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Sir Kenneth Whistler Street (1890–1972)

by J. M. Bennett

This article was published:

Kenneth Whistler Street (1890-1972), by Falk Studios

Kenneth Whistler Street (1890-1972), by Falk Studios

State Library of New South Wales, Original : Pic.Acc.4507/5

Sir Kenneth Whistler Street (1890-1972), chief justice and lieutenant-governor, was born on 28 January 1890 at Woollahra, Sydney, eldest son of (Sir) Philip Whistler Street, a Sydney-born barrister, and his wife Belinda Maud, née Poolman, who came from Melbourne. He attended Homebush and Sydney Grammar schools, entered St Paul's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1911; LL.B., 1914), and won scholarships and prizes in law. World War I began while he was holidaying in England. He was commissioned on 29 September 1914 in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and sent to France, but an injury rendered him unfit for active service.

Returning to Sydney, Street was appointed lieutenant, 18th (North Sydney) Infantry Regiment, in December 1915. He served in the Adjutant General's Department, Army Headquarters, Melbourne, and was promoted temporary captain in September 1917. Although he had been admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 12 March 1915, he did not practise until he ceased full-time military duties in December 1919. At St John's Church of England, Darlinghurst, on 10 February 1916 he had married Jessie Mary Grey Lillingston.

Between 1921 and 1927 Street lectured part time at the University of Sydney Law School. Meanwhile, he continued his career in the Militia as a legal staff officer (1922-28) and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was a considerable scholar in and beyond the law, being an authority on the writings of Pepys and an accomplished Latinist. Absorbed in his family's history, he privately published Annals of the Street Family of Birtley (1941), a book in which he demonstrated ancestral links to the English judiciary.

Street enjoyed a wide general practice and would have taken silk but for his appointment to serve on the reconstituted Industrial Commission of New South Wales from 16 December 1927. He was elevated as a judge of the Supreme Court on 7 October 1931. He thus joined the bench of which his father was then chief justice. In his eighteen years as a puisne judge he displayed industry, a deep sense of responsibility in performing his duties, and 'a personal charm which commended him to all who appeared in his court'. Street habitually used a monocle which augmented the impact of his exact, commanding and demanding figure in court. He once conceded that, 'I may have shown myself impatient, but never have I received discourtesy from any member of the profession'.

In 1949, as senior puisne judge, Street acted as chief justice when Sir Frederick Jordan died. Confirmed in that office from 6 January 1950, he was sworn in on 7 February. He was assured that the legal profession's regard for him was 'based on its knowledge of him alone and not on any reflected glory of his ancestor'. The solicitor-general C. E. Weigall acknowledged Street's 'talent for luminous exposition', his 'apt and felicitous language', and his ability to 'express himself with clarity and precision'.

Appointed K.C.M.G. (1956), and awarded an honorary LL.D. by the University of Sydney (1952), Sir Kenneth presided over a court trapped in antiquated procedure that stifled the expectations of an increasingly litigious community. Government expansion of the judicial bench made court administration more complex and imposed on the chief justice burdens of management largely foreign to his predecessors. He also personally superintended attempts to extract more efficient use of the limited space in the court's eccentric collection of buildings.

As chief justice, Sir Kenneth became lieutenant-governor and administered the State several times. Farewelled in court in December 1959, he retired from the bench on his seventieth birthday. He had few interests beyond the law, though he found recreation in gardening and cabinet-making, belonged to the Union and Royal Sydney Golf clubs, and supported organizations such as the Boy Scouts' Association. President of the St John Ambulance Association (1950-60) and of the St John Council (1965-72), he was appointed (1951) a knight of grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

Street died on 15 February 1972 at his Darling Point home; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in South Head cemetery. His two daughters and two sons survived him. The younger son (Sir) Laurence achieved in 1974 the rare distinction of occupying the same office of chief justice as had his father and grandfather. In public matters, Sir Kenneth and Lady Street seemed an improbable match, he being exceedingly conservative and formal, she being committed to radical movements, especially the furtherance of women's rights.

A portrait of Street by (Sir) William Dargie is held by the Supreme Court, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Bennett, Portraits of the Chief Justices of New South Wales (Syd, 1977)
  • J. and J. Mackinolty (eds), A Century Down Town (Syd, 1991)
  • State Reports, New South Wales, vol 31, 1931, memoranda, 50, 1950, memoranda
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 23, 1950, pp 500, 526, vol 33, 1959, p 316, vol 46, 1972, p 96
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Dec 1959, 17 Feb 1972
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 20 Feb 1972.

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Street, Sir Kenneth Whistler (1890–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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