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Macrossan, Hugh Denis (1881–1940)

by W. Ross Johnston

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

Hugh Denis Macrossan (1881-1940), judge and politician, was born on 20 February 1881 at Lutwyche, Brisbane, son of John Murtagh Macrossan and his wife Bridget, née Queely, both Irish born. He was educated privately and in state schools until 12, when he attended Nudgee College for five years. Academically gifted, in 1898 he passed the New South Wales senior public examination. An accomplished student of the University of Sydney and resident at St John's College, Macrossan graduated B.A. in 1902. For three years he returned to Nudgee as a teacher.

Turning to the law in August 1904 as associate to Mr Justice Real, on 22 October 1907 Macrossan was admitted to the Bar. He married a widow Lydia Cremin Hall (d.1922), née Woodhouse, on 12 June 1912 at St Patrick's Church, Sydney. Although unsuccessful when he stood as a committed Liberal Senate candidate in 1910, in 1912 he was chosen by Premier Denham as a Ministerialist candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Windsor and won easily against W. R. Crampton. Once in parliament he found himself uncomfortable with party ties; he urged politicians to 'be free of party bias and prejudice, and free of the party machine'. He espoused a wide range of social reforms, looking to New Zealand's advanced social and industrial legislation, yet he condemned the Labor Party and policies of nationalization, and opposed trade unions asserting political, rather than social and industrial, power. Seeing himself as a true, 'sane' liberal and democrat, while asserting that socialism was contrary to human nature, he was critical of the system which had made him 'a mere automaton' and declined Denham's endorsement in the 1915 election. He stood as an Independent Liberal.

Impressed by Switzerland's political system he argued against party government, favouring a government responsible to the people through elective ministries, referenda and proportional representation. He also sought an elective Upper House. His battery of proposed social reforms included control over trusts and combines; prohibitions on speculation in food; unemployment insurance; compulsory profit sharing; town planning; quinquennial parliaments; regulation of private enterprise in the best interests of the public; nationalization of public utilities (he was critical of the handling of the 1912 general strike); Federal borrowing on account of the States; protection for Australian workers. He lost to the Labor candidate H. G. McPhail.

Despite clashes in parliament with the Labor leader T. J. Ryan, an increasing bond between them led to Macrossan's identification by some Liberals as crypto-Labor. Having established himself as a leader at the Bar, with fluent and witty command of language, he appeared with Ryan in leading cases such as the Mooraberrie case, the McCawley case and on behalf of George Cuthbert Taylor. He also appeared for Ryan when W. M. Hughes prosecuted him for 'seditious and false statements', and in a libel case against the Melbourne Argus in 1919. He held a retainer from the Crown and appeared, for example, with the solicitor-general on behalf of the commissioner for income tax. In 1924 he appeared as counsel before the Privy Council for the Brisbane Tramways Trust. Much of his early Bar work was in criminal cases but later he was frequently called on in matters of constitutional law.

On 23 July 1926 Macrossan was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland, succeeding L. O. Lukin, and on 1 December he was commissioned as senior puisne judge. On 2 December he married Gladys Mildred Trenfield at Fortitude Valley, with Catholic rites; they formally separated ten years later. He was an official host to the papal legate at the laying of the foundation stone of Holy Name Cathedral, Brisbane, in 1928; next year Pope Pius XI appointed him knight of St Gregory the Great.

Despite a public difference of opinion with, and a rebuke by, Premier W. Forgan Smith in 1934, arising from a comment by Macrossan in court about 'restless pretensions of bureaucracy', his legal career continued to flourish. He was a master of cross-examination, as barrister and judge a prodigious worker who meticulously prepared cases, summings-up and decisions; and he had a sympathy for the genuine underdog. Barristers respected his 'tongue of silver and steel' and his acute, speedy judgments.

Macrossan was appointed chief justice on 17 May 1940, but died on 23 June at Scarborough of coronary thrombosis, having suffered for years from acute asthma. Survived by the two children of his first marriage, he was buried in Nudgee cemetery after a public funeral. His younger brother Neal William became chief justice in 1946.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • R. Johnston, History of the Queensland Bar (Brisb, 1979)
  • University of Queensland Gazette, Dec 1956, p 5
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 1 Jan, 13 Mar 1910, 22 Mar, 29 Apr 1912, 27-30 Mar 1915, 16, 26 Apr, 20, 25 May 1915, 22, 23, 24 July, 2, 3 Dec 1926, 23, 28 Feb 1934, 13, 18 May, 24-26 June 1940.

Citation details

W. Ross Johnston, 'Macrossan, Hugh Denis (1881–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macrossan-hugh-denis-7445/text12963, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 November 2014.

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

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