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Sir Charles Lilley (1827–1897)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

Charles Lilley (1827-1897), by unknown engraver

Charles Lilley (1827-1897), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S30/08/79/85

Sir Charles Lilley (1827-1897), politician and judge, was born on 27 August 1827 at Newcastle upon Tyne, son of Thomas Lilley and his wife Jane, née Shipley. Reared by his maternal grandfather and educated at St Nicholas Parish School, he was articled on 2 October 1849 to the Newcastle solicitor, William Lockey Harle, sent to his London office, and for two years studied at University College, London. On 3 December 1851 Lilley enlisted in the 1st Royal Dragoons as a private. On duty at Preston, Lancashire, he helped to start a free library and often lectured with moderation on temperance, adult education and industrial relations, but in 1853 he rashly fraternized with workers threatening a major strike. The military authorities thought him dangerous and gave him twenty-eight days in cells, nominally for absence without leave. Enraged, Lilley bought his discharge on 6 February 1854 and returned to the law. Advised in 1855 by James Wilson, founder of the Economist, he decided to migrate and on 6 July 1856 arrived at Sydney.

Lilley moved to Brisbane and on 10 November was articled to Robert Little, but soon joined W. C. Belbridge in leasing the Moreton Bay Courier from James Swan. As editor he won popularity by advocating separation from New South Wales, but the paper was not a success and the lease was terminated. However, writing about politics had whetted his taste for participation. In 1859 he was active in forming the Liberal Association, which was widely criticized as a rigid machine geared for his own aggrandizement. On 10 April 1858 he had married Sarah Jane, daughter of Joshua Jeays, an architect with radical political views. To support his growing family Lilley returned to Little's office, completed his articles, was admitted to the Bar on 22 November 1861, joined J. F. Garrick as partner, and in December 1865 was appointed Q.C.

In May 1860 Lilley had been elected for Fortitude Valley to Queensland's first Legislative Assembly, defeating a squatter contestant by three votes. Known as 'Lilley of the Valley', his views harmonized with those of his radical constituents, many of whom had been inspired to migrate by J. D. Lang. As an ex-soldier he became an enthusiastic officer of volunteers and in 1862, allegedly at Governor Sir George Bowen's behest, he introduced a bill for a conscripted militia. The resultant uproar almost ended his parliamentary career. In a public meeting he sought to defend himself but was nearly lynched by his constituents and in June withdrew the bill.

From 11 September 1865 to 20 July 1866 Lilley was attorney-general in Macalister's ministry and again from 7 August 1866 to 15 August 1867. From 25 November 1868 to 12 November 1869 he was attorney-general in his own ministry. He was called as premier to solve an impasse caused by the almost equal strength of the parties but was plagued by the worst economic depression in Queensland's history and by his unstable coalition ministry.

Lilley's several cabinets included two other Liberals, four squatters, one northern separationist and the mercurial Macalister, and held within themselves all the strains and conflicts inherent in Queensland politics. Lilley was more impulsive than diplomatic and found his team difficult to manage. On 25 January Macalister, hoping to upset the government, resigned after a violent quarrel with Lilley and T. H. Fitzgerald. Lilley was able to secure Fitzgerald's resignation and persuaded Macalister to rejoin the ministry; James Taylor became secretary for lands, T. B. Stephens colonial treasurer and Arthur Hodgson colonial secretary, but Lilley's credit suffered from the reshuffle. In November 1869 when both John Douglas and Hodgson resigned, Ratcliffe Pring became attorney-general and Lilley colonial secretary. In these circumstances, his premiership was unimpressive. Only 17 of 39 bills introduced and only 3 of 10 introduced by Lilley were passed. Both his most important measures were lost in the second reading. Ironically, his one success was a comprehensive Pastoral Leases Act.

Lilley had resisted the extortionate claims made by the monopolistic Australasian Steam Navigation Co. for increase in its mail subsidies. In 1869 he visited Sydney with the governor and despite objections from his ministers signed a contract for three government steamers, an action which rapidly reduced the company's demands. On 1 January 1870 he abolished fees in government schools by ministerial directive, again without the approval of his colleagues. He was accused of arrogance and his parliamentary support began to evaporate. When the House met in April he had to move his own address-in-reply. In a bitter speech, J. P. Bell moved a no confidence motion and in the division Lilley was supported only by his cabinet and Henry Jordan. The Courier suggested that Lilley was defeated by the machinations of an Ipswich clique opposed to the Brisbane-Ipswich railway and to Bernays he was ahead of his time. His impulsive and domineering leadership of a patchwork cabinet and what the Courier called an unbecoming levity of manner were sufficient explanations.

When parliament met in November 1870, the new premier, Arthur Palmer, with only sixteen supporters was saved from disaster when Macalister agreed to become Speaker. To Lilley this was treachery and, partly by a personal canvass, he secured Macalister's defeat in June 1871. As leader of the Opposition, Lilley was more effective than he had been as premier. A master of procedures, he virtually stopped government business from December 1870 to August 1871 by constant filibusters and adjournment motions; outside the House, he led public meetings and petitioned the governor for parliamentary reform. In August the administrator, Sir Maurice O'Connell, dissolved parliament and in the following election Palmer secured a majority of six. Lilley refused to accept defeat. He claimed that the election had been won by inequitable electorates and continued the struggle until Palmer had passed his redistribution bill, the first significant reduction in the power of the squatting party. Despite the success of his struggle for democracy Lilley was ambivalent on the subject. Arrogant about his own brilliance, he described manhood suffrage as vicious because it allowed any shepherd or labourer to have the same influence as an educated professional or an employer who contributed heavily to the revenue.

Macalister returned to the assembly in June 1872 and soon became leader of the Opposition. Supplanted, Lilley claimed to have been so disgusted with his fellow members in 1870 that nothing would ever drag him back to the treasury. When the Palmer government fell on 8 January 1874, he rejected an invitation to join Macalister's ministry. He promised general support but continued to embarrass Macalister. In July he accepted the offer of an acting seat on the Supreme Court bench. On the retirement of Sir James Cockle in 1879 Lilley became chief justice. For a time he was influential in liberal councils but gradually drifted into the seclusion of the bench.

Lilley's flexible interpretation of radicalism was exemplified on 21 May 1881 when he was offered a knighthood. At first he sought permission to decline because the offer recognized not his personal qualities but his office. The Colonial Office believed that he was piqued because his political enemy, Palmer, had been knighted earlier and would thus have precedence, but when pressed, Lilley accepted on 28 October 1881. His principles occasionally caused other difficulties. His sentences on the crew of the blackbirder Hopeful, convicted for brutality and murder in 1883, polarized the colony. Advocates of coloured labour argued that the men had behaved in accordance with accepted custom and that the evidence against them was suspect. Their opponents saw Lilley's sentences as a salutary lesson but after a petition in 1888 the Morehead government released the men in spite of Lilley's objections.

With advancing age Lilley began to regret his detachment from active politics and to express outspoken support for extreme radical causes, often hinting that he would not stay permanently on the bench. In 1890 he became a hero to the socialist and republican movements by attacking politicians as a class, advocating an Australian republic and decrying the imperial connexion. By cultivating the growing Labor Party, he was invited in March 1891 to lay the foundation stone of the Brisbane Trades Hall and in 1892 he regretfully declined an invitation from the New South Wales Labor Electoral League to a public reception in Sydney.

Incautiously, Lilley left himself open to attack from those who objected to his views. The Supreme Court successes of his barrister son, Edwyn, became so frequent that they were once ascribed flippantly to 'the light of the son'. Because clients were quick to take advantage, Edwyn was said to receive more briefs than three other leading barristers together. The subject reached parliament in July 1890 when M. B. Gannon, a McIlwraith supporter, introduced the justices prevention bill to bar Edwyn from the Supreme Court, but the bill was opposed by legal members and vanished from the notice paper in November.

In 1891 Edwyn appeared for the Queensland Investment and Land Mortgage Co. of London in an action for fraud against its local directors including Sir Thomas McIlwraith and Sir Arthur Palmer. After thirty-seven days of hearing, he was permitted by his father to amend the pleadings and soon afterwards the chief justice decided to discharge the jury. He argued that no judge could accept a verdict against his own conscience and when the hearings closed after fifty-five days, he reserved judgment on 23 July 1892. Meanwhile Gannon had moved on 31 March in the House that no judge should sit alone or in chambers in any matter in which his son was counsel. Because the case was sub judice, the motion was deferred several times but on 21 July it was passed by 40 to 4. Lilley's judgment on 17 August gave substantial damages to the plaintiff and caused immediate uproar. McIlwraith is said to have sworn vengeance, and for the appeal in October a special arrangement was made with New South Wales for Sir William Windeyer to replace Lilley on the bench. The Full Court reversed Lilley's judgment.

For some time Lilley had contemplated retirement but announced it on 24 October and McIlwraith was rumoured to have had his revenge. Lilley immediately visited New Zealand on leave and returned to retire on 13 February 1893. In other colonies his views made him an embarrassing visitor to be practically ignored.

The apparent partisanship of Lilley's judicial swan song endeared him to the Labor Party. He saw a chance for a political comeback which would counterbalance his ignominious departure from the bench and at the same time injure those whom he saw as lineal descendants of old enemies. Rejecting invitations from republican supporters to contest northern seats, he announced in April 1893 his candidature for North Brisbane against McIlwraith. His running mate for the two-member seat was Thomas Glassey, the Labor leader. His thirteen point programme included repeal of the Land Grant Railway Act, abolition of coloured labour, a White Australia policy, radical electoral reform and a progressive land tax, but he foolishly insisted on his independence of the Labor machine. With an almost uniformly hostile press, Lilley and Glassey polled just over half the combined vote for McIlwraith and Kingsbury. Lilley died at his Brisbane home on 20 August 1897, survived by his wife, eight sons and five daughters.

After his knighthood, few Queenslanders could take Lilley's exaggerated radicalism seriously. Their distrust was reinforced by his rigid refusal to commit himself fully to the Labor Party. Rejected by his social equals, he was never quite accepted by those whom he sought to woo. He was more successful in his consistent pursuit of an educational ideal. Stimulated by the atmosphere of University College, London, he was instrumental before 1860 in establishing the Brisbane School of Arts and in 1869 helped to found the Brisbane Grammar School, serving later as its chairman of trustees. In 1870 his government fell partly over free education and in 1874 he chaired a royal commission which led to a free and secular education policy. This achieved, he began a campaign for a university and in 1891 chaired a royal commission on university establishment, but did not live to see it founded in 1909.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1868-69, 111, 1870, 257, 1873, 117
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1875, 2, 83, 1884, 2, 725, 1890, 1, 551, 1891, 3, 803, 1892, 1, 595
  • A. A. Morrison, ‘Charles Lilley’, JRAHS, 45 (1959-60)
  • D. Anderson, ‘Sir George Bowen and the problem of Queensland's defence 1859-1868’, Queensland Heritage, 2 (1970) no 3
  • Brisbane Courier, 27 Jan 1862, 19 Mar 1869, 18 July 1870, 27 Jan 1872, 20 Nov 1873, 14 June, 17 Aug, 29 Oct, 21 Nov 1892, 24 Aug 1897
  • Town and Country Journal, 10 July 1879
  • Australian Republican, 20 Sept 1890
  • Pall Mall Gazette, 12 Dec 1891
  • Queenslander, 29 Oct 1892, 28 Aug 1897
  • Week (Brisbane), 14 Apr, 5 May 1893
  • Bulletin, 28 Aug 1897
  • D. K. Dignan, Sir Thomas McIlwraith: A Political Portrait (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1951)
  • J. C. Vockler, Sir Samuel Walker Griffith (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1953)
  • Herbert letters, 17 Sept 1865 (State Library of Queensland)
  • Barristers admission papers (Queensland State Archives)
  • biographical cuttings (State Library of Queensland)
  • CO 448/1B/561
  • WO 12/482.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Lilley, Sir Charles (1827–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Lilley (1827-1897), by unknown engraver

Charles Lilley (1827-1897), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S30/08/79/85

Life Summary [details]


27 August, 1827
Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England


20 August, 1897 (aged 69)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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