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Plunkett, John Hubert (1802–1869)

by T. L. Suttor

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Hubert Plunkett (1802-1869), by unknown photographer

John Hubert Plunkett (1802-1869), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 01382

John Hubert Plunkett (1802-1869), lawyer and politician, was born the younger of twins in June 1802 at Mount Plunkett, County Roscommon, Ireland, son of George Plunkett and his wife Eileen, née O'Kelly. His family, which had aristocratic connexions, had kept some of its estates intact in 1703-78 and was thus well placed to take advantage of the relaxation of the penal laws against Catholics. John entered Trinity College, Dublin, in November 1819 (B.A., 1823), was called to the Irish Bar in 1826 and later to the English Bar. He won distinction and popularity on the Connaught circuit in 1826-32. Daniel O'Connell gave Plunkett the credit for the success of his candidates in Connaught at the 1830 general election which put the Whigs in power. Plunkett's reward was the solicitor-generalship of New South Wales at a salary of £800. He was the first Catholic appointed to high civil office in the colony, though Roger Therry's appointment to a magistracy antedated his by three years. Plunkett arrived in Sydney with his wife and sister and four female servants in the Southworth in June 1832. Also in the ship was Rev. John McEncroe.

John Kinchela, the attorney-general, was deaf and Plunkett had to perform many of his duties. Thus from 1 August to 5 November 1833 he appeared for the attorney-general during the criminal session, conducting ninety-one cases and obtaining sixty-four convictions. In 1835 he published The Australian Magistrate, the first Australian practice book of its kind. It had great importance in effecting uniformity in the procedure of the inferior courts. In 1840 a second and revised edition was published by James Tegg. When Kinchela retired in February 1836 Plunkett was appointed attorney-general. He was given a doubled load, some said in hope that he would resign. As a Crown law officer he was largely responsible for the technical legal form and any technical legal defects of the legislation, which in these crucial years in New South Wales established the equality of all men before the law. Profound personal conviction went into his draftsmanship. Jury rights were first experimentally extended to emancipists at his instance. Ostentatiously he extended the protection of the law to convicts and assigned servants, and successfully used the James Mudie case to argue the abolition of convict assignment. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, 'He exercised important influence on general legislation, and we believe that every measure tending to equalise the social conditions and promote civil and religious liberty amidst the various, and often hostile, elements of this Colony has either been framed or supported by him'. After the Myall Creek massacre in June 1838 he extended the same protection, with the same ostentation, to the Aboriginals, when he secured the condemnation to death of six white men and one black man of Afro-Caribbean origin for the murder of a native. At the first trial Plunkett was defeated on a technical point: because a whole tribe had been massacred the remains of the Aboriginal in question could not be identified with sufficient certainty. Undeterred Plunkett brought forward a fresh charge and won his case. The action ensured his reputation for austere impartiality. Hence he was able to combine the offices of solicitor-general and attorney-general, engrossing those of grand jury and public prosecutor.

To judge from his later public utterances Plunkett considered the Church Act of 1836 the most important single achievement of his public career. It definitely disestablished the Church of England and established legal equality between Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians; its provisions were later extended to Methodists, and Plunkett himself would gladly have included Jews and Independents. Plunkett was the first president of the board set up to administer this Act in 1839. Like Governor Sir Richard Bourke he had wished to supplement the ecclesiastical provisions of the Act by the introduction of the Irish National system in schools, under which children of all religious bodies combined for secular education but separated for religious instruction. In Plunkett's mind, however, 'combined secular education' included the truths of natural religion, God, the after-life, and the Ten Commandments. The opposition of Catholic, Anglican and Nonconformist authorities, including McEncroe, though far from unanimous, sufficed to defeat this measure at the time. But in 1844 Plunkett supported the Lowe committee, of which he was a member, in advocating the National system, and when it came into force in 1848 Plunkett became the first chairman of the board.

From late 1841 to August 1843 Plunkett had been granted leave to attend to family affairs in Ireland. It is not possible to say exactly what contribution Plunkett made in England during the drafting, largely supervised by Stanley, of the 1842 Act for adding elected representatives to the Legislative Council of New South Wales. In 1837 he had, however, piloted the Market Commissioners' Act through the old council, establishing the first representative body in New South Wales, and within the limits of his office had been prominent in advocating extension of the franchise to include emancipists when the municipal council was incorporated in Sydney. His claim to have argued strongly with Stanley in favour of a wide franchise in 1842 is therefore credible. On his return he resumed duty as attorney-general, but not as solicitor-general, and in 1843-51 was one of the twelve official nominees in the newly constituted council. But Plunkett was always a lawyer first. Although he preferred not to be elevated to the Supreme Court bench on uncertain terms when Judge (Sir) William Burton went on leave in 1837 he was an applicant for appointment as chief justice in October 1844. The post went temporarily to (Sir) Alfred Stephen who wrote to Governor Sir George Gipps expressing high regard for Plunkett and trusting that their rivalry would not 'disturb the friendly feelings between us … [as Plunkett] has many claims on … Government and country for … long, arduous and most faithful discharge of duty'.

Plunkett carried on as attorney-general in a political hurly-burly to which he was temperamentally unsuited, for he lacked eloquence, flexibility, and capacity for rapid decision. The reputation for genial sociability which he had brought from Ireland did not sit easily on him in the colonies, except with a few intimate friends, and he found himself increasingly isolated. He was at odds with many fellow-Catholics, including McEncroe and Archbishop John Bede Polding, because of his views on education. The old O'Connellite could give only half-hearted support to the Catholic Association formed to promote church schools in 1851, and in 1853 he engaged in acrimonious public controversy with McEncroe on the education issue. He alienated extreme Protestant opinion, as represented or manipulated by John Dunmore Lang, by the firm backing he gave to Caroline Chisholm. In the disputes on land tenure and squatting he fell foul of the anti-squatter party because he advised the governor that the crown had no power to break in upon licences already in operation and that the law did not permit the sale of licensable land once a licence had been applied for. Both Victorian and English legal opinion later backed him on these questions, and it was he who found a loophole for the executive in the provisions for reserving from lease, or resuming from lease, lands required for public use. But he also antagonized many of the squatter party by his opposition to any resumption of transportation. From 1843 to 1856 he was a member of the Executive Council, a key figure from the dawn of representative government until the granting of responsible government because of his unique experience of the law of the colony. His personal touch was most apparent in his stringent liquor legislation of 1856 and in the marriage bill of 1855 giving church weddings civil status. In 1849 he sat on the William Charles Wentworth committee to establish a university, and became a member of its first Senate. He made one crucial political mistake. Elected in 1852 to the drafting committee for the colony's new Constitution, he supported Wentworth's proposal for a hereditary upper house, and treated his critics with stubborn hauteur. The credit he earned by his other work on the Constitution was denied him because of this eccentricity.

In 1856 Plunkett retired from office on a pension of £1200. His impartial administration over a quarter of a century had won him widespread appreciation, and he decided to seek election to the first Legislative Assembly under responsible government. His political campaign leaned heavily on Irish national sentiment. Here he felt on strong ground, for each year when chairing the St Patrick's Day dinner, he always managed to break through his normal reserve. But against the background of the Crimean War Irish nationalism was an uncertain recommendation, and he was defeated for Sydney by a team led by Henry Parkes and Charles Cowper, who used Plunkett's Catholicism against him without scruple. He eventually won the country seat of Argyle, but felt unable to act as attorney-general under Cowper, since only the shortage of lawyers had prompted the invitation. In 1857-58 he was president of the Legislative Council.

In February 1858 Cowper, as premier, dismissed Plunkett from the presidency of the National Schools Board. It was a complex dispute, with personal and political overtones as well as important constitutional aspects on the relative powers of the Executive Council and of the board as a body corporate established by an Act of the superseded Legislative Council. Cowper correctly asserted the powers of the government generally, but acted vindictively in using the board's decision to publish its correspondence in the press as his reason for dismissing Plunkett. Public opinion strongly backed Plunkett, and the Legislative Assembly voted for him, but to no avail. As a result Plunkett resigned the presidency of the Legislative Council and all his many public offices. He now espoused the popular side in politics and used its methods. Defeated by the Parkes 'bunch' in 1856, in 1858 he 'bunched' himself with Daniel Deniehy for the electorate of Sydney. Only Plunkett won election. He sat in the Legislative Assembly from September 1858 into 1860, taking a democratic position on the land question, adult male suffrage, and the secret ballot, but did not resume his post on the National Schools Board or become attorney-general when invited in December 1859. Governor Sir John Young later appointed him to the Legislative Council and he held office in the ministry of James Martin in 1863-65. In 1865 at Young's instance he accepted the attorney-generalship in Cowper's cabinet and precipitated the fall of the ministry when he resigned from it. His health now required frequent absence from the council and he eventually settled in Melbourne, coming to Sydney only for the parliamentary sessions.

Plunkett was an important leader of Catholic opinion in the colony. He publicly defended Polding when the archbishop left Sydney in 1854 and chaired the welcome gathering when he returned in 1856. He took the leading role in establishing St Vincent's Hospital, Potts Point, under the management of the Irish Sisters of Charity. He had been a generous benefactor to the sisters since they arrived in 1839. As treasurer of St Vincent's he consistently used his position to insist on the non-denominational character of the hospital. In 1858 he criticized the archbishop's control of the hospital's affairs which had contributed to the resignation of the head nun, Sister de Lacy, and thus joined the majority of prominent laymen who had been objecting for some time to the administration of the archdiocese. These protests resulted in Rome's recall of the vicar-general, Henry Gregory, in 1861. Plunkett became reconciled to Polding before 1869 when he acted as lay secretary to the second Provincial Synod in Melbourne. Meanwhile his attitude towards denominational schools had changed and prevented him from accepting William Forster's invitation to resume his seat on the National Schools Board. The stand of the Irish bishops against the National system was confirmed by the Australian bishops late in 1862, and in the Legislative Council Plunkett endorsed their action.

In his last years Plunkett devoted more time to his lifelong recreation, the violin and Irish folk music; on this subject he gave many public addresses, which he illustrated himself. He had become a Q.C. and in 1863 published On the Evidence of Accomplices. He was elected a founding fellow of St John's College in June 1858, and was vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney in 1865-67. He died on 9 May 1869 in East Melbourne. His remains were taken to Sydney and buried in the old Devonshire Street cemetery, beside those of Archpriest John Joseph Therry and Archdeacon McEncroe. His widow survived him by many years. They had no children, but various kinsmen settled in Australia, including his twin brother.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Halloran, ‘Some Early Legal Celebrities’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 10, part 6, 1924, pp 301-47
  • manuscript catalogue under J. H. Plunkett (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

T. L. Suttor, 'Plunkett, John Hubert (1802–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/plunkett-john-hubert-2556/text3483, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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