Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Williams, Sir Dudley (1889–1963)

by Graham Fricke and Simon Sheller

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

Sir Dudley Williams (1889-1963), judge, was born on 7 December 1889 at Milsons Point, Sydney, third child of Prosper Orleans Williams, solicitor, and his wife Florence Mary, née Milson, both born in Sydney. Dudley was a grandson of J. H. Williams and a great-grandson of James Milson. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1912; LL.B., 1915), he gained awards for tennis and rowing at both institutions. He sailed to England in 1915 intending to join the British Army. On 31 August he was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery Special Reserve. While serving on the Western Front, he rose to acting captain and won the Military Cross; he was also twice mentioned in dispatches. At All Souls Church of England, St Marylebone, London, on 15 March 1919 he married Catherine Agnes Rua Mackenzie Webster; she was a descendant of John Fairfax.

Returning to Sydney in mid-1919, Williams, who had been admitted to the Bar on 2 July 1915, was appointed associate to Sir William Cullen, chief justice of New South Wales. Two years later he began practising at the Bar. His career was to follow a pattern set by (Sir) George Rich several decades earlier. Williams worked mainly in the Equity jurisdiction but also handled cases involving companies, wills, intellectual property and taxation. Gazetted K.C. on 1 March 1935, he was made an acting-judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 17 November 1939; the appointment was confirmed in June 1940. On 15 October that year he was appointed to the High Court of Australia.

Williams was the first of eight High Court judges nominated by Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies. He and most of those whom Menzies chose after him conformed to a pattern: career lawyers, they were conservative by disposition but free from overt party political involvement, and were inclined to construe the Constitution in a legalistic fashion. In personality, background and interests, Williams was probably closer to Menzies' subsequent appointments—including those of the four who were to sit with him, (Sir) Wilfred Fullagar, (Sir) Frank Kitto, (Sir) Alan Taylor and (Sir) Douglas Menzies—than he was to the judges whom he joined in 1940. Nevertheless, he shared the conservative approach of senior colleagues such as Rich and Sir Hayden Starke and fitted in with the life of the court. Continuing to follow the example of Rich, he avoided publicity but he proved to be much more conscientious than the older man in writing judgements.

Like other members of the court, Williams supported a wide construction of the defence power during World War II. He joined his brethren in rejecting attempts by Prime Minister J. B. Chifley's Australian Labor Party government to nationalize aviation (1945) and banking (1947). At the outset of the bank nationalization case (1948), he announced that he and his family had shareholdings in two private banks. Nevertheless, he refused to disqualify himself from hearing the challenge to the legislation, on the ground that he had no pecuniary interest in the shares which he held as trustee for his sister.

Williams enjoyed the camaraderie of the High Court. The work was arduous, the more so because the court was required to manage its business with only six members. A seventh justice, (Sir) William Webb, was appointed in 1946. Four years later Fullagar and Kitto joined the court in place of the elderly Starke and Rich. Although Chief Justice Sir Owen Dixon set the tone from 1952, Williams, with his equable temperament, helped to maintain the prestige of the court and its reputation as a civilized institution. He was a polite, kind man with a ready smile and a down-to-earth attitude. His thoughtful posture on the bench masked his love of sport, entertaining and dancing, and his fondness for popular musicals. He had studied Latin but not Greek. Often sitting in court between Dixon and Fullagar, who were both classical Greek scholars, he was not impressed by their practice of passing notes across him in Greek.

When dealing with constitutional cases—which in his time largely concerned the powers over defence, industrial disputes and interstate trade and commerce—Williams applied analytical techniques then commonly used by Equity lawyers; logic and precision were the hallmarks. Dixon was to eulogize the 'energy and unremitting application' which characterized his work and 'the careful, methodical and thorough investigation' he made of each case, no matter how complex. But these techniques did not necessarily foster the broader needs of a 'living' Constitution. Williams relished Equity appeals and those involving intellectual property, in which he and his peers sat as a single judge in the first instance. His experience in valuation law was widely recognized by his colleagues. Otherwise, he found his work demanding and uncongenial and towards the end of his career regretted that he had left the New South Wales Equity Court.

In 1952 Williams presided as acting chief justice for three months. Two years later he was appointed K.B.E. About 1957 his health began to fail and on 31 July 1958 he retired in Sydney. A conscientious craftsman, he had set himself modest targets on his appointment to the High Court, and he had met these aims. (Sir) Victor Windeyer who took his place on the bench praised him for his courtesy and learning. Sir Dudley had extensive pastoral interests. He was a keen gardener. Predeceased by his wife and survived by his son and four daughters, he died on 8 January 1963 at Paddington and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Fricke, Judges of the High Court (Melb, 1986), and for sources
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, vol 107, 1961-62
  • private information.

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Citation details

Graham Fricke and Simon Sheller, 'Williams, Sir Dudley (1889–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-sir-dudley-12031/text21581, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 December 2017.

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

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