William Stawell

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William Foster Stawell

William Stawell 1872bw.jpg
Stawell in 1872
1st Attorney-General of Victoria, Australia
In office
Succeeded by Thomas Howard Fellows
2nd Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court of Victoria
In office
Preceded by William à Beckett
Succeeded by George Higinbotham
(Appointed) Member of the
Legislative Council of Victoria
In office
Member of the
Legislative Assembly of Victoria
In office
Servingwith Archibald Michie and David Moore
Constituency Melbourne
Personal details
Born(1815-06-27)27 June 1815
Old Court, County Cork, Ireland
Died12 March 1889(1889-03-12) (aged 73)
Naples, Italy
Nationality British
Spouse(s)Mary Frances Elizabeth Greene
Children Richard Rawdon Stawell (son)
Alma mater Trinity College, Dublin,
King's Inns, and
Lincoln's Inn
OccupationLawyer and Barrister

Sir William Foster Stawell KCMG (27 June 1815 12 March 1889) was a British colonial statesman and a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia. Stawell was the first Attorney-General of Victoria, serving from 1851 to 1856 as an appointed official sitting in the Victorian Legislative Council, and from 1856 until 1857, as an elected politician, representing Melbourne.


Early life

Stawell was born in Old Court, County Cork, Ireland the second son of ten children of Jonas Stawell, and his wife Anna, second daughter of the Right Reverend William Foster, bishop of Clogher. [1] [2] Stawell 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. [2] [3] Stawell travelled in Europe with his friends Redmond Barry and James Moore. He practised law in Ireland until 1842 when he decided to emigrate to Australia. [1]


Stawell was admitted to the Port Phillip District bar in 1843. [1] He engaged extensively in pastoral pursuits, and had sheep stations at Natte Yallock, Victoria, on the banks of the Avoca River, and in the neighbourhood of Lake Wallace, near the South Australian border. [3] When Charles Perry came to Australia as first bishop of Melbourne, Stawell helped him to form a constitution for the newly created diocese. His first cousins and fellow Anglo-Irish, the brothers William and Leopold de Salis also went to Australia in the 1840s.


For many years Stawell 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 [3] on 15 July 1851 [4] and became a member of the Executive Council and the Legislative Council. [3]

A few weeks after Stawell's appointment gold was discovered in Victoria; the duty of creating a system of government which could cope adequately with the situation fell to him. Stawell 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 perceived threat of the hordes of gold rush adventurers who arrived in Victoria, first from the neighbouring colonies, and later from Europe and America. Much was owed to the firm administration of Stawell that, at a time when the government was weak, and many of the newcomers impatient of control, lynch law was never resorted to. [3]

Rather than export duty on gold, Stawell supported a miners' licensing system, which was one of the major grievances leading to the Eureka Rebellion in Ballarat in 1854. [1] Referring to the miners as "wandering vagabonds" and "vagrants", Stawell was the prosecutor in the unsuccessful case against the rebel leaders charged with high treason. [1]

Stawell had very little assistance for some time from any of his colleagues, and until the Executive Council was strengthened by the admission of Captain Andrew Clarke and Hugh Culling 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 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. [3] 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. [3]

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. [3]


Stawell left Australia after his 1843 arrival only in 1872, when he paid short visits to the neighbouring colonies and New Zealand, and in 1873, when he returned to Europe on two years' leave of absence. [3] Stawell 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 . [3] Stawell died at Naples, Italy, on 12 March 1889. [1]

The family house D'Estaville, built in 1859, still stands in the inner Melbourne suburb of Kew.

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


In 1856 Stawell married Mary Frances Elizabeth Greene, only daughter of W.P. Greene, RN; [2] [3]

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Francis, Charles (1976). "Stawell, Sir William Foster (1815–1889)". Australian Dictionary of Biography . 6. Melbourne University Press. ISSN   1833-7538 . Retrieved 2 January 2014 via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  2. 1 2 3 Mennell, Philip (1892). "Stawell, Hon. Sir William Foster"  . The Dictionary of Australasian Biography. London: Hutchinson & Co via Wikisource.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain :  Levey, George Collins (1911). "Stawell, Sir William Foster". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica . 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 817.
  4. "Statistical Register of the State of Victoria" (PDF). 1908. Retrieved 10 August 2014.
New creation Attorney-General of Victoria
15 July 1851 24 February 1857
Succeeded by
Thomas Howard Fellows
Victorian Legislative Council
New creation Nominated Member
Oct 1851 Mar 1856
Original Council
Victorian Legislative Assembly
New creation Member for Melbourne
Nov 1856 Feb 1857
With: Archibald Michie
David Moore
John Smith
Henry Langlands
Succeeded by
James Service
Legal offices
Preceded by
William à Beckett
Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court of Victoria

Succeeded by
George Higinbotham