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Woolcock, John Laskey (1861–1929)

by W. Ross Johnston

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

John Laskey Woolcock (1861-1929), parliamentary counsel, was born on 7 November 1861 at St Clement, Cornwall, England, son of Rev. William Woolcock and his wife Elizabeth, née White. Intending to establish a mission of Bible Christians, William migrated with his family and reached Brisbane in 1866. John attended the Normal School and Brisbane Grammar School (1875-80), and won a State exhibition to the University of Sydney where he excelled in humanities and sciences (B.A., 1883). He then taught at Brisbane Grammar before being appointed private secretary to the premier (Sir) Samuel Griffith.

Reading law in Griffith's chambers, Woolcock learned the skills of drafting legislation, beginning with the introduction, notes and index to the Justices Act of 1886. He attended Griffith at conferences on Federation and Imperial policy in Sydney (1883), Hobart (1886) and London (1887) which prepared him for work on the executive of the Queensland Federation League in 1899. Called to the Bar on 6 December 1887, Woolcock became prominent in equity, constitutional and municipal law. In 1896 he served on the royal commission into local government; two years later he was secretary to the royal commission on the criminal code.

Appointed parliamentary counsel in 1899, Woolcock held the position until 1927, with the right of private practice. His knowledge of Queensland legislation had already been established in 1899 by his compilation with Alfred Pain of the five-volume The Queensland Statutes. In 1911 he published a six-volume consolidation with Marcus Hertzberg. Some of his most important drafting was in the field of local government, such as the Local Authorities Act of 1902; other useful, annotated compendia related to the Mining Act of 1898 and its regulations (1900), the Health Act of 1900, and liquor legislation. A number of his major court appearances involved land issues, as in R. v. Hopkins (1915). In 1923 he appeared for the Brisbane Tramways Trust Co. Ltd when it was being taken over by the Brisbane Tramway Trust.

Although Woolcock had been steeped in Griffith's liberalism, Premier T. J. Ryan experienced no difficulty after 1915 when he drew upon Woolcock's legal opinion on workers' compensation and on the abolition of the Legislative Council; Woolcock also appeared with Ryan in key actions like the Mooraberrie (meat acquisition) case.

A lover of books, especially of English literature and the classics, Woolcock had a well-stocked library in his home, Halwyn. In 1891 he was a member of the royal commission into the establishment of a university and, two years later, was largely responsible for inaugurating the university extension movement. He sat on the University of Queensland senate (1910-16) and chaired the education committee. Woolcock was a trustee of the Brisbane Grammar schools from 1899 and was the first old boy to be chairman of trustees (1906-29). In 1895 he helped to found the Queensland Public Library. He was twice married: on 17 June 1891 to Gertrude Mary Harpur (d.1912) at St Andrew's Anglican Church, Summer Hill, Sydney, and on 27 May 1914 to Ida Hague Withrington at St John's Cathedral, Brisbane.

In declining health Woolcock was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court on 1 February 1927, but died of endocarditis on 18 January 1929 at Red Hill, Brisbane, and was buried in Toowong cemetery. Accorded a state funeral, he was praised as a jurist and a scholar who had 'done the State some service'. He was survived by his wife, and by a son and daughter of each of his marriages.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Stephenson (compiler), Annals of the Brisbane Grammar School, 1869-1922 (Brisb, 1923)
  • R. Johnston, History of the Queensland Bar (Brisb, 1979)
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 19, 21 Jan 1929
  • Woolcock notebooks (his legal cases) (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

W. Ross Johnston, 'Woolcock, John Laskey (1861–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/woolcock-john-laskey-9186/text16223, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 October 2018.

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

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