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John Henry McClemens (1905–1975)

by Richard J. W. D'Apice

This article was published:

John Henry McClemens (1905-1975), by Sam Hood

John Henry McClemens (1905-1975), by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales

John Henry McClemens (1905-1975), judge, conservationist and Catholic layman, was born on 7 March 1905 at Chatswood, Sydney, son of Australian-born parents Archibald John McClemens, accountant, and his wife Mary Louisa, née Thompson. Jock was educated at Chatswood Public and North Sydney Boys' High schools, and at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1925; LL.B., 1928); he combined playing Rugby Union football with debating and an interest in public affairs. Having served articles of clerkship (from 1925) with F. C. Petrie, he was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 15 March 1929. He transferred to the Bar on 14 March 1930.

Operating from 53 Martin Place, McClemens soon developed an extensive practice in the common law and industrial jurisdictions. In the archbishop's chapel at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on 23 March 1935 he married with Catholic rites Florence Mary Elizabeth Jones; they were to have two children before being divorced in 1945. During World War II McClemens took part in harbour patrols. Particularly effective in difficult jury trials, he was appointed King's Counsel in 1945. He contributed to the Australian Law Journal, the Sydney Law Review and the Australian Journal of Criminology.

A persistent critic of delays in filling judicial vacancies, McClemens was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court on 3 September 1951. He was outspoken on the inadequacies of the accommodation of the courts, on dilatory procedures, and on the high cost of litigation, especially in claims arising from motor-vehicle accidents. As royal commissioner (1961) into allegations of brutality and theft at Callan Park Mental Hospital, he found that acts of cruelty were rare and that the medical superintendent's allegations were exaggerated, but he did recommend a reduction in patient numbers in order to overcome crowding.

Involvement in criminal law, both at the Bar and as a judge, led McClemens to become interested in criminology, the prevention of crime, and the care of released offenders. He was president of the Australian Prison After-Care and of the Australian Crime Prevention councils, a member of the advisory committee of the institute of criminology at the University of Sydney, and a founder of the Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra. These concerns, as well as the preservation of human rights, the safeguarding of civil liberties and the promotion of law reform, occupied much of his time out of court.

McClemens was an office-bearer (usually president or chairman) in many organizations and government bodies associated with crime prevention and the treatment of discharged offenders. He represented the Australian government at the United Nations seminar on the 'Role of Police in the Protection of Human Rights' (Canberra, 1963) and at the U.N. Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders (Stockholm, 1965). In his report to the State government in 1974 on the New South Wales prison system, he concluded that custodial punishment had failed to reform prisoners or to deter them from committing further crimes.

When the Supreme Court Act (1970) came into effect in 1972, McClemens was appointed chief judge at common law, a position he relinquished shortly before he stepped down as a judge on attaining the statutory retiring age on 7 March 1975; at that time he was the longest-serving judge on the Supreme Court. He had come to be held in great affection by his colleagues. In his retirement address McClemens warned against the perils of delinquency and crime, urged the retention of judicial robes, railed for one last time against the inadequacies of court accommodation, and emphasized the need for an incorruptible judiciary. He offered his services as lecturer in support of the fledgling College of Law.

McClemens served as councillor (1959-69) and president (1961-65) of the National Trust of Australia (New South Wales), and also as foundation chairman (1962-69) of the Australian Council of National Trusts. He was an instigator of the National Trust Register and made significant contributions to the conservation campaign, both by his presence and his views.

A convert to Catholicism, McClemens proved active and dedicated in support of the Church, though he sometimes clashed with its hierarchy. In his early days on the bench he was known to walk from the old Supreme Court to St Mary's Cathedral to pray for men he had just sentenced to death. He and (Sir) Charles McDonald strove to build a strong Newman Association of Catholic Graduates and to establish a Catholic chaplaincy at the University of Sydney. McClemens was chairman of the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, North Sydney, and of the University Catholic Federation of Australia; he was also president of the St Thomas More Society of Catholic lawyers. In 1960 he was appointed (knight commander) to the Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope John XXIII. Representing three major Catholic lay organizations, McClemens invited Pope Paul VI to Australia and was chairman of the Citizens' Welcome Committee for the 1970 papal visit.

A large and kind-hearted man, McClemens was regarded as an approachable and humane judge, despite his roaring voice and somewhat intimidating manner. He formed a close relationship with Joan Raymunde Delaney, a schoolteacher and secretary of the Newman Association. Following the death of his former wife, he married Joan on 2 February 1967 at the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Randwick. The swift and successive deaths of the son and daughter of his first marriage in 1974 devastated him. He died of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm on 3 November 1975 at the Mater hospital and was buried with Catholic rites among his family in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His wife, who had recently retired as headmistress of Petersham Girls' High School, survived him.

McClemens's portrait (1954) by Dora Schipper is held by the Supreme Court; an award in criminology at the department of law, University of Sydney, commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • I. F. Wyatt, Ours in Trust (Syd, 1987)
  • Australian Law Journal, 49, 1975, pp 151, 700
  • Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences, 9, 1976, p 76
  • Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, 7, pt 1, 1981, p 15
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Aug, 2 Sept 1951, 13 Apr 1960
  • Supreme Court of New South Wales, farewell address 19 Feb 1975 (typescript, copy held on ADB file)
  • McClemens papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Richard J. W. D'Apice, 'McClemens, John Henry (1905–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Henry McClemens (1905-1975), by Sam Hood

John Henry McClemens (1905-1975), by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales

Life Summary [details]


7 March, 1905
Chatswood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


3 November, 1975 (aged 70)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.

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