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Purves, James Liddell (1843–1910)

by Marian Aveling

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

James Liddell Purves (1843-1910), lawyer and nationalist, was born on 23 August 1843 in Swanston Street, Melbourne, eldest son of James Purves and his wife Caroline. His father, an early Victorian colonist from Berwick-upon-Tweed, became an importer, race-horse breeder and owner of the station Toolgaroop near Western Port. Purves attended several Melbourne schools, including the Diocesan Grammar School, but his health was poor and he was sent to Europe in 1855 to complete his education. His diary of the voyage to London was later published as A Young Australian's Log (1856); it shows precocious powers of expression and observation. He continued his studies in Germany and Belgium, obtaining a good knowledge of German and French, and in King's College School, London. In 1861 he matriculated and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, to study medicine, but soon changed to law at Lincoln's Inn, London. For four years he studied, travelled widely on the Continent and at times supported himself by writing literary and documentary articles for several London journals and newspapers. In 1865 he was called to the Bar and, in December 1866 on his return to Melbourne, was admitted to the Victorian Bar.

This varied education produced quick intelligence, a fluent and often brilliant tongue, and great charm, his influence on colonial opinion and practice being based less on intellect than on personality and style. In the late 1860s he contributed a witty column, 'Talk of the Town', to the Melbourne Herald, and became co-editor of the Australian Jurist. His rapid rise in the legal profession showed a special flair for spectacular cases: in 1871 the defence of a client accused of stealing a fortune in gold coin; in the mid-1870s a gold-mining case involving suspected fraud; and in 1878 the defence of a respectable softgoods firm charged with smuggling by the protectionist Berry government. From the early 1880s he undertook a number of will and divorce cases, all closely reported in the press, and was briefed to appear in almost every important jury case. He was retained as standing counsel by a large number of public and private institutions, including the Victorian railways, in the defence of which he appeared in the long series of compensation cases arising out of the railway disasters of 1881 and of 1886, when he was appointed Q.C. and acknowledged as the leader of the Victorian Bar. A colleague later commented acidly that Purves was master of all trades and deficient only in law.

Certainly his success depended less on abstract legalities than on his ready grasp of technical skills such as surgery and mining, and on his ability to make disputed points clear to a jury by apt, homely and often humorous similes. His greatest contribution to forensic law in Victoria was the development of a unique style of cross-examination, a persistent and acute questioning by which a hostile witness could be led to prejudice his own case. Although privately a kindly man to whom many younger colleagues turned for assistance, Purves was notoriously brusque with witnesses, and when a doctor whose reputation he had impugned in court later knocked him into the gutter in Collins Street, public sympathy was not all with the lawyer.

Purves entered the Legislative Assembly in April 1872 as a free trader and constitutionalist for Mornington, and was soon known for his oratory. He was several times offered cabinet rank and regarded by some as a potential leader of the constitutionalists. A latent demagogue, Purves always admired Berry's powers of leadership. But his own talents inclined less to administration than to ideological debate; at the height of the constitutional crisis he once had to be forcibly rescued by friends from an attempt to sway a fiercely pro-Berry mob. In February 1880 he made an apparently quixotic decision to contest the working-class electorate of Footscray, was defeated and in July lost again in the Liberal stronghold of Maryborough and Talbot. He never stood for parliament again.

From the mid-1880s Purves's political talents were channelled through the Australian Natives' Association, which had been founded in 1871 as a friendly society and gradually extended its activities to include mutual improvement, debate and public demonstration on questions of national importance. Purves was not, as he and others often claimed, a founder of the association; he joined in 1872 but took no part in its affairs until 1884 when it began a series of protest meetings calling for British annexation in the Pacific. In his addresses to these meetings and later as president of the A.N.A., Purves developed a vague and ardent vision of Australia's future greatness which he placed sometimes within a renewed British empire, sometimes in glorious independence. During his presidency separatist elements within the A.N.A. pushed him and the association to the forefront of opposition to the Imperial Federation League in Victoria, but his attempt to establish a New South Wales A.N.A. failed when the republican movement in Sydney rejected his position as one of dual loyalty, to Australia and empire both. 'Emperor' Purves's two years as president of the A.N.A. in 1888-90 were marked more by oratorical fireworks than constructive leadership, but they confirmed the association's reputation within Victoria as a publicist organization with some political influence. Purves's oratory aroused in many of the younger generation a strong sense of responsibility for their country's development and a rather populist awareness of their own ability to direct it.

In the early 1890s Purves successfully defended the Age in two libel cases, of which the most famous and politically significant, Speight v. Syme, carried a great load of involved technical evidence; its hearing took 98 days and an appeal of 86 days was also lost. In this decade Purves was sporadically active in the long effort to persuade Victorians of the advantages of Federation, though pressure of business, sickness and his usual impatience with routine meetings kept him from the leadership. He failed to gain a place on the Victorian delegation to the Federal Convention of 1897 but was prominent in the dramatic crusading and canvassing in the last days before the first federal referendum.

Purves was also prominent in Victorian sporting circles as an owner of fine race-horses, a champion shot, and a keen lawn-tennis player and yachtsman. In 1875 he had married Annie Lavinia, daughter of R. Grice; she died in childbirth, and in 1879 he married Eliza Emma, daughter of W. A. Brodribb. He had one son by his first marriage and two sons and three daughters by the second. On his death on 24 November 1910 the Victorian Bar mourned a leader and inspiration, the A.N.A. its greatest prophet.

Select Bibliography

  • Melbourne Bulletin, 21 Apr 1882
  • Table Talk, 7 Apr 1887
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Nov 1910
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25, 26 Nov 1910
  • Imperial Review (Melbourne), 49 (1911)
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • M. Aveling, A History of the Australian Natives' Association 1871-1900 (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1970).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Marian Aveling, 'Purves, James Liddell (1843–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/purves-james-liddell-4419/text7215, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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