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Burbury, Sir Stanley Charles (1909–1995)

by Peter Boyce

This article was published online in 2020

Sir Stanley Charles Burbury (1909–1995), judge and governor, was born on 2 December 1909 in Perth, only child of Tasmanian-born Daniel Charles Burbury, metallurgist at the Royal Mint (Perth branch), and his South Australian-born wife Mary Agatha, née Cunningham. He was a direct descendant of Thomas Burbury, an English Luddite transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1832. Less than two months after his birth, his mother died; he was taken to Hobart and placed in the care of his aunt Ada Mary Lakin. While young he contracted poliomyelitis and would carry a limp throughout his life. At age eleven he was enrolled at The Hutchins School, where he excelled in essay writing, public speaking, and debating; and was a joint winner of the Bishop of Tasmania prize (1927).

In 1928 Burbury entered the University of Tasmania (LLB, 1932). He was active in the drama and debating societies, and the University Union, but left himself time to secure high distinctions in Roman law and in private international law. In March 1933 he was admitted to practise and joined the firm Simmons, Wolfhagen, Simmons, and Walch, of which he became a partner in 1937. Seven years later he founded Burbury and Dixon. On 22 December 1934 at the Memorial Congregational Church, Hobart, he had married Pearl Christina Barren, an accomplished local soprano. The couple were supporters of Hobart’s musical life and theatre. Although an Anglican, he became the organist (1933–36) at the New Town Congregational Church; Pearl, a Congregationalist, was a vocalist in church services. From the 1930s the couple also acted in Hobart Repertory Theatre Society plays.

Rising in prominence, Burbury led several public inquiries, the first of which was into the administration of the Tasmanian Forestry Department (1944–45). He was appointed KC in 1950 and headed a royal commission into the State’s apple and pear industry in the next year. In 1952 he took on the post of solicitor-general. Involved in the Tasmanian Law Reform Committee since its inception (1941), he recommended that reforms be based on English developments. He continued his association with the university, having been acting dean of the law school in 1942 and vice-warden of the senate from 1948 to 1955. In 1955 and 1956 he was a member of the troubled university council during the royal commission into its administrative conduct, and attended the March 1956 meeting which demanded the removal of the professor of philosophy, Sydney Sparkes Orr, after he was accused of seducing a female undergraduate student. Burbury interrogated Orr, who was later dismissed, and some observers have argued that he did not give him a fair hearing (Polya and Solomon 1996, 119–20).

In August 1956 Burbury was appointed chief justice of Tasmania by the Cosgrove Labor government in succession to Sir John Morris, an office he would hold for seventeen years. In 1958 he presided over the sensational Hursey case that tested the authority of unions to impose political levies; eventually the High Court overruled Burbury and upheld unions’ right to do so. A progressive chief justice, he instituted pre-trial procedures and drew his greatest satisfaction from formulating general principles of criminal liability and the law of manslaughter. He was also an active chairman of the Criminal Law Reform Committee which, at his urging, had been established in 1960. For much of 1967 he resided in Sydney as chairman of the second royal commission into the 1964 HMAS Voyager disaster, which absolved HMAS Melbourne's officers of blame.

Burbury’s position did not prevent him from serving as patron or president of several cultural bodies, including the Hobart Repertory and Federation of Tasmanian Film societies. He had a long involvement with the National Heart Foundation of Australia, serving as the Tasmanian (1961–67) and Federal (1967–73) president. Chair (1965–75) of the State regional council of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, he later became national president (1980–85). For three lengthy periods he had been administrator of the State in the absence of a governor. During 1958 and 1959 he spent sixteen months in the role, pending the arrival of Lord Rowallan. In April 1959 he exercised vice-regal discretion in accepting Premier Eric Reece’s advice to dissolve the House of Assembly following R. J. D. Turnbull’s dismissal from cabinet.

In December 1973 Burbury was appointed Tasmania’s first Australian-born governor. Although as a young lawyer he had been a foundation member (1944) of the Liberal Party of Australia, he was trusted by the three Labor premiers whose governments he oversaw. He and his wife were generous hosts and frequently entertained cultural and community organisations at Government House. During his term he was sworn in (1979) as administrator of the Commonwealth of Australia to act in the absence of the governor-general. He was appointed KBE (1958), KCVO (1977), KCMG (1981), and a knight of the Order of St John (1974). His initial five-year term as governor was extended to June 1982.

Sir Stanley and Lady Burbury lived quietly in retirement at Kingston, south of the city. Survived by his wife, he died on 24 April 1995 in Calvary Hospital, Hobart. He was accorded a state memorial service at St David’s Cathedral and was cremated. A large part of his personal library was donated to The Hutchins School. Lake Burbury, a hydro-electric impoundment on the King River, commemorates his name, as does a theatre at the University of Tasmania.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bailey, Sue. ‘Tributes for Faithful Servant of Tasmania.’ Mercury (Hobart), 25 April 1995, 3
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Mr Burbury Appointed New Chief Justice.’ 21 August 1956, 1
  • National Archives of Australia. A12689, 1979
  • Polya, John, and Robert Solomon. Dreyfus in Australia. Erskineville, NSW: Dr R. J. Solomon, 1996
  • Tasmanian Archives. NS 1736, Personal records of Sir Stanley and Lady Burbury
  • The Hutchins School Communique. ‘An Archives Moment.’ 3 May 2012, 9–10

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Peter Boyce, 'Burbury, Sir Stanley Charles (1909–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burbury-sir-stanley-charles-30576/text37902, published online 2020, accessed online 26 February 2021.

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