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Wrixon, Sir Henry John (1839–1913)

by Jill Eastwood

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

Henry John Wrixon (1839-1913), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co.

Henry John Wrixon (1839-1913), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co.

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1335

Sir Henry John Wrixon (1839-1913), barrister and politician, was born on 18 October 1839 in Dublin, Ireland, son of Arthur Nicholas Wrixon, lawyer, and his wife Maria (Charlotte Matilda), née Bace. The family arrived in Melbourne in 1850. Arthur was appointed the second County Court judge in 1853 and worked mainly in the Western District. Henry was educated at Portland and entered the University of Melbourne in 1855, its first year, but left for Trinity College, Dublin, in 1857 (B.A., 1861), where he became a noted debater. He was called to the Irish Bar in 1861 but found little work, and in 1863 returned to Victoria.

After four years at the Bar and an election attempt in 1864, in February 1868 Wrixon won the seat of Belfast in the Legislative Assembly as a radical reformer of the land laws and the Legislative Council. In his election address, published in Melbourne in 1868 as Democracy in Australia, he remarked that 'Wealth is the only badge of our aristocracy but it confers a nobility neither exclusive nor enduring'. He became solicitor-general in (Sir) James McCulloch's ministry from April 1870 to June 1871. On 17 December 1872 he married the wealthy widow Charlotte Anderson daughter of Henry 'Money' Miller, and bought Raheen, a great house with lands stretching to the Yarra River at Kew.

Wrixon did not contest the 1877 election but toured Europe. He became member for Portland in May 1880 and soon came close to forming, with (Sir) Graham Berry, the coalition between 'Conservatives' and Liberals which he supported when Berry and James Service achieved it in 1883. In 1886 he became attorney-general in the D. Gillies-Deakin ministry. A disciple of George Higinbotham, Wrixon was delighted to appoint him chief justice. He led for the Crown in the Ah Toy case in 1888 but lost on a majority judgment. Made Q.C. in 1890, Wrixon left for London to appeal to the Privy Council which reversed the decision but left unexplored the constitutional issue of the colonial government's power to exclude aliens. Wrixon returned a hero, was delegate to the Federal Convention in 1891 and was created K.C.M.G. in 1892.

In May 1892 Wrixon was defeated narrowly by (Sir) Thomas Bent for the Speakership — a perfect example of the standards of Victorian politics of the time. He made a bid for the premiership in August but his no confidence motion on the Shiels ministry's budget ended in fiasco. He was appointed a delegate to the Colonial Conference in Canada in 1894 with the additional commission of investigating socialist movements, which resulted in Socialism, Being Notes on a Political Tour (London, 1896). He had resigned from the assembly in July 1894, became a member of the Legislative Council in 1896 for the South-Western Province, and was president of the council from 1901 until his retirement in June 1910. Vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne in 1897-1910, he was a trustee of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery from 1902 (vice-president from 1905), and in 1906 president of the Melbourne Club.

As a member of the 1891 National Australasian [Federation] Convention, Wrixon tried to define clear relations between the two Houses; Quick and Garran describe his comments on the draft bill as remarkable for their 'almost prophetic insight into the modifications that would be necessary before the Bill could be wholly acceptable'. In 1897, not on the Age ticket, he missed election to the Federal Convention by one place; Henry Bournes Higgins, who ran tenth, was distressed at having excluded 'a man of such culture and courtesy' and so well qualified as a candidate.

Wrixon's most admired characteristics were his sincerity and eloquence. Deakin described him as 'loveable and entirely trust-worthy … animated by the sincerest and most unselfish desire to serve his country'. He never quite reached the top in politics, partly because he refused to lobby and partly because he lacked driving will-power and the vigour of dogmatism. Although a prominent leader of the 'Conservatives' in the 1880s and early 1890s, he differed from most of his colleagues on issues of class privilege. His most significant independent decision was to uphold the constitutional principle that an Upper House should not have financial powers. In consequence the Service reform bill of 1880 was defeated by two votes in the assembly and Service resigned.

Wrixon consistently stood for political equality: he supported the Hare system of proportional representation as early as 1873, advocated female suffrage, strongly supported abolition of plural voting, and condemned the class basis of the council, but he did not support payment of members. Similar principles of justice and fair-dealing led him to argue for the Saturday half-holiday in 1869 and attempts to compensate workers for injuries caused by the negligence of others. He introduced a moderate employers' liability bill in 1883, fought weakening amendments and tried to extend its provisions to seamen; it became law in 1886 and in 1899 Wrixon vainly introduced to the council a more extensive workmen's compensation bill. As president of the council, he did much to restrain its naked defence of property. Opposition to class privilege was the driving force behind his attacks on the denominational system of education which left the poor untaught. He was founding president of the Education League in 1872 in support of the principles of the Education Act. Yet, as a leading High Churchman, he was a vigorous Sabbatarian and chief opponent of Shiels's divorce reform, and earned the Bulletin's nickname 'Righteous'.

Wrixon's wealth, social position and religion were threads weaving him into the conservative 'establishment'. He was progressive in abstract principles, but the gulf between his life and that of the everyday world led him to harsh incomprehension in practical dealings with the poor. His criminal law amendment bill of 1871 not only introduced flogging for criminal attacks on women and children, but also whipping for boys who threw stones, broke windows or extinguished lamps. In the depression of the 1890s he condemned the unemployed for holding street-meetings to demand public works. He followed the rigid distinction between deserving and undeserving poor made by the Charity Organisation Society of which he was a committee-man; and dissented from the recommendations of the royal commission on old-age pensions (1897) by claiming that only those who could contribute to their upkeep should be eligible for assistance. His party colleagues, however, opposed all pension schemes.

Wrixon's fear of socialism is expressed in his later writings, The Pattern Nation (London, 1906) and Religion of the Common Man (London, 1909). He also published a laborious, highly autobiographical, political novel, Jacob Shumate; or The People's March, a Voice from the Ranks (London, 1903) which was recast as Edward Fairlie Frankfort; or, Politics Among the People (London, 1912). In 1895 he had remarked to his old student friend W. E. H. Lecky on his History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, 'I fear you will only reach mankind to set them adrift', and implored him to examine the great political question of the day, universal suffrage, which nothing could prevent but whose consequences were likely to be 'gloomy, almost fatal'.

An asthmatic, Wrixon died of heart failure on 9 April 1913, survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter, and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. He left an estate valued for probate at £20,519. A fascinating mixture of radical and conservative, he had contributed much to the tone of Victorian public life.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Quick and R. R. Garran, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (Syd, 1901)
  • A. Deakin, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881, J. A. La Nauze and R. M. Crawford eds (Melb, 1957)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • B. Webb, The Webbs' Australian Diary, 1898, A. G. Austin ed (Melb, 1965)
  • Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 1 Oct 1874
  • Table Talk, 20 Nov 1891, 4 July 1901
  • Punch (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1903, 1 Sept 1904, 7 July 1910
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Apr 1913
  • L. Re, Sir Henry Wrixon (essay, Law School, University of Melbourne, 1974)
  • C. H. Pearson papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Jill Eastwood, 'Wrixon, Sir Henry John (1839–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wrixon-sir-henry-john-4895/text8191, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 November 2014.

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

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