Higinbotham, George (DNB01)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

HIGINBOTHAM, GEORGE (1826–1892), chief justice of Victoria, was the sixth son of Henry T. Higinbotham of Dublin, and Sarah, daughter of Joseph Wilson, at one time American consul in Dublin. He was born in Dublin on 19 April 1826, and educated at the Royal School, Dungannon, whence he went to Trinity College, Dublin, with a Queen's scholarship in 1844, graduating B.A. in 1848 and M.A. in 1853. Early in 1847 he went to London, and, to fill up time when reading for the bar, he became a reporter on the 'Morning Chronicle;' he entered at Lincoln's Inn on 20 April 1848, was called on 6 June 1853, and within a few months sailed for Victoria, where he arrived early in 1854.

In Victoria Higinbotham again combined the law and journalism; he was admitted to the local bar on 27 March 1854, and after a brief period of anxiety began to get briefs regularly, writing occasionally at the same time for the 'Morning Herald.' In August 1856 he became editor of the 'Argus,' and for a time did little or nothing at the bar. In 1859 he resigned the editorship in order to devote himself more fully to his profession.

In May 1861 Higinbotham entered upon political life, being elected a member for Brighton in the legislative assembly. He described himself as an independent liberal. In 1862 he lost his seat, but in 1863 was again elected for the same place. In June 1863 he became attorney-general in Sir James McCulloch's ministry, and a leading figure in the struggle between the two houses over the question of finance bills and the Darling grant, which lasted from 1865 till 1868 [see under McCulloch, Sir James]. His attitude in this controversy gave him for a time a strong hold on popular sympathy; but ultimately he overdid his opposition to imperial interference, and was even denounced on one occasion in the assembly as a traitor. In the election of 1866 he almost lost his seat. On 4 Sept. 1866 he was appointed chairman of the education commission. When, in July 1868, the McCulloch government was reconstituted, he declined the post of attorney-general because he considered that the governor had shown too openly the intention of not being guided entirely by his ministers. He did, however, remain in the cabinet as vice-president of the board of works without a salary. On 1 Feb. 1869 he left the ministry altogether.

In the election of 1871 Higinbotham, whose views of his duty had alienated his constituents, lost his seat to a local candidate, and for the next three years he devoted himself to his practice, which was large and absorbing. In 1874, however, he was again returned to the assembly as member for the East Bourke borough, and not long afterwards, on 24 Jan. 1876, finding himself unable to support Sir Graham Berry's ministry, which was engaged in a struggle with the legislative council on the questions of land tax and payment of members, he resigned his seat; he sympathised with the spirit which animated Berry, but disapproved his methods as subversive of parliamentary government.

Higinbotham now remained aloof from active politics, and in July 1880 was appointed a puisne judge of the supreme court of Victoria. In September 1886, on the retirement of Sir William Stawell [q. v.], he became chief justice of the colony. His independence and his peculiar view of the position of a colonial government are shown by his refusal to accept knighthood on the score that rewards for local services should emanate from a local source, and by his intimation to the imperial government that if he were appointed to administer the government during the absence of the governor he would cease to refer any matters of local concern to the secretary of state. He had been for several years a vice-president of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum and president of the Australian Health Society. In 1887 he was appointed president of the executive committee of the Melbourne centennial exhibition, and as such went to Adelaide for the jubilee exhibition and to Sydney for the centenary celebrations in January 1888. In this same year he began his second consolidation of the laws of Victoria, and a remarkably successful work resulted, for which he was publicly thanked in parliament on 16 Dec. 1890. During this latter year he had created much indignation by subscribing to the funds of the strikers in the great general strike. He died at his residence in South Yarra, Melbourne, on 31 Dec. 1892.

The violence of Higinbotham's political utterances contrasted strangely with the charm and amiability of his private life; those who condemned his political views were strongly attached to him personally. His oratorical power was of a high order, and his intellectual attainments placed him in the forefront of his contemporaries in Victoria. He was independent, and radical in his political views, broad-minded and unconventional in private life. He was small in stature but strong and athletic, fond of rowing, and a good rider.

Higinbotham married, on 30 Sept. 1854, Margaret Foreman, of a Kentish family. Besides sons he left a daughter, Edith, the wife of Professor Edward Ellis Morris, his biographer.

[Morris's Memoir of George Higinbotham, 1895; Mennell's Dict. of Australian Biography; Yearbook of Australia, 1893; Duffy's My Life in two Hemispheres, vol. ii. esp. p. 286; Rusden's Hist. of Australia, vol. iii.]

C. A. H.