From Australia’s Jewish Past

June 25, 2024 by Features Desk
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Morris Mondle Phillips – a trailblazer for the legal profession

Morris Mondle Phillips

Morris was born on 19 May 1870 at St Kilda, Melbourne. He was the son of Rose and Philip David Phillips, a leading insolvency lawyer, a free trader, and a Shakespearian scholar. Morris’s grandfather, Rev Solomon Phillips, had migrated to Australia in 1833, becoming a leader of the Sydney and Melbourne Jewish communities.  He was, in fact,  minister at the Macquarie Street, Sydney Synagogue (later The Great Synagogue), from 1859 to 1874.  Phillip’s siblings were Emanuel Phillips Fox, Lydia, and Marion.

While Morris was part of a most eminent Jewish family, he did not have a strong Jewish upbringing.  He attended Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and then the University of Melbourne where he studied law. Following his graduation, he was articled to his father’s partner, Robert Best (later Sir Robert Best), until 1892, when the firm broke up because Morris’s father disapproved of the land-boom activities of Robert Best and their other partner, Theodore Fink.  Morris then completed his Master’s degree and did his articles at his father’s new firm, winning the Supreme Court Prize for articled clerks.  He then entered a partnership with his father, the company eventually becoming Phillips, Fox & Masel.  On 21 November 1894 Morris married his cousin Rebbecca Ellis.

Morris remained in partnership with his father until 1905 when he became a taxing master of the Supreme Court of Victoria, and in 1916, he was also appointed its chief clerk. He published works on the operation of both these offices: Delivery and Taxation of Bills of Costs (1916) and Practice and Precedent in the Chief Clerk’s Office (1933). In 1923 he was appointed master in equity, a post which included the work of master in lunacy – a lawyer who took over the management of a person’s funds and property found to be unfit due to mental illness. He successfully campaigned to establish a Public Trustee Office and in 1939, he became the first public trustee, taking over all the functions of the master in lunacy.

He was also successful in campaigning for the establishment of a Public Trustee Office and, in 1939, became the first public trustee, taking over all the functions of the master in lunacy, curator of deceased estates, as well as some of the functions of the master in equity, a position he still held.   Before his retirement in May 1941, he rationalised this position and helped to design that of its successor, Master of the Supreme Court.

Morris was a long-standing member of the Australian Natives’ Association – its chief president from 1913 to 1916 and, like his father, became president of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society.  He was also active in the League of Nations Union from 1919, the affairs of the University of Melbourne, holding positions on the Council from 1923 to 1924 and again from 1934 to 1939, as well as the Faculty of Law from 1934 to 1939.  He held positions of secretary and later president of the Melbourne University Association serving on the university extension board.  From 1924 to 1934 he was a warden of convocation – a university position to provide travel and research awards to worthy graduates to increase the advancement of the university and its graduates.  Morris was also President of the Australian Bridge Council, having published three books on contract bridge. Another interesting association Morris had was that of the Rationalist Association of Victoria – a freethought organisation promoting reason and evidence.

A tall and slightly stooped man, Morris was courteous to his colleagues but, on occasions, could be caustic, and as a speaker, he was measured rather than fluent, displaying a keen intellect with clearness and breadth of view.  Morris’s wife Rebecca had wide-ranging philanthropic interests including the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women and Children and the Free Kindergarten Union. She was a member of the committee of management of the District Nursing Service between 1914 and 1938 holding various executive positions. She was also president of the Lyceum Club from 1923 to 24 and honorary treasurer for many years. Sharing her husband’s interest in drama, she published short stories in the ArgusAustralasianBulletinWeekly TimesLeader, and elsewhere. Her war-time novel, The White Feather, was published in 1917. She died on 10 November 1942.

Morris passed away on 31 July 1948, aged seventy-eight, and he and Rebecca were survived by two sons – Philip – Sir Philip Phillips QC, and Arthur, a teacher and literary critic.

The AJHS acknowledges the following references in the preparation of this story:

Australian Dictionary of Biography – Mark Duckworth and John C Gibbs; The University of Melbourne; Wikipedia

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