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Sir James William Blair (1870–1944)

by J. C. H. Gill

This article was published:

Sir James William Blair (1870-1944), politician, barrister and judge, was born at Coalfalls, Ipswich, Queensland, on 16 May 1870, younger son of Gordon Blair, a Scots customs officer, and his wife Julia, née Droughton. Educated at first by his Irish mother—a strong personality—he later attended Ipswich West State School, then Ipswich Grammar School from 6 March 1882 to the end of 1888 when he passed the University of Sydney senior public examination. In 1889 he was reading in Brisbane for the preliminary Bar examinations with F. ff. Swanwick, a barrister and schoolmaster who had been a member of parliament. He lived with Swanwick, published some newspaper verse and was admitted to the Queensland Bar on 6 March 1894 on the motion of Dr A. H. Boone.

Blair made friends in 1894 with another 'native son', the then attorney-general T. J. Byrnes, and the two shared chambers until Byrnes's death in 1898. Over twenty years later Blair said, 'I was a hero-worshipper. Byrnes was my hero'. Already considered a master of both written and spoken English, Blair also possessed other attributes valuable in public speaking: he could be forceful, his voice was particularly pleasant and he had many 'graces of speech'. He was junior counsel for the Crown in prosecuting directors of the Queensland National Bank, and was briefed in the libel actions, Hoolan v. Directors of the Eagle and Jarvis v. Charters Towers Evening Telegraph. In the criminal jurisdiction he was counsel on appeal in the Kenniff trial. He had laid the reputation for the later widely held belief in his profession that, 'if the need arose, Jimmy Blair could make a jury weep'.

Association with the politicians Swanwick and Byrnes had its effect. On 11 March 1902 Blair contested a general election as an independent candidate for Ipswich which then returned two members to the Legislative Assembly. He was placed second to T. B. Cribb, a member since 1896 who had been treasurer from February 1901. Blair achieved some notoriety by papering Ipswich with heart-shaped cards about an inch square: some said 'In the hearts of the people', others bore the humble legend 'Give Jimmy a vote'. There was only one Jimmy on the ballot paper and sufficient electors gave him a vote.

For one who subsequently gained a reputation as something of a bon viveur, Blair's parliamentary policy suggested either that the crusading zeal of a young man had not yet faded or that he could shrewdly assess his strongly Nonconformist constituents. He opposed Sunday opening of public houses and favoured rigorous enforcement of the Licensing Act and the introduction of local option without compensation; bars should be restricted to the hours imposed on shops by the Factories and Shops Act and should be closed on polling days. He also favoured more stringent enforcement of the Gambling Act, the minimization of Sunday labour, suppression of Sunday trading and prohibition of the sale of tobacco to children. His education policy sought to restrict government scholarships to State grammar schools, and envisaged a take-over by the State of the grammar schools and the grant to them of more scholarships. State-school parent-committees should not have to contribute to the repair of schools and school-residences. In other fields he sought extension of the Factories and Shops Act to the whole State, and the opening of polls under the Act not only to ratepayers but to all electors.

(Sir) Arthur Morgan formed a coalition government with Labor's W. H. Browne on 17 September 1903. Needing a lawyer for attorney-general, he invited Blair, who thus became a minister at 33 and ex officio leader of the Queensland Bar. He was given the additional portfolio of mines on 27 April 1904 and retained both offices under Kidston. He was out of office during the brief reign of the Philp government from November 1907 but he regained his former portfolios when Kidston resumed power on 18 February 1908.

Blair's first major bill became the Worker's Compensation Act of 1905—a useful protective addition to the industrial laws. It was published with annotations in 1906 with Blair, T. W. McCawley and Thomas Macleod as joint editors. The preface claimed that the Act introduced a principle well known in the United Kingdom but hitherto unknown in Queensland law. In 1905 he and Macleod had revised and edited R. A. Ranking's Queensland Police Code and Justices' Manual of the Criminal Law. Blair had little success with his mining legislation: the 1905 Mining Act amendment bill was rejected, and a 1906 bill to consolidate and amend the laws relating to mining fields, mines and mining lapsed after the second reading. His Children's Court Act of 1907, which took offenders under seventeen into special closed courts, was a success, but his technical instruction bill of the same year was not returned by the Legislative Council.

In the first session of the seventeenth parliament in 1908 Blair produced and steered through parliament two measures that were to play a part nine years later in the T. J. Ryan government's efforts to abolish the Legislative Council. In November 1907 the council had refused to pass a trades disputes bill and an election Act amendment bill. Kidston sought to appoint enough councillors to have these measures passed. Lord Chelmsford, the governor, refused this on the ground that Kidston had no mandate to increase the size of the Upper House. Kidston asked for a dissolution, was refused, and resigned. Philp tried to form a government, was defeated, and thereupon sought and, to Kidston's consternation, was granted a dissolution. On Kidston's return to power with a large following in February 1908, he sought to resolve future conflicts with the Upper House by constitutional means. First, Blair brought down an amendment of the Constitution repealing the clause in section 9 (amendment of the Constitution) which required a two-thirds majority on the second and third readings of bills for amendment. This paved the way for a further amendment—the Parliamentary Bills Referendum Act—under which measures rejected by the council, or which it refused in two consecutive sessions to pass in the form which the assembly desired, could be submitted to the people by way of referendum and, if approved, automatically become law.

During the parliamentary recess in 1908, Blair made a 3500 mile (5632 km) motor trip in his 1905 Panhard with four companions through outback Queensland. It enabled him to educate himself in the needs of remote districts, and attracted world-wide interest as automotive pioneering. Given the condition of the roads—where they existed—it was a remarkable achievement; Blair felt he had demonstrated 'the utility of motor transit in the heart of Queensland'.

Kidston had spent the recess in the United Kingdom. On his return, he decided that the government could survive only by a fusion with the Opposition. Some Opposition members had to be brought into the cabinet and Blair was one of the ministers displaced. It was said that Kidston promised to compensate him with a seat on the southern Supreme Court bench, and that he had accepted, but he was in fact offered a seat on the northern bench so that C. E. Chubb, who had been there for over fifteen years, could be transferred to Brisbane. Blair refused and had to wait fourteen years for another approach. With Peter Airey and George Kerr, who had also lost portfolios, Blair then led what was called 'the Independent Opposition'. He could have been a thorn in Kidston's side, but came to his rescue in October 1910 when Ryan and Edward Macartney were hammering home the auditor-general's criticism of government expenditure on the University of Queensland. He was unable, however, to stomach Kidston's offer to bear the cost of opposition by the Queensland Tramway Employees' Association to an application for registration under the Commonwealth Arbitration Act by the rival Australian Tramway Employees' Union; the latter ceased work on 19 January 1912. As other unions became involved, the dispute escalated into a general strike. Although Blair actively preached moderation throughout, and persuaded the Ipswich railway workers to go back, his mining constituents and the waterside workers remained out some time longer.

D. F. Denham, who had succeeded Kidston as premier in February 1911, called a general election for 27 April 1912 as soon as the strike had collapsed. A requisition signed by nearly a thousand voters invited Blair to accept nomination as the government candidate for Ipswich. He accepted and worked with a committee of crusty conservatives and former Labor supporters who had 'thrown off the Trades Hall yoke', and who admired his stand in the strike.

Having been re-elected, Blair returned to the ministry on 3 September as secretary for public instruction, replacing K. McD. Grant who had resigned on a point of principle. He held office until 1 June 1915, usually deputizing on legal matters for Attorney-General T. O'Sullivan who sat in the council. In this last phase of his political career, Blair was responsible for further social legislation. The Criminal Code was amended in 1913 to raise the age of consent from 14 to 17 and to provide elaborately for the protection of girls. The Testator's Family Maintenance Act (1914) gave the court discretion to prevent unjust disinheritance of immediate family. The Friendly Societies Act was also amended that year to permit them to become the only corporate owners of pharmacies in Queensland. State secondary school scholarships, instead of being awarded by competition, went to all those who qualified, and scholarship-extensions were granted to those who passed the junior public examination.

After Labor's sweeping victory in the general election of 22 May 1915, the government majority of 22 became a minority of 18. Blair, who had declined Denham's endorsement, stood again as an independent and lost his seat to D. A. Gledson, a Labor candidate, by 400 votes. The mining areas of his electorate abandoned him completely. He claimed to have been sick throughout the campaign and, when it ended, he spent several days in hospital.

Henceforth Blair concentrated on his legal practice. In 1917 he appeared with Ryan for the government in the Legislative Council referendum case, arguing the validity of the constitutional legislation he had had passed in 1908. The State Full Court declared both Acts invalid. The High Court of Australia unanimously reversed this decision and declared that the Legislative Council could be abolished by an Act in accordance with the Parliamentary Bills Referendum Act. Blair was also in great demand as a counsel in criminal cases.

The Judges Retirement Act (1921) removed a number of over-age judges, and Blair accepted the position on the northern bench offered him by Labor Premier E. G. Theodore in 1922. He and his wife moved their home to Townsville. On 24 January 1923 he was transferred to the central bench at Rockhampton. When McCawley died prematurely on 16 April 1925, Blair succeeded him as chief justice on 24 April, spending his first few days of office arranging a memorial fund. From 1930 he acted as deputy governor for brief periods, served as administrator in April 1932 pending the arrival of Sir Leslie Orme Wilson, and was formally appointed lieutenant-governor on 23 May 1933. On 1 June 1930 he had been knighted on the instigation of the A. E. Moore government, and on 3 June 1935 was appointed K.C.M.G.—seemingly directly by the King whose jubilee year it was, for his name did not appear on the Commonwealth list and the W. Forgan Smith government made no recommendations.

There were three classic cases in Blair's term as chief justice. In 1929 the Country National Progressive ministry set up a royal commission to investigate the purchase by its Labor predecessors of two mines at Mungana in North Queensland. The report condemned W. McCormack and Theodore, both former premiers, and the government immediately proceeded against them and two others for conspiracy, seeking £30,000 in damages. Although complex and highly technical, the case created intense interest and political passion because it was said to be designed expressly to destroy the career of Theodore, then Federal treasurer. The trial lasted twenty-one days before Blair and a jury of four, and was decided in favour of the defendants. Newspapers of all political colours agreed that his 4½-hour summing-up was extremely fair. The suggestion, under a thin fictional veil, of his venality in Frank Hardy's political novel Power without Glory rests on no more than malicious contemporary gossip.

In October 1939 Blair presided over an extraordinary criminal trial. On 4 August 1937 members of the League for Social Justice had invaded a Labor caucus meeting in the old Legislative Council chamber at Parliament House, armed with batons, coils of barbed wire and hammers. They were committed for trial on charge of 'assembly in such a manner as to cause fear that they would tumultuously disturb the peace'. With so many accused, the trial had to be held in the Brisbane City Hall. Although Blair made it perfectly clear to the jury that he believed all the accused to be guilty, they were all found not guilty.

Blair's third cause célèbre is known as the Ithaca election petition. Edward Hanlon, a Labor minister and member for Ithaca, was opposed in 1938 by George Webb of the Protestant Labour Party and won by only 456 votes. Webb appealed to Mr Justice Edward Douglas, sitting as an elections tribunal, that Hanlon in his campaign had distributed illegal leaflets: the appeal was upheld. Hanlon's counter-appeal to the Full Court was sustained and Webb's application for leave to appeal to the High Court was refused. Douglas felt aggrieved by the removal of judicial pension rights in 1922 by the Labor government and was concerned at what he saw as threats to judicial independence. Resentment at the reversal of his decision in the Ithaca petition case and suspicion of Blair's attitude over the pensions issue finally boiled over into a statement published in the Brisbane Truth on 22 October 1944. He asserted that Blair had suppressed a pension plan for judges submitted to him for consideration by the government, had received a salary as lieutenant-governor, and had been given large undisclosed payments by the government without statutory authority. Other judges united in condemning Douglas but Blair, now retired, maintained a dignified silence. Questions asked in parliament and statements in the ensuing controversy made in clear that Douglas was mistaken on the pensions question, that Blair had not received any salary as lieutenant-governor, and that the alleged undisclosed payments were in fact the salary equivalent of accumulated periods of sabbatical leave.

In the parliamentary debates on the establishment of the University of Queensland, Blair had argued unsuccessfully for the waiving of all fees and in 1915-16 became a member of the senate. He was reappointed in 1926 and was elected chancellor in 1927. He moved immediately to improve the university's primitive accommodation and by 1930 had accepted a gift of 200 acres (81 ha) at St Lucia from Dr J. O. Mayne. The work of creating a new campus occupied much of his time, but World War II prevented its completion before his death.

In 1912-13 Blair was a committee-member of the Ipswich Grammar School Old Boys' Association and became joint patron of its Brisbane branch in 1932. He held office also in both the Queensland Scottish Union and the Queensland Irish Association. A notable athlete in his youth, he was later president of the Queensland Rugby Union. Ipswich district cricket competitions of the early twentieth century included a team called Blair's. In his later years he became more interested in the turf and was president of Tattersall's Club in 1911-22. He was also a member of the Queensland and Johnsonian clubs.

On 16 May 1940 Blair retired from the bench but remained lieutenant-governor and chancellor of the university. He died of cerebro-vascular disease on 18 November 1944 at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in South Brisbane, leaving an estate valued for probate at £3718. After a service at St John's Cathedral, the state funeral proceeded to Bulimba cemetery. He was survived by his wife May Christina, née Gibson, nineteen years his junior, whom he had married on 29 February 1912 at St Andrew's Church of England, South Brisbane; they had no children.

Blair was regarded as something of a dandy: he frequently wore a 'white gardenia in his buttonhole and a silk handkerchief peeping from his breast pocket'. Like all public men he had his detractors—he was venal, he was weak, he 'married beneath him' because of that weakness, and he lacked dignity. Others saw outstanding gifts which took him, a native son of the people, to some of the highest offices in the State, and delighted in his colourful personality, his gift of ready and apt speech, his wit and love of humour, his kindness of heart and genuine interest in his fellow men.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland—Our Seventh Political Decade, 1920-30 (Syd, 1931)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1944-45, 961
  • Australian Law Journal, Mar 1930, 14 June 1940, 15 Dec 1944
  • Brisbane Courier, 12 Mar 1902, 17 Sept 1903, 3 Apr 1907, 29 Jan, 6, 26 Feb 1912, 1, 20 Apr 1922, 22, 24, 25 Apr 1925
  • Queensland Times, 1 Feb 1908
  • Queenslander, 28 Apr 1927, 9 Jan 1930
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 24 May 1939
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 10 Aug 1939, 13 Feb 1940, 20 Nov 1944
  • H. Bryan, The University of Queensland 1910-1960, and Hayes manuscript 193 (University of Queensland Library)
  • Ipswich Grammar School Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

J. C. H. Gill, 'Blair, Sir James William (1870–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 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

James Blair, n.d.

James Blair, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 11877

Life Summary [details]


16 May, 1870
Ipswich, Queensland, Australia


18 November, 1944 (aged 74)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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