Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland
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Issue 30: October 2008
Professor W N Harrison - A Memoir Print E-mail


Richard Douglas SC, who volunteered Gibbs Chambers for this edition of Hearsay, suggested that I write a note about my father, Walter Harrison. I was happy to do that, particularly as the account of him in the T C Beirne School of Law 70th Anniversary booklet seemed to me, and to my sisters, to be a masterpiece of damning with faint praise, and not entirely accurate either. Oddly, one of the editors – I think he was an editor – sent me the proofs, but showed no interest when one of my sisters mentioned some of the mistakes.

Of course, it may well be that when you read this you will conclude that what there is to be praised is to be praised faintly. But if I too have got things wrong – after all, it is mostly my memory of casual conversations many years ago - they are my mistakes. But I hope that what I say may be of interest to some as an account of an essentially quiet and private life in times gone by.

walterharrison.jpgSome older readers will have known my father. And some others will know of the Walter Harrison Law Library at the University of Queensland, or of Harrison’s Law and Conduct of the Legal Profession in Queensland, in its second edition by G N Williams J (as he was at the time of publication)1. Cases on Land Law has been generally out of use for a long while, although I sometimes refer to it as an aide memoire for principles that I know but cannot recall. And there are articles available to the diligent2 in various law journals.

My father was born in 1904, and spent his earliest years at Cannon Valley, near Proserpine, in North Queensland. His father, a cane grower, died in 1911. The three young children (my father was the oldest) were farmed out to relatives while my grandmother trained as a nurse, to earn a living to support them. As a result, my father spent most of his early school years at Ravenswood Primary School. The old school building is still there.

Ravenswood, near Charters Towers, was a gold mining town. Even then, it was very much in decline. But mining has been revived there in fairly recent years – I had the pleasures of being briefed for a client with an interest in mullock heaps there (and elsewhere3) that new technology had made valuable again; and of visiting Ravenswood not so very long ago in connection with a Mining Warden’s Court matter, for a client that was expanding its open-cut mining operations there, to the chagrin of some of the residents. One could see in the sides of the vast, cavernous open pits in various places the tiny tunnels that the original miners had dug, far under ground, in search of gold. It is worth a visit if you are in the area. The Sunday Mail travel section ran a full page feature on it in June this year.

After my grandmother qualified as a nurse, she ran and then bought the Mt Alma Private Hospital in Charters Towers. I have a bill of sale she gave on the purchase of the hospital equipment, which is interesting both from a legal point of view, for the form of the instrument, and from medico-historical point of view, to see what was used in hospitals in those days4. The building was a Queenslander on stumps. My father and his brother lived underneath, in rooms with hessian walls, made quite cool in summer by hosing them.

walterharrlawlib.jpgMy father started his secondary schooling at Charters Towers State High School, but Brother Reginald Halse of the Bush Brothers (later to be Archbishop of Brisbane) was setting up All Souls (now All Souls St. Gabriel’s) School, and persuaded my grandmother to send my father there. My father’s name appears as head boy on the Board of Honour (I suppose it would be called) in the great hall three years in a row, the three appearances being not because he was exceptionally stupid, but because he was in the first year’s intake (although, in fact, he was persuaded to repeat his Senior year, for reasons which must have seemed good to someone at the time).

Anonymous Charters Towers’ businessmen paid for him to go to university – the University of Queensland, then in old Government House at the end of George Street – and while he was there, he boarded at St. John’s College, then at Kangaroo Point. His career at Queensland University was more notable for his sporting than for his academic achievements. He excelled in athletics, principally the 440 yards sprint (as it became around that time), and the long jump (or broad jump - the name seems to have changed from time to time). He ran for the Brothers Club (even though he was Church of England by religion), because they were the first to ask him. He also played rugby for the University, although he disclaimed any real ability as a footballer. He owed his position there, he said, to the fact that he had a knack of picking up a loose ball and scoring, but absent a loose ball, he couldn’t contribute much to a game.

Both his mother and Br. Halse intended him go into the Church of England ministry – his brother Jack, as intended, became a priest: a Bush Brother, a chaplain at Churchie and, for many years, rector of St. Matthew’s, Holland Park. According to my father, the most terrifying event of his life was calling on Br. Halse to tell him that he could not become a priest, because he had become a communist. For which, I suppose, I have to thank my being in the law. However, he remained friends with Br. Halse and, in later years, as well, gave legal advice from time to time to the Brisbane Diocese of the Church of England (or at least to Archbishop Halse).

An interesting thing about the communism, though, was that by the latter part of the 1920s, he and, I gather, quite a lot of other people had realised that things had gone horribly wrong in Russia, and had concluded that communism couldn’t work as it had been intended to work. That seems to have been prompted by published scholarly works, and the mystery is how those revelations and realizations apparently sank into a collective amnesia, leading generation after generation to fall for the siren call of the Russian version of communism (remember the fairly recent brou-ha-ha in the Courier Mail about Manning Clark’s silliness in this regard).

One legacy of this dalliance with communism, or perhaps it was a legacy as well of my father’s view in the 1930s that Australia had no reason to fight again in European wars, was attention from the security services. After he died, I found among his papers at the University, an exchange of correspondence with Erwin Griswold (at the time of the correspondence an academic at Harvard, later US solicitor-general) about the difficulties the security services of their respective countries had caused them from time to time.

But to return to my father’s education, although he achieved only second-class honours as the University of Queensland (in history), he won a Rhodes Scholarship, and read law at The Queen’s College, Oxford, graduating with first-class honours.

oxforduniversity.jpgHe also got an athletics Blue each year he was at Oxford, and competed in various international meets, winning a number of medals. But he sold those made of gold and silver during the 1930s depression, to pay for medical treatment for my mother. Luckily, however, the medal that I would think is the most notable was made of base metal - for second place (it looks silver) to an American, in the 440, in the British Empire vs. the United States meet of 1928.

After coming back to Australia, he taught for a short while at The Armidale School, and then started practice at the Queensland bar. During his early years at the bar (this was the depression era 1930s), he also taught part-time at the University, was a foreign editor at the Brisbane Telegraph newspaper, and a sometime broadcaster (e.g., Law for the Layman on the ABC). A memento of his time at the Telegraph is a copy of the proofs for a special edition he edited that was to accompany the announcement of the declaration of war that was expected following Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, running, so far as I can make out from the proofs, to ten or more pages. But of course, there was Munich, and it was never published. But it is interesting to read his contemporary views on those events.

During the 1930s, he tried to join the Kurilpa branch of the ALP, but much to his amusement, the local State member got it into his head that my father was after his seat, and ensured that my father never managed to get his continuity (something that aficionados of the ALP will understand). I had no such difficulty when I joined the same branch in the 1960s.

But he found practice at the bar uncongenial – I suspect that he tended to identify too closely with his clients – and though bearable while the briefs were few and far between, less and less so as he got busier. By the time he was actually making a living from the bar, he had come to the conclusion that a life at the bar was not for him. So he took a full-time appointment at the University of Queensland in 1939. He was appointed Garrick Professor of Law in 1948, and in the same year, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Head of the Department of Law.

In addition to his lecturing and administering the faculty and department, he acted as legal adviser to the University generally, and spent many evenings drafting statutes and rules for all faculties, which he enjoyed, functions that were transformed into a full-time position on his death.

My father married my mother Marjorie Hopkins (who lectured in English at the University of Queensland) in 1932. They had four children, of whom I was the youngest. My mother died in 1945, so my father brought up my sisters and brother and me (aged from 7 years to a few months) with the help of, first, my mother’s sister, and then, until about 1954, his own sister. After that, we (mostly he) fended for ourselves, until he indulged in the luxury of a housekeeper some time in the 1960s.

He died from a heart attack in 1966.

Lister Harrison QC


  1. There was also a later (than the 1st Queensland edition), very similar (it seems to me) work called Law and Conduct of the Legal Profession in New South Wales by Teece and Harrison, but the name “Harrison” disappeared mysteriously from the second edition.

  2. Gummow J has referred to a couple in judgments.

  3. See, e.g., O’Grady v Northern Queensland Co Ltd (1990) 169 CLR 356 (about the jurisdiction of mining wardens) and O’Grady v Northern Queensland Co Ltd [1990] 2 QdR 243 (about sale in lieu of partition).

  4. e.g., one operating table with straps, one anaesthetist’s table with nickel rails, one nickel instrument steriliser and stand, one iron anaesthetist’s stool, twelve enamel dressing bowls, one glass funnel, one enamel funnel, one large benzene lamp, one china irrigator, one clover’s crutch, three pairs of leggings, one canvas stretcher with poles and irons, one large tin drug box, one hypodermic tray, six enamel kidney trays, one undine irrigator, two laparotomy sheets, one gaiffe battery, etc.

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