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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jeffcott, Sir John William (1796–1837)

by R. M. Hague

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John William Jeffcott (1796-1837), by unknown artist

John William Jeffcott (1796-1837), by unknown artist

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 464

Sir John William Jeffcott (1796-1837) judge, was the eldest son of William Jeffcott, merchant, of Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland, and his wife Harriet Jane, née Hoare. He was educated by private tutor and at Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1821; M.A., 1825). Called to the English Bar at the Inner Temple in February 1826, he applied for a legal post in the colonies and in February 1830 was appointed chief justice of Sierra Leone and the Gambia. He carried out the duties of chief justice for two years and in April 1832 returned to England on leave, which was extended from time to time on medical grounds. In April 1833 he agreed, though in ill health, to return to Sierra Leone for a short period. On 1 May he was knighted, and was about to embark to return to Africa when, in a duel at Exeter on 11 May, he shot and mortally wounded Dr Peter Hennis, a young physician of that town. After the duel Jeffcott sailed for Africa before he could be apprehended. He was seriously ill when he reached the Gambia and, on medical advice, went to a neighbouring French settlement and thence to France, without resuming his judicial duties. The seconds in the duel were tried for murder at Exeter in July 1833 and were acquitted. A warrant had been issued for Jeffcott's arrest on a charge of murder. No one wished, however, to press the charge and it was arranged that if he returned to England and stood his trial for murder, no evidence would be tendered against him. He surrendered at Exeter Assizes in March 1834, was arraigned upon the charge of murder and, no evidence being tendered, was acquitted. He had been removed from his position as chief justice, and from 1834 to 1836 was unemployed.

In May 1836 he was appointed judge of the colony about to be founded in South Australia. On his way to the colony he spent several months as the guest of his kinsman William Kermode at Mona Vale in Van Diemen's Land, and became engaged to Kermode's daughter Anne. Reaching South Australia on 21 April 1837, he held the first criminal sessions in the province on 13 May. Having in the meantime lost all his belongings through the wreck of the ship in which they were being sent to Adelaide, he returned to Van Diemen's Land for some months. He came back to South Australia in October and set up the Supreme Court. He supported Governor (Sir) John Hindmarsh in his quarrels with government officials, but was dismayed at 'dreadful dissensions' in the colony and sought a judicial post elsewhere. Having obtained leave to proceed to Hobart Town to consult with the judges there upon legal difficulties which had arisen in South Australia, he was accidentally drowned on 12 December 1837, while awaiting a ship to take him to Van Diemen's Land, by the upsetting of a whaleboat in the mouth of the River Murray. His body was never found. Jeffcott spent only a few months in South Australia, and could not leave any great mark upon the history of the province. He was an able lawyer, whose promising judicial career was ruined by the fatal duel; and his principal claim to distinction, perhaps, is that of being one of the few British judges ever to stand in the dock charged with murder.

Select Bibliography

  • R. M. Hague, Sir John Jeffcott (Melb, 1963).

Citation details

R. M. Hague, 'Jeffcott, Sir John William (1796–1837)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 2 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

John William Jeffcott (1796-1837), by unknown artist

John William Jeffcott (1796-1837), by unknown artist

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 464

Life Summary [details]




12 December 1837
South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage