Sir John Greig Latham (1877–1964) was born in Melbourne and educated at Scotch College and the University of Melbourne. He taught for two years at the Hamilton Academy and was called to the Bar in 1904. Progress was slow, but by 1914 he was one of the leading barristers in Melbourne, regularly appearing before the Supreme Court and later the High Court. He was a part-time lecturer in philosophy from 1907 to 1910 and a part-time lecturer in law from 1910 to 1920. In this period he was also active in rationalist organisations and for seven years he was secretary of the Education Act Defence League. In addition, he was a member of the Round Table, the Imperial Federation League and the Boobooks, and he was the Australian representative of the London newspaper, the Standard. In 1917 he was put in charge of naval intelligence and in 1918 he attended the Imperial Conference in London as the adviser to Sir Joseph Cook. He was an assistant secretary to the British Empire Delegation at the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919.
On his return to Australia, Latham resumed his legal practice and also addressed meetings and wrote papers in support of the League of Nations. At the 1922 Federal election, he stood as an independent Liberal candidate and won the seat of Kooyong, which he held until 1934. He played a part in the downfall of W.M. Hughes in 1923. In 1925 Latham was appointed Attorney-General and over the next four years he became one of the most influential members of the Bruce–Page Government. He attended the League of Nations General Assembly in 1926. Industrial arbitration was a major concern and he was heavily involved in the major industrial disputes in 1928–29. Following the defeat of the Government in 1929, when Bruce lost his seat, Latham became Leader of the Opposition. In 1931 he was persuaded to stand aside in favour of the Labor defector, J.A. Lyons. In the election later that year, the United Australia Party came to power, with Latham serving under Lyons as Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney-General, Minister for External Affairs and Minister for Industry. In 1932 he attended conferences in Geneva and Lausanne and in 1934 he led a goodwill mission to China, Japan and South-East Asia.
Latham retired from politics in 1934 and was knighted. He returned to the Bar, but in 1935 he was appointed Chief Justice of the High Court. In his time with the Court he took part in some major constitutional cases, such as Burgess’ Case (1936), the first Uniform Tax Case (1942), the Bank Nationalization Case (1948) and the Communist Party Case (1951). In 1940 legislation was passed that enabled him to become Australia’s first Minister to Japan. His stay in Tokyo was a short one: he left in September 1941 for talks in Singapore, was hospitalised for some time, and war had broken out before he could return to Japan. Latham retired from the High Court in 1952, but he remained active in public life for several more years. He had been Chancellor of Melbourne University in 1939–41 and in the 1950s he was president of numerous bodies including the Australian Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the Library Association of Australia and the Australian–American Association.
Latham was a lifelong rationalist who, in the words of Zelman Cowen, was ‘very hardworking, unyielding, testing with the prod of logic and recoiling when the test did not prove satisfactory’. Austere and aloof, he lacked leadership skills and popular appeal, as he seems to have realised in 1931. Yet he came very close to being Prime Minister, and was a powerful Minister, the second longest-serving Chief Justice of the High Court and an influential figure in Australian public life for 40 years.
The bulk of the Latham papers were presented to the Library by Sir John Latham in 1963, a few months before his death. Further papers, which had been in the possession of his son, Peter Latham, were purchased from book dealers in 1974 and 1996. In 1981 a relative, Mrs S. Humphrey of Melbourne, donated a collection of family papers and letters received by Latham when he was a young man.
The papers of Sir John Latham form one of the finest and most comprehensive personal archives of an Australian public figure. It extends from 1885 to 1964, has a huge correspondence and the range of subject matter is quite extraordinary. Ever since it was arranged and listed in the early 1970s, it has been one of the two or three most heavily used manuscript collections in the Library.
The papers include correspondence, family and personal documents, notes, speeches, diaries, minute books, account books, cuttings, photographs, pamphlets, invitations, menus, programs, receipts, maps and tourist publications. Most of the papers date from 1900 onwards, although there are many family and personal letters of the 1890s. Particular strengths include Latham’s first overseas trip in 1918–19, his political career (especially his work as Attorney-General, Leader of the Opposition and Deputy Prime Minister), his early years as Chief Justice and his various activities in retirement between 1952 and 1961. There are some weaknesses. There is relatively little on his work as a young man, as a teacher, barrister and university lecturer, or on his time in Japan in 1940–41 (his despatches are held in the National Archives of Australia). More surprisingly, the papers of the early and mid-1940s are rather meagre and it must be assumed that many were destroyed, accidentally or otherwise. There is, for instance, almost nothing on the death of his son Richard while serving in the Royal Air Force in 1943.
The papers are a major source on Australian public life over a period of 50 years. With one exception (Andrew Fisher), there are letters from every Australian Prime Minister from Alfred Deakin to John Gorton. Among the politicians, public servants and judges who figure prominently in the papers are Sir Thomas Bavin, Lord Bruce, Lord Casey, Percy Deane, Sir Owen Dixon, Sir Frederic Eggleston, H.V. Evatt, Sir Robert Garran, Sir Henry Gullett, W.M. Hughes, J.A. Lyons, Sir Robert Menzies, Sir Keith Officer, Sir Earle Page, Sir Archdale Parkhill, Sir George Pearce, Sir George Rich, Sir Hayden Starke and Sir William Webb. The subjects dealt with include World War I, conscription, the Paris Peace Conference, the League of Nations, industrial disputes and arbitration, the threat of communism, the interpretation of the Constitution, federal–state relations, public finance, relations with Britain and other countries in the British Empire, disarmament and the rise of Nazi Germany, relations with China, Japan and other Asian countries, the conduct of High Court business and Australian immigration policy.
The papers are also an important source on Melbourne life. They range from letters from constituents in the electorate of Kooyong to correspondence with prominent figures such as H.W. Allen, Sir James Barrett, Herbert Brookes, Sir Charles Lowe, Sir John Medley, Sir Keith Murdoch and Sir George Paton. There are many papers on Melbourne and Victorian institutions, especially Melbourne University, and on bodies such as the Boobooks, the Round Table and the League of Nations Union. There are also letters from men whom Latham had known in Melbourne in his young days, such as Sir Walter Murdoch in Perth, Sir Kerr Grant in Adelaide, and B.A. Levinson and Sir Thomas Dunhill in England.
The collection is strong in family papers, including a large number of family photographs. There are many letters from Ella Latham, written when Latham was away interstate or overseas, and from his three children when they were young. His eldest son, Richard Latham, who became a distinguished legal scholar, lived overseas from 1930 onwards and wrote regularly to his parents. There are also letters from Latham’s parents and his sister and four brothers.
Letters of Latham
Latham typed many of his letters and kept copies, so there are thousands of his own letters among his papers. In addition, letters written by him can be found in the following collections held in the Library:
MS 213 Papers of Sir George Pearce, politician
MS 236 Papers of Sir Littleton Groom, politician
MS 423 Papers of Sir Frederic Eggleston, politician and diplomat
MS 460 Papers of King O’Malley, politician
MS 560 Papers of Sir Thomas Bavin, politician and Premier
MS 882 Papers of E.L. Piesse, lawyer and public servant
MS 1057 Papers of H.B. Higgins, judge
MS 1174 Papers of Vance and Nettie Palmer, writers
MS 1538 Papers of W.M. Hughes, politician and Prime Minister
MS 1540 Papers of Alfred Deakin, Prime Minister
MS 1633 Papers of Sir Earle Page, politician and Prime Minister
MS 1924 Papers of Herbert Brookes, businessman
MS 2001 Papers of Sir Robert Garran, public servant
MS 2629 Papers of Sir Keith Officer, diplomat
MS 4936 Papers of Sir Robert Menzies, politician and Prime Minister.
A large number of photographs of Latham, his family and associates are held in the Library. The family photographs include portraits of his parents, wife and children and group photographs of his siblings. There are photographs of Ormond College and lacrosse and cricket teams in the early years of the twentieth century, fishing and camping holidays, England and France in 1918–19, political colleagues and social functions that he attended in his later years.
The Latham papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 1009 (113 boxes and four folio boxes) and MS 6409 (eight boxes). MS 6409 comprises the papers received from Mrs S. Humphrey in 1981. A finding aid for MS 1009 is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-323428403/findingaid, while an index to the extensive correspondence is shelved in the Special Collections Reading Room. There is also a folder list for the papers in MS 6409. Most of the photographs are filed with the papers, especially the family papers, but a small number are housed in the Pictures Collection.
The National Archives of Australia holds some papers of Latham, mainly relating to his overseas trip in 1926. It also holds the despatches that he wrote as Minister to Japan in 1940–41 (A4231/2 1941/Tokyo).
Cowen, Zelman, Latham, John Greig, in Tony Blackshield, Michael Coper and George Williams (eds), The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001, pp. 419–21.
Cowen, Zelman, Sir John Latham and Other Papers, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1965.
Macintyre, Stuart, Latham, Sir John Greig (1877–1964), Australian Dictionary of Biography online
Williams, John R., John Latham and the Conservative Recovery from Defeat, 1929–31, Australasian Political Studies Association, Sydney, 1969.
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)