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Sir Walter Dwyer (1875–1950)

by E. A. Dunphy

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Sir Walter Dwyer (1875-1950), lawyer, was born on 27 August 1875 at Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary, Ireland, third son of Walter Dwyer, contractor, and his wife Mary, née Hartrey. He was educated at the local Christian Brothers' seminary and at 16 migrated to Victoria and taught at the Christian Brothers' College, East Melbourne, where some of his pupils were older than he. Attracted by gold discoveries, he then moved to Western Australia and from 1895 worked as a clerk in the Education Department for nine years. He also began studying law part time and in 1904 was articled to C. Lyhane at Kalgoorlie and Boulder. After a year he returned to Perth and completed his articles with Villeneuve Smith & Lavan. He completed his law course by external study with the University of London (LL.B., 1906), was admitted to the Western Australian Bar in 1907, and practised at Boulder and Kalgoorlie, and in Perth from 1910.

Dwyer was over six feet (183 cm) tall; handsome, with a resonant voice he had a slight Irish brogue which he used most effectively in public speaking. In 1911 he won the Perth seat in the Legislative Assembly for the Labor Party. In parliament he helped to draft the 1912 Industrial Arbitration Act and secured the passage of the Money Lenders Act (1912) which protected borrowers, and the Landlord and Tenant Act (1912). On 28 August that year, at St Mary's Catholic Church, Guildford, he married Maude Mary, daughter of Charles Smith, a pastoralist in the Murchison district. He lost his seat in 1914—which he regarded as a blessing in disguise—but remained a 'behind the scenes' adviser to the party.

In his profession Dwyer specialized as counsel in civil and appeal cases before the Full Court of Western Australia and the High Court of Australia. In 1915 he took into partnership J. P. Durack and, in 1917, W. H. Dunphy, forming the firm of Dwyer, Durack & Dunphy. Dwyer was defence counsel for several of the defendants in the Perth Industrial Workers of the World trials of 1916. In 1919 as a leading member of the Celtic Club, and supporter of Irish nationalism, he led a prohibited march through the city on St Patrick's day. He was prosecuted, convicted and fined; having refused to meet the fine, he only escaped imprisonment because a supporter paid for him. To mark the occasion, the Celtic Club presented him with an illuminated address.

On the establishment of the new State Court of Arbitration in 1926, Dwyer agreed 'at a monetary sacrifice', to become its first presiding judge. He strongly opposed 'sweetheart' deals between unions and employers, in which both parties would combine over the question of over-award payments. He scrutinized such agreements closely and, if suspicious, would call the parties together to discuss the real meaning of the documents. Thus he controlled the economic situation and eliminated dealings not strictly in accordance with the public interest or the Arbitration Act. He fully understood industrial problems and gave all his judgments fairly and thoroughly. On his retirement in 1945 he left a record which his successors found hard to equal, and it was widely felt that the State's freedom from industrial trouble was largely due to the confidence in the court that he had created. in 1946 he advised and supported his successor in settling a major transport strike.

Dwyer was a charitable man, a gifted speaker and a lover of literature and the arts: he was one of the first trustees of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1913 and president of the trustees in 1929-47. He remained faithful to Irish and Christian traditions. He enjoyed reading, particularly history and politics, and gardening and he was a tireless walker. Dwyer was knighted in 1949. After a long illness, he died from kidney failure on 22 March 1950 in St John of God Hospital, Subiaco. After a requiem Mass in Sacred Heart Church, Highgate Hill, he was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. He was survived by his wife (d.1969) and their two daughters, Pauline Mary and Mollie Teresa.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • Western Mail (Perth), 17 July 1919, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Nov 1932
  • West Australian, 23 Mar 1950.

Citation details

E. A. Dunphy, 'Dwyer, Sir Walter (1875–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


27 August, 1875
Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary, Ireland


22 March, 1950 (aged 74)
Subiaco, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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