Sir Samuel Walker Griffith

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Sir Samuel Walker Griffith

Sir Samuel Walker Griffith (1845-1920), premier of queensland and chief justice of Australia, was one of the ablest advocates of the federation of the Australian colonies and one of the greatest jurists produced by Australia in the 19th century.

Samuel Griffith was born at Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, on June 21, 1845, the son of Edward Griffith and his wife, Mary Walker Griffith. Edward Griffith was a Congregational minister who migrated with his family to Queensland in 1854. The family finally settled in Brisbane in 1860.

Samuel Griffith was educated at the University of Sydney, where he received a baccalaureate in 1863 with first-class honors in classics, mathematics, and natural science. In 1865 he was awarded the T. S. Mort traveling fellowship and visited Europe, where he became fascinated with Italy and developed the interest and skill in the Italian language which flowered in his widely acclaimed translations of The Inferno of Dante Alighieri (1908) and The Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri (1912).

Griffith was admitted to the Queensland bar in 1867 and soon proved successful. Attracted to politics, he won the seat of East Moreton in 1871. Three years later he became attorney general under Arthur Macalister and embarked on an active legislation program, including an important bill in 1875 to establish free, compulsory, and secular education. In 1876-1878 he was attorney general and secretary for public instruction.

An ardent opponent of the use of Kanaka labor, Griffith was premier of Queensland from 1883 to 1888. He was premier again in 1890-1893. Griffith represented Queensland at the Colonial Conference in London in 1887 and was vitally interested in the annexation of part of New Guinea by Britain. At the Intercolonial Conference of 1883 in Sydney he successfully moved for the establishment of the Federal Australasian Council and presided over its discussions in 1888, 1891, and 1893. He took an active interest in the federation movement and welcomed Henry Parkes's decisive moves in 1888-1890. He was the chief draftsman of the constitution adopted at the 1891 convention in Sydney, and it was the basis of the final Australian Commonwealth constitution.

In 1893 Griffith became chief justice of Queensland and proved a valuable reformer of the criminal law. In 1903 he became first chief justice of the High Court of Australia. In the pioneering stages of the High Court his great political and legal experience was invaluable. He emphasized the role of the court in interpreting the constitution. His natural stress on states' rights was not continued after his retirement in 1919, but he had set a high standard of meticulous analysis, objectivity, and great dignity.

Knighted in 1886, Griffith died at Brisbane on June 9, 1920. In 1870 he had married Julia Janet Thomson, who survived him with one son and four daughters.

Further Reading

There is no up-to-date biography of Griffith. Austin Douglas Graham, The Life of the Right Hon. Sir Samuel Walker Griffith (1939), is useful. There are references to him in various legal reminiscences, including Philip A. Jacobs, Judges of Yesterday (1924), and Albert B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (1929). Much of his federation work is covered in John Quick and Robert R. Garran, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (1901), and his colonial political work in Charles A. Bernays, Queensland Politics during Sixty Years (1919).

Additional Sources

Joyce, R. B., Samuel Walker Griffith, St. Lucia, Queenlands; New York: University of Queensland Press, 1984. □