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Sir Kenneth Hamilton Bailey (1898–1972)

by Jack E. Richardson

This article was published:

Kenneth Hamilton Bailey (1898-1972), by Spencer Shier

Kenneth Hamilton Bailey (1898-1972), by Spencer Shier

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23217721

Sir Kenneth Hamilton Bailey (1898-1972), lawyer and public servant, was born on 3 November 1898 at Canterbury, Melbourne, eldest child of Ernest Thomas Bailey, bank clerk, and his wife Alice Gertrude, née Wells, both native-born. From Canterbury State School, Kenneth went to Wesley College where in 1916 he was dux, senior prefect, captain of athletics and gymnastics, and overall sports champion; that year he won the 440-yards event at the combined public schools meeting. He entered Queen's College, University of Melbourne (LL.M., 1933), but interrupted his course when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 25 January 1918. Arriving in England in July, he served briefly in France with the 105th Howitzer Battery, Australian Field Artillery, and was discharged in Melbourne on 15 May 1919.

Resuming his studies, Bailey was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and won a Blue for athletics. In 1920 he proceeded to Corpus Christi College, Oxford (B.A., 1922; B.C.L., 1923; M.A., 1927) and in 1924 was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn, London. That year he returned to the University of Melbourne as vice-master of Queen's College and lecturer in history. At the Melbourne Town Hall he delivered the seventh Methodist Laymen's Memorial Lecture in which he argued that the Church should not support war and should defend conscientious objectors. In his college chapel on 12 August 1925 he married a teacher from England Editha Olga Yseult (1903-1980), daughter of Frank Samuel Donnison.

Appointed professor of jurisprudence in 1927, Bailey became dean of the law school in 1928 and increasingly involved himself in issues of international relations. Two years later he accepted the new chair of public law. Under Bailey and his colleague George Paton, the law school was noted for its conservative, Oxford influence and for the calibre of its two young professors. Bailey lectured in a frugal, concise style, emphasizing legal analysis rather than the dynamic qualities which could be found in the law. As dean, he appeared to students to be a remote figure, given to occasional, personal nonconformity: he was known as 'the green Dean' because he wore a suit of that then unfashionable colour. In the 1930s he was prominent in the Australian Student Christian Movement and changed his allegiance from the Methodist to the Anglican Church.

While on leave in England in 1937, he acted as an adviser to the Australian delegation at the Imperial Conference and was an Australian envoy to the eighteenth session of the League of Nations at Geneva, Switzerland. In January 1943 Bailey moved to Canberra where he became a consultant on constitutional matters and foreign affairs in the Attorney-General's Department. He chaired the 1943-44 committee of inquiry into public-service promotions and in 1944 undertook research for the Constitution alteration (post-war reconstruction) bill.

At the request of H. V. Evatt, Bailey was an adviser to the Australian delegation at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, held from 25 April to 26 June 1945 at San Francisco, United States of America. Enjoying Evatt's trust, Bailey had a relatively free hand in the committees which revised the preliminary Statute of the International Court of Justice and prepared the final draft of the Charter of the United Nations. His ability to work long hours with little sleep won the admiration of (Sir) Paul Hasluck. Bailey went to London with the United Nations Preparatory Commission where his capacity to use plain language in official documents attracted favourable comment. Between 1946 and 1969 he was to attend a number of sessions of the General Assembly. In 1958 and 1960 he led Australian missions to the United Nations conferences on the Law of the Sea, held at Geneva. He chaired a committee at both conferences and played a major role in developing the international conventions on the continental shelf and the territorial sea.

In 1946 Bailey had been appointed secretary to the Attorney-General's Department and solicitor-general of the Commonwealth. As a result of his intellectual dominance and the contributions of the talented lawyers he selected to join him, the department established a high standard of legal professionalism. Nevertheless, clients sometimes experienced long delays, due in part to Bailey's increasing workload. He advised Federal governments on the validity of new legislative powers and on how to meet ensuing constitutional challenges. Although usually content to leave argument in court to private barristers, he made substantial and thorough preparations for such cases. Bailey was appointed C.B.E. in 1953 and knighted in 1958; in 1964 he became the first Commonwealth Q.C.

As high commissioner to Canada in 1964-69, Bailey impressed ministers and officials in that country with his erudition in international affairs. In 1966 he was nominated as a judge on the International Court of Justice, but failed to be elected due to a controversial decision by its retiring president Sir Percy Spender who had been nominated in 1958 in preference to Bailey. Back in Australia, he acted as special adviser in international law to the Attorney-General's Department and to the Department of External Affairs. Ill health prevented him from lecturing at the Hague Academy of International Law in 1971. Bailey had been made an honorary fellow of Corpus Christi College in 1947. He was chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn in 1957-64. Canada's Dalhousie University (1966), the Australian National University (1970) and the University of Melbourne (1972) conferred honorary doctorates of laws on him. The last was presented at a ceremony in Canberra Hospital where he was a patient; he courageously responded with a cryptic address on the necessity for law to contain violence in a world of change.

Sir Kenneth was not a prolific writer, but his articles were stylish and analytical. A small, lithe man, of scholarly countenance and unfailing courtesy, he spoke in mellow tones, and with measured language. While not given to outward displays of emotion, he was highly sensitive and devoted to his family. In his work he was persistent, demanding and frequently of closeted mind. Readily accepting existing social and official hierarchies, he was one of the small band of distinguished senior officers who moulded the character of the postwar public service. Bailey died on 3 May 1972 in Canberra and was cremated; his wife and three sons survived him.

Yseult had been founding president (1943) of the Canberra Nursery Kindergarten Society and president (1946-50) of the Australian Capital Territory branch of the National Council of Women. She was appointed O.B.E. in 1961. Lady Bailey was an accomplished potter.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Watt, Australian Diplomat (Syd, 1972)
  • P. Hasluck, Diplomatic Witness (Melb, 1980)
  • P. G. Edwards, Prime Ministers and Diplomats (Melb, 1983)
  • Current Notes on International Affairs, 43, May 1972, p 222
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 May 1972
  • Canberra Times, 11 Aug 1980
  • K. H. Bailey papers (National Library of Australia)
  • M. Pratt, interview with Sir Kenneth Bailey (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jack E. Richardson, 'Bailey, Sir Kenneth Hamilton (1898–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Kenneth Hamilton Bailey (1898-1972), by Spencer Shier

Kenneth Hamilton Bailey (1898-1972), by Spencer Shier

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23217721

Life Summary [details]


3 November, 1898
Canterbury, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


3 May, 1972 (aged 73)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service