Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir John Musgrave Harvey (1865–1940)

by F. C. Hutley

This article was published:

Sir John Musgrave Harvey (1865-1940), judge, was born on 22 December 1865 at Hampstead, London, second son of Rev. Charles Musgrave Harvey, prebendary and vicar of Hillingdon, and his wife Frances Harriet, née Brewster. Educated at Marlborough College in 1878-84 on a Foundation scholarship, he was a prefect, member of the Rugby team and won a classical scholarship to Keble College, Oxford (B.A., 1888).

On the voyage from England in 1889 as a tutor to the children of J. W. Johnson, a Sydney solicitor, Harvey met (Sir) Langer Owen who interested him in the law. He was associate to Sir William Owen, chief judge in Equity, in 1890-93 and was admitted to the Bar on 21 March 1892. He soon made his mark and appeared in many important cases, principally in Equity; a number of pupils read with him. From 1893 to 1900 he was a reporter for the New South Wales Law Reports and the New South Wales Weekly Notes. At Woollahra he married Pauline Beatrice Ward, daughter of the registrar-general, on 4 January 1895. In 1898 Harvey published Service of Equitable Process and in 1902, with (Sir) George Rich and Arthur Newham, The Practice in Equity, an annotated edition of the Equity Act, 1901, and other relevant statutes.

Although still at the junior Bar, Harvey was appointed on 15 April 1913 to the Supreme Court bench, becoming probate judge in 1918 and chief judge in Equity on 10 February 1925. He disposed of an immense volume of work with courtesy and efficiency. A master of technicality, he used his skill to cut through it to reach the heart of the problem. He was an acknowledged master in probate, construction of wills, administration of estates and conveyancing of real property, but he delivered important judgments on the law of trusts, of charities, company law and crown lands, and as a member of the Full Court dealt with the law generally. He believed that the law 'should be kept as a well tempered and sharp instrument for doing the business of the community'. Forward-looking, he advocated the bringing of all land under the Torrens system.

From February to November 1918 Harvey served as royal commissioner inquiring into the terms and provisions of a bill to amend and consolidate the law of property and to simplify and improve the practice of conveyancing. Although many of his recommendations were copied from the United Kingdom and other States, the Conveyancing Act, 1919, contained many original ideas and remains the statutory framework for the law of real property in New South Wales. The complex measure was carried in parliament virtually without debate or amendment. The Act was Harvey's greatest achievement and an astonishing one as he continued to sit as a judge, carried out his duties as official visitor to the prisoner of war internment camps and, in August-September, inquired into the detention of the Irish Republican Brotherhood internees. As royal commissioner Harvey also inquired into the administration of the New South Wales Child Welfare Department in 1927, and next year into the contract entered into by the Municipal Council of Sydney for the steam-raising plant at Bunnerong power house; in his report he censured A. J. Arnot and revealed corruption among officers and members of the council. Harvey was remarkable for the promptitude with which he produced his reports as royal commissioner.

His leisure was devoted to religion and music, with a little tennis and trout fishing. A devoted Anglican, Harvey was for twenty-eight years a warden of St Mark's Church, Darling Point, a member of the choir and a parish nominator. He was foundation chairman of the council of Cranbrook School, Bellevue Hill, in 1918-38, and in 1931 initiated the opening of the law year by religious services. Chancellor of the diocese of Sydney in 1934-38, he supported the provision of a constitution for the Church of England in Australia and served on important diocesan committees. He was president of the Sydney Madrigal and Chamber Music Society in the 1920s.

Knighted in June 1933, Harvey was appointed as acting chief justice on 30 June, but he suffered failing eyesight and retired from the bench in December next year. He died at his Double Bay home with cerebral thrombosis on 13 June 1940 and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, son and three daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £22,225.

Nothing has happened to diminish the regard in which Harvey was held as a dispenser of justice to litigants or the respect for his work as a law reformer, but he has not worn as well as an articulator of legal doctrine. The sheer speed with which he worked was not conducive to the production of polished judgments.

His portrait by Harold Abbott is held by Cranbrook School.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W (Syd, 1907)
  • A. C. Child, Cranbrook
  • the First Fifty Years 1918-1968 (Syd, 1968)
  • Magistrate, 1 May 1913, p 146
  • Australian Law Journal, 7, 15 July 1933, p 133, 8, 15 Jan 1935, p 317
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1933, 14, 15, 18 June 1940.

Citation details

F. C. Hutley, 'Harvey, Sir John Musgrave (1865–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 July 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

Life Summary [details]


22 December, 1865
London, Middlesex, England


13 June, 1940 (aged 74)
Double Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, 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 Organisations