Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency (I include those who were born before 1811 and who died after 1795), today I continue with one of the many period notables.
Sir Francis William Forbes
1784 – 8 November 1841
Francis William Forbes
Sir Francis William Forbes was born and educated in Bermuda, the son of Dr. Francis Forbes M.D. and his wife Mary, née Tucker. At the age of 19 he travelled to London, England to enter Lincoln’s Inn. He was called to the Bar in 1812 and became a Crown Law Officer in Bermuda and married Amelia Sophia Grant in 1813, returning to England in 1815.
In 1816 he was invited to be Chief Justice of Newfoundland, and was sworn in at St. John’s in July, 1816. While in Newfoundland, he severely curtailed the powers of the Fishing Admirals. In 1820, he wrote the lyrics of the song “The Banks of Newfoundland”.
In 1822, he was appointed to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, to oversee the reform of the administration of the legal system in the colony, following the inquiry into the colony’s affairs by commissioner John Bigge. Before departing for Australia, he helped draft the New South Wales Act 1823 (4 Geo. IV c. 96) which, along with the Charter of Justice issued under it on 13 October 1823, replaced the legal tribunals of convict days with a Supreme Court possessing comprehensive jurisdiction. Under the new system, Forbes was not only the sole judge, subject only to the appellate power of the Governor, but also an ex officio member of the Executive and Legislative Councils, and all colonial legislation had to be certified by him.
Forbes arrived in Sydney in March 1824 and the Court commenced on 17 May 1824. The governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, was impressed by Forbes, and in his dispatches of 1 July and 12 August 1824 reported that “since the arrival of the chief justice the state of the Colony has assumed a new tone”. Forbes had no difficulties with Brisbane, but it was not long before he came into conflict with the new governor, Sir Ralph Darling. It was proposed to pass acts for the purpose of restraining the liberty of the press, and Forbes refused to certify them as he considered them repugnant to the laws of England. He pointed out how necessary it was to go carefully, as in the then conditions of the colony the people looked upon the Supreme Court as their protection against absolute power. “I had been appointed by Parliament”, said Forbes, “to see that the laws of the Empire were not encroached upon … I refused to certify the Governor’s Bills because I thought them repugnant to law … What legal right could the Governor claim to press me further?”. After great discussion the issue went to the Colonial Office, whose legal advisors were of opinion that Forbes was right in refusing to certify the act for licensing newspapers. They thought he had been wrong with regard to the newspaper stamp act but, as there was no reason to doubt that he had formed his opinion honestly, he had executed his duty in acting upon it. Forbes’s workload had been and continued to be heavy, his controversy with Darling was harassing, and his health suffered.
Forbes suffered serious bouts of illness from 1826. In May 1836 he returned to England for a year’s leave. In 1837 he retired from his post and was honoured with a knighthood. He died at Leitrim Lodge, his home in Newtown, New South Wales, on 8 November 1841.
The Francis Forbes Society for Australian Legal History, based in Sydney, is named after him.
Mount Forbes in Queensland is named after him, but the name originally referred to the mountain now known as Mount Walker, Queensland while the Mount Forbes name is now assigned to an adjacent locality.