PURVES, James Liddell (1843-1910)

PURVES, James Liddell (1843-1910)
was the son of James Purves, an early colonist from Berwick-on-Tweed, who became an importer and station-owner in Victoria. J. L. Purves was born at Melbourne on 23 August 1843 and in 1853 was a student at the Melbourne diocesan grammar school. In 1855 he was taken to Europe, and his education was continued in Germany and at Brussels where he obtained an excellent knowledge of both French and German. At London he went to King's College school, and entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1861. (Admissions to Trinity College, Cambridge, vol. V). He did not obtain a degree at Cambridge, but in the same year entered at Lincoln's Inn, and was called to the bar in 1865. In 1866 he returned to Melbourne and was admitted to the Victorian bar. While he was in England he had done some writing for the press, and as a young barrister in Melbourne he wrote a column in a local newspaper under the pen-name of "Asmodetis". In 1871 his defence of Martin Wyberg, charged with the robbery of 5000 sovereigns from the steamer Avoca, brought him into prominence, and at a comparatively early age he established a great reputation as an advocate. In 1872 he became a member of the Victorian legislative assembly for Mornington and retained this seat until 1880. McCulloch (q.v.) and Berry (q.v.) each offered him the post of attorney-general in their ministries, but the offers were declined. From 1880 until the end of his life Purves was engaged in nearly every important case tried in Melbourne. Much of his work was in criminal and divorce cases, but he was leading counsel for Syme (q.v.) in the famous Speight versus Syme libel case which lasted from March 1892 until February 1894. He was also much interested in the Australian Natives' Association of which he was president of the Victorian board of directors. This association threw all its influence in favour of federation and had much to do with the gradual growth of the feeling for union in Victoria. Purves died at Melbourne on 24 November 1910. He was married twice (1) to Miss Grice, (2) to Miss Brodribb, who survived him with one son of the first marriage, and two sons and three daughters of the second.
Purves was a man of great versatility. In the early days of lawn tennis in Victoria he was a well-known doubles player, and he afterwards under the name of "Gundagai" became known as one of the best pigeon-shots in Australia. He was a great advocate, with an immense knowledge of human nature which enabled him to size up his witnesses almost at a glance. His methods at times were not gentle, it would be going too far to think of him merely as a bully, but some unpopularity resulted, and when a man who had suffered under him as a witness afterwards assaulted him in the street the sympathy of the public was not entirely with the barrister. Purves, however, would have claimed that in duty to his client he was compelled to use the methods most effective for each particular case. With juries he was tactful, and would sometimes introduce humorous illustrations while getting on good terms with them. His wit was proverbial: one illustration may be permitted: Once W. T. Coldham, who had often devilled when younger for Purves, at last got him in the witness-box. He began silkily "Your name is James Liddell Purves. What is your profession?" "Profession sir!" said Purves, "I am a trainer of puppies." No one would have enjoyed this more than Coldham, and though Purves could be brusque, and had some quickness of temper, he was in reality a friendly man much liked by his associates and by the junior members of the bar. As to the alleged Rabelaisian character of his wit, there is some difference of opinion. Some light was thrown on this by a letter from B. A. Levinson which was published in the Argus on 12 October 1935, and another from F. C. Purbrick which appeared a week later.
The Argus and The Age, 25 November 1910; J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar in Victoria, p. 276; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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