GRIFFITH, Sir Samuel Walker (1845-1920)


GRIFFITH, Sir Samuel Walker (1845-1920)
premier of Queensland and first chief justice of the high court of Australia
was born at Merthyr-Tydvil in South Wales, on 21 June 1845. He was the younger son of the Rev. Edward Griffith, a Congregational minister, and his wife, Mary, second daughter of Peter Walker. Though of Welsh extraction, his forbears for at least three generations were natives of England. Griffith came to Australia with his family in 1854, living first at Ipswich, then at West Maitland, and from 1860 at Brisbane. He was educated at a private school at Sydney, and at the Maitland high school. He matriculated at the university of Sydney when he was 15, and completed his B.A. course when he was 18, with first-class honours in classics, mathematics and natural science. During his course he was awarded the Cooper and Barker scholarships and other prizes. On his return to Brisbane he was articled to A. Macalister (q.v.), in one of whose ministries Griffith afterwards had his first portfolio. In 1865 he gained the T. S. Mort Travelling Fellowship. Going to Europe he spent some of his time in Italy, and became much attached to the Italian people and their literature. Many years after he was to become the first Australian translator of Dante. He was called to the bar in 1867, obtained a good practice, and in 1871 became a representative for East Moreton in the legislative assembly. In 1874, as a private member, he brought in and carried an insolvency bill and soon afterwards became a member of Macalister's fourth ministry as attorney-general. In the following year he introduced and carried his education bill, which provided that education in Queensland must be free, secular and compulsory. From June 1876 to the end of 1878 he was attorney-general and secretary for public instruction in the Thorn (q.v.) and Douglas (q.v.) ministries. Sir Thomas McIlwraith (q.v.) was in power for nearly five years from January 1879, and found in Griffith a most determined opponent who succeeded in displacing McIlwraith in November 1883, and won the next election largely on his policy of preventing the importation of Kanaka labour from the islands. He passed an act for this purpose, but it was found that the danger of the destruction of the sugar industry was so great that the measure was never made operative. Recruiting was, however, placed under regulations and some of the worst abuses were swept away. Griffith took a special interest in British New Guinea, and was eventually responsible for the sending of Sir William Macgregor (q.v.) there in 1888. In 1887 Griffith was one of the Queensland representatives at the colonial conference held in London, where he initiated the debate on the question of preferential trade and proved himself to be one of the outstanding men at the conference. The McIlwraith and Morehead (q.v.) ministries were in power from June 1888 to August 1890 when Griffith formed a coalition with McIlwraith, who succeeded him as premier in March 1893 when Griffith resigned to become chief justice of Queensland. He had had a distinguished career in Queensland politics. Included in the legislation for which he was responsible were an offenders' probation act, and an act which codified the law relating to the duties and powers of justices of the peace. He also succeeded in passing an eight hours bill through the assembly which was, however, thrown out by the legislative council. His work in connexion with federation was even more important. At the intercolonial conference held at Sydney in November 1883 James Service (q.v.), the Victorian premier, thought that Australia was ready for a real federal government, but Griffith, who was not prepared to go so far, moved and carried a resolution providing that a federal council should be formed to deal with the defence of Australasia, matters relating to the islands and Australia, quarantine, the prevention of the influx of criminals, and other matters of common interest to the various colonies. At the Sydney convention held in 1891 he was appointed vice-president, and as a member of the constitutional committee had an important part in framing the Commonwealth bill. This formed the basis of the constitution which was eventually adopted.
When Griffith was offered the position of chief justice of Queensland there was a general feeling that he was the outstanding man for the position. The salary was, however, comparatively low, Griffith was making a large income at the bar, and it seemed that he was being asked to make too great a sacrifice. Eventually the salary was increased to £3500 a year. He showed himself to be an admirable judge. He had an absolute knowledge of Queensland supreme court practice, and his industry never allowed his general knowledge of law to become rusty. With his fellow judges he compiled the Queensland criminal code which is a monument to the clarity of Griffith's mind. He did not henceforth take any public part in the question of federation. Unofficially he was able to influence the decision to delete the clause from the draft constitution disallowing any appeal from the federal high court to the privy council. He was also able to apply his great knowledge of constitutional law to the final settlement of other problems that had to be cleared up before federation could come into being. From 1899 to 1903 Griffith was also lieutenant-governor of Queensland, and when it was decided in 1903 to constitute the high court of Australia, it was generally agreed that the choice of Griffith for the position of chief justice was the only possible one. A few members of the Labour party who had been opposed to his views on the high court and the privy council raised objections to the appointment but received little support. Griffith carried out his duties as chief justice with great ability until his retirement on 31 August 1919. He then lived at Brisbane until his death on 9 August 1920. He married in 1870, Julia Janet, daughter of James Thomson, who survived him with one son and four daughters. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1886, G.C.M.G. in 1895, and was made a member of the privy council in 1901.
Griffith had been interested in Dante for many years before he published his translation of The Inferno of Dante Alighieri in 1908. This was followed by his translation of the complete work, The Divina Commedia of Dante Alighleri, in 1912, and The Poems of the Vita Nuova in 1914. Critical opinion of Griffith's translation of Dante has ranged from "the finest translation extant" to "he has succeeded in rendering the Poetry of Dante into the language of a parliamentary enactment". The second verdict goes too far. But though the translation is a most painstaking piece of work, Griffith's sense of harmony and rhythm was defective. This is evident when his translation is compared with Longfellow's written in a similar metre.
Griffith was tall, fair and bearded. In private life he was a model husband and father, but he could not be described as a popular man. He had an air of aloofness and apparent coldness which held in check even the most hail-fellow-well-met of his parliamentary colleagues. Yet he was clever as a parliamentarian and a strong party leader. He had perfect faith in himself, but no trouble was too great in ascertaining the facts, no care too great in drafting a clause of a bill. His power of work was tremendous, and it has been said that he kept himself going by drinking large quantities of whisky. The statement is probably based on the fact that he certainly took liquor with his meals and on other occasions, but it has never been suggested that it had any evil effect on him. This has been referred to because his biographer, A. Douglas Graham, found it necessary to deal at some length with the popular stories relating to this question. (See his Life, pp. 96-8). In politics Griffith was consistent except on one occasion, his reversal of policy on the Kanaka question. He regretted this himself, but was convinced that serious injury would have been done to the colony if the prevention of the use of coloured labour had not been postponed. As a lawyer he was astute, brilliant, incisive, with encyclopaedic knowledge and the power of keeping his eye on the principal object, however involved the problem might be. He was an excellent judge, whether he was a great judge is more difficult to say, as later members of the high court have tended to reverse some of his judgments. He did an immense service by broadening the procedure of his time and discouraging that undue taking of technical points that has too often in the past defeated the ends of justice. His mind was possibly over-subtle, and this may have given the impression that he lacked the intellectual honesty of Higinbotham (q.v.). But he was easily the greatest man of his time in Queensland, and one of the very greatest in all Australia.
A. Douglas Graham, The Life of the Right Hon. Sir Samuel Walker Griffith; The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 August 1920, 9 May 1927; The Brisbane Courier, 10 August 1920; C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years; Quick and Garran, Annotated Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia; A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters; The Argus, Melbourne, 26 July 1919.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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