New Zealand Law Society - Silver trophy connected to colourful Judge

Silver trophy connected to colourful Judge

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Toby Stevenson
Toby Stevenson displays the silver creamer.

A small silver creamer discovered under a Wellington house has brought to mind a colourful character from Wellington's legal past.

Wellingtonian Toby Stevenson was scrabbling under his house when he found the jug with other domestic items in a cardboard box within a coal container. "Most of the pieces were of little value but the silver jug was obviously different," he said.

Toby polished up the tarnished jug and revealed the following inscription: "To AW Blair Esquire from his friends the members of the Wellington District Law Society, Jan 27, 1928."

Realising that the jug had some historical significance, Toby sought out the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society and kindly donated it to the Law Society.

AW Blair/Sir Archibald Blair/Archie Blair was a prominent lawyer and judge of his time who spent much of his career in Wellington as well as some time in Auckland. He was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court at the end of 1927; no doubt the silver jug was presented in recognition of this event and also of the esteem in which Blair – who had been twice president of the Wellington District Law Society in 1917 and 1926 – was held by local lawyers.

AW Blair was born in Dunedin in 1875 where his father was engineer-in-chief for the South Island. The family moved to Wellington in 1884 when Blair's father was transferred there and Blair went to Wellington College.

When he was 15 his father died and he had to leave school. He worked as an office boy in a local firm for a while, and then in 1893 became associate to Supreme Court Judge Sir John Denniston in Christchurch, where he remained for five years while also attending law lectures at Canterbury College. 

It is not clear how an office boy suddenly became associate of a judge, however Sir John Denniston had practised in Dunedin before becoming a judge; perhaps Sir John and Blair's father had been friends in Dunedin and Sir John was helping out the son of a good friend who had fallen on difficult times. AW Blair certainly spoke of Sir John in glowing terms: "[he] treated me just like a son, and to whom I am indebted for my first introduction to the law, plus a further debt of a working knowledge taken from his lips of the art of advocacy and the art of examination of witnesses. These things he taught me before I appeared in any Court" (New Zealand Law Journal, 2 March 1948, page 51.)

Archibald Blair
Sir Archibald Blair

AW Blair was admitted to the bar in 1899 and spent several years in Auckland where he worked in the office of the Crown Solicitor. He returned to Wellington in 1905 and joined the firm of Skerrett and Wylie as managing clerk. That firm amalgamated with Chapman and Tripp in 1909 and Blair was made a partner. 

When Sir Charles Skerrett became Chief Justice in 1926 AW Blair became head of the firm Chapman, Tripp, Blair, Cooke and Watson. Blair had an extensive and successful practice at the bar, and he was said to be particularly interested in company and maritime law. He was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court in 1928.

Some of his father's engineering expertise apparently rubbed off. When he retired in January 1948 after 20 years on the Bench, Attorney-General HGR Mason KC praised his humanity and strong sense of duty,  and his "broad and liberal outlook on life…",  but as well, "…we are all familiar with your Honour's bent for matters of mechanical or scientific nature… you were probably never happier than when engaged on a case in which scientific or mechanical questions were involved."

He was also commended on his work chairing the prisons board, his part in starting the Solicitors' Fidelity Guarantee Fund, and his dedication to the work of Sir Truby King and the Plunket Society.

Aside from his undoubted skill as an advocate and his talents as a judge, Blair was by all accounts an affable and humorous man who loved to tell a joke. Manawatu practitioners said in a letter read at his retirement ceremony: "Your fund of legal reminiscence and anecdote and your keen sense of humour have always assisted considerably in relieving the inevitable tedium of many occasions that may arise in relation to matters referred to a judge for adjudication".

Supreme Court judge Sir Hubert Ostler, writing of his early years as a lawyer in Wellington in Portrait of a Profession published in 1969 (Page 64), wrote: "My good friend Archie Blair was often there [at the law library] too, but I never observed him doing much work. Nor did anyone else when he was about. He saw to that, and many a night have I gone home still shaking with laughter at his stories, of which he had an unfailing store, and a manner of telling them which was inimitable. Many a time have I seen him come down to the library at night to prepare for a case in which he was engaged in next morning, pull out some books, and then start to yarn which he would continue without ceasing until about midnight… How and where he did his work I know not, but the next morning he would have his law and his facts at his finger-ends and conduct his case as though he had worked at nothing else for a week."

Also in Portrait of a Profession (page 93) Supreme Court judge Sir David Smith, wrote: "He was cheerful, humorous, with a seemingly endless fund of stories, and he was very popular… You might have come to discuss a legal matter with him, but before you reached it you might have ranged in conversation from the Plunket Society, of which he was a strong supporter, to one of his inventions – a new flax-scuttling machine or a new hexagonal spanner or a new speedometer which showed how many feet per second your car was travelling."

Obviously a man of many parts, he did not shrink from applying his strong sense of justice in his day-to-day life.

Late in 1927, according to the Auckland Star Wellington correspondent,  he was "mixed up in a rough-and-tumble… when he interfered with a half-drunken man to protect a young woman who was being annoyed." Apparently Blair had gone into the Victoria Laundry depot in Willis Street to collect a parcel of clothes when he saw John James Spring, known professionally as 'Sharpo' a razor expert, sitting on the counter and leaning in a threatening way towards the young woman attendant with a razor in his hand. Blair told Spring to leave and Spring struck Blair on the head. Then, said Blair, "I gave him a sort of bear-hug, I suppose you would call it. The accused then pounded at the back of my head. When I got him out of the shop I threw him and held him until a policeman arrived."

The defence claimed Spring's nose was bleeding by the time he was outside, but Blair replied: "No, most of the contribution was mine. Spring claimed that the blood spoiled his suit, which cost seven pounds, but mine cost more than that."

Spring was fined £5 or 21 days imprisonment. AW Blair's appointment as a Supreme Court Judge was announced the next day.

The New Zealand Law Society is very grateful for the generous donation of A W Blair's commemorative silver jug.

This article was first published in Council Brief, the newsletter of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society.

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