John Hubert Plunkett

The conference room on 153 Phillip is the J. H. Plunkett Room.

John Hubert Plunkett was a man who should be, and eventually will be, recognised and honoured as one of the greatest of all Australians.

It has been said of him that he “arguably achieved more for modern-day civil rights in Australia than anyone else before or since.”

He was an Irish-born barrister who became Attorney-General (and also Solicitor-General) of New South Wales. He held the office of Attorney-General for more than 20 years between the mid-1830s and the mid-1860s.

As Attorney-General, he prosecuted the perpetrators of the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, when a band of white colonists murdered some 28 Aboriginal people, mostly women and children, at Myall Creek in the New England area of NSW.

His courage in doing so brought down on his head the relentless hostility of the vast majority of the white population.

He conducted a first trial, at which the all-white jury acquitted the accused. He nevertheless brought new murder charges, in respect of a different victim, and at a second trial the accused were convicted. Those convictions, and the resultant death sentences, were seminal events in the legal and social history of this country, whose reverberations continue to this day. On very few other occasions were those who committed such atrocities against indigenous Australians brought to justice in those colonial times.

Tony Earls, the second of Plunkett’s three biographers so far, has recorded that: “Even to the end of his career, Plunkett suffered the open enmity of those who disagreed with his prosecution of the cases, to which his standard reply was that he would have been ashamed had he acted otherwise.”

Mark Tedeschi KC, his most recent biographer, believes that “the 1838 trials had a subtle, long-term effect in promoting an underlying principle of justice and equality for all under Australian law. … They stand as a beacon of humanity and inter-racial justice that illuminated the way for Australia to develop as a civilised nation.”

Among his many other distinctions:

  • He was one of the founders of the University of Sydney, Sydney Grammar School, the AMP society and St Vincent’s Hospital (where the Centre for Ethics is named after him).
  • He authored The Australian Magistrate in 1835, a significant contribution to the administration of justice in 19th century Australia.
  • He pioneered the Church Act of 1836, which disestablished the Church of England in this country, and embedded the principles of legal equality among religions and the separation of church and state.
  • Chief Justice Andrew Bell, in his 2024 Plunkett Lecture, said: “It could fairly be said that Plunkett is the father of state and secular education in New South Wales and therefore Australia. A more valuable instance of state-building would be difficult to identify.”
  • In Tedeschi’s view, “there has been no Attorney-General before or since who has had more influence on the passage of significant legal reforms than John Hubert Plunkett. … His stand on a whole host of issues was progressive and far-sighted.”
  • He was the first ever Australian to be appointed silk (senior counsel), in 1856.

The courage and integrity of John Hubert Plunkett inspires the work of the barristers at 153 Phillip.