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Paris Nesbit (1852–1927)

by Graham Loughlin

This article was published:

Paris Nesbit (1852-1927), by Hammer & Co., c1900

Paris Nesbit (1852-1927), by Hammer & Co., c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 16966

Paris Nesbit (1852-1927), lawyer, was born on 8 August 1852 at Angaston, South Australia, second son of Edward Planta Nesbit, schoolmaster, author and land agent, and his first wife Ann (d.1854), née Pariss. Edward Pariss received the name of his deceased elder brother; in 1896 he changed it to Paris. The English writer Edith Nesbit was a cousin.

A prodigy, Nesbit mastered German, French and Latin, and read Shakespeare and the major poets by the age of 10. By then he had translated Goethe and Schiller into English (eventually published as Translations from German Poets, 1911), and studied music under Carl Linger. Educated at Rev. G. Rechner's school at Light's Pass and M. P. F. Basedow's Grammar School, Tanunda, at 13 Nesbit topped the colony's scholarship examinations. He worked briefly in a bank.

In 1868 he was articled to Rupert Ingleby (senior), Q.C. With C. C. Kingston Nesbit formed the Articled Clerks' (later Law Students') Debating Society; he was active in Rev. James Jefferis's North Adelaide Young Men's Society, whose journals, Eclectic and Young Men's Magazine, he edited. He was athletic, developed progressive ideas for social reform and, an Anglican, became disillusioned with Christian conservatism.

Nesbit was admitted to the Bar in 1873 and proved a witty, versatile, and skilled counsel in both civil and criminal jurisdictions. He constantly took snuff in court. He drafted many complex parliamentary laws, including the Succession Duties Act (1885), Real Property Act (1886) and the Insolvency Act (1886), later incorporated in the Federal Bankruptcy Act. He prepared amendments to the Crown Lands Act while in Parkside Lunatic Asylum in 1898. In 1893 he had been appointed Q.C. and for thirty years, with Sir Josiah Symon, was widely acknowledged as joint leader of the Bar. On 9 December 1874 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Adelaide, Nesbit had married Ellen Logue; three sons survived infancy.

In 1884 Nesbit campaigned unsuccessfully for election to the House of Assembly seat of East Adelaide. He was well versed in, though not fully convinced by, the land nationalization theories of Henry George; and he became a proponent of Federation. He was a free-thinker and belonged to the Dual Club, the Adelaide Philosophical Society, the Adelaide Democratic Club, the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Australian Natives' Association of which he was Adelaide president in 1892.

At 33 the first lunacy scandal erupted. In Melbourne in 1885 he was arrested for wilful trespass after harassing a lady he loved. He was in Melbourne Gaol for a week, certified as a lunatic, and sent to Kew Lunatic Asylum. Released after several months and put on a steamer for Adelaide, Nesbit jumped overboard, swam back to Melbourne and the lady, and was again committed.

Adelaide gossiped about this 'absinthe-drinking, woman-loving, tobacco-enslaved … Prince of Bohemia'. His estranged wife was the daughter of a substantial local brewer and the scandal precluded a political career. In his pamphlet, Lunacy Laws and Procedure in Victoria (1896), Nesbit commented: 'to a mad doctor I was mad in 1885, and, thank God, am mad still'.

In 1896 he was again confined, in the Adelaide Lunatic Asylum, emerging determined to gain parliamentary office and amend the lunacy laws. He campaigned unsuccessfully for Barossa that year and in 1905, once urging voters to 'thrust Kingston's great, fat, unwieldy, despotic carcass' onto the Opposition benches.

Nesbit, who thought himself 'patient and long-suffering', was belligerent when depressed. He was again certified in 1898 and was in Parkside Lunatic Asylum for most of January-July. His efforts to secure release were thwarted by the Kingston government's illegal detention order. Eventually the Supreme Court overruled the government and freed him. That year he published The Beaten Side, a repudiation of Darwinism that saw four editions.

In August 1900 Nesbit launched, and initially edited, a weekly newspaper, Morning, which proved very popular. It defamed Kingston and publicized Nesbit's views favouring social reform, divorce law reform, legal aid for the poor, decriminalization of drunkenness, equal employment opportunity, and other far-sighted changes. In 1902 a successor, Morning Star, featured erotic verses, allegedly by anonymous poetesses, addressed 'to Paris'; he was handsome, exceptionally tall, with leonine hair and a grandiloquent, charming manner.

In 1906 Nesbit narrowly failed to gain United Labor Party preselection to enter Federal parliament. He resigned from the U.L.P. and helped to lead the Liberal and Democratic Union into the amalgamated Liberal Union; however the party's conservatism alienated him and in 1910 he stood, again unsuccessfully, as an Independent for a Federal seat.

At 63 he was again certified, and briefly incarcerated, after offending public sexual decency. As usual, he issued writs and prosecutions against doctors and police who had restrained him, claiming that 'the administration of the Lunacy Act is a seething mass of filthy stinking corruption'.

Nesbit's emotional instability prevented him realizing his full promise. After his wife's death on 16 February 1921, he married, on 22 February, a divorcee, actress and his 'wife' of many years, Cecilia Elizabeth Hughes. He suffered increasingly from melancholia and died of perforated duodenal ulcer on 31 March 1927. He was cremated and his estate was sworn for probate at £400. The Art Gallery of South Australia holds a portrait by John Longstaff and another by Septimus Power is held privately.

Select Bibliography

  • Quiz and the Lantern, 14 May 1896
  • British Australasian, 16 June 1898
  • G. Loughlin, ‘Paris Nesbit Q.C.: Lawyer, Libertine and Lunatic’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 3, 1977
  • Observer (Adelaide), 29 Jan, 5, 12 Mar, 2 July 1898, 22 May 1926, 9 Apr 1927
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Feb 1898, 1 Apr 1927
  • Bulletin, 6 Oct 1900, 7 Apr 1927
  • Personalities Remembered (A.B.C. radio scripts, D 5390, State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Graham Loughlin, 'Nesbit, Paris (1852–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Paris Nesbit (1852-1927), by Hammer & Co., c1900

Paris Nesbit (1852-1927), by Hammer & Co., c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 16966

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Nesbit, Edward Pariss

8 August, 1852
Angaston, South Australia, Australia


31 March, 1927 (aged 74)

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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