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Sir Hartley Williams (1843–1929)

by Robert Miller

This article was published:

Hartley Williams (1843-1929), by unknown engraver, 1881

Hartley Williams (1843-1929), by unknown engraver, 1881

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S30/07/81/245

Sir Hartley Williams (1843-1929), judge, was born on 15 October 1843 at Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Port Phillip District, second son of Sir Edward Eyre Williams and his wife Jessie, née Gibbon. Williams was educated in England at Repton School from the age of 9, matriculating in 1862 to Trinity College, Oxford (B.A., 1866). He was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple on 30 April 1867. He had some experience in the offices of two London solicitors before returning to Victoria, arriving in Melbourne on 29 October in the Superb. Admitted to the colonial Bar in April next year he began an extensive and successful common law practice. He was also a law reporter for some years. On 24 December 1870 at All Saints Church, Hobart Town, he married Edith Ellen, daughter of George Horne; they returned to Melbourne on 15 January 1871.

Williams was a member of the Education League in 1872. Next year he was appointed examiner in law at the University of Melbourne but in 1879 resigned after a disagreement with the council over an examination result. In 1874 he twice stood in vain for the Legislative Assembly seat of St Kilda, as a 'free and independent' candidate. After his defeats he concentrated on his lucrative law practice and by 1880 had an income of £6000 a year.

On Sir Redmond Barry's death in 1881, Williams was nominated to succeed him on the bench of the Supreme Court; when sworn in on 4 July, he was the youngest judge in the colony. He became well known and respected for the common sense of his summings-up and judgments. Most at home in common law, he showed considerable aptitude in the work of the Criminal Court but was sometimes 'frankly embarrassed' in dealing with equity. In 1889 he drew cheers from the courtroom during his sentencing of a bank embezzler, when he stated that much of the blame for such crimes rested with the banks, which were careless in supervising clerks and paid them 'starvation wages'. In 1894 his summing-up in Speight v. Syme extended over seven days. His severity in dealing with the 'larrikin element' brought praise in the 1880s but by 1903 he had come to believe that first offenders should not be sent to prison.

In 1893 Williams's reputation suffered when he wrote a letter to the Argus on 7 January protesting over the appointment of (Sir) John Madden as chief justice — he had expected to succeed to the post himself. He added that in future he would do no more than his 'bare duty'. The letter caused a sensation at the time, but in later years Williams spoke most warmly of Madden's work as chief justice. Despite the incident he was knighted in 1894.

Williams was often criticized for his unorthodox views on politics and religion. On returning from a visit to England in July 1884 he declared that England would eventually become a republic as the 'Queen is not liked … people think she does not do her duty and is rather niggardly'. In 1888 at a meeting of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Natives' Association he advocated the separation of Australia from Britain. He favoured Federation which would give the colonies full power to govern themselves, and wanted a federal court of appeal to assimilate the statutes of the various colonies and to deal with cases involving amounts too small to concern the Privy Council. In Melbourne in February 1885 he published a pamphlet, Religion Without Superstition which quickly went into three editions and provoked a strong reply from Bishop James Moorhouse. Popular as a lecturer, he spoke in Melbourne and country towns on subjects such as 'Death and Immortality', 'Moral Courage' and 'Forward Religious Thought'; three of these addresses were published in book form in Melbourne in 1896 and others appeared in 1902. His article on anti-sweating legislation was published in the Westminster Review in 1908.

Known as the 'athlete judge', Williams was a great one for cycling. He was for some years an active member and executive committee-man of Victorian cycling, cricket and rowing associations and he also enjoyed boxing. In 1897 he injured his knee while walking in the Buffalo Ranges and for a time there was doubt that he would be able to resume his duties on the bench.

In May 1903 Williams announced his resignation from the bench. On 9 June he left Melbourne in the Omrah to retire to England on a pension of £1500. He had a small property at Staunton near Monmouth, Gloucestershire, and he also lived in London where he died on 12 July 1929. His first wife had died at their home, Flete, Malvern, Victoria, on 11 August 1885 leaving four sons and two daughters. On 4 January 1887 at Malvern he married his cousin Jessie Bruce Lawford. There were at least a son and a daughter of the second marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Illustrated Australian News, 27 June 1881
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 July 1884, 5 June, 14 Sept 1888, 15 Feb 1889, 7 Jan 1893, 23 May 1903, 16 July 1929
  • Bulletin, 19 July 1885
  • Australasian Sketcher, 30 June 1887
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 14 Jan 1893
  • Australasian, 23 May 1903
  • P. Street, Legal history essay (Law School, University of Melbourne).

Citation details

Robert Miller, 'Williams, Sir Hartley (1843–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Hartley Williams (1843-1929), by unknown engraver, 1881

Hartley Williams (1843-1929), by unknown engraver, 1881

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S30/07/81/245

Life Summary [details]


15 October, 1843
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


12 July, 1929 (aged 85)
London, Middlesex, England

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