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Sleigh, William Campbell (1818–1887)

by J. M. Bennett

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

William Campbell Sleigh (1818-1887), lawyer and politician, was born in Dublin, eldest son of William Willcocks Sleigh, medical practitioner, and his wife Sarah, née Campbell. Although matriculating at Oxford (1843) after private education, he entered the Middle Temple, and was called to the Bar on 30 January 1846. Aged 24, he had married Amelia Warner at Waterperry, Oxfordshire, England, on 25 January 1843. His celebrated legal career included acting briefly for Arthur Orton, the Tichborne claimant. On 2 November 1868 Sleigh became a serjeant-at-law, then the most eminent status among common law counsel.

Suffering from sciatica, Sleigh visited Australia in 1871 for convalescence, bearing introductions from J. B. Darvall describing him as 'a gentleman of fortune a barrister of great reputation and a very agreeable person'. Sleigh and his wife decided to settle in Australia when, on returning to England, his health again declined. On 8 March 1877 he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar. In Sydney he found he was an unwelcome rival in the legal profession; he moved to Melbourne and was admitted to the Victorian Bar on 21 March. Being there accorded the courtesy title of serjeant he became the only serjeant-at-law to practise in Australia. A 'tall, “wiry”, clean-shaven gentleman, wearing a red necktie—elderly in years, but young in style and spirit', he used a slight deafness to his advantage in court. Melbourne solicitors clamoured to brief him, and his success allegedly caused such resentment at the Bar that, by 1880, he moved to Launceston. Admitted to the Tasmanian Bar without the usual formality on 11 March, he opened chambers and rented an elaborate house that he filled with magnificent furniture. Again he was eagerly retained as counsel, especially for criminal defences.

Always interested in politics, he had three times failed to enter the House of Commons. But in April 1880 as an independent he won the Deloraine seat in the Tasmanian House of Assembly. Criticized by Hobart's press as being a 'bird of passage', he dubbed his narrow victory 'a grand triumph over attempted Ministerial dictation' by W. R. Giblin's ministry. His parliamentary speeches were acclaimed but his efforts to ventilate local issues were often frustrated. He assessed parliament's performance as 'singularly abortive with regard to some measures of great public utility'.

Obliged to visit England in 1881, Sleigh tired of Tasmania and lived more frequently in Melbourne on his return. The death at sea in 1882 of his only child William, a barrister, probably influenced him to give up public life and Australia. He left that year and died at Ventnor, Isle of Wight, on 23 January 1887; his wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • Law Times, 12 Feb 1887
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 25 Jan 1887, p 10
  • Deas Thomson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sleigh file and Supreme Court papers (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Sleigh, William Campbell (1818–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sleigh-william-campbell-4592/text7547, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 October 2014.

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

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