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.

George Arnot Maxwell (1859–1935)

by Norma Marshall

This article was published:

View Previous Version

George Arnot Maxwell (1859-1935), by Tom Glover, 1925

George Arnot Maxwell (1859-1935), by Tom Glover, 1925

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6479900 [detail]

George Arnot Maxwell (1859-1935), barrister and politician, was born on 30 April 1859 at Montrose, Forfarshire, Scotland, second of five sons of David Skinner Maxwell, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Margaret, née Arnot. His paternal grandmother was a Jamaican-born daughter of a slave owner and a free woman of colour. He attended school in Fifeshire until 14 before migrating with his parents in 1875 when his father was appointed to South Yarra, Melbourne. George was briefly a jackeroo near Broken Hill, New South Wales, but after a sickly childhood was unsuited to outback life. In 1876-79 he was a clerk in the Flinders Lane warehouse of Beath, Schiess & Co., at the same time completing matriculation. He spent one year as resident master at Toorak College and eighteen months in a similar position at Caulfield Grammar School.

While teaching, Maxwell studied at the University of Melbourne (B.A., LL.B., 1890), succeeding only by perseverance, but demonstrating oratorical gifts as prelector of the Dialectical Society, Trinity College, as a Presbyterian lay preacher and as a National Association lecturer. After pupillage under J. B. Box he was admitted to the Bar in 1891 and within four years had a considerable practice in criminal cases.

Maxwell eventually, certainly by the 1920s, became the foremost advocate of the criminal Bar in Victoria, judged by Sir Arthur Dean as 'beyond all question the greatest [Victorian] criminal advocate of modern times' and by Sir Robert Menzies as 'the greatest criminal advocate I ever heard'. His appearance was impressive; tall, dark, sallow and aquiline, he possessed a resonant voice with an attractive Scottish burr. More important were the sincerity and earnestness derived from his religious convictions. He believed in the innocence of his clients; contemporaries claimed he had a remarkable faculty for self-conviction. He was a poor cross-examiner and lacking in order but his defects were outweighed by his persuasive powers.

Maxwell stood unsuccessfully for the Legislative Assembly on several occasions: Collingwood, 1891; Prahran, 1897; Warrnambool, 1900; Carlton, 1902; Evelyn, 1914. He also nominated unsuccessfully for the Australasian Federal Convention. In 1917 he won for the National Party the Labor-held Federal seat of Fawkner.

Possessed of a strong social conscience, Maxwell was proud to have been chairman from 1897 of the board which set wages for workers manufacturing underclothing following the passing of the Victorian Factories Act. His conscience and his belief in his duties to his constituents made him an unreliable party man. He disliked what he saw as the sectionalism of the Country and Labor parties and was unhappy with the 1923 Bruce-Page electoral pact. Following his conscience he voted against the Bruce-Page government on many issues in 1929, including the crucial maritime industries bill which led to the government's fall. Unopposed by Labor he was re-elected in 1929. He briefly joined Billy Hughes's Australian Party, but resigned in May 1930 and sat as an Independent until he joined the United Australia Party in 1931. Throughout these vicissitudes he was respected by political opponents for his integrity.

Maxwell had lost the sight of one eye suddenly in 1920, the result of a break in the retinal nerve. Most of his remaining sight was lost in 1921 and he became totally blind in 1929. He faced his affliction with fortitude, even using it to advantage in court appearances and in his electorate. He was appointed K.C. in 1926 and remained an active Presbyterian layman.

On 19 December 1896 Maxwell had married, at Yarra Glen, Jean Russell Ross; they had four daughters and one son. He died at his home at Canterbury on 25 June 1935 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Wildavsky and D. Carboch, Studies in Australian Politics (Melb, 1958)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • R. G. Menzies, The Measure of the Years (Melb, 1970)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1929, p 552
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 7 Feb 1896, 15 Nov 1928
  • Punch (Melbourne), 11 July 1907, 5 Apr 1917
  • Age (Melbourne) 26, 27 June 1935
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26, 27 June 1935
  • D. J. E. Potts, A Study of Three Nationalists in the Bruce-Page Government of 1923-1929 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1972)
  • D.B. Stewart, ‘James Maxwell (1795-1862): A Good Scottish-Jamaican doctor,’ in West Indian Medical Journal 43 no. 4 (1994): 112-6. 

Citation details

Norma Marshall, 'Maxwell, George Arnot (1859–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 June 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

George Arnot Maxwell (1859-1935), by Tom Glover, 1925

George Arnot Maxwell (1859-1935), by Tom Glover, 1925

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6479900 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


30 April, 1859
Montrose, Forfarshire, Scotland


25 June, 1935 (aged 76)
Canterbury, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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.