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Thomas William McCawley (1881–1925)

by Malcolm Cope

This article was published:

Thomas William McCawley (1881-1925), public servant and chief justice, was born on 24 July 1881 at Toowoomba, Queensland, sixth of eight children of Irish-born James McCawley, drover, and his wife Mary, née Stenner, from Prussia. Educated at the Sisters of Mercy's Hibernian Hall and at a state school, at 14 he became a clerk with the local solicitors, Hamilton & Wonderley. He also studied shorthand at the technical college. In 1898 he joined the Queensland Government Savings Bank, Brisbane, as a clerk on probation and was promoted to positions with the Public Service Board in 1899 and the Department of Justice in 1900. After hours he studied law and followed the Toowong Football and Viking Cricket clubs.

McCawley worked with the attorney-general (Sir) James Blair on several important, successful appeals by the Crown, and with Blair and Thomas Macleod published The Workers' Compensation Act of 1905. From May 1907 he was joint editor, with Macleod, of The Queensland Justice of the Peace and Local Authorities' Journal, a monthly publication. Admitted to the Bar on 7 May 1907, he was appointed first clerk of the Justice Department and certifying barrister, and admitted to the professional division of the public service. He then acted as master of titles and as legal adviser to the stamp commissioner (1908), and was confirmed as crown solicitor in November 1910 after six months acting. It was a controversial appointment, made by Attorney-General T. O'Sullivan.

The Labor victory in 1915 added to the considerable volume of crown business. McCawley's advice was sought in many successful appeals. He instructed T. J. Ryan before the Privy Council in the so-called Eastern case and before the High Court of Australia in the stock embargo case. He played a key role in drafting the government's industrial arbitration and workers' compensation bills, and prepared a comprehensive memorandum on workers' compensation and insurance. He had also revised W. G. Cahill's The Policeman's Manual—Royal Irish Constabulary (Brisbane, 1913). In 1915 he was rewarded by the dual appointment of under secretary for justice and crown solicitor. He was also a member of the Workers' Dwellings Board.

Objections were raised in vain—on political grounds and his lack of experience as a barrister—against McCawley's appointments in January 1917 as first president of the Queensland Court of Industrial Arbitration (from January) and puisne judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland (from October). The Supreme and High courts held that his appointment to the Supreme Court was invalid, but the Privy Council upheld it. McCawley took his place on the bench in May 1920. Subsequently, on 1 April 1922, while retaining his position with the arbitration court, he became the youngest chief justice in the British Empire.

McCawley's most significant contribution as a judge was in the field of industrial law and industrial relations. He knew precisely the aims and intentions of the government. As president of the arbitration court he knew that his function was not merely to conciliate and arbitrate but was also in part legislative in so far as it involved determining—and improving—wages and conditions of workers. He had read the Fabian tracts and was familiar with the work of Mr Justice H. B. Higgins. During his presidency of the court, unions were granted preference, thus allowing them to be brought in as a fundamental part of industrial law which in turn led to a rapid increase in their membership.

Several significant decisions readjusting wages for workers were handed down by McCawley. In 1917, for the first time, he framed an award for all railway employees; he was responsible for consolidating award wages in many industries. In 1921, again for the first time, he fixed a minimum wage for the State after a review of the methods of wage-fixing throughout Australia: the minimum wage was fixed on the basis of what industries of average prosperity could afford to pay. At the time of his death, he was working on a redetermination of the basic wage with the object of freeing a married man with a family from economic disability or inequality. He also hoped that a uniform system of industrial arbitration to avoid disputes between the States and the Commonwealth could be established.

McCawley published several pamphlets and articles on industrial arbitration as well as a pamphlet on criminal punishment and a short book, Industrial Arbitration (1924). He also left unpublished fragments, including the beginnings of what was designed to be a critical study of 'industrial arbitration, its success and failure'. Notes containing a plan for a biography of Sir Samuel Griffith, whom he revered, are among his papers.

A member of the Senate of the University of Queensland from 1919, McCawley advocated the study of Australian literature and economics and encouraged industry and the public service to employ graduates as a way of raising standards. He supported establishment of a law school and took an active part in the formation of the local economic society. He belonged to various Brisbane clubs, including the Royal Queensland Golf Club.

McCawley was described as virile and athletic, as a man of wide culture with a genial and entertaining personality. He died suddenly of coronary vascular disease on 16 April 1925 at Roma Street railway station, Brisbane, survived by his wife Margaret Mary, née O'Hagan, whom he had married at St Stephen's Cathedral on 29 November 1911, and by four sons and a daughter. A staunch Catholic, he was given a state funeral at St Stephen's Cathedral before the burial at Toowong cemetery. Parliament was asked to provide for the education of his children and the Brisbane Courier launched an appeal for his family. On 13 December 1927 a bronze bust of McCawley was unveiled at the Board of Trade and Arbitration, Brisbane.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • R. Johnston, History of the Queensland Bar (Brisb, 1979)
  • Queensland State Reports, 1917, p 62
  • University of Queensland Law Journal, 9 (1976), no 2, p 224
  • Brisbane Courier, 9, 23 Mar, 6 Apr, 23 Aug 1918, 17, 22 Apr 1925
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 27 Apr 1918
  • Punch (Melbourne), 26 Jan 1922
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 16, 17 Apr 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17, 18, 22 Apr, 7 May 1925, 13 Dec 1927
  • M. Cope, A Study of Labour Government and the Law in Queensland, 1915-1922 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1972).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Malcolm Cope, 'McCawley, Thomas William (1881–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 13 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

Life Summary [details]


24 July, 1881
Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia


16 April, 1925 (aged 43)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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