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Dobson, Sir William Lambert (1833–1898)

by E. M. Dollery

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

Sir William Lambert Dobson (1833-1898), judge, was born on 24 April 1833 at Carr Hill, Gateshead, Durham, England, the elder son of John Dobson (1800-1865), solicitor, and his first wife Mary Ann, née Atkinson (1811-1837). With his parents he arrived at Hobart Town in the Mary on 18 January 1834. He attended Christ College and in 1848 entered the Hutchins School where he became head boy. He then served as clerk in the Police Magistrate's Office and in 1853 left for England. He was admitted to the Middle Temple and after winning the first certificate, the highest honour awarded by the Council of Legal Education, was called to the Bar on 6 June 1856. He returned to Hobart, was admitted to practise as a barrister on 22 January 1857, appointed commissioner of the Caveat Board for the issue of crown grants, and later became crown solicitor and clerk of the peace. On 17 March 1859 at Launceston he married Fanny Louisa, daughter of Rev. William Browne; they had two sons and four daughters.

Dobson represented Hobart in the House of Assembly in 1861-62 and Campbell Town in 1864-70. He was attorney-general in the administration of William Weston from February to August 1861 and of Thomas Chapman until January 1863. He led the Opposition in the assembly from June 1864 to November 1866 when he became attorney-general and was virtually premier in Sir Richard Dry's ministry. When Dry died in August 1869 James Wilson became premier. Dobson continued as attorney-general until February 1870 when he was appointed a puisne judge in the Supreme Court. He had been as vigorous in opposition as he was strenuous in purpose while in office, and was responsible for many important measures including the Act abolishing imprisonment for debt (1867) and the Public Schools Act (1868) which gave Tasmania the first compulsory education in Australia.

He was appointed chief justice in February 1886 after acting in that office for a year while Sir Francis Smith was on leave. Dobson acted as deputy-governor in 1884, 1886-87 and 1892-93. Among other positions he was first chancellor of the University of Tasmania, president of the Tasmanian Council of Education and vice-president of the Royal Society of Tasmania. He was a member of the Linnean Society of London, a trustee of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and president of the cricket and football associations in southern Tasmania. He was also a consistent and pious churchman in the Anglican faith. On a visit to London in 1886 he was knighted by Queen Victoria and was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1897.

As a youth Dobson suffered from asthma and was nervous beyond measure. He mastered the latter affliction by sheer determination and outgrew the former. As chairman of the central committee of the Bush Fires Relief Fund he visited the burnt-out districts of southern Tasmania but contracted a fever and died on 17 March 1898 at Hobart. He was survived by his wife who died in her hundredth year in 1935. Of their sons, Frank Lambert (1861-1887) became a barrister of the Middle Temple and practised in Sydney, and William Percy (1864-1956) was a Queensland farmer.

Dobson's half-brother, Alfred, was born on 18 August 1848 at Hobart Town, the fourth son of John Dobson and his second wife Kate, née Willis (1819-1868). He was educated at the Hutchins School. After a year in a bank, he served his articles and then went to London, entered the Inner Temple where he won a prize for conveyancing and first honours, and was called to the Bar on 26 January 1875. He returned to Hobart, was admitted to the colonial Bar and joined the family firm. In the House of Assembly he represented Glenorchy in 1877-87. He was attorney-general in the Fysh administration from August 1877 to December 1878 and leader of the Opposition in 1883-84. A careful politician and gentlemanly opponent, he was elected Speaker in July 1885, the first native-born in the colony of Tasmania to hold such office. In May 1887 he resigned and in June was appointed solicitor-general. An exceptionally able lawyer, he took part in many prominent legal cases. His other interests included membership of the Council of Education and of the Board of Legal Examiners. He was a director of the Colonial Mutual Life Association and served as advocate for the Anglican Diocese of Tasmania. In April 1901 Dobson was appointed agent-general for Tasmania in London where he sometimes acted on behalf of Victoria. With great energy he promoted Tasmania's interests, particularly its apple shipments, and represented the State at exhibitions and such official functions as the coronation. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1904 and a K.C. In 1907 he was offered the third judgeship on the Tasmanian bench, but declined. While returning from France to England on 5 December 1908 he fell from the Channel steamer and was drowned. At Bolden, Durham, on 17 December 1891 he had married Alice Ramsay, daughter of Bishop Daniel Sandford; she died on 7 December 1897, leaving a son. On 4 December 1907 in London Dobson married Mary Alice Walker who survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob. 1956)
  • The Hutchins School Magazine, no 102, Dec 1959
  • Mercury (Hobart), 6 Feb 1870, 22 July 1878, 18 Mar 1898, 8 Dec 1908.

Citation details

E. M. Dollery, 'Dobson, Sir William Lambert (1833–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dobson-sir-william-lambert-3419/text5177, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 1 November 2014.

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

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