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James Lang Campbell (1858–1936)

by J. M. Bennett

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James Lang Campbell (1858-1936), judge, was born on 23 November 1858, at Houston and Killellan, Renfrewshire, Scotland, second of four children of George Murray Campbell, and his wife Elizabeth Lang. He was brought to Australia in 1866. For some eight years his father pursued pastoral and mining interests in Queensland, before the family moved to Sydney. Educated privately, James was employed in New South Wales by the Australian Joint Stock Bank. While a bank officer he read in the chambers of R. E. O'Connor. He was admitted to the Bar on 17 August 1886.

On 9 September 1885 Campbell had married Laura Augusta Georgina (Lily), eldest daughter of Roger Gadsden, a London barrister; they were childless. He was acting secretary to the attorney-general in 1887-88, then commenced private practice. Although successful, his forensic weapon was the bludgeon, not the rapier; his convoluted sentences were notorious, but so was his remarkable diligence. He became a standing counsel for the State taxation commissioners and for the Crown in closer settlement resumptions, taking silk in 1910. During World War I he was a committee-member of the Universal Service League and in 1919 was royal commissioner on the coal-trade inquiry.

Campbell's appointment as a Supreme Court judge in August 1922 was criticized because of his age. R. C. Teece recalled that 'despite his success at the Bar, he was a very poor lawyer'. His judicial term was distinguished most by problems arising out of his failure to stand down on reaching the statutory retiring age of seventy. He had publicly given the date of his birth as 1860 but, in Celebrity Pictures Pty. Ltd. v. Turnbull (1929), it was alleged that he had already attained his seventieth birthday and that his hearing the case rendered it void. A summons was brought before another judge to set aside the verdict. A Scottish birth certificate was tendered and Campbell was called as a witness. The summons was dismissed, but parliament was persuaded to legislate in 1929 'to validate certain judicial acts of the Honourable James Lang Campbell'. Sir Owen Dixon, describing this as 'a curious if not remarkable, incident in the history of our courts', pointed out that remedial legislation was unnecessary: the judge, having acted with colourable authority, was invested with jurisdiction by the common law unless challenged in the very exercise of that authority.

Campbell, while a judge, inquired in 1924 as a royal commissioner into the costs of production and distribution of gas by the Manly Gas Co. Ltd, and in 1927 presided over the court of inquiry into the Sydney Harbour collision between the Tahiti and the ferry Greycliffe. After retiring in May 1929 he acted as royal commissioner in 1930 on a controversial inquiry into mining leases at Mungana and Chillagoe in Queensland, involving E. G. Theodore and W. McCormack whom he found 'guilty of fraud and dishonesty'; Theodore denounced Campbell as 'merely a pensioner in retirement'.

Survived by his wife, Campbell died at his home, Caradon, Woollahra, on 7 December 1936. His estate, including The Bowery, near Coolah, was valued for probate at £3430.

Select Bibliography

  • Owen Dixon, Jesting Pilate (Syd, 1965)
  • K. H. Kennedy, The Mungana Affair (Brisb, 1978)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1887-88, 1, 558
  • Weekly Notes (New South Wales), 46 (1929)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Aug 1922, 10 Nov 1927, 23 May, 21 June 1929, 9 Dec 1936
  • R. C. Teece, Reminiscences (held by New South Wales Bar Assn, Sydney)
  • Halse-Rogers, J., note book, 1929 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Campbell, James Lang (1858–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 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]


23 November, 1858
Houston and Killellan, Renfrewshire, Scotland


7 December, 1936 (aged 78)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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