Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smyth, John William (1902–1984)

by John Slee

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

John William Smyth (1902-1984), barrister, was born on 29 September 1902 at Woollahra, Sydney, only child of Sydney-born parents Percival George Smyth (d.1909), customs officer, and his wife Ida Constance, née Murray. Educated at Fort Street Boys’ High School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1923; LL.B, 1925), John was admitted to practise as a solicitor in the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 2 June 1926. He married Myrtle Irene Clarkson, a typist, on 2 April 1927 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney. In March 1951 Smyth left the marital home at Point Piper and lived at his club. After they divorced in 1954 he married Phyllis Hannah Power, a widow, on 25 June at the district registrar’s office, Chatswood.

On 16 November 1934 Smyth had been admitted to the Bar, where he practised for more than forty years. An important early influence was Jack Shand, first as a mentor, then as a friend and drinking companion. Appointed KC in 1951, Smyth was a formidable cross-examiner. Among his clients was the then obscure businessman Abe Saffron, whom he represented in a minor case in 1952. Increasingly prominent in numerous public inquiries, Smyth was counsel assisting the 1949 royal commission into ‘certain transactions in relation to timber rights’ in New Guinea. In 1951-52 he represented the United Licensed Victuallers’ Association at the royal commission on liquor laws in New South Wales.

In 1964 Smyth was appointed counsel assisting the royal commission on the loss of HMAS Voyager. During manoeuvres near Jervis Bay on the night of 10 February, Voyager and the aircraft-carrier Melbourne collided. Eighty-two people, all on board the Voyager, died. Although he had interviewed Lieutenant Commander Peter Cabban, earlier second-in-command to the captain of the Voyager, Duncan Stevens, Smyth did not call him to give evidence. In January 1965 Cabban, retired, made statements about Captain Stevens’s inconsistencies in ship-handling, his frequent drunkenness when in port and occasional inability to take command at sea. If the inquiry had received that information it may not have criticised unfairly Captain R. J. Robertson and other officers in the Melbourne for not questioning Voyager’s movements before the collision. A second royal commission—which investigated Cabban’s statements—exonerated Robertson and found that Stevens should not have been in command due to illness, but considered that Smyth had not ‘in any way improperly withheld’ evidence. Nevertheless, he had hardly enhanced his reputation.

On retiring, aged 71, Smyth lived initially in the country, farming beef cattle on his two properties near Goulburn, and then at Newport Beach. As a younger man, yachting had been his hobby; he served as rear-commodore of the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club in the 1950s. Survived by his wife and the son and daughter of his first marriage, Smyth died on 23 May 1984 at Wahroonga, Sydney, and was cremated. His son, John, was a judge of the New South Wales district court.

After his death, Smyth’s name as a great trial lawyer came to be bracketed with Shand’s. In 1988 the Bar News published a 1961 lecture by Smyth on the art of cross-examination, which the editor said had ‘resided in the top drawer of many barristers, to be thumbed through regularly’. In an accompanying article, Justice Michael McHugh noted that Smyth emphasised the need to prepare for any eventuality in a trial—and worked very hard to achieve this—but ‘his greatest asset was a quickness of mind which enabled him to dominate the witness’.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Frame, Where Fate Calls (1992)
  • C. Porter, Walking on Water (2003)
  • P. Cabban and D. Salter, Breaking Ranks (2005)
  • Bar News: The Journal of the NSW Bar Association, autumn 1988, p 7
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Slee, 'Smyth, John William (1902–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smyth-john-william-15925/text27126, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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