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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.


SALMOND, the Hon. Sir John William


Jurist and Judge

A new biography of Salmond, John William appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

John William Salmond was born in the town of North Shields, Northumberland, England, on 3 December 1862, the eldest son of William Salmond who was at that time serving as Presby terian minister in that town. In 1855 his father was appointed professor of theology in the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland and he accompanied his parents to Dunedin where he completed his schooling at Otago Boys' High School (1876–79) and then attended Otago University. In 1882 Salmond graduated from that University with a B.A. degree and the following year he proceeded to M.A. At the conclusion of his studies there, he received a scholarship for study at University College, London, where he obtained the further degree of LL.B. and was elected a fellow of the college.

Salmond returned to New Zealand in 1887 and, after his admission as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court, commenced practice in Temuka. For 10 years he continued in private practice, but in 1897 he was appointed professor of law at the University of Adelaide where he remained until early 1906 when he left to return to a similar position at Victoria University College, Wellington. In 1907 Salmond was appointed to the newly created position of Counsel to the Law Drafting Office where he remained for four years, being raised in 1911 to the high post of Solicitor-General. During his term of this office he was honoured with a knighthood in 1918 and two years later was further honoured by elevation to the Bench of the Supreme Court.

In 1921 Salmond was appointed by the Government to represent the Dominion at the International Conference held at Washington (1921–22) to consider proposals for disarmament at an international level. Upon his return Sir John Salmond resumed his judicial duties but in August 1924 he suffered a heart attack and died in Wellington on 19 September of that year.

Whilst in England, Sir John Salmond had met and married Annie Bryham, daughter of James Guthrie, of Newcastle-on-Tyne. They had two sons – the elder of whom was killed in the First World War -and one daughter.

Although Sir John Salmond practised for some 10 years in New Zealand as a barrister and solicitor, it is not upon this that his importance and significance rests; for, like another great New Zealand Judge and jurist, Sir Joshua Williams, his talents never demonstrated themselves in the ordinary round of practice as a legal practitioner; it was only when he rose to other positions that they received their full scope.

Whilst at Temuka, Salmond had published two short texts on aspects of jurisprudence – Essays in Jurisprudence and Legal History (1891), and The First Principles of Jurisprudence (1893) – but it was not until 1902 that his first comprehensive treatise on jurisprudence was published. In 1907 Salmond followed with an important tract on the law of torts. These two last-mentioned texts have been recognised as classics amongst legal writings, and for the former he was awarded the Swiney Gold Cup, and for the latter Harvard University bestowed on him the Ames Medal for the most noted legal treatise published in the world over a period of five years. Moreover, the fact that they are still being re-edited and published today is an indication of their worth -there have been 11 editions of his treatise on jurisprudence, the most recent being published in 1957 under the editorship of Glanville Williams. There have also been 12 editions of his work on torts, the most recent being published in 1957 under the editorship of R. F. V. Heuston. At the time of his death, Salmond had prepared, but not completed, notes for a treatise on the law of contract; these, completed and added to by P. H. Winfield, were published posthumously in 1927 and have taken their stand alongside the other two works, the second edition having been published in 1945 under the editorship of Professor J. Williams.

As a ‘jurist, Sir John Salmond is clearly unsurpassed so far as New Zealand is concerned; however, his prominence in this field is not restricted to this Dominion, but is acknowledged in England and other Commonwealth countries, and his treatises are recognised as amongst the leading contributions in their respective fields. His death was noted by the English jurist Frederick Pollock in the English Law Quarterly Review, a distinction which very few, if any, other New Zealand Judges have attained.

Whilst Salmond's reputation now rests primarily on his status as a jurist, his significance in New Zealand life was more extensive during his lifetime. As a teacher of law at Victoria University College he was very highly regarded by students and the profession alike for his lucid and interesting expositions of the complexities of the law, and for his human kindness and interest. In 1907 when the post of Counsel to the Law Drafting Office was created, Salmond brought to that office and the legislation he supervised, the same qualities of legal erudition and clarity of expression. When Salmond was appointed Solicitor-General as head of the Crown Law Office, the opportunity was taken to organise the Office and greatly increase its functions so that not only did it perform its traditional function of advising the Government on legal matters but it also undertook the conduct of all Crown legal work in the Dominion (including criminal work in Wellington), as well as controlling the drafting of legislation which Salmond brought with him from the Law Drafting Office. Moreover, during much of Salmond's period as Solicitor-General, the Government was engaged in a war on a scale never before witnessed or indeed envisaged, and it was much to the advantage of New Zealand that it had at that time such talent and ability in the advising of Government and in the formulating of the novel legislation required, in those difficult years.

Sir Francis Dillon Bell, who was Attorney-General for much of this period, had a very high regard for Salmond's ability in his position as chief permanent legal advisor to the Government. In 1918 the drafting of statutes, and in 1920 the conduct of criminal work, were removed from the Crown Law Office so that it was during Salmond's term as Solicitor-General that this office attained its greatest extent. At the International Conference on Disarmament in 1921, Sir John Salmond was recognised as being one of the most outstanding representatives present and the report to the Government which he presented on his return was regarded as a very lucid and intelligent appraisement of the situation.

It is all the more unfortunate, therefore, that his tenure on the Supreme Court Bench was so short. During the period he held that office, however, he easily distinguished himself as the epitome of the judicial qualities of courtesy and impartiality, legal knowledge and acumen, and his judgments are still regarded as amongst the soundest and clearest in the legal history of the Dominion; in particular his judgment in Taylor v. Combined Buyers Ltd. in 1924 has remained the guiding light for the interpretation of some of the most significant provisions of the Sale of Goods Act 1908.

Sir John Salmond devoted his talents to his professional duties in their various forms and it appears that he had no great interest in local or national politics, or in any purely social or recreational activities apart from the study of literature. About 1920 Salmond collected random thoughts on different topics into a book for private circulation under the title of My Son, Said the Philosopher.

As a man, it appears that Sir John Salmond was of a philosophical and scholarly temperament and that his manner was somewhat reserved amongst strangers, although upon close acquaintance he showed himself to be a generous, kindly, and sincere friend, with a sense of humour and wit. He was a brilliant conversationalist but fundamentally he was a man of simple pleasures, who found his relaxation in his home and amongst his select friends. He was indeed very much cast in the mould of the traditional intelligent Scotsman, with a keen intellect, a great capacity for hard work, an honest and simple heart, and a reserved manner. It is significant and indicative of his character as a man that he excelled as a jurist and Judge and not as a legal practitioner, and that his interests and talents were all directed to the fulfilment of his official duties and to the study of literature, and not to political or purely social activities.

by Donald Edgar Paterson, B.A., LL.M.(N.Z.), LL.M., J.S.D.(YALE), Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law, Victoria University of Wellington.

Evening Post, 20, 22, 29 Sep 1924 (Obits); Dominion, 20, 22, 30 Sep 1924 (Obits); Otago Daily Times, 20, 22, 30 Sep 1924 (Obits).


Donald Edgar Paterson, B.A., LL.M.(N.Z.), LL.M., J.S.D.(YALE), Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law, Victoria University of Wellington.