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Sir Francis Forbes, the first Chief Justice of NSW and his farewell gift

This splendid and ornate piece was given to Sir Francis Forbes, the first Chief Justice of New South Wales “in token of respect and esteem for his public and private virtues” by “the colonists of New South Wales” in 1839. Before the gold watch there was the silver candelabrum.

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A silver candelabrum with six candle holders and three Roman figures around the base

The silver candelabrum given to Sir Francis Forbes on his retirement.

Francis Forbes arrived in Sydney in 1824 when he was nearly 50 years old. His wife and three sons came with him. He quickly established a reputation as being fair, principled and hard-working.  He was at the frontier of legal practice – forging new ground for the citizens of New South Wales. In his role, he made many decisions which are still under-pinning our laws today – such as the two described below. 

One of Forbes’ roles as Chief Justice of NSW, was to review all new laws proposed by the Governor to determine if they were “repugnant to the laws of England”. Forbes was an unelected member of the NSW Legislative and Executive Councils. As yet, there was no separation between the executive government and the judiciary.  One of the laws which Forbes refused to ratify was the formation of large land holdings (by the likes of the Macarthur family) as this would lock up land for less well-off settlers. Of course John Macarthur, who was a member of the Legislative Council, did not like this. Nor did he like it when Forbes ruled against him in a civil suit and ordered that he had to pay his neighbour, John Raine, £300 in legal costs. Forbes made himself a powerful enemy in John Macarthur, who wanted to impeach “the dangerous, detestable, unprincipled, immoral, base and artful man” who presided in the Supreme Court.

Ralph Darling, who was the Governor of NSW at the time Macarthur was looking to oust Forbes, was also no friend of John Macarthur. Forbes could have 'buddied up' with Governor Darling and sought his friendship and support, but he refused to let personal affairs get in the way of his job. Darling was not happy with the way he and his government were being portrayed in the newspapers, particularly in The Australian and the Monitor. Darling wanted to pass a law which would require all newspapers to apply to the government for a license and pay a duty of 4d per paper printed.[1] This would then allow him to refuse to grant licenses to newspapers that he didn’t like and it would have pushed up the price of newspapers! Forbes decided that such a law would be “repugnant to the laws of England” and despite intense pressure over the next two years to agree to the bill, Forbes continued to support the freedom of the press.

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An oil painting of Sir Francis Forbes looking over his left shoulder

An oil painting of Sir Francis Forbes by an unknown artist (ML 14).

All of this work and pressure, plus his already poor health took its toll. Even after 12 months sick leave in England, Forbes admitted that his “nerves [were] so shattered as to affect my powers of mind as well as body”. Forbes resigned in 1837, but not before he received a knighthood. He returned to NSW and died in a rented house, “Leitrim Lodge”, in Newtown on 8 November 1841. He was survived by his mother, his wife – Lady Amelia, and their two sons who were studying at Cambridge in England.

Francis Forbes’ granddaughter donated the candelabrum to the Mitchell Library in 1931 and the library is proud to care for it.

The candelabrum will be on display in the Amaze Gallery from 1 March 2016 - 15 January 2017.

[1] C.H. Currey, “Forbes, Sir Francis (1784-1841)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, first published in 1966 and David Forbes, Memoir of Sir Francis Forbes, Chief Justice of New South Wales, Sydney: Henry Solomon, 1875, p.4.