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Sir Arthur Dean (1893–1970)

by R. L. Sharwood

This article was published:

Sir Arthur Dean (1893-1970), judge, was born on 25 May 1893 at Merino, Victoria, eldest of seven children of John Henry Dean, schoolteacher, and his wife Alice, née Macgugan, both Australian born. Arthur's was a country childhood, but far from settled, as his father's career within the Victorian state school system meant frequent moves from town to town. In February 1907, when the family were living at Chiltern, Arthur entered Scotch College, East Melbourne. Modest and studious, in 1910 he won an exhibition to the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1915; LL.M., 1927).

Postponing his entry into the legal profession, on 26 July 1915 Dean enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. In December he sailed for Egypt with reinforcements for the 7th Battalion. By March 1916 the battalion was on the Western Front where it was to see some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. Dean found the battle of Pozières, France, in July the worst: 'it lives to-day in the memory of many a man as a dreadful nightmare'. He was commissioned in September and promoted lieutenant in July 1917. Wounded in action on 4 October at Passchendaele, Belgium, he was invalided to England; shortly after his return to France he was gassed in late December and again hospitalized. Towards the end of his service he undertook legal work to do with courts martial and intelligence. He was something of a 'trench poet', contributing light verse to army magazines; his delight in composing 'doggerel' was to continue all his life. Arriving back in Melbourne in April 1919, he was demobilized on 22 June. With E. W. Gutteridge, he wrote his unit's history, The Seventh Battalion, A.I.F. (1933). Dean rose to lieutenant colonel in the Reserve of Officers and in 1939-42 served as the 3rd Division's legal officer. He was a member of the 1942 court of inquiry into events that followed the Japanese invasions of New Britain, Timor and Ambon.

On 1 June 1919 Dean had been admitted to the Victorian Bar. He built up a substantial practice, principally in the fields of Equity and industrial property, of which he was the Bar's acknowledged leader. On 12 April 1922 at Prahran Presbyterian Church he married Dorothy Muriel Bolle. While at the Bar, he published two legal monographs which long remained standard practitioners' texts: The Law Relating to Estate Agents and Auctioneers (1925) and The Law Relating to Hire Purchase in Australia (1929).

Appointed K.C. in March 1944, Dean became a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria in February 1949. His qualities of learning, industry, fairness, humility, independence of mind and moral courage were seen as admirably fitting him for the position. Given the nature of his practice at the Bar, he was most comfortable in the Equity and commercial work of the court. He was admired, too, for his mastery of practice and procedure, and for his expedition in court business. His many reported judgements are marked by clarity, a direct style, a firm grasp of legal principle, skilful use of case-law, concentration on the major issues and strong common sense. Chairman of the Council of Law Reporting (1950-65) and of the Country Libraries Committee, he was also involved in the work of the Chief Justice's Law Reform Committee. Dean was knighted in 1960.

In 1961-62 Sir Arthur found himself at the centre of enormous public attention for the only time in his life because of his role in 'the Tait Case', a celebrated and highly controversial prosecution for murder. Dean was the trial judge and presided over two further applications in relation to the matter, the second involving a late evening hearing only two days before Robert Peter Tait was due to be hanged. The controversy over the case (legal issues apart) turned on the general question of capital punishment and the role of the executive; the State government finally commuted Tait's sentence to one of life imprisonment. While Dean's role was crucial to the whole affair, his own handling of the case was never the subject of criticism. At his farewell from the bench in 1965, he doffed his wig and gown, stepped down from the bench, and shook hands with the dozens of barristers and solicitors who had come to say goodbye—an action regarded as 'the most spectacular thing he ever did in court'.

Dean gave years of service to the university. Lecturer in Equity (1929-39), he was a member (1931-39) of the standing committee of convocation (warden 1944-50), a member (1950-69) of council, deputy-chancellor (1953-54) and chancellor (1954-66). He was a 'working chancellor' and loved the position, giving himself to all its duties with unflagging dedication. With Lady Dean, he took particular interest in the establishment of International House. He presided over the university during a demanding period in which it doubled its student numbers and commenced a massive rebuilding programme. While some of his senior colleagues doubted whether he ever fully came to grips with the complex and subtle culture of the university, all acknowledged his integrity, his hard work and his genuine devotion to the institution. In 1963 the universities of Melbourne and Western Australia conferred upon him honorary doctorates of laws.

An elder of the Malvern Presbyterian Church, Dean was for sixteen years superintendent of its Sunday School. As chairman (1945-58) of the council of the Presbyterian Ladies' College, he oversaw its move from East Melbourne to Burwood. In retirement he found his greatest fulfilment in writing the official history of the Victorian Bar, A Multitude of Counsellors (1968). The book, which reflects the man, is direct, thorough, honest, highly readable, rich in information and a treasury of good stories.

Stocky in figure, with square, rather severe features, Dean exhibited a serious manner which tended to hide both his essential kindliness and his droll, old-fashioned humour. His principal recreations were tennis, golf, bowls and reading. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died on 25 September 1970 in East Melbourne and was cremated. The University of Melbourne holds his portrait by Paul Fitzgerald.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Burns, The Tait Case (Melb, 1962)
  • A. Dean, A Tribute to the Memory of the Late Sir Norman O'Bryan (priv print, Melb, nd, 1968?)
  • Australian Law Journal, 17 Feb 1949
  • Law Institute Journal, Mar 1949, July 1965, Nov 1970
  • Who Was Who, 1961-1970
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, May 1963, June 1966
  • Australian Bar Gazette, July 1965
  • Scotch College (Melbourne) Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. L. Sharwood, 'Dean, Sir Arthur (1893–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 May, 1893
Merino, Victoria, Australia


25 September, 1970 (aged 77)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, 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.