Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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CHAPMAN, Sir Frederick Revans

(1849–1936).

Judge and humanist.

Chapman was born in Wellington on 23 October 1849, the fifth son of Mr Justice H. S. Chapman, then the resident Judge in Wellington. He began his education at the Church of England Grammar School in Melbourne, where his father had become engaged in politics and legal practice after a brief period as Colonial Secretary in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), to which territory he had removed after resigning his Judge's commission in New Zealand in 1852. Later, young Chapman went to the Continent, continuing his studies in France, Germany, and Italy. While in Europe he achieved fluency in the languages of the countries in which he studied, and he subsequently acquired a knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese. At the end of his Continental education he went to London to read law. Here he had the benefit of the personal interest and tutelage of Charles Russell, later Lord Russell of Killowen, Lord Chief Justice of England. Chapman was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple in 1871, and for about 18 months practised at common law and equity in London and on circuit. In 1872 he returned to New Zealand and began practice in Dunedin where his father had been resident Judge since he forsook the political field in Australia in 1864 and rejoined the New Zealand Judiciary. The young barrister joined the firm of Smith, Chapman and Sinclair, and was a contemporary and frequent opponent at the Bar of Robert Stout and J. E. Denniston, with both of whom he was later to sit on the Supreme Court Bench. In 1879 Chapman married Miss Clara Cook, the daughter of a Dunedin barrister, George Cook. He was appointed President of the Court of Arbitration with the status of a Supreme Court Judge in 1903 and retained that post until 1907, when he assumed full work in the Supreme Court. To Chapman, therefore, goes the honour of being the first New Zealand-born Supreme Court Judge. He resigned in 1921, but for three years afterwards he accepted temporary reappointments to the Bench. He finally retired in 1924, but for several years continued as chairman of the War Pensions Appeal Board. He was knighted in 1923 and died on 24 June 1936.

Retirement did not spell for Sir Frederick Chapman any real diminution in the extraordinary range of his interests and activities which always marched parallel with his breadth of mind and ability. As a successful barrister in Dunedin he had found time for civic politics, and as a lecturer in law he began an association with the University of Otago, the Otago Museum, and the Hocken and Turnbull Libraries that was to continue unabated almost to the day of his death. Chapman was a humanist and philosopher as well as a perfectionist, and believed implicitly in the theory that human education is never finished. Modern history was a recreation to him, and although he persistently withstood all attempts by his friends to persuade him to write the story of his life, he contributed in many ways to contemporary New Zealand history by the collection and preservation of a great volume of letters and manuscripts that would otherwise have been lost.

Whether as an advocate or a Judge, Chapman had a philosophy of life that was spacious, tolerant, and controlled. His judicial work was of a high order, and as a criminal Judge he had no rival in his day. Dignified, kindly, firm, and just, he was also a master in the principles of the common law. He was renowned for his summings up which were delivered in a measured and quiet tone of voice without a suggestion of his own views. Chapman's knowledge of case law and practice was profound, and this, allied to a comprehensive scholarship not often surpassed, and a learning and temper that were essentially judicial, achieved for him an enviable status in the history of the law in New Zealand. He was the last and certainly one of the most notable figures of a remarkable judicial dynasty – the turn of the century judges. Chapman's mind, however, was cast in a scientific as well as a classical mould, and his period of retirement, no less than his judicial career, produced in him developments of mind and character that increased his stature right up to the time of his death at the age of 87 years. Throughout his long life he was sustained by the confidence he rightly possessed in his own great capabilities. Astronomy, geology, botany, ethnology, and mathematics were to him pleasant and absorbing demesnes in which he wandered knowledgeably, and judging by his unfailing cheerfulness at all times, and the zest he had for living, he was content with the places into which the lines of his life had fallen and found them agreeable and profitable. He had no prejudices of class or intellect, and his active, fertile mind furnished him with all the interests and diversions his heart desired. The breadth of his interests is indicated by his active membership of the Otago Institute, the Wellington Philosophical Society, the Polynesian Society, and the New Zealand Geographic Board.

by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.

  • New Zealand Law Journal, 7 Jul 1936 (Obit).


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