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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Topp, Samuel St John (1850–1902)

by Jill Eastwood

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

This is a shared entry with Arthur Maning Topp

Arthur Maning Topp (1844-1916), journalist, and Samuel St John Topp (1850-1902), barrister, were born on 7 October 1844 and 13 June 1850 at Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England, eldest and youngest sons of Samuel Topp, wool-importer and merchant, and his wife Sarah, née Clapham. Arthur Maning arrived in Melbourne with his parents and brother Charles Alfred on 17 March 1858 in the Royal Charter. Samuel St John followed in 1861.

Arthur was one of the first pupils in April 1858 at the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School before entering his father's business; in 1868-80 the firm was known as A. M. Topp & Co. In 1867 in Melbourne he published a play Enderby: A Tragedy. He was one of the 'literary and journalistic friends' brought together by Henry Gyles Turner in November 1875 to launch the Melbourne Review, a quarterly journal of high standard and wide coverage. Topp was on the editorial committee for its first six years. In his own contributions he used an historical approach to determine the basic socio-political forces of current European and colonial affairs. Of a speculative mind, he took 'the long view' of human society and although his generalizations could be shaken by specific analysis, he exposed in incisive prose the trends of his time. Tender spots were touched in an article in 1879 on the social role of banks in Victoria, leading to a break with Turner who resigned from the editorial committee. One of Topp's themes was the role of the Roman-Teutonic race in Western civilization; the idea led him to admiration of Bismarck's Germany, opposition to Russian expansion and, on the local scene, to polemical attacks on the Celtic Irish as 'an alien and only partially civilized race'. His English Institutions and the Irish Race, reprinted from the Melbourne Review, was published by himself in 1881. His ideas on race were linked with his study and admiration of Herbert Spencer's scientific method of philosophy, especially in analysis of religious belief.

Topp was a member of the Eclectic Association; his close friends included fellow members Arthur Patchett Martin, Theodore Fink, Alfred Deakin and David Mickle. He became cable sub-editor for the Argus in 1882 and later leader-writer and reviewer for the Argus and the Australasian until his retirement in 1911. Bedridden for two years, he died at South Yarra on 17 January 1916, survived by his wife Leila Leonora, née Sanders, whom he had married at South Yarra in 1884, and by his two sons. His estate was valued for probate at £1412.

Samuel was educated at King Edward's School in Birmingham before arriving in Melbourne, where he attended the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. He left school early to work as a legal clerk, studying at night for matriculation. He had a brilliant career at the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1877; B.A., 1878), winning the Shakespeare scholarship in 1877. That year he was admitted to the Victorian Bar where his early practical training helped him. He made his reputation as an Equity lawyer during the winding-up proceedings of the Oriental Banking Corporation in 1884 and soon became a leading member of the Bar; he also practised in insolvency and mining matters.

Samuel Topp did not fit the Equity stereotype; he was witty, with a 'slightly audacious' manner in court. As befitted a member of the Eclectic Association he held progressive views on social and religious issues. The literary articles that he contributed to the Melbourne Review were scholarly and well argued. In 1879 he wrote a critique of existing marriage and divorce laws and set out a series of reforms which were substantially incorporated in William Shiels's Act of 1890. As a hobby he collected snakes, which he hunted on his annual holiday at Lorne and kept pickled in spirits in his cellar. A drooping eyelid gave him a deceptively 'reposeful' look in court.

Topp had married Mary Anne Chesterton in 1876; she died on 18 May 1878 and he married Emma Dunn in 1881. His death of an internal haemorrhage at Caulfield on 1 August 1902 was much lamented; he was buried in the Brighton cemetery after a Church of England service, with leading legal men as pallbearers. He was survived by his second wife and by a daughter of his first marriage. His estate was valued for probate at £4885.

Select Bibliography

  • A. P. Martin, Australia and the Empire (Edinb, 1889)
  • A. D. Mickle, Many a Mickle (Melb, 1953)
  • Table Talk, 22 July 1892
  • Australasian, 20 Nov 1897
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Aug 1902, 19 Jan 1916
  • H. G. Turner, personal memorabilia (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Jill Eastwood, 'Topp, Samuel St John (1850–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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