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Sir Charles Gray Wanstall (1912–1999)

by Dominic Henley Katter

This article was published online in 2024

Sir Charles Wanstall, no date

Sir Charles Wanstall, no date

Supreme Court of Queensland Library

Sir Charles Gray Wanstall (1912–1999), judge, politician, and community leader, was born on 17 February 1912 in Brisbane, second of three children of Queensland-born parents Ernest William Wanstall, grazier and later a district inspector of the Agricultural Bank of Queensland, and his wife Emma, née Boyce. Educated at Roma (1919–25) and Gympie Central (1925–26) State schools and at Gympie State High School (1926–28), Charles entered the Queensland Public Service in 1929 as a clerk. Having studied for the Barristers’ Board examinations in his own time, he was admitted to the Queensland Bar on 24 November 1933 and seconded the following year to the Crown Solicitor’s Office.

In 1936 Wanstall resigned from the public service and commenced at the private Bar, practising in both criminal and civil matters. On 14 June 1938 at St Peter’s Church of England, Gympie, he married Olwin (Olwyn) Mabel John (1913–1998), who had been a fellow student at Gympie High School. After World War II broke out in 1939, he sought to join the Australian Imperial Force but was not accepted because of his poor eyesight. In 1942 he suspended his practice to serve full time as a temporary legal officer in the Deputy Commonwealth Crown Solicitor’s Office, Brisbane, and that year was entered in the register of practitioners in the High Court of Australia.

Wanstall joined the Queensland People’s Party in 1943 soon after its formation. In 1944 the QPP’s central executive endorsed him as the party’s candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Toowong, instead of its sitting member, Harry Massey. Wanstall won the seat in the general election on 15 April. In his first speech he called for the repeal of Queensland’s Commonwealth Powers Act 1943 as a matter of ‘practical necessity,’ contending that the legislation was unworkable, especially as not all States had granted the same powers to the Commonwealth (Qld Parliament 1944, 136). He also advocated for the revision of electoral boundaries, alleging that the existing ones made it ‘easier to win a Labor-inclined seat than an Opposition-inclined seat’ (Qld Parliament 1944, 140). In addition, he argued that votes cast at the last State election by the holders of proxies for soldiers present in the State on the day of the election were invalid and illegal. Proving to be a formidable adversary in parliamentary debates, especially on proposals by the Labor government that appeared socialistic, he was elevated in February 1948 to deputy leader of the QPP (Queensland division of the Liberal Party of Australia from July 1949), but he decided to vacate his seat in April 1950. He was State president of the party from 1950 to 1953.

Returning to the private Bar, Wanstall was involved in both constitutional law and revenue cases, in addition to taking part in several royal commissions. He was appointed QC in 1956. Two years later, he was selected to be a puisne judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland, bringing to the position ‘a keen and industrious legal mind, the respect of both branches of the profession and of the community generally’ (Australian Law Journal 1958, 888). Justice James Thomas praised his meticulous decisions but criticised their tardiness. Wanstall’s dissenting judgment in the Full Court case of Barnes v. Allied Interstate Transport (1969) took a year to be delivered but persuaded the High Court of Australia to reverse the Full Court’s majority decision. On 13 May 1971 he was appointed senior puisne judge. In 1974 he was knighted.

On 20 July 1977 Wanstall was appointed as the thirteenth chief justice of Queensland. He sat in both the Supreme Court’s trial division and Full Court. His reported judgments—including when sitting in the trial division—became much-cited precedents, an example being the succession decision in Re Keid (1980). Early in his tenure, in 1979, knowledge that the State government was considering the appointment of Justice (Sir) Dormer Andrews as senior puisne judge—positioning him to be the next chief justice—had caused discord among Andrews's longer-serving colleagues. Wanstall overcame the dissention; Justice James Douglas remarked that he ‘calmed the bench’ (de Jersey 1999, 3). He was ‘proud that he had maintained a unified bench instead of a group of single judges’ (Qld Parliament 1999, 4261). Having reached the statutory age, he retired on 17 February 1982. Premier Peter Beattie would later note that his distinguished legal career had been based on ‘sheer merit and hard work’ (Qld Parliament 1999, 4258).

Prominent in the affairs of the Church of England, Wanstall was one of three conservative, evangelical laymen, who in 1953 questioned the Brisbane diocese’s dominant Anglo-Catholicism, which they believed ‘veered too much towards Roman Catholicism’ (Holland 2013, 117). At the diocese’s 1956 synod, the three men criticised the proposed constitution of the Anglican Church in Australia as a poor compromise between Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals. Nevertheless, they accepted the decision of the majority to support the constitution and agreed to abide by it. In 1961 Wanstall was appointed chancellor of the diocese; he would occupy the post until 1984. He ‘played a leading role’ (Qld Parliament 1999, 4261) in the construction (1962) of Christ Church, St Lucia, which was later heritage listed.

Wanstall held office in a number of community organisations. He was the foundation deputy-chairman (1961) and chairman (1962–86) of the Queensland Cancer Fund. His tenure included the provision by the fund of radiation equipment to the Queensland Radium Institute and the establishment of an accommodation lodge at Herston, Brisbane, for rural cancer patients. The building was named the Charles Wanstall Apex Lodge in his honour. Further, he served as chairman and a member of the board of the Queensland Ballet for seven years, in addition to chairing the Advisory Council for Special Education in 1982.

Sir Charles was a member of the Brisbane and Indooroopilly Golf clubs and the Queensland Turf Club. His interests included cabinetmaking and photography. He and Lady Wanstall loved plants and animals and supported animal welfare organisations. She helped him in his community work and conducted her own. For more than two decades she was secretary of the St Lucia branch of the Australian Red Cross Society. A talented contralto, she sang with the Queensland State and Municipal Choir for many years and later the Queensland Light Opera Company. Affectionately referred to as Charlie out of his hearing, Wanstall was short in stature; he wore glasses with thick, heavy lenses and sported a toothbrush moustache. Thomas described him as a ‘polite and virtuous man with a well concealed mischievous sense of humour’ (2011, 206). He died on 17 October 1999 at Corinda and was cremated. His daughter, Jon, survived him.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Law Journal. ‘Personalia.’ 31 (1958): 888
  • Dalrymple, Amber. Personal communication
  • de Jersey, Paul. Eulogy delivered at the Funeral Service of The Honourable Sir Charles Gray Wanstall, Former Chief Justice of Queensland, St John’s Cathedral. Unpublished manuscript, 1999. Supreme Court of Queensland Library
  • Holland, Jonathan. Anglicans, Trams & Paw Paws: The Story of the Diocese of Brisbane 1945–1980. Brisbane: CopyRight Publishing, 2013
  • Queensland. Parliament. Record of Proceedings, 22 August 1944, 136–40
  • Queensland. Parliament. Record of Proceedings, 26 October 1999, 4257–63
  • Supreme Court Library Queensland. ‘Judicial Profiles: Sir Charles Wanstall.’ Accessed 30 January 2024. Copy held on ADB file
  • Thomas, James Burrows. An Almost Forgotten World (Jim Thomas’s Memoir). Brisbane: Supreme Court of Queensland Library, 2011
  • White, Michael. ‘Obituary: Sir Charles Wanstall.’ Australian Law Journal 74, no. 1 (January 2000): 61

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Dominic Henley Katter, 'Wanstall, Sir Charles Gray (1912–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir Charles Wanstall, no date

Sir Charles Wanstall, no date

Supreme Court of Queensland Library

More images

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Life Summary [details]


17 February, 1912
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


17 October, 1999 (aged 87)
Corinda, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

respiratory failure

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.

Key Organisations
Political Activism