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Saxe Bannister (1790–1877)

by C. H. Currey

This article was published:

Saxe Bannister (1790-1877), barrister and attorney-general, was born at Steyning, Sussex, England, and educated at Queen's College, Oxford (M.A., 1815). He volunteered for active service when Napoleon escaped from Elba and, with a captain's commission, was on the way to Belgium when the battle of Waterloo ended the war. He retired from the army on half-pay, and was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn. In 1823 he edited and published the judgments, until then in manuscript, of Sir Orlando Bridgman, 'the father of modern conveyancing'. In October he was appointed to the attorney-generalship of New South Wales contemplated by 4 Geo. IV, c. 96. With a guaranteed salary of £1200 he was also given the right of private practice as a barrister, and was sworn in at the first sitting of the Supreme Court on 17 May 1824.

The Legislative Council provided for by 4 Geo. IV, c. 96 met for the first time on 25 August 1824. Colonel William Stewart, one of its five members, did not arrive in the colony until 29 April 1825. Bannister was of opinion that the legislature could not function until each of its members received notice of its meeting. James Stephen junior thought otherwise. While Bannister voiced his opinion 'out of doors', the other four councillors decided to deal, tight-lipped, with urgent business until Stewart arrived and then pass a validating Act. This was enacted on 15 June 1825. It was the attorney-general's duty to draft bills submitted to the council. Bannister's became 'the jest of the Chamber', and were amended in the House.

As construed by Bannister, sec. 19 of 4 Geo. IV, c. 96 required that free persons accused of crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court of Quarter Sessions should be tried by a civil jury. On 14 October 1824, in a test case, Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes agreed, and trial by jury was thus introduced in New South Wales. On the same day the first number of the Australian, the first independent newspaper in the colony, appeared. Bannister had advised Governor Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane against adopting the proposal of Colonel Arthur that no newspaper should be published except under licence from the governor, and he approved Brisbane's attitude to the publication of the Australian without previous reference to the local government.

His close social relations with Archdeacon Thomas Scott, John Thomas Bigge's former secretary, and with John and Hannibal Macarthur, alienated from Bannister those to whom these men were personae ingratissimae. Misconceiving his function as attorney-general, he refused to draft the justice's indemnity bill in 1825. A succession of defeats in court lessened confidence in his professional competence. In advising the prosecution for criminal libel of Dr Robert Wardell, the editor of the Australian rather than Edward Smith Hall, the editor of the Monitor, he incurred the displeasure of Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling. He never truckled to authority. His sound suggestion that the government should establish its own gazette was rejected by Darling, who had scant respect for his judgment and resented his unsolicited advice. Forbes deplored his 'irascibility', 'indecorous conduct' in court, and tendency to megalomania. With Brisbane and Darling, he thought that the attorney-general was at times mentally unbalanced.

The inadequacy of his emolument was a recurring lament in Bannister's correspondence. He was preoccupied with onerous and time-consuming official duties, zealously discharged, and was unequal to Wardell or William Charles Wentworth in court. His private practice was negligible. Though frugally expended, his income was not commensurate with the requirements of his official station. In July 1825 he informed Bathurst that unless it was more than doubled he could not stay in New South Wales. Bathurst refused to sanction any increase, and informed Governor Darling that His Majesty 'had no other alternative' but to accept Bannister's resignation. Darling, exasperated anew by admonitions from the attorney-general, publicly announced on 13 October 1826 that, His Majesty having accepted Bannister's resignation, he had appointed William Henry Moore in his stead pro tempore. Nine days later, much aggrieved, Bannister left for England, his parting shot being at Wardell in a duel from which both men emerged uninjured.

By disposition philanthropic and humane, Bannister was devoted to the welfare of children, convicts and coloured inhabitants of the Empire. To his credit stand the establishment of the first infants' school in Sydney, a booklet urging the immediate abolition of transportation, numerous pamphlets on behalf of natives in the colonies, and a book entitled Humane Policy; or Justice to the Aborigines of New Settlements (London, 1830). His other works dealt with the laws of the Cape of Good Hope, and the Constitution and laws of the United States. They were the writings of a scholar, steeped in British colonial history, and able to express himself clearly and interestingly.

If Bannister resumed his practice in England, he apparently found it either unremunerative or unattractive since, for seventeen years, he vainly sought compensation from the Colonial Office, and in 1848 accepted the position of gentleman bedel of the Royal College of Physicians at a salary of £100, with about £50 a year in fees.

On 16 September 1832 he married Mary Lambe, and he died in 1877 at the home of Mrs Wyndham, their only child. His wife, who lived to 96, died in 1892.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11-13, series 4, vol 1
  • CO 201/150, 323/133
  • manuscript catalogue under S. Bannister (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. H. Currey, 'Bannister, Saxe (1790–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Steyning, Sussex, England


16 September, 1877 (aged ~ 87)
Croydon, Surrey, England

Cause of Death

general debility

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