Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir James Ross Macfarlan (1872–1955)

by Elise B. Histed

This article was published:

Sir James Ross Macfarlan (1872-1955), judge, was born on 30 April 1872 at Glenlyon, Victoria, son of James Macfarlan, storekeeper and postmaster, and his wife Mary, née Nairn, both from Scotland. Of Presbyterian upbringing, he attended Wesley College, Melbourne, and after winning the Walter Powell scholarship, became a student at Queen's College, University of Melbourne. He graduated B.A. with first-class honours in 1893 and taught as senior classics master at Geelong Church of England Grammar School before obtaining his LL.B. and M.A. in 1896. He was admitted to the Bar that year, reading with (Sir) Leo Cussen.

In 1898-99 Macfarlan was acting professor of law and modern history at the University of Tasmania, and then went into practice at the Victorian Bar. He was elected a fellow of Queen's College in 1901. On 23 December 1902 at St George's Church, Hobart, he married Hilda Charlotte, daughter of W. G. Gibson, member of the Legislative Council of Tasmania; they had five children.

His first legal success came at Bendigo, where he built up a considerable practice in common law and commercial cases. He was known for hard fighting, handling his opponents and their witnesses roughly but fairly. In 1913 he stood unsuccessfully for Liberal pre-selection for the newly created Federal division of Henty, then continued to work for the Liberal party at Sandringham, and later at St Kilda; in November 1917 he stood, again unsuccessfully, as an Independent Nationalist for the State seat of St Kilda.

Macfarlan took silk in 1920 and in January 1922 was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, following the resignation of Sir Joseph Hood. He was appointed senior puisne judge in 1935 and was knighted in 1938. As a judge, he was considered an outstanding exponent of common law, known for the care with which he watched the interests of the accused in criminal trials. However, he had a reputation for a short temper with counsel, his keen perception of the points of an argument arousing his impatience with those of slower comprehension. Frequent complaints came to a head when Macfarlan fined a barrister who persisted in trying to establish his point. The Bar advised (Sir) Robert Menzies, the attorney-general, that Macfarlan should be removed from the bench for misbehaviour. The crisis was averted, and matters generally improved, after a personal visit by the attorney-general to Macfarlan whose irascibility on the bench was in marked contrast to his charming manner on social occasions.

A keen golfer, Macfarlan was a member of the Royal Melbourne (for which he played pennant) and Barwon Heads golf clubs. He was also a member of the Melbourne Club where he resided from 1935. He enjoyed shooting and was fluent in French and Italian.

In 1949 Sir James resigned from the Supreme Court bench and in 1950 had the unusual experience of reading of his own death in Debrett's Peerage—an error which he took in good humour. He died on 12 July 1955 at South Yarra, survived by four sons and one daughter, and was cremated. Macfarlan's younger brother Ian was briefly premier of Victoria in 1945.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • P. Joske, Sir Robert Menzies 1894-1978 (Aust, 1978)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 1 Nov 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Dec 1920
  • Bulletin, 13 Jan 1921
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17, 18 Jan 1922, 9 June 1938, 21 Dec 1949, 13 July 1955
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 June 1938, 21 Dec 1949
  • Herald (Melbourne), 15, 19 July 1950
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 19, 20 July 1950.

Citation details

Elise B. Histed, 'Macfarlan, Sir James Ross (1872–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 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

Life Summary [details]


30 April, 1872
Glenlyon, Victoria, Australia


12 July, 1955 (aged 83)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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