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Tait, Sir James Blair (1890–1983)

by J. D. Merralls

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

Sir James Blair Tait (1890-1983), barrister and company director, was born on 15 October 1890 at Geelong, Victoria, second son of New South Wales-born John Tait, bank accountant, and his Victorian-born wife Margaret Agnes, née Thomson. James was educated at the Geelong College, then worked as an accountant and law clerk while he studied law part time at the University of Melbourne (LL.B, 1916). On 5 January 1917 he enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps, Australian Imperial Force. In June he sailed for England where he served as a transport driver then qualified as a pilot. Commissioned in June 1918, he flew on operations in France with No.3 Squadron from September and rose to lieutenant that month. His AIF appointment was terminated in Australia on 16 July 1919.

Tait signed the roll of counsel of the Victorian Bar on 11 September 1919 and became the third, and last, pupil in the chambers of (Sir) Owen Dixon. Drawing upon his accountancy experience, he tended to concentrate as a barrister on commercial and taxation work, often representing the Commonwealth commissioner of taxation. His dry style of advocacy was not suited to work before juries. On 24 May 1922 at St Cuthbert’s Presbyterian Church, Brighton, he married Annie Frances Howard. They had a son and a daughter. In the 1920s he was the author and co-author of several books on company law and accountancy.

During World War II Tait was chairman of the Australian Hirings Commission, which was responsible for the leasing of properties for defence purposes. He refused the rank of brigadier and served as a civilian. Maintaining his professional practice, he appeared, usually for the Commonwealth, in many cases involving the validity and operation of the national security regulations, which governed much of civil life during the war. On 9 January 1945 he took silk. The Commonwealth retained him as one of its twelve counsel in the 1948 bank nationalisation case. In 1950 Tait was appointed by the incoming Liberal-Country Party government as chairman of a committee of inquiry into stevedoring practices; the report criticised the conduct of both the companies and unions.

Closely involved with the Victorian Bar, Tait was a councillor (1939-74), chairman (1952-53) and treasurer (1957-74). He was also a director (1939-61) of the company that owned Selborne Chambers. When the need for further accommodation became pressing in the 1950s, Tait was one of a small group which, despite opposition from some influential senior barristers, organised the construction of Owen Dixon Chambers as the home of the Bar. He was the first chairman (1961-79) of the company that owned and operated those chambers. Without his commercial relationship with banks and insurance companies it is doubtful whether they could have been built.

Tait was knighted in 1963. His wife Annie had died the previous year, and on 29 September 1964 he married his deceased brother’s widow, Edith Sophie Charlotte Thomson-Tait (née Rogers), in St Faith’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London. Withdrawing from active practice in 1969, Tait supervised the barristers’ superannuation fund until 1982. He became both an elder statesman of the Bar and the guardian of the material interests of many of its members. A set of chambers, later acquired for the Bar but since demolished, was named in his honour.

From 1939 Tait had been a director, often chairman, of many companies, among them the Equity Trustees’ Executors & Agency Co. Ltd, the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd, Grouped Holdings Australia Ltd, Robertson & Mullens Pty Ltd and Godfrey Phillips International Pty Ltd. He remained an active company director until well into his eighties. As chairman of Equity Trustees he was involved in public controversy in 1972 over the company’s refusal to register the transfer of shares to interests believed to be seeking to control the company. The company’s action led to its suspension from stock exchange quotation. He held to the company’s position until the threat to its independence abated.

Sir James died on 4 July 1983 at Mont Park and was cremated with Anglican rites. Predeceased (1974) by his son, he was survived by his wife and the daughter of his first marriage. In outward appearance he was a somewhat reserved, austere man, a characteristic that was accentuated because he outlived most of his contemporaries. The Victorian Bar in Owen Dixon Chambers holds a portrait by Paul Fitzgerald.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Anderson, Fossil in the Sandstone (1986)
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 37, no 3, 1963, p 99, vol 58, no 1, 1984, p 65
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Nov 1954, p 7, 26 July 1972, p 14
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 8 Nov 1963, p 4
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Oct 1964, p 1, 26 July 1972, p 2
  • Victorian Bar News, Spring 1983, p 20
  • Victorian Bar archives
  • B2455, item TAIT JAMES BLAIR (National Archives of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. D. Merralls, 'Tait, Sir James Blair (1890–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tait-sir-james-blair-14882/text26072, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 August 2019.

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

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