Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Street, Sir Philip Whistler (1863–1938)

by J. M. Bennett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Sir Philip Whistler Street (1863-1938), chief justice and lieutenant-governor, was born on 9 August 1863 at Victoria Street, Sydney, second son of Bathurst-born parents John Rendell Street, merchant and later pastoralist, and his wife Susanna(h) Caroline, née Lawson, granddaughter of William Lawson. His father had been first managing director of the Perpetual Trustee Executor & Agency Co. Ltd and represented East Sydney in the Legislative Assembly (1887-91). Philip was educated at Waverley Hall, Sydney Grammar School and St Paul's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1883). His zest for study was not hampered by deteriorating vision and ultimate blindness in his left eye. Although completing divinity, he turned to law, read with Cecil Bedford Stephen and was admitted to the Bar on 25 August 1886. He married Belinda Maud Poolman at St John's Anglican Church, Toorak, Melbourne, on 1 February 1888. Returning to Sydney, they lived at Woollahra, at Meadowbank and from 1906 at Liverynga, Elizabeth Bay.

After a struggle, Street entered the Equity Bar's 'closed shop'. By 1900 he had a good practice, but, before he could take silk, he accepted an acting judicial appointment in 1906. A vacancy led to his swearing in as judge of the Supreme Court on 11 February 1907. Attorney-General (Sir) Charles Wade commended the elevation of one with qualifications earned at home, not overseas. Street became judge in bankruptcy and in probate, often sitting at common law in Sydney and on circuit. As deputy president of the Court of Arbitration he heard many industrial disputes. By 1918, when appointed chief judge in Equity, he had sat in or presided over every jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and in the Vice-Admiralty Court. From 1909 he had served on many royal commissions, notably into the case against the Industrial Workers of the World in 1918.

Succeeding Sir William Cullen as chief justice, Street was sworn in on 28 January 1925. Although his judgements lacked the intellectual sparkle of Cullen's and the enduring brilliance of (Sir) Frederick Jordan's, Street was an able judicial lawyer in all departments and a capable administrator. He brought 'fine dignity and decorum' to the court, adopting an appropriate reserve. Friends knew him as 'a delightful companion and a witty conversationalist'. Espousing law reform when it was unpopular, he struck down technicalities and refused to permit 'surface complexity to hinder the discovery of the real issue'.

Appointed K.C.M.G. in 1928, Street visited England with his wife in 1929. 'Much taken' by their passage in the Orsova, albeit with 'nobody of any particular distinction aboard', they delighted in London, attending a royal garden party and dining at Lincoln's Inn hall. Returning to increased burdens, in 1930 he was commissioned lieutenant-governor and administered the State government three times between 1934 and 1937. As the economy worsened, Premier J. T. Lang tried to swamp and to abolish the Legislative Council, as well as to abrogate State financial obligations. In December 1930 Street presided at the hearing of Trethowan v. Peden when the Full Bench ordered the government not to present for royal assent, unless ratified by the electors, bills to abolish the council. Controversially, but with ample historical precedent, as adviser to Governor Sir Philip Game Street was drawn into the constitutional imbroglio that led to the dismissal of Lang in May 1932 and, according to Sir John Harvey, did not depart 'a hair's breadth from the highest standard of judicial conduct'. Sir Philip Street retired on 22 July 1933 after a term exceeded only by Sir Alfred Stephen.

Street took pleasure in his home, his significant collection of etchings and his extensive library. With Lady Street, he had many philanthropic and public interests. He was a member of the senate (1915-34) and deputy chancellor (1926-27) of the University of Sydney, a council-member of Women's College, chairman of trustees of Sydney Grammar School, a trustee from 1923 of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales (chairman, 1934-38) and of the Australian Museum, Sydney, and patron in New South Wales of the Victoria League, English-Speaking Union, Japan-Australia Society and the Royal Zoological Society. A member of the Union Club and of numerous other bodies, he was also president of the Institute of Public Affairs, the St John Ambulance Association (invested knight of grace of St John of Jerusalem in London in 1929), the Boy Scouts' Association and the Boys' Brigade.

Sir Philip died on 11 September 1938 at Liverynga, leaving an estate sworn for probate at £29,162. He was buried in South Head cemetery after a state funeral at St Andrew's Cathedral. His wife and two sons survived him; another son Laurence Whistler had been killed in action at Gallipoli in 1915. Street's eldest son (Sir) Kenneth and grandson (Sir) Laurence also held office as chief justice and lieutenant-governor of New South Wales.

William McInnes's portrait of Sir Philip is held by the Supreme Court House, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • K. W. Street, Annals of the Street Family of Birtley (Syd, 1941)
  • J. M. Bennett, Portraits of the Chief Justices of New South Wales 1824-1977 (Syd, 1977)
  • L. Foster, High Hopes (Melb, 1986)
  • State Reports, New South Wales, 6, 1906, 25, 1925, 33, 1933, 38, 1938
  • Australian Law Journal, 7, 1933, p 132, 12, 1938, p 168
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Sept 1938
  • Street family papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Street, Sir Philip Whistler (1863–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/street-sir-philip-whistler-8696/text15217, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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