Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Monahan, Sir Robert Vincent (1898–1975)

by Charles Francis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir Robert Vincent Monahan (1898-1975), barrister and judge, was born on 11 April 1898 at Swan Hill, Victoria, son of Victorian-born parents Patrick Martin Monahan, grazier and butcher, and his wife Mary Frances, née Nolan. Due to protracted drought, the family fell on hard times and was close to poverty by 1902. Encouraged by his mother to study hard, Rob was educated at St Patrick's College, Ballarat, and Newman College, University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1921). He was admitted to practice on 1 June 1922 and worked with F. C. Mueller, a solicitor at Echuca, before signing the bar roll on 30 April 1923. In Melbourne he read with L. B. Cussen.  

At St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne, on 7 September 1929 Monahan married Lillie Elevia Bowman, a 26-year-old hairdresser. He established himself in Equity Chambers in 1931. By the end of the decade he was well known as a defence counsel and as a persuasive advocate in personal injury cases. He always studied his cases closely and was instantly able to marshal any relevant detail. Emotional and sincere, with an actor's sense of timing, he proved a masterful cross-examiner, probing swiftly with penetrating questions. He ordinarily achieved more by courtesy than belligerence. The hardships of his early life had given him a deep understanding of the minds of common people and he expressed complicated matters with simple eloquence so that juries tended to identify with him. Above all, he could influence, charm and dominate a court.

Appointed K.C. on 14 January 1947, Monahan appeared in a succession of sensational trials in the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1944 he had been prominent in the coroner's inquest into the identity of the 'Pyjama Girl' (Linda Agostini). In the 'Whose Baby' case (commencing December 1948), Monahan acted for Mrs Alberta Morrison who claimed that her daughter had been confused with that of Jessie Jenkins, and accidentally switched on 22 June 1945 when the two babies were born within five minutes of each other at Kyneton hospital. Justice (Sir) John Barry was satisfied that a switch had occurred and awarded Mrs Morrison custody of Nola Jenkins. On appeal, the Full Court set the order aside, a decision upheld by the High Court of Australia.

In 1950 Monahan defended John Bryan Kerr, a radio announcer charged with the murder by strangulation of a young woman at St Kilda beach. His conduct of the defence was so masterly that many lawyers came to watch in the crowded public galleries. In the first two trials the jury failed to agree, only serving further to heighten public interest, but in the third trial—before Sir Charles Lowe—a 'guilty' verdict was finally obtained. Appeals to the Court of Criminal Appeal and the Privy Council failed. In all, Monahan conducted more than one hundred murder trials; only one of his clients Tommy Johnson, a mental defective, went to the gallows (1939).

Monahan was appointed an acting-judge of the Supreme Court on 3 March 1955 (confirmed on 31 October). As a barrister he had been a persuasive advocate rather than a lawyer steeped in legal knowledge, but as a judge his talents lay primarily in an ability to conduct and control a trial proficiently. For the most part he sat in the criminal court, in personal injury cases, and in the divorce jurisdiction. Almost invariably he was courteous, patient, enthusiastic and sympathetic. Criminal trials before him were conducted with scrupulous fairness to the accused, but his love for the underdog could produce some imbalance in his charges to juries, especially when injured workers sued wealthy employers. In 1967 he was knighted. He retired on 10 April 1970.

Above average height, Monahan had red hair and a distinguished appearance. Peter Coldham, Q.C., said that he looked like 'what a great advocate ought to look like: the clear and piercing eye, the hawk nose, the commanding presence . . . the master of mannerism'. Monahan lived well. He and his wife and children enjoyed a succession of luxurious and elegant homes at East St Kilda, Heidelberg, Kew, Eaglemont, Toorak and South Yarra. A devout Catholic, he often slipped down to St Francis's Church for quiet prayer. He was a genial companion, and was gregarious, kindly and generous to a fault. Sir Robert belonged to the Australian, Athenaeum, Victoria Racing, Victoria Amateur Turf, Moonee Valley Racing and Victoria Golf clubs, and the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria. In his spare time he enjoyed golf, game-shooting, fishing, and playing the piano. Horse-racing was his passion. The not inconsiderable amount he had lost on racehorses over the years was more than recouped in 1962 when Monahan and Albert Smith, a Melbourne bookmaker, won the Irish Derby sweepstakes (£50,000).

Monahan's last years were spent in a large apartment in Spring Street, Melbourne, but were marred by glaucoma and ill health. Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, he died on 10 May 1975 at Fitzroy and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His portrait by Paul Fitzgerald is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Anderson, Fossil in the Sandstone (Melb, 1986)
  • Australian Law Journal, 49, no 5, May 1975, p 252
  • Sun (Melbourne), 16 Jan 1947, 8 Dec 1952, 9 May 1970, 29 Nov 1972
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 Oct 1949
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 1962
  • Herald (Melbourne), 12 May 1975
  • Sir Robert Monahan's farewell, (typescript, Supreme Court Library, Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

Charles Francis, 'Monahan, Sir Robert Vincent (1898–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/monahan-sir-robert-vincent-11146/text19853, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 September 2019.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019