Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

Dethridge, George James (1863–1938)

by Ian G. Sharp

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

George James Dethridge (1863-1938), judge, was born on 2 November 1863 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, son of James Dethridge, postal clerk, and his wife Mary, née Kipling. His younger brother was John Stewart. The family settled in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond when he was quite young. After education at St Stephen's Church School, Richmond, and Brunswick College, he was apprenticed to a jeweller before turning to legal studies. He was resident at Trinity College, University of Melbourne, and graduated B.A., 1890; LL.B., 1893; and LL.M., 1897.

In 1893 Dethridge was called to the Victorian Bar, at a time of economic recession when briefs for unknown juniors were neither common nor highly marked. Taking whatever came his way, by the turn of the century he slowly began to establish a sound common law practice. On 29 June 1907, in a ceremony conducted by Charles Strong at the Australian Church he married 29-year-old Rosina Hughes; they had two sons and two daughters.

An extrovert by nature, a good conversationalist who was willing to listen, Dethridge was popular with his fellow barristers. His capacity to avoid rubbing people up the wrong way even in situations of opposition, and his scrupulous attention to detail, led to his being used on several occasions as an arbitrator.

In 1919 Dethridge was appointed to a royal commission to inquire into conditions of wharf labourers at Port Melbourne. His success in handling the assignment led to his appointment next year as a County Court judge. Sir Robert Menzies later described him as of middle height and of medium build, with 'a sort of barking and emphatic manner of speech which … concealed beneath it a quick mind and a somewhat Rabelaisian humour'. In 1926 when a separate Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration was set up, Dethridge was appointed first chief judge on 20 July with fellow-judges Lionel Lukin and (Sir) George Beeby. His reputation for getting on with people, perhaps more than legal erudition or experience, had determined his selection over more senior men.

If any single feature stands most to his credit it must be his handling of his court through very difficult times of intense political and economic activity. His first sitting was in August, and in September the Federal government sought to secure by referendum greater industrial powers in order to remove the dual exercise of conciliation and arbitration by the Commonwealth and the States. However, attempts over the next three years to alter the Conciliation and Arbitration Act were overshadowed by the onslaught of the Depression, and the court became the arena of the fight by trade unions to preserve existing standards. Dethridge, as chief judge, was responsible for first listing and then presiding over a general hearing of these matters in 1931. The court refused to depart from the existing method of calculating the basic wage but awarded a measure of immediate relief to employers by reducing all rates under its awards by 10 per cent. He presided over subsequent major inquiries into general wage rates, mostly arising from applications to restore this cut, in 1934 and 1937.

As an arbitration judge, Dethridge can be summed up as a cautious but flexible conservative. He was meticulous, sometimes to the point of being tedious. Though not by nature a social reformer of the school of Henry Bournes Higgins, he, more than his colleagues, made the effort to keep abreast of social and economic writings. His interest in current theories led to his tendency to ruminate from the bench and he was regarded professionally as something of a talker. On the other hand the respect and indeed affection that he acquired from the trade union movement stemmed from his willingness to listen to any proposition with patience. He was regarded as a considerate judge, willing 'to give the unions a go'. Perhaps his rapport was assisted by his early experience in the jewellery trade. He is remembered as carrying stubs of pencil and worn pieces of rubber in his pocket, which he needed because he never crossed out in drafts but erased and rewrote in careful, legible script.

In 1929 Dethridge was appointed to inquire into allegations affecting members of the Parliamentary Joint Committee of Public Accounts in connexion with claims made by broadcasting companies against the Commonwealth government. In 1938 he chaired a royal commission on doctors' remuneration for national insurance service and other contract practice. However, the report was never written and the inquiry lapsed, for on 29 December 1938 Dethridge died in hospital in Melbourne. He was survived by his wife and children and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. G. Menzies, The Measure of the Years (Melb, 1970)
  • Australian Law Journal, 20 Jan 1939, p 362
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Dec 1938
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Dec 1938.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian G. Sharp, 'Dethridge, George James (1863–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dethridge-george-james-5965/text10179, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 October 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018