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McArthur, Sir William Gilbert Stewart (1861–1935)

by J. McI. Young

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

Sir William Gilbert Stewart McArthur (1861-1935), judge, was born on 18 September 1861 at Meningoort station, Camperdown, Victoria, third son and one of ten children of Scottish parents Peter McArthur, grazier, and his wife Margaret, née McLean. His father had migrated from Islay, Argyllshire, and settled in the Western District in 1839. His mother was the sister of Captain John McLean, a mariner of some note in the early settlement of Port Phillip. Educated at Geelong College, Stewart McArthur was a talented sportsman, excelling at football, cricket and athletics. In 1879, while still at school, he played in the Geelong football and cricket teams and completed the first year of the University of Melbourne's arts degree. Next year he entered Trinity College at the university on the understanding that he would transfer to Ormond College on its opening. This he did in 1881 becoming the first undergraduate on its roll, a matter of lifelong pride; he was later first president of the Old Ormond Students' Association. While at the university he played for Essendon Football Club, captaining the team for part of the 1881 season.

McArthur graduated LL.B. in 1882, read with J. B. Box and was admitted to the Bar in 1884. On 17 December 1890 at Scots Church, Melbourne, he married Margaret Rutherford, daughter of grazier Ewen MacPherson. During the 1890s he practised principally in the County Court and by the end of the decade was its undoubted leader. However he declined a County Court judgeship and turned his attention to Supreme Court and later High Court work. He took silk in 1912. He was admired at the Bar not so much for his oratory as for his sincerity, calmness and ability to persuade a jury, patiently, that right was on his side. When he was appointed to the Supreme Court bench in 1920 the Bar was delighted. As a judge he was noted for a deep-seated sense of justice and sincere humanity. When occasion demanded he could be forceful, even stinging, yet he conveyed impartiality; his unfailing courtesy, natural dignity and well-considered industry, together with his sound understanding of court practice, greatly benefited both Bar and bench. He retired in 1934 on account of ill health and was knighted the following year.

A tall, spare man, long-faced, quiet and kindly, McArthur in maturity achieved a reputation as a most accomplished whip, driving four in hand. He was a founder and sometime president of the Bohemian Club, for many years driving its coach to the Melbourne Cup and other major meetings. He was later a prominent member of the Melbourne Club (president, 1924).

McArthur died on 5 July 1935 at Meningoort which he had inherited in 1917. Survived by his wife, two daughters and son (Sir) Gordon Stewart, later president of the Legislative Council, he was buried in Camperdown cemetery.

The eldest McArthur brother John Neil (1857-1917), pastoralist and racing identity, was born on 20 June 1857 at Meningoort. After attending Geelong College he entered the University of Melbourne in 1877 but did not graduate. Instead, he leased Lawrenny station from his father and managed it until on the latter's death in 1897 he inherited the northern part of Meningoort. Like his brother he had a 'gentle face and … quiet manner'. He was a Warrnambool shire councillor in 1894-1900 and captain of the Western District Company of Colonel Tom Price's voluntary mounted rifle regiment. In 1896-1900 he represented Villiers and Heytesbury in the Legislative Assembly.

A member of the Melbourne Club and master of the Hamilton Hunt Club, McArthur was a gifted polo player and horseman. It was as a breeder and owner of racehorses, 'a straightgoer in the fullest acceptation of the term', that he was best known. He was never a betting man but horses in his colours (sapphire blue, pink sash) won many races throughout Australia; Marmont, his most famous horse, won the Victoria Racing Club Grand National Hurdle and the Victorian Amateur Turf Club Australian Hurdle in 1903 and the Australian Cup in 1904. McArthur was a member of the V.A.T.C. committee and a founder of the Camperdown Turf Club.

McArthur's wife Elizabeth Margaret, née McLean, whom he had married on 24 March 1897 at Mortlake, died in 1900. On 10 June 1915 he married Henrietta Thompson Fergusson, who survived him when he died in Melbourne on 13 March 1917. He had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 2 (Melb, 1904)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melb, 1936)
  • E. Scott, Historical Memoir of the Melbourne Club (Melb, 1936)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Apr 1917, p 355
  • Australian Law Journal, 15 July 1935
  • Geelong College, Pegasus, May 1920, Sept 1935
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Mar 1917, 6 July 1935
  • Camperdown Herald, 14 Mar 1917
  • J. N. McArthur diaries (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

J. McI. Young, 'McArthur, Sir William Gilbert Stewart (1861–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcarthur-sir-william-gilbert-stewart-7286/text12635, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 September 2014.

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

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