William à Beckett

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William à Beckett
1st Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria
In office
19 January 1852 – 20 February 1857
Preceded by new office
Succeeded by William Foster Stawell
Supreme Court Judge at Port Phillip
In office
28 February 1846 – 19 January 1852
Preceded by Roger Therry
Succeeded by Establishment of the Supreme Court of Victoria
3rd Solicitor-General of New South Wales
In office
March 1841 (1841-03) – July 1844 (1844-07)
Preceded by John Plunkett
Succeeded by William Manning
Personal details
Born (1806-07-28)28 July 1806
London, United Kingdom
Died 27 June 1869(1869-06-27) (aged 62)
Resting place West Norwood Cemetery
  • Emily Hayley (m. 1832; d. 1841)
  • Matilda Hayley (m. 1849)
Children 13
Education Westminster School
Occupation Barrister; Politician

Sir William à Beckett (28 July 1806 – 27 June 1869) was a British barrister and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.


Born in London, he was the eldest son of William à Beckett, also a solicitor.[1] His younger brothers were Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, one of the original staff of Punch magazine and the author of 'Comic History of England', and Thomas Turner à Beckett (13 September 1808 – 1 July 1892). He was educated at Westminster School, publishing a youthful volume of verse, The Siege of Dumbarton Castle, in 1824. In 1829 he was called to the bar by Lincoln's Inn.[1][2]


In 1837, à Beckett migrated to New South Wales and edited the 'Literary News', a short-lived newspaper. He was appointed acting solicitor-general for the colony in March 1841, and solicitor-general in March 1843. In July 1844 he became an acting judge, and was made a full puisne judge.

In January 1846, he was transferred to the Court of the Resident Judge, the branch of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Melbourne and sat as primary judge in equity. Following his appointment, he was created a knight bachelor.[1] When in January 1852 the separate colony of Victoria was proclaimed he became its first Chief Justice.[3][4]

He returned to Melbourne in December 1854 in time to participate in the Eureka Stockade trials. Although often accused of the inflammatory comments at the trial of the arsonists of the Eureka Hotel, it was the actually the Acting Chief Justice Redmond Barry who sparked the Eureka uprising.[citation needed] À Beckett retired as Chief Justice in 1857 due to poor health, and in 1863 he returned to England.


Politically conservative, à Beckett was strongly opposed to the social disruption caused by the Victorian Gold Rush and under the pseudonym 'Colonus' espoused his views in an influential pamphlet somewhat cumbersomely entitled Does the Discovery of Gold in Victoria Viewed in Relation to its Moral and Social Effects as Hitherto Developed Deserve to be Considered a National Blessing or a National Curse? late in 1852. He presided over a number of important trials including the robbers of gold from the barque Nelson in Hobson's Bay in 1852, but growing disillusion with the state of society in Victoria saw him leave for England with his family in February 1853.[5]

He wrote a number of books, including several volumes of his poetry, and a manual for magistrates of the Court of Petty Sessions, the predecessor of the Magistrates Court of Victoria.


À Beckett married firstly Emily Hayley in 1832. She died on 1 June 1841 and he married secondly Matilda Hayley, her sister, in 1849. They had 13 children, probably some from Emily.[citation needed] À Beckett died in London on 27 June 1869 and was buried in West Norwood Cemetery. He was survived by four sons, of whom William (1833-1901) married Emma Mills (1838-1906), the daughter of a convict who later founded a brewery in Melbourne. Their daughter Emma Minnie Boyd, a successful painter, married another painter Arthur Merric Boyd, to found the artistic Boyd dynasty. His nephew Thomas à Beckett, son of his brother Thomas, was also a puisne judge in Australia.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Dod, Robert P. (1860). The Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage of Great Britain and Ireland. London: Whitaker and Co. p. 80. 
  2. ^ Coppel, E. G. (1969). "à Beckett, Sir William (1806 - 1869)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press. pp. 10–11. Retrieved 13 January 2008. 
  3. ^ Serle, Percival (1949). "à Beckett, Sir William". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. 
  4. ^ Bennett, J. M. (2001). Sir William à Beckett: First Chief Justice of Victoria, 1852-57. Sydney: The Federation Press. ISBN 1-86287-409-3. 
  5. ^ "a'Beckett, Sir William". Australian Encyclopædia (3rd revised, 1927 ed.). Sydney: Angus & Robertson Limited. 1912. p. 2. 
  6. ^ Balmford, Peter (2004). A'Beckett, Sir William (1806–1869) (subscription required). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 November 2006. 

External links[edit]

Legal offices
New office Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria
1852 – 1857
Succeeded by
William Foster Stawell
Preceded by
Roger Therry
Judge of the Supreme Court of NSW
District of Port Phillip

1846 – 1852
Establishment of the
Supreme Court of Victoria
Preceded by
John Plunkett
Solicitor General for New South Wales
1841 – 1844
Succeeded by
William Manning