Sam Hanna Bell Samuel Beckett John Hewitt Bernard (Barney) Hughes James Joseph Magennis VC Frances Elizabeth Clarke Stewart Parker William Carleton Rosamond Praegar

Sir William Hill Irvine (1858 - 1943):
Politician and lawyer

William Hill Irvine had a long career in the state of Victoria, Australia, as a lawyer, judge, and member of the state government, his rather authoritarian-leaning views and glacial demeanour winning him the epithet "Iceberg" Irvine.

He was born at Dromalane, Newry, Co. Down, sixth among seven children of Hill Irvine, a farmer and linen manufacturer, and Margaret, a sister of John Mitchel, the journalist and political activist; their father was Minister of Dromalane Presbyterian Church. Irvine was educated at the Royal School, Armagh, and the University of Dublin, where he graduated BA in 1879. He entered the King's Inns, but interrupted this legal career to emigrate to Australia after his mother had expressed a desire to start a new life abroad, after the failure of his father's business and subsequent death.

He continued his education at the University of Melbourne, graduating MA (1882), LLB (1884), and LLM (1886). He was called to the Bar in Victoria on 8 July 1884, but his career was at first rather chequered, affected as it was by his less than consistent commitment, and what seemed to be neurotic spells. However, with Frank Gavan Duffy, he published a legal textbook, Law Relating to the Property of Women in 1886, and his own Justices of the Peace in 1888. He turned to politics and stood for the legislative assembly for the constituency of Lowan, on a pro-free trade ticket, and was elected, appointed attorney-general in 1899. He became 21st premier of the state of Victoria and attorney-general in 1902, later also solicitor-general and treasurer.

In May 1903, he dealt sternly with a railway engine drivers strike. He introduced a tough strike suppression bill - accrued financial and other benefits of strikers were declared forfeit; the ringleaders were dismissed and strike-breakers engaged. The strike was over within a week, but he had earned the bitter enmity of labour interests and political opponents, one warning him in the parliamentary chamber, "Your turn will come, my smooth beauty!" He resigned as head of the government in February 1904. In 1906 he was offered, though declined, a seat in the Supreme Court, instead returning to practice at the Bar, this time with more success, and was elected to the Federal Parliament for the constituency of Flinders. He was not admitted to the cabinet again until his spell as attorney-general, 24 June 1913 - 17 September 1914 He was a fervent supporter not only of Australian participation in the First World War, but also of conscription, an issue he was still pursuing with considerable determination throughout the war.

In April 1918 he was appointed as Chief Justice of Victoria. Opinion was divided as to his efficacy as a judge. One the one hand, he was seen as having a firm sense of justice, a high standard of duty and propriety,  his judgments delivered with little delay and impeccably framed to follow precedent; but this latter characteristic was seen by some as a weakness. In 1923, he did make a significant decision when he refused to appoint a judge to a royal commission, as it had political implications. However, as he got older his attention increasingly wavered (especially, it was said, after lunch) and in 1935 faced with ever-deteriorating concentration and general health he was persuaded to resign.

He was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Dublin, which was conferred on him on a visit to Ireland in 1904. During this visit he declared that he would always be proud to be a Newry man, but his fortunes and his work were cast in Australia, and to a large extent he belonged to Australia. He was knighted in 1913, made KCMG in 1914 and GCMG in 1936. A keen motorist, he was a founding member of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV) and was its patron from 1938 until 1943. In 1932 a painting of Irvine by Ernest Buckmaster won the Archibald Prize, Australia's best-known portrait prize.

Born: 6 July 1858
Died: 20 August 1943
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Australian Dictionary of Biography; Dictionary of Irish Biography