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Sir Henry Arthur Winneke (1908–1985)

by John Waugh

This article was published:

Sir Henry Winneke, by Norman Wodetzki, 1978

Sir Henry Winneke, by Norman Wodetzki, 1978

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/​I/​2294

Sir Henry Arthur Winneke (1908–1985), chief justice and governor, was born on 29 October 1908 at North Fitzroy, Melbourne, elder child of Victorian-born parents Henry Christian Winneke, barrister and later a County Court judge, and his wife Ethel Janet, née O’Neill. Like his father, Harry attended Scotch College and won the then-rare distinction of first-class honours in law at the University of Melbourne (LL.B, 1929; LL.M, 1945). Yet he later described himself as a ‘battler’, without ‘real talents’ in his father’s eyes. Ambition, relentless hard work and disarming self-deprecation were lasting traits. He became a barrister in 1931. On 20 December 1933 at Scots Church, Melbourne, he married Nancy Wilkinson, a family friend since childhood.

The work that Winneke did in two air-crash inquiries in 1938-39 led to a commission in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch of the Citizen Air Force a month after the outbreak of World War II, with the rank of temporary flight lieutenant. He rose quickly, serving with the Legal Section until June 1940, when he joined the Inspectorate of Air Accidents. In July 1941 he was appointed deputy-director of personal services, and in November, director, as an acting group captain, with wide-ranging responsibilities for personnel administration. He visited Britain in 1943 to negotiate with the Air Ministry the conditions of service of RAAF personnel serving with the Royal Air Force. His application for release in 1944, in which he cited the damage done to his career by protracted absence from the intensely competitive Bar, was refused because his work was so valuable. He was demobilised on 27 March 1946, highly praised for his administrative courage and skill; he had been appointed OBE in 1944.

Winneke’s civilian career prospered, helped by a postwar rise in litigation. But soon after becoming KC in 1949, he chose to leave private practice. To clear a large backlog of criminal prosecutions and to reform the criminal branch of the Law Department, the Victorian government offered him a newly created post, senior counsel to the attorney-general, to which he was appointed in January 1950. Like his father, he opted for the lower pay but greater security of a post that carried a salary and a pension. It also offered the gregarious barrister greater opportunities to work with others, and direct involvement at the highest level of the State government. Winneke had many of the functions of a director of public prosecutions, overseeing prosecutors’ work, appearing for the Crown in major cases and advising on law reform and other issues. He quickly became as indispensable to the government as he had been to the air force, and in December 1951 became the State’s first non-ministerial solicitor-general. The position initially made little difference to his responsibilities, but it gave him higher status and salary, reportedly in order to retain his services.

Conspicuous fairness added force to Winneke’s arguments as a prosecutor. He lost at least two cases by suggesting winning arguments to opponents unable to afford lawyers of their own. His work included high-profile murder trials, such as those of Jean Lee in 1950 and Robert Peter Tait in 1961, but also, with notable versatility, major constitutional cases such as the States’ unsuccessful challenge to the Federal government’s monopoly over income taxation in 1957 and a successful defence of Victoria’s valuable liquor licence fees in 1959–61.

The solicitor-general had significant, if often hidden, influence in government. Winneke developed a strong relationship with (Sir) Henry Bolte, premier from 1955 to 1972, who formed a kitchen cabinet with Winneke and the deputy-premier (Sir) Arthur Rylah. Bolte told Winneke that he would become the next chief justice of the Supreme Court if he stayed on as solicitor-general, and so it transpired when Sir Edmund Herring retired in 1964. Some of the judges disapproved of the appointment of an outsider so close to the premier, but Winneke displayed tact and administrative skill in managing his colleagues. With mixed success, he tried to clear the growing number of personal-injury actions that clogged the court. Lucid and concise joint judgments delivered immediately at the end of an appeal were his trademark as chief justice, replacing the separate opinions that each judge had traditionally written. Though a self-described conservative traditionalist, he ended Herring’s veto on the appointment of Victoria’s first female QC, Joan Rosanove. In 1972 he replaced Herring as lieutenant-governor.

In 1973 Winneke was considering retirement. He was to turn 65 that year, the task of sentencing weighed on him, and he was physically exhausted. But instead he accepted the invitation of the new premier, (Sir) Rupert Hamer, to become the State’s first Victorian-born governor, taking office on 3 June 1974. Some (Bolte among them) disapproved of a local appointment, but Winneke made the job his own, revelling in ceremony, genially meeting thousands of people across the State and using his legal knowledge in the administrative work of the governor-in-council. He looked the part: ‘a tall, erect, handsome figure of a man with a cultured accent and commanding presence’. His explosive curses and colourful language appeared only in private. Golf and exercise kept him fit despite his ever-present pipe and liking for convivial drinking (a whisky bottle was the ritual accompaniment to his meetings with Bolte and Rylah).

Extended three times, Winneke’s term as governor ended on 1 March 1982. His wife died in 1983. The following year on 23 March at St Martin’s Anglican Church, Killara, Sydney, he married Catherine Ellis Clare Faul, née Nicholson. Knighted (1957), he was appointed KCMG (1966), KCVO (1977) and AC (1982). The Federal government blocked Bolte’s attempts to have him made a member of the Privy Council. He received honorary doctorates of laws from the University of Melbourne (1978) and Monash University (1980). The Supreme Court Library holds a portrait of him by Paul Fitzgerald.

In later life, Sir Henry’s work and interests were largely bounded by Victoria, and he travelled beyond it rarely and reluctantly. Respected and liked on both sides of politics, he thrived under the conservative ministries that governed the State from 1955 to 1982. His reassuring figure smoothed Victoria’s transition to Australian-born governors. He died on 28 December 1985 at his home at Shoreham and after a state funeral he was cremated. His wife and the two sons from his first marriage survived him. His son John became president of the Court of Appeal in Victoria in 1995.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Coleman, Above Renown (1988)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 27 Nov 1951, p 220
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Dec 1973, p 9, 30 Dec 1985, p 13
  • Herald, 31 Jan 1975, p 4, 30 Dec 1985, p 6
  • A705, item 163/64/264, A9300, item WINNEKE H A (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Waugh, 'Winneke, Sir Henry Arthur (1908–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 April 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

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