He may not be as famous as Sir Robert Menzies, but Sir William Hill Irvine was the first to combine a prestigious legal career, high political office and Equity Trustees directorship. Born in Ireland, he moved with his mother and siblings to Richmond, Melbourne in 1879, at the age of 21. He was admitted to the Victorian Bar five years later, married, had three children and, for a time, became obsessed (like so many of his fellow Victorians) with gold mining, though failed to strike lucky with his collection of mining leases.
In 1894 Irvine stood for the seat of Lowan and, though virtually unknown to the rural electorate, achieved an unexpected victory. In 1899 he became Victoria’s Attorney-General; in 1901, Leader of the Opposition; and later that year oversaw a resounding electoral victory. A double stint as Treasurer and Premier took its toll, however, and in 1904 – fatigued and mired in controversy over his heavy-handed response to a railway workers’ strike – he resigned.
His career, however, was still in its ascendancy. Two years later Irvine moved on to Federal politics, standing as member for Flinders and advocating for increased Commonwealth powers around taxation, immigration and defence. At the same time he was senior counsel in numerous High Court and Victorian Supreme Court cases. It was also during this time – in 1907 – that he became Director of Equity Trustees, a position he would hold for the next 11 years.
In June 1913 Irvine became Federal Attorney-General in Prime Minister Joseph Cook’s ministry, but this dissolved the following year. Irvine remained in Parliament, tenaciously calling for conscription throughout the war years, but the sun was setting on his political career and in 1918 he returned to his roots in law by accepting the chief justiceship of Victoria. Sir Robert Menzies would go on to describe him as “a first-class trial judge, dignified, upright, cold in manner… but perceptive, and devoted to justice.”
His professional career aside, Irvine was an early motoring enthusiast and patron of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, whose headquarters – in a happy irony – are currently located just one block up Bourke St from our own.