Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Charles Powers (1853–1939)

by Colin Forster

This article was published:

Sir Charles Powers (1853-1939), solicitor, politician, public servant and judge, was born on 3 March 1853 at North Brisbane, son of James Powers, wine and spirits merchant, and his wife Mary Ann, née Marsden. Educated at Ipswich and Brisbane Grammar schools, in 1871 he was articled to a Maryborough solicitor and was admitted as a solicitor (having passed with honours) in December 1876. On 1 May 1878 he married Kate Ann Thorburn, daughter of a solicitor, at Castlemaine, Victoria. Powers established a practice at Maryborough where he was an alderman in 1881, mayor in 1883, and a member of the Burrum Divisional Board in 1886. Interested in the development of the northern coal trade, in 1887 he went to London and formed the Isis Investment Co. which operated Torbanlea colliery; he was chairman of its local board of directors.

Powers entered the Legislative Assembly in June 1888 as an Independent for Burrum district. He was minister without portfolio in the Morehead government in September-November 1889, and was postmaster-general and minister for public instruction from November until the ministry resigned in August 1890. In 1891 he was a member of a royal commission on the establishment of a Queensland university. Powers represented Maryborough in 1893-96. Although most of his eight years in politics were spent in opposition, he brought forward many bills for social and commercial reform including measures to reduce the cost of, and simplify, legal proceedings; and supported the introduction of women's franchise, abolition of plural voting, provision of free education, and the use of conferences and arbitration to settle disputes between employers and employees. The political atmosphere was conservative, but Powers patiently plugged away, although unable to carry his legislation. In July 1893 he became leader of the combined Opposition in the assembly, but resigned the leadership in August 1894 because he did not have the promised support of the Labor Party. Powers refused to accept its platform 'because they force men to swallow every item of their programme'. He did not accept renomination for the 1896 elections, and retired from politics. Although labelled a radical, he believed that 'permanent reforms have always been, and always will be, obtained by steps'.

Powers had been admitted to the Bar in March 1894. However, he continued to practise as a solicitor and in November 1899 was appointed crown solicitor; he then became first Commonwealth crown solicitor in July 1903. In this office Powers was involved in many important constitutional issues and associated with several appeals to the Privy Council. He was generally considered to be an excellent crown solicitor. When, however, in March 1913, the Labor government announced the appointment of Powers and A. B. Piddington to the High Court of Australia, there was severe criticism in the press and among the legal profession. Both were considered to be political appointments, and although Powers was popular and respected and his integrity unquestioned, it was regarded as a 'striking departure from precedent' to appoint a solicitor to the position, and it was widely asserted that he lacked proper qualifications. The Bars of New South Wales and Victoria withheld their congratulations. Piddington withdrew before taking his seat, but Powers accepted the challenge and was sworn in on 3 April.

Almost immediately Powers began to assist Justice H. B. Higgins, president of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. As deputy-president he did not always agree with Higgins's judgments and in January 1916 felt obliged to offer Higgins his resignation. Although persuaded that they could operate independently, Powers remained concerned about inconsistencies between their awards. Powers so respected Higgins, however, that he continued as his deputy until 30 April 1920. Having already obtained leave from the High Court he then resigned from the Arbitration Court, returning to it on 12 February 1921. On 30 June, following Higgins's resignation, he assumed the presidency.

In late 1921 Powers introduced automatic quarterly cost-of-living adjustments to the basic wage as well as a loading—the so-called 'Powers' 3 shillings'. He gained a reputation for informality, introducing 'round table conferences' and abolishing the oath in the Arbitration Court. In June 1926 when the Arbitration Act was amended, Powers took up normal full-time High Court duties. In June 1929 he was appointed K.C.M.G., and in July retired.

Powers was described in 1921 as 'tall, erect, grey-haired, and dignified' with everything about him 'to win respect and admiration'. Better remembered for his work in the Arbitration Court than as a High Court justice, he was noted throughout his career for his patience and courtesy. He had a keen sense of public duty and responsibility—reputedly travelling second class in trains for informal contact with working men to learn their points of view.

A keen gardener and enthusiastic follower of cricket, Powers in his youth had been a first-class cricketer, once captaining a local Queensland team against a visiting English side. He also enjoyed tennis and golf. It was his boast that 'he never took an alcoholic drink or had a smoke in his life'. He died at his residence at Kew, Melbourne, on 24 April 1939, and was buried in Burwood cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife and nine of their eleven children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Neumann, The High Court of Australia (Syd, 1971)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1893, p 255, 1894, p 331
  • Queenslander, 10 Sept 1892
  • Brisbane Courier, 16 Mar 1896, 1 Nov 1899
  • Punch (Melbourne), 26 Dec 1912, 1 Sept 1921
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Feb, 13 Mar 1913, 15 Feb, 3 June 1929, 26 Apr 1939
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Apr 1913
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Apr 1939
  • Henry Bourne Higgins papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Andrew Fisher papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Colin Forster, 'Powers, Sir Charles (1853–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 15 July 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]


3 March, 1853
North Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


24 April, 1939 (aged 86)
Kew, 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.