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Morris, Sir John Demetrius (1902–1956)

by W. A. Townsley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir John Demetrius Morris (1902-1956), judge and university chancellor, was born on Christmas Eve 1902 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, third child of James Demetrius Morris, a civil servant from New Zealand, and his Victorian-born wife Margaret Jane, née Smith. Educated at St Patrick's College, East Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1924; LL.B., 1925; M.A., 1926), he was admitted to the Victorian Bar on 7 November 1927. At St Dominic's Catholic Church, East Camberwell, on 28 May 1930 he married Mary Louisa McDermott, a 29-year-old clerk. They moved to Hobart where he was admitted to the Tasmanian Bar on 24 October. He joined the firm of A. G. Ogilvie which became Ogilvie, McKenna & Morris in 1931. Within a few years the firm's major court work was being handled by Morris: Ogilvie chose to devote more time to his political career in the House of Assembly; McKenna was to do likewise when he was elected to the Senate in 1943.

Possessing a keen social conscience, and political acumen no less acute, Morris quickly established a reputation as a legal all-rounder. With his sharp intelligence, verbal skill in interrogation, and human understanding, he had few rivals in criminal cases beyond Eric Johnson and the rising star, Reginald Wright. From June 1934 Morris observed and appreciated the efforts of the premier, his erstwhile senior partner, to lead Tasmania out of the Depression, and was moved to share in the drive to raise the social and cultural standards of the community. The high value he placed on the extension of knowledge made the University of Tasmania's law school, headed by Professor K. O. Shatwell, his special interest. By the end of the decade Morris was the inspiration of many young barristers. He was inspired to work for others, but preferred to work alone. To this end he had left the partnership in 1938 to set up his own legal practice.

Following the sudden death of Ogilvie in June 1939, Morris's career and prospects were transformed when Edmund Dwyer-Gray, the Labor premier, raised him to the Supreme Court bench in July as acting chief justice. His appointment was confirmed by (Sir) Robert Cosgrove in April 1940. Socially established (which pleased him and his wife greatly), he bought a spacious home, Winmarleigh, at Taroona, and loved to entertain. As administrator on occasion, he also received at Government House. He mixed equally well with conservative families, intellectual leaders and trade-union officials. He dressed well, had a natural charm and social ease, spoke learnedly and talked with wit. His persuasive ways won most people over, though in some he aroused fear or jealousy. Nervous tension lay beneath his easygoing manner.

While the work of the Supreme Court increased, the number of judges did not. The attorney-general Roy Fagan was a friend and supporter, but Cosgrove thought his chief justice over-sensitive to the prestige of his office. In 1947 a royal commission found that a case of alleged corruption had been made against the premier. Charged with bribery, corruption and conspiracy, in February 1948 Cosgrove stood trial in the Criminal Court presided over by Morris. The chief justice instructed the jury to lay political considerations aside and reminded it that 'evidence of an accomplice is always regarded with the greatest suspicion'. The jury by 10 to 2 acquitted Cosgrove on all counts and he resumed his premiership.

Although Morris's Jesuit mentors had developed his social conscience, he was not a practising Catholic in Hobart. His library was graced by an impressive bust of Voltaire, symbolizing his liberal outlook and values. He translated these principles into his work on the bench and in furthering educational reforms. It was no surprise when he turned his attention to a State library suffering from many years of abject poverty and neglect. Following an inquiry and with support from the treasurer Dwyer-Gray, parliament set up and funded a statutory board of which Morris was chairman (1943-56). Improvement was striking and immediate. He then moved to replace the voluntary Workers' Educational Association (for which he had much sympathy) with a government-sponsored and -funded Adult Education Board. Again he served as foundation chairman (1949-56). It caused jealousy and gave rise to criticism that he was spreading his activities too widely. But, in fighting apathy, sloth and indifference, no one did more than he in those postwar years of penury and shortages to improve the cultural life of Tasmania.

As chancellor (from 25 February 1944) of the small and deprived University of Tasmania, he sought to redress grievances, but met resistance from a conservative council and received little support from a State government that had other priorities. In the face of such adversities, Morris managed to increase staff, to improve salaries and conditions, and to commence building on the university's new site at Sandy Bay. In 1949 he had Professor Torleiv Hytten appointed as the university's first full-time vice-chancellor. The two co-operated well in the face of a tradition-bound council, a professoriate critical of any interference in academic matters, and a staff association clamouring for reforms. Morris fought council on behalf of a staff member Ken Dallas who was being denied study-leave on the ground that he was a communist sympathizer. He overruled the professorial board to admit a brilliant student Christopher Koch who had failed to matriculate in mathematics. Both sides accused the chancellor of excessive intervention and of domination. It was said that he influenced appointments to the Adult Education Board and the university. Fateful was his influence in the appointment (1952) of Sydney Sparkes Orr to the chair of philosophy, believing that he would contribute to adult education in the community. Morris's idealism sometimes clouded his judgement of men, but he did not easily take advice and he disliked interference by others.

Morris was knighted in 1943 and elevated to K.C.M.G. in 1952. Accompanied by Hytten, he attended the Congress of the Universities of the British Commonwealth, held at Cambridge, England, in 1953. They also visited universities in the United States of America where Morris was appalled by McCarthyite agitation. Back home, he was distressed by the factional strife and sectarian split in the Labor Party on the communist issue. By 1954 troubles at the university were coming to a head. The chancellor was accused by the staff association—including Orr—of dominating council. The staff then persuaded the Opposition in parliament to seek an inquiry. A royal commission sat early in 1955 and made recommendations to improve relations between council, the professorial board and the faculties. Although it recognized the chancellor's contribution to the university, it was critical of him.

The strain of these conflicts, exacerbated by a staff association call that he step down, undermined Morris's health which had already been affected by over-exertion. Calls for his resignation hurt him deeply and he withdrew from society, save for the company of a few close friends. In the following year, when allegations of misbehaviour were made against Orr which ended in his dismissal, the chancellor virtually remained aloof. Sir John died of a coronary occlusion on 3 July 1956 at his desk in the Supreme Court, Hobart. He was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery. His wife and son survived him. A portrait (1950) by Jack Carington Smith is in the family's possession.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Davis, Open to Talent (Hob, 1990)
  • W. A. Townsley, Tasmania (Hob, 1994)
  • Australian Library Journal, July 1956
  • University of Tasmania Gazette, Aug 1956
  • Mercury (Hobart), 4 July 1956
  • interview (1963) by author with Mr Justice William Douglas, Supreme Court, Washington D.C., United States
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. A. Townsley, 'Morris, Sir John Demetrius (1902–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/morris-sir-john-demetrius-11172/text19905, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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