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Symon, Sir Josiah Henry (1846–1934)

by Don Wright

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

Sir Josiah Henry Symon (1846-1934), lawyer and politician, was born on 27 September 1846 at Wick, Caithness, Scotland, son of James Symon, cabinetmaker, and his wife Elizabeth, née Sutherland. Educated at the Stirling High School (dux, 1862) and the Free Church Training College, Edinburgh, Symon migrated to South Australia in 1866. He settled at Mount Gambier and was articled to his cousin J. D. Sutherland. At the invitation of the advocate (Sir) Samuel Way, Symon transferred his articles to the Adelaide firm of Way and Brook in 1870. Called to the South Australian Bar in November 1871, Symon entered into partnership with Way on Brook's death in 1872. In 1876 Way became chief justice and, at 29, Symon assumed responsibility for one of Adelaide's finest legal practices. On 8 December 1881 at St Peter's Anglican Cathedral, Adelaide, he married Mary Eleanor Cowle. Appointed Queen's Counsel in 1881, he declined elevation to the Supreme Court Bench in 1884.

On 10 March 1881 he had become attorney general in (Sir) William Morgan's ministry and won the seat of Sturt in April. After the government fell in June, Symon remained in the Legislative Assembly until 1887 when he contested the south-eastern seat of Victoria and was defeated because of his opposition to protection and the payment of members. In parliament Symon had supported free trade (he was president of the South Australian Free Trade League and an honorary member of the Cobden Club), the independence of the judiciary, liberal pastoral legislation, and the abolition of oaths in courts of law (a policy he continued to press as late as 1929). Despite invitations, he never returned to the colonial parliament. He also declined the offer of a safe Conservative seat in the House of Commons while on a visit to England in 1886.

His major contribution to Australian politics related to Federation. Symon opposed the Federal council bill in 1884, arguing that it would delay or prevent the attainment of a real Federation and endanger responsible government. Already in touch with (Sir) Edmund Barton and inclined to question the Federal commitment of South Australia's premier Charles Kingston, Symon became president of the Australasian Federation League of South Australia in 1895, and later of the Commonwealth league. He brought the popular Federal movement to life in the colony. His sense of Australia's destiny rivalled Barton's, and his vision of the possibility of combining nationalism with Imperialism was no less than Alfred Deakin's. Symon's nationalism was not contradicted or limited by his insistence on the maintenance of certain State rights, although this stand made him a Federalist rather than a unificationist. He aimed, as well, to win the support of newly enfranchised women in South Australia for the Federal movement.

A prominent member of the 1897-98 Australasian Federal Convention, he chaired its judiciary committee. Colonial premiers and Edmund Barton apart, no one spoke more often than Symon and few were listened to with more care. The questions which interested him above all others were those major issues which gave the convention trouble: equal representation of the States in the Senate, equality of power between the Senate and the House of Representatives (even over money bills), the solution of deadlocks between the two Houses of the Federal parliament, the Murray waters question, and the establishment of a Federal supreme court of appeal to replace the anachronistic system of appeal to the Privy Council (about which he changed his mind many years after Federation). Such issues came naturally to an eminent lawyer and a representative of one of the smaller States. Deakin estimated Symon's influence as falling into the second level, a consequence of Symon's inexperience in backroom politicking rather than of his public performances in the convention chamber.

As president of the Federation League, as a speaker and as a pamphleteer, Symon was active in the referendum campaign in his colony. His argument for Federation was based on economics (especially free trade between the States), defence, political advantage, and strongly-felt national sentiment. Along with Kingston and Patrick Glynn, he also made a significant contribution in Western Australia (especially on the goldfields) after the so-called 'apostasy' of Premier Sir John Forrest and helped to ensure its participation as an original State. When the Commonwealth bill was before the Imperial parliament, Symon co-operated with the delegates in London to prevent re-insertion of the right of appeal to the Privy Council in constitutional cases; at home he tried to stiffen the resolve of colonial governments to counter the machinations of Sir Samuel Way and Sir Samuel Griffith. In January 1901 Symon was appointed K.C.M.G. for services to the cause of Federation.

In the 1901 Commonwealth elections Symon topped the Senate poll in South Australia; he became leader of the Opposition in that chamber, but remained more interested in improving than opposing nation-building legislation. His greatest interest was in the judiciary bill (1903). He saw the High Court of Australia as 'the keystone of the federal arch' and wished to give it the dignity and usefulness of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. Symon was attorney-general in the Reid-McLean government of 1904-05; his term in office was notable for the vehemence of his struggle with Chief Justice Griffith over the costs and status of the court. Symon's cause was just, but he spoiled it by the violence of his argument. Perhaps he was partly motivated by the events of 1900 and even by envy of Griffith's appointment. Having again topped the poll at the 1906 election, which he fought on a strong anti-socialist platform, Symon stood aside from the Fusion arrangements of 1910 and refused to sign the Liberal Union's manifesto at the 1913 election. Standing as an Independent, he failed to gain a place and retired to a lucrative practice which he had never really abandoned. While in the Senate he had tried to establish that chamber as a genuine States' House, and as an active House of review.

Symon campaigned vigorously for the war effort and in 1917 became vice-president of the Royal Empire Society (he was already president of the Adelaide branch) and of the Anglo-Saxon Club. In 1928 he gave evidence before the royal commission on the Constitution (1927-29); in 1931 he opposed the appointment of Chief Justice Sir Isaac Isaacs as governor-general on the ground that it tended to break down the separation of the judiciary, a principle Symon had defended for at least fifty years.

In his understanding of the law and in his skill as an advocate, Symon towered over his contemporaries. He was the acknowledged leader of the South Australian Bar for over thirty years. His ability to marshal arguments and to lead the Bench imperceptibly towards the conclusion he wanted was effective in civil cases. His attention to detail, ability to break down a hostile witness without bullying or harassment, and eloquent pleading to the jury in criminal cases made the death penalty largely obsolete for more than a generation. Such famous cases as the Australian Mutual Provident Society conspiracy case, and those of Bonney (1889), Schippan (1902), Joseph Vardon (1907) and Gillett (1923), marked high points in a distinguished career. Symon was president (1898-1903, 1905-19) of the Law Society of South Australia; a member of the Society of Comparative Legislation and International Law, he occasionally contributed to its journal. He retired from court practice in 1923, but continued to work in chambers almost until his death.

Regarded as one of the finest orators of his day, it was he who was called upon to address the packed Adelaide Town Hall on Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee (1897). The two-hour oration ('Tis Sixty Years Since') was long remembered in the city. Symon filled halls for his speeches on Federation, and in 1900 drew an unprecedented audience to the Democratic Club to hear him speak on abolition of appeals to the Privy Council. He had all the necessary physical attributes. Over six feet (183 cm) tall, with a spare and muscular frame, Symon had a broad forehead and a face 'full of power and character'; he bore himself with dignity. His eyes might 'gleam like cold steel' or 'glow with merriment' as he conveyed the range of emotions in a clear and resonant voice. Clearly marshalled, his arguments were unfolded in a manner that was 'winning, gracious and sympathetic'.

A man of broad scholarship, whom some thought 'one of the best informed Shakespearean scholars in Australia', Symon lectured on literary subjects and wrote Shakespeare the Englishman (Adelaide, 1929). He was president (1897-98) of the Literary Societies' Union, a patron of the Poetry Recital Society, and a member of the Adelaide University Shakespeare Society and of the Home Reading Union. Sidney Webb described Symon as 'The most considerable person in Adelaide, from an intellectual standpoint' and 'the only man we have met in Australia who can lay claim to the indescribable quality of “distinction” as understood by a fastidious society'. When Symon arrived in South Australia he brought two boxes of books. The library at his Upper Sturt estate, Manoah, grew to be one of the best in the country: consisting of some ten thousand volumes, of which one-quarter related to his legal interests, it was an excellent example of a 'gentleman's library'. He bequeathed his legal books to the university and the remainder (especially rich in English literature) was given to the Public Library of South Australia where it is retained as a separate collection.

Symon's wide-ranging interests included education and scholarship. He was a councillor of the university and in the 1920s sought to establish a residential college for women. Unable to achieve this object, he donated £10,000 for a Women's Union (the Lady Symon Building) and insisted that it be managed by university women. In 1922 he gave £1000 to the University of Sydney for a literary scholarship; in 1924 he donated a bell for the carillon; next year he represented the university at the Congress of the Universities of the Empire. He also established the Sir Josiah Symon Scholarship to send a pupil from Stirling High School to university, and in 1930 gave £1000 to Scotch College, Adelaide, for an English literature scholarship.

His philanthropy extended further. Symon's financial and managerial interest in the Minda Home for intellectually handicapped children spanned many years. In 1927 he gave £1500 to the Australian Inland Mission to establish the Eleanor Symon Hospital at Innamincka. He also helped to establish the Northcote Rest Home for mothers and babies. In his father's memory, he donated a stained-glass window and funds to the Stirling Baptist Church in 1927. Symon died on 29 March 1934 in North Adelaide, survived by his wife, five sons and five daughters. Given a state funeral, he was buried in North Road cemetery. His estate was valued at £230,330. A court ordered that certain words in his will, 'scandalous, offensive, and defamatory to the persons about whom they were written', be omitted from probate.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia (Adel, 1907)
  • Today (Melbourne), 1 May 1934
  • D. I. Wright, ‘Sir Josiah Symon, Federation and the High Court’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 64, part 2, Sept 1978
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 30 Mar 1934
  • Register (Adelaide), 30 Mar 1934
  • Observer (Adelaide), 7 Feb 1903, 27 Nov 1920, 21 Feb 1925
  • Symon papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Don Wright, 'Symon, Sir Josiah Henry (1846–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/symon-sir-josiah-henry-8734/text15293, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 December 2014.

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

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