William Foster Stawell

William Foster Stawell

Sir William Foster Stawell KCMG (27 June 181512 March 1889) was a British colonial statesman and a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Early life

Stawell was the second son of Jonas Stawell, of Old Court, in the county of Cork, and of Anna, daughter of the Right Reverend William Foster, bishop of Clogher.

He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, studied law at the King’s Inns, Dublin, and at Lincoln’s Inn, and was called to the Irish bar in 1839. He practised in Ireland until 1842.


Stawell then made his home in Australia and was admitted to the Melbourne bar in 1843. He engaged extensively in pastoral pursuits, and had sheep stations at Natte Yallock, Victoria, on the banks of the river Avoca, and in the neighbourhood of Lake Wallace, near the South Australian border. When Charles Perry came to Australia as first bishop of Melbourne, Stawell helped him to form a constitution for the newly created diocese.


For many years he enjoyed the leading practice at the local bar, and when the Port Phillip district of New South Wales was separated from the parent colony, and entered upon an independent existence as the colony of Victoria, Stawell accepted the position of attorney-general and became a member of the executive and legislative councils.

A few weeks after his appointment gold was discovered, and to Stawell fell the arduous duties of creating a system of government which could cope adequately with the difficulties of the position. He had to establish a police force, frame regulations for the government of the goldfields, appoint magistrates and officials of every grade, and protect life and property against the attacks of the hordes of adventurers, many of desperate character, who landed in Victoria, first from the neighbouring colonies, and later from Europe and America. It was very much owing to the firm administration of Stawell that, at a time when the government was weak and a large section of the newcomers impatient of control, lynch law was never resorted to.

He had very little assistance for some time from any of his colleagues, and until the executive council was strengthened by the admission of Captain (afterwards Sir Andrew) Clarke and Mr HCE Childers Stawell was the brains as well as the body of the administration. The success of his policy was upon the whole remarkable. In the legislature he was sometimes opposed, and at other times assisted, by Mr (afterwards Sir John) John O’Shanassy, who was the leader of the popular party, and between them they managed to pass a number of statutes which added greatly to the prosperity of the colony. A political contemporary, Henry Samuel Chapman, spoke of him as “almost the only efficient man connected with the government.”

Constitution Act

Stawell was indefatigable in the discharge of his duties, and extraordinary stories are told of the long journeys on horseback to visit distant outposts which he would take after being all day long in the law courts or in the council chamber. Stawell bore an active part in drafting the Constitution Act which gave to Victoria representative institutions and a responsible ministry, instead of an executive appointed and removable by the governor and a legislature in which one-third of the members were chosen by the Crown.

At the first general election after the new constitution in 1856 Stawell was returned as one of the members for Melbourne, and became the attorney-general of the first responsible ministry. In 1857, on the resignation of the chief justice, Sir William à Beckett, he succeeded to the vacant post, and was created a knight-bachelor. He administered the government of Victoria in 1873, 1875–1876, and 1884.


Stawell never left Australia from his arrival in 1843 until 1872, when he paid short visits to the neighbouring colonies and New Zealand, and 1873, when he returned to Europe on two years’ leave of absence. He took a very deep interest in the proceedings of the Church of England, and was a member of the synod. On his retirement from the bench in 1886 he was created KCMG. He died at Naples on 12 March 1889 [http://worldconnect.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=:900330&id=I1790] .

In 1856 he had married Mary Frances Elizabeth, only daughter of W.P. Greene, RN; their son Richard Rawdon Stawell became a doctor.

The town of Stawell, Victoria was named in his honour.


*Dictionary of Australian Biography|First=William Foster|Last=Stawell|Link=http://gutenberg.net.au/dictbiog/0-dict-biogSt-Sy.html#stawell3

ee also

* Judiciary of Australia
* List of Judges of the Supreme Court of Victoria

External links

* [http://www.supremecourt.vic.gov.au Supreme Court of Victoria Website]

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