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Sir Gordon Wallace (1900–1987)

by John Kennedy McLaughlin

This article was published:

Sir Gordon Wallace (1900-1987), judge, was born on 22 January 1900 at Redfern, Sydney, seventh of eleven children of New South Wales-born parents Jacob Albert Clarke Isaacs, coachbuilder, and his wife Euphemia, née Wallace. Gordon attended Sydney Boys’ High School (1912-15), where he obtained the Intermediate certificate.

In 1916 Isaacs entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, as a staff cadet and graduated as a lieutenant on 10 December 1919. After brief employment with the British Army, he served with the Australian Staff Corps from October 1920 to July 1922, when he resigned. He then joined the Citizen Military Forces, attaining the rank of major in 1929.

While working as an articled clerk Isaacs studied law at the University of Sydney (LL.B, 1927). He married Marjorie Mary Mullins on 19 May 1927 at St Michael’s Church of England, Vaucluse, and thereafter professed Anglicanism, although a previous adherent of Congregationalism. Later the matrimonial home was at Killara, and a rural retreat was maintained at Leura.

On 10 May 1928 Isaacs was admitted to the New South Wales Bar. He changed his name by deed poll in 1933 to his mother’s maiden surname, Wallace, to counter some anti-Semitism then existing in the legal profession, although he never adhered to the Jewish faith. Swiftly developing a substantial practice, he was appointed King’s Counsel (1940). With (Sir) Percy Spender he was co-author of an authoritative text on Australian company law and, with (Sir) John Young, of a similar later work. In retirement he was a general editor of the Australian edition of Halsbury’s Laws of England.

During World War II Wallace served part time then full time with the CMF, and from 1942 full time with the Australian Imperial Force. In 1940-42 he commanded, successively, an anti-aircraft battery, brigade and group, in Sydney, rising to temporary colonel (1942). He also performed staff duties in Sydney and Melbourne, and for short periods in New Guinea and the Northern Territory. Granted the honorary rank of colonel, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers in October 1944. In 1940 Wallace (as one of three United Australia Party candidates) had unsuccessfully contested the Federal seat of Parramatta.

Excelling at common law and in Equity, Wallace undertook much constitutional and commercial litigation before the High Court of Australia and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, where he regularly represented the New South Wales commissioner of stamp duties. The size of his practice and his tremendous capacity for hard work (as well as his reliance upon junior counsel when he was conducting cases in several courts at once) did not always endear him to Bar colleagues or judges. In 1952-53 he was a member of the Commonwealth committee on taxation. He appeared for Tooth & Co. Ltd before the royal commission on liquor laws in New South Wales (1951-54).

As sixth president (1956-58) of the New South Wales Bar Association, Wallace stimulated the profession’s corporate spirit, remarking that although the Bar ‘has doubled in size in a generation it has never been more integrated’. In 1957 he recommended the formation of the Australian Bar Association, which was accomplished in 1962. He was vice-president (1957) of the Law Council of Australia.

In March 1960 Wallace was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Next year he advocated a permanent appeal court and gained the support of his friend, (Sir) Kenneth McCaw, who became attorney-general in 1965. When the Court of Appeal was created on 1 January 1966 Wallace was its first president. In precedence he was now second only to the chief justice; his rapid rise in seniority was a source of grievance to some of his colleagues. Knighted in 1968, he was acting chief justice from 1 October 1968 to 3 February 1969.

Short, sturdy and bald, Wallace had a somewhat formidable appearance, particularly in judicial robes, his pronounced eyebrows and sunken but penetrating eyes adding visibly to an imposing court manner. He could be both testy and bad-tempered. Through ambition, self-promotion and single-minded determination, he had overcome an unconventional start in his profession to attain prominence, although his attainments judicially were less distinguished than those he accomplished by advocacy.

Interested in international law and affairs, he was president (1960-65) of the Australian branch of the International Law Association and in 1965 was chairman of the seminar in Canberra on the protection and encouragement of private foreign investment. Active in Sydney’s club life, he was president (1962-64) of the Australasian Pioneers’ Club, of the University Club (1969-71) during an acrimonious period, and of the Elanora Country Club. He was also involved with Sydney Legacy. Enjoying golf and bowls, he also found recreation in the appreciation of music.

Sir Gordon reached the statutory retiring age in January 1970, but was called upon to preside over a Commonwealth royal commission (1970-74) into oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef. Predeceased by his wife in 1980, he died on 11 December 1987 at Wahroonga, Sydney, and was cremated. His daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. D. Lark and R. McKenzie, A History of the Australasian Pioneers’ Club, Sydney (1910-1988) (1988)
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 33, no 3, 1960, p 412, vol 62, no 2, 1988, p 186
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Dec 1987, p 6
  • B883, item NX112052 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Kennedy McLaughlin, 'Wallace, Sir Gordon (1900–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Isaacs, Gordon

22 January, 1900
Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


11 December, 1987 (aged 87)
Wahroonga, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.