SIR LITTLETON ERNEST GROOM KCMG KC 1867–1936
Born in Toowoomba, Queensland, on 22 April 1867, Littleton Ernest Groom was the third son of William Henry Groom and Grace, née Littleton. His father, who had arrived in Australia as a convict in 1849, was declared insolvent the year before Littleton's birth, but afterwards became a successful hotelier and newspaper proprietor, Toowoomba's first mayor and a long-serving member in the Queensland Legislative Assembly, and was elected to the House of Representatives in the first Commonwealth Parliament.
An outstanding student, Littleton Groom attended Toowoomba North State School and the Toowoomba Grammar School. In his final year at school he was dux, as well as captain of both the football and cricket teams. Living in Ormond College while he studied at the University of Melbourne, he won many academic prizes. In 1890 he was the recipient of the University Scholarship at the Final Honours Examination in Laws, the last time this was awarded before it became the Supreme Court Prize. Graduating with a Master of Arts in 1891 and a Master of Laws in 1892 Groom was admitted to the Bar and began practising in Queensland.
On 4 July 1894 he and South African-born Jessie Bell, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, were married at the Clarendon Street Church in South Melbourne. Working as a barrister in Brisbane during the 1890s Groom was a tireless contributor to educational and church endeavours. A devout Anglican who believed that Christians had a duty to help those less fortunate, he was actively involved in the Brisbane Literary Circle and School of Arts and the Queensland University Extension Movement. His literary activities included the production of many reports and texts on legal, political and religious topics. Appointed a deputy District Court judge in Queensland in 1900, Groom was joint author with Sir John Quick of The Judicial Power of the Commonwealth, published in 1904.
Although he had no previous political experience, Groom was persuaded to enter the federal political arena after his father, the original member for Darling Downs, died in office on 8 August 1901. Successful in Australia's first, strongly contested, by-election, Littleton Groom was sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives on 25 September 1901. To have both father and son in the First Commonwealth Parliament, which sat from 9 May 1901 until 10 October 1902, was a unique occurrence.
Within evolving political affiliations and as an independent, Groom represented Darling Downs until 12 October 1929, and again from 19 December 1931 until 6 November 1936. He earned a reputation for honesty, high principles, hard work, tolerance and a democratic approach. From the beginning a fervent nationalist, in favour of the extension of Commonwealth powers especially in the industrial relations area, he made a significant contribution to the debate on the first conciliation and arbitration legislation. He supported early Labor policies but joined the 'Fusion' alliance of non-Labor parties in 1909 and was later a vehement opponent of Labor's socialistic measures. An ardent patriot, he was notably pro-conscription and promoted the allied cause during the First World War. Throughout his parliamentary career he served in various ministries (on occasion two at once) including Home Affairs, External Affairs, Trade and Customs, Works and Railways, Health and Defence; and as Attorney-General and Vice-President of the Executive Council. Committed to the development of Canberra as the national capital, he held ministerial responsibility during significant stages of its planning and construction.
Involved with most aspects of government policy during his first term as Attorney-General – from 12 October 1906 to 13 November 1908 in the second Deakin ministry – Groom introduced bounties legislation, defended the Commonwealth's excise tariff in the High Court, and was responsible for the passage of laws providing for invalid and old age pensions. His second appointment as Attorney-General began on 21 December 1921, during the last government led by Billy Hughes2, and continued in the coalition ministry under SM Bruce from 9 February 1923. Groom contributed hundreds of advices on wide-ranging topics to the Opinion Book during his terms as Attorney-General – some of his opinions were included in all three published volumes.3
Groom took silk in 1923 and was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in January 1924. That year he led Australia's delegation to the Fifth Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva. Successful in implementing new legislation regulating the federal public service, and a public sector superannuation scheme, he also secured the eventual passage of uniform bankruptcy legislation in 1924 – the first draft of the bill having been presented to a conference he convened between the Commonwealth and the States in 1907.
Uncomfortable within the coalition arrangement, Sir Littleton was increasingly out of favour with Prime Minister Bruce after several failed attempts to amend industrial and immigration legislation. Pressured to resign as Attorney-General in December 1925, he was replaced by John Latham. Sir Littleton was elected as Speaker of the House of Representatives in January 1926. In this role he assisted in the transfer of the Parliament from Melbourne to its new home in 1927 and became an enthusiastic participant in the embryonic city's church, cultural and social life. Denied Nationalist endorsement after refusing to use his casting vote to support a maritime industries bill – which proposed to remove the Commonwealth from most areas of conciliation and arbitration – he lost his seat at the October 1929 election. Following a temporary return to the Bar in Brisbane he regained the Darling Downs electorate as an Independent in December 1931, then joined the United Australia Party in August 1933.
In his final term in Parliament Sir Littleton gave vigorous support to the campaign to establish a national university in Canberra, and maintained a keen interest in the Bankruptcy Act, serving from 1932 as chairman of a joint parliamentary committee reviewing this legislation. He was still engaged in this work when, aged 69, he died of coronary vascular disease on 6 November 1936. Survived by his wife and one of their two daughters, Sir Littleton was accorded the first state funeral in Canberra. Following a service at Parliament House, he was buried in the cemetery at St John the Baptist Anglican Church in Reid.
- Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to
- Research for Carmel Meiklejohn, Officially Receiving – 80 Years of Australian Bankruptcy Administration, Manuscript as at 30 September 2009, Attorney-General's Department Library, 2010.
- Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
- Groom succeeded William Morris Hughes, who had been Attorney-General from 17 September 1914, as well as Prime Minister from October 1915.
- Groom and Hughes were the only two Attorneys-General to have opinions included in all three published volumes.