Samuel Griffith

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The Right Honourable
Sir Samuel Griffith
9th Premier of Queensland
In office
13 November 1883 – 13 June 1888
Preceded by Thomas McIlwraith
Succeeded by Thomas McIlwraith
Constituency North Brisbane
In office
12 August 1890 – 27 March 1893
Preceded by Boyd Dunlop Morehead
Succeeded by Thomas McIlwraith
Constituency Brisbane North
1st Chief Justice of Australia
In office
5 October 1903 – 17 October 1919
Nominated by Alfred Deakin
Appointed by Henry Northcote, 1st Baron Northcote
Preceded by New office
Succeeded by Sir Adrian Knox
14th Treasurer of Queensland
In office
17 August 1887 – 13 June 1888
Preceded by James Dickson
Succeeded by Thomas McIlwraith
Constituency North Brisbane
Member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly
for East Moreton
In office
3 April 1872 – 25 November 1873
Serving with William Hemmant
Preceded by Robert Travers Atkin
Succeeded by William Fryar
Member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly
for Oxley
In office
25 November 1873 – 14 November 1878
Preceded by New seat
Succeeded by Samuel Grimes
Member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly
for North Brisbane
In office
15 November 1878 – 13 June 1888
Serving with Arthur Palmer, William Brookes
Preceded by New seat
Succeeded by Abolished
Member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly
for Brisbane North
In office
13 June 1888 – 29 Apr 1893
Serving with Thomas McIlwraith
Preceded by New seat
Succeeded by John James Kingsbury
Personal details
Born (1845-06-21)21 June 1845
Merthyr Tydfil, Wales
Died 9 August 1920(1920-08-09) (aged 75)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Resting place Toowong Cemetery
Nationality Welsh
Spouse(s) Julia Janet Thomson
Relations Mary Harriett Griffith (sister)
Alma mater University of Sydney
Occupation Judge, Barrister
Religion Congregational, Anglican

Sir Samuel Walker Griffith GCMG, PC, QC, (21 June 1845 – 9 August 1920) was an Australian politician, Premier of Queensland, Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, and a principal author of the Constitution of Australia.[1]

Early life[edit]

Griffith was born in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, the younger son of the Rev. Edward Griffith, a Congregational minister and his wife, Mary, second daughter of Peter Walker.[1] He was the brother of Mary Harriett Griffith. Although of Welsh extraction, his forebears for at least three generations had lived in England. The family migrated to Queensland (then the Moreton Bay district of New South Wales)[2] when Samuel was eight. He was educated at schools in Ipswich, Sydney, Maitland and Brisbane (from 1860), towns where his father was a minister, then at the University of Sydney, where he graduated B.A. in 1863, with first-class honours in classics, mathematics and natural science.[1] During his course he was awarded the Cooper and Barker scholarships and other prizes.[1]

In 1865, he gained the T. S. Mort Travelling Fellowship. Travelling 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 (The Inferno of Dante Alighieri in 1908).

On his return to Brisbane, Griffith studied law and was articled to Arthur Macalister, in one of whose ministries Griffith afterwards had his first portfolio. Griffith was called to the bar in 1867.

In 1870, Griffith returned to Sydney to complete an M.A..[1] In the same year, he married Julia Janet Thomson.

Political career[edit]

In 1872 Griffith was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Queensland,[3] for East Moreton.[2] Throughout his career he saw himself as a lawyer first and a politician second, and continued to appear at the Bar even when he was in office. Griffith took silk in 1876 as a Queen's Counsel.[1] In Parliament he gained a reputation as a liberal reformer. He was Attorney-General, Minister for Education and Minister for Works, and became leader of the liberal party in 1879. His great enemy was the conservative leader Sir Thomas McIlwraith, whom he accused (correctly) of corruption.

Griffith became Premier in November 1883 displacing McIlwraith. Griffith's election as Premier was assisted by auditor-general William Leworthy Goode Drew's report on the colony's loans having reached over £13 million.[4] Griffith 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,[3] 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 there in 1888.

Griffith held the Premier's office until 1888, and was made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1886, before receiving an advancement to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1895. Griffith was regarded as a close ally of the labour movement. He introduced a bill to legalise trade unions, and declared that "the great problem of this age is not how to accumulate wealth but how to secure its more equitable distribution". In 1888 his government was defeated. In opposition he wrote radical articles for The Boomerang, William Lane's socialist newspaper.

But in 1890 Griffith suddenly betrayed his radical friends and became Premier again at the head of an unlikely alliance with McIlwraith, the so-called "Griffilwraith". The following year his government used the military to break the great shearers' strike, and he earned the nickname "Oily Sam". Griffith 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 Queensland Legislative Council.[2]

Chief Justice[edit]

Griffith as the first Chief Justice

On 13 March 1893, the Governor accepted Griffith's resignation from Vice-President and Member of the Executive Council and Chief Secretary and Attorney General and appointed Griffith to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland where he served until 4 October 1903.[5] He was therefore not a delegate to the 1897 conventions which produced the final draft of the Constitution, but he acted as a behind-the-scenes advisor to Sir Robert Garran, secretary of the Drafting Committee, which followed the structure he had laid out in 1891. In 1899 he campaigned publicly for a 'yes' vote in the federation referendum in Queensland.

During his term as Chief Justice Griffith drafted Queensland's Criminal Code,[6] a successful codification of the entire English criminal law, which was adopted in 1899, and later in Western Australia, Papua New Guinea, substantially in Tasmania, and other imperial territories including Nigeria.[7] At May 2006 the Queensland Criminal Code remains largely unchanged.

When the federal Parliament passed the Judiciary Act in 1903, which created the High Court of Australia, Griffith was the natural choice as the first Chief Justice. During his sixteen years on the bench Griffith sat on some 950 reported cases. In 1913 he visited England and sat on the Privy Council. Like Sir Edmund Barton, Griffith was several times consulted by Governors-General of Australia on the exercise of the reserve powers.[8]

Griffith was one of two justices of the High Court of Australia to have previously served in the Parliament of Queensland, along with Charles Powers. He was also one of three justices to have previously served on the Supreme Court of Queensland, along with William Webb and Harry Gibbs.

Later life[edit]

Headstone of Sir Samuel Griffith at Brisbane's Toowong Cemetery.

After 1910 Griffith's health declined, and in 1917 he suffered a stroke. He a published translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia in 1912.[6] He retired from the Court in 1919 and died at his home in Brisbane on 9 August 1920. Griffith is buried in Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane, together with his wife, Julia, and their son, Llewellyn. Cemetery records indicate that their plot adjoins that of Griffith's dear friend Charles Mein (1841–1890) (barrister, politician and judge), the pair having met during their undergraduate studies at the University of Sydney.


Griffith is commemorated by the naming of Griffith University, with campuses throughout South East Queensland, the suburb of Griffith in Canberra, the federal electoral division of Griffith, Sir Samuel Griffith Drive on Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane,[9] and the S.W. Griffith building of Brisbane Grammar School, which was the former Mathematics building and is now part of the Harlin House boarding precinct. The Samuel Griffith Society is a conservative organisation dedicated to defending what it sees as the principles of the Constitution – particularly, the principle of states' rights. His portrait, by Richard Godfrey Rivers, hangs in the Brisbane Supreme Court. Griffith was appointed a vice-president of the Royal Colonial Institute in 1909 and an honorary fellow of the British Academy in 1916.[1]

Exterior view of Merthyr House circa 1928

Although demolished in 1963, his home Merthyr, named after his birthplace, gives its name to the neighbourhood of Merthyr in New Farm. Griffith Street and Merthyr Street in New Farm are also named after the man and his house.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Joyce, R. B. "Griffith, Sir Samuel Walker (1845–1920)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c Mennell, Philip (1892). "Wikisource link to Griffith, Hon. Sir Samuel Walker". The Dictionary of Australasian Biography. London: Hutchinson & Co. Wikisource 
  3. ^ a b Roberts, Beryl (1991). Stories of the Southside. Archerfield, Queensland: Aussie Books. p. 6. ISBN 0-947336-01-X. 
  4. ^ Longhurst, Robert I. "Drew, William Leworthy (1826–1898)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  5. ^ Queensland Government Gazette Extraordinary Vol. LVIII No.63 Monday 13 March 1893 p777
  6. ^ a b Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Griffith, Sir Samuel Walker". Encyclopædia Britannica. 31 (12th ed.). London & New York. p. 321. 
  7. ^ Bruce McPherson, Supreme Court of Queensland, Butterworths, 1984
  8. ^ Donald Markwell, "Griffith, Barton and the early governor-generals: aspects of Australia's constitutional development", Public Law Review, 1999.
  9. ^ "Drive renamed.". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane: National Library of Australia. 5 January 1951. p. 3. Retrieved 5 March 2011. 
  10. ^ "Santa Barbara, New Farm". Your Brisbane: Past and Present. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Thomas McIlwraith
Premier of Queensland
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas McIlwraith
Preceded by
Boyd Dunlop Morehead
Premier of Queensland
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas McIlwraith
Parliament of Queensland
Preceded by
Robert Travers Atkin
Member for East Moreton
1872 – 1873
Served alongside: William Hemmant
Succeeded by
William Fryar
New seat Member for Oxley
1873 – 1878
Succeeded by
Samuel Grimes
New seat Member for North Brisbane
1878 – 1888
Served alongside: Arthur Palmer, William Brookes
New seat Member for Brisbane North
1888 – 1893
Served alongside: Thomas McIlwraith
Succeeded by
John James Kingsbury
Legal offices
New office Chief Justice of Australia
Succeeded by
Sir Adrian Knox
Preceded by
Charles Lilley
Chief Justice of Queensland
Succeeded by
Pope Alexander Cooper