The life and legacy of Sir Samuel Griffith remembered

Samuel Griffith’s death 100 years ago on 9 August 1920 represented the passing of not only Australia’s first High Court Chief Justice, but also a leading protagonist of Australia’s federation. After initially drafting the proposal for a federal council at the 1883 intercolonial conference, Griffith led the drafting of the proposed Constitution at the 1891 Convention, where he was also vice-president and constitutional committee chair. As the eminent historian Geoffrey Bolton has noted, ‘Griffith performed the essential task of bringing Parkes’s splendid but cloudy generalisations down to earth and identifying the main issues which would confront a federal convention’.

But before stepping onto the national stage, Griffith’s public service in Queensland was lengthy and significant. A notable barrister, he combined this with two terms as Premier (1883–88 and 1890–93) before serving as Chief Justice of Queensland for the next decade. Subsequently in 1903 Griffith was appointed as the first Chief Justice of the newly-established High Court of Australia—a highly important office in the new nation that he would occupy for the next sixteen years, including through the First World War. Following this appointment to the High Court Griffith declared his desire to bring about ’a realisation that this is one Commonwealth, that there is one common bond between the States, and that they may come to regard the High Court as the outward and visible sign of that union and unity’.

Ill-health plagued Griffith in his later years on the High Court bench, ultimately leading to his retirement 1919. Upon his departure from the High Court, Griffith stated:

In discharging the duties of my office I have—I hope not without success—endeavoured to maintain the prestige and honour of the court, and to serve the people of Australia and the Empire to the best of my ability. I am glad to think that my efforts have not been unrewarded by the appreciation and goodwill of the majority of those whose servant I have been. The duties and obligations of the office, although not thrust into the public gaze, are very onerous… I hope to be able, when no longer bound by the trammels of judicial office, to make an occasional contribution to the solution of the social problems by which we are confronted. Although peace between the recent belligerents has been formally signed, we see the whole world threatened with the crudest and most uninstructed forms of revolution, defying all rule and order, and denying all obligations of duty; but I hope that the majority of the people, who have for centuries enjoyed the advantages of ordered government, will follow saner counsels. I now say farewell.

In moving his condolence motion following Griffith’s death just a year later in 1920, Prime Minister Billy Hughes lamented:

The death of Sir Samuel Griffith removes from our midst a great statesman, a great lawyer, and a devoted public servant. In the State of Queensland, his adopted home, he made for himself a great and enduring reputation as a statesman and jurist. He was one of the fathers of the Commonwealth Constitution. When the Convention of 1891 met, he brought to the work of constitution-building a ripe scholarship, a long experience of political affairs, a singularly acute intellect, and a sound and practical judgement.

Following Griffith’s death, there have been numerous commemorations of his enduring public service. In its 1928 report, the Canberra National Memorials Committee stated that ‘the patriotism of a nation is often expressed by memorials to its benefactors, so it is deserving and right that the names of those great statesmen who laboured in the cause of federation of the Commonwealth should be perpetuated as places names’. Accordingly, Griffith was one of 14 leaders of federation to have a suburb named after them, with the existing suburbs of Manuka and South Blandfordia combined and renamed.

Later, in 1934, the Federal Government resolved to rename the existing electoral division of Oxley as Griffith, both to memorialise Griffith and remove confusion associated with the existing state electorate. Government Minister and Member for the adjoining division of Moreton, Josiah Francis, extolled Griffith as playing ‘a wonderful part in the framing of the Constitution, who was one of the greatest jurists Australia has had, and who was the first Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia’. Despite other calls to retain the name Oxley, use the more geographically descriptive name of ‘Brisbane South’ or allow the electorate’s constituents to name it themselves, the large Government majority passed the motion on the voices and Griffith has been a federal division since.

In 1971 the Queensland Parliament passed the Griffith University Act 1971, which provided for the establishment of a second university located in Brisbane. Minister for Education Alan Fletcher’s brief was very clear: the university must be named after Samuel Griffith, who had held the same portfolio in the Queensland Government. Griffith was also the Queensland University Extension League’s initial president, which had advocated for the establishment of Queensland’s first university in 1909.

Tags: politics, law


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