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Sir Charles Leonard Gavan Duffy (1882–1961)

by Charles Francis

This article was published:

Sir Charles Leonard Gavan Duffy (1882-1961), judge, was born on 15 June 1882 at Caulfield, Melbourne, eldest son of (Sir) Frank Gavan Duffy and his wife Ellen Mary, née Torr. Duffy was educated at St Ignatius College, Riverview, Sydney, and at Xavier College, Melbourne, and entered Trinity College, University of Melbourne, where he studied law. He was then articled to C. J. Ahern at Wangaratta and on 1 December 1908 was admitted to the Bar, reading in the chambers of his relation (Sir) Hayden Starke. His urbane temperament and personal charm coupled with sound legal knowledge and considerable capacity as an advocate soon enabled him to gain a secure foothold at the Victorian Bar.

In 1908 Duffy joined the Australian Field Artillery as a second lieutenant, resigning in 1910. In April 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and in June went abroad as a second lieutenant in the A.F.A. Serving on Gallipoli and in France, he was promoted captain in January 1917, and temporary major in August commanding the 4th Field Battery, but was gassed in November. Rejoining his unit next May, he was wounded in September 1918 while in command of the battery. He was mentioned in dispatches, returning to Australia as a substantive major in August 1919. On 29 December at St Stanislaus Church, Toorak, he married Mary Marjorie Alexa Back (d.1959). Their only children, twin boys, died at birth.

On 30 May 1933, following the death of Sir Leo Cussen, Duffy was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria. The choice was popular and he proved a competent judge, gifted with keen memory and complete independence of mind and conducting his court admirably. At all times Duffy was courteous, considerate, and whimsically good humoured, but nevertheless dispatched business with firmness. His judgments, though not perhaps as deeply learned as some of his colleagues', displayed unerring instinct for legal principles and were sound and practical. On 1 January 1952 he was knighted for his services to the law.

In his early days Duffy enjoyed horse-riding and later was a modest but enthusiastic golfer. He was also extremely well read and enjoyed reciting poetry, especially Australian verse, but otherwise had few interests outside the law. Warm-hearted and kindly, he enjoyed a wide circle of friends. For many years he was a member of the Melbourne Club and in 1944 was elected its president.

Duffy's last years were burdened by physical disability but as one of the last Victorian judges not subject to compulsory retirement he continued to sit on the bench until a few days before his death, in so doing demonstrating considerable personal courage. He died on 12 August 1961 at East Melbourne and was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew. A handsome tribute to him as 'a great citizen and a distinguished judge' was paid in the Victorian Supreme Court by Chief Justice Sir Edmund Herring.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Law Journal, 15 June 1933, p 227
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Dec 1961
  • Victorian Reports, 1961
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 May 1933
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Aug 1961
  • National Memorials Committee notes (Duffy biography file, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Charles Francis, 'Duffy, Sir Charles Leonard Gavan (1882–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 June, 1882
Caulfield, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


12 August, 1961 (aged 79)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

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