SYMON Josiah Henry

Years active
18 August 1904 – 5 July 1905
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Josiah Henry Symon was born on 27 September 1846 at Wick, Caithness, in the Scottish Highlands, the son of cabinet maker James Symon and Elizabeth, née Sutherland. He was educated at Allan's School in Stirling, and then at the Stirling High School, where he was dux in 1862, before attending college in Edinburgh for two years. In 1866 he emigrated to South Australia where he was engaged as an articled clerk by his cousin, a solicitor in Mount Gambier.

When some of his well-prepared work was noticed by the then leader of the South Australian Bar Association, Samuel Way, in 1870, Symon was invited to transfer his articles to the Adelaide firm of Way and Brook. Having completed his studies, Symon was admitted to the South Australian Bar in November 1871. Becoming a partner in the firm after Brook's untimely death in 1872, Symon bought the business when Way was appointed chief justice of the South Australian Supreme Court in March 1876. From age 29 responsible for one of Adelaide's best legal practices, Symon was renowned for his exceptional understanding of the law and his expertise as an advocate and orator.

Asked to become Attorney-General in the colonial government led by William Morgan in March 1881, Symon was not actually elected to the Legislative Assembly until several weeks later. While the government went out of office on 24 June 1881, Symon stayed in the parliament as the member for Sturt, promoting as his particular interests free trade and the independence of the judiciary. That year he was made a Queen's Counsel (QC),2 and on 8 December 1881 he and Mary Eleanor Cowle were married at St Peter's Anglican Cathedral in Adelaide.

Rejecting an offer to sit on the Supreme Court bench in 1884, Symon also refused nomination for a safe Conservative seat in the House of Commons, during a visit to England in 1886. After he lost his seat in the South Australian parliament in 1887, he declined all invitations to return, instead focusing his energies on the movement for federation of the Australian colonies. President of the Australasian Federation League of South Australia in 1895, and later of the Commonwealth League3, he stirred popular federal sentiment through his inspirational oratory and ardent campaigning, in both South and Western Australia. Elected as a South Australian delegate to the Australasian Federal Convention held in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in 1897 and 1898, Symon chaired the judiciary committee. Outstanding in his contribution to the convention debate and to the drafting and passage of the Constitution Bill, in 1900 he also published a history of the federal movement in the Yale Review. In January 1901 he was made Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) for his services to Federation.

Standing for the Senate as a Free Trader he topped the State poll at the first federal election in March 1901, later being re-elected as an Anti-Socialist. Unofficial leader of the Opposition in the Senate during the early parliaments, he was more interested in refining than disputing nation building legislation, which he viewed as being above party politics. He worked throughout his time in the Senate to establish it as an unbiased States' House, able to provide a check on the representative chamber. A devotee of history and literature, and an acknowledged Shakespearian scholar, Sir Josiah was a founding member of the Parliamentary Library Committee, serving on it from 1901 until 1904, and again from 1907 until 1913. In this role he began campaigning for historical documents relating to Australia, but kept in Britain, to be brought to Australia.

Vocal in debates on customs tariff legislation in 1902, he was especially interested in the passage of the Judiciary Act which founded the High Court in 1903. During the convention debates, believing that the High Court should be enshrined in the Constitution, Symon had envisaged the Court as 'the keystone of the federal arch'4. While he was mentioned in the press as a possible judge of the Court he was never appointed the bench. As Attorney-General from 18 August 1904 until 5 July 1905, in the short-lived coalition government under Free Trader George Reid and conservative Protectionist Allan McLean, Sir Josiah clashed with the first Chief Justice, Sir Samuel Griffith. Uncompromising in arguing that the High Court should not be peripatetic, Sir Josiah wanted it located at the seat of government. Highly idealistic in upholding the Constitution, Sir Josiah also pushed for an early decision determining the site of a federal capital.

As Attorney-General, he made numerous contributions to the Opinion Book on various subjects which concerned the new federal administration. The contentious Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, which had precipitated the fall of two previous governments, was eventually passed during his term, in December 1904. Out of office after an alliance negotiated during a long parliamentary recess in 1905 enabled Alfred Deakin to form his second ministry in July that year, Sir Josiah was succeeded as Attorney-General by Isaac Isaacs.

Not comfortable with the party system evolving in the parliament, protective of his independence, and somewhat inclined to be abrasive and argumentative, Sir Josiah refused to join the later 'Fusion' alliance of non-Labor groups in 1909. He stayed in parliament as an independent, without holding any further ministerial positions, until he was defeated at election and left the Senate on 30 June 2013. Retiring from his court practice a decade later, he worked in chambers until late in his life.

Maintaining his lucrative legal practice throughout his parliamentary term, Sir Josiah had stood down as a member of the council of the University of Adelaide in 1901, but continued to serve as president of the Law Society of South Australia from 1898 to 1903, and again from 1905 to 1919. He was an active member of the Society of Comparative Legislation and International Law. A forceful campaigner for Australia's involvement in the First World War, in 1917 he became vice-president of the Royal Empire Society and of the Anglo-Saxon Club. He gave evidence before the 1927–29 Royal Commission on the Constitution. In 1931 he publicly opposed the appointment as Governor-General of Sir Isaac Isaacs, who was then Chief Justice of the High Court, believing that this would be detrimental to the separation of the judiciary. Notably philanthropic, Sir Josiah promoted the establishment of a women's union at the University of Adelaide, and supported other educational institutions and wide-ranging community groups. He donated his collection of legal texts to the University Law School in 1924, and bequeathed his huge personal library to the State Library of South Australia.

Survived by his wife and their five sons and five daughters, Sir Josiah Symon died at the age of 87, on 29 March 1934 at his home in North Adelaide. After a private cremation, he was given a state funeral which proceeded from the family home to burial in North Road Cemetery.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • Don Wright, 'Symon, Sir Josiah Henry (1846–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2012.
    • Don Wright, 'Symon, Sir Josiah Henry (1846–1934)', in Ann Millar (editor), The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Volume 1, 1901–1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2000.
    • Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
  2. Appointed Queen's Counsel (QC) during the reign of Queen Victoria, Sir Josiah was reappointed as King's Counsel (KC) after the succession of King Edward VII in 1901.
  3. Formed by Symon to campaign for the 'yes' vote in the 1898 referendum. Helen Irvine (editor), The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999, p. 427.
  4. South Australia, Official Report of the National Australasian Convention Debates, Adelaide, March 22 to May 5, 1897, CE Bristow, Government Printer, North-Terrace, Adelaide, 1897, p. 950 (Symon).

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 192


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