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Gillott, Sir Samuel (1838–1913)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Samuel Gillott (1838-1913), by unknown photographer, 1895-1905

Samuel Gillott (1838-1913), by unknown photographer, 1895-1905

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H26150

Sir Samuel Gillott (1838-1913), lawyer and politician, was born on 29 October 1838 at Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, son of Joseph Gillott, corn-miller, and his wife Elizabeth, née Whitehead. He was educated at Sheffield Grammar School.

Gillott arrived in Melbourne in 1856 and obtained employment with the legal firm of Vaughan, Moule & Seddon. Later he was articled to Thomas O'Brien. Gillott studied law at the University of Melbourne, securing the Chancellor's exhibition in 1860-61 and a gold medal in 1861-62. He was admitted to practise in 1863 and was straightway taken into partnership by his employer. On 26 September at St James' Church, Melbourne, he married Elizabeth Jane Hawken, London-born daughter of a builder; they had no children. For some years Gillott practised on his own before joining forces with (Sir) Arthur Snowden in the mid-1870s. In 1886 the firm became Gillott, Croker & Snowden. Snowden left in 1894 and Gillott continued with various partners. He was essentially a lawyer.

Until the early 1890s Gillott had a very large police court practice, though his firm did act in the celebrated Speight v. Syme libel case. Gillott's industry was rewarded with wealth which he increased considerably by shrewd investment, principally in city property. In 1896 he followed the example of his former partner, Snowden, and gained election to the Melbourne City Council. In 1899 he lost the mayorship by one vote. The next year he was elected without opposition and held the position for the following two terms. Meanwhile, in November 1899 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly seat of East Melbourne. In 1900 he was president of the Law Institute, having served on the committee for a number of years.

As mayor Gillott proved to be very much the man of the hour. With the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York and the advent of Federation, 1901 was a year in which Melbourne was in the limelight. Gillott 'had the money to spend, and he entertained royally'. He 'just turned on the champagne, cut the bands of his cigar-boxes and welcomed all the globe-trotters'. In return the office was distinguished by the title lord mayor and in May 1901 he was knighted.

In 1900 Gillott was nominated an honorary minister in the second Turner government and remained in the subsequent Peacock ministry. From June 1901 until June 1902 when the ministry fell he was attorney-general. Under (Sir) Thomas Bent he became chief secretary and minister for labour from February 1904. By this stage he had cultivated an image as a mild and respected urban liberal. However, his fall was to be dramatic. In May 1906 he was attacked by the demagogue reformer William Judkins who held him, as chief secretary, responsible for illegal off-course gambling, the most conspicuous instance of which was John Wren's Collingwood tote, which Judkins held to be prima facie evidence of a corrupt administration and police force. In response Gillott asked for proof of either his department's incompetence or police corruption. Judkins, however, had tapped a reserve of public concern on the gambling issue and Bent announced that he was prepared effectively to prohibit off-course betting. Responsibility for this devolved on Gillott who in August introduced the gaming suppression bill. It was on the way to becoming law when John Norton's Truth published an attack on Gillott entitled 'Lechery and lucre' accusing him of lending money to Caroline Pohl, or 'Madam Brussels', Melbourne's leading madam, and detailing financial dealings between them dating back to 1877. The same information reached Judkins, who denounced Gillott from his Sunday platform with devastating effect. Protesting that the worries and troubles of public life were too much for his health, on 4 December Gillott announced his resignation from both the ministry and parliament. Soon afterwards he left for England where he remained for nearly a year.

Although Norton delivered the telling blow, Judkins had presented the more sustained and coherent argument and Gillott's demise has been seen largely in a light Judkins created, that of the immoral plutocrat posing as a respectable figure in front of vice and corruption. It may be that Gillott is more appropriately seen as a sharp lawyer and man of the world, but a poor politician grown uncommonly fond of pomp in his old age. Out of his depth in the world of real politics he retreated when caught in a cross-fire, simply leaving the stage wounded.

On his return to Melbourne Gillott resumed his seat on the city council and continued his work on the committee of the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital. He was a councillor and in 1911 president of the Working Men's College. While on another visit to England with his wife, he died on 29 June 1913 at Sheffield after falling down a flight of stairs at night. His body was returned to Australia for burial in Melbourne cemetery. He left an estate valued for probate at £291,864, much of which was bequeathed to the University of Melbourne and to charitable institutions.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • C. Pearl, Wild Men of Sydney (Lond, 1958)
  • Journal of Religious History, June 1978
  • Leader (Melbourne), 27 July 1901
  • Punch (Melbourne), 17 Sept 1903, 7 June 1906
  • Truth (Victorian edition), 1 Dec 1906
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 July 1913.

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Gillott, Sir Samuel (1838–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gillott-sir-samuel-6390/text10921, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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