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Mitchell, Samuel James (1852–1926)

by Robert Thornton

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

Samuel James Mitchell (1852-1926), by S. Solomon, c1890

Samuel James Mitchell (1852-1926), by S. Solomon, c1890

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3877

Samuel James Mitchell (1852-1926), politician and judge, was born on 11 May 1852 near Mount Barker, South Australia, son of John Mitchell, tailor, and his wife Lydia, née Phillip. He was educated at R. C. Mitton's Grammar School, Adelaide, and other private schools before working at Mount Gambier and later at Melrose. In 1871 he moved to Port Augusta where he became a successful auctioneer. He was a district councillor and mayor for two years, as well as master of the Masonic lodge.

Mitchell returned to Adelaide and worked as a draper. On 15 September 1875 he married Eliza Ann Gardener at Trinity Church, North Terrace. In 1885 he was articled to H. E. Downer who entrusted him with management of his office. After graduating LL.B. from the University of Adelaide in 1890 he was admitted to the Bar that year and practised in association first with Paris Nesbit, Q.C., and, later, with Rupert Ingleby, Q.C.; he became one of Adelaide's most able and astute barristers. He was also a committee-member of the Glenelg Institute and the first president of the South Australian Electric Telegraph Association.

In 1900 Mitchell stood unsuccessfully for parliament, but next year won the House of Assembly seat for the Northern Territory at a by-election. He was re-elected in 1902 and 1906 and worked hard for the territory, advocating the construction of a transcontinental railway connecting Adelaide and Port Darwin. From June 1909 he was attorney-general in A. H. Peake's ministry for six months before being replaced in a cabinet reshuffle.

With the transfer of the territory to control by the Federal government imminent, Mitchell resigned from parliament in January 1910 to become government resident and judge in the Northern Territory; he travelled in India and South-East Asia first. In Palmerston (Darwin) he tried to revive the economy by introducing a public works programme and by encouraging mineral prospecting and investment. In 1911 he helped to effect the transfer of control of the territory to the Commonwealth. Although he remained the territory's acting administrator and judge of the new Supreme Court, he resigned in 1912 after the Federal authorities refused to guarantee the independence of his judicial office by making his appointment tenable for life.

Returning to South Australia, Mitchell became a stipendiary magistrate at Port Pirie. In 1916 he was transferred to the Adelaide Police Court. With the death of Commissioner J. G. Russell early in 1918, he was promoted to commissioner of insolvency, a title altered to judge in 1926; he was also stipendiary magistrate of the Adelaide Local Court and the Taxation Appeal Court. He was the royal commissioner investigating the State Bank's thousand homes contract (1925), and police bribery (1926). During the sitting of the latter Mitchell became ill. He died of pneumonia on 3 October 1926 and was buried in North Road cemetery after a service at Holy Trinity Anglican church. His wife, son and two daughters survived him; Dame Roma Mitchell, Australia's first woman Q.C. and judge, is a granddaughter.

A small, dignified man, noted for his courtesy, Mitchell was a shrewd judge of character, energetic and fair. He was a staunch low church Anglican. He played the flute and was a Dickens enthusiast. As commissioner, and in 1926 judge of the Insolvency Court, he delivered judgment on many complex cases that drew on his wide judicial and business experience; his decisions were seldom upset by appeal.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • Public Service Review (South Australia), Aug 1898, Feb 1918
  • Quiz and the Lantern, 29 Aug 1902
  • Honorary Magistrate, Mar 1918
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 Oct 1926
  • Register (Adelaide), 4 Oct 1926
  • letter from Mitchell to Gill, Palmerston, 10 June 1910, SAA Gen Cat 1313/3 C4 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Government Resident's Office records and Insolvency Court records (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Robert Thornton, 'Mitchell, Samuel James (1852–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-samuel-james-7608/text13293, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 January 2018.

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

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