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Sir John Beverley Peden (1871–1946)

by John M. Ward

This article was published:

Sir John Beverley Peden (1871-1946), barrister and professor of law, was born on 26 April 1871, second son and sixth child of Magnus Jackson Peden, merchant and farmer, and mayor of Randwick and of Bega, and his wife Elizabeth Neathway, née Brown. The Browns had migrated to Australia in the 1820s and the Pedens in the 1830s. Peden was educated at Bega Public School, Sydney Grammar School (winning the Knox prize), and the University of Sydney. He graduated B.A. in 1892 with first-class honours in Latin and in logic and mental philosophy. While studying law, he was vice-warden of St Paul's College (1892-98), assistant lecturer in Latin (1896), president of the Sydney University Union (1893-94 and again in 1910-11) and of the Undergraduates' Association, and editor of Hermes (1895). In 1898 he graduated LL.B., with first-class honours and the University medal, was admitted to the Bar on 4 August and read in the chambers of R. M. Sly.

Although not an outstanding advocate, Peden gained a considerable practice, mainly in Equity and probate. In 1902 he was appointed part-time Challis lecturer in the law of property at the university. At St Philip's, Church Hill, on 21 December 1904 he married Margaret Ethel Maynard (d.1928). He continued to practise until he succeeded Pitt Cobbett as Challis professor of law and dean of the faculty in 1910. Under Peden the law school grew steadily in reputation and influence. Pre-eminent in constitutional law, he also specialized in property, conveyancing and private international law. He spread his mantle over the whole curriculum, although he persuaded leading lawyers to teach the professional subjects. He was president of the Sydney University Law Society, examiner for the Barristers' Admission Board and ex officio chairman of the Solicitors' Admission Board.

A 'slow and hesitant speaker', Peden couched his lectures in 'homely English': he 'hated polysyllabic and pretentious words'. He taught constitutional law in a practical, business-like way, not ignoring theory, but stressing the everyday working of legislative and constitutional procedures. His students had to know the works of Professor A. V. Dicey, whose shadow, according to H. V. Evatt, always lurked behind Peden, but they had also to know the constitutions of New South Wales and Australia and some British constitutional history, and appreciate how to temper philosophical propositions with practical common sense. In Peden's lectures the leading cases in constitutional law were never separated from contemporary circumstances. Known to his students as 'Jacko', he was infinitely patient with slow triers but ferocious with slackers. He welcomed women law students and in World War I maintained a large correspondence with ex-students fighting overseas.

Law, Peden knew, might be dull, but it had to be known accurately. How could he certify that a man was fit to be a lawyer, who would 'slaughter his client'? He once vehemently told an examiners' meeting that a certain student was 'not to be trusted; he looked me in the face and told me a lie'. A severe examiner, he believed that the profession and the community depended on him to maintain standards. He would have preferred all law students to have taken an arts degree first to gain a cultivated awareness of law in society. In 1936 he persuaded the university that no student under 17 should be admitted to law.

Peden was a towering figure in the university: legendary for his hard work, high standards, uncompromising rectitude and plain speaking, he was not always an easy colleague. He was a fellow of the senate (and active on many of its committees) in 1910-41, chairman of the professorial board in 1925-33, and as his old friend Sir Thomas Bavin remarked, 'the man to whom everybody turned if there was a difficult problem to be solved, the man from whom everybody—even his strongest opponents—could expect a perfectly fair deal'. In 1933 he served on the unwieldy government committee inquiring into the system of examinations and secondary school courses and in 1936 supported proposals to found a university college at Armidale. That year he was also active as elder statesman when the university was confronted with objections from religious dignitaries to the philosophical teachings of Professor John Anderson, whom he thought it wrong to attempt to silence.

Due to retire in April 1941, Peden offered to carry on without emolument as a gesture to war service. Despite ill health, he continued to administer although not to teach. Late in 1941 with the chancellor, Justice Sir Percival Halse Rogers, Justice (Sir) Colin Davidson and Sir Henry Manning, he resigned from the senate in protest at the appointment of two professors of law to replace himself and A. H. Charteris: the senate had not consulted the judges and ignored a proposal that the positions should not be filled until after the war. He was immediately made emeritus professor.

Although Peden, who took silk in December 1922, would have made a distinguished judge, he always declined offers. An executive-member of the Universal Service League in 1915-16, he favoured conscription for military service overseas. In May 1917 he was nominated to the Legislative Council. A painstaking legislator and an authority on parliamentary forms, he showed lively interest in such subjects as living wages, industrial arbitration, matrimonial relations, capital punishment and workers' compensation. He eventually considered that his most important contributions as a legislator had been his defence of free speech that led to the sedition bill being dropped during World War I and his modification of the (ne temere) Marriage Amendment Act of 1924. In 1921-31 Peden served as sole royal commissioner on law reform in New South Wales. No formal report was ever submitted but the 1922 Evidence (Amendment) and the 1923 Factors (Mercantile Agents) Acts were part of his reforming work.

President of the Legislative Council from 1929, Peden managed to foil the attempts of Premier J. T. Lang to abolish it. He drafted section 7A, inserted into the Constitution Act of 1902 by amendment in 1929, to ensure that the council should not be abolished, nor its powers be altered, except after a referendum. Further, section 7A itself was made incapable of repeal or amendment without a referendum. Lawyers less learned in constitutions scoffed, but Peden's conviction that it was valid under the Colonial Laws Validity Act, 1865, was upheld by the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council. Peden thought Lang's dismissal in 1932 justified on the ground that the governor was the supreme guardian of the constitution. He helped the incoming government led by (Sir) Bertram Stevens to reconstitute the Legislative Council, making it elective by parliament. He was elected in December 1933 for twelve years and again served as president in 1934-46.

To Peden public life and academic life were as one, for the law embraced them both. In 1913 he had served on the royal commission to inquire into the constitution of a Greater Sydney and later helped to draft the Greater Sydney bill, a monument of learning and acumen that failed at the second reading. In 1927-29 he chaired the Commonwealth royal commission on the Constitution; the commission's learned report remains a fundamental document for the study of Australian federalism. In 1930 he was appointed K.C.M.G.

It was part of his liberal conservative view of life that Peden was for long a close personal friend and literary confidant of Christopher Brennan. He was a trustee of the Mutual Life & Citizens' Assurance Co. Ltd (chairman of directors from 1939), a director of the New South Wales Land & Agency Co. Ltd and associated companies, a fellow of St Paul's College (1901-28), chairman of trustees of Sydney Grammar School (1932-46), secretary of the Sydney Round Table group (1918-35), president of the Japan-Australia Society and of the Boys' Brigade, and a practical farmer at Cobargo, near Bega. He was chancellor of the Anglican dioceses of Bathurst and, later, Newcastle. Peden devoted years to framing successive versions of a new constitution for the Church of England in Australia, that would give the Church what Bishop de Witt Batty called 'complete spiritual freedom'.

In private life Peden was a delightful companion, wise and full of fun, with a 'pawky, sardonic humour', a man with the gift of friendliness. He belonged to the Australian Club. Survived by his two daughters, he died on 31 May 1946 in the Scottish Hospital, and was cremated after a service at St Andrew's Cathedral. A portrait by H. A. Hanke is held by the University of Sydney and a bust by Lyndon Dadswell is in Parliament House. Peden's daughter Margaret was a notable cricketer.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee book of the Law school of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • A. Clark, Christopher Brennan, a Critical Biography (Melb, 1980)
  • Australian Law Journal, 20, no 3, 14 June 1946, p 63
  • Australian Quarterly, Sept 1946, p 64
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Aug, 5 Oct 1921, 22 Dec 1922, 10 Oct 1924, 1 Jan 1930, 13 Sept, 15 Oct 1935, 7 July 1939, 8 Nov 1941, 1, 4 June 1946
  • Peden family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Peden, Sir John Beverley (1871–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 14 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

Life Summary [details]


26 April, 1871


31 May, 1946 (aged 75)
New South Wales, 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.

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