MELLISH, HUMPHREY PICKARD WOLFGANG, teacher, lawyer, and judge; b. 13 May 1862 in Lot 50, P.E.I., youngest child of James Lewis Mellish and Margaret Sophia Murray; m. 25 Oct. 1898 Margaret Mabel Wilmot White, cousin of Albert Scott White, in Springfield, Kings County, N.B.; they had no children; d. 19 June 1937 in Halifax.
Prince Edward Island farmers James Lewis and Margaret Sophia Mellish had limited financial means, yet a daughter, Mary*, became a leading educator at the ladies’ academy associated with Mount Allison College in Sackville, N.B., and their son Humphrey Mellish studied at Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown before attending Dalhousie College in Halifax. He completed a ba in 1882, and spent time at the University of London, where he matriculated in the honours division in 1883. After returning to Nova Scotia, he taught mathematics at Pictou Academy from 1885 to 1888. He obtained his llb from Dean Richard Chapman Weldon*’s recently established Dalhousie law school in 1890. A talented public speaker, he delivered valedictory addresses at both his arts and law convocations. In 1898 he married Mabel White of Belleisle Creek, N.B. From 1898 to 1902 he served as a second lieutenant in the 66th Battalion of Infantry (Princess Louise Fusiliers).
Mellish had completed his articles under the supervision of John Urquhart Ross in Pictou, and in Halifax under future Supreme Court of Canada justice Edmund Leslie Newcombe of Meagher, Drysdale, and Newcombe. Admitted to the provincial bar in 1890, Mellish worked in a series of Halifax law firms; his partners included Arthur Drysdale, later a judge in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, and Hector McInnes, who had been Mellish’s predecessor at Pictou Academy. Named a kc in 1904, he took leadership positions within the legal community, serving as president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society in 1912–13. Mellish enjoyed a diverse practice, and took advantage of his aptitude for public speaking in frequent litigation for corporate clients, including the Dominion Coal Company Limited [see Henry Melville Whitney*]. He represented the owners of the ammunition ship Mont Blanc during the inquiry into the causes of the Halifax explosion on 6 Dec. 1917, though his performance has been deemed somewhat mediocre by lawyer and author Donald A. Kerr.
A Liberal, Mellish showed no interest in pursuing electoral office. On 11 Feb. 1918 Sir Robert Laird Borden’s Union government appointed him to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Two years later, on 13 Oct. 1920, he was named chair of a royal commission to investigate the Provincial Highway Board. Despite evidence of partisan politics in the board’s operations, the commission exonerated George Henry Murray*’s government of any wrongdoing. Mellish also served as a deputy local judge in admiralty and a local judge in admiralty in 1920 and 1921 respectively.
Contemporaries described him as a lenient judge; for example, lawyer James Edward Rutledge claimed after Mellish’s death that the “underdog in a case had no need to worry with Judge Mellish on the bench. He was a just man.” The 1933 case of Peter Petrovich Verigin provides some evidence for this characterization. Verigin, the second leader of the Doukhobors in Canada [see Peter Vasil’evich Verigin*], who had been jailed in Halifax, faced deportation to the Soviet Union because Richard Bedford Bennett*’s government feared he was a closet leader of the Sons of Freedom and a dangerous Bolshevik. Verigin’s lawyers applied successfully to Mellish for a writ of habeas corpus to gain their client’s release from custody.
Despite his contemporaries’ assessment, historians have been highly critical of Mellish because of his decisions against organized labour. In the 1920s and 1930s class conflict marred the province’s coal and steel industries [see William Davis*]. These tensions spilled into the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, which had several judges with corporate ties, including Robert Edward Harris, a former president of the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company Limited, and Daniel Duncan McKenzie, a one-time solicitor for the same organization. On 4 March 1924 mp James Shaver Woodsworth* declared in the House of Commons that he had been told “corporation influence on the bench was so strong that the court is looked upon by labour as a company department.”
Mellish was especially disposed to assisting a former client. On 25 July 1917 a major disaster in a Dominion Coal mine in New Waterford had killed 65 men. Mellish had helped to prepare the company’s defence against manslaughter charges before becoming a judge. Despite his previous involvement, he presided over the 1918 trial, in which Hector McInnes, his former partner, argued for Dominion Coal, and directed a verdict of not guilty. In 1922 Mellish again assisted the company, now affiliated with the British Empire Steel Corporation Limited (Besco), when he rejected a union argument for a stay of unilateral wage reductions in Cape Breton coalmines until a federal board could investigate.
Particularly notorious was Mellish’s handling of the 1923 sedition trial of labour leader James Bryson McLachlan, a champion of miners and steelworkers struggling for decent wages and living conditions. Besco had arranged for the publication in Halifax’s Morning Chronicle (6 July) of a private letter in which McLachlan had called upon union members to fight the government of Premier Ernest Howard Armstrong*. Proceedings against McLachlan were held in Halifax rather than in Sydney to ensure a jury more likely to convict, and provincial attorney general Walter Joseph Aloysius O’Hearn prosecuted. In December McLachlan was convicted of three counts of sedition. The judge’s instructions to the jury made it clear that he was not disinterested. Historian Barry Cahill describes the handling of the case as a “gross miscarriage of justice”; he questions Mellish’s impartiality because his former law firm represented Besco and McInnes sat on the company’s board of directors.
After suffering from strokes over several years, Mellish announced his retirement in April 1937, and succumbed to a brain haemorrhage on 19 June, the same day that McInnes died. The Halifax Chronicle extolled Mellish for having had “one of the most brilliant and useful legal careers in the history of this province,” but his record of judicial partiality in the labour clashes of Nova Scotia during the interwar period has overshadowed his reputation for legal skill.
Mount Allison Univ. Arch. (Sackville, N.B.), 5501 (R. C. Archibald papers), 6/4. NSA, MG 100, vol.188, no.24 (R. H. Graham, “Honourable Humphrey Mellish”). PARO, St John’s Anglican Church (Milton, P.E.I.), Reg. of baptisms. “Halifax shocked at loss of two distinguished citizens,” Halifax Mail, 19 June 1937: 5. R. B. Brown and S. S. Jones, “A collective biography of the Supreme Court judiciary of Nova Scotia, 1900–2000,” in The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, 1754–2004: from imperial bastion to provincial oracle, ed. Philip Girard et al. (Toronto, 2004), 204–42. Barry Cahill, “Howe (1835), Dixon (1920) and McLachlan (1923): comparative perspectives on the legal history of sedition,” Univ. of New Brunswick Law Journal (Fredericton), 45 (1996): 281–307. Harry Flemming, A century plus: McInnes Cooper and Robertson ([Halifax, 1989]). Philip Girard, “The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia: confederation to the twenty-first century,” in The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia …, 140–203. D. A. Kerr, “Another calamity: the litigation,” in Ground zero: a reassessment of the 1917 explosion in Halifax Harbour, ed. Alan Ruffman and C. D. Howell (Halifax, 1994), 365–75.
© 2014–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
R. Blake Brown, “MELLISH, HUMPHREY PICKARD WOLFGANG,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mellish_humphrey_pickard_wolfgang_16E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||R. Blake Brown|
|Title of Article:||MELLISH, HUMPHREY PICKARD WOLFGANG|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2014|
|Year of revision:||2014|
|Access Date:||June 2, 2023|