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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


WILLIAMS, Sir Joshua Strange, P.C.


Judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.

A new biography of Williams, Joshua Strange appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Joshua Strange Williams was born in London in 1837, the son of Joshua Williams, Q.C. He attended Harrow School under Dr Vaughan, and went on to a brilliant academic career at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was second in the first-class law tripos in 1858, and junior optime in the mathematical tripos and Chancellor's gold medallist in legal studies in 1859. After graduating B.A. he read law in Lincoln's Inn with his father, and was called to the Bar in November 1859. He then took his M.A. and M.L. at Cambridge, but his health broke down and he was advised to seek a change of climate. Sailing from England in the emigrant ship Derwentwater in July 1861, he arrived in Otago at the height of the gold rush there. Young Williams made his way to Christchurch and was admitted to the New Zealand Bar by Mr Justice H. B. Gresson, entering into partnership in May 1862 with T. S. Duncan. Williams joined the Provincial Government in October 1862 as member for Heathcote and in the following year succeeded his partner as provincial solicitor. A year later he resigned and returned to England where he married Caroline Helen, daughter of Thomas Sanctuary, of Horsham, Sussex. He arrived back in New Zealand in 1865 and was returned to the Provincial Government for his old constituency of Heathcote. In a quiet, competent way Williams exerted a substantial influence on provincial affairs and proved a remarkably sagacious adviser, a characteristic which served him well, when, after the provincial dissolution of 1870, he became District Land Registrar for Canterbury and, later, Registrar-General of Lands. His work in this sphere was represented by an authoritative and widely acknowledged treatise on the Land Transfer Act.

Joshua Williams's career on the Supreme Court Bench began when he succeeded Mr Justice H. S. Chapman as resident Judge for Otago in 1875. He held this office with great distinction for 39 years, during which he built up for himself an uncommonly high reputation for the soundness of his law. He presided at many famous trials and directed the long course of the Colonial Bank Inquiry of 1897. His judgments were notable for the choice and simple English in which they were couched and the lucidity of their reasoning. When the Arbitration Court was established in 1895 he was appointed its first President because it was essential that the Court should be developed from the outset on the soundest legal principles. After three years he returned to the Supreme Court Bench. He was knighted in 1911 and in 1914 achieved the proud distinction of becoming New Zealand's first permanent resident representative on the Privy Council in London. His tenure of office was brief, but even among the Law Lords of his day he was recognised as a master of sound judgment and scholarly opinion. He died in London on 22 December 1915 and was survived for 25 years by his second wife, Amelia Durant, daughter of John Wesley Jago, of Dunedin, whom he married a few years after the death of his first wife in Christchurch in 1872.

Sir Joshua Williams's greatest virtue was his mastery of principle and command of instances, which, added to a highly developed faculty of reducing multifarious facts and perplexed argument to a rational order, and singling out a decisive point, earned him his reputation for soundness. To everything related to his office he brought an exquisite kindliness that produced a type of man sorely needed in a prosaic, machine-driven age. A profound lawyer, and a master of English, as well as of French and Italian, Williams in judgment revealed himself as a scholar, a lawyer, and a dialectician. He believed that mercy should temper justice, but appreciated also that in all dealings with wrongdoing, justice should not leave mercy to work alone. His industry was tireless and throughout his long career he exhibited exemplary diligence in the discharge of any duty which he considered to be consistent with the dignity of his office. Not for him was the isolation that is the destiny, and frequently the inclination, of many of those who are set above their fellows. He had a positive genius for fostering and maintaining the happiest relations with everyone, and understood perfectly how to content the great and encourage the humble. One of his principal extra-judicial interests was the University of Otago, of which he was Vice-Chancellor in 1879 and Chancellor from 1894 to 1909. Here again he displayed his customary tact and delicacy of feeling in his dealings with others to the undoubted advantage of the University and its work.

by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.

  • Random Recollections, Hanlon, A. C. (1939)
  • Otago Daily Times, 29 Dec 1915 (Obit).


Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.