Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Frederick Richard Jordan (1881–1949)

by J. M. Bennett

This article was published:

Sir Frederick Richard Jordan (1881-1949), chief justice, was born on 13 October 1881 in London, son of Frederick Jordan of Marsworth, Buckinghamshire, hay and straw merchant, and his wife Sarah, née Nobel. His parents migrated to Sydney when he was 5 and set up a modest home at Balmain. Educated at Balmain Superior Public School and Sydney Boys' High School, he showed intellectual promise, but university education was then financially out of reach.

Employed as a clerk at the Master in Lunacy's office in 1898-1900, Jordan was a clerk, shorthand writer and typist in the Public Library of New South Wales from 1900 and joined the State's Intelligence Department in January 1906. He saved enough to begin evening studies in arts at the University of Sydney, winning scholarships that carried him on to law (B.A., 1904; LL.B., 1907). His second-class honours in law were surprisingly humble for one of his ability. But at the time, his great love was for classical and modern languages. And he was inclined to cynicism about education — 'Schools and universities', he later said, 'are valuable institutions … It is good to have passed through them, provided one has emerged on the other side'.

On 19 August 1907 Jordan was admitted to the New South Wales Bar and practised from Selborne Chambers. He was a versatile counsel but became best known for success in equity matters. The range of his interests was better shown in his accomplishments as a part-time lecturer in the university's law school for a decade from 1911. He was the Challis lecturer in equity, probate, bankruptcy and company law. He also lectured in Admiralty law. Some of his lecture notes were published and used as practice books.

At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church Jordan married Bertha Maud Clay on 9 January 1928; the marriage was childless. The same year he took silk. A man of bookish tastes, he was respected rather than liked by most of his colleagues who, while recognizing his brilliance as a lawyer, found him cold as a person. He, in turn, despised the narrowness of many of his fellows, writing that 'those who are constrained to think for the purposes of their professions refrain in general from thinking about anything else'. He delighted to relax in his vast library, indulging his voracious appetite for Romance languages, and committing to memory the entire contents of many literary works. Physical recreation did not extend beyond swimming and, for a time, fencing. But there was a less withdrawn side to his character. He was a connoisseur of food and wine and a devotee of the arts, particularly literature and the live theatre. With those who shared his interests he 'expanded genially', as Sir Lionel Lindsay put it, becoming the antithesis of his austere and aloof legal alter ego. Lindsay further assessed him as a 'humanist and good European'. Jordan was very critical of things that obtruded upon the purity of the theatre. 'Cinematography', he wrote, 'is used to provide entertainment of the most debasingly vulgar type, with deplorable results to standards of public taste'. The radio was worse. He thought it 'an organization some branches of which succeed each week in achieving the impossible, that of broadcasting a programme worse even than that of the previous week'.

On 1 February 1934 he gave up his leadership of the equity Bar to become chief justice in succession to Sir Philip Street. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1936. As chief justice Jordan stood in a class of high judicial excellence. His pronouncements on all aspects of the law were succinct, commanding and technically refined. A fitting compliment was paid to him by Sir Owen Dixon, on retiring as chief justice of the High Court of Australia, when he described it as a 'tragedy in the life of the High Court' that Commonwealth governments had not elevated Jordan to that bench. 'At all events', said Dixon, 'he was not appointed, and by one of those curious twists which seem to touch the finest natures, this highly scholarly man and very great lawyer eventually took some queer views about federalism'. The last was a tilt at Jordan's strenuous support for the power and rights of the States as against the Commonwealth, and his harsh judicial treatment of direct and delegated Commonwealth legislation, not least the National Security Regulations during World War II.

Jordan was an efficient administrator of his court especially when wartime stringency made abnormal demands and, after the war, when the court outstripped its accommodation and staff resources. On the bench he was a daunting figure. 'He adopted a manner in his robes that was not merely cold, but chilling. He had a high-pitched voice of frosty intonation, and his thin-rimmed spectacles added to the severity of his demeanour'. He became lieutenant-governor in 1938 and administered the government for nearly a year from June 1945. His public aspect was always bleak and he seemed to have no enthusiasm for any service outside the strict call of duty.

In August 1949 he underwent surgery from which his recovery was only briefly successful. Survived by his wife, he died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease on 4 November at his home at Vaucluse; he was accorded a state funeral, and was cremated. His remarkable collection of essays and an anthology of parallel passages in the writings of diverse authors were published posthumously in 1950 in a limited edition entitled Appreciations, illustrated by Lindsay.

Select Bibliography

  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • O. Dixon, Jesting Pilate, compiler Judge Woinarski (Syd, 1965)
  • J. M. Bennett, A History of the Supreme Court of New South Wales (Syd, 1974), and Portraits of the Chief Justices of New South Wales, 1824-1977 (Syd, 1977)
  • D. Marr, Barwick (Syd, 1980)
  • Australian Law Journal, 23 (1949), p 395
  • New South Wales State Reports, 49 (1949).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Jordan, Sir Frederick Richard (1881–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 April 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]


13 October, 1881
London, Middlesex, England


4 November, 1949 (aged 68)
Vaucluse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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