Why this barrister is collecting judges’ wigs — even ones treated with arsenic


Some of the nation’s courtrooms have done away with the traditional white horsehair wigs and gowns worn by judges and lawyers.

Key points:

  • Tasmanian barrister Ray Broomhall says there’s a story behind every wig
  • Some of the wigs in his collection pre-date the Australian colonies
  • Mr Broomhall says collecting the wigs is part of preserving the stories of the characters in legal history

But Tasmanian barrister Ray Broomhall is collecting them as fast as they can be discarded — sometimes even calling dibs on a wig while it’s still in use.

Mr Broomhall said he would like to get his hands on former justice of the High Court Michael Kirby’s wig.

“I’d love to have one of his wigs — whether his barrister wig or one that he wore in the High Court. That would be to me the ultimate,” he said.

He would not put a price on how much he has spent on his unusual collection.

“It’s not the wig itself — it’s the people behind the wig,” he said.

“The story behind each wig is absolutely amazing, and they’re priceless when you think of the stories behind them.”

Taking pride of place in his collection is the wig worn by Thomas Strangman when he successfully prosecuted Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi for sedition in 1922.


Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi, Indian independence leader and advocate of non-violent civil disobedience. (Public Domain: Gandhiserve.org)

Gandhi was jailed for six years.

“Sir Thomas Strangman and Mahatma Gandhi struck up a very good friendship whilst he was incarcerated,” he said.

“And he [Sir Thomas] actually started converting Mahatma to the pacifist angle and if it wasn’t for this friendship, then Mahatma wouldn’t have become the man he is today.

“So that’s the history behind this particular wig. Absolutely incredible.”

Another favourite in his collection is the wig worn by the then-colony of New South Wales prosecutor, Thomas Wylde.

“You can’t read it clearly now but the wig tin actually says ‘Clerk of the Peace’ on the actual tin,” he said.

“This wig here was worn by the very first prosecutor in the colony in the whole of Australia. The very first.”

Wylde’s son was Sir John Wylde — one of New South Wales’s original judges.

Sir John also instigated the Supreme Court of Tasmania — the oldest Supreme Court in Australia.

“Sir John Wylde needed a prosecutor, so he got his father to come all the way from England,” Mr Broomhall explained.

“Thomas then later on, after he’s done his stint here in Australia as the prosecutor, he then set up a company called Denton Wylde, and that is now one of the largest law firms in the world. And that came from that one wig.”

Human hair replaced by horses’

Some of the wigs in the collection pre-date the Australian colonies and include what can only be described as a mullet-esque wig worn by a barrister in England in 1745.

It is made of human hair and nestled along with it in its box are the implements to curl and crimp the strands and a tiny bellow used to puff a mixture of lead and arsenic into the wig.

“They used to use arsenic and lead to kill the lice and also make it white,” Mr Broomhall said.

Amazingly, lice were not the reason wigs from human hair were ditched and replaced by horsehair wigs.


Ray Broomhall would not put a price on how much he has spent on his unusual collection. (ABC News: Adam Harding)

“There was actually a big court case that said you can’t trade in human body parts, so barristers were walking around with human-hair wigs and they found they had to go to horsehair,” Mr Broomhall said.

While the more modern wigs follow a pattern which includes a set guide of the number of side curls for barristers and back curls for judges, each wig is subtly different.

The wigs’ individual quirks give a special insight into the wearer.

Full-bottomed wigs for judges have been phased out — even for ceremonial occasions — in Tasmania.

The now-retired wigs are still housed at the Supreme Court of Tasmania in Hobart. Registrar Jim Connolly is the keeper of Supreme Court of Tasmania judges’ wigs.

“They’re part of our legal history,” Mr Connolly said.

“These wigs are handmade. They are made of horsehair and they are fitted to the particular judge’s head that they need to adorn.

“Each one has their own character.”

Wigs are uncomfortable — even without lice

If you sneak a peek inside the flaps of the full-bottomed wig formerly worn by Sir Richard Green, who sat on the bench between 1950 and 1961, you will see a patch of floral material lovingly stitched on each inner side.

“[The] patch of fabric fixed inside [is] just to protect the judge’s ear from the abrasive nature of the horsehair on the wig,” Mr Connolly said.

It gives an insight into just how uncomfortable the wigs can be, even without lice.

Even Mr Broomhall is not a fan of wearing his own wig, made in and imported from England.


The now-retired wigs are still housed at the Supreme Court of Tasmania in Hobart. (ABC News: Phoebe Hosier)

His collection of wigs watches over him and inspires him as he works in his chamber — but he will not wear them.

“It’s tempting but I wouldn’t do it, I just couldn’t,” he said.

“I have so much respect for the people that wore the wig that I think that I wouldn’t want to taint whatever the power [is] in the wig.”

Mr Broomhall said his collection was far from complete and believed collecting the wigs was part of preserving and sharing the stories of the more colourful characters in legal history.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news