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Sir Redmond Barry (1813–1880)

by Peter Ryan

This article was published:

Sir Redmond Barry (1813-1880), judge, was born on 7 June 1813 at Ballyclough, County Cork, Ireland, the third son of Major-General Henry Green Barry and his wife Phoebe, née Drought. Brought up an Anglican, he was educated first at 'Old Curtain's' private academy on the shores of Cork Harbour. At 12 he was sent to a boarding school at Bexley, Kent, which specialized in preparing boys for the army. In 1829 he returned to Ireland hopeful of a commission but, despite many efforts over ten years, none was to be had. He spent the decade profitably, however, for he graduated from Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1837), was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1838, and attended at Lincoln's Inn, from which he received a testimonium in August 1838. 

While securing these formal qualifications, his other activities showed all his most engaging characteristics. He read widely, attended lectures on both humane subjects and the natural sciences, listened to debates in the Commons, took much vigorous exercise riding, tramping and swimming, and engaged in a warm and lively social life seasoned with many acts of kindness to his friends and family. He became an intimate friend at this time of the brilliant Isaac Butt, founder of the Irish Home Rule movement and defender of William Smith O'Brien. In short he was ceaselessly active both mentally and physically, and so he remained till his last days. But in these ten years he earned virtually no income, and the overcrowded Irish Bar offered no prospects; when his father died in May 1838 emigration became almost a necessity.

After a rapid tour of the Continent he sailed from London in the Calcutta on 27 April 1839 and arrived in Sydney on 1 September. For part of the voyage he was confined to his cabin by the captain because of an unconcealed love affair with a married woman passenger. The matter became known to Bishop William Grant Broughton and other influential people, and did not help his reputation or prospects of employment in Sydney. He was admitted to the Bar there on 19 October. After seeking positions in New South Wales and writing to inquire about vacancies in Van Diemen's Land, he sailed for the new Port Phillip settlement in the Parkfield on 30 October but did not land there until 13 November, so foul was the weather. From that day Melbourne was his home. No sense of exile enters his large private correspondence to England and Ireland. Though his values were wholly those of the cultivated European, he sought to plant these values in his new land and had nothing in common with many of his fellow colonists who saw the settlement chiefly as a means to the fortune which would enable them to retire home in comfort to the British Isles.

The few pounds he had brought from Ireland were almost spent by the time he landed in Melbourne and he took as both lodging and chambers one back room in Mrs Hoosan's cottage in Collins Street. Since no judge of the Supreme Court was then resident in Melbourne he engaged busily in the inferior courts. On 12 April 1841, the first day of the first sittings of the Supreme Court in Melbourne, Barry was admitted to practice by its first judge, the vituperative and eccentric John Walpole Willis. In the two years that Willis presided, Barry showed another of the qualities by which he was to be remembered — his invincible politeness and unfailing, if elaborate and old-fashioned, courtesy. His diaries show that the gross provocation of Willis from the bench often reduced the young barrister to a state of almost unendurable tension; yet his decorous demeanour in court was never seen to be ruffled.

In the early years of Melbourne Barry became unofficial standing counsel for the Aboriginals. He laboured as hard and as earnestly upon their cases, often capital matters, as he did upon his other briefs, though he rarely, if ever, received a fee for such services. His interest in the Aboriginals was general and lasted all his life. Though he accomplished for them little of practical value, his open-minded and unprejudiced approach was in advance of that of many even of the most liberal of his contemporaries.

On 2 January 1843 Governor Sir George Gipps sealed Barry's appointment to a minor judicial post, commissioner of the Court of Requests. This was a small debts court and his salary was £100, later increased to £250, plus a proportion of the court fees. The court sat only for the first few days of each month, and Barry therefore retained and developed his private practice. At the same time he was watching the possibility of securing a more important official post and applied unsuccessfully for a commissionership of crown lands.

In 1851, when the Port Phillip District was separated from New South Wales as the colony of Victoria, Barry was appointed its first solicitor-general, a position which he held briefly, for he was elevated to the new bench of the Supreme Court of Victoria in January 1852. He was the first puisne judge of that court and, after the appointment of (Sir) Edward Williams as a second puisne judge in July 1852, Barry held the appointment of senior puisne judge until his death.

During his whole residence in Melbourne Barry was prominent or foremost in every phase of social, cultural and philanthropic activity. To list all the causes or organizations whose interests he promoted would be almost impossible; as examples, he was a founder of the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute (now the Athenaeum), a prominent member of the Separation movement, thrice president of the Melbourne Club, active in the Melbourne Hospital, the Philharmonic Society, the Philosophical Institute, the Royal Society of Victoria — even the Polo Club. He also held a commission in the Victorian Volunteers, the local militia. It is curious, and is perhaps attributable to his friendship with many prominent squatters, that he seems to have played no active part in the anti-transportation movement, though his opinions were distinctly against sending convicts to Victoria. His concern for the diffusion of learning was such that he allowed members of the public to come at night to read books and journals in his house, before there was a public library. In 1841 he was challenged to a duel by Peter Snodgrass, arising out of a letter sent by Barry to a friend, in which he referred to Snodgrass in derogatory terms. The farcical elements of this 'affair of honour' reached their climax when Snodgrass fired prematurely in nervous haste, while Barry magnanimously and ceremoniously fired his pistol into the air.

His private benevolence was liberal, though discreetly bestowed. Irish famine relief, the building of new colonial churches both Protestant and Catholic, the needs of less fortunate relations in Ireland and the alleviation of personal distress in Melbourne all made inroads upon a fortune which, though never great, he did not seek to augment by speculation. Public labour left little time for private aggrandizement; at various periods of his life he trod uncomfortably near the edge of real financial difficulty and died a poor man.

Though already a celebrity when he ascended the bench, he had not even begun his greatest and most enduring works. He was (despite beliefs that the credit belongs largely to Hugh Childers) the indubitable prime founder of the University of Melbourne, of which he was first chancellor (1853), a position he held till his death. He was equally the father of the Melbourne Public Library (now the State Library of Victoria) and its then associated Art Gallery. Over the library trustees too he presided until his death. In both spheres his achievement was great, for the university was able to attract outstanding men as its first professors and well within Barry's lifetime its degrees grew to command world-wide respect. In the same period the library became recognized as one of the great collections of the world, administered upon the most liberal principles. Any detailed criticism of the precise significance of Barry's role in the development of these institutions must recognize that the greatest help came from his drive, energy and influence, his ceaseless care and toil for them, rather than from any more refined or subtle intellectual powers. He was as capable at dusting the books or acting temporarily as porter as at chairing the trustees' meetings at the library. At the university he would pace out the dimensions of some new building on the muddy ground before going in to preside as chancellor. He was criticized in both capacities for being autocratic. In rebuttal it could be argued that if he had not made the decisions and done the work nothing would have been accomplished, for often he was the sole person to attend meetings of which due notice had been given.

As a judge he was hard-working, competent and conservative. He undertook more than his fair share of the cases, worked very long hours and endured the arduous travel by coach, train or horseback required by the circuit courts. Moreover, because he lived nearer to the city than any of the other judges, his leisure was frequently interrupted by urgent applications at his house for legal processes. He gave much thought to matters concerned with the general administration of the law, to the quality of the Supreme Court Library, to the design of the new and splendid court buildings in William Street, though he did not live to sit there.

In 1864 he was involved in a dispute with the attorney-general, George Higinbotham, over the relationship between the judges and the Crown. Barry wrote direct to the governor, Sir Charles Darling, informing him that he proposed to take a short leave in Sydney. Higinbotham insisted that an 'officer of his Department' had no right to take such a step. To admit himself merely 'an officer' of the department of such a democratic attorney-general as Higinbotham was anathema to Barry, and the dispute was acrimonious.

In criminal cases Barry had a reputation for harshness, though it was a harsh period and he was in tune with his times. The florid and slightly sanctimonious speeches with which he frequently seasoned his sentences cannot have made him loved, and certainly he valued the purely retributive elements of the law. Yet he supported the Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society and stressed the importance of the rehabilitation of a criminal who had paid his debt to society. He thought of Victoria as a frontier area where the law was not yet sufficiently respected. In sentencing Henry Garrett to ten years labour on the roads for robbery in company in 1855, he said: 'The sentences of the Court may be thought harsh, but those sentences will be mitigated as the country becomes more settled and composed'. He presided over the trials of most of the Eureka rebels in 1855, including that of Raffaello Carboni. No charge of bias or harshness can be urged against him here, and all the accused were acquitted. In the cases of the convicts accused of the murder of John Price, inspector-general of penal establishments in 1857, he conducted the several trials with a rigor and severity out of keeping with the best judicial attitude, and is perhaps most open to criticism for refusing to assign counsel to defend the accused. Probably his most famous trial was that of Ned Kelly in 1880. Though the Kelly legend continues to excite attention, no substantial criticism of Barry's conduct of that trial can be sustained.

When the chief justice, Sir William à Beckett, resigned in 1857 Barry very reasonably expected to succeed him. The post went instead to (Sir) William Stawell, the attorney-general, after a series of political manoeuvres hardly in accordance with the highest traditions for judicial appointments. Their letters show that relations between Stawell and Barry remained unhappy, and the disappointment was one that Barry never forgot.

On 18 August 1846 Barry made the acquaintance of Mrs Louisa Barrow, a woman of small education and lower social position than his. Though they never married, the relationship between them remained affectionate, tender and devoted in the extreme until the end of Barry's life. She bore him four children, Nicholas, Eliza, George and Fred (b.1847, 1850, 1856, 1859 respectively), all of whom took Barry's name. Parents and children frequently appeared together on public occasions such as theatre performances. The relationship earned him occasional criticism, especially from Charles Perry, the Anglican bishop, yet it was not a cause of his failure to be appointed chief justice. Mrs Barrow farmed a property at Syndal to the east of Melbourne and Barry, in his spare time, cultivated another small property near by — his 'Sabine farm'. Both fronted what is now High Street Road. His city residence, for most of his judgeship, was in Carlton Gardens near the present Exhibition Building. He lived and entertained here on a scale of some splendour. For Mrs Barrow he built a city house at 82 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.

Apart from shorter sea voyages to other colonies and New Zealand he made two visits abroad, one in 1862 to England and Europe, and the other in 1877-78 to America, England and Europe. Both tours were connected with major exhibitions to which he was commissioner for the Victorian exhibit. However, he regarded the voyages very little as an opportunity for recreation but devoted his time to extremely hard work on behalf of the University of Melbourne, the Public Library and the Art Gallery. He was created K.B. in 1860 and K.C.M.G. in 1877. The inscription on the base of his statue in Swanston Street, outside the State Library, omits to record the latter honour. On various occasions he was acting chief justice, and once briefly administrator of the government of Victoria.

After a very short illness he died in East Melbourne on 23 November 1880, only twelve days after the execution of Ned Kelly. He was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery; although the gravestone does not record it, Mrs Barrow was buried beside him upon her death some years later.

In affairs of the mind Barry was a classicist and a traditionalist rather than an innovator, a man of immense energy and conviction rather than of subtlety. He tended to be a little behind rather than abreast of the great new ideas of his time, as for example in controversies over evolution. An unsuccessful move to depose him as chancellor was made by more 'modern-minded' elements during his absence in 1877-78, though the attempt was also partly motivated by personal spite and in the knowledge that Barry had freely offered his resignation before he embarked. He remained an Anglican, though a formal one without any trace of 'enthusiasm'. He was completely tolerant in religious matters and abhorred the sectarian bitterness of Victorian public life. In his later days it was said that he became vain and pompous, yet perhaps no other Australian city has had so notable a benefactor, and the tribute of his contemporary Garryowen is well merited: 'He was the most remarkable personage in the annals of Port Phillip, for he threw in his lot with the destiny of the Province when it was a weak struggling settlement in 1839, and identified himself with every stage of its wonderful progress until he left it a bright and brilliant colony in 1880'.

A portrait by J. Botterill is in the La Trobe Library, and another in the council room of the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • J. V. Barry, The Life and Death of John Price (Melb, 1964)
  • A. Sutherland, ‘Sir Redmond Barry’, Melbourne Review, 7 (1882)
  • Redmond Barry papers (State Library of Victoria).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Peter Ryan, 'Barry, Sir Redmond (1813–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Redmond Barry, n.d.

Redmond Barry, n.d.

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1108

Life Summary [details]


7 June, 1813
Ballyclough, Cork, Ireland


23 November, 1880 (aged 67)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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