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Sir Samuel Walker Griffith (1845–1920)

by R. B. Joyce

This article was published:

Samuel Walker Griffith (1845-1920), by Crown Studios, 1903-19

Samuel Walker Griffith (1845-1920), by Crown Studios, 1903-19

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23398523

Sir Samuel Walker Griffith (1845-1920), chief justice and premier, was born on 21 June 1845 at Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorganshire, Wales, second son of Rev. Edward Griffith (1819-1891), Independent minister, and his wife Mary, née Walker. Edward served at Portishead and Wiveliscombe, Somerset, after his first pastorate at Merthyr. Then in 1853 an invitation from the Colonial Missionary Society, supported by the prominent colonists John Fairfax and David Jones, took him with his wife and family of two sons and three daughters to Australia. He became Congregational minister at Ipswich, Queensland (1854-56); Maitland, New South Wales (1856-60); and Wharf Street, Brisbane (1860-89). Samuel, despite the brevity of his sojourn in Wales, regarded himself as Welsh; his romanticizing ignored the reality of his English background. He drifted from his father's fundamentalism, as a politician becoming embarrassed by Edward's presence in Brisbane, and joined the more fashionable Church of England after his father died in 1891.

Samuel was educated at Ipswich (1854-55), Woolloomooloo, Sydney (1855-56), and Rev. William McIntyre's school at Maitland (1856-59). McIntyre failed to pass on his rabid Presbyterianism but inspired Samuel's love of the classics. He was dux and gained the nickname 'Oily Sam' from his 'ability to argue on any side of any subject'. Continuing his education in a brilliant arts course at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1863; M.A., 1870), he earned first-class honours in classics and mathematics. In 1862 he won the (Sir Daniel) Cooper scholarship in classics (Professor Woolley assessing him as one of the four best students of his decade), and the (Thomas) Barker scholarship in mathematics. He also studied law, taking general jurisprudence as an extra university course, and on 11 May 1863 became an articled clerk under Arthur Macalister at Ipswich. He was vain enough, when only 18, to apply in July 1863 for the headmastership of Ipswich Grammar School, and was already interested in politics, attending the debates in the Queensland parliament and publishing in 1862 a series of twenty-five critical articles on its members in the Queensland Guardian. He proved a successful articled clerk, accepting increasing responsibilities and representing his master solicitor on circuit in Rockhampton.

In 1865 when he was awarded the highly competitive Mort travelling fellowship from the University of Sydney the Queensland Supreme Court allowed him to interrupt his articles. Chief Justice Cockle's 'peculiar pleasure' in discharging this duty indicated how well known Griffith was in Queensland's small legal fraternity. He arrived in England on 20 January 1866 and spent a month there, visiting art galleries and relatives, before undertaking a 'grand tour' of Europe and then returning to England for a further six months. He had begun learning Italian and was reading French and English works, including Shakespeare. Conscientiously he sought understanding of paintings, claiming that by the end of his stay his taste had become 'strongly set' although his praise covered a wide spectrum including Rubens, Ruysdael, Brueghel and Landseer. In sculpture he gave highest appreciation to the 'wonderful and accurate tension of all the muscles' in the Laocoön group at the Vatican; in architecture he found Paris the most impressive. Politically his visit coincided with the Austro-Prussian War and Italian moves towards unification, and he enjoyed talking with a man who had served 'with Garibaldi against the Papal government'. He was often broke, unrepentant about his drinking and a past liaison with a married woman, and his family saw him as irresponsible, his brother refusing to lend him money.

Griffith's romanticism, which had already prompted him to propose to Brisbane's 'loveliest daughter', Etta Bulgin, now led to involvement with three female cousins, aged 25, 20 and 18, and he proposed marriage to the youngest. Her father objected and Samuel remained single. Yet it was serious, for his mother, in whom he rarely confided, intuited that he had left his 'heart behind'. Perhaps Samuel realized that this journey was to be his last chance of carefree enjoyment, before resuming his legal career. As well he was already contemplating entering politics, his father pointedly telling him that four Queensland parliamentarians had begun study for the Bar: 'you see your competition'.

Back in Queensland Griffith completed his articles at the end of September 1867, immediately sat and passed Bar examinations, and was admitted on 14 October. He was soon busy with briefs, first appearing in a Supreme Court action in 1867 and taking silk in 1876. By 1893 he had appeared in 280 recorded cases; he travelled frequently on circuit to Ipswich, Toowoomba, Rockhampton and Maryborough, and his returns rose rapidly. He had been paid £200 by Macalister in 1867, by 1870 his annual receipts had reached £1000, by 1893 his legal earnings were at least £3500. He appeared in widely varying fields of law, including criminal, property, company and probate.

Socially he had close friends such as C. S. Mein and led an active physical life. He was a Freemason (later a grand master), and prominent in intellectual societies. He became involved again with Etta, but soon after she became engaged he visited Maitland and began courting Julia Janet Thomson. Their marriage was celebrated in St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, East Maitland, on 5 July 1870. The union provided a stable social life for Samuel, especially as their family increased. The couple were rarely separated, but Griffith's letter of 9 November 1873, when Julia took their son and daughter south for seven weeks, reveals beneath his increasingly aloof and cold exterior an emotionally deeply involved husband and father, very conscious of loneliness.

Another change coincided with the marriage; a week after he returned from Maitland in July 1870 Griffith was asked to enter politics. He was closely involved in the Reform League later in that year, and while he declined to contest a seat in April 1871, stood successfully for the seat of East Moreton next year. His political career was to be combined with his work as a barrister until 1893.

His 1872 electoral speech promised legal reform and opposition to (Sir) Arthur Palmer's squatter-biased legislation. Griffith also advocated European immigration, more expenditure on public works, the setting up of rural boards and the encouragement of municipal government. During his first two years in Opposition he was responsible for legal reform, introducing as a private member the Telegraphic Messages Act (1872), which he had drafted, as he did the Equity Procedure Act (1873). In debates on the legal practitioners bill he consistently argued that barristers should be separate and superior to solicitors. He was returned unopposed to the new seat of Oxley in November 1873 and did not hide his disappointment at not being appointed to the Macalister ministry; his trenchant criticisms of the new attorney-general E. O. MacDevitt made the latter's 'life not worth the living'. After MacDevitt resigned, Griffith served as attorney-general from 3 August 1874 to 7 December 1878. He was also implicated in the resignation of (Sir) Thomas McIlwraith from the ministry in 1874 and for the next sixteen years McIlwraith and Griffith represented the opposing poles of Queensland politics.

Griffith was thrice disappointed in his ambition to lead the Liberal Party: in 1876 when George Thorn was preferred by the governor (Sir) William Cairns; in 1877 when Thorn was succeeded by John Douglas; and in 1878 when Governor Sir Arthur Kennedy refused Douglas's offer to resign if replaced by Griffith. The Liberal Party lost its majority to McIlwraith in the elections of November 1878, although Griffith polled higher than his opponent Palmer in North Brisbane. Griffith finally replaced Douglas as party leader in May 1879. During this calculated and determined rise within the hierarchy Griffith held three portfolios: attorney-general, secretary for public instruction (1876-79) and secretary for public works (1878-79). He proved his ability in each, assiduously drafting bills and supervising administrative details. Among the most contentious of the problems he dealt with were his efforts to have the evidence of Aboriginal witnesses admissible in legal proceedings; his attempts to limit legally the flood of Chinese (when Cairns reserved assent to a statute he angrily offered his resignation); legalistic rulings on the increasingly disputed use of Pacific island labourers; methods of controlling the clash between squatters and selectors; implementing the provisions of the free, compulsory and secular Education Act (1875); beginning moves to establish a university in the colony; and assessing rival claims for public works.

As leader of the Opposition in 1879-83 Griffith proved far more successful than his predecessors: C. H. Buzacott praised his 'brilliant fight … [He] proved himself as parliamentary leader unsurpassed in Australian history'. The major clash with McIlwraith was the 'steel rails affair', the allegation that the premier, when issuing governmental contracts, had favoured certain firms, including the shipping company McIlwraith, McEacharn & Co. After a Queensland select committee in 1880 found no corruption, splitting on party lines, an enquiry was begun in London, where both McIlwraith and Griffith appeared early in 1881. Griffith was disappointed even before its decision reaffirmed the Queensland negative finding: 'The people called', he told his wife, 'refused to tell all the truth so I fear the enquiry will not result in discovering all the truth'. On his return to Brisbane Griffith was fêted, greeted by an enormous crowd which left him 'excited and sleepless'. Compulsively, he persisted in debating the affair, once speaking in the House for seven hours, but a censure motion was lost on party lines by 27 to 20. Despite these defeats Griffith had succeeded politically by raising the slogan of clean government against the suspicion of corruption.

Griffith made other challenges against McIlwraith, alleging in 1882 corruption in land sales, and increasingly criticizing the labour traffic, particularly for the supply of firearms to islanders returning to their villages. He claimed that McIlwraith's main motive in annexing New Guinea was to obtain more cheap labour. The McIlwraith government was defeated on 5 July 1883 on its ambitious plan to build a transcontinental railway on the land-grant principle and in the subsequent election Griffith's followers won easily. His personal leadership, backed by the well-organized internal party machinery with its increasingly regular caucus meetings, was aided by close attention to the electoral rolls by Robert Bulcock and the active extra-parliamentary Liberal Association. Griffith exercised his plural voting rights in four electorates. He and William Brookes won the two North Brisbane seats against their erstwhile leader Douglas.

Griffith was premier from 10 November 1883 to 13 June 1888, and was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1886. Despite his assiduous country electioneering tours, his support was still dominantly from Brisbane and southern electorates. He advocated the continued unity of Queensland, opposing the developing regional separation movements in both the northern and central parts of the colony. In 1883 his party was close knit and strictly controlled, showing 92.6 per cent cohesion in divisions in the House. By 1888 this figure had declined but so had that of his opponents; the differences between the two leaders were becoming outdated by social and economic changes, particularly the clashes between employers and employees and the end of the long period of economic expansion.

As premier Griffith maintained a close personal supervision over his ministry, often working over eighty hours a week. In contrast to McIlwraith's brief minutes on dispatches, Griffith frequently wrote at length after detailed study of the issues. A reluctance to delegate authority was his weakness, even if he could argue that there were few reliable administrators in his small public service. He was accused of patronage, a charge supported by an 1887-89 royal commission on the civil service. His excuse was the need for efficiency and his dislike of the seniority principle. He appointed supporters to prominent positions and followed McIlwraith's precedent by pruning on political grounds the list of magistrates, so winning the support of the Protestant newspaper, the Queensland Evangelical Standard, which believed some magistrates had proved corrupt and that Griffith had 'erred on the side of mercy'. His father, associated with this newspaper, was appointed to the Brisbane Hospitals' Board, and his brother made honorary commissioner to the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition and chairman of the Brisbane Licensing Board (Division of Balmoral). A shortage of other suitable candidates enabled both to keep their positions even after the royal commission's findings were published.

Griffith remained critical of political patronage by his opponents, notably the two appointments in September 1883 to the Legislative Council which threatened to frustrate his legislative programme. He was, however, able to fulfil his electoral promise to end McIlwraith's scheme of introducing labourers from India, and to prevent any revival of transcontinental railway schemes. He did not abolish the use of Pacific island labourers, but insisted on careful surveillance, immediately ending the supply of arms and ammunition to those returning to their islands. In March 1884 he legislated to restrict their labour to field-work on sugar plantations, and to introduce more stringent controls on recruiting, which he forbade from the New Guinea area. His policies disclosed abuses, especially on some recruiting voyages and led to his criticism of planter attitudes as displayed in the Mackay riot of Christmas 1883.

The trial of members of the Hopeful crew in December 1884 was followed by an emotional public debate on the two death sentences, and eventually all the Executive Council except Griffith and Mein voted for commutations. The case almost converted Griffith to abolition of recruiting but before taking this drastic step, feared by the sugar industry, he appointed a royal commission on recruits from New Guinea and other islands. Its findings condemned the recruiting methods of most captains, and recommended the return of all these islanders. This was carried out despite objections from employers, against whom Griffith's instructions were definite: 'Take no notice of protests. Remove the men and use force if necessary to overcome resistance'. In November 1885 Griffith decided to end the traffic: his bill providing that no more islanders were to be introduced after 31 December 1890 was accepted by both Houses. He planned central governmental mills supplied by small blocks, so limiting the dominance of large plantations and reducing the need for cheap labour.

Griffith's opposition to the growing movements to divide Queensland was related to his fears that any new colonies would be dominated by sugar planters. He attacked campaigners, arguing that petitions were unrepresentative of the majority. Political leaders, particularly J. M. Macrossan, bitterly denied his criticisms, and Griffith eventually accepted some validity to arguments based on distance. In 1887 he introduced a financial districts bill, seeking some devolution of power and a more equitable distribution of funds, but it, like other separation proposals, was defeated in parliament.

The changing emphasis of Griffith's government, giving more opportunity than McIlwraith's to agriculturalists rather than sugar-planters and pastoralists, was emphasized in C. B. Dutton's 1884 Crown Lands Act. Its basis was leasehold rather than freehold, and its provisions were to be administered by a land board. Subsequent amending Acts of 1885 and 1886 followed the same principle, but these measures did not end the dominance of pastoralists. Griffith's government continued major expenditure on public works but conflicting priorities led to stress in his ministry, as in 1885 when W. Miles, secretary for public works, threatened to resign. Griffith flatly refused to compensate the Australian Transcontinental Railway Syndicate, suspecting close liaison between it and the bank McIlwraith supported, the Queensland National. Its manager E. R. Drury's fear that Griffith in power would 'clip our wings' was justified, in so far as in February 1886 Griffith founded the Royal Bank of Queensland—its second manager was his brother and its auditor his brother-in-law.

Nevertheless the Liberals also came to rely on the Queensland National Bank. One loan was raised without its assistance, but it was partly involved in a proposal of December 1884 to obtain £10 million, and was by 1886 at the centre of financial negotiations. In 1887 when Griffith proposed a land tax his treasurer (Sir) James Dickson resigned, as did the postmaster-general, Macdonald-Paterson. Griffith became treasurer and dealt directly with Drury in attempting to raise further loans in 1888. Although Griffith was to blame 'disloyal financial organizations' alliance with opposition' for his 1888 election defeat, when he came second to McIlwraith in a bitter fight in North Brisbane, no clear evidence exists against Drury or his bank.

Griffith continued previous government encouragement of immigration from Britain and Europe, strictly controlling abuses on migrant ships or at depots. He saw agricultural workers from Europe as eventually replacing Pacific islanders. He maintained restrictive policies on Chinese, increasing the poll tax and limiting the number allowed to be carried on migrant ships. His objections to Chinese stressed differences between their civilization and that of Queensland: 'they cannot be admitted to an equal share in the political and social institutions of the colony'. He believed the 1887 Chinese commissioners appreciated these arguments. Griffith increased Aboriginal evidential rights, and passed a Native Labourers' Protection Act dealing with fisheries in 1884. He also took action on difficulties with the native police. Although Aboriginal problems were not central to his administration, he was more humanitarian than most Queenslanders; indeed a press report wrote of 'Mr Griffith and the black sympathisers'.

His humanitarian concern spread to white victims, including orphans, lepers, the insane and the poor. Public charitable institutions were controlled more effectively after his 1885 Charitable Institutions Management Act. His 1884 Health Act recognized government responsibility, forming a central board which uncovered many serious defects. During a debate urging repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act (1868) Griffith revealed how he reconciled state intervention with his liberalism. The Act was 'an infringement of … liberty … and so is every law relating to the public health, but we have for many years adopted the principle that in [such] matters … the comfort of the individual must yield to the good of the public'. He saw no contradiction in his involvement in many individual cases seeking justice even if this meant overruling previous decisions, whether of judges, ministers or civil servants. His continuing interest in legal reform was apparent when in 1886, influenced by Howard Vincent, he introduced probation for first offenders.

As unemployment increased after 1886 Griffith showed sympathy with the emerging labour movement. He introduced a statute to legalize trade unions, and an Employers' Liability Act (1886), and in his 1888 election manifesto declared that 'the great problem of this age is not how to accumulate wealth but how to secure its more equitable distribution'.

After his government's defeat in 1888 Griffith strengthened his relationship with the emerging Labor Party. At William Lane's invitation he published in the Boomerang of 17 December 1888 an article 'Wealth and want' deploring the domination of the weak by the strong, and stressing as a function of government the protection of the weak. Lane urged Griffith to lead Australian radicals: 'What Pericles was to Athens and Greece such a leader could be to Australia and Queensland'. As a private member Griffith introduced an eight-hours bill in 1889, and a year later two bills comprising an elementary property law seeking to ensure a 'proper distribution of the products of labour'.

After only twenty-two months in Opposition, Griffith became premier again in August 1890 in an unlikely alliance with McIlwraith, the so-called 'Griffilwraith'. Hints of this unlikely alliance had begun in March 1889, related to the splits in McIlwraith's party and the worsening economic situation and in retrospect the sincerity of Griffith's support for Labor must be queried. Certainly he was to compromise during the thirty-two months of the 'Griffilwraith', and during the bitter strikes of 1891 he lost any remaining support from the labour movement. Within the government he was a moderating influence, trying to keep it neutral in upholding the rule of law, and he criticized both labour and employer extremists; yet his government was to use the military and to arrest, try and imprison some of the strikers.

Eventually Griffith declared that he had no sympathy with 'men who endeavour to bring about reforms … by crime and violence'. Lane now wrote of him as a 'fraud' whose previous radical writings were merely 'wordy tommyrot'. During the strikes Griffith gave evidence to a New South Wales royal commission urging reform by legislation such as that proposed by his elementary property bills. He continued to hold that employers and employees should not regard each other as hostile enemies; he published similar sentiments in 1919. In 1891-93 his government ran a labour bureau to aid the unemployed, but it was also used to spy on labour agitators.

An even greater apparent change was his manifesto of 13 February 1892, prolonging the use of Pacific island labourers for another decade. He argued that this was temporary, justified by the industry's worsening economic crisis, exacerbated by competition from European subsidized beet sugar. Before so deciding he had personally visited most of the sugar areas and had sought information on alternative sources of labour. Delighted planters gave him champagne receptions, replacing the 'Damn Sam Griffith' toasts of the 1880s. Labor's hostility was typified by hooting at Bundaberg as he proceeded to his champagne. Abolitionists were shocked, however much Griffith tried to justify his decision, and he was denounced by previous supporters such as Brookes and Rev. J. G. Paton. Griffith introduced even more stringent methods of controlling the revived island labour traffic and promised 'constant watchfulness' against any abuses.

Another apparent change of policy was his 1890 proposal to divide Queensland into three provinces, although arguably this was only an extension of his 1887 financial districts bill. Provocatively, in the parliamentary debate he challenged members to show any inconsistency between any two speeches he had made on any subject. Griffith used the planned division of powers as a model when discussing Australian Federation. He was surprised when his provincial scheme was defeated in 1891, though well aware of the rivalries between the northern and central groups. In September 1892 Griffith changed policy in another area, allowing the private building of railways on the land-grant principle. He justified this change by the degenerating financial situation as marked by crises, such as the involvement of the Queensland National Bank in an action taken against Samuel Grimley and others by the Queensland Investment & Land Mortgage Co. Ltd in 1891-92.

Griffith was sometimes consistent: anti-Chinese regulations were strictly enforced; some care was expressed for the Aboriginals, as in the strong response to criticisms by the Presbyterian Church alleging neglect, though Griffith shared prevailing views that they were a dying race.

Throughout his political career Griffith was interested in external affairs. Immediately after forming his 1883 ministry he had attended the Intercolonial Convention, Sydney, where he persuaded his fellow members to support the annexation of New Guinea rather than the New Hebrides. He was prominent in the formation of the Federal Council of Australasia, drafting the bill for its constitution. Although this proved a weak body, and a false start towards Federation, its regular meetings gave delegates such as Griffith, who was thrice president, an opportunity to discuss mutual legal and security problems. He remained involved in intercolonial negotiations particularly concerning New Guinea, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides. As a Queenslander and Imperialist he was interested in moves to strengthen Australian defences. Although he did not, unlike Mein, join the volunteer forces he regularly attended their camps. As premier he introduced the 1884 Defence Act which strengthened the army and created a navy. In the Sudan crisis of February 1885 he made an imperialistic speech at Warwick and offered Britain a Queensland contingent. In the 1885 Russian scare, when Queensland was close to a war footing, he tried to spread scarce resources of men and materials along the coast.

On the arrival of Queensland's two naval ships Paluma and Gayundah Griffith insisted on colonial control in line with his plans, first formulated in June 1885, for an Australasian auxiliary squadron of six cruisers supplemented by torpedo boats, partly manned by Australian cadets and flying the white ensign with a distinguishing mark. He developed a close relationship with Admiral Tryon, the British commander of the Australian squadron, culminating in a somewhat abortive conference in Sydney in April 1886. In debating the bizarre incident when Captain Wright the British senior naval officer, turned the guns of the Gayundah on the Queensland parliament, Griffith reiterated his view that the mere flying of the white ensign did not give Wright immunity.

At the 1887 Colonial Conference in London, where agreement was reached on strengthening the Australian naval squadron, Griffith was regarded as the senior Australian representative. He drafted the legislation for the new colony of British New Guinea and was a key figure in the choice of its first administrator, (Sir) William MacGregor. After the conference he succeeded in persuading the Queensland parliament to support New Guinea with financial and administrative aid, although he was less successful in convincing Governor Musgrave, who was sure the system of divided control could not work. Nor did Griffith succeed in having the naval agreement accepted by the Queensland parliament. For this defeat he blamed an Australian sentiment 'of want of regard for the Empire and a disposition to look for causes of difference with the Mother Country with the ultimate object of separating altogether'.

Griffith was not opposed to Australian nationalism but hoped it would occur within the Imperial framework, seeing no incompatibility in being loyal to Queensland, Australia and Britain (or Wales). After his 1888 electoral defeat he contemplated moving to Britain, seeking a seat in the House of Commons for a constituency in North Wales, with the hope of influencing Imperial policy.

His vague plans were postponed by the 1890s moves for Federation. His speech at the 1890 Melbourne conference accurately represented him as a cautious lawyer and practical politician. He was particularly influential in the 1891 Sydney convention where he admitted he dominated the discussions: 'my work … was very hard, for it fell to my lot to draw the Constitution, after presiding for several days on a Committee, and endeavouring to ascertain the general consensus of opinion'. Deakin agreed: 'as [a] whole and in every clause the measure bore the stamp of Sir Samuel Griffith's patient and untiring handwork, his terse, clear style and force of expression … few even in the mother country or the United States … could have accomplished … such a piece of draftsmanship with the same finish in the same time'. Griffith defended this draft constitution in his July 1891 presidential address to the Queensland branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia on the grounds of patriotism: 'In spirit I am as much an Australian as any man'.

By the time constitutional discussion was resumed in 1897 Griffith was out of politics, but he continued to advocate Federation. In 1896-1900 he wrote extensively on the subject and corresponded with many delegates to the 1897-98 convention, sending detailed comments to (Sir) Robert Garran, secretary of the drafting committee. 'It is fitting' writes Professor La Nauze 'that the final form of the Constitution contains not only much of Griffith's text of 1891, but his lofty corrections of the words of the later and lesser draftsmen of 1897'. Griffith, in Melbourne during the premiers' conference of January 1899, saw all the representatives and travelled back to Sydney with (Sir) George Reid, perhaps assisting in drafting the decisions. His address in May to the Queensland Federation League had the avowed object of influencing Queenslanders to vote for Federation. (Sir) John Quick was sure this intervention had been crucial, telegraphing Griffith: 'I congratulate you on Federal Voting in Queensland. Thus crowning your long sustained and patriotic labours in the cause of Australian unity'.

Griffith was consulted by (Sir) John Forrest about Western Australia joining as an original State, a question eventually left to the London constitutional deliberations in 1900 when Griffith, as acting governor, suggested amendments. Although he refused a request from the British government to try to persuade the delegates to accept changes, his support for wider rights of appeal to the Privy Council placed him in a 'distinctly equivocal' position. His redrafting of the appeals clause caused bitter clashes with Deakin, (Sir) Edmund Barton, C. C. Kingston and (Sir) Josiah Symon.

Frustrated, disappointed and confused during his second premiership Griffith had welcomed his translation to the judiciary. He served as Queensland's chief justice from 13 March 1893 to 6 October 1903, a most peaceful decade, during which he was appointed G.C.M.G. in 1895 and to the Privy Council in 1901. He restored the prestige of the Supreme Court by his many judgments, over 400 being reported, of which the majority involved the interpretation of statutes closely followed by practice decisions. He presided over the Kenniff murder trial of 1902, the winding-up of companies such as the Darling Downs brewery and the 1900 James Tyson case. Generally he worked well with his fellow judges, despite disagreements with G. R. Harding, who had hoped to be appointed chief justice, and in the Kenniff case, with Patrick Real.

Griffith made a lasting professional contribution by codifying the Queensland criminal law, a massive task which occupied much of his spare time in 1896-99, Deakin wondering how he had found 'leisure for such a feat while discharging the onerous duties of your office'; he also revised the Supreme Court rules and those for matrimonial and probate cases.

A tall, spare figure, of fair complexion, his full beard late in becoming grey, Griffith served several times as deputy and lieutenant-governor. He was head of the trustees of both Brisbane grammar schools, where his children were educated, a trustee of the Queensland Art Gallery, and was involved with the university extension movement and with various intellectual and financial societies. He used his 'leisure' to translate parts of Dante which he published in 1898, 1907, 1912 and 1914. These included the three parts of the Divine Comedy and a series of love poems, the Vita Nuova. Although critics justifiably complained that his English versions were too literal, reflecting his own object of presenting 'a true photograph of the original', Griffith's interest also reflected his continued romanticism. His personal life was mostly stable; he lived in a luxurious home, Merthyr, on the Brisbane River. His tranquillity was shattered in December 1901 by the death after a long illness of his beloved eldest son, Llewellyn. His wife took three of their children to Tasmania for three months during which Griffith's correspondence reveals how little satisfaction he obtained from his routine work; his Dante translation was one of his only consolations.

In 1903 after considerable political debate the Judiciary Act (drafted by Griffith) was passed, so inaugurating the High Court of Australia, and he was chosen as first chief justice. He had contemplated returning to politics in 1901, being approached by both Barton and Sir William Lyne, but his hints at having a guarantee for the Federal chief justiceship weakened his cause. His closest rivals were Barton and Symon. The latter's disappointment was manifest in his clashes as attorney-general with the High Court in 1904. Griffith's original colleagues were Barton, who asked Deakin 'will it be easy to make Griffith laugh', and R. E. O'Connor; the triumvirate agreed constitutionally, being determined to perpetuate Federalism by limiting the effect of central over State powers. This harmony was disturbed by the 1906 appointments of (Sir) Isaac Isaacs and H. B. Higgins who wanted the Federal government to exercise fuller powers. O'Connor died in 1912; and in 1913 (Sir) Frank Gavan Duffy, (Sir) Charles Powers and (Sir) George Rich were appointed. Legal and personal clashes between Griffith and his colleagues increased with time, although Duffy, seeing the judges as 'a set of feudal barons', praised Griffith's role: 'among the many characteristics of greatness which you possess is the capability of forgetting little irritations'. The Griffith line of constitutional interpretation mainly prevailed until his retirement; the Engineers' Case, a triumph of the Isaacs-Higgins line, was decided on 31 August 1920, just after Griffith's death.

During his sixteen years (1903-19) on the bench Griffith sat on some 950 reported cases, the highest annual number being 90 in 1906. In 1913 he visited England and sat on the Privy Council. He was not over-impressed by the law lords, and renewed his arguments for the appointment of more judges from the Dominions to overcome 'the old insular doctrine of the essential difference in quality between English and Colonial persons'.

Griffith had aged markedly and he was plagued with ill health. Prime Minister Hughes urged him to go slower: 'be a little kind to your poor flesh'. On 16 March 1917 he suffered a stroke while on the bench and was temporarily retired till February next year. His desire to pay off his home forced him, aged 72, to return, but he heard few cases, only 19 in 1918 and 4 in 1919. Cases interpreting sections of the Constitution were fewer than 8 per cent of those he heard. The majority were appeals on matters familiar from his experience on the Queensland Supreme Court: interpretations of other statutes (Federal and State) dominated with 13 per cent, closely followed by contracts, practice and procedure, property and probate. Griffith's judgments in all legal fields reveal the breadth of his contribution, and why Barton saw him as 'the greatest lawyer in the Commonwealth'.

Successive governors-general had sought his advice even beyond the limits of constitutional propriety. When Prime Minister Fisher sought a dissolution in May 1909 Griffith 'wrote notes' for Dudley on which basis the request was refused. The newly appointed Munro Ferguson, facing a request for a double dissolution from Cook in June 1914, also relied heavily on Griffith whom he described as 'by far the most outstanding personage that I have met' in Australia. When Fisher planned to resign in 1915 Griffith again advised Munro Ferguson that he could appoint the new ministry on the advice of another member of parliament. Griffith firmly considered that a governor-general had a 'duty to dismiss his ministers' if he believed their actions were 'detrimental to the welfare of the Empire or State'. He was also consulted by prime ministers. He offered to act for Hughes as conciliator in the coal strike of 1916; was appointed by Hughes, after the second conscription referendum, as royal commissioner to inquire as to reinforcing the Australian Imperial Force; and was consulted in proceedings against Sinn Feiners in June 1918.

From 1903 Griffith had lived in the heart of Sydney. He continued and varied his wide outside interests. He was an active member of the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1904-17; was appointed a vice-president of the Royal Colonial Institute in 1909 and an honorary fellow of the British Academy in 1916; and was awarded honorary doctorates of law by the University of Queensland in 1912 and the University of Wales in 1913.

He established the practice of extensive circuits of the High Court, with regular sittings in every capital city. But he remained a Queenslander. He retired to Brisbane where he died at Merthyr on 9 August 1920. Survived by his wife, four daughters and a son, he was buried in Toowong cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £27,335. Fittingly, Griffith's portrait now hangs in the High Court in Canberra where a suburb also bears his name. His intellectual brilliance and achievements especially in law are unchallengable, and despite the equivocacy of parts of his political career he made vital contributions to Queensland and Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • Historical Studies, Oct 1974, no 63
  • Samuel Griffith papers (State Library of Queensland and State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. B. Joyce, 'Griffith, Sir Samuel Walker (1845–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Samuel Walker Griffith (1845-1920), by Crown Studios, 1903-19

Samuel Walker Griffith (1845-1920), by Crown Studios, 1903-19

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23398523

Life Summary [details]


21 June, 1845
Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, Wales


9 August, 1920 (aged 75)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.

Key Events
Key Organisations