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Anthony John (Tony) Bellanto (1907–1992)

by Tony Cunneen

This article was published:

Anthony John Bellanto (1907–1992), barrister, was born Antonio Belantino on 28 June 1907 in Sydney, second of ten children of Italian-born Antonio Bellantonio (known as Belantino), fisherman, and his Sydney-born wife Maria, née Mollica. The family resided at Woolloomooloo, in the heart of a vibrant Italian fishing community. Tony attended the local Catholic school, leaving aged thirteen to sell newspapers. Later he worked as a bus and taxi driver, including in the family business, Royal Cabs of Sydney, subsequently Waratah Taxi Trucks. From 1931 he studied privately, sitting the New South Wales Leaving certificate examinations before studying at night at the University of Sydney (DipPubAdmin, 1937; LLB, 1968), where he won the Wilfrid E. Johnson prize (1934). On 30 June 1937 he married Ethel May Murray, a machinist, at St Mary’s Cathedral. He commenced studying for admission to the New South Wales Bar through the Barristers Admission Board at the end of the 1930s. During this period he also fought as a boxer under the name Tony ‘Basher’ Bell, and displayed his consuming, if not reckless, interest in punting on horse races, which was to be a defining feature of his life.

In World War II, understating his age by two years, Bellanto volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force, enlisting on 12 March 1942. He served in Sydney (1942–44), mainly on the staff of the General Details Depot, and on Thursday Island (June-September 1944) with the 19th Australian Supply Depot Company and 106th ASD Platoon. On 5 January 1945 he was discharged from the AIF as medically unfit. A ‘stalwart’ (Reveille 1966, 8) of the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia after the war, he wore the distinctive RSL badge for the rest of his life.

Returning to civilian life, Bellanto worked as a truck driver and continued his legal studies. He was admitted to the Bar on 5 May 1950. By 1958 he was sharing the fourth floor of Wentworth Chambers in Phillip Street with a number of Australian Labor Party lawyers including his long-term friend Neville Wran, as well as Lionel Murphy, Jack Sweeney, Bill Fisher, and Frank McGrath. His first marriage having ended during the war, on 8 April 1959 he married Ruth Margaret Eberle at the District Registrar’s Office, Chatswood. They lived on Sydney’s North Shore.

Bellanto developed a thriving practice in criminal law. His clients included high-profile career criminals, such as Darcy Dugan, Abe Saffron, and George Freeman. In later years he was also known to act pro bono for needy people. He was described as ‘a great mixture of aggression and compassion,’ and ‘tears were common’ (Bar News 1992, 18), whether he won or lost a case. On a number of occasions he was ejected from court, and his clashes with judges became legendary in the New South Wales legal profession. On 1 December 1965 he was appointed QC. From 1965 to 1968 he was a member of the New South Wales Bar Association council.

A member of the Australian Jockey Club from 1969, and of the Sydney Turf Club, Bellanto was a well-known figure at race tracks in and around Sydney, usually betting large amounts. The tendency of his clients to share his interest in horse-racing led to implications of improper relationships, particularly with Freeman. Such associations were subject to scrutiny in a number of matters; he was mentioned in public enquiries such as the 1983 royal commission into the conduct of Wran and Murray Farquhar and the trials of Lionel Murphy on charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice. No evidence was advanced of illegal activity on his part.

Bellanto had a long association with labour politics. However, his personal political ambitions exceeded his abilities. He had been nominated to stand for election as secretary of the Road Transport Union in September 1931, and in 1941 he stood unsuccessfully as the State Labor Party candidate for the State seat of Leichhardt, as well as contesting a number of local elections. In the State elections of February 1971 he challenged, unsuccessfully, the incumbent Peter Coleman in the seat of Fuller.

While remembered by members of the New South Wales legal community for his vibrant personality, more than anything it was Bellanto’s manner in court which lives in the oral tradition. He kept people enthralled. As one judge said, he ‘could charm the rattles off a rattlesnake’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1992, 2). Judge Bill Hosking said of him that ‘his voice was resonant, his delivery majestic and commanding. His mastery of the spoken word unparalleled’ (Sun-Herald 1992, 11). Survived by his wife, one son from his first marriage, and three daughters from his second, he died on 16 January 1992 at Eastwood, and was cremated after a memorial service at St Mary’s Cathedral. His son Tony also became a barrister.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • News. ‘Eulogy by the Hon Neville Wran AC QC at the Memorial Service for the Late Tony Bellanto QC—Sydney.’ Winter 1992, 18
  • Bellanto, Anthony John. Interview by the author, Samuel Griffith Chambers, Sydney, 30 June 2017
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX9302
  • Reveille. ‘New QC’s Appointed.’ 39, no. 7 (1 February 1966): 8
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney). ‘His Honour Shows Fine Sense of Judgment.’ 2 February 1992, 11
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Criminals’ QC Was a Boy from the Slums.’ 17 January 1992, 2

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tony Cunneen, 'Bellanto, Anthony John (Tony) (1907–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Belantino, Antonio
  • Bell, Tony

28 July, 1907
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


16 January, 1992 (aged 84)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.

Key Organisations
Political Activism