Sir Hayden Erskine Starke was a judge of the High Court of Australia between 1920 and 1950.
The following piece purports to be an extract from the journal of the late Cedric Park, who was associate to Sir Hayden. I cannot verify the authenticity of this material. It sets out Cedric Park’s account of the funeral of the former Chief Justice of the Court, Sir Frank Gavan Duffy.
As Sir Hayden watched the coffin sinking into the hole, rain splattering mud across the lacquered wooden side, he leaned across and said to me, ‘At least we can be certain he has nothing further to say.’
The last encounter between the two had taken place some months earlier when Sir Frank shuffled into Sir Hayden’s chambers by mistake. Sir Frank was 84 by then and must have been disorientated. Certainly he never knowingly approached Sir Hayden’s room.
‘Oh, Starke,’ gasped Sir Frank. ‘It’s you.’
‘Indeed, Gavan Duffy,’ barked Sir Hayden. ‘Does it surprise you to find me in my own room?’
Sir Frank composed himself. ‘Starke,’ he said in a dignified and even sad tone. ‘Is our misunderstanding to continue even until I die?’
Sir Hayden’s reply was as crisp as any of his judgments. ‘I see no reason why it should not.’
The next time Sir Hayden came that close to Sir Frank was when, with five others, he bore his coffin towards the hole in the ground awaiting his remains in the Boroondara Cemetery in Melbourne. Sir Owen Dixon was a pall bearer as well, a role which Sir Hayden considered him to be ‘peculiarly suited to.’ Certainly Sir Owen was looking especially funereal and grey that day, which was not surprising given that this was a funeral.
Nevertheless, as Sir Owen took up his position in front of Sir Hayden (on the ‘eastern side of the casket’) he greeted me with a polite, ‘Good afternoon, Park.’
While Sir Hayden never appreciated being behind anyone in any situation, the positioning rendered Sir Owen a captive audience as they bore the casket.
Sir Hayden opened with, ‘We carried him on the Court for the last decade. Why should we have to carry him again?’
Sir Owen affected not to hear. So Sir Hayden tried again.
‘He’s remarkably light weight, don’t you think, Dixon?’ His words were audible to those immediately following the casket, including Lady Gavan Duffy. Once again, Sir Owen was silent.
Undeterred, Sir Hayden took the opportunity to itemise, and in many cases restate, many of his most pressing grievances relating to Justices Evatt and McTiernan, who were on the opposite side of the casket. The former he referred to as the ‘Great Flat Head,’ and the latter as ‘the member for Parkes.’ His grievances embraced many themes, including but not limited to the ‘fraudulent and rank’ circumstances of their appointment to the High Court bench. Once again, he did this without any attempt to lower his voice, at one point even slapping his free hand against the side of the casket as he recalled how Justice Evatt had presumed to assert an entitlement to read Sir Hayden’s judgments in draft before they were issued.
So engrossed in his angry soliloquy was he that he didn’t even seem to notice when they had reached the edge of the grave. It took a nudge from me to warn him. He moved well away once the coffin had been deposited onto the straps which stretched over the hole. Away to the side two men slouched on their spades, awaiting their cue.
‘There’s no escape for him now,’ Sir Hayden muttered to me with a wink. At least no one else heard that.
After the ‘incessant babbling’ of the priest had stopped, he sought out Sir Owen Dixon once more.
‘Dixon!’ He advanced like a dingo towards a mouse.
Dixon paused before turning in his measured way, as if the act of turning was itself of some great moment, ponderous and with every inflection of the brow reflecting great depth of thought, philosophy and learning.
‘Dixon! Look at that will you. It’s a disgrace!’ Sir Hayden pointed at a very large monument which combined marble and sandstone, columns and angels, harps and horses to jarring effect. It was disproportionate to the size of the adjacent headstones, visibly overbearing all around it in a manner peculiar to Sir Hayden himself.
‘Yes, I see it Starke. What of it?’ Such was Sir Owen’s bland tone that may have been the making this enquiry of counsel appearing before him.
‘That is the gravestone, if that is a sufficient description, of the late Annie Springthorpe.’
‘Of course you must know her widower, Dr J W Springthorpe. Is he not a member of that club of yours- what do you call it? The Ferret Club?’
‘It is the Wallaby Club, Starke, as I think you well know.’
‘Then you must know why he, as executor, has caused such an audacious sum to be sunk into this abomination.’
‘We are in a cemetery Starke, not an art gallery. I feel no need to comment upon the aesthetic value of the gravestones.’
Starke was undeterred. He may not have even been listening to Sir Owen. ‘I understand that she left her estate to the family- excluding him. So he exploited his position as executor by committing £10,000 of the estate on this to spite her family.’
Although I knew Sir Owen to be cynical, his cynicism was miniscule compared to Sir Hayden’s. Dixon at least possessed some level of compassion.
‘Perhaps he just loved his wife, Starke.’
‘That is not so much an expression of love as a crime on the senses.’
Sir Owen moved away without further reply, purportedly to comfort a bereaved member of Sir Frank’s family, leaving Sir Hayden alone. Of course I remained behind him holding the umbrella over him as the drizzle continued.
Unsatisfied and still eager for more sport, Sir Hayden spied Sir George Rich and pounced. Sir George had sat on the High Court for longer than anyone could remember and was plainly affected by the death of his colleague. He clutched a handkerchief as he hobbled alone towards the gate of the cemetery.
‘Why, Rich,’ Sir Hayden said. ‘Do you really think it’s worth the trouble of leaving or would it be best if you just remain here?’