Cowper wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald: for `a constitutional lawyer, it is the most interesting confrontation since Federation’. He believed that `the power of removal (the reserve power of the Crown) may be the only safeguard against the destruction of democracy’. The letter impressed the governor-general Sir John Kerr by its `acuity’.

As a young man Cowper had immersed himself in the Old Sydneians’ Union; from 1932 he was an elected trustee of Sydney Grammar School, serving as chairman in 1951-74. In the 1960s he advised the headmaster to allow students to protest against the Vietnam War while wearing school uniform. He maintained a close interest in legal education and training. In 1955-74 he was a member of the council of the Australian National University, Canberra.

Known for his ability to resolve disputes, Cowper joined the board of Angus & Robertson Ltd (chairman, 1960-70); he led the successful fight against a threatened takeover by Consolidated Press Ltd. In similar circumstances, he was appointed (1962) to the national committee and editorial board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography at a time when there were great differences over policy. He contributed articles to the ADB on George Allen and his son Sir George Wigram Allen, and on Georgiana and George Gordon McCrae. Although he produced no major book, all that Cowper wrote was elegant.

Even in his late seventies Cowper `was a vigorous and skilful tennis player’. Nevertheless, he preferred more scholarly pursuits. Bookshelves overflowed every room in the house. `His garden was a great passion & solace all of his life’. Its charm lay in the balance achieved between Honey’s philosophy of `letting plants grow into their natural shape’ and Norman’s `urge for order & discipline’. He confessed that his wife believed him to be `a murderer where trees and shrubs are concerned’. Distinguished looking, he was 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with blue eyes and brown hair. He invariably wore a suit and smoked a pipe. With his confidence, impish humour and easy command, he frequently did and said the unexpected.

Sir Norman died on 9 September 1987 at Hornsby and was cremated. His wife and their three daughters survived him. Obituarists remarked on his `tremendous generosity of mind and spirit, the breadth of his vision, his appreciation of the place of both the traditional and the unconventional and his ability to communicate with people of all kinds’. June Mendoza’s portrait of Cowper is held by the Australian Club.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Fitzgerald (compiler), The Letters of Hugh McCrae (1970)
  • V. Lawson, The Allens Affair (1995)
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 7, no 12, 1934, p 462, vol 61, no 11, 1987, p 758
  • Australian Quarterly, vol 59, nos 3 & 4, 1987, p 438
  • Law Society Journal, vol 26, no 1, 1988, p 71
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 86, pt 1, 2000, p 74
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Apr 1959, p 2, 31 July 1965, p 12, 29 Oct 1975, p 7, 12 Sept 1987, p 15, 14 Sept 1987, p 8
  • National Times, 24-29 Oct 1977, p 11
  • Sydneian, Mar 1988, p 20
  • A432, item 1936/1360 and A2998, item 1951/696 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Cowper, Sir Norman Lethbridge (1896–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowper-sir-norman-lethbridge-12361/text22209, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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