Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ferguson, Sir David Gilbert (1861–1941)

by J. L. Arthur

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

Sir David Gilbert Ferguson (1861-1941), judge, was born on 7 October 1861 at Muswellbrook, New South Wales, second son of John Ferguson (d.1862), store-keeper from Scotland, and his native-born wife Elizabeth, née Johnston. He was educated at the Scone national and Church of England schools and finally at Fort Street Model School, Sydney. He returned to Scone for two years and learned shorthand.

Back in Sydney he worked as a clerk in the copyrights office, then was employed by Want & Johnson, solicitors, as a shorthand writer. In 1882 he entered St Andrew's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1886), and financed his studies by reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph and, while living in Brisbane for several months of the year, for Queensland Hansard.

At Woollahra, Sydney, on 16 March 1887 Ferguson married Alice Rosa Annie Curtis. They settled in Sydney to allow him to read for the Bar with Edward Scholes and Cecil Stephen, while working part time for New South Wales Hansard. He was admitted to the Bar on 8 March 1890. While practising, and a member of the Bar Council, Ferguson in 1901-11 was Challis lecturer in the law of procedure, evidence and pleading at the Sydney University Law School. In 1902 he was a founding vice-president of the Sydney University Law Society (president in 1913). He was a member of the university senate in 1913-34 and was vice-chancellor in 1919.

Appointed as acting judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 1911, Ferguson was confirmed in office in March next year. His judgments were noted for their lucidity and clarity, and he was regarded as an expert in the law of evidence. In 1921 he presided over the action brought by Sister Liguori against Bishop Joseph Dwyer. For much of 1929 he was acting chief justice; he took final leave from the Bench on 6 October 1931.

During World War I he did much for returned soldiers and German prisoners of war and was chairman of the Amelioration Committee. He was royal commissioner inquiring into the Wheat Acquisition Act in 1915, and into the cost of production and distribution of gas in 1918. In his spare time he made a raised model of the entire Anzac area at Gallipoli: it was so accurate that Charles Bean in his second volume of The Story of Anzac, used it as an illustration. In 1932 he chaired the Commonwealth royal commission on taxation, which sat for three years; its findings were largely accepted by all Australian governments. In 1934 he was knighted and next year was appointed chairman of the Returned Soldiers and Sailors' Employment Board.

Ferguson divided his time between his Sydney home and his much-loved garden at Bowral. He never completely retired, and early in 1941 was on a committee to study various aspects of law reform. Sir David died in hospital at Woollahra, Sydney, on 2 November and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. He was survived by his wife, daughter and one of his three sons, (Sir) Keith, who became a Supreme Court judge in 1955. His second son Arthur was killed in action in France in 1916.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • M. and E. Macfarlane, The Scottish Radicals (Syd, 1975)
  • Australian Law Journal, 15 (1941-42), p 213
  • State Reports (New South Wales), Obit, 1941
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 1921, 7 Oct 1931, 27 May 1932, 4 June 1934, 3 Nov 1941
  • D. G. Ferguson papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. L. Arthur, 'Ferguson, Sir David Gilbert (1861–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ferguson-sir-david-gilbert-6156/text10573, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 September 2014.

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

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