Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William John Foster (1831–1909)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

William John Foster (1831-1909), lawyer and politician, was born on 13 January 1831 at Rathescar, County Louth, Ireland, son of Rev. William Henry Foster of Loughgilly, County Armagh, and his wife Catherine, née Hamilton. The Fosters were a distinguished Anglo-Irish legal family and Catherine was a niece of the Duke of Wellington. William John was educated at Cheltenham College, England, and Trinity College, Dublin. Without taking his degree he left in 1852 for the Victorian goldfields. He returned briefly to Britain and in 1854 went back to Victoria, refused a post in the public service and turned to farming at Wollombi, New South Wales. Bored by country life he studied law under Arthur Holroyd at Sydney from February 1858 and on 13 May was admitted to the Bar. He also helped to write a treatise, published in 1870 as Practice of the District Courts of New South Wales. In 1859-62 and 1864-70 he was crown prosecutor for the northern districts, and in 1870 for Sydney.

A devout Evangelical, Foster became a member of every diocesan, provincial and general Synod of the Church of England until 1895. In the 1870s he sat on the committees of many church and charitable institutions. A militant temperance advocate, he set the example of total abstinence. He was also active in the Lord's Day Observance Society and the Loyal Orange Institution. In 1877 he told Synod that Orangeism had 'done more for religious liberty in New South Wales than laws, barristers and judges together'. He was also a member of the Aborigines Protection Board.

Appointed to the Legislative Council, Foster was attorney-general in James Farnell's ministry in 1877-78. In November 1880 he resigned from the council and represented Newtown in the assembly. He became an independent member of the opposition to the Parkes-Robertson government. Although he supported such government measures as the Licensing Act, he made a stir in October 1881 when he became minister of justice in the coalition. As minister of justice Foster found congenial work in implementing the new Licensing Act. To 'Cassius' in the Freeman's Journal, 30 September 1882, he was a 'fussy little brusher' and 'the most singularly striking and original specimen of the modern Puritan prig'; the Bulletin christened him 'Water Jug Foster'. In January 1883 after a bitter fight he lost his seat to Henry Copeland; but in 1885 he regained it. In 1886 he became a Queen's Counsel and six times acted as a Supreme Court judge on circuit.

On 20 January 1887 Foster became attorney-general under Sir Henry Parkes. In March he refused the Speaker's chair as it would affect his 'already very seriously impaired private means'. Pressed by Chief Justice Sir Frederick Darley, Foster told cabinet that it was 'of great and pressing importance' to appoint a sixth judge. On 18 May he created an uproar by resigning from the government because he had not been appointed to the judgeship allegedly promised him when he had declined nomination as Speaker. Next day in 'an unseemly, almost disgraceful debate' the Parkes-Foster correspondence was read to the House. The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May, suggested that Foster had 'joined the Ministry, not with the object of serving the country, but for the purpose of advancing his own interests'. Despite a Supreme Court decision that erection of the reredos in St Andrew's Cathedral was not unlawful, he bitterly opposed such 'idolatry'. In September when the cathedral chapter agreed in the 'interests of peace and unity in the Church' to accept a panel of the Transfiguration as a substitute for the Crucifixion panel, he described it as 'identical with one existing in a Roman Catholic Church in Melbourne'. His intransigent and narrow attitude contributed to Bishop John Barry's resignation.

On 14 February 1888 Foster was appointed to the Supreme Court bench, Darley reporting to Parkes that he was 'a man of the most upright character, the most unblemished honour'. In May 1890 Foster figured in a famous case when he concurred with his colleagues that under a disused law of George III the colonial secretary could not give permission for Sunday performances, but dissented from them on the need for amendment; 'he did not think the day had come when either public opinion or the legislature would sanction any relaxation of the laws'. In 1891 ill health forced him to seek leave; after a visit to Europe in 1892 he retired in 1894 and moved from his home, Thurnby, at Newtown. He died at Valley Heights on 16 August 1909 from senile decay and was buried in Waverley cemetery. Predeceased by his wife Matilda Sophia, née Williams, whom he had married in Sydney in 1854, he was survived by six sons and two daughters. He left an estate of £10,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Ex-M.L.A., Our Present Parliament, What it is Worth (Syd, c1886)
  • E. Digby, Australian Men of Mark (Syd, 1889)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1881, 1887
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1872-73, 3, 1515, 1887 (2nd session), 2, 1071
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 1879, 29 Mar, 17 Oct 1881, 27 Nov, 1, 4 Dec 1882, 12 Oct 1885, 19, 20, 21, 25 May, 3, 7 Sept 1887, 23 May 1890, 17 Aug 1909
  • Town and Country Journal, 5 Nov 1881, 24, 29 Nov 1887, 18 Feb 1888
  • Bulletin, 14 Jan, 21 Oct 1882
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 30 Sept 1882
  • Evening News (Sydney), 4 Nov 1893
  • Review of Reviews (London), 10 Dec 1894
  • G. C. Morey, The Parkes-Robertson Coalition Government, 1878-1883 (B.A. Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1968)
  • W. W. Phillips, Christianity and its Defence in New South Wales circa 1880 to 1890 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1969)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Foster, William John (1831–1909)', 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

Life Summary [details]


13 January, 1831
Rathescar, Louth, Ireland


16 August, 1909 (aged 78)
Valley Heights, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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