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The ADB article by T.S. Louch, 1976:
Sir Henry Thomas Wrenfordsley (1825-1908), judge, was born in Middlesex, England, son of Joseph Wrenfordsley, an Irish solicitor, and his wife Louisa, née Bywater. His father was known also as Wrendfordsley, Wransfordsley and Wrenford Sly. Educated privately in France, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, in March 1841 as Henry Wransfordsly but took no degree. Qualifying as a solicitor after serving articles in Dublin to his father and wealthy legal friends, he advertised as an independent practitioner from 1849. In 1854 he published a legal text and in 1859 a translation of a French evangelical sermon by Adolph Monod. In June 1860 he entered the Middle Temple and was called to the Bar on 30 April 1863.
Wrenfordsley was junior counsel in 1868 for the Privy Council office in House of Commons inquiries into the foreign cattle market. He stood unsuccessfully for Peterborough in 1868 and 1874. In 1876 he became a deputy-judge of County courts at Marylebone, Brompton and Brentford and in 1877 was appointed as puisne judge in Mauritius. In September 1878 he exchanged into the office of procurer-general where he was commended for his labour code and his review of Supreme Court procedure. Disappointed by failing to become chief justice of Mauritius he was appointed attorney-general of Jamaica but on the death of Sir Archibald Burt he was made chief justice of Western Australia; he arrived there in the Bangalore on 5 March 1880 accompanied by a lady, probably his sister. He represented the colony at the Intercolonial Conference in 1881. Next year he was appointed chief justice of Fiji but remained in Western Australia as administrator until June 1883 when he was knighted.
In Fiji he sought a specious popularity by siding with the planter community against the government defence of native rights. Admirers asserted that his judicial virtues had enhanced property values by 25 per cent. Plagued by his creditors, the Colonial Office thought his vanity and his debts were 'not a credit to us', and considered his speech attacking government policy at a valedictory banquet 'injudicious to say the least'. He left Fiji early in 1884 on sick leave, alleged to be spurious, and was acting judge in Tasmania from March 1885 to February 1887. Going to Melbourne he took silk, accepted a temporary seat on the bench and was described by Victorian barristers as 'a journeyman judge who went about with robes in his carpet bag'.
In 1891 Wrenfordsley returned temporarily to Western Australia. Chief Justice Onslow, at loggerheads with Governor Sir Frederick Broome, had been given leave till the end of Broome's term. Wrenfordsley acted until Onslow's return then went as chief justice to the Leeward Islands. In all his judicial appointments he was uniformly undistinguished as a lawyer. He retired to the south of France in 1901 and, aged 81, died unmarried at Antibes on 2 June 1908.
J. Foster, Men-at-the-Bar (Lond, 1885)
Dictionnaire de Biographie Mauricienne, vol 2 (Port Louis, 1945-52)
A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
Law Times, 12 Feb 1887
Inquirer (Perth), 10 Jan 1883
Australasian, 17 May 1884, 2 Apr 1887
'Obituary', Times (London), 10 June 1908, p 13
OC 18/200/143-146, 224, 83/36/393, 37/13, 304
information from King's Inns Library, Dublin, and Middle Temple Library, London.
There was in 1885 a park in Fremantle named after Wrenfordsley.
This one of Trollope’s minor characters transferred to a W.S. Gilbert libretto. His father was a Dublin solicitor who double-barrelled his surname, Sly, which cannot have been good for business. The son elided and elaborated the elements. Wrenfordsley was not without some positive characteristics. He was a qualified barrister, who unluckily lacked both briefs and brevity.
He was a fluent orator, and Disraeli’s Conservatives twice ran him as a candidate in the hopelessly Liberal borough of Peterborough. He also spoke good French, and when his political allies first paid him off with a colonial appointment it was to Mauritius that they sent him. Thereafter he was rapidly shunted around the Empire, amassing a knighthood plus a host of quarrels, grievances and unpaid debts.
The pinnacle of his career was a brief spell as acting governor of Western Australia, which he marked by stealing souvenir crockery from Government House. 'This gentleman knows how to blow his own trumpet’, noted a Colonial Office minute early in his odyssey. A later assessment was more blunt: ‘the main thing is to get rid of him'. For me, the only cloud in this enjoyable romp was the reflection that I have encountered several incarnations of the subject during my career in academe.
Ged Martin, Reviews in Australian Studies, No 1, March 2006
Like the previous works, [this biography is] informed by detailed references to contemporary sources and [is] a product of Dr Bennett’s extensive searches of primary sources. …
As in the preceding volumes, there is much of interest…. Dr Bennett has again produced a view of the colonial judiciary from the perspective of a legal historian. … Of course, the explanatory value of such internal histories is more contentious, and Bennett clearly recognises that [this work] will not be the last word… One limitation of Bennett’s approach is illustrated in his criticism of Wrenfordsley: it was clearly influenced by what was viewed as ‘appropriate’ judicial behaviour. … Writing biographies of judicial figures in this way provides valuable insights but may, perhaps, not tell the whole story. Yet no matter how these stories are told, recourse is certain to be had to this excellent series of biographies in telling them.
Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol 8 (2006)
One strong trait in Australian society, even today, continues to be the championing of the rogue, the scammer, the little guy trying to get every last bit of gravy from the train before it leaves the station. For this section of society, Wrenfordsley is your man. No act was too base, too mischievous, too conniving or unconscionable for Wrenfordsley to consider beneath him.
Jonathan Abandowitz, Law Society Journal NSW, August 2005, Vol 43 No 7
The lives of our early Judges, were, taken overall, characterised by extremely hard, arduous years of toil, with little regard for personal advancement, or of adequate financial reward. The subject of this book, was the exact opposite.
He was appointed to be the second Chief Justice of Western Australia, having had a most unspectacular and short period of practice at the Bar in England. His appointment was more due to political connections and string pulling, than ability, as we soon see from this book. I think it would be fair to say that he was lazy, incompetent, dishonest, disingenuous, self centred and a person who had amazing luck in being able to keep moving around, both within Australia and elsewhere, including Fiji, the Leeward Islands and even France, thereby also managing to keep several steps ahead of his creditors. He even managed to be appointed as an acting Judge in Tasmania for a year or so.
Wrenfordsley is shown by Dr. Bennett to be a disgrace as a person, and even more so as a judge. Whereas with all the previous books that I have read on our early judges, I would shake my head and feel uncomfortable about how poorly they were treated, I became increasingly cross and frustrated at how such a political opportunist could have gone from one appointment to another, each time demonstrating the undesirable qualities that I have set out above.
Dr Bennett has a special gift of bringing his subjects back to life. Whereas, previously, he has made little in the way of a judgment in relation to his characters, in this book, it seems to me that he holds a similar view to myself. But then again, as his copious references show, he researched Wrendfordsley in his usual detailed manner, thereby perhaps becoming a lot closer to him than even we, the reader of this book, become.
I strongly commend this book to all who share a love of the history of the legal profession. It makes compelling, if not frustrating reading, when one has to remember, that we are actually dealing with a true to life character, not one made up for television. I fear that such a damaged character would be, in fiction, regarded as too improbable to be realistic. Alas, if you read the book you will find that he was not.
BJM, Tasmanian Law Society Newsletter
What makes this work so fascinating is the awful picture it paints of Sir Henry … Dr Bennett is scrupulous in allowing his subject to condemn himself, in his own correspondence. Quoted extracts from papers like the Mauritius Mercantile Record, the Fiji Times and the Antigua Observer show editors and journalists in the colonies were unafraid … it would be surprising to find a modern newspaper saying of a sitting judge, as the Perth Inquirer did of Sir Henry that he “signally failed to secure the respect of the legal profession or the confidence and esteem of the public …”
Part of the book’s fascination … is the tracing of the career path of an employee in the Colonial service who happens to be a judge. Having failed as a lawyer in Dublin and England, as as a tory political candidate, he was initially appointed to a minor judicial office in Mauritius and, by fostering relationships with his superiors in the Colonies, he eventually rose via judgeships in Tasmania and Victoria, to become Chief Justice of, variously, Western Australia, Fiji and the Leeward Islands. Generally these were for short, and at least finite, periods but in each he worked assiduously to find new champions and further his own career.
Self important, irascible, opinionated, lazy except in his own interests, Sir Henry represents a creature now, thankfully, quite unknown to judicial office.
AW, (2005) 25 Qld Lawyer 255
For those [Chief Justices] considered so far, Wrenfordsley is in a class of his own. As the jacket says, he was “a weak lawyer … who turned the court into a theatre. His public career was marked by every bad judicial quality – incompetence, duplicity, interference in politics, laziness, uncontrollable temper, chronic insolvency and overwhelming self importance among them. … This book is a very readable one. I thoroughly enjoyed.
PWY, (2005) 79 Australian Law Journal 313.
Bennett, J.M. 2004, Sir Henry Wrenfordsley: Second Chief Justice of Western Australia, 1880-1883, Federation Press.
Louch, T.S. 1976, 'Wrenfordsley, Sir Henry Thomas (1825-1908), ADB.
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