21 June 1845–9 August 1920
Sir Samuel Walker Griffith
"An Australian Federal State, being a Federation of democratic communities, will, of course, be democratic. That is a mere truism. The particular form of democratic tendency that may exhibit itself will depend, not on the formal provisions embodied in the written Constitution, but on the wishes of the people of the Federation".
Sir Samuel Walker Griffith (1845-1920) was born in Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorganshire, Wales, on June 21, 1845. In 1853, at the age of eight, he migrated with his family to Australia.
Sir Samuel was schooled in both Queensland and New South Wales, moving regularly as his father, a Congregational minister, followed his work. He would go on to become a notable figure in colonial Australia, occupying positions of authority during some of the most significant and divisive events in Queensland’s early history.
A distinguished lawyer and judge, Sir Samuel is arguably most widely remembered as a prominent politician. As such, his life and legacy are characterised by complexity and controversy, his many achievements tempered by failings and oversights that must be acknowledged.
As Queensland’s attorney-general from 1874 to 1878, Sir Samuel oversaw significant expansion of British interests in Queensland. Although generally considered to be a liberal thinker and reformist, he was a firm believer in imperial expansion and consequently is seen by some as being accountable for the vast, terrible violence and dispossession inflicted upon the nascent state’s First Peoples during this era.
Indeed, the breadth of his education and legal prowess make his apparent complicity in extrajudicial killings across the state almost impossible to understand alongside many of his other professional accomplishments. His extensive involvement in co-drafting the Australian Constitution makes him a pivotal figure of Federation, yet while this achievement is widely lauded, it carries with it the inescapable weight of Indigenous exclusion and dehumanisation which contributed to a legacy still being reckoned with today.
But Sir Samuel was not entirely oblivious to the racial injustice inherent in his time; he is frequently cited as a primary supporter of the movement to have evidence from Aboriginal witnesses admitted in legal proceedings. In 1902, while presiding over the murder trial of Patrick and James Kenniff—‘Australia’s last bushrangers’, as they are often called—he instructed the jury to consider evidence from an Indigenous witness as they would any other testimony – a significant instruction at this time.
He ascended to the premiership of Queensland in 1883, the first of two such appointments during his lifetime. His vocal opposition to the Pacific Islands ‘blackbirding’ trade and then subsequent political inaction on that front has drawn criticism from historians and other commentators.
In 1890, he was elected to the premiership for a second time, after forming an unexpected alliance with long-time political rival Thomas McIlwraith. During this stint in office, Sir Samuel’s ideological fluidity was perhaps at its most apparent, epitomised by his willingness, as the labour movement’s former ally, to use military might to break the great shearers’ strike—one of the country’s noteworthy early organised industrial actions—in 1891.
For some, the crux of Sir Samuel’s story lies in his impact and influence on the development of the legal landscape of both Queensland and Australia. One of his most enduring acts was serving as the chief architect of Queensland’s Criminal Code, a document that remains largely unchanged from its inception in 1899, save for some contemporary updates and considerations.
In 1893, Sir Samuel’s legal expertise saw him appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland. He served in that role for a decade before being named as the first Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia in 1903 – a position he held until 1919, just one year after his now-controversial involvement in a Royal Commission into the Australian Imperial Force’s recruitment activities at the behest of then-Prime Minister Billy Hughes. In 1895, Sir Samuel was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) for his political and legal service to both Australia and the Commonwealth (Great Britain).
Following his time as the national Chief Justice, Sir Samuel retired from public life and, after many years of public service, passed away at the Griffith family home, Merthyr, in Brisbane, on August 9, 1920, aged 75. Today, he is memorialised through an electorate, a society, a suburb, a literary publication and this University. As a man of colonial times, many of Sir Samuel’s decisions do not stand up to modern scrutiny—but, for good and for ill, his work and his decisions have had a deep and lasting effect on the future of his state and country.
(The opening quote is taken from a speech delivered by Sir Samuel Griffith to Queensland Government in 1896 entitled 'Notes on Australian Federation: Its Nature and Probable Effects'. See the National Library of Australia online catalogue for available copies of the entire speech.)