Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Francis Villeneuve Smith (1883–1956)

by John Playford

This article was published:

Francis Villeneuve Smith (1883-1956), barrister, was born on 27 July 1883 in Adelaide, and when the birth was registered in 1899 was acknowledged as the son of William Villeneuve Smith, lawyer, and his wife Mary Agnes Smith, formerly Ryan, née Dwyer. His uncle was Sir Francis Villeneuve Smith. Educated at Christian Brothers' College, Adelaide, and the University of Adelaide, his record at both institutions was outstanding but somewhat uncontrollable. His father had been controversial and Frank's 'boisterous self-assertion', and repartee at the expense of certain lecturers, almost resulted in debarment from sitting his final-year law examinations. His friend Paris Nesbit interceded and he gained the final certificate in law in 1906 and was admitted to the South Australian Bar in December. On 13 June he had married May Winifred Wickham (d.1933); they had a daughter and two sons. He was an excellent swimmer and in later years raced horses to good purpose.

Smith's career was meteorically successful. In 1919 he was appointed K.C., one of the youngest silks then practising in Australia. He later remarked, 'I consider it much more of an honour to be a K.C. than a K.B.'. In 1927 he represented Australia at an international Bar conference held in Canada. His address to the Canadian Bar Association, of which he was elected an honorary member, was later described by Lord Hewart, lord chief justice of England, as the finest speech he had ever heard. Smith was president of the Law Society of South Australia (1933-34) and of the Law Council of Australia (1936-37). In collaboration with Sir Henry Simpson Newland, he explored the territory between medicine and law, and was president of the Medico Legal Society (1936-39). He retired in 1954.

Villeneuve Smith possessed formidable gifts as an advocate. His forceful personality was enhanced by an extraordinary command of language and a ready wit. Tall, dark and handsome, he exploited his imposing bearing. Large pince-nez, attached to a long black silk ribbon worn around his neck, were used to devastating effect. Indeed, his effect on juries was almost the trigger that brought about their abolition. There is a popular belief that Smith was only a powerful orator in the Criminal Court, but he was as much at home in the civil as in the criminal jurisdiction. His forensic ability brought him a reputation which extended widely beyond South Australia. He was counsel in many High Court of Australia and Privy Council cases and worked extremely hard: 'I have known what it is not to be with my family on Sunday for a whole year. I have worked five nights a week after midnight'.

Smith died of coronary vascular disease on 8 December 1956 at Medindie, and after a requiem Mass at St Francis Xavier's Cathedral was buried in West Terrace cemetery. His second wife, Isabel Kathleen, née Gordon, whom he had married in Melbourne on 29 June 1936, survived him; they had one son (Francis). He named the children from his first marriage after English and Scottish law lords—his sons Inglis and Cairns (a judge of the County Court of Victoria) and daughter Lindley—and one of his homes after Lord Halsbury.

Select Bibliography

  • Honorary Magistrate, 31 Jan 1932
  • Australian Law Journal, 24 Jan 1957
  • Law Society of South Australia, Law Society Bulletin, Sept 1986
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 Sept 1919, 12 Aug 1940, 10, 11 Dec 1956
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Nov 1935
  • Sunday Advertiser (Adelaide), 31 July 1954
  • G. Loughlin, South Australian Queen's Counsel 1865-1974 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1974).

Citation details

John Playford, 'Smith, Francis Villeneuve (1883–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 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]

Alternative Names
  • Villeneuve Smith, Francis

27 July, 1883
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


8 December, 1956 (aged 73)
Medindie, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.