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Solid gold practice


Cite as: (2005) 79(9) LIJ, p. 32

Cuthberts, which began in the days of the Victorian Gold Rush, this year celebrates 150 years of continuous legal practice in Ballarat.

Cuthberts this month is celebrating its sesquicentenary of continuous legal practice in Ballarat.

Senior partner Peter McCracken said two important factors underpinned the firm’s longevity.

“We have been fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury of having successive generations of competent lawyers as partners at Cuthberts and this, combined with their ability to retain the services of key employees for lengthy periods of time, has been a vital ingredient in our firm’s successful continuity.

“We still have several members of staff working with us today who started here more than 20 years ago – one or two even stayed for 50 years or more in earlier times.

“When you couple these factors with the firm’s commitment to ensuring that our clients’ needs come first, it is easy to see why Cuthberts has been able to meet the legal needs of successive generations of clients, including pastoralists, business owners and local institutions. Reaching our 150th anniversary is a record of which we are truly proud,” Mr McCracken said.

The firm is principally engaged in property, business, commercial and securities law, litigation and family law, while the management of wills and estates remains a core business activity – as it has since 1855. Another office operates at Bacchus Marsh.

The firm operates with four partners, five associates and 19 ancillary staff.

The Cuthberts story began when its Anglo-Irish founder Sir Henry Cuthbert KCMG MLC QC arrived in Melbourne at the end of August 1854 and was admitted to the Supreme Court of Victoria on 4 December, in the immediate aftermath of Ballarat’s celebrated Eureka Stockade Rebellion.

The first sitting of Ballarat’s new local court took place on 20 July 1855 and it seems Mr Cuthbert spent a week on the Ballarat goldfield around this time.

Impressed by the township’s burgeoning business potential, he decided to settle his business and personal affairs in Melbourne so he could return to Ballarat West.

He became licensee of the Golden Fleece Hotel and opened up his legal office behind an adjoining shop front in Lydiard Street North.

The timing of Mr Cuthbert’s arrival in the township during August 1855 played a crucial role in his future success, for within four months of him opening for business the population on the Ballarat goldfield tripled to more than 40,000.

From the outset, Mr Cuthbert was integrally involved in the establishment of Ballarat’s civic, cultural, educational and economic infrastructure. He also maintained other business interests on or beyond the Ballarat goldfield. These included the Golden Fleece Hotel (1855-1857), the Ballarat Times newspaper (1855-56) and the spectacularly successful Buninyong Gold Mining Company (est. 1858). This mine produced about $16 million worth of gold based on current market value between 1858-1865.

The introduction of a new Goldfields Act in January 1858 also ensured that Mr Cuthbert and other astute lawyers continued to flourish in the post-goldrush era.

In January 1856, Mr Cuthbert took on his first articled clerk, Thomas Brereton Watson. Six months later he attended the inaugural meeting of the Ballaarat Gas Company and was appointed its honorary solicitor. He played an instrumental role in the company’s success by drafting the legislation required by Parliament. Ballarat’s residents were able to celebrate the introduction of a permanent gas supply 13 months later.

During the 1860s, Mr Cuthbert’s legal firm enjoyed a steady stream of business from the local branches of several banks. For many decades afterwards the firm also acted for the Boroughs of Ballarat West and East and several other municipalities.

In 1863, Mr Cuthbert engaged the services of a young law clerk, Hugh Wilson Morrow from County Downpatrick, to meet the ever-increasing business demands of his clients. The firm also moved into impressive new legal offices situated on the corner of Lydiard Street South and Dana Streets. The firm was involved in conveyancing, wills and estates, mortgages, commercial work, and some criminal work.

In the early 1870s Henry Cuthbert’s interest in politics gathered momentum, culminating in his election (unopposed) to the Victorian Legislative Council in March 1874.

He was soon elevated to the Cabinet where he held a succession of important ministerial positions until his death in 1907.

In 1877, Agar Wynne, a young barrister and solicitor with Ballarat connections, joined Mr Cuthbert as a partner. The new firm of Cuthbert & Wynne prospered. In 1883, Mr Morrow commenced his articles with Mr Cuthbert and was finally admitted to the Supreme Court of Victoria on 1 August 1886. This, combined with the fact that Mr Cuthbert’s younger brother John (who had worked for the firm as an employee solicitor) died earlier that year, foreshadowed the arrival of two new partners into Cuthbert & Wynne’s legal practice.

In October 1887, HW Morrow and a young, recently-admitted solicitor Philip Must became partners in a new firm, Cuthbert Wynne Morrow & Must. In the mid-1890s Morrow & Must, which was competing for clients in direct opposition to its sister firm, Cuthbert Wynne & Hamilton, located in Melbourne.

Mr Wynne’s earlier election to the Victorian Legislative Council in 1889 encouraged him, like Mr Cuthbert, to spend a majority of his time in Melbourne. Accordingly, the practical involvement of the senior partners in the everyday running of their Ballarat practice diminished as both men devoted increasing amounts of time to politics or other business interests. To further complicate matters, the junior partners in Cuthbert Wynne Morrow & Must also had to contend with changes to the probate laws and the amalgamation of the legal profession in the early 1890s.

In 1896 the partnership structure at Cuthbert Wynne Morrow & Must underwent further change when Agar Wynne finally agreed to sell his remaining two shares in Cuthbert Wynne Morrow & Must to HW Morrow.

In 1891 Henry Cuthbert became one of Victoria’s two representatives selected to attend the Australasian Federation Convention in Sydney. Thereafter he continued to play an important role in Australia’s move towards Federation. In 1892, Mr Cuthbert was awarded a knighthood in recognition of his lengthy contribution to politics and the community at large.

In December 1899, he became the only solicitor in Victoria to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel, a distinction he held for 95 years until the Kennett government appointed two Queen’s Counsel from the solicitors ranks in 1994.

Henry Cuthbert’s death in 1907 ended his family’s direct association with firm, although his grandson Henry Headen Cuthbert later earned his living as a barrister in Melbourne.

Since then, three generations of the Morrow family and two generations of the Must and Shaw families have been involved with the firm during its 150 year history. HW Morrow’s son Hugh Gordon Morrow joined the firm shortly after the latter’s admission to practise on 1 August 1907. Later, HG Morrow’s son, Hugh Fraser Morrow, became a partner in Cuthbert Morrow Must & Shaw from 1951-1973: he then joined his son Michael in partnership at Morrow & Morrow, Ballarat.

Philip Must’s son Reginald Acheson Must joined his father at Cuthbert Morrow Must & Shaw during 1929 and he remained a partner until his death in 1973. Henry Shaw became a partner in Cuthbert Morrow Must & Shaw in 1909; his son Andrew Gavin Shaw was a partner in the firm from 1944-1979.

In 1967, David Fawell joined as an employee solicitor and he became a partner from July 1973 until his recent retirement on 30 June 2005.

Senior partner Mr McCracken has been with the firm for 32 years. He recalls that shortly after Reg Must’s death in 1973, the partners in Cuthbert Morrow Must & Shaw decided to revert to the name Cuthberts.

In the 1990s David Fawell encouraged Cuthberts’ expansion into the financial sector and this led to the establishment of Danard Investments and VicState Loans.

Today Cuthberts and its two related businesses occupy a handsome double storey bluestone building on the corner of Lydiard Street North and Mair Street, Ballarat.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 1991, torrential rain caused the office basement to be flooded and thousands of files, records, deeds and volumes collected over more than 100 years were damaged beyond repair. Nevertheless, a book documenting the firm’s history, Cuthberts: 150 years of continuous legal practice 1855-2005, will be published later this year.

Partners, staff and longstanding clients from Cuthberts celebrated the firm’s important anniversary at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery on 19 August.

During the event, Sir Daryl Dawson QC opened a special exhibition “Cuthberts: 150 years of legal practice 1855-2005”. This exhibition celebrates the association of Cuthberts, and its partners, with the history of Ballarat and the Gallery.

It features more than 100 items of art and legal memorabilia which will be on display from 20 August-11 September 2005.


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