STAWELL, Sir William Foster (1815-1889)

STAWELL, Sir William Foster (1815-1889)
chief justice of Victoria
was the second son of Jonas Stawell of Old Court, Cork, Ireland, and Anna, daughter of the Right Rev. William Foster, bishop of Clogher. He was born on 27 June 1815, entered Trinity College, Dublin, in his eighteenth year, won distinction in classics, and graduated B.A. in 1837. He was called to the Irish bar in 1839 and practised in Ireland until 1842 when he sailed for Australia and arrived in Melbourne early in 1843. He quickly gained a reputation at the Victorian bar and he also acquired squatting interests. When Charles Perry (q.v.) came to Australia as first bishop of Melbourne, Stawell helped him to form a constitution for the newly created diocese. In 1851 when Victoria was separated from New South Wales Stawell became a member of the legislative council and La Trobe (q.v.) made him attorney-general. He soon became the predominant member of the council and was principally responsible for the constitution act made effective in 1856. A political contemporary, H. S. Chapman (q.v.), spoke of him as "almost the only efficient man connected with the government". He, however, incurred some unpopularity, particularly when as representative of the government he prosecuted the Ballarat rioters. In 1856 he was returned for Melbourne at the first election for the legislative assembly and soon after parliament opened, as attorney-general in the first ministry, framed and brought in a bill defining the privileges and powers of the assembly and council. In February 1857 Sir William à Beckett (q.v.) resigned the chief justiceship and Stawell was given the position. He held it for 29 years with distinction. He visited Europe in 1874 and was acting-governor of Victoria in 1876 during the absence of Sir George Bowen (q.v.). He was again acting-governor from March to July 1884. In August 1886 failing health compelled him to retire from the office of chief justice. While in this position he had taken much interest in the cultural activities of Victoria. He was president of the Philosophical Institute (afterwards the Royal Society of Victoria) in 1858-9, a trustee of the public library, museums and national gallery, from their inception, was an original member of the council of the university, and from 1881 to 1884 was its chancellor. He was also president of several charitable institutions. He died at Naples, Italy, on 12 March 1889. He married in 1856 Mary Frances Elizabeth, only daughter of William Pomeroy Greene, who survived him with six sons and four daughters. His fifth son, Sir Richard Rawdon Stawell, and a daughter, Florence Melian Stawell, are noticed separately. He was knighted in 1857 and created K.C.M.G. in 1886. Stawell as an administrator was the dominating influence in the days following the making of Victoria a separate colony. Turner speaks of him as "autocratic and imperious in manner" but Stawell no doubt felt there was much work to be done and that he was the fit man to do it. He was responsible for most of the early legislation of the colony. As chief justice he was capable, impartial and hard-working.
Burke's Colonial Gentry; The Argus, 14 March 1889; H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria; P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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