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Sir William Henry Cunningham KBE DSO ED, 1883 - 1959

By Geoff Adlam

Sir William Cunningham capped illustrious careers in the military and as Wellington Crown Prosecutor with Presidency of the New Zealand Law Society at the age of 67. He was knighted on his retirement from the role.

Born in Wellington on 24 September 1883, to William Henry and Elizabeth Harriet (nee Brown) Cunningham, he attended Wanganui Collegiate School where he was a top scholar. He remained in Whanganui and began to study law, passing his solicitor’s final examination at the end of 1906. Outside of work he was prominent in the territorial services movement, being elected Lieutenant of the Wanganui Guards in 1907 and Captain of the Wanganui Rifles in 1909.

In 1907 Sir William was admitted as a solicitor and began to practise on his own in Whanganui. He was admitted as a barrister in 1912. In  1913 on formation of the Wanganui District Law Society he was elected secretary.

He volunteered immediately when World War I began. His service record says he was 6 foot in height (183 cm), weighed 150 pounds (68 kg) and had grey eyes and brown hair. After a period of training and with the rank of Major in recognition of his territorial service he sailed with the Wellington Infantry Battalion for Egypt with the main echelon. Involved in the Gallipoli invasion, he was wounded in the fighting there and also mentioned in dispatches. On 1 March 1916 he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel to command the 2nd Battalion of the Wellington Regiment and served in France and Belgium for the rest of the war, being awarded the DSO and Russian Order of St Stanislaus, third class.

Returning to New Zealand in January 1919, Sir William returned to legal practice in Whanganui while remaining closely involved with the territorial forces.  After a term as President of the Wanganui District Law Society he was appointed Crown Prosecutor in March 1927 but only held this role until April 1929 when he resigned to move to Wellington. His move southwards was to join Arthur Luke in partnership in what became the firm Luke Cunningham Clere.

In 1938 Sir William was appointed Wellington Crown Prosecutor. In 1935 he had been awarded the CBE in recognition of his war service and legal career. The outbreak of the Second World War saw him return to service on 20 July 1940. Towards the end of the year he was promoted to Brigadier and given command of the 8th Infantry Brigade Group which was stationed in Fiji and totalled 3,000 soldiers. Sir William’s military career reached its pinnacle on 15 January 1942 when he was given the temporary rank of Major-General. However, shortly afterwards he returned to New Zealand after a medical board found that the state of his health – mainly through dysentery – meant he should be relieved. Although Sir William indicated he was not happy with the arrangement, on 27 February 1942 his replacement was announced. “Major-General Cunningham, who has had a long period of service in Fiji, will return to New Zealand on leave,” the official announcement stated.

Sir William returned from Fiji on 12 March 1942 and was discharged from the Army on 15 May 1942. He re-embarked on his career as Crown Prosecutor and became a prominent figure in the legal profession over the next two decades. In 1950 he was elected the eighth President of the New Zealand Law Society, serving as such for just over three years.

He married Grace Winifred Luke in 1919 and they had three children, Lorraine, Ethel Elizabeth and George Harold. A keen golfer and longstanding member of the Miramar Golf Club, Sir William was also prominent in the Returned Services Association, serving a term as national President.

“The presidency came to Cunningham late in life – he was 67 – and he served for three years only, but that short term covered new experiences in the Society’s history,” Sir Richard Wild wrote of his presidency (“Seven New Zealand Presidents”, Portrait of a Profession, RB Cooke editor, 1969, page 177). “He was the first President to represent New Zealand at a Law Conference overseas – in Australia in 1951. And, following that Conference, we had for the first time a visit from a Lord Chancellor, and also from the Master of the Rolls, the Presidents of The Law Society and the American Bar Association, and the Chief Justices of Canada and India – events which marked the beginning of the Society’s active association with lawyers beyond the shores of New Zealand.”

On his retirement in 1954 Sir William’s services to the law and his military career were recognised when he was knighted.

“He is remembered for his unruffled geniality and common sense and the measured fairness, unrelieved by thrust or parry, with which he conducted every prosecution and, indeed, all his affairs. He is remembered, too, with pride by the profession as a man who gave much to the country outside the law, being one of four practitioners who fought with valour in the first war and rose to the rank of general officer in the second,” says Sir Richard Wild.

Sir William Cunningham died on 20 April 1959.

Last updated on the 23rd November 2018