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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Pilcher, Charles Edward (1844–1916)

by John Kennedy McLaughlin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Charles Edward Pilcher (1844-1916), barrister and politician, was born on 20 April 1844 at West Maitland, New South Wales, younger son of Henry Incledon Pilcher, solicitor, and his wife Eliza, née Brockley. He was educated at Maitland High School, at Rev. G. F. Macarthur's school at Macquarie Fields and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1865). He was a friend and correspondent of (Sir) Samuel Griffith from school and university days. Intending to become a solicitor, he was articled to (Sir) Joseph Abbott and later to his brother George de Vial Pilcher. But, changing his mind, he was admitted to the Bar on 26 March 1867, reading with (Chief Justice Sir) Frederick Darley. From chambers in Wentworth Court he built up a successful practice in the District and, later, the Supreme courts. A 'stickler for legal forms and technicalities', he was 'austere, cool and critical'. On 22 December 1871 at All Saints Church, Bathurst, he married Maria (d.1903), daughter of J. S. McPhillamy.

In 1875-82 Pilcher represented West Macquarie as a free trader in the Legislative Assembly. In one of his early speeches he drew attention to the inadequate salaries of Supreme Court justices. He also introduced a bill to legalize the sale of spirituous liquors in railway station refreshment rooms. In March 1891 he was nominated to the Legislative Council on the recommendation of the Parkes government. He was prominent in debates on the land and income tax bill and with J. H. Want uncompromisingly opposed Federation, although later he considerably modified his views.

By the 1880s Pilcher was one of the leading common law barristers. In 1881 he published an annotated edition, Common Law Procedure Acts, 1853 and 1857, and in 1887 was appointed Q.C. In 1888-89 he chaired the royal commission into alleged attempted bribery of members of parliament and in 1889 inquired into the alleged tampering with letters of John Deasy. That year he gave counsel's opinion to the government that although the chairman of the Casual Labour Board, John Davies, had 'sailed very close to the wind', no criminal charges could be laid against him. Pilcher appeared for George Dean, convicted of poisoning his wife, before the 1895 royal commission and, having convinced the two medical commissioners (but not F. E. Rogers) that grave doubts existed about Dean's guilt, secured his pardon. In 1905-06 appearing for the Crown, he cross-examined W. P. Crick, ex-secretary for lands, before the royal commission conducted by (Sir) William Owen into the administration of the lands department. He several times refused offers of judicial appointment, and was widely believed, on Darley's death, to have declined the position of chief justice.

A member of the Union Club from 1870, Pilcher lived at Merioola, Woollahra. He took an enthusiastic interest in racing and cricket. Survived by two sons and two daughters he died on 22 December 1916 in Lewisham Hospital, and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £60,926.

One of the great common law barristers of his time, Pilcher had the essential gifts for success—'the fine presence, the full rich voice, the clear convincing language, the ability to quickly assimilate facts'. Moreover he was 'shrewd, cautious, circumspect, wary'.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • J. M. Bennett, A History of the Bar of New South Wales (Syd, 1969)
  • J. M. Bennett, A History of the Supreme Court of New South Wales (Syd, 1974)
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 29 May 1875
  • Bulletin, 5 June 1880
  • Sunday Times, 16 Dec 1905
  • Arrow (Sydney), 16 Dec 1905
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Dec 1916, 15 Feb 1936.

Citation details

John Kennedy McLaughlin, 'Pilcher, Charles Edward (1844–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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