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Sir William Hill Irvine (1858–1943)

by J. M. Bennett and Ann G. Smith

This article was published:

William Irvine, by Broothorn Studios, n.d.

William Irvine, by Broothorn Studios, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 23438713

Sir William Hill Irvine (1858-1943), premier and chief justice, was born on 6 July 1858 at Dromalane, Newry, Down, Ireland, sixth of seven children of Hill Irvine, farmer and linen manufacturer, and his wife Margaret, née Mitchel. William, a nephew of John Mitchel the Irish patriot, was educated at the Royal School, Armagh, and at Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1879), sharing college rooms with a cousin and leading 'a cheerful and rather riotous student life'. He won prizes in modern history and Italian and did well in mathematics. On graduation, achieved despite financial difficulties when Hill Irvine, overwhelmed by the failure of his linen mill, suffered a heart attack and died, William entered the King's Inns. But when his mother determined upon a new start overseas, he abandoned legal studies and persuaded her to go to Australia. Some of the family sailed for Melbourne in 1879 and set up house at Richmond.

Irvine undertook further degree courses at the University of Melbourne (M.A., 1882; LL.B., 1884; LL.M., 1886). He meanwhile derived a little income as a private tutor and, for a time, as a master at Geelong College — but he disliked teaching. After reading with (Sir) Henry Hodges he was admitted to the Victorian Bar on 8 July 1884. On 17 September 1891 at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Ballarat, he married Agnes Somerville, eldest daughter of T. D. Wanliss, member of the Legislative Council, and sister of D. S. Wanliss with whom Irvine shared a room in Selborne Chambers, Melbourne. There were three children of the marriage, but the first eight years were childless and spent with scrupulous regard for economy while Irvine struggled at the Bar. Yet they were able to entertain modestly, and found pleasure in music, gardening and the keeping of dogs. Irvine had, for a few years, a virtual obsession about goldmines and applied whatever cash he could spare in taking up mining leases. They came to nothing.

Irvine occupied idle moments in chambers writing a practice book on the powers of justices of the peace, published in 1888, and he worked up a reputation for his conduct of cases in the Gippsland County Courts. He also wrote with (Sir) Frank Gavan Duffy Law Relating to the Property of Women (1886). He sometimes examined for the law school at the university. But his work and income were erratic. 'Solicitors', he wrote, 'are very shy just at present, and I occasionally have a fit of a distinctly azure hue'. When a brief came he surmounted a disposition to indolence and applied himself to the task without reserve, severely draining mental and physical energy and requiring compensation in vigorous outlets like sculling, fitness exercises and bushwalking. He suffered from acute anxiety, sometimes of almost neurotic degree, possibly derived from the troubled years after his father's death.

In 1894 when his practice was solid but unspectacular, he stood for the rural Legislative Assembly seat of Lowan, representing the Free-trade Democratic Association; he advocated a land tax and claimed independence from both the Patterson and Turner parties. Although virtually unknown in the electorate and opposed by the ministerialist Richard Baker, who also supported tariff reform, Irvine achieved a surprise victory which, ironically, may have been helped by the anti-Patterson public service vote which he personally distrusted.

Irvine found politics congenial. Through the offices of William Shiels he served in the 1899-1900 McLean ministry as attorney-general. He showed himself a man of absolute probity, clear vision and firm resolution and when McLean moved into Federal politics in 1901 Irvine, having lost his bid for the Federal seat of Wimmera, became leader of the Opposition. A Peacock-Irvine coalition was mooted, but in June 1902 Irvine carried a vote of no confidence in the Peacock ministry. Commissioned to form a government, he was remarked for his temerity in choosing a cabinet without consulting David Syme. The defeat of the members' reimbursement and public officers' salaries retrenchment bill secured him a double dissolution in September and he went to the polls on 1 October. Prudently he had allied himself with the Kyabram movement and its Citizens' Reform League which fought drought and economic recession with demands for reduced government spending. On a platform of parliamentary reform and retrenchment within the public service as the prerequisites for State economic development he won a resounding victory.

Irvine's ministry, unchanged after the election, was essentially a country one. He had appointed Shiels treasurer and kept the post of attorney-general for himself; from February 1903 he was also solicitor-general, and treasurer from July. Irvine carried retrenchment and initiated major irrigation programmes. His reform proposals, providing for reduction of the legislature by approximately one-third and reducing the powers and widening the franchise of the Legislative Council, were trimmed. But the premier demonstrated his implacable will by making acceptance of another provision, separate parliamentary representation for railway workers and public servants, a condition of his continuation in office.

In May 1903 the railway engine drivers struck in a protest against working conditions and the humiliations of the retrenchment policy. Irvine's reaction to a crisis which he had probably not deliberately provoked but which he had done nothing to avoid was swift and crushing. A strike suppression bill was introduced, accrued financial and other benefits of strikers were declared forfeit, the ringleaders were dismissed and strike-breakers engaged. The strike was over within a week. Middle-class interests applauded Irvine's stand, but labour organizations were bitter in condemnation. 'Your turn will come, my smooth beauty', yelled Dr Maloney across the chamber: politically, Irvine had become a 'marked man'.

The strain of Irvine's dual position as premier and treasurer began to show by November when he announced his early intention of retiring as head of government; already in September he had relinquished the posts of attorney-general and solicitor-general. His reduced income and sustained criticism from the Age over his October budget were rumoured as explanations, but deteriorating health was probably the most compelling factor. Under pressure from colleagues and with promises of relief from routine administration he rescinded his decision; but, suddenly, in February 1904, under 'imperative orders' from physicians, he resigned as premier.

In the premiership years his reputation as 'Iceberg' Irvine evolved. For one who wished so much to succeed in politics he was not helped by his appearance of cold aloofness and his reserve when among strangers. He cultivated a 'thoughtful demeanour and a monosyllabic, incisive method of speech' that was primly logical. Even his choice of thin-rimmed spectacles compounded an impression of austerity and detachment. He did nothing to court popularity but convinced himself that 'the people trust me'.

Following his resignation a testimonial fund of £2000 was raised by supporters and presented to his wife. The Irvines travelled overseas for seven months, and he was awarded an honorary LL.D. at Trinity College, Dublin. In a speech to citizens of his birthplace he ostentatiously avoided reference to Home Rule. 'He would always be proud to be a Newry man', he said, but 'his fortunes and his work were cast in Australia, and to a large extent he belonged to Australia'. On his return to Melbourne he gave increasing time to his family and his home Killeavey at Eltham. In 1906 he revealed his priorities by declining a seat on the Supreme Court bench but taking silk on 23 October and moving on to Federal politics as member for Flinders from December. He spoke out for strengthened Commonwealth powers, particularly in the fields of taxation, immigration and defence. At the same time his Bar career flourished and he was senior counsel in many major cases before the High Court of Australia and the Victorian Supreme Court.

In the national parliament his continuing sense of independence won him some admirers but few friends. He began nominally as a member of the 'Corner-group' and clashed often with Alfred Deakin and W. M. Hughes who called Irvine a 'mere phrasemaker' and taunted that 'Democracy asks him for reform, and he gives it a speech'. He was left out of the Fusion ministry in 1909: although (Sir) Joseph Cook desired his inclusion he was anathema to Sir John Forrest; moreover Hume Cook reminded Deakin of the railway strike and advised, 'This man MUST BE EXCLUDED at all costs'. Irvine contested the leadership of the party on Deakin's resignation in 1913, but had to withdraw after the first ballot, thus losing hopes he had begun to cherish of becoming prime minister.

From June 1913 to September 1914 he was attorney-general in the Cook ministry. But as the government was enfeebled in its legislative programme by Senate obstruction his term in office was frustrating. He survived a censure motion in September 1913 by only one vote, after allegations that he had allowed himself to be placed in a position of conflict by accepting while a minister of the Crown a general retainer from the Marconi Co., then engaged in litigation against the Commonwealth. He was knighted in 1913 and raised to K.C.M.G. the following year.

When the Cook ministry fell in September 1914 Irvine's political career was all but over. Although he was described by Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson three years later as the most statesmanlike man in parliament ('there is no public man who so often hits the right nail on the head'), he refused to join any ministry which was unprepared to legislate for conscription, an issue he pursued throughout the war years with typical single-mindedness. In July 1915 Irvine had called for compulsory registration of all men and next year he took a leading part in the referendum campaign. After the referendum was lost he helped to prepare the platform for a 'Win-the-War party' while hinting to Munro Ferguson of the efficacy of Imperial decree. Hughes seriously considered sending him as Australian representative to the Imperial Conference early in 1917. That year Irvine was prominent among his Nationalist colleagues in his refusal to accept Hughes's pledge not to introduce conscription without a special warrant from the people, and in October and November led the second conscription movement, decrying the need for referenda shackled to the 'sentiment' of women. He was still pushing for a conscription bill in March 1918 when on the death of Sir John Madden he accepted the chief justiceship of Victoria.

Irvine was sworn in on 9 April, some commentators likening his appointment to a consolation prize for his thwarted political aspirations. Preoccupation with politics had reduced his legal powers and, though he had many good judicial qualities, he was not a jurist and his judgments have little enduring legal merit. While clear and expeditious in his decisions, he was a slavish user of precedent and never commented on the state of the law. However in 1923 he set an important administrative precedent when he refused to nominate a Supreme Court judge to conduct a royal commission on a matter which had political implications.

Sir Robert Menzies considered him a 'first-class trial judge, dignified, upright, cold in manner … but perceptive, and devoted to justice'. Sir Arthur Dean recalled that Irvine 'presided over his court with great dignity and decorum, but with some degree of detachment from the case before him, particularly in the dangerous hours after lunch. He was not a profound lawyer, but usually an industrious one … He had a quiet and restrained sense of humour, a firm sense of justice, a high standard of duty and propriety, and great personal charm'. He did not transfer his 'Iceberg' reputation to his relations with the legal profession. But he confided that he felt lonely and isolated on the bench as he loved to be in affairs. He allowed himself to remain too long in office and had in his late seventies to be prompted by a colleague to resign; his inattention in the afternoons and his increasing forgetfulness had become excessively embarrassing. His resignation took effect on 30 September 1935.

From 1919 he administered the State as lieutenant-governor several times and was acting governor for nearly three years from June 1931. He and his wife moved with the presence and punctiliousness appropriate to ceremonial office and the community warmed to their enjoyment of touring and meeting people. His resonant and rich speaking voice helped to melt some of the chill of his formal bearing. He was raised to G.C.M.G. in 1934. His membership of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria from 1909 and his position as patron from 1918 reflected his great enjoyment of motoring and of things mechanical; they, with mathematics, were his abiding forms of recreation.

His declining years were spent at Killeavey and then at Toorak where after suffering a progressively disabling disease that restricted movement and speech he died on 20 August 1943. Survived by his wife, two daughters and a son, he was accorded a state funeral. A portrait by Buckmaster won the Archibald prize in 1933.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • T. Waters, Much Besides Music (Melb, 1951)
  • F. M. Bradshaw, Selborne Chambers Memories (Melb, 1962)
  • R. G. Menzies, Afternoon Light (Melb, 1967)
  • L. C. Jauncey, The Story of Conscription in Australia (Lond, 1968)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • J. Iremonger et al (eds), Strikes (Syd, 1973)
  • J. Rickard, Class and Politics (Canb, 1976)
  • R. Campbell, A History of the Melbourne Law School, 1857 to 1973 (Melb, 1977)
  • Victorian Historical Journal, 48 (1977), and for bibliog
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential Notes (Australian National University Library)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Higgins papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Symon papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Murray papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • William Shiels papers (State Library of Victoria).

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. M. Bennett and Ann G. Smith, 'Irvine, Sir William Hill (1858–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 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

William Irvine, by Broothorn Studios, n.d.

William Irvine, by Broothorn Studios, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 23438713

Life Summary [details]


6 July, 1858
Newry, Down, Ireland


20 August, 1943 (aged 85)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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