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 Adrian Knox (1863–1932)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Adrian Knox (1863-1932), by Murgatroyd, 1932

Adrian Knox (1863-1932), by Murgatroyd, 1932

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3473008

Sir Adrian Knox (1863-1932), barrister and chief justice, was born on 29 November 1863 in Sydney, fourth surviving son and youngest of eight children of Sir Edward Knox, founder of the Colonial Sugar Refining Co., and his Irish wife Martha, sister of William Rutledge. He attended Waverley House, Sydney, and H. E. Southey's school at Mittagong. In 1878 he went to England to continue his education at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge (LL.B., 1885). He was admitted to the Inner Temple in May 1883 and called to the Bar on 19 May 1886. On his return to Sydney, Knox was admitted to the colonial Bar on 26 July. He read with his eldest brother George (1845-1888) at Lyndon Chambers. On George's death he succeeded to much of his practice and was briefed by leading solicitors. In 1888-90 he reported equity cases for the New South Wales Law Reports. From the early 1890s he had rooms in Northfield Chambers.

Standing on a platform of free trade and non-payment of members, Knox was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Woollahra in 1894. He was 'an excellent speaker … precise, easy, deliberate' and supported (Sir) George Reid, favouring direct taxation, civil service reform and Federation. Disillusioned with politics, he did not seek re-election in 1898. At Christ Church, Bong Bong, near Moss Vale, on 5 February 1897 he had married Florence Lawson, a descendant of the explorer William Lawson.

'No mean cricketer' when young, Knox played for I Zingari in Australia and later enjoyed golf, sailing, and fishing on the south coast. He handled a motor car 'in expert fashion', but his great interest was the turf in all its forms. As a young man he was a gambler. From 1896 he served on the committee of the Australian Jockey Club and owned several good horses — Crown Grant, Popinjay and Vavasor, winner of the 1910 Sydney Cup — but gave up racing his own horses during World War I. The 'iron discipline' that he imposed as chairman of the A.J.C. in 1906-19 'had much to do with lifting the tone of racing' in New South Wales to a high level. While he was in office, Randwick racecourse was 'practically rebuilt' and the totalizator introduced. At the same time added prize money increased from £23,000 a year to over £80,000, much of it for weight-for-age events. He revised the rules and encouraged country racing associations.

By the 1900s Knox was a leader at the Bar and took silk in February 1906. Except in 1910 and 1916, he served on the Council of the Bar of New South Wales from its foundation in 1902 until 1919. He was a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society and an original member of the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust. A 'brilliant thinker', he found it 'more congenial to argue abstruse issues in the placid atmosphere of Equity' than to browbeat an untruthful witness, but his all-round knowledge of the law was 'unusually deep and wide' and his 'capacity for hard work was enormous'. From 1903 the High Court of Australia provided a new arena for leading barristers: before it Knox enhanced his reputation, becoming known as an outstanding constitutional lawyer. His practice became largely appellate. He was briefed by Commonwealth and State governments, taking part in most of the major constitutional cases including the steel rails, wire netting and musicians' cases. In 1911-12 he appeared for the defendants in R. v. Associated Northern Collieries, known as the Vend case, when the Commonwealth tried to suppress an alleged monopoly and price fixing.

A foundation member of the executive of the New South Wales division of the British (Australian from 1916) Red Cross Society, in August 1915 Knox and (Sir) Norman Brookes went to Egypt as Australian Red Cross commissioners; they 'flung themselves with the greatest zeal into the work'. Knox showed great organizing ability and worked 'amid many difficulties and not a few risks' (when he took stores to Gallipoli) to allocate comforts for the wounded, stores and medical supplies. Returning to Sydney early in 1916, Knox was an official visitor to internment camps and served on a Commonwealth advisory committee on legal questions arising out of war problems. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1918. On 10 December he made a celebrated appearance at the bar of the Legislative Assembly to defend the members of the Public Service Board against charges arising out of the report of a royal commission.

On 18 October 1919 Knox succeeded Sir Samuel Griffith as chief justice of the High Court and was sworn in on 21 October. He immediately resigned as chairman of the A.J.C. (which thereupon instituted a classic race for three-year-old fillies, the Adrian Knox Stakes), and sold all his shares, including his inheritance in C.S.R., lest he should be involved in a conflict of interest. His elevation to the High Court bench coincided with the disappearance of the original justices who had established, mainly from American precedents, a 'balanced' theory of interpretation of Commonwealth and State powers. A second generation of justices, headed by (Sir) Isaac Isaacs and H. B. Higgins favoured a view which gave maximum scope to the Commonwealth's express powers without any assumptions about effects on the States' residuary powers. There is no evidence that Knox shared the political enthusiasms of Isaacs, but the new views were more consistent with a literal interpretation of the Constitution in accordance with received English principles of statutory interpretation, wholly congenial to Knox, than with Griffith's reliance on American doctrines. The opportunity for establishing the new view as accepted doctrine came in the Engineers' case, dealing with the question of the extent to which Commonwealth laws made under the trans-State industrial arbitration power (sec. 51 (xxxv)) could bind State governments. In a joint judgment written by Isaacs, he and Knox, (Sir) George Rich and (Sir) Hayden Starke (Higgins agreeing separately) emphatically rejected the older principles and adopted the new, and upheld the application of the Commonwealth industrial awards in question to State activities.

This view has since remained the dominant principle of the Court's Federal jurisprudence. Some other pro-Commonwealth initiatives of Isaacs in which Knox at first joined have been less influential, and Knox's apparent intellectual affinity with Isaacs waned in later years. The court's ordinary appellate work increased and, as a 'considerable body of precedents' was established, 'argument and decision could and did become far more a matter of syllogistic or casuistical reasoning from dogmatic jural postulates'. Knox was a competent exponent of settled doctrines, but apart from his share in the 1920 events made little individual mark on the evolution of Australian law. Vigilant in guarding the High Court from encroachments on its independence, Knox firmly resisted repeated requests that other Commonwealth tribunals should use its leased premises in Sydney and Melbourne. He also refused requests in 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1928 to nominate or to permit a justice of the High Court to act as a royal commissioner lest they should be drawn into political controversy. In 1927 he advised (Sir) John Latham, the Federal attorney-general, on proposed amendments to the Judiciary Act and questioned the wisdom of a single justice hearing constitutional cases at the first instance as this would reduce the appellate Full Court to six and render an even decision possible. Knox was appointed to the Privy Council on 2 March 1920 and K.C.M.G. in 1921. In 1924 he visited England to sit on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council dealing with the disputed border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.

In impaired health, Sir Adrian resigned as chief justice on 30 March 1930 on learning that he was a residuary legatee under the will of his 'old and intimate friend' John Brown, 'the acceptance of which involved a direct, if not an active participation by me in a business carried on in Australia [that] was incompatible with the retention by me of any judicial office'. The bequest included racehorses — one, Balloon King, won the 1931 Victoria Derby. He became a director of the Bank of New South Wales and the Commercial Union Assurance Co. Ltd, rejoined the board of the A.M.P. Society and in 1931 was chairman of the Primary Producers' Advisory Council. He strongly disapproved of the governor, Sir Philip Game, acceding to J. T. Lang's demand for nominations to the Legislative Council. His likely appointment as governor-general was widely reported in the press before the government nominated Isaacs.

Clean-shaven, Knox had a long, straight nose, brown eyes, and a firm mouth and chin. Although his practice was lucrative, unlike his brothers Edward and Tom he never built a large house, living after his marriage at eight different addresses at Woollahra and Potts Point; nor did he speculate in real estate, but he did give his wife beautiful jewellery. He liked entertaining and frequenting the Union Club (which he had joined in 1886) and, from 1915, the Melbourne Club; he was an excellent bridge player. 'As fierce as his brothers were mild', he was held in affection by his family: his sister-in-law always had a whisky and soda waiting for him when he came to afternoon tea. He loved Australian and Sydney silky terriers and would often return from Melbourne with a pup in his pocket. In his later years he spent much time in his garden and would not permit anyone else to prune his roses. Knox died of heart disease at his home at Woollahra on 27 April 1932 and was cremated after a service at All Saints. His wife, son and two daughters survived him; his younger daughter Elizabeth married Lewis Joseph Hugh, 12th baron Clifford of Chudleigh.

To some Knox appeared 'brusque in manner': Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson recorded that he was an 'ill-tempered person … a worthy man, but sees the disagreeable side of things first'. To others, especially juniors at the Bar, he was helpful and patient. R. C. Teece thought Knox a 'man of strong opinions', who always listened 'with attention and courtesy to the arguments of others'. According to G. E. Flannery he was in argument 'suave, persuasive, clear and short. Before Courts of Appeal, he had no equal in his generation'. As chief justice at a time of consolidation, he conducted his court with dignity and brought to it common sense and 'a wide knowledge of the world' and of men. His judgments were 'almost without exception short and to the point. Neither at the Bar nor on the Bench was he discursive: he reduced a problem to its simplest terms with a marked facility'. To a later chief justice, Sir Owen Dixon, he was 'a conspicuous advocate' but 'a type you do not often meet: a highly intellectual man without any intellectual interests'.

Portraits of Knox by Florence Rodway are held by the A.J.C. and the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and a copy is in the High Court, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • G. Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law, 1901-29 (Melb, 1956)
  • O. Dixon, Jesting Pilate, compiled by Judge Woinarski (Syd, 1965)
  • J. M. Bennett, Keystone of the Federal Arch (Canb, 1980)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1918, 74, p 3670
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, (1908), vol 5, p 789, 818, (1912), vol 15, p 65, 636, (1920), vol 20, p 128, (1932), vol 47, p v
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 June 1894
  • Punch (Melbourne), 29 July 1915, 7 May 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15, 21 Oct 1915, 3 June 1918, 18, 20, 22 Oct, 28 Nov 1919, 1 Jan, 24 Mar 1921, 5, 7 June, 24 July 1924, 28 Apr 1932
  • Bulletin, 6 Jan 1921
  • Times (London), 28 Apr 1932
  • Philip Game papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Adrian Knox papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • John Latham papers (National Library of Australia)
  • A432 38/322, 50/482 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

  • wedding, Australian Town and Country Journal, 20 February 1897, p 34

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Knox, Sir Adrian (1863–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 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

Adrian Knox (1863-1932), by Murgatroyd, 1932

Adrian Knox (1863-1932), by Murgatroyd, 1932

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3473008

Life Summary [details]


29 November, 1863
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


27 April, 1932 (aged 68)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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