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Ernest Robert (Ernie) Abigail (1870–1931)

by J. M. Bennett

This article was published:

Ernest Robert (Ernie) Abigail (1870-1931), solicitor, was born on 21 June 1870 in Sydney, third son of James William Abigail, of Newtown, grocer, and his wife Mary Anne, née Crudgington. After some education at Newtown Public School, Abigail was employed in his father's store. Seeking a better career, and inspired by his elder brother James who became a solicitor in 1890, he passed the matriculation examinations and, as an evening student, attended the University of Sydney (B.A., 1896; LL.B., 1899). He served articles of clerkship to his brother and was admitted as a solicitor on 19 August 1899. On 16 October 1895 at Enmore he had married Mabel Mary Primrose.

Soon setting up in practice independently, he was quickly in command of a large, if sometimes unsavoury, clientele. Mr Justice Francis Boyce recounted that when 'little Ernie', as he called himself, 'embarked on his profession as a solicitor in the Police and Criminal Courts his success was rapid and complete … Some advocates speak over the heads of the jury—little Ernie never did that. His addresses were little more than above ground level—but guileful, shrewd, simple'.

Abigail was involved in 1900 in a preliminary skirmish to the celebrated Coningham divorce case. At first retained by one of the parties, he withdrew after being charged with false swearing concerning the case. Committed for trial at Quarter Sessions, he was acquitted by the jury at the close of the prosecution case without being asked to proceed with his defence. In 1921 he was again committed for trial. Charged with attempting to suborn a Crown witness, he produced strong testimonials, including those of two District Court judges, that seem to have persuaded the Crown not to proceed.

Despite the tough and tenacious manner in which he practised his profession, Abigail was soft at heart. He was a lover of animals and of flowers; the garden at his Bondi home occupied much of his leisure and won renown for its beauty. Of a charitable disposition, he assisted many of his friends financially; in contrast to his own somewhat deprived upbringing, he indulged his only child, a son, who was indolent and fell into debt.

Abigail amassed a considerable fortune from his practice, property dealings and other investments. In 1929 protracted litigation arose out of a loan he had made on the security of an unregistered mortgage. The allegation that he was carrying on business as a moneylender without statutory licence was rejected by the courts. The Supreme Court, by a single judge, and on appeal, held in favour of Abigail in the contest over the unregistered mortgage; but the High Court reversed those decisions. Abigail instituted an appeal to the Privy Council, but the worry of the case and his disappointment at the behaviour of his son undermined his health.

He succumbed to pneumonia and died on 28 September 1931, survived by his wife and son. He was cremated and his ashes were placed in the family vault at Waverley cemetery. His representatives pursued and won the Privy Council appeal which became a leading decision on aspects of the Torrens system of registered land titles. His estate was valued for probate at £87,765; in a codicil to his will he disinherited his son, 'so that he does not benefit in my estate to the extent of one shilling'. The will was challenged and its provisions were reviewed after litigation.

Select Bibliography

  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • ‘Abigail v. Lapin’, Commonwealth Law Reports, 44 (1930-31), 51 (1934-35)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Aug, 29, 30 Sept, 1 Oct 1921, 29, 30 Sept 1931, 3, 12 May 1933
  • bankruptcy file, 25 812/15 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Abigail, Ernest Robert (Ernie) (1870–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 June, 1870
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


28 September, 1931 (aged 61)