MOLESWORTH, Sir Robert (1806-1890)

MOLESWORTH, Sir Robert (1806-1890)
son of Hickman Blayney Molesworth, solicitor, was born at Dublin on 3 November 1806. He went to Trinity College, Dublin, where he won a scholarship and graduated B.A. in 1826 and M.A. in 1833. He was admitted to the Irish bar in 1828 and practised for some years in southern Ireland. In 1852 he emigrated to Australia, and after a short stay at Adelaide, went on to Melbourne. There he established a practice, and in January 1854 was appointed solicitor-general and a nominee member of the old legislative council. In 1855 he was appointed acting-chief justice of Victoria during the illness of Sir William à'Beckett (q.v.), and in June 1856 was appointed a supreme court judge. From about 1860 most of his time was given to equity cases, but in 1866 he also became chief judge in the court of mines. The law of mining was in a somewhat confused condition when he began, but in a few years time he had practically settled the law of mining for the colony of Victoria. In 1881 Molesworth had a serious illness but recovered and took up his work again. He resigned in May 1886, a few months before his eightieth birthday, and lived in retirement until his death at Melbourne on 18 October 1890. He married in January 1840 Henrietta, daughter of the Rev. J. E. Johnson, who died in 1879. He was survived by a daughter and two sons. He was knighted in 1886. Mennell states that he published a legal work while in Ireland which attracted some attention, but no work by him appears in the British Museum catalogue. He was much interested in the Church of England and frequently attended synod meetings.
Molesworth was a fine lawyer and a great judge. He had much patience and made it a rule to listen to counsel without interrupting them. But though very patient, if he thought a barrister was merely wasting the time of the court he could express himself very bluntly and plainly. He had, however, a most expressive face, and it was possible to judge how counsel was progressing by the play of his features. In equity cases he was somewhat technical, and he vigorously enforced the doctrine of the liability of trustees for breaches of trust; the rights of children and people incapable of looking after their own affairs were always safe in his hands. He was thoroughly sound and impartial. (Sir) E. D. Holroyd (q.v.) when practising as a barrister said that he had sometimes felt aggrieved at Molesworth for rejecting or allowing evidence, but in the end found the judge had been right. His great achievement was the building up of mining law in Victoria, the influence of which was felt in other states. His judgments in equity cases were masterly, searching and luminous.
Molesworth's elder son, Hickman Molesworth (1842-1907), was a capable county court judge and judge in insolvency.
P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography; The Argus, Melbourne, 20 October 1890, 8 May 1886; J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria; Nettie Palmer, Henry Bournes Higgins, p. 79.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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