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Griffiths, Philip Lewis (1881–1945)

by Michael Roe

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

Philip Lewis Griffiths (1881-1945), jurist, was born on 30 June 1881 at Stony Creek, near Talbot, central Victoria, sixth son and eighth surviving child of Thomas Griffiths and his wife Sarah, née Jones, both natives of South Wales who migrated with fellow villagers in the 1870s. Philip learned the grinding labour of a dairy farm and attended local state schools before winning a scholarship to Caulfield Grammar School (1894). Dux in 1897, he went on further scholarships to the University of Melbourne and its Trinity College. He performed brilliantly in classics and philology, taking a first-class M.A. (1903).

In July 1902 Griffiths went to Hobart to teach at Queen's College. Eighteen months later he turned to journalism, working for the Mercury both in Hobart and Launceston (1908-10). During the latter sojourn he studied law, graduating LL.B. (Tasmania) in June 1910, again with distinction. The previous year he had been foundation secretary of a 'Writers' and Artists' Association', which soon transformed itself into the Tasmanian chapter of the nascent Australian Journalists' Association.

Griffiths began legal practice in Hobart in July 1912. From 1913 (to 1930) he was also lecturer in law at the University of Tasmania, most importantly in 'wrongs' (covering both torts and criminal law). As a barrister he specialized in civil matters. His scholarship was always apparent. Students, colleagues, and even judges found Griffiths demanding; conversely, his closest friend was Robert Dunbabin, the two supporting each other in classical studies against the barbarian world. Yet Griffiths essentially was a humble man who upheld the simple virtues: Hobart folklore remembers him leading a cow to milk at his suburban home, reading all the while. He served the Church of England, so breaking from his parents' Primitive Methodism (although otherwise he honoured his Welsh heritage).

In September 1930 Griffiths became solicitor-general of Tasmania. Thereby ended his business partnership with (Sir) Henry Baker (then attorney-general; future chancellor of the University of Tasmania), but the two continued close friends. In his new role, Griffiths embellished his record of scholarship and efficiency. He became King's Counsel in August 1933, but chances for promotion to the bench lessened with the premiership (from June 1934) of Albert Ogilvie.

From August 1938 to March 1939 Griffiths was acting chief judge of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, and on 1 July 1939 became second judge there. When (Sir) Frederick Phillips went on war leave in 1940, Griffiths again was acting chief judge from October. Few records of this work survive. Griffiths appreciated the difficulties of applying European law in an exotic situation. True to his philology, he took care to improve translation of statements by accused natives. He believed that Australia at least had done no irreparable harm in New Guinea.

On leave in Hobart when the Japanese captured Rabaul, he thereafter served as Tasmania's deputy-director of security. While not a sinecure, the post offered little scope. Griffiths died of coronary occlusion on 4 June 1945 and was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery. He had married Ethelinda Maud Archibald on 18 November 1914, and fathered three daughters and two sons.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania (Hob, 1931)
  • Rabaul Times, 29 Sept 1939
  • Examiner (Launceston), 5 June 1945
  • Mercury (Hobart), 5 June 1945
  • Australian Journalists' Assocciation records (held by the Associations)
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Griffiths, Philip Lewis (1881–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/griffiths-philip-lewis-6490/text11127, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 October 2014.

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

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