Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Simpson, Sir George Bowen (1838–1915)

by J. M. Bennett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Sir George Bowen Simpson (1838-1915), politician and judge, was born on 22 May 1838 at Oatlands near Parramatta, New South Wales, son of Pierce (Percy) Simpson, then a police magistrate, and his wife Hester Elizabeth, sister of the celebrated engineer Sir John MacNeill. Pierce was a naval captain who became a lieutenant in the Royal Corsican Rangers. He came to Sydney in 1822 and was successively commandant of convicts at Wellington Valley, a surveyor of roads and police magistrate at Patrick's Plains. He built Oatlands on a grant at what is now Dundas, one of his many land holdings.

Educated at The King's School, Parramatta, Simpson was admitted to the colonial Bar on 8 November 1858. Because of strenuous and independent advocacy he won a large practice very rapidly. In August 1867 he became a District Court judge. The salary was only £1000 and, as he was so young, he soon found that the financial sacrifice was too much to bear. He resigned in 1874, protesting that judges were underpaid, and became a crown prosecutor instead.

Simpson was nominated to the Legislative Council on 22 December 1885 as government representative and attorney-general in Sir John Robertson's last ministry. By right of office he became a Q.C. in 1886, before the government fell in February. In February 1888 he succeeded B. R. Wise as attorney-general in Sir Henry Parkes's cabinet and was soon involved in the vexed question of how legally to exclude Chinese immigrants. In June the Supreme Court determined that Chinese paying poll tax could not be excluded under current laws. Simpson, fearing heavy claims against the government, threatened to resign unless his advice was followed to permit entry to all immigrants paying the tax. His advice was rejected, but he did not resign. In 1889-91 he again served as attorney-general under Parkes, and complained that the salary was too low. In September 1892 he resigned from the council to act as a judge of the Supreme Court; reappointed two months later, in 1894 he was attorney-general in George Reid's first ministry. He introduced major government legislation with well-prepared speeches, often spoke on law reform, but resisted proposed weakening of trial by jury and was opposed to amalgamation of the legal profession.

On 18 December 1894 Simpson became a judge of the Supreme Court. He was capable but severe. When appointed judge in Divorce in 1896 he said, 'I like to see things properly done, and when they are so done all goes merry as a marriage bell — though, perhaps, that is hardly an appropriate expression to use in this Court. When work is not conducted as it should be, I am afraid I frequently show my displeasure'. Although abhorring a jurisdiction tainted with 'tales of misery and wretchedness, which are calculated to make one feel depressed', Simpson remained there until his retirement. He dressed well, fashionably, and with great preciseness, often exhorting members of the bar to follow his sartorial example. Likewise he maintained great form and ceremony in his court, being 'a large man of impressive appearance [who] moved with much dignity and … was fond of imposing attitudes and gestures'.

Knighted in 1909, Simpson acted as chief justice for a year after the retirement of Sir Frederick Darley until January 1910 and was twice acting governor. Retiring on 11 April, he led a withdrawn life in poor health at his home Cloncorrick, Darling Point, which, designed by J. H. Hunt and built in 1884, was named after Cloncorrick Castle, County Leitrim, Ireland, where his grandfather had lived. Simpson died of pneumonia on 7 September 1915 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. Predeceased by his two children, he was survived by his wife Martha Margaret, née Cobcroft, whom he had married at East Maitland on 10 October 1861, and to whom he left his estate, sworn for probate at £27,423. A memorial tablet is in St Mark's Church, Darling Point.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Blacker, May It Please Your Honour (Syd, 1927)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1870-71, 1, 129, 201
  • ‘Memoranda’, New South Wales Law Reports, 1895-96
  • ‘Memoranda’, State Reports (New South Wales), 1908, 1910
  • H. T. E. Holt, The Lives and Times of the Judges of the District Court of New South Wales (held by author)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Simpson, Sir George Bowen (1838–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/simpson-sir-george-bowen-4582/text7525, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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