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Edmunds, Walter (1856–1932)

by E. J. Minchin

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

Walter Edmunds (1856-1932), judge, was born on 6 January 1856 at Maitland, New South Wales, son of John Edmunds, saddler, a Welshman and non-Catholic, and his wife Rosina, née Smith, a Londoner and a Catholic. He was brought up as a Catholic. Educated at Lyndhurst College, and at Fort Street Training School in 1874, he later taught for two years at Wollongong. Teaching in Sydney, he lived at Lyndhurst and attended the University of Sydney (M.A., 1879; LL.B., 1881). From 1883 to 1893 he was a fellow of St John's College within the university.

Admitted to the Bar on 31 July 1882, he became a leading and affluent junior. His circle included Edmund Barton and A. B. Piddington and was known as 'the Stable'. A protectionist, Edmunds represented South Sydney in the colonial parliament in 1889-91; in May 1891 he quoted from G. B. Shaw's (ed) Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889) and forecast revolution if trade unions were destroyed. On 9 February 1897 he married Mary Victoria Monica McGrath. He gained enough subscriptions for the publication of his friend C. J. Brennan's Poems (Sydney, 1914).

In 1911 Edmunds became a District Court judge and chairman of Quarter Sessions, and in 1914 the Holman Labor government appointed him to the Court of Industrial Arbitration—he had previously been chairman of special mining tribunals. In 1914-19 he was also chairman of the Necessary Commodities Control Commission. In 1916, after H. B. Higgins had refused, Prime Minister Hughes appointed Edmunds, under national security regulations, a special coal tribunal—in December he granted shifts of 'eight hours bank to bank' and approved an agreement raising rates of pay. Next year it was alleged that Hughes had appointed Edmunds 'with instructions to concede the men's demands'. Both denied it. In the 1917 transport strike railwaymen's unions offered to return to work if Edmunds were appointed to arbitrate, and the card system withdrawn pending his decision, but it was refused. In February 1920 he replaced C. G. Heydon as president of the Board of Trade; in August the Storey Labor government made him senior judge of the Industrial Court, and (Sir) George Beeby replaced him on the board. Storey also announced in August that Edmunds would conduct a royal commission into the railways (the 1917 strike).

He was closely involved in the settlement of the 1919-20 strike at the Broken Hill mines. The miners had sought a reduction of their 44-hour week underground and healthier conditions of work, and in May 1920 Edmunds was asked to act as conciliator. On October 1919, when he was acting president of the Board of Trade, it had recommended that Professor H. G. Chapman be appointed to chair the medical inquiry; it made its first report on 12 July, and on 30 August Edmunds issued his interim decision. He left underground hours at forty-four pending proceedings before the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, but he stated that compensation for occupational disease would be decided 'at an early date'. Hearings were resumed on 7 September and he re-opened the hours question, later announcing a fresh decision, in which he specified rates of compensation for incapacitated miners and provided for a 35-hour week underground. The strike ended in November.

The most likely explanation of Edmunds's volte-face is that Premier Storey, pressed by P. S. Brookfield, asked Edmunds to grant the thirty-five hours and he obliged, but not for any expectation of reward—in judicial preferment he was at the end of his hopes and fears, and he had already been chosen royal commissioner for the railways inquiry. His sympathies lay with the employees and he contributed much to the health and welfare of miners; but he was judicially impartial.

On 25 November 1920 Edmunds as royal commissioner recommended salary increases for members of the Legislative Assembly and for ministers. His report of 13 February 1922 on the transport strike did not question the finding of the H. R. Curlewis commission of 1918 that the card system was reasonable, but he indicated injustices in the treatment of ex-strikers. In 1925-26 he chaired the royal commission on safety in coalmines; in 1926 he retired, but was chairman of a royal commission in 1927 which cleared Piddington of charges of biased decisions as industrial commissioner.

On 15 August 1932 Edmunds died at his home at Strathfield, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery; he was survived by his wife, his only son John, a solicitor who practised at Casino, and his five daughters, of whom Jean was her father's associate from 1919 until her marriage to Dr Harry Daly. Edmunds left no will, and administration was not taken out. Dignified by a neat beard, he was approachable and witty as a barrister, reserved and scholarly as a judge. Fluent in Italian, he translated from Dante. He helped to organize Catholic graduates' activity in the 1928 Eucharistic Congress.

Select Bibliography

  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • G. Blainey, The Rise of Broken Hill (Melb, 1968)
  • H. T. E. Holt, A Court Rises (Syd, 1976)
  • B. Kennedy, Silver, Sin, and Sixpenny Ale (Melb, 1978)
  • Barrier Daily Truth, 26 May, 2, 5 June, 19, 31 Aug, 3, 8, 14, 17, 30 Sept, 13, 18-27 Oct 1920
  • Barrier Miner, 14 July, 5 Aug, 17 Sept, 10 Nov 1920
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 18 Aug 1932
  • R. J. Parsons, Lawyers in the New South Wales Parliament 1870-90 (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1972)
  • E. Wetherell, The Stormy Years of 1910-21 (photocopy held by Broken Hill City Library).

Citation details

E. J. Minchin, 'Edmunds, Walter (1856–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/edmunds-walter-6091/text10435, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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