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.

Sir Edward Fancourt Mitchell (1855–1941)

by Elise B. Histed

This article was published:

Sir Edward Fancourt Mitchell (1855-1941), barrister, was born on 21 July 1855 at Richmond, Surrey, England, son of (Sir) William Henry Fancourt Mitchell and his wife Christina, née Templeton. He was educated at Geelong and Melbourne Church of England Grammar schools, winning the matriculation exhibition in mathematics in 1874. In 1876 he entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge (B.A., LL.B., 1880; M.A., 1883).

Called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, London, in 1881, Mitchell returned to Australia and was admitted to the Victorian Bar in the same year. He began his career as junior to J. L. Purves and soon built up a considerable practice, appearing almost exclusively before the Supreme Court. Contemporaries remembered him not only for his legal expertise but also for his height, gentlemanly bearing and courteous manner.

On 16 December 1886 he married Eliza Fraser Morrison (1864-1948), daughter of Alexander Morrison, headmaster of Scotch College, Melbourne, and his wife Christina, née Fraser. Born at Scotch College on 30 March 1864, Eliza had been educated at home and at Presbyterian Ladies' College, and had travelled extensively through Europe in 1882-83. They had four daughters, including Mary and Janet.

In 1893, as a result of the bank crisis in Victoria, Edward Mitchell was asked by the directors of Goldsbrough, Mort & Co. Ltd to represent the company in London. Successful in persuading the debenture holders not to force the company into liquidation by claiming their money, he was appointed chairman of directors on his return. On a similar mission two years later, he succeeded in negotiating major modifications on behalf of the shareholders. After serving as chairman in 1893-96 Mitchell was the company's adviser, only giving up the position in order to win back a leading place at the Bar. Following a further business trip to London in 1897, he devoted much of his time to working for a favourable vote in the 1898 Federation referendum.

After Federation Mitchell became one of the leading barristers in the fields of constitutional and equity law, appearing in most of the important constitutional cases to come before the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council. In 1902 he and his wife again travelled to London when he was briefed to appear in three cases before the Privy Council. Appointed K.C. in 1904, by 1913 he was generally acknowledged as pre-eminent at the Victorian Bar.

In 1910 Mitchell became chancellor of the diocese of Melbourne and as such, despite misgivings of Church members, advised Archbishop Clarke to bring his successful libel action against Truth newspaper. A devout layman, Mitchell continued to work for the Church as chancellor until his death.

From his youth, when he placed a bet on Adam Lindsay Gordon's steeplechase winner, Mitchell had wide sporting interests. He was a founding member of the (Royal) Melbourne Golf Club, but his main interests lay in tennis and cricket. Having represented Victoria against New South Wales in 1886 and 1887, he became vice-president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria in 1893 and later induced the association to obtain its Kooyong property. He became its patron in 1906 and a life member in 1908. A member of the Melbourne Cricket Club from 1873, he was president in 1933-41, a trustee of the ground and in 1907-08 Victorian representative on the Australian Board of Control for international cricket matches.

As chairman of the Edward Wilson Trust, Mitchell was responsible for the distribution of funds to charitable organizations. In 1918 he attempted to enter the House of Representatives, standing unsuccessfully for National Party preselection for the seat of Flinders against S. M. (Viscount) Bruce who attributed Mitchell's failure to his dreariness as a public speaker. Anecdotes also bear witness to his ponderousness and lack of 'verbal felicity'.

At the start of World War I Eliza Mitchell was appointed a foundation member of the Red Cross council and became chairman of the Victorian Red Cross home hospitals committee in 1914-15. Late in 1915 the family travelled to England for Mitchell to appear again before the Privy Council. As chairman of the committee for hospital visiting, Eliza continued to work for the Red Cross until she was appointed assistant commissioner of the Australian Red Cross Society in England in January 1918. That year she was appointed C.B.E. and Edward K.C.M.G., a rare honour for members of the legal profession other than judges.

On her return to Australia in 1919 Lady Mitchell became widely involved in voluntary work. She was re-elected to the councils of the Australian Red Cross and of its Victorian division, remaining a member for many years. In 1920 she led an appeal for £20,000 for the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women, and the new wing of the hospital built with the funds raised was named after her. A founding member of the Victoria League in 1908, she became president of its immigration committee. She chaired the women's standing committee of the New Settlers' League, as well as devoting much of her time to promotion of the Bush Nursing Association (president, 1927). She enlisted the support of her husband to arrange funding by the Wilson Trust and the Victorian government for the training of nurses. In addition she helped to found the Victorian Country Women's Association and was its president in 1928-30. Much of her work for these organizations is described in her autobiography, Three-Quarters of a Century (London, 1940).

Meanwhile Sir Edward Mitchell continued his distinguished career, opposing Premier Lang's financial policies in New South Wales through articles published in the Argus in 1930-31 and his book, What Every Australian Ought to Know (1931), a work dealing with the legality of financial agreements between the Commonwealth and States. He was also prominent in the conversion of the internal public debts of Australia by ensuring the immunity of new bonds from Federal tax increases.

Mitchell died in Melbourne on 7 May 1941 and his wife at Brighton on 1 October 1948. Both were buried in the family grave in St Kilda cemetery. Their four daughters survived them.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Mitchell, Spoils of Opportunity (Lond, 1938)
  • C. Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne (Lond, 1965)
  • N. Adams, Family Fresco (Melb, 1966)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 June 1918, 31 Oct, 8 Nov 1930, 28 Mar 1931, 8 May 1941
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 May 1941
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Elise B. Histed, 'Mitchell, Sir Edward Fancourt (1855–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 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]


21 July, 1855
Richmond, Surrey, England


7 May, 1941 (aged 85)
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.

Key Organisations
Political Activism