In 1842, a young Anglo-Irish barrister, finding there were “40 hats on the Munster circuit but not enough work for 20”, set sail for the even younger settlement of Melbourne. William Stawell quickly made his mark in the nascent city, becoming Attorney-General within 10 years. He was a leading political figure and Governor Hotham’s chief adviser, as the colony moved towards self-government in the heady, unstable prosperity of the gold rush. He was, wrote the Argus, “The Government”.
The catastrophic treason trials following the Eureka Rebellion should have sent Stawell to political oblivion – but they did not and, soon after, he was elected to the first Victorian Parliament under the new Constitution he had helped to write. A year later, in 1857, he manoeuvred himself into position as the Colony’s second Chief Justice, serving with great distinction for almost 30 years.
The foreword to this biography comments “as a judge, and Chief Justice, Stawell was ideal for his times”. Dr Bennett reveals Stawell as an epitome of Victorian manly virtues: intellect, ambition, energy, bravery, charm, compassion. He shows why detractors would add arrogance, impatience and ruthlessness, and why history sustains the contemporary verdict on Stawell’s death in 1889: “one may see in the life now terminated the history of Victoria personified”
The Victorian State Set of Lives of Australian Chief Justices, which includes, Sir William a’Beckett, Sir William Stawell and George Higinbotham is available for $120.00 – to order the Victorian State Set, click here.