Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir George Shaw Knowles (1882–1947)

by E. G. Whitlam

This article was published:

George Knowles, n.d.

George Knowles, n.d.

Sir George Shaw Knowles (1882-1947), solicitor-general, was born on 14 March 1882 at Toowong, Brisbane, son of George Hopley Knowles, postmaster from Staffordshire, England, and his Brisbane-born wife Mary Maria, née Cocks. From Warwick West Boys' School he won a scholarship to Toowoomba Grammar School where he was a day-boy from 1894. In 1898 he joined the Queensland Public Service as a clerk, working first in the Stock Department and then, after attending evening classes in accountancy at the Brisbane Technical College, in the Auditor-General's Department. In 1902 he transferred to the Federal Audit Office, Melbourne, moving to the Patents Office in 1904. An evening student at the University of Melbourne, he graduated LL.B. (1907), LL.M. (1908), B.A. (1910) and M.A. (1912). On 10 November 1908 at the Methodist Church, Albert Street, Brisbane, he married Eleanor Louisa, daughter of John Smith Bennett, registrar of the Queensland Land Court.

In 1907 Knowles joined the Attorney-General's Department. Induced by 'the personal spell and inspiration' of (Sir) Robert Garran to abandon plans of returning to Queensland, he became chief clerk (termed assistant secretary from 1921) and assistant parliamentary draftsman in 1913. A member of the Patent Attorney's Examination Board from 1915, he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of Australia next year and of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1927. Garran later recalled: 'Sir George was my right hand … I relied entirely on him for the organization and discipline of the Department'. Knowles succeeded Garran as solicitor-general, secretary of the department and parliamentary draftsman in 1932.

Described as 'quiet in manner and speech', Knowles was a relentless worker. He produced an annotated edition of the Commonwealth Acts 1901-11 in 1913 and of the Australian Constitution in 1937. He was adviser to the Australian delegates attending the League of Nations assemblies in 1920 and 1924 and the Imperial Conference in 1937, and secretary for Australia in the British Empire delegation to the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armaments in 1921-22. He was a member of the National Debt Commission from 1932. Appointed O.B.E. in 1920 and C.B.E. in 1928, he was knighted in 1939. World War II was a strenuous time for him, not least because H. V. Evatt, with whom he had little rapport, was a most active attorney-general. In 1946 he accepted appointment as first high commissioner to South Africa.

In Canberra Knowles was secretary of the University Association in 1929-32 and represented it on the Council of Canberra University College in 1930-46. The Canberra circuit of the Methodist Church was constituted at the Knowles's Mugga Way home in 1929 and the Church's annual garden parties were held there for the next eleven years. After Sir George's death, following surgery, at Pretoria on 22 November 1947 his body was brought back to Canberra for burial. He was survived by his wife, who died in 1981 aged 100, a daughter and two sons; his second son, a fighter-pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force, was killed in World War II. The George Knowles memorial prize for law was instituted at Canberra University College in 1950 and the Canberra law courts are situated in Knowles Place.

Select Bibliography

  • R. R. Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth (Syd, 1958)
  • A. Dalziel, Evatt the Enigma (Melb, 1967)
  • J. S. Udy, Living Stones (Syd, nd)
  • Australian Law Journal, 14 June 1946
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 22 Apr 1907
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Jan 1932, 2 Jan 1939, 10 Apr 1946, 24 Nov 1947, 2 May 1950
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 Feb 1939.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

E. G. Whitlam, 'Knowles, Sir George Shaw (1882–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 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

George Knowles, n.d.

George Knowles, n.d.

Life Summary [details]


14 March, 1882
Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


22 November, 1947 (aged 65)
Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa

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.