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Sir John Erskine Starke (1913–1994)

by John Waugh

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Elizabeth Monica Starke

Sir John Erskine Starke (1913–1994), judge, and Elizabeth Monica Starke (1912–1992), community worker, were the children of Victorian-born parents (Sir) Hayden Erskine Starke, barrister and later a justice of the High Court of Australia, and his wife Margaret Mary, née Duffy, daughter of John Gavan Duffy. They were born at Malvern, Victoria, Monica on 22 January 1912 and John on 1 December 1913. Their schooling reflected the Catholic and Protestant backgrounds of their parents; Monica was educated at Sacré Cœur (1922–25) and St Catherine’s (1926–28) schools while John attended Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1922–31). Although John claimed that his father had never seen his point of view since the age of three, he followed Hayden Starke into the law. At the University of Melbourne (LLB, 1937) he initially resided in Trinity College but was asked to leave because of his partying and reluctance to study.

In March 1939 Jack Starke was admitted to practice and began work as a barrister. He had served in the Melbourne University Rifles while a student. On 21 October 1939, seven weeks after World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Commissioned in April 1940 as an artillery lieutenant, he served with the 2/11th Field Regiment in the Middle East (1941–42) and the Northern Territory (1943–44). He occasionally acted as defending officer in courts martial, including two murder trials. In 1944 and 1945, as a captain and temporary major with the 1st Naval Bombardment Group, he was attached to a succession of Allied ships providing gunfire support to land operations in the South-West Pacific Area. On 25 October 1945 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers. He would later display his low enlistment-number, VX580, on the registration plate of his car. On 19 July 1946 he married Elizabeth (Beth) Darby Campbell at St John’s Church of England, Toorak. They would have no children.

Tall and heavy, with a commanding voice, Starke built his career on success in trials. He employed elements of theatre, such as throwing down his wig and thumping on the bar table, and diversionary tactics, muttering to one opponent, ‘why don’t you just sit down, you silly-looking prick?’ (Woodward 2005, 70). Behind the bluster was his conviction that fearless and independent barristers promoted impartial justice. He became the dominant jury advocate at the Victorian Bar and in 1955 was appointed QC. During 1950 and 1951 he had been junior counsel defending the author Frank Hardy against the charge of criminally libelling John Wren in the book Power Without Glory. He appeared before royal commissions on off-the-course betting (1959), the Victoria Market (1960), and the collapse of Kings Bridge (1963); and before boards of inquiry into aircraft disasters near Mackay (1960) and in Botany Bay (1962). In 1959, after the withdrawal of John Shand, he represented Rupert Max Stuart at the South Australian royal commission that investigated his conviction for murder. Three years later, having defended Robert Tait at his trial for murder, he appeared in the hearing at which the High Court of Australia reprieved Tait on the day before he was to be hanged.

On 31 January 1964 Starke became a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria. ‘I never really was ... much of a bloody lawyer’ (Faine 1992, 36), he said, but his judgments were characterised by attention to the limits of the judicial role, disdain for pretence, and protection of liberties guaranteed under the common law. His determined defence of the principle that the prosecution must prove intention in criminal cases was endorsed by the High Court in He Kaw Teh v. The Queen (1985). He disliked having to sit through dull cases in silence and spoke out against the introduction of blood-alcohol testing of drivers and in opposition to capital punishment. Nevertheless, presiding over the trial of Ronald Ryan in 1966, he was obliged to deliver the last death sentence to be carried out in Australia. He believed that Tait’s reprieve increased the determination of Premier Sir Henry Bolte to hang Ryan and he later blamed himself for not doing more to sway the Victorian State cabinet (Bone 1985, 2; Heinrichs 1994, 4).

Retiring from the Supreme Court in November 1985, Starke chaired the Victorian Sentencing Committee. He had been knighted in 1976 and served as president (1967–85) of the Library Council of Victoria, chairman (1969–85) of the (Adult) Parole Board, and a trustee (1974–81) of the Australian War Memorial. His friend ‘SEK’ Hulme wrote that Starke was ‘sometimes, but only intentionally, astronomically and apocalyptically rude’ (1994, 14). Towards women he could be contemptuous or dismissive. He delighted in the turf and was a member of the Victoria Racing Club and the Australian Club. Survived by his wife, he died on 22 November 1994 at Mornington and was cremated.

His sister, Monica, sometimes chafed under restrictions placed on women. ‘We were the people who made the tea’ (Hazell, pers. comm.), she said. Yet her restless energy found many outlets. During World War II she became an Australian Red Cross Society volunteer and worked in the Victorian division’s personnel department from September 1939. On 22 October 1941 she enrolled in a Voluntary Aid Detachment and over the next four months served in military hospitals in Melbourne. Appointed as an ARCS representative for service with the army on 11 March 1943, she was in charge of diversional therapy for injured servicemen at Buna, Papua. In April 1945 she was detached to the Royal Naval Hospital in Britain to assist repatriated prisoners of war, before returning to Australia where she was demobilised on 6 May 1946.

Starke later worked in the accounts department at the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital. In 1951 she was appointed secretary to the board of the nursing service division, Melbourne District Nursing Society, and began studies for a Diploma in Hospital Administration (1954) from the Australian Institute of Hospital Administrators. By 1958 she was secretary of the Victorian Society for Crippled Children (and Adults), before becoming a relieving officer attached to the Hospitals and Charities Commission (1961–69). In retirement she volunteered at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission, and the National Trust of Australia (Victoria). At the trust she administered the list that later formed the State’s register of protected historic buildings. She wrote histories of the Queen’s Fund (unpublished) and of the Alexandra Club (1986) of which she had been a director (1965–83). Committed to the Roman Catholic Church and proud of her Irish ancestry, she shared her brother’s daunting persona but not his indifference to conventions of polite behaviour. She died on 8 August 1992 at East Malvern and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Behan, J. C. V. Diary, 1933. Behan, John Clifford Valentine 1890–1941, 1983.0128, Box 3. University of Melbourne Archives
  • Bone, Pamela. ‘Defender of Law, and the System.’ Age (Melbourne), 16 November 1985, 2
  • Dawson, Daryl. ‘Vale—John Starke.’ Victorian Bar News, no. 91 (Summer 1994): 19–22
  • Faine, Jon. Taken on Oath: A Generation of Lawyers. Sydney: Federation Press, 1992
  • Hazell, T. A. ‘Monica Starke 1912–1992.’ Footprints: Quarterly Journal of the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission 10, no. 3 (September 1993): 21–22
  • Hazell, T. A. Personal communication
  • Heinrichs, Paul. ‘The Judge Who Reluctantly Sentenced Ronald Ryan to Hang Dies.’ Age (Melbourne), 24 November 1994, 4
  • Hulme, Sek. ‘Ryan Judge a Peerless Advocate.’ Australian, 24 November 1994, 14
  • Jack, David. ‘The Judge Who Doesn’t Conform.’ Australian, 1 February 1967, 3
  • National Archives of Australia. B4717, Starke/Elizabeth Monica
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX580
  • Public Record Office Victoria. VPRS 4523/P1, unit 380, 3152 Public Record Office Victoria. VPRS 4523/P1, unit 598, 5157
  • Woodward, Edward. One Brief Interval: A Memoir. Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2005

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Waugh, 'Starke, Sir John Erskine (1913–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 December, 1913
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


22 November, 1994 (aged 80)
Mornington, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

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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.

Military Service
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