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Alfred William Foster (1886–1962)

by Constance Larmour

This article was published:

Alfred William Foster (1886-1962), by Richard Ovenden, 1940s

Alfred William Foster (1886-1962), by Richard Ovenden, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6571617, with the permission of Mrs Diane Reynolds

Alfred William Foster (1886-1962), judge, was born on 28 July 1886 at Beechworth, Victoria, eldest of the three surviving children of Alfred William Foster, tobacconist and commission agent, and his wife Sarah, née Brown, daughter of a Jewish draper. In the 1850s Foster's paternal grandfather, a Yorkshire man, had left his post as a police magistrate in Tasmania to bring his family to the gold diggings, near Beechworth. Alfred was educated there and matriculated from the Beechworth College at 14. As a youth he became interested in spiritualism and rejected Christian beliefs for which he claimed his studies revealed no scientific evidence.

In 1906 Foster went to Melbourne to study law and there he joined the Victorian Rationalist Association. As a member of a conservative debating society he was chosen to debate socialism against a team from the Victorian Socialist Party which included John Curtin. Not only was Foster badly beaten in the debate but he was converted to socialism and subsequently joined the V.S.P.

Foster signed the roll of the counsel of the Bar in June 1910 and spent the next few years as a struggling barrister. He became politically prominent with the outbreak of war in August 1914 as an outspoken opponent of Australia's involvement. When conscription became an issue Foster wrote articles and pamphlets, lectured, addressed street-corner rallies and defended fellow anti-conscriptionists charged with offences under the War Precautions Act. In 1917 he too faced charges for a fiery anti-conscription speech but escaped conviction. Much of his opposition to the Hughes government during the war years was directed at 'unjust and suppressive' censorship provisions.

During the war Foster joined the Australian Labor Party. In 1917, following the split in the party over conscription, he was elected to the Victorian central executive; that year he stood unsuccessfully as the Labor candidate in the strongly Nationalist Federal electorate of Balaclava.

In 1918 Foster founded the Y Club for 'sociable socialists'. Through this he became involved in campaigning for the One Big Union until the movement lost impetus. Seeking a broader base for his political ambitions, he joined the Food Preservers' Union and became its president and delegate at the annual conferences of the Victorian branch of the A.L.P. and a member of the Trades Hall Council. In 1922 and 1925 he stood as the endorsed Federal Labor candidate for Fawkner but was defeated.

Advancement in Foster's legal career came with his appointment as union advocate to the 1920 royal commission on the basic wage. He demonstrated that the basic wage was quite inadequate to meet the cost of living, but the commission's recommended increase was so high that it was not implemented. Another valuable brief came his way in 1924 with his appointment as counsel assisting the royal commission inquiring into the 1923 police strike in Melbourne. Then in 1926 he was appointed as counsel to represent the Labor governments of New South Wales and Queensland in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration's main hours case which reduced standard hours from forty-eight to forty-four a week in the engineering industry.

When Foster became a judge of the County Court of Victoria in 1927 he had to give up all political party positions, including that of senior vice-president of the Victorian branch of the A.L.P. His work as a judge spanned the Depression years and many of the defendants in his court were victims of economic hardship. Foster enforced the laws but at the same time canvassed the need to reform many outdated provisions, calling also for medical assessment and treatment for sex offenders. He provoked a public outcry in 1934 when he told a boy witness, 'There is no hell, sonny'.

Throughout the 1930s Foster worked for peace with an increasing sense of urgency. As president of the Victorian branch of the League of Nations Union he sought to publicize the need for support of the league as a force for peace. When war came he became Victorian president of the Sheepskins for Russia appeal and joined the Australia-Soviet Friendship League.

In October 1942 the Curtin government set up a wartime Women's Employment Board and appointed Foster to head it. For the next two years the board set the wages, hours and conditions for more than 70,000 women, in most cases awarding 90 per cent of the male wage rate instead of the standard 54 per cent.

Foster was transferred to the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in October 1944. In 1945 he conducted an inquiry into the troubled stevedoring industry and recommended changes which were incorporated into the Stevedoring Industry Act of 1947. His first major case was the standard hours hearing which spanned the twenty-two months to September 1947. During that time he became the senior puisne judge with the task of writing and delivering the judgment which awarded the 40-hour week. In assessing his arbitration work he always remained proudest of this decision. In the 1950 basic wage case he was dominant in awarding a huge £1 increase to the weekly wage of £7 per week to enable workers to share in the post-war prosperity. His participation in the 1959 basic wage case was notable for his suggestion that the legalistic 'burden of proof' was inappropriate in arbitration cases.

At first the unions regarded Foster as their champion. But in 1949, during the crippling seven-week national coal strike, he gaoled eight officials and imposed heavy fines on their unions for their defiance of the Chifley government's emergency legislation to stop union funds from being used to assist the strikers.

In 1956 the arbitration system was overhauled and the functions of the court were split between the newly established Commonwealth Industrial Court and the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Foster, although the senior remaining arbitration court judge, was not appointed to head either body but became senior deputy president of the commission.

He remained in charge of the maritime industry to which he had been assigned in 1952. His direct approach and availability at all times resulted in a speedier turn around of ships and a reduction of time lost through disputes. He instituted a 'hard-lying' allowance to encourage shipowners to modernize or replace dirty, old and obsolete vessels, and this was virtually achieved by 1958. He conducted an inquiry into seamen's conditions and in 1955 made a new seamen's award, the first since 1935. The award pleased seamen but shipowners complained of a double payment effect in the leave provisions. When in 1960 Foster made a new award to correct this anomaly, seamen were indignant. Demonstrations against him marred the last years of his arbitration work and obscured the substantial gains made by seamen during his administration of their industry.

Foster's interests included tennis and golf, at which he excelled, the repairing of old and valuable clocks, carpentry—he made his own golf clubs—gardening and the study of mathematics. On 12 January 1916 he had married Beatrice May Warden, a fellow member of the Victorian Socialist Party. A son was born before her death from cancer in 1925. On 25 January 1927 Foster married Ella Wilhelmina Jones. He died at his Sandringham home on 26 November 1962, survived by his wife and their two sons and daughter. To the end of his life he described himself as a socialist, a pacifist and a rationalist. In accordance with his wishes there was no religious service before his cremation. Instead his friend, Sir John Barry, spoke of his tenacity, courage and unshakable integrity in the pursuit of truth.

Select Bibliography

  • Economic Record, 39 (1963), no 85, p 107
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 Nov 1962
  • C. Larmour, Judge Foster—a Socialist Judge: Aspects of his Life and Work (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1973), and Rebel Judge—a Biography of Judge Foster (manuscript, privately held).

Related Thematic Essay

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Citation details

Constance Larmour, 'Foster, Alfred William (1886–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 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

Alfred William Foster (1886-1962), by Richard Ovenden, 1940s

Alfred William Foster (1886-1962), by Richard Ovenden, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6571617, with the permission of Mrs Diane Reynolds

Life Summary [details]


28 July, 1886
Beechworth, Victoria, Australia


26 November, 1962 (aged 76)
Sandringham, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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