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Sir John Greig Latham (1877–1964)

by Stuart Macintyre

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John Greig Latham (1877-1964), by W. J. Mildenhall, 1928

John Greig Latham (1877-1964), by W. J. Mildenhall, 1928

National Archives of Australia, A3560:4614 [detail]

Sir John Greig Latham (1877-1964), politician, diplomat and chief justice, was born on 26 August 1877 at Ascot Vale, Melbourne, eldest of five children of Victorian-born Thomas Latham and his Scottish wife Janet, née Scott. The father was a tinsmith who, shortly before John's birth, had become founder and secretary of the Victorian Society for the Protection of Animals, a post he held for thirty-one years. The family moved to Ivanhoe shortly after, where Thomas became a justice of the peace and town councillor. Both he and his wife were devout Methodists who encouraged their four sons and daughter to make their way by industry and high moral purpose. 'In the home', their father recalled, 'we did not allow conversation to degenerate into mere small-talk'. John Latham abandoned the religion while at university but retained the elevated tone for the rest of his life.

From George Street State School, Fitzroy, Latham won a scholarship to Scotch College and thence progressed to the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1896). While teaching at the Hamilton Academy in 1897-98 he began to master his nervousness and temper his earnest intensity with a formidable reserve. A boyhood stammer was alleviated through elocution lessons and avoided by use of synonyms. In 1899 he returned to the university to study law, supporting himself as a resident tutor in logic and philosophy at Ormond College. After winning the Supreme Court prize, he was admitted to the Victorian Bar in December 1904 and entered Selborne Chambers. Progress was slow (in his first six months as a barrister he earned just one guinea) and for some years most of his work was in petty sessions and the County Court. On 19 December 1907, with Methodist forms, he married Eleanor Mary (Ella) Tobin, herself an arts graduate, to whom he had been engaged for over four years.

Latham's success was achieved by uncommon ability and extraordinary industry. His forensic style, based on careful preparation and strictly logical presentation, was more effective with judges than juries. He embarked on his career some years after his more fortunate contemporaries and had none of their advantages of connexion and independent means. He supplemented his income by teaching and journalism, lecturing at the university in logic and, later, in contracts and personal property, and contributed reports to the Argus at a penny a line. He joined with (Sir) Walter Murdoch and others in forming a quarterly magazine, and even co-edited an Australasian Students' Song Book (1911). In 1908 he succeeded his friend Edward Shann as Australian correspondent of the London Standard, a vehicle for Imperial sentiment. This last post was combined with service on the political committee of the Deakinite Liberal Party, secretaryship of the Imperial Federation League's Victorian branch and, later, membership of the Victorian group of the Round Table. As early as 1909 he was invited to become a parliamentary candidate. With (Sir) Frederic Eggleston, he was a foundation member of the 'Boobooks', a fellowship of young professional men formed in 1902 to dine and digress at monthly meetings. His membership overlapped with a group of fly-fishing enthusiasts, including the surgeon (Sir) Thomas Dunhill and physician (Sir) Richard Stawell, who repaired to the Snowy Mountains over the Christmas holidays along with a similar group of Sydney men, (Sir) Thomas Bavin and Colonel James Macarthur-Onslow among them. (The annual gathering coalesced in the 1920s as the Waterfall Fly Fishing Club, when John Thomas Lang publicized its existence as a sinister cabal of politicians, judges and businessmen.)

There were other personal, less advantageous enthusiasms. In 1907 he helped to form an Education Act Defence League to resist the teaching of Scripture in government schools. In 1909 he was an organizer of a Rationalist Society in Melbourne and in 1910 of a tour of Australia by a prominent British free thinker Joseph McCabe. Latham was also a keen lacrosse player, captain of Victoria, and in 1908 represented Australia against a visiting Canadian team. Yet that year he acknowledged that he was 'working day and night' at his profession. How, then, are we to understand his compulsive accumulation of offices and responsibilities? Certainly he had a strong sense of public duty; but was there something more, a need that never left him to gain recognition by achievement? While outsiders saw a tall, aloof, impassive man, seemingly impatient of all human frailty, his circle of male friends knew a different, more companionable Jack Latham. In their company he could unbend and find reassurance. One of them, the observant Walter Murdoch, urged Latham: 'Don't be too intolerant of those who, perhaps because they are not so capable of clear and sustained thinking as you are, are less exultant than you in the powers of human thought and more helplessly conscious of its limitations'.

At the outbreak of World War I Latham was earning £2000 a year at the Bar. About 1916 he moved from Northcote and bought a house at Malvern. At the request of Bavin, secretary of the New South Wales branch of the Universal Service League, he became secretary of the Victorian branch when it was formed in 1915 and he and his wife campaigned vigorously for the introduction of conscription. In 1917, following allegations of sabotage in the naval dockyards, he was appointed head of Naval Intelligence with the honorary rank of lieutenant-commander (on his recommendation Bavin was put in charge in Sydney). In this office he formed habits of mind that persisted throughout his public life: an apprehension of the grave menace of Bolshevism and a conviction that sedition should be prosecuted with the full weight of the law.

In 1918 he contemplated seeking National Party endorsement for the Federal seat of Flinders. The seat was won by Stanley Melbourne (Viscount) Bruce. Latham went instead to London as adviser to the minister for the navy, Sir Joseph Cook, in the party of prime minister Billy Hughes. Latham contributed to the work of the Imperial War Conference and Imperial War Cabinet but, unable to persuade Cook to allow him a real measure of responsibility, he won the right to submit his memoranda directly to the prime minister. Though recognizing Hughes's achievement in representing Australian interests, Latham was critical of his excesses and affronted by his manner. He conceived an antipathy to Hughes that remained throughout his political career. At the Versailles Peace Conference Latham served on the committee that determined the Czechoslovakian borders and probably formulated the definition of 'C class' mandates that permitted Australia to secure control over German New Guinea. For his services abroad stretching over fifteen months, he received £300 and in 1920 was appointed C.M.G.

On returning to the Bar in 1919 Latham made swift progress. Assisted by the appointment to the High Court of Australia of (Sir) Hayden Starke, who had been the senior advocate at the Melbourne Bar, Latham developed his practice in size and scope, with an emphasis on taxation, commercial and arbitration matters but taking in some important constitutional cases. He reported to his English friend Lionel Curtis at the end of 1920 that he had 'been in at least one court, and usually more than one, on every day since the beginning of the year'. In 1922 he took silk. He joined the Melbourne Club, and belonged also to the Australian and Naval and Military clubs.

At the end of 1921 Latham had been invited to become a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria. He declined, explaining that he was 'very keenly interested in matters in which a judge cannot properly allow himself to be interested'. Essentially, he was concerned with the conduct of national affairs. Business and conservative interests became increasingly impatient in the post-war years with the National government's economic interventionism and inexpedient interference in industrial relations. Latham shared his clients' disapproval of such policies and retained his hostility towards the prime minister for what he now regarded as an unprincipled debauchery of public life. Campaigning on the slogan 'Hughes Must Go', he stood in 1922 as an Independent Liberal Union candidate for the Federal seat of Kooyong and defeated the Nationalist member, Sir Robert Best. Following that election, Latham attended meetings of the Country Party, advised its leader (Sir) Earle Page and drafted its memoranda during the negotiations that forced Hughes's resignation from office in 1923.

In parliament Latham first sat on the back-benches, studying briefs and giving occasional speeches which were described as 'like lumps of ice tinkling into a tumbler'. He addressed the House as he would the bench, his manner prim and his voice high-pitched. One journalist christened him 'the disembodied brain' while another called him 'the last proud scion of a long line of pokers'. But the relentless flow of argument commanded attention and he learned to vary his rhythm and leaven his speeches with a dry wit.

In 1925 he joined the National Party and was appointed attorney-general from 18 December, replacing the easygoing (Sir) Littleton Groom whose amendments to the Immigration Act had failed to sustain deportation proceedings against the leaders of the seamen's strike, Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson. Latham's solution was to amend the Crimes Act with a provision declaring revolutionary and seditious associations to be unlawful and making it an offence to belong to such an association. Reforms of industrial relations proved more difficult in an increasingly difficult economic climate. Like many conservatives, Latham leaned sometimes to the abolition of a mechanism which neither contained costs nor brought industrial peace, sometimes to the strengthening of that mechanism so that its determinations could be enforced. In the 1926 referendum Latham sought to augment the power of the Commonwealth to close loopholes created by the overlapping jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration and State tribunals. But he was almost relieved when the defeat of the referendum proposal freed him from the responsibility of preparing a comprehensive national code.

In 1927 he suggested to cabinet that while it was well-nigh impossible to proscribe strikes, the lock-out provisions of the Arbitration Act were all too effective, with the result that 'employers fight with their hands tied'. His recommendation that all strike and lock-out penalties be removed from the legislation was rejected. He therefore prepared the Arbitration Act of 1928 which strengthened the penalty provisions, introduced secret ballots into union proceedings, and forced the court to take economic effects into consideration when making awards.

Minister of industry from 10 December 1928, as well as attorney-general, he harried the maritime, transport and timber-workers' unions by discriminating application of the provisions of the Arbitration and Crimes Acts. Yet in 1929 he conceded that the government had failed to impose industrial peace and joined with Bruce in requesting that the States hand over their powers of industrial registration. When that initiative failed, he helped to formulate the proposal to abandon the field of industrial regulation (except for the maritime industry) to the States, the issue on which the government was defeated in the House in September and the principal reason for its defeat at the polls next month.

Latham's reputation for bias towards employers in administration of the law was not wholly justified, at least not in the conspiratorial terms in which it was usually propounded. It is true that he did not prosecute businessmen with the vigour applied to unionists: Mr Justice Starke made scathing criticism of the settlement made in 1928 with the notorious tax evaders, the Abraham brothers. It is true, also, that he maintained links with some of the principal enterprises whose interests were affected directly by his decisions as attorney-general: throughout the 1920s he held general retainers from a wide range of shipping, mining and other clients. Yet there is no evidence to impugn his integrity. He opposed what was regarded as the government's flagrant act of favouritism in withdrawing prosecution of the mine owner John Brown for locking out his workers. His one-sidedness arose not from any illicit relationship with business clients (for he had declared openly that 'there was much to be said in favour of the attorney-general being a practising member of the bar') but from his inability to understand union militancy except as the result of seditious agitation.

Bruce having lost his seat in the 1929 election, Latham assumed the leadership of the Nationalists and for the next eighteen months he was leader of the Opposition. He was not averse to vigorous criticism of the Labor administration and its members and he orchestrated an attack on Edward Theodore, following the conservative Queensland government's exhumation of the Mungana affair, to force the treasurer's suspension from the ministry in 1930; but he restrained his diehards and sought to project the image of a responsible, constructive Opposition. There were critics of such restraint in a period of mounting discord, and as the desire grew to reconstruct the National party on a more popular basis, so Latham's limitations became more apparent. He accepted pressure to make way for the former Labor minister Joseph Lyons and the formation of the United Australia Party was announced in May 1931. Latham's friends warmly commended his unselfishness. Labor was defeated at the general election of 19 December. Latham was closely involved in the unsuccessful negotiations for a coalition of the U.A.P. and the Country Party, and he served in the U.A.P. ministry from 6 January 1932 as attorney-general and minister for external affairs and for industry.

Latham had maintained his interest in international affairs. In 1926 he led the Australian delegation to the League of Nations General Assembly in Geneva and, with Bruce, attended the Imperial Conference in London. He had always been a supporter of Imperial links and opposed the move towards their legal definition, views developed in the Macrossan lectures he delivered in 1928, published as Australia and the British Commonwealth of Nations (1929). But the earlier basis of Australia's Imperial relationship, summarized in Bruce's slogan 'Men, Money and Markets', could hardly be maintained in the circumstances of the Depression. Immigrants were no longer needed at a time when more than a quarter of the workforce was unemployed, loans had to be repaid and markets were all too few. By implementing the Ottawa Agreement of 1932 to extend the principle of preferential trade within the British Commonwealth, the government hoped to find a basis of recovery whereby the protectionist demands of its urban manufacturing supporters could be satisfied without estranging the Country Party. Rural interests were placated further with special assistance schemes. In 1932 Latham also attended the disarmament conference at Geneva and the reparations conference at Lausanne. In 1934 he toured South-East Asia, the first such initiative by a minister for external affairs.

As attorney-general he intervened for the Commonwealth in the Privy Council appeal in Trethowan's case. He was responsible for the Financial Agreements Enforcement Acts of 1932: Lang's response, instructing State civil servants not to comply with Commonwealth orders, triggered his dismissal by the governor. Still preoccupied with the menace of sedition, Latham enacted a new Crimes Act in 1932, banned the transmission of communist papers through the post, and even launched an investigation of the Australian Pensioners' League, but some of his more draconian initiatives were quashed by the High Court.

As deputy prime minister, senior conservative in the Lyons ministry and close counsellor of the prime minister, Latham was a central figure in Federal politics. In 1933 he was appointed privy councillor. Yet throughout these years, and even during his previous period in office, there were persistent rumours that he would abandon politics. Sometimes the likelihood of his retirement was attributed to a preference for the law, sometimes to an inability to endure the financial sacrifice created by his dependence on ministerial salary. Of the loss in income caused by his political responsibilities there can be no doubt: when he first became attorney-general his practice was said to be worth £6000 a year; and even though he continued to accept briefs, the strain told on his health. The preference for legal practice is more dubious. He cared greatly to be in the centre of public affairs, and in his later years it was his experiences as a minister and not as chief justice that he was wont to recall with relish; perhaps he found the forthright style of Bruce more congenial than the drift and compromise of the Lyons administration.

It was evident by 1933, however, that he had set his sights on the post of chief justice of the High Court and that the only remaining obstacle was the reluctance of Sir Frank Gavan Duffy to vacate that post. It was predicted that Duffy's son would be appointed to the Supreme Court of Victoria, Duffy himself would retire, Latham would take his place, and the ambitious young Victorian attorney-general, (Sir) Robert Menzies, would replace Latham in Kooyong and succeed him as attorney-general in Canberra. All these things came to pass. Latham retired from politics in 1934 and was appointed G.C.M.G. He was made chief justice on 11 October 1935.

His early years on the bench were made difficult by the play of fierce animosities among his colleagues, and it was no small achievement that he kept them in a working relationship with each other—Starke and Bert Evatt were an especially combustible combination. Later the chief justice obtained more joint judgments. As a judge he was vulnerable to the temptation to interrupt counsel too often and at too great length. His most significant contributions were in constitutional law where he insisted on a strictly legal approach. When Commonwealth legislation was challenged, he asked not whether the legislation went further than was reasonably necessary, for he considered that no business of the court, but simply whether it was legislation 'with respect to' the powers enumerated in the Constitution. He took a decidedly generous view of the Commonwealth's defence powers and on some important cases, notably the Communist Party case of 1951, failed to carry his colleagues with him. But in general his judgments, which he reached with impeccable precision of reasoning, left the law much as he found it. He retired from the High Court in 1952.

Legislation was passed in 1940 to enable Latham to become Australia's first minister to Japan while still chief justice. He had a long-standing interest in Japan and was better informed about it than almost any of his contemporaries, but he did not reach Tokyo until the close of 1940 after Japan had concluded a pact of mutual assistance with the Axis powers, and his mission was accordingly constricted. He 'spoke with firmness and frankness' to successive Japanese foreign ministers on the 'hope for friendly relations and the resolution to resist attempts at Japanese domination'. In September 1941 he left Japan for consultations in Singapore, but fell ill and was back in Melbourne when the Pacific War began.

Latham had been chancellor of the University of Melbourne (1939-41). He was foundation president of the Australian Congress for Cultural Freedom, president of the Australian-American Association (1951-64), a local founder and president of the League of Nations Union, president of the Free Library Movement of Victoria (1937-48), the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (1954-61) and the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association (1943-56). He was a director of Humes Ltd and of several other companies.

Even as an old man, Latham took enormous pride in his achievements and was always willing to talk about them. Those achievements were substantial. From humble origins he had attained the most senior post in his chosen profession and he had come very close to winning the highest political office. He was industrious, loyal and of unquestioned integrity. In the end, perhaps, he lacked the thrust required to succeed in politics and the creative spark that separates the distinguished jurist from the competent one. The intellectual certainty that Walter Murdoch had described in 1912 narrowed his imagination and stunted his sympathy with human frailty. But he gave fully of his energies to the many causes he served.

His retirement years were spent in Melbourne with his wife, who predeceased him by four months. Ella Latham, C.B.E., had been president of the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, in 1933-54. She had supported her husband in his political career and accepted the lengthy separations imposed first by his overseas missions, then by the shift of Federal parliament to Canberra, and later by the perambulations of the High Court. She and their three children were important to Latham, and the deep distress caused by the wartime death of their elder son was eased by the more continuous companionship they afforded each other in their later years. To the end he remained an indefatigable correspondent. Latham died on 25 July 1964 at Richmond and, despite his rationalist principles, was cremated after a memorial service at Wesley Church conducted by Rev. Sir Irving Benson. His estate was valued for probate at £74,365. His daughter Winifred Mary had died in 1953. He was survived by his third child Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Greig Latham. A portrait by William Dargie is in the High Court, Canberra.

Latham's younger brother Leslie Scott (1879-1950) was a leading Melbourne physician. Another brother Alan Thomas (1883-1974) was secretary (1918-41) of the Victorian Society for Protection of Animals and honorary secretary (1939-67) and fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.

Latham's elder son RICHARD THOMAS EDWIN (1909-1943) was educated at Scotch College and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1930), was president of the Students' Representative Council in 1929 and Victorian Rhodes scholar for 1931. He graduated from the University of Oxford (B.A., 1934) with first-class honours in jurisprudence and was elected a fellow of All Souls. The father's pride in his son's achievement was tempered by disappointment that he taught and practised in London. During the Spanish Civil War he drove a lorry for a relief society. He joined the Foreign Office on the outbreak of World War II and worked as a clerk in the refugee section where he was an outspoken critic of the British treatment of internees. Accepted by the Royal Air Force in 1941, he trained in Canada and was commissioned as an observer. His aeroplane failed to return from a flight over the Norwegian coast on 15 August 1943. While sharing his father's aptitude and industry, he possessed greater warmth, and friends such as (Sir) Keith Hancock, to whose Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs he contributed a chapter on law and the Commonwealth, believed he showed outstanding promise.

Select Bibliography

  • Z. Cowen, Sir John Latham and Other Papers (Melb, 1965)
  • C. Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne (Lond, 1965)
  • J. R. Williams, John Latham and the Conservative Recovery from Defeat (Syd, 1969)
  • W. J. Hudson, Billy Hughes in Paris (Melb, 1978)
  • F. Cain, The Origins of Political Surveillance in Australia (Syd, 1983)
  • P. G. Edwards, Prime Ministers and Diplomats (Melb, 1983)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 21 (1962), no 1, p 78
  • Australian Bar Gazette, 1 (1964), no 4, p 3
  • Australian Law Journal, 38 (1964), p 188
  • Victorian Historical Journal, 35 (1964), p 95
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 2 Aug 1928
  • Bulletin, 8 Aug 1964
  • D. J. E. Potts, A Study of Three Nationalists in the Bruce-Page Government of 1923-1929 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1972)
  • John Latham papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Cabinet papers (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'Latham, Sir John Greig (1877–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Greig Latham (1877-1964), by W. J. Mildenhall, 1928

John Greig Latham (1877-1964), by W. J. Mildenhall, 1928

National Archives of Australia, A3560:4614 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


26 August, 1877
Ascot Vale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


25 July, 1964 (aged 86)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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