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Pring, Ratcliffe (1825–1885)

by W. Ross Johnston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Ratcliffe Pring (1825-1885), by unknown engraver

Ratcliffe Pring (1825-1885), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S25/10/79/125

Ratcliffe Pring (1825-1885), lawyer and politician, was born on 17 October 1825 at Crediton, Devon, England, second son of Thomas Pring, a landed solicitor and clerk of the peace in Devon, and his wife Anne, née Dunne. Educated at King Edward VI Grammar School at Crediton and Shrewsbury School, he studied law for one year in his father's office, two years with a conveyancer and two more with a special pleader in London. In 1849 he was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple. He practised at the Quarter Sessions at Exeter but bronchial attacks decided him to migrate to Sydney in 1853. He practised on the Goulburn, Moreton Bay and Bathurst circuits and in Sydney until the New South Wales government expanded the Moreton Bay judicial establishment. Pring was appointed resident crown prosecutor in March 1857 and in April settled in Brisbane. On the separation of the colony of Queensland he was immediately commissioned attorney-general.

Pring served as attorney-general under Herbert from 10 December 1859 to 30 August 1865 and from 21 July to August 1866; under Mackenzie from 15 August 1867 to 25 November 1868; under Lilley from 12 November 1869 to 3 May 1870; under Palmer from 2 January 1874 for six days; and under McIlwraith from 16 May 1879 to 4 June 1880 when Pring was not re-elected in the ministerial by-election but stayed in office without a seat in parliament. In 1875 (Sir) Samuel Griffith considered Pring for solicitor-general but later denied the offer. Pring was a busy legislator, especially in the mid-1860s. His more important legislation was on court structure, criminal law and commercial practice. In 1862 he compiled the first two volumes of Statutes in Force in the Colony of Queensland at the Present Time and edited a third on the statutes passed in 1863-64. In the Legislative Assembly he represented Eastern Downs from 1860 to 1862 and served for thirteen months in the Legislative Council. He then represented Ipswich in the assembly from 1863 to 1866 when he unofficially led the Opposition and advocated the Ipswich-Brisbane railway. After defeat in the Ipswich election he was returned for the Burnett in 1867 and was again unofficial leader of the Opposition. He represented Brisbane North in 1870-72, Carnarvon in 1873-74, Brisbane in 1878, and Fortitude Valley in 1878-79.

Pring's reputation in politics was marked by controversies which partly arose from his personality: impulsive, vain, hasty in temper, strong in opinion and forcible in expression. In the 1860 select committee on the judicial establishment of Queensland he gave evidence which with his later official stand as attorney-general incensed the incumbent judge, Lutwyche. In 1861-62 a rancorous and personal dispute was carried on by the judge against Pring and the government. Pring then prosecuted T. P. Pugh, editor of the Courier, for libel concerning the government's attitude towards Lutwyche's salary. Events in 1865 showed Pring's turbulent spirit. His zealous defence of a parliamentary colleague, John Gore Jones, for breach of privilege was attacked in the press as interference with the course of justice. Finally he resigned after a dispute with Herbert over drafting a bill, but the premier attributed the resignation to Pring's drunkenness and contrary nature leading to cabinet clashes.

In 1871 Pring was appointed commissioner of goldfields, charged to visit them and suggest their future legislation. The appointment was an office of profit and his seat was declared vacant in April. In the subsequent election he was returned and despite a petition disputing the election was allowed to retain the seat. On 10 January 1872 he entered the Legislative Assembly quite drunk, used insulting language to opponents and assaulted C. G. H. C. Clark even trying to arrange a fight outside the House. Found guilty of contempt of parliament, he resigned his seat. He left for the country on legal business but the House persisted, finding him guilty of further contempt by failing to attend to explain his behaviour.

As a lawyer Pring was praised for his fluency and dogged ability in criminal law cases. He was very successful in prosecuting and defending criminals and at times acted as crown prosecutor on the Criminal Circuit. He was appointed Q.C. in 1868. In 1875 he was appointed a judge of the Central District Court but resigned next year to accept a large fee in defence of a prominent businessman. In July 1880 he acted as judge after Lutwyche died. Some lawyers and politicians criticized the appointment as a threat to the independence of the judiciary. The matter dropped when in November Pring was commissioned second puisne judge. On the full bench he was distinguished by the number of times he 'concurred' with the other judges, but his health was failing.

A keen horseman, Pring became president of the Valley Race Club and the Queensland Turf Club. His horse North Australian won during the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1868. He also joined the Queensland Volunteers. He had married Frances Pye in London about 1850; they had no children but two sisters came to Queensland, one being married to A. F. Matvieff, the other to A. V. Drury. After long illness Pring died on 25 March 1885 of cardiac asthma. Soon afterwards he was criticized in the press for profligacy and leaving his wife almost destitute. The government granted her a gratuity of £1000.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Supreme Court Reports, 1 (1860-68)
  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • R. S. Browne, A Journalist's Memories (Brisb, 1927)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1859-85
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1860, 487, 1861, 343, 1869, 1, 621, 1871, 255
  • J. D. O'Hagan, ‘Fragments of legal history in Queensland from 1853 onwards’, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 5 (1954)
  • Brisbane Courier, 28 June, 30 July, 8 Sept 1860, 4 July, 1, 2 Sept 1861, 26 June 1862, 14 Apr 1871, 11, 26, 27, 29 Jan 1872, 27, 30 Mar 1885, 5 Apr 1895, 29 Jan 1932
  • Australasian, 6, 13 July 1867
  • Our Paper, 8 Aug 1868
  • Queenslander, 28 May 1885
  • Queensland Figaro, 19 Sept 1885
  • Herbert letter-book (State Library of Queensland)
  • CO 234/1/119, 6/381, 13/243.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. Ross Johnston, 'Pring, Ratcliffe (1825–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pring-ratcliffe-4416/text7209, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 16 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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