Happy 200th birthday to Sir William Foster Stawell

June 2015 is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta – the Great Charter – signed by King John in the presence of the major Barons of England. Magna Carta has been celebrated as a first significant step in the limitation of arbitrary royal power and the growth of democracy. In particular it reputedly enshrined the right of trial by a jury of one’s peers (providing one’s peers were in fact peers) and it also paved the way to “no taxation without representation” and the establishment of regular Parliaments as mechanisms to oversee government expenditure.

This makes June 2015 a big month for lovers of constitutional history, particularly here in Victoria.

June 27 2015 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir William Jonas Foster Stawell, the Anglo-Irish lawyer who was the most significant drafter of colonial Victoria’s constitution. After drafting the constitution Sir William was appointed Chief Justice where he was responsible for interpreting the constitution he had helped devise for almost 30 years. He also served as Acting Governor on several occasions.

All of this and much more is discussed in Giles Parkinson’s 2004 book Sir William Stawell and the Victorian Constitution. It is a scholarly, well footnoted book derived from a University thesis. It is not a book to read with the television on in the background.

Sir William gave his name to the mining settlement at Pleasant Creek, although he pronounced it S-towel. Apparently his descendants conceded defeat and went with the western Victorian pronunciation in the middle of last century.

It is ironic that Pleasant Creek should have been named after a man whose constitutional ideas were centred on the need to keep the landed interest in power at the expense of democratic rights for miners. Prior to drafting the constitution Sir William had achieved some notoriety as the unsuccessful prosecutor of the Eureka rebels. So while he gave his name to a mining town he did not have much sympathy for the miners.

Victoria’s property qualified Legislative Council which survived for 100 years and succeeded in keeping the ALP riff raff off the government benches was a monument to Sir William’s constitution making skills. In the 1890’s the framers of Australia’s constitution obviously included a number of men who had worked within the Victorian Constitution and developed their ideas for the national constitution from their experiences with that document.

Shortly after his death in 1889 there was a Letter to the Editor of the Argus suggesting that Sir William should be honoured with a statue.  This did not happen. There is the Stawell Chambers at 493 Little Bourke named for him. And a town.

Happy 200th, Sir William!


Australian Dictionary of Biography

The Australasian Sketcher 1886

Argus Letter 1889


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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