Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert Bruce Burnside (1862–1929)

by G. T. Staples

This article was published:

Robert Bruce Burnside (1862-1929), judge, was born on 22 April 1862 at Nassau, Bahamas, West Indies, son of (Sir) Bruce Lockhart Burnside, barrister, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Francis. His father became solicitor-general of the Bahamas and was later chief justice of Ceylon. Burnside was educated at Nassau Grammar School, the Royal Naval School, Newcross, London, and at Nancy, France. Entering Lincoln's Inn in 1881, he was called to the Bar there in 1884; he arrived in Perth in July and began practice; two years later he joined D. G. Gawler in a Fremantle partnership. On 10 December 1887 at Fremantle he married Mary Charity, daughter of Samuel Bruce, a London surgeon. Burnside became usher of the Black Rod in the Legislative Council in 1890. Appointed crown solicitor in 1894, he proved to be a capable law officer and fair-minded prosecutor. In December 1902 he succeeded F. W. Moorhead on the Supreme Court bench. With (Sir) Robert McMillan, appointed a few weeks earlier, he 'worked … for over 26 years in complete friendship'.

In 1903, Burnside became for the first time president of the Arbitration Court, while remaining a justice of the Supreme Court; his several terms as president totalled almost ten years. His work there was aided by his own technical skills as an accomplished amateur carpenter and metal-worker, and it was said that he was the one judge to leave the Arbitration Court reluctantly. He held the confidence of both employers and employees, but his gold-mining award of December 1920 was blamed by many residents of the goldfields for the closure of a number of marginal mines. Possibly his most important work was the establishment of the apprenticeship system.

Burnside presided in December 1916 over the trial of nine members of the Industrial Workers of the World accused of seditious conspiracy. Unlike an eastern contemporary, he created no martyrs; all the accused were found guilty, but were given suspended sentences. From the dock Montague Miller described Burnside as 'a tolerant and gentlemanly judge'. He presided over royal commissions in 1917 and 1919 to investigate relations between the Scaddan government and S. V. Nevanas, and an industrial dispute in the goldfields firewood-industry.

Burnside was an extrovert with a rousing and sometimes earthy sense of humour; a contemporary was impressed with his 'power of terse, direct and forcible expression'. He carried out judicial duties competently, though sometimes laboriously and did not suffer fools gladly. A keen sportsman, in 1884 he helped to found the West Australian Rowing Club (the first in Perth) and became its first secretary; he was later captain and president. He was also an enthusiastic yachtsman and his large Genista, built to his own design in Scotland, was a familiar sight on the Swan River and at Careening Bay, Garden Island. For some years he was commodore of the Royal Perth Yacht Club.

Survived by his wife and only son, Burnside died in office of pneumonia on 8 August 1929 at his home, Craig Muir, Claremont, and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £10,091.

Select Bibliography

  • Truthful Thomas, Through the Spyglass (Perth, 1905)
  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • Western Australian Industrial Gazette, May 1921, Dec 1929
  • E. J. Edwards, ‘Robert Furse McMillan’, University of Western Australia Law Review, 1 (1963-64), nos 2, 3
  • West Australian, 12-16 Dec 1916, 9 Aug 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Aug 1929.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. T. Staples, 'Burnside, Robert Bruce (1862–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 June 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

Life Summary [details]


22 April, 1862
Nassau, Bahamas


8 August, 1929 (aged 67)
Claremont, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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.