Josiah Symon

Josiah Symon

Hon Sir Josiah Henry Symon KCMG (27 September 1846 – 29 March 1934), Scottish-Australian lawyer and politician, was a member of the Australian Senate in the First Australian Parliament, and an Attorney-General of Australia.

Symon was born in Wick, a town in the county of Caithness in the Scottish Highlands, in 1846. He was educated at Stirling High School, where he was the dux in 1862, before attending college in Edinburgh. In 1866 he emigrated to South Australia and was employed as an articled clerk with his cousin, J D Sutherland, a solicitor in the city of Mount Gambier. The leader of the South Australian Bar Association at the time (and a future Chief Justice of South Australia), Samuel Way, noticed Symon's work and invited him to join his firm. Symon, having completed his studies, was called to the bar in 1871, and admitted to practice as a barrister. In 1872, after the death of one of the partners at Way's firm, Symon became a partner alongside Way. In 1876, Way was appointed as a judge, and Symon bought out his part of the business.

In March 1881, Symon was made Attorney-General of South Australia in the Morgan government, although at the time he had not been elected to the Parliament of South Australia. He was elected as the member for Sturt in the South Australian House of Assembly several weeks later. However, the Morgan government lost power on 24 June of that year, and Symon lost his position as Attorney-General. Later in 1881, Symon was made a Queen's Counsel, and on 8 December of that year he married Mary Cowle, with whom he was to have five sons and seven daughters. In 1884, Symon was offered a judicial position, but he declined to accept it. He travelled to England in 1886, and was offered a nomination for a seat in the British House of Commons, however he declined this opportunity also. In 1887, after returning to Australia, he lost his seat in the South Australian parliament.

Symon was a strong supporter of federation, and in 1897 was elected as a South Australian delegate to the second Constitutional Convention, where he was chairman of the judiciary committee. Symon was also president of the South Australian Federal League, and president of the Commonwealth League, two groups which promoted federation. In 1899, Symon was a member of the delegation of Australian politicians which visited England to ensure the passage of the "Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900" through the British Imperial Parliament.

In 1901, Symon was created a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG). He stood for election to the Australian Senate at the 1901 election for the Free Trade Party, and was placed first overall by the voters of South Australia. He was made leader of the opposition in the Senate, and was a leader within the Free Trade Party on tariff policy. After being elected to the Parliament, he stood down from his position as a member of the council of the University of Adelaide, a position he had held since 1897. At the 1903 election he again topped the poll for the Senate in South Australia. When the High Court of Australia was created in late 1903, Symon was mentioned in the press as a possible judge of the court, although ultimately he was not appointed. From August 1904 to July 1905 he was the Attorney-General of Australia in the Reid Ministry.

Symon was renowned as a tough and uncompromising politician. He has been described as both an "eloquent and emotional speaker" and often "abrasive and argumentative."ref|abrasive Late in 1904, Symon was involved in a dispute with the judges of the High Court. In the court's early years, it's official home was a courtroom in Melbourne, although it often sat at the court in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. Justices Barton and O'Connor lived in Sydney, but Chief Justice of Australia Sir Samuel Griffith lived in Brisbane, and took a two day train ride to attend each sitting in Melbourne. When Griffith asked for some bookshelves to be installed in the Darlinghurst courthouse, so that his law library might be moved from his offices in Brisbane, Symon criticised Griffith for holding any sittings outside Melbourne, and began intrusive inspections of the judges' travel expenses. Prime Minister George Reid tried to intervene, and Griffith even took the extraordinary step of delaying scheduled sittings early in 1905. The stand-off was resolved when the Reid government left power, and the new Attorney-General (and future Chief Justice) Isaac Isaacs permitted the judges to travel. Later, in 1930, when Symon was president of the Adelaide branch of the Royal Empire Society, he was an outspoken opponent of James Scullin's nomination of Isaacs as Governor-General of Australia.

In 1909, when the Free Trade Party and the Protectionist Party merged to form the Commonwealth Liberal Party, Symon was one of a small group of politicians who did not join, instead remaining in Parliament as an independent. Symon did not hold any other ministerial positions, and eventually left the Senate after losing his seat in the 1913 election. He continued to practice as a barrister until his retirement in 1923 at the age of seventy-seven.

Symon was a lover of history and literature, and was nominated as a founding member of the Parliamentary Library Committee, which oversees the Parliament of Australia Parliamentary Library.ref|library Symon, along with Tasmanian Senator John Keating, who was also on the committee, suggested that historical documents relating to Australia but kept in the United Kingdom to be brought to Australia. In 1907 he visited the Public Record Office in London while on a holiday, and campaigned for the logs of Captain James Cook's ships HM Bark "Endeavour" and HMS "Resolution" to be brought to Australia, in the same way that the log of the "Mayflower" had been taken to Boston in the United States. Though unsuccessful, Symon continued the campaign on his return to Australia, and in 1909 moved a resolution in the Senate to call for the logs to be brought to Australia. Although the logs were never given to Australia, the original copy of the Constitution of Australia was brought to Australia in 1990, after campaigning by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in a tradition which historians link to Symon.ref|documents

Symon had a massive personal collection of approximately ten thousand books, which he ultimately bequeathed to the State Library of South Australia. He had already donated his collection of law texts to the Law School at the University of Adelaide in 1924. Symon also wrote and published a number of books, including "Shakespeare at Home", published in 1905, and "Shakespeare the Englishman", published in 1929, both on the subject of William Shakespeare. Some of Symon's lectures on Shakespeare were also published in pamphlet form.

Symon died in 1934, and was given a state funeral. He was survived by his wife, his five sons and five of his seven daughters. In addition to bequeathing his library, Symon also left money for the establishment of scholarships at the University of Sydney, Scotch College in Adelaide and Stirling High School, which he had attended in his youth.


# cite web | title=The quest for the nation's title deeds, 1901-1990 | work=Australian Library Journal | url= | accessdate=17 February | accessyear=2006
# cite web | title=Parliamentary Library | work=Parliament House of Australia | url= | accessdate=17 February | accessyear=2006
# cite web | title=The quest for the nation's title deeds, 1901-1990 | work=Australian Library Journal | url= | accessdate=17 February | accessyear=2006


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