Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fullagar, Sir Wilfred Kelsham (1892–1961)

by R. L. Sharwood

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Sir Wilfred Kelsham Fullagar (1892-1961), judge, was born on 16 November 1892 at Malvern, Melbourne, only son and eldest of three children of Thomas Kelsham Fullagar, merchant, and his wife Sarah Elizabeth, née Law, both native-born. Educated at Haileybury College, Brighton, where the headmaster C. H. Rendall regarded him as his most brilliant student, in 1910 Wilfred entered Ormond College, University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1915; B.A., 1925; LL.M., 1925). He won a Wyselaskie scholarship in classical and comparative philology and logic, and graduated with first-class honours and the Supreme Court judges' prize. Fullagar's love of the classics was enhanced by Professor T. G. Tucker and was abiding: he continued to read Greek and Latin literature, and to compose Latin poetry. His friend Sir Owen Dixon was later to say that Fullagar's classical training gave 'an added distinction to his writings'.

While articled to the Melbourne solicitor J. W. McComas, Fullagar enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 28 October 1916. He served in France with the 7th Field Artillery Brigade from May 1918, rose to sergeant and in 1919 was granted six months leave in England to study law. On 11 October that year he married Marion Frederica Dorothea Lovejoy (d.1941) at the register office, Fulham, London; he returned to Melbourne in January 1920 and was discharged from the A.I.F. on 8 February.

Fullagar was admitted to practice on 1 October 1920. He worked initially for the Department of Repatriation and for the Commonwealth Immigration Service because, as a young married man, he felt he could not afford the cost of setting up as a barrister. In 1922, however, with financial assistance pressed upon him by (Sir) John Latham and Dixon, he took that step, signing the Bar roll on 7 April and reading with (Sir) Charles Lowe. Fullagar was rapidly successful, and able to repay Latham and Dixon within the year. He soon developed a formidable reputation, especially in the fields of Equity and constitutional law. His judicial colleague Sir Arthur Dean was to write of him, he 'was not an advocate in the accepted sense and no one would think of briefing him in the Criminal Court or before juries', but 'as a sound and learned lawyer, as a brilliant expositor of the law, he was unrivalled'.

In 1928-45 Fullagar served on the Bar committee and in 1940-45 as a vice-president of the Law Council of Australia, giving generously of his time to the development of the profession. An inspiring teacher, he lectured at the University of Melbourne in the law of wrongs and the law of procedure (1923-28), and in constitutional law (1943-45); between 1945 and 1951 he was a member of the university council. He was also a director (1939-45, chairman 1944-45) of the Equity Trustees, Executors & Agency Co. Ltd, a trustee (1940-45) of the Edward Wilson bequest and a director (1942-45) of Argus & Australasian Ltd.

After a mere eleven years at the Bar, in September 1933 Fullagar had been appointed King's Counsel. Within months, there was speculation in the press that he was about to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Victoria. He probably declined one or more such offers over the next few years, apparently on financial grounds, before finally accepting in July 1945. On 8 February 1950 he was made a justice of the High Court of Australia, a position he was to retain until his death. His judicial work was of the highest quality, but he sat on the bench in a period when there was relative stability in doctrine and principle in both public and private law, and his views on some matters were to be overtaken by later High Court opinion. In 1955 he was appointed K.B.E.

At the Presbyterian Church, South Yarra, on 4 July 1942 Fullagar had married a nurse Mary Florence Taylor. He was of middle height and thickset, with a full face, blue eyes, and dark hair touched with ginger. A quiet, modest, gentle, friendly man, with a delicious sense of humour and (as Dixon put it) 'a most lovable nature', he commanded respect and affection. His principal recreations in later life were reading, gardening, bowls, trout-fishing and walking (he had joined the Wallaby Club in 1933); he wrote light verse, and was fond of the Scottish pipes and the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Fullagar died of cerebral thrombosis on 9 July 1961 in the Freemasons' Hospital, East Melbourne, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife survived him, as did four of the five sons of his first marriage; his son Richard followed him to the bench of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1975. Monash University established a lecture series in 1968 to honour Sir Wilfred's memory.

On Fullagar's death, Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies acknowledged 'his mastery of the law'. To Dixon, Fullagar 'had combined, with a remarkable legal erudition, great resources of scholarship. His judgments commanded the admiration of lawyers, not only for their penetration, their soundness and their correctness, but for the exposition of legal principles in an almost unequalled English style'. Justice Felix Frankfurter, of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, felt 'a personal loss', so close had been his sense of 'professional communion'. In a judgement in the House of Lords relying heavily on Fullagar and delivered a few months after his death, Viscount Simonds spoke of the deprivation which would be experienced by 'all who anywhere are concerned with the administration of the common law'. Such tributes are rare.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • R. Campbell, A History of the Melbourne Law School 1857 to 1973 (Melb, 1977)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 103, 1959-60
  • Australian Law Journal, 35, 27 July 1961, p 85
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Jan 1932, 9 Dec 1933, 28 Sept 1935, 6 Mar 1968
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 July 1945
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 26 Sept 1933, 4 Feb 1950, 13 July 1961
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Feb 1950, 11 July 1961
  • private information.

Citation details

R. L. Sharwood, 'Fullagar, Sir Wilfred Kelsham (1892–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fullagar-sir-wilfred-kelsham-10258/text18123, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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