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Williams, Joshua Strange

by Judith Bassett


Joshua Strange Williams was born at Paddington, London, England, on 19 September 1837, the eldest son of Lucy Strange and her husband, Joshua Williams, a conveyancer who became an eminent barrister and wrote authoritative works on property law. The younger Joshua was educated at Harrow School and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was second in the first class of the law tripos in 1858 and junior optime in the mathematical tripos in 1859. He left Cambridge with the degrees of MA and LLM and the chancellor's gold medal for legal studies.

Such a well-qualified, well-connected young man would have had less trouble than many finding a professional niche in London, even though the city was at that time overcrowded with aspiring barristers. Williams studied conveyancing with his father and equity with Arthur (later Lord) Hobhouse, and was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1859. A major obstacle to professional success, however, was his acute nervousness. In 1861 he left London for New Zealand for health reasons, and possibly also in search of a less daunting environment. He arrived at Dunedin on the Derwentwater in November 1861, at a time when the city was so frenetic with gold fever that the captain dared not enter the harbour for fear that the crew would desert, and discharged his passengers outside the Otago Heads.

In December 1861 Williams moved to Christchurch, where he was admitted to the New Zealand Bar early the following year, and became a partner of T. S. Duncan, the provincial solicitor. The partnership lasted until Williams visited England in 1864. On 26 July that year, at Horsham, Sussex, he married Caroline Helen Sanctuary. They were to have four sons and three daughters. On the couple's return to Christchurch at the end of 1864 Joshua Williams set up in sole practice.

Williams enjoyed Christchurch. He made congenial friends among men of similar background to his own, such as William Rolleston, W. S. Moorhouse and Samuel Butler. He delighted in the youthfulness of the settlement and the pervading sense of adventure and optimism. In 1862 he entered provincial politics, and later recalled how much he had enjoyed electioneering and canvassing. He was member for Heathcote on the Canterbury Provincial Council from 1862 to 1864 and 1866 to 1870, and served on the provincial executive in 1863 and from 1866 to 1868 during the turbulent years of Moorhouse's last superintendency. He was also first chairman of the board of governors of Canterbury College, showing an interest in education that lasted all his life. Practising law, however, may have been less fulfilling than his other activities. He had succeeded Duncan as provincial solicitor in March 1863 but in February 1871 became district land registrar. In October 1872 he was appointed registrar general of land, and began to concentrate on the administrative and theoretical aspects of law. He wrote a handbook on the Land Transfer Act 1870, and devoted his energies to implementing the new Torrens system of land registration introduced by the act.

In March 1875 Williams, despite his youth and limited experience as a barrister, was one of three new judges appointed to the Supreme Court of New Zealand, the others being James Prendergast and Thomas Gillies. Williams was sent to Dunedin to replace H. S. Chapman. Dunedin did not at first welcome him. The city's legal profession, then the most numerous in the colony, prided itself on its talents and was notorious for its unruliness. Newspapers criticised the appointment of an 'inexperienced tyro'. The year was also a difficult one for Williams personally: Caroline Williams died on 20 June. But gradually he shaped a new life. On 15 February 1877, at All Saints Church, Dunedin, Williams married Amelia Durant Jago, daughter of J. W. Jago, the manager of the Evening Star. There were at least two daughters from the marriage. Williams again became involved in education, as vice chancellor of the University of Otago in 1879 and chancellor from 1894 to 1909, and was active in the Patients' and Prisoners' Aid Society, the Otago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Dunedin Philharmonic Society.

Williams won over the Dunedin Bar by a mixture of outstanding erudition and exquisite politeness. His skill in reducing cases to their essentials and exposing the basic principles of common law made him a most effective teacher. He would sometimes lead a nervous young barrister through a case, in effect teaching by case method. Clients benefited from clear presentation of otherwise turgid cases. His judgements were brief and lucid. Most of the cases which came before him were mundane, such as the case against the Dunedin City and Suburban Tramway Company in which he ruled that while the company was required to lay its rails so that they were level with the surface of the street, it was not required to fill holes in the street to the level of the rails. Although he regarded criminal cases as 'the thorn in the judicial cushion', Williams presided over several notorious trials, including that of Minnie Dean, the Winton 'baby farmer', whom he sentenced to death in 1895. He detested hypocrisy, and is said to have once deflated a self-righteous witness by saying quietly, 'I have often observed that when a man says he has acted on principle he has generally done something mean.'

From 1895 to 1898 Williams served as first president of the Court of Arbitration, which had been established by the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894. For the new system of industrial relations to succeed the court required a judge of unquestioned ability and integrity. Williams brought to it those qualities and also sympathy, patience and an enthusiasm for new institutions. Fortunately he was interested in the details of the lives of working people, who made up the majority of the witnesses before the court. The evidence was minutely detailed and repetitive. The judge had to remind a restive assessor on one occasion that listening was also a job: 'He is a layman,' Williams reportedly said of a witness, 'and if I cut him short, he will be puzzled and hurt. If he were a lawyer I could tell him we have heard it all before. And in any case…is not this what we are paid for – to sit and listen to arguments?' Williams's contribution to the arbitration system may well have been his most important work as a judge. He later said that it had given him 'profound satisfaction', and that he saw the Court of Arbitration as a powerful weapon for improving the condition of the masses and protecting them from oppression.

Williams's most controversial decisions in the Supreme Court were made between 1896 and 1901 in the long series of hearings into the affairs of the Colonial Bank of New Zealand. The bank's largest debtors were the J. G. Ward Farmers’ Association and Joseph Ward, the colonial treasurer. The cases were therefore highly political. In June 1896 and again in May 1897 Williams rejected applications by Ward's friends to purchase at a discount the colonial treasurer's debts to the Farmers' Association; although this would have assisted the liquidators of the association, it would also have assisted Ward to avoid bankruptcy. Williams declared that he would not allow the court to be used to conceal what might prove to be grave commercial irregularities. Those responsible for the management of the association 'should no longer be permitted to roam at large through the business world'.

Because the case concerned one of the most influential politicians in the country, Williams had thought it prudent on the second occasion to consult his fellow judges. A majority agreed with him. Williams's admirers held the decision to be a splendid example of impersonal and austere justice; Ward's many supporters saw it as an attempt by the 'Tory' establishment to drive the Liberals' financial wizard out of public life. In June 1897 the acting premier John McKenzie, Joseph Ward and other members of Parliament attended a large meeting at Abbotsford where Ward was defended as the victim of the 'grossest persecution'.

The collision course between political and judicial power must have made both sides uncomfortable. In November 1897 Ward, who had been adjudged bankrupt, was discharged by the Invercargill District Court, and in March 1898 Williams rejected a petition from nine Colonial Bank shareholders for an order directing the official liquidator to prosecute Ward for fraud. The following month Williams departed to spend a year's sabbatical leave in England. Equilibrium between politicians and the judiciary was restored. In June 1902, when Ward opened the new Dunedin Law Courts, he and Williams posed in the midst of a group photograph of the Dunedin Bar. Honours, however, came slowly. When Chief Justice Prendergast resigned in 1899 Williams was the senior puisne judge. Many lawyers felt that he should have succeeded to the post. It went instead to Robert Stout. Williams's knighthood, conferred in 1911, was conspicuously late.

In 1914 Joshua Williams retired to England, where he became New Zealand's first permanent resident representative on the Privy Council. He sat on 10 reported cases, but was not invited to deliver any of the judgements. He died on 22 December 1915 at Hove, Sussex. Amelia Williams survived her husband by about 25 years.

Links and sources


    Hanlon, A. C. Random recollections. Dunedin, 1939

    New Zealand Law Society. Portrait of a profession. Ed. R. Cooke. Wellington, 1969

    Stewart, W. D. Portrait of a judge. Wellington, 1945

How to cite this page:

Judith Bassett. 'Williams, Joshua Strange', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)