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Sir Robert Furse McMillan (1858–1931)

by Eric J. Edwards

This article was published:

Sir Robert Furse McMillan (1858-1931), chief justice, was born on 24 January 1858 at Camden New Town, London, eldest son and third of nine children of John McMillan, barrister and West India merchant, and his wife Mary, née Furse. He was registered as John, but when baptized on 2 June he was named after his maternal grandfather. The family lived in London but also had a country home.

At 13 Robert went to Westminster School where two years later he became a Queen's scholar. He attended Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, where in 1879 he became a scholar and, in 1880, a fellow. Completing the law tripos, first class (bracketed senior), in 1879, and his LL.B. next year, he was called to the Bar in 1881, having been admitted to the Inner Temple where he had been a scholar and an Inns of Court student. He earned a reputation at the Bar for thoroughness and, unlike his father, avoided participation in politics or business. On 2 August 1887 at St Paul's Church, Hampstead, London, McMillan married Margaret Aitchison Elder, daughter of a Victorian pastoralist.

In 1902 he was invited to apply for appointment to a vacant judgeship in Perth. He did so, was appointed and, with misgivings, arrived at Fremantle early next year. On 18 March he sat for the first time as a member of the full court. In 1914 McMillan became chief justice. He was knighted in 1916 and appointed K.C.M.G. in 1925. Lieutenant-governor from 1921, he acted as administrator of the State in 1922, 1924 and 1929.

His influence on the laws and legal system was substantial. He did not spare himself as a judge; the number of his reported judgments (828) far exceeds that of any other Western Australian judge, certainly in the first half of the century. Few of his judgments were taken on appeal, and in most of those that were his opinion prevailed. Speaking in 1961, Sir Owen Dixon praised him as 'an ornament to the judiciary; one who struck the imagination of any young judge as a man of the highest refinement and character, representing the best traditions of the judiciary in the English-speaking world'.

McMillan had great charm. Clean-shaven and handsome, though stern-looking and reserved, he was eloquent, witty and courteous. When he was first appointed there had been resentment that the government had not filled the vacancy from the local profession. But this soon evaporated and he was widely esteemed, not only by lawyers. Sir John Northmore said of him, he was 'not a man who courted popularity. On the contrary he was of a reserved disposition. But [popularity] came to him unsought in full measure … no man at the time of his death held such a high place in the regard of the people of the State and no other held a higher place in the affection of those who called him friend or in the respect of those who … knew him only as Chief Justice'.

Like many of his peers, McMillan believed that socially a judge should remain aloof, and he adhered to this strictly. Shortly after his arrival in Perth he had a house built at View Street, Peppermint Grove, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was a member of the Weld Club. His hobbies were collecting china and old books, gardening and music; he regularly took early morning swims in the Swan River near his home. He was a member of the board of governors of Perth High School and a trustee of the Public Library of Western Australia and of the Western Australian Museum and Art Gallery.

Sir Robert collapsed and died on 23 April 1931 at the opening of St George's College at the University of Western Australia, having just, in a typically humorous, appropriate and well-received speech, thanked the governor for his address. He had been a devout Anglican and his remains lay in state in St George's Cathedral before his burial in Karrakatta cemetery. His wife, two daughters and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Western Australia Law Review, 6, no 2, Dec 1963
  • Brighton Times (England), 24 Sept 1880, supplement
  • West Australian, 1 Dec 1902, 24, 25 Apr 1931
  • Times (London), 24 Apr 1931
  • private information.

Citation details

Eric J. Edwards, 'McMillan, Sir Robert Furse (1858–1931)', 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]

Alternative Names
  • McMillan, John

24 January, 1858
London, Middlesex, England


23 April, 1931 (aged 73)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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