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Sir Alexander Campbell Onslow (1842–1908)

by E. K. Braybrooke

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Sir Alexander Campbell Onslow (1842-1908), judge, was born on 17 July 1842 at Trichinopoly, India, fourth son of Arthur Pooley Onslow, sometime surveyor of Customs at Sydney, and his wife Rosa Roberta, daughter of Alexander McLeay; his oldest brother was Arthur Alexander Walton Onslow. Educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1864), he was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple in 1868. He practised on the Home Circuit until 1878 when he was appointed attorney-general of British Honduras, and on 4 February married Madeline Emma Loftus, youngest daughter of Rev. Robert Loftus Tottenham. In 1880 he was appointed attorney-general of Western Australia.

Onslow arrived at Albany in December 1880 and was immediately taken ill; according to a contemporary he suffered a sunstroke while playing cricket. This illness seems to have troubled him for most of his life and is often offered as an explanation for some of his later conduct. He early showed himself as both indiscreet and ill-tempered. His want of discretion appeared in an association with Baron Gifford, colonial secretary, and Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell, editor of the West Australian, in circumstances which led Governor Robinson to suspect the formation of a clique to oppose him. Robinson also reported that Onslow was offensive to all who differed from him and extremely arrogant and dictatorial, so much so that in 1881 Robinson ceased all personal communication with him except in Executive Council.

Onslow was appointed chief justice on 23 December 1882 but illness delayed him from taking his seat until July 1883. His relations with Governor Broome seem to have begun amicably; Broome, applying for leave in 1884, thought that he would 'do well to administer', adding 'he is a thorough gentleman and a nice fellow' though 'his temper and judgment are perhaps not quite perfect'. But in Broome's absence Onslow, yielding to pressure from A. P. Hensman, showed him and John Forrest a letter addressed to Broome by Lee Steere complaining of their conduct. Onslow seems to have sensed the unfairness of Broome's action in disclosing the letter to all other members of the Executive Council; moreover, the letter was thought to have been procured by Broome as a tactical move in the conflict between him and the Forrest group. But the letter was marked 'Confidential', and Broome was incensed by its disclosure, which he described as 'a hanging matter'. He determined that Onslow should not again administer the government and appointed Malcolm Fraser administrator during an absence in 1885; this was a particular affront to Onslow's pride.

Conflict arose next over Broome's requests for Onslow's advice as chief justice on appeals for remission of sentences handed down by the court. Onslow appears to have taken a narrow but proper view of a Colonial Office instruction on this subject and in some instances to have returned the papers with the governor's proposals without comment. But Broome appears to have wanted more, because he sought either guidance or to bend Onslow to his will. On the issue of practice the Colonial Office upheld Onslow. Unfortunately he had been indiscreet first in detaining some papers pending a reply from the Colonial Office despite Broome's request for their return, and then in ventilating the whole matter in letters to the press, which among other things disclosed the contents of a confidential Colonial Office dispatch. Broome used this as an excuse to interdict Onslow from the exercise of his office on 14 September 1887. The action provoked protest from the colony's anti-government forces, for whom Onslow provided a rallying point. At least twice the governor was burnt in effigy. The Colonial Office chided Onslow for disclosing confidential information but was unwilling to confirm the interdict and recommended removal of the suspension imposed by the Executive Council in December 1887. Amid great rejoicing Onslow returned to his seat on the bench in May 1888.

The next move against him began six months later. In October Charles Harper and J. W. Hackett, proprietors of the West Australian and the Western Mail, petitioned the governor complaining of Onslow's judicial conduct in openly exhibiting from the bench prejudice against the two newspapers; as a result they were constantly threatened with libel actions. Only four specific instances were cited; a contempt proceeding in 1883, and defamation actions in 1885, 1887 and 1888, the last involving Onslow's friend and supporter Hensman. The governor in Executive Council held an inquiry into the substance of the petition at Government House in early January 1889. Onslow was obliged to defend himself against the accusations and his brother judge, E. A. Stone, was called to give evidence. No conclusion was reached. In March Broome asked to be allowed to send all papers connected with the petition to the Privy Council, without the Executive Council taking any action or even expressing an opinion. The secretary of state refused to act without a clear lead from either the Executive or Legislative Council. The matter was then passed to the Legislative Council as 'the constitutional guardian of justice in the community'. In April it adopted by 10 votes to 7 a series of resolutions which declined to endorse all the petitioners' complaints, characterized some of Onslow's conduct as hasty and ill-considered, and recorded that 'peace and harmony cannot be hoped for so long as Mr. Onslow continues to occupy his present position'.

Onslow had begun his leave four days earlier, and in March 1890 accepted a twelve months' extension. Before it expired responsible government had been introduced, Robinson had again become governor and Onslow's old ally Forrest the first premier. Onslow returned in 1891 to the propitious accompaniment of a conciliatory editorial from the West Australian and a hearty welcome from Robinson and many friends. His last years in Western Australia passed without further turbulent incidents. The dormant commission to act as administrator was restored and he acted with distinction three times in the next ten years. He was appointed K.B. in 1895. Ill health forced his retirement in 1901, and he returned to England where he died on 20 October 1908.

An accurate impression of Onslow's character and his attributes as lawyer and judge is hard to make. For most of his stay in Western Australia he had an undefined illness which probably rendered his temper even more uncertain. He seems to have been quick to take offence and stand on his dignity, to oscillate between rigid adherence to the letter of the law in situations which called for flexibility, and to let his emotions get the better of his judgment, a tendency noted by the Privy Council in an appeal from one of Onslow's judgments. He seems to have discharged his official duties with common sense and competence, and though he was sometimes thought indiscreet and lacking in impartiality, his honour and integrity were never impugned. He was a faithful Anglican but his impulsive reaction against what he deemed humbug and hypocrisy led to conflicts with church authorities, notably in the Gribble affair. He had a 'magnificent bass voice' and with his wife was active in the colony's musical circles. Lady Onslow is said to have encouraged Percy Grainger (1882-1961).

Select Bibliography

  • P. J. Boyce, ‘The governors of Western Australia under representative government, 1870-1890’, University Studies in History, 4 (1961-62), no 1
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1889, 1st S (4)
  • West Australian, 8, 14 Sept, 5 Dec 1887, 12 May 1888, 15, 18 July 1891, 14 Feb 1901
  • Inquirer (Perth), 12, 14 Feb 1890
  • W. F. P. Heseltine, The Movements for Self-Government in Western Australia From 1882-1890 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1950)
  • CSO records, Governor's confidential dispatches and Royal Western Australian Historical Society records HS/264, 293 (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

E. K. Braybrooke, 'Onslow, Sir Alexander Campbell (1842–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 July, 1842
Trichinopoly, India


20 October, 1908 (aged 66)
Duffield, Derbyshire, England

Cause of Death

cancer (stomach)

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