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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Holmes, John Dashwood (1907–1973)

by John Kennedy McLaughlin

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

John Dashwood Holmes (1907-1973), barrister and judge, was born on 13 May 1907 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, son of Greville Charles Dashwood Holmes, a commercial traveller from England, and his native-born wife Margaret, née Kelly. After being schooled at Christian Brothers' College, Waverley, John went jackerooing. He worked freelance as a radio and press journalist while studying at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1928; LL.B., 1932). Admitted to the Bar on 10 March 1933, he swiftly built up a substantial and wide-ranging practice, especially in constitutional law, commercial law and Equity. In the 1930s Holmes collected Australian books and pamphlets, and compiled an unpublished bibliography on the growth of the Federation movement. At St Paul's Anglican Church, Cobbitty, on 16 March 1938 he married a musician Joan Symons, daughter of George Mackaness; they were to be divorced in June 1946. On 31 October that year he married a divorcee Margaret Eve Blaxland Robertson, née Levick, at the district registrar's office, Drummoyne. Both marriages were childless. He lived at Drummoyne in the 1940s before moving to Castle Hill and eventually to Blues Point.

As lecturer in constitutional law (1940-50) at the university, Holmes was involved in controversies resulting from Julius Stone's appointment as professor of international law and jurisprudence, and in disagreements with others in the faculty: like R. C. Teece, Holmes represented the interests of the practising profession in the contretemps. He wrote textbooks on war legislation affecting property, the law of money-lending, and the Prices Regulation Act (1948). In numerous contributions to the Australian Law Journal he showed the diversity of his legal interests, including a daring argument—advanced in 1934 and vindicated shortly before his death—that the Commonwealth could legislate on companies for the whole of Australia.

During World War II Holmes served on the Aliens' Tribunal. He appeared in many leading constitutional cases before the High Court of Australia and the judicial committee of the Privy Council. Appointed K.C. in July 1948, he later took silk in Victoria and in Queensland. He was a junior counsel for the Commonwealth in the Bank nationalization case (1948) and represented before the Privy Council the successful appellant in Hughes and Vale Ltd v. New South Wales (1954) in litigation over the freedom of interstate trade. Holmes belonged to the Union Club. To intimate colleagues, he was a staunch and loyal friend, but he was generally reserved.

Actively involved in the corporate interests of his profession, Holmes was a member (1961-62, 1964-65) and president (1965) of the Council of the New South Wales Bar Association, and vice-president of the Australian Bar Association. He was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court on 8 November 1965 and elevated to the Court of Appeal on its opening on 1 January 1966. Known at the Bar for his ability, hard work and compelling sense of duty, as a judge of appeal he added a demeanour that was learned, humane and courteous, witty but never unkind. Yet he could show frustration at the inadequacies of inferior courts. In 1967 he rebuked a magistrate for having rushed headlong into such an irretrievable position that 'the eggs are not only broken; they are scrambled beyond unscrambling'. In another case that year he described the 'terrors' endured by a litigant before a stipendiary magistrate, saying that they illustrated 'how the poor, sick and friendless are still oppressed by the machinery of justice in ways which need a Fielding or a Dickens to describe in words and a Hogarth to portray pictorially'.

Reduced by a debilitating blood disorder that had afflicted him for years and given him a sallow countenance, Holmes died of hepatoma on 21 January 1973 at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Crows Nest, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. and J. Mackinolty (eds), A Century Downtown (Syd, 1991)
  • Australian Law Journal, 7, 1934, p 372, 39, 1965, p 252, 47, 1973, p 106
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 76, 1948, p 1, 93, 1954, p 1
  • State Reports, New South Wales, 69, 1967, 247 at 268
  • Weekly Notes (New South Wales), 86, 1967, 215 at 218
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July 1948, 6 Aug, 5 Nov 1965, 14 Nov 1970, 22 Jan 1973
  • Sun (Sydney), 8 Nov 1965
  • Holmes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Kennedy McLaughlin, 'Holmes, John Dashwood (1907–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 9 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 14

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