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Wells, Thomas Alexander (1888–1954)

by Peter Elder

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

Thomas Alexander Wells (1888-1954), judge, was born on 10 February 1888 at Wallacetown, near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, twelfth child of Ezekiel Wells, a native-born farmer, and his wife Rose Ann, née Toland, who came from England. Educated at Wagga Grammar School, Tommy worked as a correspondence clerk in Sydney. At St David's Presbyterian Church, Ashfield, on 2 March 1910 he married Martha May Doris Myers. In 1913 he joined the reporting staff of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

On 17 February 1917 Wells enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Serving in France with the Australian Corps Heavy Trench Mortar Battery from April 1918, he was gassed in July and was in hospital for three months. He returned to Australia in August 1919 as a corporal and was discharged on 3 September. Back at his old job, he studied part time at the University of Sydney (LL.B., 1924). Admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 31 July 1924, he practised until 1933. On 28 August that year he was sworn in as judge of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, a thankless posting but a welcome relief to a 'briefless barrister'.

Wells had a formidable presence. The curl to his mouth and a wen on his upper lip conveyed an impression of contempt which was bolstered by his often offensive obiter dicta. He repeatedly refused to believe the evidence of Aboriginal witnesses, his bias being reinforced by the shortcomings of the court's interpreting service. When an Aborigine called Tuckiar was found guilty and sentenced to death in August 1934 for killing Constable A. S. McColl at Woodah Island, Professor A. P. Elkin and the Association for the Protection of Native Races led moves to have the conviction overturned. The High Court of Australia upheld the appeal on the grounds that Wells should not have rejected the evidence of an Aboriginal witness as fabricated. During the trials of several Aboriginal men for sexual offences in 1937-38, Wells regretted that he could not order corporal punishment. He believed flogging to be a more effective punishment for Aborigines than custodial sentences.

In 1938 Wells ruled in favour of Japanese plaintiffs who had sued the administrator of the Northern Territory, C. L. A. Abbott, and the captain of the patrol boat Larrakia for the unlawful seizure of pearling luggers alleged to have trespassed into the offshore area of an Aboriginal reserve. The antagonism between Abbott and Wells erupted in 1941 when the judge publicly denounced the administrator for neglecting to issue an ordinance to establish the legal status of the Air Raid Precautions organization.

Immediately after the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, Wells arranged for the release of all prisoners from the Darwin Gaol and Labour Prison and urged the Aboriginal inmates to kill as many Japanese as they could. He also took charge of the evacuation by train of hundreds of survivors of the raids. When Abbott left for Alice Springs on 2 March 1942, Wells remained in Darwin and carried on with the civil administration of the 'Top End' of the Northern Territory in a characteristically unconventional way until Abbott's return in July 1945.

Wells continued to preside over the Supreme Court in Darwin and in 1946 condemned the belief that Aborigines should not be subject to the White man's law as 'sloppy sentimentality'. He formally retired in 1952, having suffered a stroke two years earlier. Survived by his wife, and their daughter and two sons, he died on 13 September 1954 in Darwin Hospital and was buried in Darwin general cemetery with Catholic rites.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Wise, The Self-Made Anthropologist (Syd, 1985)
  • D. Carment and B. James (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 2 (Darwin, 1992)
  • T. Egan, Justice All Their Own (Melb, 1996)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 52, 1934-35, p 335
  • Association for the Protection of Native Races, Annual Report, 1933-34
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Aug 1933, 14 Sept 1954
  • Northern Standard (Darwin), 30 Dec 1941
  • Darwin air raid, A431, item 1949/687, and A816, item 37/301/293 (National Archives of Australia)
  • History J. Wells, E475 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Peter Elder, 'Wells, Thomas Alexander (1888–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wells-thomas-alexander-11997/text21513, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 October 2017.

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

View the front pages for Volume 16

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