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Selwyn Frederic Betts (1879–1938)

by H. T. E. Holt

This article was published:

Selwyn Frederic Betts (1879-1938), by unknown photographer

Selwyn Frederic Betts (1879-1938), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, a871108

Selwyn Frederic Betts (1879-1938), judge, was born on 6 February 1879 at Goulburn, New South Wales, second son of Augustine Matthew Betts, solicitor, and his wife Elizabeth Anne, née Tompson, and great-grandson of Rev. Samuel Marsden. Selwyn spent his boyhood with his brother Ernest and two sisters at their parents' home, Euthella, Goulburn, and was educated there at King's College. As a boy he lost the sight of an eye through a catapult accident. He served his articles of clerkship with Sydney solicitors Pigott and Stinson. On the motion of Richard Sly he was admitted to the Bar on 7 May 1903 and from Wigram Chambers built up an extensive practice in both civil and criminal jurisdictions, especially on the southern circuit.

On 13 January 1913 he married Nelle Marion Rodd, an artist and illustrator, who died on 10 October 1915. In London in 1919 he found that she had illustrated an edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales, when he bought a copy for their only child Peter Selwyn.

Betts was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment in March 1905 and was promoted lieutenant in 1908. He transferred to the 11th Light Horse in 1912 and, retained in Australia as an instructor on the outbreak of World War I, was promoted captain in 1916. Permitted to join the Australian Imperial Force in June 1918, he went overseas as an honorary captain with reinforcements for the 33rd Battalion but arrived after the Armistice. Discharged from the A.I.F. in 1920, Betts retained his connexion with the army, being promoted major in 1922 and lieutenant-colonel in 1926 when he became divisional legal officer. He was awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration in 1925. That year he was a founding committee-man of the Legacy Club of Sydney.

Betts returned to the New South Wales Bar and practised from University Chambers. With Frank Louat he published The Practice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales at Common Law … (1928), a standard work. On 7 June 1937 he was appointed a District Court judge and chairman of Quarter Sessions for the metropolitan district. In 1935 he had been deputy chairman of the Workers' Compensation Commission of New South Wales for a month and for three months from 1 September 1938 he was also appointed to the Industrial Commission of New South Wales.

Good-natured and popular, Betts was a member of the Australasian Pioneers and Imperial Service clubs and of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. He spent most of his leisure sailing his yacht Whimbrel or fishing at Shellharbour. Shortly after trying to prevent a woman falling on to a railway line, he died of cerebral haemorrhage at his home at Mosman on 14 October 1938 and was buried in the Church of England section of Gore Hill cemetery. He left his estate, valued for probate at £14,696, to his son.

In his short tenure of judicial office Betts showed patience, placidity and care, but expressed difficulty in sentencing youthful offenders who were not hardened to crime, and professional men of previous good character.

Select Bibliography

  • R. T. Wyatt, The History of Goulburn (Goulburn, 1941)
  • Government Gazette (New South Wales), 29 Aug 1935, 11 June 1937, 12 Aug 1938
  • Australian Law Journal, 18 Nov 1938
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Feb, 15 Oct 1938.

Citation details

H. T. E. Holt, 'Betts, Selwyn Frederic (1879–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 July 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

Selwyn Frederic Betts (1879-1938), by unknown photographer

Selwyn Frederic Betts (1879-1938), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, a871108

Life Summary [details]


6 February, 1879
Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia


14 October, 1938 (aged 59)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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