Herbert Vere Evatt Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Evatt contributed an intellectual idealism to Australian legal and historical scholarship and to its domestic politics. As minister for external affairs, he directed Australia’s first independent foreign policy and was instrumental in drafting the Charter of the United Nations.

Early Life

Born at East Maitland in the Hunter River Valley of New South Wales, on April 30, 1894, Herbert Vere Evatt had comfortable if ordinary beginnings. His father, John Ashmore Evatt, had been born in Cawnpore, Ireland, in 1851 and emigrated to Australia at the age of sixteen, and his mother, Jeanie, was also of Irish background. His parents were married in 1882 and moved first to the Hunger River Hotel and later the Bank Hotel, East Maitland, of which John Evatt was the proprietor.

Herbert, called “Bert,” was their third son and, like the other Evatt children, spent much of his time in the family hotel, where he learned the ways of the men who plied the Hunter River and developed a concern for the problems of working men, poor farmers, and coal miners. John Evatt died when Bert was seven, and the two eldest boys, George and Jack, went to Sydney to look for work. Jeanie Evatt struggled to manage the hotel and in July, 1904, sold it and moved the family to the North Shore of Sydney Harbor. There, she was assisted with her family’s education and care by relatives in return for helping with housework. She made all of their clothes herself, though she hated sewing. Evatt was to learn an indifference to clothes that became a trademark later in life.

Although lean and handsome as a young man, Evatt had scant regard for external appearances. His five-foot, ten-inch frame became stout later in life, and he was disheveled to the point of eccentricity. A famous photograph shows his tie being straightened by Clement Attlee, Prime Minister of Great Britain. His disdain for the superficial was reflected in his literary and oratorical styles. He eschewed flowery embellishments in his speech, which was delivered in a nasal monotone, and would characteristically ask “what are the facts?”

His sense of inquiry and his mother’s determination that all of her sons would do well, drove him to high academic achievement. He was graduated from Fort Street High School in 1911 as captain and senior prefect, with several scholarships to the University of Sydney. At the university, he took prizes in mathematics, philosophy, and English literature. Adding law to his degree in 1914, he was awarded a university medal and, later, first class honors in his M.A. After volunteering for service in World War I, in which his brothers Ray and Frank were killed, he was rejected because of his astigmatism. In 1920, Evatt married Mary Alice Sheffer, whom he had met at university, and in 1924, he became one of the few students ever to complete a doctorate of laws from the University of Sydney, thereby earning his later nickname, “Doc.”

Not merely a successful scholar but also an accomplished sportsman, Evatt was heavily involved in cricket; he later became vice president of the New South Wales Cricket Association and Rubgy League Football, for which he was made a life member of the University Sports Union. His involvement in student affairs, as the first undergraduate president of the Student Union, soon gave way to an active interest in labor politics.

Life’s Work

Evatt’s historical scholarship was recognized early. His honors thesis was published as a book titled Liberalism in Australia: An Historical Sketch of Australian Politics Down to the Year 1915 (1918). He was called to the bar in October of 1918 and lectured in law at St. Andrew’s College within the University of Sydney. In March of 1923, he joined the Faculty of Law as lecturer in legal interpretation. His legal scholarship was established by the publication in 1923 of Conveyancing Precedents and Forms, which remains a standard text on land law in New South Wales.

Evatt had written for labor journals since 1917, and his legal career included early entry into the highest levels of industrial law. His reputation grew as his practice came to include appearances before the High Court of Australia on constitutional matters and questions of tort, equity, and defamation. His political career began in earnest when the Labor Party selected him to run for the Sydney seat of Balmain in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1925. He held this seat for the next five years, during which he not only was an active member of the New South Wales Parliamentary Labor Party in its stormiest times, but also maintained a busy practice at the bar. He became a King’s Counsel in 1929 and appeared before the Privy Council in London.

In 1930, the Federal Labor government appointed Evatt to be a justice of the High Court of Australia. The next ten years saw...

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