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Meagher, Richard Denis (Dick) (1866–1931)

by Bede Nairn

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

Richard Denis Meagher (1866-1931), by unknown photographer, c1905

Richard Denis Meagher (1866-1931), by unknown photographer, c1905

City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/309

Richard Denis (Dick) Meagher (1866-1931), solicitor and politician, was born on 11 January 1866 at Bathurst, New South Wales, son of Denis Meagher, policeman, of Ireland, and his wife Jane, née Keleher, of Bathurst. His mother died when he was 2, and he was brought up by relations. Educated at St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, and St Aloysius College, Sydney, he was articled to J. A. B. Cahill in 1883, transferring to William Crick in 1887; he was admitted as a solicitor on 30 November 1889. At St Francis Church, Paddington, he married Alice Maude Osmond on 26 January 1891; they were childless.

Dick Meagher had been a lonely child. But he was a bright schoolboy and talented youth, with a flair for law and a taste for radical protectionist politics that placed him firmly in the unsubmissive Irish Catholic environment. In 1885 he helped Edward O'Sullivan to campaign, and in the 1880s and early 1890s made a name as a speaker welcoming dissident Irish visitors John and William Redmond, Michael Davitt and Joseph Devlin. Yet there was an ambivalence about Meagher for, since the days of John Hubert Plunkett, E. Butler and Daniel Deniehy, 'his people' had seen the law as an avenue for tribal recognition and social fulfilment.

He grew into a fleshy, tall, young man, with a long, oval face, flared nostrils and a wide gap between his upper lip and the base of his nose. His sulky looks complemented his hauteur, masking an emotional insecurity and gullibility that made him a bad judge of people. He could tell a joke, but could seldom see one. He acquired a fruity eloquence which under pressure could expand into protean oratory that gratified audiences with luscious imagery and sonorities, occasionally arousing them with searing vituperation. By 25 he was a Sydney identity. In 1892 he became Crick's partner, practising mainly in the Police Court; but he also appeared in higher courts, following a law amendment that allowed the 'solicitor on the record' to do so. Astute, cantankerous and earthy, Crick found Meagher's self-conceit hard to take, even as they prospered.

Helped by the publicity of the case of George Dean, Meagher won the seat of Sydney-Phillip on 24 July 1895. He had defended Dean in the Police Court in March against a charge of attempted murder of his wife by poisoning, and next month at his trial when he was sentenced to death. The judge, Sir William Windeyer, had shown antipathy to Dean, raising doubts about the verdict. But on 9 April, under pressure from Crick, Meagher tricked Dean into confessing. Meagher rationalized his duty to his client, kept the secret and stirred public and political opinion to have the case reviewed, thus provoking suspicion that the prisoner's stricken wife and her mother had bizarrely plotted to have him hanged. A royal commission's majority report resulted in a pardon for Dean on 28 June.

Meagher's vainglory intensified. When the Daily Telegraph reflected on his defence of Dean in July he sought advice from the leader of the Bar, Sir Julian Salomons, about a libel action. To impress him he disclosed Dean's guilt, but Salomons was appalled and in August divulged Meagher's confidences to John Henry Want, attorney-general. Meagher, with Crick's unwitting help, brazened it out throughout September. But he was forced to confess on 8 October. His grandiloquence helped to sustain him: 'I am determined to endure mental torture no longer, nor to stifle the voice of truth … This awful lesson of my life I will endeavour to atone for in another clime'. He resigned from parliament. His father died on 28 October.

With Crick and Dean he was charged in December with conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice. Crick was acquitted, and Meagher and Dean's convictions were quashed in May 1896 on the grounds of the inadmissibility of certain evidence. Meagher was struck from the roll of solicitors by the Supreme Court on 1 June. He decided to stay in Sydney and to try to rehabilitate himself.

The Dean case had decimated Meagher's savings and he now had no income. He realized on oratory in lecture tours and became a land agent. In the 1898 general election he won the seat of the Tweed, where the Irish protectionists were strong. He regained his position as a Sydney celebrity in September when in Pitt Street he horse-whipped John Norton, who had called him 'Mendax Meagher' in Truth; Norton pulled his revolver, but missed; Meagher was fined £5 for assault. That year he was responsible for the important Medical Practitioners' and Accused Persons' Evidence Acts. In a parliament confused by the advent of Federation, he helped (Sir) George Reid to bring New South Wales into the national fold. He became an effective and well-liked parliamentarian and by 1904, when his seat was abolished, he had retrieved much of his State-wide popularity. He was an alderman for Phillip Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council in 1901-20, a member of the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage in 1906-10, and on the committee to welcome the American fleet in 1908. He was a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales in 1916-31, and a director of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1916-18.

Meagher's consuming goal was to be restored to the roll of solicitors. Applications failed in 1900 and 1902, but in 1904 the chief justice, Sir Frederick Darley, intimated that a future request might succeed. In 1902-03 he had an apparently dubious association with William Willis, a fellow parliamentarian and land agent. The royal commissioner, Justice (Sir) William Owen, who examined the administration of the Lands Department in 1905-06, reported adversely on Willis and Crick but not on Meagher. Willis was a plausible manipulator and Meagher was quite unable to comprehend his personality or methods. The Incorporated Law Institute of New South Wales opposed Meagher's application for readmission in 1909, when Sir George Simpson, acting chief justice, who knew Meagher well, found his relations with Willis in one instance 'reprehensible, but … [not] so reprehensible that it should prevent' his reinstatement; and in a second case Simpson stated that suspicion was raised, 'but unless those circumstances lead almost conclusively to a conviction of guilt, I am bound by every principle of law and justice to acquit'. He and Judge Henry Cohen granted the application in July, with Judge Robert Pring dissenting. Meagher resumed practice. But the Law Institute appealed against his readmission and the High Court of Australia reversed the decision in November. Thereafter he gave up his land work but continued before the Railway Appeal Board and the Public Service Appeals Tribunal.

In 1907 he had been re-elected to parliament for Phillip. In 1909 he joined the Labor Party and contributed much to its strength and achievements while it held government in 1910-16; on the executive in 1910-16, he was vice-president in 1913 and 1915-16 and president in 1914-15. He was parliamentary chairman of committees in 1910-13. In 1912 the governor Lord Chelmsford put pressure on James McGowen and William Holman to prevent Meagher from obtaining a cabinet vacancy, saying that he would not receive him socially. The same year a private member's bill to readmit him to the roll of solicitors passed the Legislative Assembly, but failed in the Legislative Council. He became Speaker in 1913 after caucus had supported him against McGowen, the choice of the premier, Holman.

Meagher's appointment by the government as the first Labor lord mayor of Sydney in January 1916 ended a deadlock on the council, but he was elected to the position for 1917. Pressed by the Churches, he set up a censor of street posters and said, 'While I occupy this chair the standard of decency will be maintained'; he introduced rating on unimproved land values and planned to increase the construction of workers' houses. He mediated unsuccessfully to end the 1917 transport strike, and collected money to help families in need because of the dispute. He was very active in raising men and money for World War I.

Like many other Australian-Irish 'Home Rulers', Meagher deplored the Dublin 1916 Easter rising, and he was troubled by those who favoured an Irish republic, some of whom were activists in the Labor Party. The problem crystallized as a large party majority rejected compulsion for overseas service in the war. Surprising many conservatives, Meagher supported Prime Minister Billy Hughes's conscription policy and was expelled from the party in November. He ran as Independent Labor at the 1917 election but was defeated after a bitter campaign, described by Meagher as a 'saturnalia of sectarianism and a veritable hurricane of hate'; during the campaign he and Holman had been hooted at the St Patrick's Day sports. Holman had him appointed to the Legislative Council in May.

That month Meagher made his fifth application to be restored to the roll. The court was headed by Chief Justice Sir William Cullen, who at one stage provoked Meagher's counsel, J. C. Gannon, K.C., to remark: 'I am beginning to think that for most people there is to be no possibility of reclamation'. The application was refused. A representative testimonial committee, including (Sir) Samuel Hordern and (Sir) Alfred Meeks, was established to help him financially. He tried again in November 1919 and clashed openly with Cullen, accusing him of having insulted and humiliated him in his position as lord mayor. Cullen denied it. Meagher said he had 'come here in no craven spirit seeking mercy', and in his reply savaged R. Broomfield, K.C., counsel for the Law Institute. Reinstatement was refused.

In December he failed in an appeal to the High Court, but Justice (Sir) Isaac Isaacs said that he should go again to the Supreme Court and satisfy them 'that your attitude has really changed'. Meagher took the advice and by affidavit in March 1920 expressed his 'contrition for everything that has happened'. Broomfield argued that the sorrow was not genuine, and the court agreed. The High Court refused leave to appeal. Meagher now saw that his ordeal had involved a hopeless struggle against the hard conservative core of the legal profession, and sought justice from parliament.

He had resigned from the Legislative Council in February 1920 to contest Sydney at the March elections. Meagher lost but polled well, and there were signs of wide-ranging political support and public sympathy in his long fight to resume his career in law. With the support of John Storey's Labor government and some members of the Opposition, in October W. Bennett of the Progressive Party brought down a bill to restore Meagher to the roll. Despite petitions from the Law Institute, presented by Thomas Ley, and from the Council of the Bar of New South Wales, the Legal Practitioners Amendment Act of 1920 passed both Houses in December. The debate in the Legislative Council was highlighted by a compassionate speech by Sir Joseph Carruthers. The Sydney Morning Herald said that the unique Act was 'a moral shock to the community'.

Meagher quickly re-established himself and was later joined by R. Sproule in a successful legal firm. Meagher's wife died in April 1924 and he visited the United States of America. As a memorial to her, in 1928 he donated land for the erection of the Church of Our Lady of the Nativity at Lawson. Next year he was appointed a papal knight of the Order of St Gregory. He suffered from chronic nephritis, died in Lewisham Hospital on 17 September 1931 and was buried in Waverley cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £32,580 of which £20,000 was left to Archbishop Michael Kelly for the education of priests; included in a long list of minor beneficiaries were Daniel Green, Denis Haugh, Bert. Evatt and W. Bennett.

In 1920 Meagher published Twenty-Five Years' Battle, and in 1925 American Impressions.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Royal Commission on … Lands Department (Syd, 1906)
  • C. Pearl, Wild Men of Sydney (Lond, 1958)
  • L. Blackwell, Death Cell at Darlinghurst (Lond, 1970)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • F. A. Larcombe, The Advancement of Local Government in New South Wales, 1906 to the Present (Syd, 1978)
  • New South Wales State Reports, 9 (1909)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 9 (1909)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 Dec 1913
  • Town and Country Journal, 31 Dec 1913
  • Punch (Melbourne), 14 May 1914, 24 May 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Jan, 24 Aug 1916, 29 May, 29 Dec 1917, 8 Nov, 19 Dec 1919, 9 Mar, 22 Dec 1920, 18 Sept 1931
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 17 Aug 1916, 15 Mar 1917, 8 Jan, 14 May 1925
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 418/101.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Meagher, Richard Denis (Dick) (1866–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/meagher-richard-denis-dick-7546/text13165, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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