Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Fletcher Hargrave (1815–1885)

by J. M. Bennett

This article was published:

John Fletcher Hargrave (1815-1885), judge, was born on 28 December 1815 at Greenwich, England, son of Joshua Hargrave, hardware merchant, and his wife Sarah, née Lee. Privately schooled, he went in 1830 to King's College, London, where he won a certificate of honour for rhetoric, and to Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1837; M.A., 1840). He had enrolled at Lincoln's Inn in 1836, was called to the Bar in 1841 and practised in chancery for ten years. In 1841 he published an edition of part of Blackstone's Commentaries and in 1842 Treatise on the Thelluson Act; with Practical Observations upon Trusts for Accumulation. On 20 September 1843 he married his cousin, Ann Hargrave of Leeds. In 1849, despite strong testimonials, he failed to gain office as a police magistrate. Unremitting study 'unhinged his mind' and in 1851 with a legacy from his father he retired from the Bar. He dabbled in 'railway and other public matters' until his wife committed him to the new asylum at Colney Hatch, Middlesex. Gradually recovering, he was advised to leave England and in February 1857 arrived at Sydney with his family. He was admitted to the local Bar and became a foundation judge of the District Court. He never forgave his wife and could not endure her presence so she returned to England. According to Sir Alfred Stephen, Hargrave's judgeship was 'disastrous for women suitors' because he habitually decided against them, but otherwise he mastered his disability.

Hargrave resigned from the bench in February 1859 to become Charles Cowper's solicitor-general and from March to October represented in turn East Camden and Illawarra in the Legislative Assembly. From November until June 1865 he was a member of the Legislative Council. He was solicitor-general under William Forster and attorney-general and government representative in the council under John Robertson and twice again under Cowper. Using politics for his own advancement Hargrave secured silk in 1863, though he had practised little in the colony, and a place on the Supreme Court bench on 22 June 1865. His swearing-in was boycotted by the Bar. As primary judge in equity he was reliable but temperamental and talkative, making a show of his learning. His appointment as first divorce judge in 1873 was strikingly inappropriate. As a member of the Full Court he so aggravated Chief Justice Stephen as to provoke his resignation. Hargrave was also immune to criticism. Accused in 1869 of exceeding permitted expenditure when on circuit, he retorted that the dignity of his position demanded more than the prescribed allowance. He admitted that he did not sit in court before 11.00 a.m. and ignored complaints that he rarely sat after 1.00 p.m. His health was affected by constant quarrelling with the new chief justice, Sir James Martin, and his mind, seemingly in decline before his pensioned retirement in 1881, was said to be 'entirely gone' a year later.

Hargrave's greatest contribution was in promoting legal education. He became reader in general jurisprudence at the University of Sydney where Professor John Woolley heard with 'the most intense gratification' his first lecture on 3 August 1858, though others found his methods overpoweringly didactic and homiletic. His course of twenty lectures was published in 1878. He also delivered many occasional addresses on law outside the university. In 1864 he was licensed by the university to conduct a boarding house for law students in his leased residence at Upper William Street, Rushcutters Bay. Before insanity overwhelmed him, Hargrave saw his colonial career as 'one long journey of successful toil and victorious conflict'. He died on 23 February 1885 from an 'effusion on the brain' and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife, a daughter and three sons, of whom the second, Lawrence, became a noted aeronautical experimenter.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1861, 1, 623, 1870-71, 1, 793, 1876-77, 3, 719, 1881, 1, 108, 246, 2, 699
  • H. W. H. Huntington, Australian Judges (State Library of New South Wales)
  • A. Stephen, A Trio of Judges, uncatalogued MS 211 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • John Fletcher Hargrave papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Lawrence Hargrave papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Hargrave, John Fletcher (1815–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 June 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]


28 December, 1815
London, Middlesex, England


23 February, 1885 (aged 69)
New South Wales, Australia

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