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Sir William Harrison Moore (1867–1935)

by Loretta Re

This article was published:

Harrison Moore, c.1916, Doris McKellar collection

Harrison Moore, c.1916, Doris McKellar collection

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1968

Sir William Harrison Moore (1867-1935), academic and constitutional lawyer, was born on 30 April 1867 in London, son of John Moore, printer and later journalist, and his wife Jane Dorothy, née Smith. After leaving school at 17 Moore worked as a journalist in the gallery of the House of Commons before entering the Middle Temple in 1887. Aided by scholarships, in 1891 he graduated B.A. from King's College, Cambridge, where he headed the first class in both parts of the law tripos, and LL.B. from the University of London and was called to the Bar. In 1892 he succeeded Professor Edward Jenks in the chair of law at the University of Melbourne; he held it until 1927 and was appointed professor emeritus in 1928.

Harrison Moore was a small, fine-boned man and upon his arrival members of the university council were taken aback by his bright, boyish appearance. As dean of the faculty he immediately proposed reforms, including elimination of procedure as an undergraduate course and abolition of Roman law. Neither suggestion was adopted although later, under his leadership, the Melbourne law school pioneered the teaching of administrative law as an independent subject. He saw an important role for the school in the young colony, a conviction he maintained at his retirement. 'It is inevitable', he wrote in 1927, 'that Dominion Courts should owe less to British Courts in the future than they have done in the past … our courts are now accumulating a mass of case law … we shall become more dependent on schools of law and on the literature of the law to keep the systems in harmony'.

Moore's aims within the university reflected late nineteenth-century utilitarian ideals: the school should turn out 'really competent professional men … a Law School should not become too academic'. Similarly, in a university report published in 1899, he advocated a university system which would not only provide a scientific training in the structure and organization of modern industry and commerce but bring the university into touch with the commercial sector of the community. Although his report was shelved, the proposed curriculum provided the basis for the commerce degree introduced in 1925.

Moore also stressed the moral and social value of legal education. He favoured linking the study of law with history and politics and accordingly shaped his jurisprudence course to include political philosophy, and introduced broad historical themes in constitutional and legal history. He thus addressed both law and history students and, innovatively, the general public. Sir Keith Hancock described these lectures as 'the best course that I have ever known at any of my many universities'. The themes were broad, the methods exact and the whole delivered with Moore's sardonic wit and customary precision in speech. When speaking, he would twist between his fingers a pellet of wool, pulling it to pieces as if separating the strands of an argument and rewinding it into a ball.

In his monthly addresses to the Law Students' Society (recorded in the student magazine Summons), Moore used his wide-ranging knowledge to trace the development of legal institutions and provide a rationale for their existence. He also advocated reform of the existing law. In a speech on arbitration in 1896 he urged establishment of a permanent international court or college of arbitrators; in 1898 he questioned the validity and utility of the jury, and on another occasion criticized the statutory method by which lawyers were obliged to set out their fees, claiming that this procedure often resulted in lawyers being overpaid.

Undoubtedly, Moore's major contribution to the thought of his generation lay in constitutional law. He took an immediate interest in the work of the Federalists at the 1893 Corowa conference and in the drafting of the proposed constitution. By the time the Australasian Federal Convention's first meeting in Adelaide in 1897 ended, Moore was an acknowledged authority on the drafts and was 'used as a human reference library' by convention members. In 1902 he published The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. It was his major work and the first scholarly study of the subject. It included a history of the Federation movement and a detailed examination of the Constitution. He maintained that national sentiment in favour of Federal power would, in time, recede and be reflected in constitutional amendments. 'The great facility', he wrote, 'with which the Australian Constitution may be altered, makes it probable, that its development will be guided, less by judicial interpretation, and more by formal amendment, than the development of the Constitution of the United States'. But, as J. A. La Nauze has commented, 'his famous pupils would have had less to do if he had proved to be a true prophet'. Moore published his second book, Acts of State in English Law, in 1906.

Moore's Cambridge background, his correct English manner and outlook, and a pronounced puritanical streak enabled him to fit easily into the Melbourne Establishment; he was a member of the Melbourne Club. His social position was ensured by his marriage on 10 November 1898 to Edith Eliza, daughter of (Sir) Thomas à Beckett. Edith was an intelligent and strong-minded woman who omitted the conventional vow of obedience during their wedding ceremony at the Toorak Wesleyan Church. She was active in social movements, helping to secure the establishment of the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women and vigorous in her work for female suffrage. The Moores had no children and their domestic life at Arolla, a gracious house set in a rambling garden, was quiet.

Moore was a conservative, although his friends (Sir) Ernest Scott and (Sir) John Latham remarked on his political neutrality and detachment, claiming that 'he was a liberal supporter of … societies … [concerned with] political issues', but 'careful never to ally himself with any political section'. During World War I he warmly supported conscription. In 1920 he criticized the concept of the caucus in 'Political systems of Australia', a chapter in M. Atkinson (ed), Australia: Economic and Political Studies; but his partisanship was more evident after his retirement. Four months after Labor's election in 1929 Moore actively advocated the need for a restriction of the activities of the Federal government, and in 1930 he censured Labor when it nominated only one person for the position of governor-general, although he did not question Sir Isaac Isaacs's fitness for the office. By May next year his political leanings were quite open: in a letter to the Argus on the conversion loan, an authoritative statement on the economic situation culminated in a ringing denunciation of the Labor leaders, Scullin, Theodore and Lang.

Harrison Moore was closely involved with the Victorian government as its official adviser on constitutional matters (1907-10), and with conservative Federal governments; Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson also consulted him on constitutional questions. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1917 and K.B.E. in 1925. Much of his research in the early 1920s was directed to assisting Sir Leo Cussen to prepare the Victorian Imperial Acts Application Act (1922). In October 1927 he attended the Rome conference revising the Bonn convention on artistic and literary copyright and afterwards travelled through Europe, visiting universities and assessing attitudes to the League of Nations; he also participated in the league's attempted codification of international law. In May 1928 he was appointed an Australian delegate to the league. Reappointed in 1929 and 1930, he played a significant role in the league commission in Geneva which revised the rules of the Permanent International Court of Justice.

Moore was also keenly interested in Imperial relations. As early as 1908 he had advocated a regular conference of lawyers of the Empire and called for the creation of a legal administrative union to collect and disseminate information. In 1927 he addressed the University of Chicago on the British Empire and its problems, as well as on the White Australia policy, and in 1929 he represented Australia at the Operation of Dominion Legislation Conference in London which led to the Statute of Westminster (1931). Moore subsequently wrote an article in support of the suggestion of an Empire tribunal.

After 1930 Moore was chairman of the Victorian division of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and a member of the executive committee of the Institute of Pacific Relations, leading a delegation to a conference in Shanghai, China, in November 1931. The last two years of his life were devoted to the completion of an article on the law to be applied in suits between governments in Canada and Australia. Characteristically, it was a lucid, meticulously researched piece which led him, like much else in his studies, into the borderland between constitutional and international law.

Moore died at Toorak on 1 July 1935 after a life remarkable for its dedication and hard work, and was cremated; his wife survived him. One of his most enduring contributions to Australia was his emphasis on Federal constitutional law and international law within the University of Melbourne; it has been claimed that the esteem enjoyed by the High Court of Australia reflects Moore's influence as a teacher on several of its members.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1936)
  • W. K. Hancock, Country and Calling (Lond, 1954)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • Joan Lindsay, Time Without Clocks (Melb, 1962)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Melb, 1972)
  • L. Re and P. Alston, ‘William Harrison Moore. Third Dean of the Faculty of Law’, in R. Campbell, A History of the Melbourne Law School, 1857 to 1973 (Melb, 1977)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 July 1935
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 July 1935
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 July 1935
  • Law Faculty, University of Melbourne, Minutes (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • W. H. Moore papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Loretta Re, 'Moore, Sir William Harrison (1867–1935)', 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

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