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Sir John Lewes Pedder (1793–1859)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published:

Sir John Lewes Pedder (1793-1859), judge, was born on 10 February 1793 in London, the eldest son of John Pedder of the Middle Temple. He was educated at Charterhouse, the Middle Temple, where he was called to the Bar in June 1820, and Trinity Hall, Cambridge (LL.B., 1822). He took up practice as a Chancery barrister and in 1823 he applied for the office of chief justice of Van Diemen's Land. His competitors enjoyed aristocratic patronage, but Pedder had testimonials from his academic and professional teachers, and was appointed in August. He sailed in the Hibernia with his wife Maria, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Everett, and on disembarking at Hobart Town in March 1824 was greeted with a salute of thirteen guns. The Supreme Court was opened on 10 May, with much rejoicing that Van Diemen's Land now had a court with full civil and criminal jurisdiction. Two days later Colonel (Sir) George Arthur landed to replace Colonel William Sorell as lieutenant-governor. In 1825 an Order in Council granted Van Diemen's Land an independent government and extended Pedder's authority by abolishing the right of appeal from his decisions to the governor of New South Wales assisted in the hearing thereof by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. He was appointed a member of both the Executive and Legislative Councils.

Trial by jury was the most important question decided during Pedder's first years in office. The Act empowering the Crown to establish Supreme Courts in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (4 Geo. IV, c. 96, s. 6) provided that actions at law should be triable by a jury of twelve men if both parties concurred in an application to the presiding judge for such jury. In New South Wales Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes construed s.19 of the Act to require that free men should be tried by juries of their fellows, but limited it to Courts of Quarter Sessions. In contrast Pedder ruled that the Act had introduced trial by jury in the Supreme Court only, and did not apply in inferior courts. The controversy which arose in 1825 in Hobart on this question branded Pedder as a member of the 'government party'.

Under the Act establishing the Legislative Council, local Acts of council had to be certified by the judge as being not repugnant to the laws of England. In 1827 Pedder certified a bill, enacted on instructions from Bathurst, for licensing the proprietors of newspapers. This approval shocked radical editors in Sydney, where a similar bill had been introduced, but Forbes had refused to certify its six licensing clauses. In Sydney the Australian denounced Pedder so scathingly that Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling considered a criminal prosecution of its editor, Dr Robert Wardell, for libel, but the Newspaper Licensing Acts in both colonies were disallowed by the law officers of the Crown.

After this episode Pedder began to enjoy increasing popularity, which grew after his retirement from the Executive Council in 1836. His private life was beyond reproach. He never invested or borrowed in the colony, and thus avoided the possibility of scandals which embroiled his colleagues. He lived in the mansions, Secheron and, later, Newlands, rented for him by the government, although the chief justices in New South Wales had to pay rent for their official residences.

Pedder earned the respect of every lieutenant-governor from Sorell to Sir William Denison, but Arthur once impatiently remarked: 'Though a man of great talents and unbending integrity, of the purest intentions and a very safe adviser, he is so tedious and so minute that life is much too short to wait for his opinions and decision'. Joseph Tice Gellibrand and Alfred Stephen complained of his rules of court through which he raised 'every technical objection that would prevail in England'. Pedder's judgments and reports to the Executive Council on capital cases show that he was appalled by the severity of the criminal code and diligent in giving prisoners the benefit of every possible doubt. In many cases, and often with difficulty, he succeeded in persuading the lieutenant-governor to pardon prisoners or commute their sentences.

In 1847-48 Pedder and the puisne judge, Algernon Montagu, fell foul of Denison. The editor of the Britannia, John Morgan, had refused to pay the dog tax levied under a local Act of 1846. He was proceeded against and fined. When the conviction was taken to the Supreme Court, it was quashed by Pedder and Montagu who ruled that the local Act was contrary to the imperial statute which, in establishing the Legislative Council, required that any enactment for levying a tax should also provide for the expected revenue to be devoted to some specific local purpose. Denison saw that four-fifths of the colony's revenue legislation could be challenged on similar grounds. He decided to vindicate the 'rights' of the local legislature. External issues were found for removing Montagu. When eight merchants launched proceedings to recover payments made under the Differential Duties Act, Denison persuaded his Executive Council that it was also necessary to prevent Pedder from further embarrassing the government. Denison accused Pedder of an illegal usurpation of power in Morgan's case, and enjoined him to take eighteen months leave while the doubtful laws were validated. With courage and integrity, Pedder refused this humiliation. He was then asked to show why he should not be suspended for neglect of duty in failing to certify the invalidity of the Dog Act at the time of its passage. Pedder replied that he had considered the Dog Act constitutional until hearing the arguments of counsel in Morgan's case. The Executive Council resolved that this entitled Pedder to be acquitted of neglect of duty. Meanwhile Denison had summoned the local legislature, which purported to pass a validating bill. Though Pedder certified that it was beyond the Legislative Council's powers, the bill served its purpose until the imperial Australian Colonies Government Act removed the limiting stricture. Pedder and Montagu became heroes when their treatment by Denison became known, and the Colonial Office congratulated Pedder on his stand. In 1851, when the Legislative Council was reconstituted, Pedder retired from 'the disturbing arena of political strife'. Denison soon came to regret his handling of the Dog Act crisis, and in later dispatches revealed a positive admiration of Pedder.

While hearing a case on 19 July 1854 Pedder suffered a stroke, which temporarily deprived him of speech and the use of his left limbs, and he soon tendered his resignation. He retired on a pension equal to his salary of £1500. Much of his savings had been invested in English consols and he sold some 5000 sheep and his 15,000-acre (6070 ha) grazing lease, Cupumnimnip, about forty miles (64 km) from Melbourne. Meanwhile his wife had been stricken with paralysis. She died without issue on 23 October 1855. In 1856 Pedder returned to England. He died at Brighton on 24 March 1859. He had been knighted in November 1838.

Throughout his life Pedder was a convinced Anglican. His faith played a part in his deliberations in the Executive and Legislative Councils, for he dreaded 'any countenance being given to other sects, as injurious to the interests of the Established Church'. Thus he opposed grants and loans for building Methodist, Catholic or Congregationalist churches, and was critical of Catholic convicts who sought exemption from compulsory attendance at Anglican services.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 12-13, 16, 18, series 3, vols 4-6, series 4, vol 1
  • correspondence file under John Pedder (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Pedder, Sir John Lewes (1793–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 February, 1793
London, Middlesex, England


24 March, 1859 (aged 66)
Brighton, Sussex, England

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