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Gordon, Alexander (1815–1903)

by K. J. Cable

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

Alexander Gordon (1815-1903), barrister, was born on 14 October 1815 in London, the eldest son of Alexander Gordon, solicitor. Educated in London he served in an attorney's office, entered the Inner Temple in November 1837 and in November 1841 was called to the Bar. He worked mostly in equity until 1857 when his health and his desire for professional advancement prompted his migration to Sydney. He soon became prominent at the Bar and won repute for his advocacy in Purves v. Attorney-General and Lang, which included a Privy Council decision in his favour. In 1858-74 he appeared in about three-quarters of the reported equity cases. This specialization was unusual in colonial practice and may have impeded his further progress. Although appointed Q.C. his chief interest lay outside the law courts.

Gordon was an Evangelical Anglican devout in promoting religion and philanthropy. He served on such charitable committees as the Home Visiting and Relief Society and the Prince Alfred Hospital and on many ecclesiastical and educational bodies. He was a director of the Sydney Diocesan Committee and Educational and Book Society, represented his church on the Denominational School Board in 1859-66 and was a fellow of St Paul's College in 1867-74. At St Paul's, Redfern, he was a churchwarden and taught a Sunday school and men's Bible class. However, his main work for the Church of England was legal and constitutional. In the 1840s the colonial church had contemplated schemes for synodical government. Gordon first believed that a constitution should be based on a voluntary compact but soon decided that full legislative sanction was required. He helped to draft a bill discussed by the diocesan conference in 1858. Despite serious differences with other Anglican lawyers he emerged as the foremost advocate of parliamentary action and the legal tie with the Church of England. In 1866 he was largely responsible for the Church of England Property Management Act, the preamble of which referred to the constitutions accepted by conferences within the dioceses of New South Wales; though more indirect than he hoped, the constitutions were to be recorded in the Supreme Court. In 1872 he helped to create a constitution for the Church in Australia and Tasmania. In 1862-74 he was chancellor of the Sydney diocese and in 1867-68 registrar. In all this activity his close co-operation with Bishop Frederic Barker led to charges of undue influence over his bishop but they were untrue. Both men were Erastian Low Churchmen and were as one in defending Anglican denominational schools and in securing concessions in the public schools bill, 1866.

In 1874 Gordon returned to England but after a few years came back to Sydney and resumed his work in the courts and the church. He helped to resolve the problems which arose over the election of Barker's successor in 1882-83, devised a legislative settlement for church property and became chancellor in 1884. Predictably, he opposed Parkes's educational reforms in 1879-80 and began to acquire political interests. In 1883 he was appointed to the Legislative Council by his friend Alexander Stuart. He supported Stuart's land legislation but on constitutional grounds opposed the Sudan policy of William Bede Dalley's ministry. Always more lawyer than politician, Gordon spoke most often on legal subjects. Late in 1885 he retired to England but retained colonial interests: he supported the church's stand on divorce reform, spoke on the problems of Australian Anglicanism to meetings of English churchmen and in 1889 published The Future of the Empire; Or, a Brief Statement of the Case Against Imperial Federation. Between 1867 and 1884 he had published ten pamphlets chiefly on church law and polity. Gordon died at Pucklechurch, Gloucestershire, on 12 December 1903. By his wife Anne, née Chambers, he had a son, Alexander (1858-1942), who was a judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court in 1910-28 and was knighted in 1930.

Select Bibliography

  • W. M. Cowper (ed), Episcopate of the Right Reverend Frederic Barker, D.D., Bishop of Sydney and Metropolitan Australia: A Memoir (Lond, 1888)
  • J. G. Legge, A Selection of Supreme Court Cases in New South Wales from 1825 to 1862, vol 2 (Syd, 1896)
  • R. Border, Church and State in Australia 1788-1872 (Lond, 1962)
  • Supreme Court Reports (New South Wales), 1861-74
  • Church Sentinel, Dec 1858
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1871
  • Australian Churchman (Sydney), 26 Dec 1903
  • Votes and Proceedings, Synod, 1866, 1874, 1886, 1904 (Sydney Diocesan Registry).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Gordon, Alexander (1815–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gordon-alexander-3636/text5655, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 January 2018.

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

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