FULLAGAR Wilfred Kelsham

Private counsel


Born on 16 November 1892 at Malvern, Victoria, Wilfred Kelsham Fullagar was the eldest of the three children and only son of merchant Thomas Kelsham Fullagar and Sarah Elizabeth, née Law. While both his parents were native-born, the middle name 'Kelsham' had been given to sons of the family since an ancestor married a daughter of the Kelsham family in Kent, England, in 1565.

A brilliant student, Fullagar attended Haileybury College in Brighton, Melbourne, before going to Ormond College in 1910 to study arts and law at the University of Melbourne. Awarded a Wyselaskie scholarship in classical and comparative philology and logic, he developed an abiding love of the classics which would influence his reading habits and writing style throughout his life. Winner of the Supreme Court prize in 1915, he graduated that year with first class honours in law and began his articles with a Melbourne solicitor.

Fullagar's early legal career was interrupted by the First World War. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 28 October 1916, he served in France as a gunner in the 27th Battery of the 7th Field Artillery Brigade from May 1918, and was promoted to sergeant in 1919. In England on leave to study law later that year, he married English-born Marion Frederica Dorothea Lovejoy at the registry office in Fulham, London, on 11 October. Returning to Melbourne in January 1920, Fullagar was discharged from the AIF on 8 February.

Deterred by the cost of setting up practice as a barrister, he worked initially for the Department of Repatriation and for the Commonwealth Immigration Service. Then persuaded to accept temporary financial assistance from his friends John Latham and Owen Dixon, Fullagar was admitted to the Victorian Bar on 7 April 1922 and rapidly established a successful practice. Continuing his studies, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Laws in 1925. From 1923 to 1928 he lectured in tort and legal procedure at the University of Melbourne. An inspirational teacher, he was also gaining a formidable reputation as a barrister, particularly in constitutional law and the equity jurisdiction. He appeared in the High Court on several occasions, and in 1932 was junior counsel in three cases before the Privy Council. After a comparatively short time at the Bar he was appointed King's Counsel (KC) in September 1933. As private counsel, between 1930 and 1943 Fullagar contributed several advices to the Opinion Book. A number of these, predominantly on financial and taxation matters, were signed jointly with University of Melbourne Professor Ken Bailey.

Always generous with his support for development of the legal profession, Fullagar served on the Bar committee for many years from 1928, and was a vice-president of the Law Council of Australia from 1940 to 1945. He lectured in constitutional law at the University of Melbourne from 1943 to 1945, was a member of the university council between 1945 and 1951, and served as director or trustee of various companies and trusts in the 1940s. After the death of his first wife in 1941, Fullagar married nurse Mary Florence Taylor at the Presbyterian Church, South Yarra on 4 July 1942.

In July 1945 Fullagar accepted appointment to the bench of the Supreme Court of Victoria. On 8 February 1950, aged 57, he was appointed as a justice of the High Court of Australia. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) on 1 January 1955. Regarded with affection for his modest and friendly nature and engaging sense of humour, Sir Wilfred commanded the utmost respect for his scholarship, erudite mastery of the law and stylish exposition of sound legal principles. With recreational pursuits including gardening, bowls, trout-fishing, walking and writing light verse, he continued to read widely and was an aficionado of Gilbert and Sullivan – on occasion referring to their lyrics in his comments in the courtroom.

Still at work at the age of 68, Sir Wilfred died suddenly from cerebral thrombosis in the Freemasons' Hospital, East Melbourne on 9 July 1961. Cremated after a funeral with Presbyterian rites, he was survived by his wife, and by four of the five sons of his first marriage.2 In 1968 Monash University established a lecture series to honour his memory.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to RL Sharwood, 'Fullagar, Sir Wilfred Kelsham (1892–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fullagar-sir-wilfred-kelsham-10258/text18123, accessed 24 February 2012.
  2. One son, Richard Kelsham Fullagar, was a justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria from 1975 to 1994, and also contributed to the Opinion Book in the period 1958–76.

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