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John Jefferson Bray (1912–1995)

by John Emerson

This article was published:

John Jefferson Bray (1912–1995), judge, university chancellor, and poet, was born on 16 September 1912 at Wayville, Adelaide, first child of Harry Midwinter Bray, sharebroker, and his wife Gertrude Eleonore, née Stow, both locally born. John was born into a prominent Adelaide family. His paternal grandfather, John Cox Bray, was premier of South Australia (1881–84) and South Australian agent-general in London (1892–94). Gertrude’s great-grandfather Thomas Quinton Stow founded South Australia’s first Congregational Church in 1837; and his eldest son, Randolph Isham Stow, was a judge of the Supreme Court of South Australia (1875–78). The Stows shared common ancestry with Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States of America, after whom John received his middle name.

From an early age, Bray was severely short-sighted, shy, and physically awkward. He was educated at Mrs Hill’s school at Glenelg and then at Sevenhill Public School in the Clare Valley, where his father had taken up an orchard. At twelve he was sent to board at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide. Although a good student academically, he would never fit in at the school and recalled on his first day ‘praying that God would crash my father’s car’ (Bray 1990, 8). Persuaded by his parents to eschew arts, he studied law at the University of Adelaide (LLB Hons, 1933; LLD, 1937). He excelled, winning a Stow prize (1930) and the David Murray scholarship (1931 and 1932). On 21 October 1933 he was admitted as a legal practitioner of the South Australian Supreme Court, becoming the youngest solicitor in the State. While working full time at the firm of Genders, Wilson, & Pellew, he undertook a doctorate of law. His thesis, ‘Bankruptcy and the Winding up of Companies in Private International Law,’ was awarded the Bonython prize (1937).

Over the next ten years Bray unsuccessfully applied for academic posts at universities in Australia and New Zealand. During World War II he filled in as lecturer in Roman law at the University of Adelaide, and would continue as a part-time lecturer there until 1967. Distinguishing himself as a barrister, he was appointed QC in 1957. He took on cases across all jurisdictions: in estate settlements, divorces, civil matters, murders, and defamation. In 1960 he successfully defended Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper the News and its editor Rohan Rivett against charges of seditious and criminal libel alleged by the South Australian government in its reporting of a royal commission into the murder conviction of the Aboriginal man Rupert Max Stuart. It was a win that embarrassed (Sir) Thomas Playford’s government and foreshadowed the defeat of the Liberal and Country League at the forthcoming election.

Describing himself as having a ‘Bohemian and unconventional temperament’ (Bray Papers), Bray did not fit the usual mould for a judge—he rarely worked after hours, and preferred drinking and smoking with literary friends at the Sturt Arcade Hotel to rubbing shoulders with his legal peers at the Adelaide Club. Since the 1950s he had also been active in Adelaide’s small community of writers. He was a long-time friend of the poet Charles Jury and later joined the literary group led by Max Harris. Bray’s play Papinian was performed in 1955 in North Adelaide, and in 1962 he published the first of several volumes of poetry. He was a regular participant in the Adelaide Festival of Arts from its inception in 1960, repeatedly being invited to read his poetry at Writers’ Week events. A voracious reader and an avid library user, he served on the Libraries Board of South Australia from 1944 to 1987.

On 28 February 1967 Bray was appointed chief justice of South Australia by the Labor government. He was recognised in the Advertiser the next day as ‘a notable lawyer’ as well as ‘a poet, playwright, classical scholar—a humanist—and one of the most deeply-read professional men in the Commonwealth’ (Cockburn 1967, 2). But his appointment had been bitterly opposed by some in the corridors of parliament. Earlier that month, the police commissioner, Brigadier John McKinna, brought surveillance files to the attorney-general, Don Dunstan, claiming that they demonstrated Bray associated with homosexuals and was not a suitable person to hold the office. The evidence was considered by cabinet, found to be flimsy, and his appointment was confirmed. Shown the files, Bray, surprised, wrote ‘I can only conclude from this lamentable episode that either the police keep a dossier on everyone or everyone of any degree of prominence, or else that I have been singled out for special attention’ (Bray Papers). Noting that his past work might have displeased the previous government, he thought the latter most likely.

In the eleven years that Bray was chief justice, he proved himself one of the Commonwealth’s most capable judges. A former justice of the High Court of Australia, Michael Kirby, recalled that members of the court came to rely on Bray’s reasoning in areas as diverse as criminal law and procedure, legal remedies and the award of costs, evidence, legal ethics, company law, and the law of tort. Bray’s judgments were used in courts in Australia and other parts of the British Commonwealth. In 1975, for example, he was cited by the judges of a Privy Council appeal from Northern Ireland involving an Irish Republican Army joint murder conviction in which one of the men claimed duress. They considered the 1968 South Australian Full Court case, R. v. Brown and Morley, in which Brown claimed duress and appealed his conviction. In that case, while justices Mitchell and Bright dismissed Brown’s appeal, Bray dissented, challenging previous assessments made by legal authorities, such as Hale, Blackstone, and Lord Denman. Three of the five Privy Council judges agreed with Bray, praising his ‘impressive’ and ‘closely reasoned judgment’ (Northern Ireland v. Lynch 1975).

Bray’s judgments are characterised by clarity of language and a solid historical approach in articulating principles of the common law. Drawing on centuries of legal rulings, he often found himself in dissent in Full Court appeals on issues relating to public morality. In the first of a series of cases in which he expressed strong opposition to censorship practices, he wryly observed that while ‘there are classes of persons and age groups who are liable to be depraved or corrupted by literature, films, paintings, and the like,’ they presumably do not include the ‘customs officers, police officers, court officials, barristers, solicitors, clerks, and members of the magistracy and judiciary whose unhappy duty it may be to peruse the perilous material’ (Simmons v. Samuels 1971).

On 27 October 1978 Bray retired owing to ill health. The following year he was appointed AC. From 1968 to 1983 he served as chancellor of the University of Adelaide. He viewed it as a largely ceremonial role and resisted meddling in the day-to-day running of the institution. In 1983 he was admitted to the honorary degree of doctor of the university. Away from the bench he devoted his time to producing volumes of poems, essays, and translations. In 1986 the Adelaide Festival award for poetry was named after him and four years later his book Satura won the festival award for non-fiction. Interested in classics since childhood, he continued to work on his long-time research project, a biography of the Roman emperor Gallienus, published posthumously in 1997. Noting the similarities between Bray and Gallienus (both poets and intellectuals), Nicolas Rothwell argued that the work was a ‘veiled self-portrait, an exploration, often intuitive, of key aspects of his own nature’ (1998, 12).

Bray was a bachelor who only left the family home, Bray House at 56 Hutt Street, after the death of his mother in 1970. While a young adult in the 1930s, he had fathered a son with a female friend. He attracted the affections of both men and women, but seldom formed long-term relationships. In later life he resisted being labelled homosexual, observing that his sexual preferences and sexual behaviour were complex subjects (Emerson 2015, 249). In his final years, despite the increasingly debilitating effects of emphysema, he continued to visit libraries and meet friends at nearby hotels. He died on 26 June 1995 in Adelaide and was cremated. Portraits of him are held by the University of Adelaide and the Supreme Court of South Australia, and a bronze bust by John Dowie is in the State Library of South Australia.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Abbott, Michael. ‘Champion of Individual Rights.’ Australian, 29 June 1995, 12.
  • Bray, John. Seventy Seven. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 1990
  • Bray Papers. Private collection
  • Cockburn, Stewart. ‘A Humanist to Lead the Law.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 March 1967, 2
  • Emerson, John. First Among Equals. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Barr Smith Press, 2006
  • Emerson, John. John Jefferson Bray: A Vigilant Life. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2015
  • Northern Ireland v. Lynch. (1975) 5 AC 653 (12 March 1975), House of Lords
  • Prest, Wilfrid, ed. A Portrait of John Bray. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1997
  • Rothwell, Nicolas. ‘Classic Comparisons.’ Australian’s Review of Books, February 1998, 12
  • Simmons v Samuels. (1969) 1 South Australia State Reports (9 September 1969), 397
  • State Library of South Australia. PRG 1098, Bray, John Jefferson. Papers, 1955–2001
  • Wall, Barbara, and Muecke, Douglas, eds. The Emperor’s Doorkeeper. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Foundation, 1988

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Emerson, 'Bray, John Jefferson (1912–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 22 May 2024.

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

View the front pages for Volume 19

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