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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stonham, Arthur Ernest (1900–1966)

by Hilary Golder

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Arthur Ernest Stonham (1900-1966), magistrate, was born on 7 February 1900 at West Maitland, New South Wales, sixth child of native-born parents Alfred Ernest Albert Stonham, schoolteacher, and his wife Ada Sarah Grange, née Armstrong. His father's career took the family to Narellan, Goulburn and Deniliquin, and then to Sydney in 1908. Arthur knew what to expect when he was appointed a junior clerk in the Department of Attorney-General and Justice on 9 March 1916—country postings and, after a long apprenticeship, the distant prospect of promotion to the stipendiary magistracy.

On 4 May 1918 Stonham enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, but only reached Durban, South Africa, by the time of the Armistice. At St Stephen's Anglican Church, Portland, New South Wales, on 30 April 1921 he married Elsie Gladys Lake. Sent to Kiama as clerk of petty sessions in 1925, he was transferred to Kurri Kurri in October 1926. The young and rather diminutive clerk carried out many extra duties and was an important contact between the government and local community: it was said that a C.P.S. had to be a cross between 'the Deity, a K.C., an actuary, a diplomat and Santa Claus'.

In 1930-33 Stonham was based in Sydney as senior information clerk. After serving at Windsor (1933-36), he returned to Sydney as first checking officer at the Children's Court in 1936 when maintenance work was especially heavy. He was admitted as a solicitor on 23 August 1940, shrewdly anticipating a later requirement that magistrates should have legal qualifications. As C.P.S. at Young (from 1940), he had to cope with staff shortages and the unpopularity of reduced services during World War II. In 1945 he was sent to Inverell.

Stonham was appointed stipendiary magistrate for Mudgee in 1947, Penrith in 1948 and Sydney in 1951. He continued to preside, and live, at Penrith, in the rapidly developing outer suburbs, and became involved with local welfare societies and youth clubs. Penrith court was noticeably strict about drink-driving, an offence that stemmed from postwar affluence. At the 1954 congress of the Australian Road Safety Council in Hobart, Stonham and F. S. Hansman called for compulsory blood tests for drivers suspected of being under the influence of liquor. Stonham presided over the Magistrates' Institute, edited the Stipendiary Magistrates' Bulletin and joined the State government's Law Reform Committee. He was promoted to chief stipendiary magistrate in September 1962.

In organizing the overstretched city courts, Stonham confronted the contradictions of a public-service magistracy by trying to reconcile judicial independence with departmental demands for administrative accountability. Despite ill health, he was an energetic chairman, lobbying for more resources and even rostering himself to hear the controversial prosecution of R. S. Maher, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, who was charged with indecent exposure. Stockily built, with a down-to-earth manner, Stonham retired in February 1965. He had been admitted as a barrister on 29 May 1964.

Stonham continued to chair the Board of Official Visitors to Mental Asylums and joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission's disciplinary appeal board. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died of myocardial infarction on 22 November 1966 at his Penrith home and was cremated. His unobtrusive efficiency had made him a model magistrate, but the public-service system which moulded him was coming into question.

Select Bibliography

  • Petty Sessions Chronicle, no 96, May 1934, p 3, no 340, Jan-Feb 1967, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Nov 1954, 11 Nov 1961, 26, 29 Jan, 6 Feb 1965
  • Sun (Sydney), 4 Feb 1965
  • Penrith Press, 30 Nov, 7 Dec 1966
  • Attorney-General and Justice Department, 7/7162.3, 12/12653 and Public Service Board, 8/2716 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Hilary Golder, 'Stonham, Arthur Ernest (1900–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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