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Cullen, Sir William Portus (1855–1935)

by J. M. Bennett

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

Sir William Portus Cullen (1855-1935), chief justice and politician, was born on 28 May 1855 at Mount Johnstone, near Jamberoo, New South Wales, seventh son of John Cullen, a farmer from Ireland, and is wife Rebecca, née Clinton. A natural student, Cullen defied his father's attempts to suppress his education, walked many miles daily to the nearest school at Kiama and left home at 20. Persuaded by Professor Charles Badham to enter the University of Sydney, he won a scholarship by examination, and graduated B.A. with first-class honours in classics in 1880, having taken other scholarships and prizes during his course. He went on to graduate M.A. (1882), LL.B. (1885)., showing outstanding ability in equity and real property law, and LL.D. (1887). He was admitted to the Bar on 30 April 1883.

Torn between the Bar and an academic career, Cullen applied for a lectureship in mathematics (a subject he particularly enjoyed) at the University of Adelaide: the opinions of learned and influential referees were summarized by (Sir) Edmund Barton's view that Cullen 'is much esteemed by his professional brethren as a highly educated gentleman and a very capable lawyer': but he did not receive the appointment. Except for part-time law lecturing he gave up ideas of academic life.

On 17 December 1891 at Carrington, Port Stephens, he married Eliza Jane (Lily), elder daughter of R. H. D. White of Tahlee. Cullen and his wife were pioneer residents of the Sydney suburb of Balmoral where he acquired a large holding of land and built a stately home, Tregoyd. In the grounds he maintained natural vegetation and propagated Australian wildflowers, his botanical interests later being recognized by the naming after him of Eucalyptus cullenii. The Cullens had two sons and two daughters: one daughter died in infancy.

Strongly nationalist, Cullen was a vocal advocate of Australian Federation. He confessed that it was 'almost the only political question on which I feel with the whole strength of which I am capable of feeling'. He expounded those views as a member of the Legislative Assembly for Camden in 1891-94, and of the Legislative Council in 1895-1910. He also delivered many public addresses in which he urged that Australians learn from the experience of Switzerland, Canada and the United States of America, and settle intercolonial friction. He was an adviser to (Sir) George Reid when the final agreement on Federation was reached in Melbourne in 1899.

In the legislature Cullen was a skilled draftsman of bills and of amendments, and he took many initiatives about the reform of 'lawyers' law'. While respecting the continuance of English tradition, he allowed his nationalism to prevail. He was a vigorous supporter of the creation of the High Court of Australia, and an early proponent of abolishing appeals to the Privy Council.

From 1896 Cullen began a long association with the administration of the university when he was elected a fellow of its senate; he was acting dean of the faculty of law for some time in 1897. Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David, a close friend, acknowledged Cullen's 'able, impartial and generous guidance in all our counsels' in the senate. Cullen was vice-chancellor in 1908-11 and chancellor in 1914-34. He served the university well during its post-war expansion, but attracted much criticism for remaining too long as chancellor.

At the Bar Cullen's career had prospered with the opening of the High Court of Australia. He became a K.C. in 1905. Although a sound practitioner, his unassuming manner had earlier tended to mask his outstanding command of the law. Sir John Peden wrote that 'Cullen's merits as a lawyer were not adequately recognized by the profession as a whole until the High Court of Australia was established in 1903, and it became known that its first chief justice, Sir Samuel Griffith, regarded him as being in the first rank of the barristers then practising before the High Court'.

On 14 February 1910 Cullen was appointed chief justice of New South Wales in succession to Sir Frederick Darley. His elevation, which commanded wide support from the legal profession and the community, was notable because he had neither solicited it nor taken any part in a sharp contest by other aspirants to the vacancy. Knighted in 1911, he was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1912.

Cullen was an ideal choice as chief justice. Sir Frederick Jordan considered him to have been 'courageous in his judgements, and rapid in his determination'. Cullen was obliged, however, to put aside many of the reforming ideas he had espoused as a politician and to accept, as a judge, the legal system as he found it. He also served as lieutenant-governor and administered the State on six occasions. He faced an awkward constitutional problem when, in 1911, he declined acting Premier W. A. Holman's advice to have the evenly divided Legislative Assembly prorogued.

Early in 1925 Cullen qualified for a judicial pension and retired at once because of gravely impaired health. He remained lieutenant-governor until 1930. Throughout his public career he was active in many charitable and patriotic bodies and was president of the Boy Scouts' Association and the Boys' Brigade. He was 'fond of simple pleasures, the mountain ramble, the billy tea, the camp fire and liked to hear and tell a good story'. Lady Cullen was a founding vice-president of the New South Wales division of the British Red Cross Society in 1914 and president in 1916-17 of the Australian Red Cross Society. She also served on various comfort funds and, among her many activities, was president of the Victoria League, vice-president of the Bush Book Club of New South Wales and chief commissioner of the State's Girl Guides' Association.

Lady Cullen died at Leura, where they had lived in retirement, on 10 June 1931 and Sir William on 6 April 1935; they were buried in the Anglican section of Wentworth Falls cemetery. Portraits of Cullen by Norman Carter are held by the Supreme Court of New South Wales and by the University and Schools Club; one by Jerrold Nathan is held by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Bennett, ‘Sir William Portus Cullen—scholar and judge’, Canberra Historical Journal, Sept 1977, and for bibliography
  • Australian Law Journal, 9 (1935)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1931, 9 Apr 1935
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 8 Apr 1935, p 16
  • family papers (privately held).

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Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Cullen, Sir William Portus (1855–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cullen-sir-william-portus-5838/text9919, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

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