Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Salmond, Sir John William (1862–1924)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sir John William Salmond (1862-1924), professor of law and judge, was born on 3 December 1862 at North Shields, Northumberland, England, eldest son of William Salmond, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Jane Paxton, née Young. When in 1876 his father was appointed professor at the Theological Hall, Otago, New Zealand, he accompanied his parents to Dunedin, where he was educated at Otago Boys' High School and the University of Otago (B.A., N.Z., 1882; M.A., 1883). Chosen as Gilchrist scholar, he went to University College, London (LL.B., 1887), where he gained a first-class degree. In 1894 he was elected a fellow of the college.

Returning to New Zealand in 1887 Salmond was admitted as barrister of the Supreme Court, and set up practice at Temuka where he published Essays in Jurisprudence and Legal History (1891) and The First Principles of Jurisprudence (1893). On 28 August 1891 he married Anne Bryham Guthrie at Dunedin.

In 1896 Salmond was appointed professor of law at the University of Adelaide. Under his leadership the law course was reorganized to make a distinction between 'practical' subjects, to be studied by certificate and degree students, and 'special' subjects including three arts units, to be undertaken only by degree students. Although Salmond took little part in university life he carried a heavy teaching load and exercised a quiet but enduring influence on future lawyers and politicians including Francis Villeneuve Smith, (Sir) Henry Barwell and (Sir) Mellis Napier. However Sir Samuel Way found him 'a very dull dog, without the faintest gleam of humour'.

Much of Salmond's time was devoted to producing work of outstanding scholarship. Jurisprudence or the Theory of the Law (1902) won him the Swiney prize for jurisprudence in 1914 and The Law of Torts (1907) was awarded the Ames medal by Harvard University as the most notable legal treatise published in a period of five years. With his Principles of the Law of Contracts, completed by P. H. Winfield and published posthumously in 1927, these texts continue to serve as classics of legal writing.

In December 1905 Salmond disconcerted the university council by resigning to take up the chair of law at Victoria University College, Wellington. He was appointed to the new post of counsel of the Law Drafting Office in 1907 and in 1911 became solicitor-general. Knighted in 1918, in 1920 he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court, where he was said to exemplify the judicial qualities of courtesy, impartiality, knowledge, acumen and sound judgment. About that time he published privately a collection of personal reflections, My Son, Said the Philosopher. He was an ardent Imperialist who represented New Zealand at the international conference on disarmament in Washington in 1921-22.

A grave, scholarly, reserved man, Salmond revealed himself to his family and close friends as generous, kindly and sincere. He played no great part in society or public affairs, preferring the pleasures of his own home. After a heart attack he died in Wellington on 19 September 1924 and was buried with Anglican rites in Karori cemetery. His wife, a son and daughter survived him; his elder son was killed in World War I. In 1964 the law library at the University of Adelaide was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, vol 3 (Wellington, 1966)
  • A. Castles et al (eds), Law on North Terrace (Adel, 1983)
  • Honorary Magistrate, Jan 1966
  • Observer (Adelaide), 29 May 1897
  • Times (London), 22 Feb 1924
  • letter to W. R. Phillips 9 Aug 1904, S. J. Way letter book (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Salmond, Sir John William (1862–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/salmond-sir-john-william-8329/text14613, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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