HIGGINS, Henry Bournes (1851-1929)


HIGGINS, Henry Bournes (1851-1929)
politician and judge
was born at Newtownards, County Down, Ireland, on 30 June 1851. His, father, John Higgins, was a Methodist minister, whose wife, Anne Bournes, was the well-educated daughter of a county Mayo landholder. Henry Bournes Higgins was a delicate child and much of his early education came from his mother. At 10 years of age he was sent to the Wesleyan Connexional School, Dublin, where the headmaster, Dr Crook, was a distinguished scholar. The boys had a sound training in the classics, but the life of the school was spartan in its methods, and scarcely suitable for a delicate child. In 1865 he had an attack of inflammation of the lungs and was taken away from school. There followed work in a wholesale drapery in Belfast for a few months, and then more schooldays at Newry, a situation with a merchant tailor at Clonmel, and another at a furniture warehouse in Dublin. His father would have sent him to the university but the narrow income of a minister would not permit it. In June 1869 his elder brother died of consumption. A tendency to chest weakness was shown in other members of the family, and under physician's advice it was decided to emigrate to Victoria. Towards the end of the year the mother, having obtained a little money from her family estate, sailed for Australia with six children. The youngest, a boy of six, died a few days before they reached Port Phillip on 12 February 1870.
Melbourne was then a busy, prosperous city and Higgins, now 18, had to find work. After one or two false starts he became an assistant master at a private school at Fitzroy kept by a Mr James Scott. His father and another brother arrived in October, to find that Henry was preparing for the matriculation examination at which he won the classical exhibition of £25. He had to resign his position so that he could attend the university in 1871, but obtained some work at the Scotch College supervising in the evening, with an occasional day-class. Other exhibitions were gained during his course and he eventually qualified for the degrees of M.A. and LL.B. One disqualification for a barrister's career, a tendency to stutter, was overcome by intense training and determination. He might possibly have been appointed lecturer in history at Melbourne university but he would not risk his career at the bar. At the university he met other interesting students who were to make their mark, including Deakin (q.v.) and Alexander Sutherland (q.v.). By 1876 he was established in Temple Court sharing chambers with W. A. C. a'Beckett and acting as "devil" to E. D. Holroyd (q.v.), then the leader of the equity bar. His own fees were small, but he could scarcely have had better training. He still did a little coaching, but by 1879 his position was so much improved he was able to give it up. In a few years his reputation had become established, but in the meanwhile he had given evidence of his development in other directions. He was never to be afraid of taking a lonely path, and in 1882 he showed courage in attending the meetings of the home rule for Ireland advocates, John and William Redmond, who reached Australia just at the time when public feeling was most inflamed over the Phoenix Park outrage. In 1885 he gave an admirable address to the University Society on "The Muses in Australia" in which he urged the Australian poets to let their work grow out of their surroundings, to cultivate Australia's own character, discover its own way of expressing itself, and free itself from the conventions of older lands. Nearly 20 years later he was to found a scholarship for the study of poetry.
In December 1885 Higgins was married to Mary Alice Morrison, daughter of Dr George Morrison of Geelong, and a sister of "Chinese" Morrison (q.v.). A year was spent travelling in Europe and America, and when he returned in January 1887 he found himself leader of the equity bar, two of his seniors having become judges. He began to take an interest in the Melbourne university, was elected to its council in 1887, and sat on it for 37 years. He was not of a speculative nature and kept out of the land boom during the 1880s; in 1892 he made his first effort to enter parliament at Geelong. He was defeated but won the seat in 1894, and at once began to show interest in social legislation. He was a student of Henry George and inclined to free trade, but realized the difficulties of a young country trying to establish secondary industries. An inquiry into sweating led to his feeling the necessity of limiting the hours of labour even of people working by themselves, and he fought for the shops and factories act, which was the precursor of much legislation aimed at helping the worker. Words like conciliation and arbitration were in the air and the federation movement was growing. At the election for delegates to the convention of 1897-8 Higgins was one of the 10 selected to represent Victoria. At its meetings he tended to find himself in the minority and even opposed to his fellow Victorians. The principal point of difference arose from his belief that the provision for amending the constitution was inadequate. Time has possibly proved him to be right, but what he could not realize was that if no risks were taken federation might become impossible. During the campaign which followed he fought against the bill. In 1900 he published his Essays and Addresses on the Australian Commonwealth Bill, and was again in the unpopular camp when he opposed sending a contingent to the Boer war. This probably led to his losing his seat at Geelong in November 1900, but when federation was established he was elected for the North Melbourne seat in the house of representatives. He took an early opportunity of moving that the Commonwealth should acquire full powers for Australia as to wages and hours and conditions of labour. The motion was passed, but the opposition of the separate states prevented Australia being treated as a unit in economic matters. When Watson's (q.v.) Labour government came into power in 1904 Higgins was offered and accepted the position of attorney-general. After the formation of the Reid-McLean (q.v.) government he succeeded in getting a motion passed praying that home rule might be granted to Ireland. For this he has been criticized, largely because the petition was addressed to the king direct and not through the government. In 1903 he became a K.C. and, arising out of his difficulties over the Australian constitution, wrote a study of American constitutional difficulties, The Rigid Constitution. In 1906 he was appointed a judge of the high court, and in the following year became president of the arbitration court. In the high court he showed himself to be an able judge, but inclined to find himself dissenting alone, or with (Sir) Isaac Isaacs. In the arbitration court a famous early problem was the Harvester case, which led to his bringing forward the principle of the basic wage. He worked unceasingly and dealt with a very large number of cases. When the war came for once Higgins was with the majority, he held that in the special circumstances the Empire could not have kept out of the war. In 1916 his son and only child Mervyn Bournes Higgins was killed in action, a great grief, which, as he said, condemned him to "hard labour for the rest of his life". The passing of the amending arbitration act and the industrial peace act in 1920, in his opinion had fatally injured the usefulness of his court, and led to his resignation as president. In 1922 he published A New Province for Law and Order, being a review of the 14 years of the court during which he had been president. He continued his work as a justice of the high court. His study of the Australian constitution largely based on that of the United States of America, revived his interest in America which he had visited in 1914, and he revisited it in 1924 and renewed his acquaintance with Mr justice Holmes and other great jurists. He also revisited Ireland and delighted in meeting George Russell ("A.E."). Back in Melbourne and relieved of his arbitration court work he was able to spare time for reading, and to take an interest in the new Australian writers. Although apparently in good health he died suddenly on 13 January 1929. His wife survived him.
Higgins was a tall, rather slight man quiet and reserved in manner. He was interested in young people and in those who appeared to have the scales weighted against them. It would give a wrong impression to say that he had a brilliant mind; it would be nearer the truth to say that he had an honest and powerful mind always seeking the whole truth. His powers of work were enormous and this alone enabled him to get through the work of the arbitration court. A man of great integrity, he found it difficult to compromise or be a party man; one writer after his death went so far as to say that in "the game of politics he expected each party to keep in step with him". His opposition to the original federation bill, however, served the good purpose of having some of its defects removed, and when it became law he realized that the only thing to do was to be loyal to it. He remains one of those austere figures who, without attracting great popular affection or a following, do much work for their country of very great value.
Nettie Palmer, Henry Bournes Higgins; The Argus and The Age, 14 January 1929; private information and personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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