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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Coldham, Walter Timon (1860–1908)

by Charles Francis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Walter Timon Coldham (1860-1908), barrister and sportsman, was born on 19 November 1860 at Grassdale near Branxholme, Victoria, third son of John Coldham, an Anglican minister from Norfolk, England, and his wife Josephine, née Lane, of County Cork, Ireland. His father had migrated to Van Diemen's Land in 1839 and later turned to squatting in Victoria's Western District. Coldham was educated at Hamilton College and Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where he excelled at sport and was dux in 1879. He entered Trinity College, University of Melbourne, in 1880; graduating LL.B. in 1884 he was admitted to the Bar that year. On 27 November 1885 he married Edith Lucy, daughter of J. D. Pinnock, and established a large home in Balaclava Road, St Kilda.

Coldham played tennis for Victoria in 1885-87, and with W. J. Carre Riddell was Victorian doubles champion in 1884 and 1886 and intercolonial champion in 1886. A talented sprinter, high jumper and hurdler, he became vice-president of the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association; he also served on the committee of the Melbourne Cricket Club. His skill with the gun was recognized along the length of the Murray River. He maintained ties with his old school and was president of the Old Melburnians Council in 1906-07.

Coldham read in the chambers of J. L. Purves. They formed a close friendship and became a formidable forensic combination. After Purves took silk in 1886, Coldham's application and wide legal knowledge made up for his leader's brilliant but less industrious qualities; he appeared as junior to Purves in many notable cases such as Speight v. Syme. His defence of the accused in the Victoria Bridge murder trial in 1890 established his reputation and he became much in demand and acquired a wide practice. Important cases in which he appeared included the Premier Permanent Building Society actions (he represented the Crown in Regina v. Mirams in 1890), Peacock v. D. M. Osborne & Co. in 1900 and the Wallace divorce case. His unusual facility for mathematics, engineering and science enabled him to specialize in the flourishing patent jurisdiction. Although Coldham contested the Legislative Assembly seat of St Kilda in 1894 and Geelong in 1897, he had no deep interest in politics.

He was very popular, full of bonhomie, with cheery smile and a hearty laugh. A splendid advocate, a brilliant conversationalist and after-dinner speaker, he allowed his wit 'to play and not to wound'. Some of Coldham's many witticisms have passed down to posterity: Chief Justice Sir Samuel Griffith once chided him that the High Court was not much the wiser for his lengthy exposition of a particular point. Coldham replied 'No, not wiser, your Honour, but better informed'.

In 1901 Coldham developed carcinoma of the foot and despite a number of operations the cancer slowly spread. In November 1907 he collapsed in court, never to return. He died at St Kilda on 29 May 1908 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. Handsome public tributes were paid to him by Purves, who commented on Coldham's 'singular faculty of being able to work hard and play hard', and by Judge Moule in the Insolvency Court. He was survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • P. A. Jacobs, A Lawyer Tells (Melb, 1949)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 28 July 1893
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 15 Mar 1894, 9 May 1896, 20 Nov 1897
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 May 1908.

Citation details

Charles Francis, 'Coldham, Walter Timon (1860–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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