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Stretton, Leonard Edward Bishop (1893–1967)

by Tom Griffiths

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

Leonard Edward Bishop Stretton (1893-1967), judge and royal commissioner, was born on 10 October 1893 at Brunswick, Melbourne, fourth of five children of William John Stretton, a teetotal brewery clerk and compulsive gambler from England, and his Victorian-born wife Emma Lydia, née Pye. From the age of 6 he had a rural upbringing at Campbellfield, but the family returned to the northern suburbs when his father won Tattersall's Melbourne Cup sweepstake in 1902. Len was educated at Moreland State School, Thomas Palmer's University High School, and at the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1916) where he studied law and edited Melbourne University Magazine. He was twice prevented from volunteering for service during World War I because of a perceived heart murmur. At the Presbyterian manse, South Yarra, on 1 March 1919 he married Norah Helen Crawford, a teacher; they were to live in turn at Beaumaris, Hawthorn, Kew and Diamond Creek.

Stretton practised as a solicitor for ten years, signed the Bar roll in 1929 and, at the age of 43, was appointed a county court judge and chairman of general sessions. He was severe in punishing crimes of violence, but otherwise advocated leniency for young first offenders. In 1952 the Victorian cabinet rebuked him for his scathing comments on conditions at an emergency housing camp at Watsonia which, he believed, tended to turn its residents into criminals. The camp was closed soon afterwards. Although Stretton had served as an acting-justice (1951) of the Supreme Court of Victoria, he declined a permanent appointment, preferring to be involved in an impressive range of civil duties. A foundation member (1938) and chairman (1938-39 and 1940-64) of the State's Workers Compensation Board, he drafted the influential Workers' Compensation Act (1946) and the consolidating Act (1951). He was also a judge of the Court of Marine Inquiry and president of the Industrial Appeals Court.

On five occasions Stretton served as a Victorian royal commissioner. He investigated the causes of the devastating bushfires of January 1939 and the fires at Yallourn in February 1944, and inquired into forest grazing (1946), electricity supply (1947) and the bread industry (1949). His literary skills, moral vision and political audacity ensured that his reports would have an impact. Of Yallourn's impoverished civic culture, he thundered in 1944: 'Here indeed the townsman enjoys all that the heart of man may desire—except freedom, fresh air and independence'. He coined a conservation slogan in 1946 when he warned of 'an inseparable trinity—Forest, Soil, and Water'.

In 1939 Stretton's commission had sat within weeks of the bushfires, held hearings near incinerated townships in temperatures of 104oF. (40oC.), and constituted a wide-ranging investigation of the relationship of Australians to the bush. His report described the fires as 'the most disastrous forest calamity the State of Victoria has known' and declared with biblical gravity that they were 'lit by the hand of man'. The report was acknowledged for its literary qualities and anthologized in a collection of Australian nature writing, Land of Wonder (Sydney, 1964, edited by A. H. Chisholm); passages from the report were set as a prescribed text for Victorian senior students of English. Stretton's recommendations officially sanctioned the common bush practice of controlled burning for fuel reduction, and led the government to broaden the responsibilities of the Forests Commission of Victoria and to form (1945) the Country Fire Authority.

In addition to his forthright pronouncements, Stretton was renowned for his wit and poetry. Some called him Victoria's 'judicial bard'. A staunch upholder of the dignity of the law, a fearless investigator and a humane judge, he was, as well, a champion of the underdog, an advocate of bush culture, a 'raconteur of high degree' and a lover of raffish literature. He treasured a set of the works of Charles Dickens and had a particular liking for C. J. Dennis's The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, an epithet he might privately have given himself. He and (Sir) Robert Menzies had become good friends at university, where they both admired Norah Crawford. Despite their political differences, the two men maintained an affectionate, sparring relationship throughout their careers.

In 1956 Stretton was appointed C.M.G. He retired from the bench in August 1964. President (1941-59) of the Victorian Association of Boys' Clubs and an associate of the Prisoners' Aid Society, he also belonged to the National Fitness Council of Victoria. For many years he maintained the daily discipline of a run and punching-bag practice before court. Survived by his wife, their daughter and two of their three sons, he died on 16 May 1967 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His reminiscences were published (1976) in the La Trobe Library Journal.

Select Bibliography

  • E. E. Hewitt, Judges Through the Years (Melb, 1984)
  • K. Anderson, Fossil in the Sandstone (Melb, 1986)
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 38, 30 Sept 1964, p 183
  • Australian Bar Gazette, vol 1, no 4, Dec 1964, p 22
  • Law Institute Journal, vol 41, no 9, Sept 1967, p 360
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Apr 1937, 27 Feb, 26 Mar 1952
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1939, 15 Jan 1953
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 May 1939, 4 Aug 1964, 17 May 1967
  • private information.

Citation details

Tom Griffiths, 'Stretton, Leonard Edward Bishop (1893–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stretton-leonard-edward-bishop-11793/text21097, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 July 2014.

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

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