Time icon

Parliament House is currently

Sir Samuel Walker Griffith GCMG PC KC

View full image

Chief Justice, 5 October 1903 to 17 October 1919

Lawyer, politician, and judge, Samuel Griffith (1845-1920) played a pivotal role in Australia’s Federation movement and in the foundation of the High Court.1

Born in Wales, Griffith migrated to Australia with his family in 1854. A gifted student, he graduated from the University of Sydney at 17 years of age before gaining employment as an articled clerk at a Queensland law firm. Admitted to the Queensland Bar in 1867, he became a QC in 1876. In 1870 Griffith married Julia Janet Thomson with whom he had six children.

Elected to the Queensland parliament in 1872, Griffith served in the Legislative Assembly for more than two decades. During this period, he held several senior ministerial positions and was twice Premier (1883-88 and 1890-93). In 1893, Griffith left parliament to become Chief Justice of Queensland. He was made a KCMG in 1886, and elevated to GCMG in 1895. He was appointed Privy Counsellor in 1901.

Griffith was an ardent supporter of Australia’s Federation. He was instrumental in the creation of the Federal Council of Australasia in 1885, and led the drafting of the proposed Constitution at the 1891 National Australasian Convention.2 After leaving politics he continued to advocate for Federation, writing extensively on the subject and sending detailed comments to the drafting committee during the Australasian Federal Convention (1897-98). Though credited for Queensland’s ‘Yes’ vote in the Federation referenda, Griffith’s support for retaining in the UK Constitution Bill a right of appeal to the Privy Council strained his relations with Edmund Barton and other leaders of the Federation movement.

Griffith drafted the Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth) which established the High Court and was appointed as the inaugural Chief Justice.3 As the dominant Justice on the early court, he heard over 960 full court cases and wrote the majority of decisions.4 Many of those early decisions still form the basis of contemporary constitutional interpretation. Indeed, his formulation of judicial power is ‘frequently cited as the classic statement upon the topic’.5 Known for his intolerance of poorly formed arguments, Griffith established the practice of intervening in argument by questioning Counsel, which is still used today.6

A staunch judicial defender of the new Federation, his early judgements showed a willingness to limit central powers and preserve states’ rights. He declared a 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’.7 His establishment of sitting circuits in state capitals was influential in achieving that goal.8

He retired in 1919 due to ill-health and died within the year. Speaking in Parliament after Griffith’s death, Prime Minister Billy Hughes lamented the loss of ‘a great statesman, a great lawyer, and a devoted public servant’.9

Duncan Max Meldrum

Artist Max Meldrum (1875-1955) was born in Edinburgh and arrived in Melbourne in 1889. He attended the National Gallery of Victoria Art School where he studied painting with Bernard Hall. In 1899, he won a travelling scholarship and studied at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. The following year Meldrum studied at the Académie Julian and later exhibited at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français (Paris). During this time, he became an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (Paris). In 1912, Meldrum returned to Melbourne where he set up his studio and art school on Collins Street. Among his students were Clarice Beckett and Arnold Shore and he was a great influence on his friend, Archibald Colquhoun. Meldrum was a foundation member of the Australian Art Association in 1912 and was elected president of the Victorian Artists’ Society from 1916 to 1917. A regular exhibitor in Melbourne and Sydney, Meldrum also exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in London. Regarded as the father of Australian tonalism, Meldrum’s representational style won him the Archibald Prize in consecutive years in 1939 and 1940.10

Samuel Walker Griffin 
by Duncan Max Meldrum
Oil on canvas
222.5 x 133.7 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

1. Information in this biography has been taken from the following: RB Joyce, ‘Griffith, Sir Samuel Walker (1845–1920)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1983; N Church, ‘The life and legacy of Sir Samuel Griffith remembered’, FlagPost, Parliamentary Library Blog, 7 August 2020; JM Williams, ‘The Griffith Court’, in R Dixon, ed., The High Court, The Constitution and Australian Politics, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, Victoria, 2015, pp. 77–97; G Mackenzie, An enduring influence: Sir Samuel Griffith and his contribution to criminal justice In Queensland’, Queensland University of Technology Law and Justice Journal, vol. 2 no. 1, 2001, pp. 53–63. Websites accessed 21 April 2021.
2. G Bolton, ‘Samuel Griffith: the great provincial’, Papers on Parliament no. 13, November 1991, pp. 19–33, accessed 4 October 2021.
3. H Gibbs, ‘Griffith, Samuel Walker’, in T Blackshield, M Coper, and G Williams, eds, The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Victoria, 2001, p. 310.
4. A search of the Westlaw Commonwealth Law Reports for ‘Griffith’ under ‘Judge(s)’ returns 967 results.
5. A Mason, ‘Griffith Court’, in Blackshield et al., op. cit., p. 312; the formulation on judicial power can be found in High Court of Australia, ‘Huddart, Parker & Co Pty Ltd v Moorehead; Appelton v Moorehead’ [1909], HCA 36, 8 CLR 330, p. 357.
6. Gibbs, op. cit.
7. ‘The late Sir Samuel Griffith’, The Brisbane Courier, 10 August 1920, p. 6, accessed 21 April 2021.
8. Mason, op. cit., p. 312.
9. W Hughes, ‘The Late Honourable Sir Samuel Griffith’, House of Representatives, Debates, 11 August 1920, p. 3421.
10. J McGrath and B Smith, ‘Meldrum, Duncan Max (1875–1955)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed 15 April 2021; ‘Meldrum, Duncan Max’, A McCulloch, S McCulloch and E McCulloch Childs, eds, The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006, pp. 674–75.

Connect with us