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Sir John Stokell Dodds (1848–1914)

by G. H. Crawford

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John Stokell Dodds, by J.W. Beattie

John Stokell Dodds, by J.W. Beattie

State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125880740

Sir John Stokell Dodds (1848-1914), parliamentarian and judge, was born at Durham, England, son of William Dodds and his wife Ann, née Stokell; his grandfather, George Stokell, was an influential colonist in Tasmania. With his parents and sister he arrived at Hobart Town in the Union on 24 January 1853. His father soon died and he was brought up by his mother to whose example and teaching he ascribed all his successes in life. He was educated at Hobart and was first employed there in shops. Articled to the firm of Elliston and Burbury in 1866, he was  admitted a legal practitioner of the Supreme Court of Tasmania in February 1872. Able and energetic, he built up a very large practice as a barrister and solicitor. In 1869 he married Emma Augusta, daughter of Rev. James Norman and widow of G. H. Gatehouse; thirteen years his senior, she had three children by her first marriage.

In 1878-86 Dodds represented East Hobart, and in 1886-87 South Hobart, in the House of Assembly. Within a month of his first election, he became attorney-general in Crowther's ministry. In 1879 the government was defeated and, after negotiations led by William Giblin and Dodds, the opposing parties agreed to form a coalition with Giblin as premier. Soon afterwards Dodds was asked to become treasurer but he was not willing and remained attorney-general. In 1881 Giblin prevailed on him to become treasurer and postmaster-general, and Giblin became attorney-general. In August 1884 Giblin resigned and Adye Douglas became premier. Dodds was attorney-general in the new government. He was also elected leader of the House of Assembly and remained so until 1887. When Douglas resigned in March 1886 he claimed the right to nominate the new premier to the governor. Dodds objected that this was unconstitutional, and particularly so because Douglas had accepted appointment as agent-general in London and was to be virtually a civil servant. However, the governor sent for Douglas's nominee, (Sir) James Agnew, who undertook to form a government. On principle Dodds refused to serve in it and Agnew withdrew. The governor then sent for Dodds who formed a ministry with Agnew as premier. In 1885 Dodds had proposed to obtain royal assent by cable to enable rolls to be prepared for an election. He was much criticized in Tasmania but the Crown law officers approved his action.

While Dodds was treasurer and postmaster-general the subsidy paid by Tasmania towards the telegraph cable in Bass Strait was reduced by £1000 a year and the postal rate payable to Victoria was reduced by the same amount, postal, telegraph and cable charges were cut, a Post Office Savings Bank was established, telephone services began and 'pillar' street letter-boxes were installed. To inspect proposed public works he once went on foot from Mount Bischoff to the West Coast. While he was attorney-general bills were introduced to deal with settled estates (forerunner of the Settled Lands Act), to prevent the sale of obscene books etc., to regulate the sale of tobacco, to establish the office of agent-general, to regulate the sale of poisons and to provide retiring allowances for judges, registration of stock and crop mortgages and the inspection and regulation of fisheries; he was also active in introducing a new Education Act. In 1879 he protested strongly in the assembly against the practice of the Legislative Council of amending supply bills. In 1885 after suggesting for years in parliament that bribery and other corrupt practices took place at elections, he introduced an electoral amendments bill. (Sir) Edward Braddon alleged that if Dodds had any honesty and self respect he should be the first to introduce clauses to prevent such practices and that it had been shouted from the house tops that he had paid for his seat. Dodds promptly challenged the allegation and Braddon withdrew it.

Dodds attended several conferences and conventions in other colonies. In 1886 Douglas and he represented Tasmania at the first session of the Federal Council of Australasia in Hobart. His speeches were painstakingly prepared and he was appointed a member of a select committee to prepare standing rules and orders for the council, and a member of the standing and finance committees. He opposed the abolition of the office of governor and any severing of links with Britain. He supported a bill to enable the service of legal process in other colonies, and with Sir Samuel Griffith and Sir Graham Berry formed a select committee to consider it. He spoke against the Federal Council evidence bill, the Australasian corporation bill and some of the provisions of the Australasian judgments bill, but Griffith prevailed and they were passed. He was also opposed by Griffith when he emphasized that Thursday Island was strategically less important for defence than King George Sound.

The government decided that Tasmania should be represented at the Colonial Conference in London in 1887 by Douglas as agent-general and Dodds as attorney-general. Despite protests in parliament he left for the conference, but he had already signed an undated acceptance of the position of puisne judge and an application for leave, and was duly appointed to the bench on 15 February. On 20 October 1898 he became chief justice. In the printed Tasmanian Law Reports, which commenced in 1897, Dodds is by far the least reported of the Tasmanian judges sitting alone; in the Full Court his impact was more important, but far greater contributions to Tasmanian law seem to have been made by other judges. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1889, knight in 1900 and K.C.M.G. in 1901. In 1914 he notified the government that he would retire in August, but he died at his home, Stoke, New Town, on 23 June 1914. He was predeceased by his wife and survived by two of their four sons.

According to his contemporaries, Dodds was able and quick, with a capacity to reduce the issues and avoid the determination of superfluous facts. As chief justice he administered the government from 14 August 1900 to 8 November 1901, and entertained at Government House the Duke and Duchess of York during their visit to open the first Federal parliament. He was appointed lieutenant-governor on 3 August 1903 and held this office until he died. He acted as governor from 16 April to 28 October 1904, from 21 May to 29 September 1909 and from 10 March until 4 June 1913. In the Boer war he raised by public subscription enough money to equip and send out a contingent of mounted infantry. With a deep interest in education, art, literature, music and sport, he served on the Council of the University of Tasmania and was chancellor in 1907-14; he was also patron or president of a host of societies in southern Tasmania. Lady Dodds was of retiring disposition and did not enjoy her necessary participation in public life.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 June 1914
  • Mercury (Hobart), 25 June 1914
  • CSD papers (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Premier's Department papers (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. H. Crawford, 'Dodds, Sir John Stokell (1848–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 26 April 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

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