KNOWLES George Shaw

Secretary to the Attorney-General's Department and Solicitor‑General
Years active
10 February 1932 ‒ 8 May 1946
Portrait of George Shaw Knowles - Photo source unknown.


George Shaw Knowles was born on 14 March 1882 in Toowong, Brisbane, second eldest of the four children of English-born postmaster George Hopley Knowles and Mary Maria, née Cocks. He attended Warwick West Boys' School, then Toowoomba Grammar School as a day student on scholarships from 1894. Appointed as a clerk in the Queensland Public Service at age 16, he studied accountancy in evening classes at Brisbane Technical College while working with the Chief Inspector of Stock and Registrar of Brands. Attaining a position in the state Auditor‑General's Department, Knowles sat the Victorian matriculation examination in 1901 and transferred to the Commonwealth Audit Office in Melbourne on 1 September 1902.

Commencing part-time study at the University of Melbourne in 1903, Knowles attained his degrees while working in demanding jobs which often involved substantial overtime. He transferred to a job in the Patents Office, in the Department of Trade and Customs, in 1904 and was promoted there in 1906 before securing a newly created Clerk E (Professional Division) position in the Attorney-General's Department on 1 November 1907. Graduating with a Bachelor and Master of Laws, in 1907 and 1908, and a Bachelor and Master of Arts in 1910 and 1912 respectively, he finished with final honours in the schools of logic, philosophy and law.

On 10 November 1908, at the Methodist Church in Albert Street, Brisbane, Knowles married Eleanor (Ella) Bennett, to whom he had been engaged for some years. Born in the house next door, she was the daughter of close family friends who shared a strict Wesleyan Methodist faith, the genesis for Knowles of a strong commitment to his family, community and nation. The couple later had three sons and a daughter.

With his career in the Attorney-General's Department advancing rapidly for the times, Knowles was elevated to Clerk Class D at age 28, on 1 October 1910. He then transferred to the role of Secretary to Representatives of the Government in the Senate, which he held until promoted two levels to Chief Clerk (termed Assistant Secretary from 1921) and Assistant Parliamentary Draftsman in June 1913. In this position he was a loyal deputy to Robert Garran for over 18 years. Tasked with running the Department during Garran's long absences, Knowles himself travelled frequently to work overseas. Legal adviser to Australian delegations attending the League of Nations assemblies in Geneva in 1920 and 1924, and later the 1937 Imperial Conference in London, he was also Australian secretary in the British Empire delegation to the Conference on the Limitations of Armaments in Washington in 1921 and 1922.

Author in 1913 of an annotated compilation of the first consolidation of Commonwealth Acts,2 Knowles gained expertise in the intricacies of the statute book which facilitated his admission as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court in 1916. He was admitted in the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1927. A member of the Patent Attorney's Examination Board from 1915, Knowles also served as the first Secretary to the Commonwealth Practitioners Board from 1909 to 1911, and again from 1918 to 1932. Recognised for his work during the First World War with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1919, Knowles was made a Commander of the Order (CBE) for his contribution as a legislative draftsman in 1928.

Staunchly committed to the new national capital, Knowles was actively involved in the planning and early development of Canberra. He visited the construction site for the city in 1919, and was there during the first Cabinet meeting at Yarralumla on 30 January 1924. Preparatory to the move of the public service from Melbourne, he was appointed chairman of the committee formed to safeguard the welfare of officers transferring to Canberra. He moved his young family there early in 1928, building a home in Mugga Way, and became an unstinting contributor to the local community on many fronts, including to the Methodist Church, as a member of Rotary and playing golf, cricket and tennis. Particularly significant was his work over many years towards the establishment and development of the Canberra University College – later the Australian National University.

On 10 February 1932 Knowles became Secretary to the Attorney-General's Department, Parliamentary Draftsman and Solicitor-General. He also served as a member of the National Debt Commission from this time. In 1936 he produced a major work on the Australian Constitution, which incorporated notes on relevant judicial decisions. A quiet and modest man, he was nonetheless renowned for his constitutional expertise and appreciated by Ministers for his wise and tactful advice on wide-ranging legal matters. As both acting and substantive Secretary and Solicitor-General, he authored thousands of advices in the Opinion Book. Knighted in January 1939, Sir George carried out all his roles in the particularly stressful period before and during the Second World War in his usual indefatigable and highly organised style. All three of his sons served in the armed forces during the war. The middle one, Lindsay, a fighter pilot, was killed in action in Libya on 22 November 1941.

Sir George retired from the public service on 8 May 1946, to take up an appointment as Australia's first High Commissioner to South Africa. His successor, Professor Kenneth Bailey, took on two of his roles, as Secretary to the Attorney-General's Department and Solicitor-General, while Martin Boniwell was made acting Parliamentary Draftsman. Quickly establishing himself as an effective force in strengthening diplomatic relationships with South Africa, Sir George died suddenly at age 65 on 22 November 1947 from complications following surgery. Survived by Lady Knowles (who lived to be 100) his daughter and two sons, Sir George was given a state funeral in Pretoria, South Africa, on 28 November 1947. His remains were returned to Canberra for burial in Woden Cemetery following a memorial service on 22 January 1948. Knowles Place, site of the Canberra Law Courts, was later named after him, as were a university prize for law and a building housing part of the Attorney-General's Department between 1987 and 2004.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • Research for Carmel Meiklejohn, Fitting the Bill – A History of Commonwealth Parliamentary Drafting, Office of Parliamentary Counsel, Canberra, 2012.
    • Oral history interviews with Mervyn Knowles, Canberra, April 2012.
  2. GS Knowles, Annotated Edition of Commonwealth Acts 1901-11.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 900


Opinion Number. 901


Opinion Number. 902


Opinion Number. 904


Opinion Number. 905


Opinion Number. 906


Opinion Number. 907


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Opinion Number. 909


Opinion Number. 910