Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Norman John O'Bryan (1894–1968)

by J. McI. Young

This article was published:

Sir Norman John O'Bryan (1894-1968), judge, was born on 16 October 1894 in South Melbourne, youngest of six children of Victorian-born parents Michael John O'Bryan, bank manager, and his wife Mary Ann, née Gleeson. Norman was educated at St Peter and Paul's School, South Melbourne, St Patrick's College, East Melbourne, and Christian Brothers' College, Victoria Parade (dux 1910). At the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1915) he topped his final year and won the Supreme Court judges' prize. While at university he joined the Catholic Debating Society, competed in cross-country events, rowed, and played cricket and tennis. He had been a member of the Melbourne University Rifles since 1913, but his father opposed his enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force until he had completed his articles of clerkship.

Articled to Plante & Henty in 1915, O'Bryan was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor on 1 August 1916. Two months earlier he had enlisted in the A.I.F. Commissioned in April 1917, he served in France from April 1918 with the 3rd Army Brigade, Australian Field Artillery. He was promoted lieutenant in June and wounded in September. After spending some months in chambers at the Middle Temple, London, he returned to Melbourne where his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 25 December 1919. He signed the Bar roll on 20 February 1920 and read in the chambers of L. B. Cussen.

At St Patrick's Cathedral, East Melbourne, on 1 June 1921 O'Bryan married Elsa Duncan, a 24-year-old accountant. One child of the marriage survived, but Elsa died in childbirth in 1928. On 14 December 1929 at the same cathedral O'Bryan married her youngest sister Violet Leila Duncan, who was then aged 28. In his early years at the Bar, he held a part-time lectureship (1929-32) at the university in private international law. Despite the Depression, his practice grew steadily. He was a forceful advocate who prepared his cases thoroughly and excelled at trials, though he also appeared before royal commissions and courts of appeal.

In 1937 O'Bryan took silk. On 2 February 1939 he was appointed an acting-judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria during the absence on leave of Sir James Macfarlan. His appointment was made permanent in September. He conducted his court particularly well in cases before juries, whether civil or criminal, and was noted for his lucid explanation of the law. Essentially a 'common law' judge, he was quick, invariably courteous, fair, and vigorous in argument. He was equally at home in appellate cases, of which he did an increasing amount in his later years on the bench. His judicial work was always practical and he was popular with the legal profession.

During World War II O'Bryan acted as legal adviser to the minister for the army and as an official visitor to internment camps in Victoria. Knighted in 1958, he retired from the bench in October 1966. Throughout his life he was a devout Catholic who devoted time and energy to charitable work. A member for more than thirty years of the electoral college of St Vincent's Hospital, Fitzroy, he also chaired (1944-63) the hospital's advisory council. In retirement, he became a lay catechist, gave religious instruction at Melbourne High School and worked for a number of religious institutions, contributing to them with his usual enthusiasm.

A tall, well-built and sartorially distinguished man, Sir Norman had a distinctive walk—a long stride with one arm swinging vigorously. He liked sport and served on the committee of the Melbourne Cricket Club. Declining health curtailed his enjoyment of bowls and gardening. Survived by his wife, their daughter and four sons, and by the daughter of his first marriage, he died on 5 June 1968 at his Toorak home and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. Paul Fitzgerald's portrait of O'Bryan is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • K. Anderson, Fossil in the Sandstone (Melb, 1986)
  • R. Coleman, Above Renown (Melb, 1988)
  • N. M. O'Bryan, Kinkora (Vic, 1994)
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Jan 1956, 12 Nov 1962, 5 Oct 1966, 6 June 1968
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

J. McI. Young, 'O'Bryan, Sir Norman John (1894–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 October, 1894
South Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


5 June, 1968 (aged 73)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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.