Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Owen, Sir William Francis (1899–1972)

by Phillipa Weeks

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

Sir William Francis Langer Owen (1899-1972), judge, was born on 21 November 1899 at Hunters Hill, Sydney, only son and youngest of three children of (Sir) Langer Meade Loftus Owen, a Sydney-born barrister, and his wife Mary Louisa, née Dames Longworth, who came from Ireland. William was educated at Tudor House, Moss Vale, and Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). He ran away from school and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 31 December 1915, claiming to be aged 18.

Owen served on the Western Front from September 1916 as a sapper in the 7th Field Company, Engineers. He was wounded in September 1917 and gassed in May 1918. Transferring to the Australian Flying Corps in August, he was training as a pilot in England when the war ended. In April 1919 he was commissioned. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Sydney on 15 November. While studying for the Bar examinations, he acted as associate to Sir William Cullen, the chief justice. At St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, on 11 July 1923 Owen married Joan Bately, daughter of Judge Thomas Rolin. On 2 August that year he was admitted to the Bar.

Fleetingly, in the early 1930s, Owen was politically active—in the Old Guard, and in the United Australia Party for which he unsuccessfully stood for pre-selection for the 1932 State elections. He took silk in 1935 and in April 1936 became an acting-judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. On 25 October 1937 he was made a judge of the court, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather Sir William Owen. Appointed K.B.E. in 1957, he was elevated to the High Court of Australia on 22 September 1961 and sworn of the Privy Council in the following year. He was regarded as a 'conservative' judge for preferring 'what in legal principle is well-established to that which savours of experiment' and for 'the chill wind of his common sense'.

Owen had also served the Commonwealth in various non-judicial functions. Under John Curtin's Australian Labor Party government, he chaired (1942-45) the Central Wool Committee during World War II, a full-time occupation for which he declined a salary. He was a member of the Australian delegation to a conference, held in London in 1945, on the disposal of wartime wool stocks. In 1950 (Sir) Robert Menzies' Liberal Party and Country Party government appointed him chairman of a committee which investigated claims for payment of an allowance to ex-prisoners of war.

In May 1954 Menzies chose Owen to chair the royal commission on espionage (1954-55) in Australia, an investigation that stemmed from evidence provided by Vladimir Petrov, an official from the Embassy of the Soviet Union who had defected. The early proceedings of the commission were monopolized by the efforts of Dr H. V. Evatt, leader of the Opposition, to defend members of his staff who were named in a Petrov document and to depict the defection as a political conspiracy against him. Evatt's excesses eventually moved the commissioners to terminate his right to appear. In 1960 Evatt again intruded upon Owen's life. As senior puisne judge (from 1955) of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Owen hoped for promotion to chief justice, but the State Labor government appointed Evatt, by then increasingly erratic, to ease his departure from Federal politics. Owen's move to the High Court, where he found himself in congenial company, provided considerable consolation.

About 5 ft 10½ ins (179 cm) tall, with a fair complexion, brown hair (which receded with age) and blue eyes, Sir William wore glasses and had a moustache. He was a member of the Union Club (Sydney), the Royal Sydney Golf Club and the Melbourne Club, and found recreation in golf, fishing and reading. Although he was shy by nature, he revealed to family and colleagues his warmth, sense of humour, and humanity. A humble man with an 'unremitting devotion to duty', he gained from his upbringing, connexions and career on the bench a demeanour of 'natural authority' and 'an unselfconscious presence'.

In 1967 an aneurysm led to the amputation of Owen's right leg, and his left leg later required arterial surgery. Suffering constant discomfort and frequent pain, he continued his duties with a commitment which his fellow judges regarded as 'heroic'. On 29 March 1972, during a court sitting, he fell ill. He died two days later in St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated; his wife and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Marr, Barwick (Syd, 1980)
  • M. Sexton and L. W. Maher, The Legal Mystique (Syd, 1982)
  • G. Fricke, Judges of the High Court (Melb, 1986)
  • R. Manne, The Petrov Affair (Syd, 1987)
  • A. Moore, The Secret Army and the Premier (Syd, 1989)
  • Australian Law Journal, 35, 1961, p 225, 46, 1972, p 251
  • A.P.S.A. News, 6, no 3, 1961, p 5
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 125, 1972
  • private information.

Citation details

Phillipa Weeks, 'Owen, Sir William Francis (1899–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/owen-sir-william-francis-11324/text20197, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 September 2014.

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

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