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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Molesworth, Hickman (1842–1907)

by Elise B. Histed

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

Hickman Molesworth (1842-1907), judge, was born on 23 February 1842 in Dublin, son of Sir Robert Molesworth and his wife Henrietta, née Johnston. The family migrated to Victoria in 1852 and Hickman studied law at the University of Melbourne, being called to the Bar in April 1864. On 9 July 1868 he married Eliza Emily (d.1881), daughter of William Rutledge, at Warrnambool; on 15 June 1882 he married Alice Henrietta Peck at Sale. Molesworth built up a reputation defending criminal cases, and his personal popularity with juries was such that some brought in verdicts 'for Mr Molesworth'. He was appointed to the County Court bench in December 1883, becoming permanent judge of the Insolvency Court soon after.

There he fought the abuse of the insolvency system by land speculators that aggravated the depression of the 1890s. Whenever he could legitimately do so Molesworth would refuse approval of secret compositions arranged with their creditors by insolvents applying for release from sequestration. In 1895, when he refused an application from J. M. Davies for his brother's discharge, he pointed out that, as County Court judges were dependent on parliament for their salary, the application would better be made before independent judges of the Supreme Court. In the storm that followed Molesworth was reprimanded by the attorney-general but in his public reply revealed that the Crown Law Department was attempting to remove him and that a request from County Court judges in 1894 for a guarantee of freedom from political interference had received no reply. Supported by public and judiciary, Molesworth remained in his position and in 1896 was appointed special commissioner to investigate the collapse of the City of Melbourne Bank. He was chairman of the Metropolitan Licensing Court, of General Sessions and the Court of Mines, and, during 1891, an acting justice of the Supreme Court.

Known for his lively personality and optimistic and cheerful nature, he was of a mediating and tolerant disposition. Picturesque and unconventional, especially in his dress, he refused to robe for court. Even as a judge he enjoyed socializing with the Bar and showed 'palpable relief' upon being 'freed of the judicial harness' when court rose. A member of the Melbourne Club from 1872, Molesworth was a keen rider to hounds and enjoyed shooting. In 1893 he became a committee-member of the Charity Organisation Society.

In 1907 on medical advice Molesworth took leave and sailed for Queensland. He died of cirrhosis of the liver on board R.M.S. Omrah on 18 July 1907, and after a service at St Columb's Church, Hawthorn, was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His wife and their three children, and four of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. A. Jacobs, Judges of Yesterday (Melb, 1924)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Australian Families (Melb, 1941)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1976)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 3 Sept 1898
  • Punch (Melbourne), 17 Mar 1904
  • Age (Melbourne), 19, 20 July 1907
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19, 24 July 1907.

Citation details

Elise B. Histed, 'Molesworth, Hickman (1842–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 8 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 10

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