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Sir Hartley Williams

1843 – 1929

Sir Hartley Williams (1843–1929), judge, was the third child and second son of Edward Eyre Williams and his wife, Jessie. Born in Melbourne, he was sent to England to be educated, eventually attaining his BA from Oxford in 1866. He returned to Melbourne in 1867 and was admitted to the colonial Bar having gained some experience as a solicitor in London. ‘He at once displayed ability at the Bar, and success came quickly’, the Argus later stated. ‘He devoted himself from the outset to the common law side of his profession … [and] by the time that he was aged 34 years he was in the front rank of the common law Bar, and his practice was very large.’ In December 1870, in Hobart, he married Edith Ellen Horne (1851–1885), the daughter of a high-ranking public servant. The couple’s first child, Hartley Eyre Williams, was born in December 1871; three more sons and two daughters followed, with the family occupying a number of fine houses in Melbourne’s inner-eastern suburbs, most notably Flete, an Italianate villa in Malvern built for Williams in 1882–83 and subsequently leased by Dame Nellie Melba. In 1881, he was nominated to fill the vacancy on the bench of the Victorian Supreme Court created by Sir Redmond Barry’s passing the previous year, making Williams the youngest appointee to the state’s judiciary to that date. The Australian Dictionary of Biography’s listing for Williams states that he ‘became well known and respected for the commonsense of his summings-up and judgements’, and his obituary in the Argus claimed that ‘he showed considerable aptitude in the work of the Criminal Court, and he was long remembered for the exemplary punishments which he imposed on a gang of garrotters, whose murderous operations were making streets in Melbourne unsafe after nightfall’. In 1892, he embarrassed himself in publicly decrying being overlooked for the role of Chief Justice; he was also known for his unconventional beliefs on matters such as religion, but despite these apparent blemishes accepted a knighthood in 1894. Edith died in Melbourne in 1885; Williams remarried in 1887. A keen sportsman – known for his interest in rowing, cycling and boxing in particular – Williams announced his retirement from the bench in 1903. Flete was sold, and Williams went to England, living in Gloucestershire and then London, where he died in July 1929.

Updated 2018