Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Leverrier, Francis Hewitt (Frank) (1863–1940)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Francis Hewitt (Frank) Leverrier (1863-1940), barrister, was born on 8 February 1863 at Waverley, Sydney, second son of Guillaume André Charles Leverrier (1826-1895), merchant, and his English wife Mary Anne Skaife, née Hewitt. Born at Saint-Servan, Brittany, France, his father came to Victoria during the gold rush, married in France in 1858 and brought his bride to Sydney where he established Leverrier, Curcier & Co., importers of French wines and spirits and luxury items. In 1863 he took his family back to Saint-Servan.

Frank was educated there by the French Christian Brothers until the family returned to Sydney in 1877. By now fluent in French and German, he briefly attended Fort Street Model School and, from 1878, Sydney Grammar School. In November 1880 he passed the senior public examination in a record seventeen subjects and gained the John West medal and a scholarship at the University of Sydney. He shared a love of science and great mathematical ability with his great-uncle, the noted astronomer Urbain Le Verrier.

At the university Leverrier resided in St John's College (until asked to leave in August 1882 because of his inability to submit to college discipline—eight years later he was elected a fellow). He won the Levey, Deas Thomson, R. C. Want and Renwick scholarships and in 1884 graduated B.A. with first-class honours, the gold medal in natural science and the Belmore gold medal for agricultural chemistry. Next year he graduated B.Sc. with first-class honours and the gold medal. In December 1885 he was admitted as a student-at-law and on 21 September 1888 to the Bar. At St Charles' Catholic Church, Waverley, on 4 February 1892 he married Edith Campbell (d.1928), daughter of a shipbroker.

While Challis lecturer in 1890-1907 on the law of wrongs, civil and criminal, (from 1897 on law of status, civil obligations and crimes) at the university, Leverrier built up a large practice, mainly in Equity, from Denman Chambers. He was soon unrivalled as a patent lawyer and, holding retainers from companies all over Australia and overseas, received very high fees. According to Albert Piddington he was 'one of the most brilliant of cross-examiners'. To him cross-examining was 'a scientific task … not a scolding-match or a sorry business of breaking a witness's nerve'. He took silk on 8 March 1911 and served on the Council of the Bar of New South Wales in 1915-25. He developed an extensive practice before the High Court of Australia and appeared in important constitutional cases; he led for the Commonwealth in the Engineers' case of 1920.

Elected to the university senate in 1907 as a scientist and reformer, Leverrier served continuously until November 1939. Under the old constitution he was vice-chancellor in 1914-17 and 1921-23, and chairman of the finance committee. At a senate meeting in June 1925 he unavailingly defended his friend Christopher Brennan.

Possessing 'great mechanical inventiveness and manual dexterity', Leverrier built a dynamo to generate electricity for his Waverley home and to power his well-equipped workshop, transmitter and chemical laboratory. He was a skilled cabinetmaker and for a case involving the Welsbach patent he made a wooden model that could be taken to pieces to illustrate the working of a gas mantle. His interest in science was lifelong. A friend of Professors (Sir) Edgeworth David, (Sir) Richard Threlfall and James Pollock, he experimented in wireless telegraphy and X-rays. He was a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1909 and next year was first president of the Wireless Institute of New South Wales. He was chairman of the State committee of the Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry in 1916-18 and of the provisional State advisory board of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry in 1920-23, and a member of the State committee of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1926-40.

As a result of a brief from William Freeman, in 1911 Leverrier was an original shareholder in, and later a director of, Austral Malay Tin Ltd, and profited greatly. During World War I he was a vice-president of the Universal Service League. Having refused appointment as a Supreme Court judge, he retired from practice in 1926 and from 1930 was a director of the Mutual Life & Citizens Assurance Co. Ltd. In 1937 he was awarded King George VI's coronation medal.

With a narrow, intelligent face and clipped moustache, Leverrier was modest and unassuming and shunned publicity. He played the violin and taught his sister Yvonne harmony. Warm and gentle, he was beloved by his family and had 'the gift of friendship'; he was a connoisseur of wine and a member of the Australian Club. He died at his home at Wentworth Road, Vaucluse, on 11 June 1940 and was cremated after an Anglican service. He was survived by a son and two daughters, of whom Andrée married (Sir) Leslie Herron, later chief justice of New South Wales. His estate was valued for probate at over £56,000. His family gave a metal-embossed Napoleonic table to the National Art Gallery of New South Wales in his memory.

Sir George Rich claimed Leverrier as 'my oldest friend … a man of outstanding ability'; while Smith's Weekly asserted that 'he knew so much it wasn't fair'.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • A. Clark, Christopher Brennan (Melb, 1980)
  • New South Wales Law Reports, 19 (1898), p 214
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 20 (1920), p 128
  • Science and Industry, 1920, p 190
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 22 Sept 1960, p 190
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13, 18 June 1940
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 30 Oct 1926
  • Catholic Press, 29 Jan 1903, 25 Apr 1907
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Leverrier, Francis Hewitt (Frank) (1863–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leverrier-francis-hewitt-frank-7177/text12403, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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