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Richard Edward (Dick) O'Connor (1851–1912)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Richard Edward O'Connor (1851-1912), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

Richard Edward O'Connor (1851-1912), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23381771

Richard Edward (Dick) O'Connor (1851-1912), barrister, Federationist and judge, was born on 4 August 1851 at Glebe, Sydney, third son of Richard O'Connor, Irish-born parliamentary librarian, and his wife Mary Anne, née Harnett. He claimed descent from Arthur O'Connor, Irish rebel and a general in Napoleon's army, and was related to Roderic O'Connor of Connorville, Tasmania. Brought up as a devout Roman Catholic, Dick was educated in 1861-66 by the Benedictines at St Mary's College, Lyndhurst, at the non-denominational Sydney Grammar School in 1867 and at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1871; M.A., 1873). From boyhood his closest friend was (Sir) Edmund Barton on whom he exercised a restraining influence; they were always 'intensely loyal to each other'.

While working as a copying clerk in the Legislative Council in 1871-74, O'Connor frequented the Sydney School of Arts Debating Club, where he made enduring friendships with such men as the Heydon brothers, (Sir) William McMillan and (Sir) George Reid. In 1874 he began to study law and next year read with (Sir) Frederick Darley. O'Connor was admitted to the Bar on 15 June 1876. He 'devilled' for Darley for two years and eked out his income by contributing to the Echo, Freeman's Journal and Evening News, and by law reporting.

After five years in the Volunteer Artillery, Sergeant O'Connor received the customary land order, sold the land and started his magnificent law library. In 1878-83 he was crown prosecutor for the northern district and built up a successful practice, mainly in common law and in Banco, from his chambers in Wentworth Court. On 30 October 1879 he married Sara Jane Hensleigh (d.1925) at Delegate. Henceforward he would find 'all his happiness in his home'.

Although an avowed Protectionist, O'Connor was nominated to the Legislative Council on 30 December 1887 on Sir Henry Parkes's recommendation. On 23 October 1891 he became minister for justice, with the right of private practice, in (Sir) George Dibbs's Protectionist cabinet; from July to September 1893 he was also solicitor-general. Barton was attorney-general. O'Connor carried important legislation to amend the law relating to joint-stock companies, trade marks, marriage, lunacy and summary convictions, and to improve procedure in the Probate Court. Night after night he piloted through committee the complex Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act of 1893 and was repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to introduce the draft Constitution bill.

Before taking office O'Connor and Barton had accepted briefs for the plaintiff in Proudfoot v the Railway Commissioners (who retained their own solicitor). The case dragged on and in November 1893 the propriety of ministers of the Crown acting against a government department (albeit a statutory authority) was questioned in Parliament. They immediately relinquished their briefs and, after a motion was carried against them in the assembly on 7 December, resigned their portfolios. O'Connor, mentally and physically exhausted, went overseas in 1894 to recuperate and visited Egypt, Italy, England and Ireland. In Rome he 'met some very fine old Priests & Bishops … men of strong intellect, wide knowledge, full of toleration & sympathy for everything', whom he wished Dibbs could meet.

Returning invigorated, in 1895 O'Connor successfully defended William Crick on conspiracy charges arising out of the Dean case. He took silk in 1896 and was engaged as counsel for the plaintiff in McSharry v the Railway Commissioners, another protracted suit over disputed costs. From November 1898 to March 1899 he was an acting Supreme Court judge.

Well rather than widely read and a Shakespeare lover, O'Connor belonged to the Athenaeum Club in its heyday and to the Australian Club from 1890. He was a fellow of St John's College in 1874-87 and of the university senate in 1890-91 and 1893-1912. Tall, with a trim beard and luxuriant moustache, he was seen by Alfred Deakin as 'one of the type of the Spanish Irish, dark of complexion, regular of feature, the head somewhat small for the upright, well-set, deep-chested, vigorous frame'. George Cockerill found him 'somewhat grim-visaged, but possessing a ready smile that illumined his countenance'. O'Connor was no great orator, but 'his conversational voice was rich and musical, and his personal magnetism was such as to disarm opposition'.

From 1889 O'Connor and Barton had been 'comrades in the struggle for union'. They were founders of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales in 1893 and of the Central Federation League in 1896. O'Connor addressed many meetings and that year was a delegate to the People's Federal Convention at Bathurst. In 1897 he was elected to the Australasian Federal Convention. Like Barton, he was familiar with the American, Canadian and Swiss Constitutions and had made a special study of constitutional law. When the convention met in Adelaide O'Connor was elected to the constitutional and drafting committees, although almost completely unknown outside New South Wales. He did his best work 'by patient listening to others', and by helping Barton to reconcile 'the views of the Convention into one harmonious whole'. He also did 'a lot of work for which Toby Barton gets the credit'.

After unsuccessfully campaigning throughout the colony for the draft Constitution bill's acceptance, O'Connor resigned from the Legislative Council in July 1898 to contest the assembly seat of Young. Fighting on Federation issues, he was naively surprised to find himself confronted by 'country unions' and was defeated by Chris Watson. Piqued, he confided to Deakin, now a close friend, 'I don't like the idea of being licked in my first attempt to enter the Assembly'. In 1899 he campaigned less actively for the second Constitution bill referendum as he realized that he 'had to stick to my business as it began to come back or I would have been in a disastrous plight'. He still managed to speak 'four or five nights a week' in Sydney.

When in December 1900 the governor-general, Lord Hopetoun, commissioned Sir William Lyne instead of Barton to form the first Commonwealth ministry, O'Connor refused to serve under Lyne and was active in the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led him to resign his commission. Barton announced his cabinet on Christmas Day: O'Connor was vice-president of the Executive Council (an honorary portfolio). In March 1901 he was elected to the Senate at the top of the poll—the only Protectionist senator returned for New South Wales.

As government leader O'Connor displayed hitherto unsuspected parliamentary dexterity in managing the hostile Senate through three very stormy sessions, without incurring any major defeats. In 'Cabinet, he was sagacious, wise, and far-seeing. In the House he was uniformly calm, courteous and courageous'; Tom Roberts recalled that he was 'the best-liked man' in parliament. O'Connor's greatest achievement was steering the 1902 Customs Tariff Act through the Senate virtually unaltered, after 'ceaseless conflict & hard work'. Next year, when the Lower House refused to accept a Senate amendment to the sugar bounty bill that in effect increased taxation, he persuaded the Senate not to insist. From the opening of parliament he was responsible for discouraging the Senate from voting as a States' house and convinced the majority that it was their duty to bow to the wishes of the House of Representatives. He was one of the few whose reputation was 'enhanced by Federation'.

His control was the more remarkable as he struggled to maintain his practice in Sydney between parliamentary sessions in Melbourne, but found there was no longer 'the same continuous stream that used to make my business so good'. The Catholic Press believed he had sacrificed an income of £4000 a year to accept office. In June 1901 he reluctantly told Deakin that he could not continue wthout some remuneration; Sir John Forrest agreed that it was 'unreasonable' to expect him to 'do ministerial work for nothing'. As the number of salaried ministers was limited by the Constitution, each consented to contribute £200 a year to a fund for honorary ministers.

O'Connor's last major task in the Senate was to carry the Judiciary Act of 1903 establishing the High Court of Australia. Shorn of two justices and retirement pensions in the House of Representatives, the bill was bitterly attacked, especially by (Sir) Josiah Symon, as an unnecessary extravagance. O'Connor resigned his portfolio on 24 September and from the Senate on 27 September. On 5 October he and Barton were appointed to the High Court bench with Sir Samuel Griffith as chief justice. For three years they worked harmoniously: Griffith later claimed that their 'minds ran in similar grooves' perhaps due to 'early training at our common University of Sydney'. They shared a balancing view of the Constitution and jealously guarded the High Court's supremacy over the Privy Council on constitutional matters. In Deakin and Lyne v Webb (1904) O'Connor forthrightly stated that it was the duty of the High Court to save the 'Constitution from the risk of what we consider a misrepresentation of its fundamental principles'. Liberal-minded, he brought to the bench 'sound common sense' and took 'almost too anxious care' in preparing his judgments. On the rare occasions that the justices disagreed it was usually O'Connor who dissented.

The court had more appellate work than expected and caused passing resentment by applying scholarly standards to their judgments and by demanding a high level of advocacy and proficiency from the Bar. With 'fatal frequency' decisions of the State judiciaries were overturned. Symon, on becoming attorney-general in December 1904, tried to move the court's principal seat to Melbourne and humiliated the justices by cutting travelling and other expenses. O'Connor believed that abolishing tipstaves and associates would 'materially affect the efficiency of the court'. Angry and voluminous correspondence was exchanged and in May 1905 he cancelled a sitting of the court in Melbourne without due notice. A compromise was not reached until (Sir) Isaac Isaacs took office in July.

In February 1905 O'Connor had reluctantly accepted the additional office of president of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. He took a 'good deal of trouble with the decisions', which were all written in order to 'cover the beginnings of things in the working of the court', but soon complained that the High Court's appellate and circuit work left little time for arbitration. After he had resigned from the Arbitration Court late in 1907, he sometimes agreed on industrial matters with Isaacs and Henry Bournes Higgins, whose appointment to the High Court in December 1906 destroyed its unanimity. A later chief justice, Sir Owen Dixon, believed that O'Connor's work on the bench 'lived better than that of anybody else of the earlier times'. O'Connor twice declined a knighthood; in 1902 he threatened to refuse publicly if his name was not removed from the coronation honours list. He was, however, disappointed that he was not appointed to the Privy Council.

From childhood O'Connor had been fascinated by the romantic story of Arthur O'Connor's involvement in the 1798 Irish rebellion. He ardently supported the Home Rule movement, chaired its Sydney executive in the early 1900s, and raised funds for the Redmonds in Ireland. Although a leading layman, he had several public disagreements with Cardinal Patrick Moran. Respected by Protestants, as well as by Catholics, he stood above the sectarianism that was rampant in New South Wales.

A devoted husband and father, O'Connor was never happier than when gardening at his country home, Gleneric, that he had built at Moss Vale in 1893. He walked long distances every day and, while a senator, 'engaged in violent bodily discipline' in the parliamentary gymnasium. Moderate and careful in his mode of living, he loved trout-fishing, looking forward to his annual camping holiday in the Snowy Mountains, in later years accompanied by his sons. He regarded Dalgety as 'an ideal site for a Federal capital'.

Troubled by chronic nephritis and unable to retire (because he was still pensionless), O'Connor went overseas in 1907-08 and in 1912. He died of pernicious anaemia in St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, on 18 November 1912 and was buried wth Catholic rites in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. His wife, four sons and two daughters survived him; his daughters married Alexander Maclay, son of Nicholai Mikluho-Maklai, and the pianist Roy Agnew. His oldest and youngest sons were killed in France in 1916 while serving with the New Zealand and British Expeditionary forces, and the third served with the light horse in the Middle East.

O'Connor's premature death was widely lamented. Barton, grief-stricken, firmly believed 'that assiduous toil did much to shorten a life that was most precious'. Griffith spoke of O'Connor as 'absolutely fearless in the performance of his judicial duties … in the rarer sense of not shrinking from the enunciation of first principles which are sometimes rather obscured than elucidated by judicial decisions'. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald concluded that he was 'a man whose reputation for uprightness exceeded even his reputation for legal and political ability. Certainly there was never a Judge on whom more implicit reliance was ever placed, or a friend upon whom one could more absolutely depend'.

A portrait of O'Connor by Percy Spence hangs in the High Court, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • G. A. Cockerill, Scribblers and Statesmen (Melb, 1944)
  • G. Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901-1929 (Melb, 1956)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Hopetoun Blunder (Melb, 1957)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • O. Dixon, Jesting Pilate, compiled by Judge Woinarski (Syd, 1965)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Melb, 1972)
  • J. M. Bennett, Keystone of the Federal Arch (Canb, 1980)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 15, 1912-13
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 64, pt 1, June 1978, p 14
  • United Australian Review, 25 Nov 1901
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 14 Dec 1901, 20 Sept 1902, 4 Mar, 5, 12 Sept 1903, 21 Nov 1912
  • Catholic Press, 29 Jan 1903, 21 Nov 1912
  • Town and Country Journal, 30 Sept 1903
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19, 20 Nov 1912
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 19 Nov 1912
  • 'Death of Mr. Justice O'Connor', Times (London), 20 Nov 1912, p 7
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Groom papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Symon papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Edmund Barton papers (National Library of Australia and State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. H. Carruthers autobiography (typescript, State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia)
  • Way papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'O'Connor, Richard Edward (Dick) (1851–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 April 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

Richard Edward O'Connor (1851-1912), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

Richard Edward O'Connor (1851-1912), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23381771

Life Summary [details]


4 August, 1851
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


18 November, 1912 (aged 61)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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

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