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Smith, Sir Francis Villeneuve (1819–1909)

by J. M. Bennett and F. C. Green

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

Francis Villeneuve Smith (1819-1909), by Charles Reutlinger

Francis Villeneuve Smith (1819-1909), by Charles Reutlinger

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125883934

Sir Francis Villeneuve Smith (1819-1909), politician and chief justice, was born on 13 February 1819 at Lindfield, Sussex, England, son of Francis Smith, merchant, of London, and his wife Marie Josephine, née Villeneuve, of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, West Indies. He acknowledged his mother's descent from the French admiral Villeneuve by adopting that name in 1884.

The Smiths came to Van Diemen's Land in 1826 and settled at Campania near Richmond. Francis returned to London and became a student at the Middle Temple in 1838 and at University College, University of London (B.A., 1840). After reading law under Montagu Smith and Russell Phillips, he was called to the Bar on 27 May 1842. In October 1844 he was admitted to the Tasmanian Bar. In 1848 Lieutenant-Governor Denison described him as 'a barrister of some standing … whose talent and legal knowledge have obtained for him a very large amount of practice', and appointed him acting solicitor-general. Next year he was crown solicitor, often acting as solicitor-general instead of A. C. Stonor whom he succeeded in 1854. On 26 August 1851 at Launceston he married Sarah, daughter of Rev. George Giles; they lived at Lindfield, Hobart Town, and had two sons and two daughters.

In 1851 Smith, a government nominee, became a legislative councillor, and in 1854 attorney-general, reserving the right to oppose transportation of convicts to the colony; in 1855 he was a member of the Executive Council. A member of the House of Assembly in 1856-60, he was attorney-general in 1856-57 and premier and attorney-general in 1857-60. Ambitious and self-assertive, his ability and abrasive temper prevailed over most opponents but made him bitter enemies. His government helped the underprivileged, reformed land laws, improved government schools, established scholarships and promoted local government. His contentious attempt failed to abolish state aid to religion.

Smith was appointed to the Supreme Court bench in 1860. He helped to found the Tasmanian Club next year and was its first president. He was knighted in 1862, and on 5 February 1870 became the first Australian to hold office as a chief justice after having been a premier. His judicial career showed the extremes of legal ability and personal ineptitude. His judgments were well reasoned and backed by precedent; his sentences were moderate but he was intemperate in court, often engaging in vehement exchanges with counsel or witnesses. Where his own interests were involved, he allowed anger to overbear reason. In 1869 he sued a tenant Hollinsdale, who later claimed unfair treatment and petitioned the Colonial Office; although vindicated, Smith was embarrassed. He was humiliated in prolonged family litigation during the 1870s: his brother's wife was entitled to income from trust funds of which he and his brother were trustees; the brother made unlawful investments and his wife proceeded against the trustees. Smith was blameless and had spent time and money trying to reach a settlement; losing his temper, he wrote and published a letter defamatory of his sister-in-law. The litigation was then forced to a hearing and he had to apologize, retire from the trust, and make other reparation.

Smith was involved in a foolish controversy with Governor Weld in 1877-78. Louisa Hunt, a prisoner sentenced to seven years, was released by the Executive Council after eighteen months. The judges were not consulted and protested that the Executive Council had constituted itself a court of appeal; the governor and chief justice argued relentlessly and publicly about the consequences. The Colonial Office rebuked them and Smith felt compelled to retract. During the contest old political opponents tried in vain to have his dormant commission as lieutenant-governor withdrawn, and the Colonial Office noted that he was 'an excitable and injudicious man … not specially well qualified, personally, for the temporary administration of the government'. Nevertheless, he had administered the colony in 1874-75 and did so again in 1880.

In December 1883 Smith left Tasmania on twelve months leave. He retired in 1885 and remained in England, living in London and at Heathside, Tunbridge Wells. He was a bencher of the Middle Temple (1890-98) and a member of the Conservative Club. He died of senile asthenia and pneumonia on 17 January 1909 and was cremated at Golders Green. A plaque in the church of King Charles-the-Martyr, Tunbridge Wells, commemorates him. His estate was sworn for probate at £1390 in Tasmania and £116,470 in England.

Select Bibliography

  • C. I. Clark, The Parliament of Tasmania (Hob, 1947)
  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob, 1956)
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1877, 2nd session (54) 1878 (51)
  • J. M. Bennett, ‘The legal career of Sir Francis Smith’, Australian Law Journal, Aug 1975
  • Mercury (Hobart), 4, 7 Feb 1885, 20 Jan 1909
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 20 Jan 1909, p 11
  • Examiner (Launceston), 20 Jan 1909
  • W. Wolfhagen, Some Tasmanian Judges: Sir Francis Smith (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CSO and CSD papers (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Smith litigation papers (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CO 280/318/ 384/388.

Citation details

J. M. Bennett and F. C. Green, 'Smith, Sir Francis Villeneuve (1819–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-sir-francis-villeneuve-4603/text7569, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 1 August 2014.

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

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