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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Northmore, Sir John Alfred (1865–1958)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sir John Alfred Northmore (1865-1958), chief justice, was born on 14 September 1865 in Adelaide, one of five children of John Alfred Northmore, a prosperous draper and later a sharebroker, and his wife Susan, née Churchill. They were Quakers from the west of England. Northmore attended the Collegiate School of St Peter and the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1887). Called to the South Australian Bar in 1888, he practised at Port Pirie.

He moved to Perth and was admitted to the Western Australian Bar in 1896. After partnership with Frederick Moorhead, he headed the legal firm Northmore, Lukin & Hale, later Northmore, Hale, Davy & Leake. A King's Counsel from 1911, Northmore was elevated to the Supreme Court bench in 1914 and became chief justice in September 1931. However, after Sir William Campion's departure in June 1931, Northmore had stepped in to serve as administrator, and later as administrator and lieutenant-governor. He resigned in July 1933 because of the illness of his senior puisne judge, Thomas Draper. Northmore was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1938. He had carried out an important royal commission into the State Implement Works in 1915 and presided over commissions into electoral boundaries in 1929 and 1937. By the time he retired as chief justice in 1945 he was regarded as a genial 'national institution', but in 1947 he had to petition the government formally for the pension to which he was entitled.

As a solicitor, Northmore had been an authority on municipal law. He was long retained by the Perth City Council, which he represented as successful respondent in 1911 before the Privy Council, London, in an appeal lodged by the Perth Gas Co. On his own account, he took action in 1914 against the Avon Roads Board on a point of law requiring interpretation under the Justices Act (1902). Northmore was often briefed by the Crown Law Department, particularly on land resumption cases. As a barrister he filled his opponents with dread; and while learned counsel thought him intemperate or irascible on the Bench, it was acknowledged that his judgments stood firm and were seldom disturbed on appeal. His most notable quality was an ability to eliminate the inessential.

As pro-chancellor (1929-30) and senator (1930-36) of the University of Western Australia, and chairman of its finance committee, Northmore was vigilant over H. E. Whitfeld's and R. E. Parker's unorthodox accounting methods. The chief justice regularly spent his Saturday mornings examining the university's accounts. In 1931 he moved unsuccessfully for the imposition of fees at the university; and his contributions on senate were unimaginative. He was a foundation member of the law faculty.

Northmore was tall, with a distinguished and athletic appearance; his recreations were golf, yachting, fishing and shooting. He was a member of the Weld and Royal Perth Yacht clubs. He had a keen eye for investment and was part-owner of Swan Valley vineyards. Seemingly a confirmed bachelor, Northmore married a widow Emily Agnes Ventris, née Culmer, on 6 March 1941, in the Anglican Archbishop Le Fanu's private chapel. Predeceased by his wife (d.1957), he died on 15 May 1958 and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate in four States at over £50,000.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • Western Australian Law Reports, 17, no 17, 1915
  • Observer (Adelaide), 13 June 1891
  • Western Mail (Perth), 11 Feb 1911
  • West Australian, 11 July 1933, 22 Dec 1945, 16 May 1958, 8 July 1958.

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Northmore, Sir John Alfred (1865–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 4 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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