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Sir Frederick Matthew Darley (1830–1910)

by J. M. Bennett

This article was published:

Frederick Darley, by Henry Sadd

Frederick Darley, by Henry Sadd

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9484579

Sir Frederick Matthew Darley (1830-1910), chief justice and lieutenant-governor, was born on 18 September 1830 in Ireland, the first child of Henry Darley of Wingfield, Bray, County Wicklow, and his wife Maria Louisa, née West. The family came from Arles (d'Arlé) at the Conquest, settling in the English Midlands; some migrated to Ireland in the seventeenth century and won repute in Dublin as builders and architects. Frederick's grandfather introduced legal leanings and Henry Darley was described by Lord St Leonards as 'not only the best officer in the Court of Chancery in Ireland, but the best officer he had ever come across'.

Frederick's parents, 'eminent for piety and learning', saw to his education before he entered Dungannon College, County Tyrone, where his uncle, Rev. John Darley (later Anglican bishop of Kilmore), was headmaster. Well grounded in classics, Frederick entered Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1851). Called to the Bar at the King's Inns on 18 January 1853, he went to London where he read in the chambers of Richard Holmes Coote. He was admitted to the English Bar before returning to practise on the Munster Circuit. In 1858 one of the judges commended his industry and expressed pleasure at having 'so nice a fellow, and so educated and good a lawyer practising before me'.

At Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, on 13 December 1860 Darley married Lucy Forest, daughter of Captain Sylvester John Browne and sister of the novelist 'Rolf Boldrewood' (Thomas Browne). The Australian interests of Captain Browne and of Benjamin Darley, strengthened by recommendation of the colonial Bar by Chief Justice Sir Alfred Stephen in a chance meeting, probably decided Darley to migrate. Farewelled by his Munster colleagues with a dinner and a gift of silver, he sailed with his wife in the Swiftsure from Plymouth in January 1862. On 2 June he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar. He found his first eleven years the 'most trying' of his life. He lost many early cases but clients trusted his devotion and he won a varied practice, distinguished by his command of procedure. Diligence brought its return. He was in the Bar's front rank on taking silk in 1878: 'I have been very hard worked this month. In Court all day and every day often with a case going on in each Court. I sometimes get tired of the perpetual grind, however it means money. I fancy I will earn £700 this month, one of the busiest in the year—next month I will not earn more than £300 perhaps'.

Darley's zeal attracted (Sir) James Martin who in 1868 nominated him to the Legislative Council. His career there was likened to that of a model legislator or of a 'standing counsel of Parliament'. He gave much time to matters of legislative policy and draftsmanship, most notably in equity, company law, matrimonial causes and bankruptcy. His criticisms of the English Judicature Acts did much to influence their rejection in New South Wales. His range in debate was diverse but, beyond supporting free trade, he was uninterested in politics and remained independent even on becoming vice-president of the Executive Council in the Parkes ministry in 1881; he said that he never changed his seat whatever government was in office. Of his several journeys abroad, one was as representative commissioner to the Bordeaux Wine Exhibition in 1882. At home he largely restricted his public interests to the council and represented it on the Senate of the University of Sydney. He also served on the committee of the Australian Club and was active in a few charitable institutions.

On Martin's death in 1886 William Bede Dalley was invited to become chief justice but declined. Darley was offered the vacancy; regretting his 'ungracious act', he shrank from the loss of income it would cause. Julian Salomons took the proffered commission but resigned before being sworn in. Darley then agreed in the public interest to make the financial sacrifice and was sworn in as chief justice on 7 December. Unlike his predecessors he brought no aura of statesmanship or political involvement to that bench; his sole concern was the due administration of the law. Distinguished in appearance, courteously dignified, adept at judicial management and robust in constitution, he adorned his high office. He was a sound, pragmatic jurist, delivering many clear, concise decisions for the Full Bench, and taking more than his share of sittings alone or with a jury. He had no pretensions of legal brilliance and some of his judgments seem insipid, particularly when compared to those of the foundation Justices of the High Court. Yet he could rise to juridical heights. His clashes with the government in the cases of 1888 under the Chinese Influx Restriction Acts produced his most masterly decisions: his censures of crown lands legislation were vigorous: his command of legal principle was often apparent (e.g., Walker v. Solomon, 1890; In re Wilson, 1891; In re McIntosh, 1894, Australian Joint Stock Bank v. Bailey, 1897). He had a liberal approach when interpreting beneficial statues, at times infusing reform into his construction of the law. More often he was over-cautious, and inept in using precedent. He eschewed trespassing on statutory policy; parliamentary criticism of him in 1904 for excessive comment on the Industrial Arbitration Act was partisan and unfair. Apart from that incident, he enjoyed uniform public confidence. A humanitarian, he advocated improvement in prison methods and reduction of court delays, especially in country criminal trials. He emphatically resisted attempted encroachments by the executive on judicial independence. His public manner, always serious, conservative and ceremonious, and his detachment may have misled those who have belittled his ability as a judge.

Late in 1901 Darley's health failed. Surgery so enfeebled him that lobbying for the chief justiceship began. When he took leave in England in 1902 the press reported that his judicial career had ended, but medical attention in Edinburgh achieved such restoration that Darley accepted membership of the English royal commission on the South African war. He was well qualified, having acted as a royal commissioner on colonial defence in 1881 and being thoroughly informed in military matters, as evidenced in his parliamentary speeches. His forensic competence aided the commission and its work stimulated his recovery. He resumed his seat on the bench when he returned to Sydney in 1903.

Darley became lieutenant-governor in 1891. Administrative skill, urbanity, fervour for protocol, and noble deportment all fitted him for the role which he filled to the satisfaction of local society and of the Colonial Office. Ironically his longest term from 1 November 1900 to 27 May 1902 thrust upon him a major part in the trappings of Federation. His anxiety for the mother State's supremacy contributed to the 'Hopetoun blunder'; although his official speeches reflected public feeling without personal conviction, his private assessment in 1902 was that 'Australian Federation is so far a pronounced failure'.

Darley lived at Quambi, Albert Street, Woollahra, and 'rusticated' at Lilianfels, Katoomba. His work was recognized by many honours. He was knighted in 1887 and appointed K.C.M.G. in 1897 and G.C.M.G. in 1901; he became a privy councillor in 1905. His old university conferred on him an honorary LL.D. in 1903. In 1909 on his retirement from the bench he returned to Britain and the Royal Colonial Institute elected him resident fellow. He had sought no recognition and never aspired to any public office. Characteristically he wished to be remembered only as 'an old Irish gentleman'. He died in London on 4 January 1910 and was buried in the family vault at Dublin; memorial services were held in England, Ireland and in Sydney. Lady Darley had been a great helpmate to him. Her interests extended beyond the domestic distaff: 'Mother is inclined to go in for all sorts of things and generally do a great deal too much', wrote Darley to his son in 1896. She was a member of numerous charitable and benevolent organizations, and an accomplished hostess. A lady of great culture, she had, according to her brother, a contralto voice 'worthy of scientific cultivation', while her letters matched his concinnity. Sometimes she would write to politicians on contentious issues, of which she could speak more freely than her husband and, 'as a woman and mother', more emotively. She died in England in 1913, survived by two sons and four of her six daughters.

Of several extant portraits, that by John Longstaff in the Supreme Court House, Sydney, is noteworthy.

Select Bibliography

  • ‘Men of Eminence in New South Wales: Sir Frederick Matthew Darley’, Sydney Quarterly Magazine, Sept 1887, pp 195-201
  • Attorney-General's and Justice Department papers (State Records New South Wales)
  • Darley papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Frederick Matthew and Cecil West Darley papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Griffith papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. See papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Way papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • family letters (privately held)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Darley, Sir Frederick Matthew (1830–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frederick Darley, by Henry Sadd

Frederick Darley, by Henry Sadd

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9484579

Life Summary [details]


18 September, 1830
Bray, Wicklow, Ireland


4 January, 1910 (aged 79)
London, Middlesex, England

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