One of the most prominent, yet least understood, of Western Australia’s leading citizens of the latter 19th century was Sir Alexander Campbell Onslow (1842-1908), the Colony’s third Chief Justice. This biography offers a new and measured assessment of his character, work and legacies. Descended from an ancient Shropshire family his career as lawyer commenced on his call to the English Bar in 1868.
After 10 years of modest Bar practice, he married and, seeking a consistent income, applied for a Crown appointment overseas. Offered only the Attorney-Generalship of British Honduras (Belize after independence) he accepted and endured years of harsh conditions leaving him with a persistent tropical disease. Most of his lawyer colleagues, from the Chief Justice down, were incompetent and corrupt. Yet Onslow worked diligently, trying to restore the rule of law, promote true justice and protect the disregarded interests of the Mayan (“Indian”) natives.
By 1880 his pleas for transfer to better conditions were granted. He became Attorney-General of Western Australia, only to find little improvement, apart from the climate. The Colony’s administration of justice was in disarray, Chief Justice Wrenfordsley, perpetually insolvent, was a feeble lawyer. Governor William Robinson personally disliked Onslow and made his life difficult. That was as nothing compared with outrageous treatment he received from the autocratic Governor Broome, who tried to precipitate Onslow’s dismissal from the office of Chief Justice to which he had succeeded in 1882.
Onslow has thus to defend his own position and protect the supremacy of the law from constant and brutal attack from Government House itself. To his credit he conducted himself with circumspection and distinction as Chief Justice. Never reconciled to Broome, he was able to establish friendship with Robinson who returned to succeed Broome as Governor.
Onslow’s concern for the community’s underprivileged classes, and his awarding condign punishment to pastoralists who victimised Aboriginal labourers, were outstanding achievements.
Lady Onslow was a leading figure in women’s movements, while she and her husband were accomplished musicians who gave many public performances.
This is the last volume, of his sole authorship, in Dr Bennett’s remarkable 19th century series Lives of Australian Chief Justices.
The Western Australian State Set of Lives of Australian Chief Justices, which includes, Sir Archibald Burt, Sir Henry Wrenfordsley and Sir Alexander Onslow is available for $130.00 – to order the WA State Set, click here.