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Dickinson, Sir John Nodes (1806–1882)

by John Kennedy McLaughlin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Sir John Nodes Dickinson (1806-1882), judge, was born at Grenada in the West Indies, son of Nodes Dickinson, F.R.C.S., a British army staff surgeon. He was educated at Fulham College and Caius College, Cambridge (B.A., 1829; M.A., 1832), and for the next eight years practised as a certificated special pleader. In 1840 he was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, and at the Common Law Bar had, according to Judge James Dowling, 'the reputation of being a good sound lawyer and of being skilled in mercantile law'.

In 1844 a judgeship of the Supreme Court of New South Wales fell vacant on the appointment of Sir William Burton as a judge at Madras. Dickinson was considered for the vacancy but, being then a barrister of less than five years' standing, doubts arose as to his eligibility under the Act 4 Geo. IV, c. 96. The problem was referred to the English Crown law officers, who on 13 March advised that the statutory provisions related only to qualification as chief justice, not as puisne judge, of the colony. Dickinson was accordingly appointed judge, but to avoid all doubt as to the validity of his appointment he was furnished with two commissions differently worded. He was advised by Lord Stanley to present whichever of them was considered more appropriate after private discussion with the governor, the colonial law officers and the other judges of the Supreme Court. In June Dickinson sailed for Sydney in the Garland Grove with his wife Helen, daughter of Captain Henry Jauncey, R.N., of Dartmouth, Devon, whom he had married earlier that year. They arrived in Sydney on 13 October and he was sworn in next day, the last judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court appointed in England.

Dickinson's activities in the colony were not limited to his judicial duties. He took a keen interest in public affairs, constitutional development and law reform. On 16 September 1848 he was appointed to a royal commission to inquire into the constitution and practice of the courts of the colony. He had some novel ideas, which, however, were not adopted, particularly that the Supreme Court's jurisdictions should be made separate courts in distinct buildings, a separate Bar being associated with each.

In 1852, amidst increasing demands for responsible government in New South Wales, Dickinson published A Letter to the Honorable the Speaker of the Legislative Council, on the Formation of a Second Chamber in the Legislature of New South Wales. Its interesting proposals included the creation of a local hereditary baronetage, that honour to be conferred on every fit and proper person having certain landed property qualifications in the colony, until seventy-five baronets had been so appointed. Thereafter a further twenty-five should be nominated without reference to property qualifications, and from the total there should be elected, either by themselves for a single parliamentary term or by popular vote for three parliamentary terms, thirty of their number, to form the Legislative Council. Nothing came of Dickinson's suggestion, although William Charles Wentworth later proposed a hereditary colonial aristocracy. On 13 May 1856 Dickinson was appointed to the first Legislative Council under responsible government, but, conscious of antipathy to judges taking part in politics, he resigned on 29 March 1858.

As a judge of the Supreme Court Dickinson carried out his duties ably and conscientiously, sometimes under difficulties; he once complained that 'the necessity of having to consider one day a point of Common Law, another day a point of Insolvency, and another day an Equity suit has been to me a source of the utmost distraction'. Yet he was highly competent, and his demeanour and impartiality were universally respected and admired. Dowling, who described him as 'an upright, conscientious, learned Judge', recalled that Dickinson exercised great control over his court and was 'exceedingly courteous' to the Bar. Dickinson never became a figure of controversy, and was the more acceptable in presiding at the hearing of several contentious cases of outstanding public interest. One was the great banking case of 1845, Bank of Australasia v. Breillat in which he presided at the first trial and was later a member of the Full Bench which presided over the trial at bar. Another was the celebrated Newtown ejectment case (Doe dem. Devine v. Wilson and others), where Dickinson presided over a special jury of twelve at a hearing lasting thirty days. His summing-up occupied three days. The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 September 1857, described Dickinson's conduct throughout the trial as 'a triumph of judicial discretion'.

From 15 February 1860 to 17 February 1861 Dickinson, as senior puisne judge, was acting chief justice of New South Wales during the absence of Sir Alfred Stephen. In this position and in recognition of his services to the colony Dickinson was knighted in 1860. Dickinson and his family then lived at 239 Victoria Street, in the fashionable district of Darlinghurst but, according to Dowling, Dickinson was 'most unostentatious in his habits, and did not go much into society'. When Stephen returned Dickinson retired from the court and returned to England on a pension of £1050. He lived quietly, first at Bath and then in London, with his wife and their daughter Helen Mary. Still interested in law reform, Dickinson in 1861 published in London A Letter to the Lord Chancellor on Law Consolidation, wherein he recommended a codification of the law, along Continental lines, with a digest and an institute. In retirement he regularly corresponded with Sir Alfred Stephen. Dickinson died on 16 March 1882 while on a visit to Rome. He was survived by his wife and daughter, who were the executrices of his will, proved in London on 16 May 1882 at over £21,000.

His portrait, as acting chief justice, is in the President's Court, Supreme Court House, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 13-26
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1856-58
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14, 15, 22 Oct 1844
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 21 Mar 1882, p 10
  • Old Times (Sydney), June, July 1903
  • Stephen papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John Kennedy McLaughlin, 'Dickinson, Sir John Nodes (1806–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dickinson-sir-john-nodes-3410/text5185, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 12 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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