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Richard Meares Sly (1849–1929)

by John Kennedy McLaughlin

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Richard Meares Sly (1849-1929), judge, was born on 17 December 1849 in Sydney, third son of Joseph Sly, English-born cabinetmaker, and his first wife Jane, née Meares. Joseph Sly, whose furniture has become eagerly sought after in the late twentieth century, by 1862 had set up as a pawnbroker in Bridge Street. Richard was educated at Sydney Grammar School (1864-67), twice winning the Knox prize, and at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1871; M.A., 1876; LL.D., 1877). Graduating with first-class honours in classics and mathematics, in 1872 he won the Gilchrist travelling scholarship and attended University College, London (LL.B., 1875). On 7 June that year he was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple.

Sly was admitted to the colonial Bar on 21 June 1876 and swiftly developed a busy practice. Specializing in common law, he was an exceptionally good pleader. By 1908 there were sixteen practising barristers who had been his pupils. Conscientious and highly strung, Sly always nervously played with a piece of pink tape while addressing a court. He was a member of the first council of the Bar Association of New South Wales, established in July 1896, and was a foundation member of the Council of the Bar of New South Wales from June 1902.

On three occasions from 1898 Sly was an acting Supreme Court judge: in October he presided at its first sittings at Broken Hill. His diligence and desire to do justice to all parties frequently led him into a state of intense nervousness. On 1 February 1904 he took silk and on 11 February 1908 was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court, realizing his long-held ambition. His decisions, usually short, always lucid and concise, reveal his considerable legal erudition and a very sound practical approach towards the issues before him. He frequently sat on the Full Court to hear appeals, especially in matters relating to compensation for resumption of land. Rarely finding himself constituting a dissentient minority, he usually contented himself with concurring with his colleagues' judgments. In March 1917 Sly presided, with care and learning, over the appeal in the celebrated contempt of court case, Attorney-General v. [John] Bailey and Another [H. E. Boote], concerning an article in the Australian Worker which had scarified Justice Pring for the sentences imposed on members of the Industrial Workers of the World. Sly retired on 17 December 1919.

At Burwood on 21 December 1886 he had married Constance Adelaide, daughter of Josiah Mullens, a founder and early president of the Sydney Stock Exchange and a leading Congregationalist. Constance Sly was a foundation executive-member of the State division of the British Red Cross Society in 1914 and with Eleanor Mackinnon published the War Workers' Gazette (1918). For over thirty years from 1892 Sly resided at Burwood, before moving to Point Piper. A keen sportsman, he was a popular figure in golf and cricket circles.

Sly's brothers Joseph David and George James were solicitors and also graduated LL.D. from the University of Sydney. George was a founder of the firm of Sydney solicitors Sly & Russell. Richard and George were extremely close to each other and customarily took long post-prandial walks to discuss their current professional activities. Richard Sly died on 11 October 1929, while visiting George at Burradoo, and was buried in the Anglican section of South Head cemetery, Sydney. His wife and four daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Council of Municipality of Burwood, Burwood Municipal Jubilee Official Souvenir (Burwood, Syd, 1924)
  • W. Blacket, May it Please Your Honour (Syd, 1927)
  • New South Wales Law Reports, 1907, 'Memoranda', 1917
  • State Reports, New South Wales,1907, 'Memoranda', 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Mar 1873, 1 Aug 1874, 8 Feb 1908, 14 Oct 1929
  • Barrier Weekly Post, 15 Oct 1898
  • University of Sydney Archives.

Citation details

John Kennedy McLaughlin, 'Sly, Richard Meares (1849–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 May 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]


17 December, 1849
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


11 October, 1929 (aged 79)
Burradoo, New South Wales, Australia

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