The Testator’s Family Maintenance and Guardianship of Infants Act 1916 (NSW) (“the Act”) commenced on 18 September 1916, made retrospective to 7 October 1915, the day of the first introduction of the Bill into the Legislative Council. It was modeled on the 1900 New Zealand legislation.
The Act contained two parts:
(i) It gave the court power to override a will in order to make provision for the spouse, children or both of the testator where they had not been provided for by the will.
(ii) It made both mother and father guardians of their minor children and designated the surviving parent the guardian on the death of the other – putting both parents on an equal footing.
John Norton acquired the Truth newspaper in 1896, and became infamous for attention grabbing headlines. He was taken to court several times for libel. Norton claimed that he coined the term ‘wowser’ to describe a ‘fanatically puritanical person’ or a killjoy, although this is disputed.
Norton was a member of the NSW Parliament who in September 1898 was horse-whipped in Pitt Street by fellow parliamentarian, R D Meagher. In retaliation, Norton pulled a revolver and fired three shots at Meagher, he missed; both men were charged with assault. Norton was found not guilty.
John Norton died in April 1916. Short in stature with a bald, bullet-shaped head Norton, was described at the time as
‘the most flamboyant example of the larrikin-demagogue that Australia has known’.
Norton left an estate which included several newspapers and more than 80 statues (together with hundreds of pictures and relics) of Napoleon. His obsession with the French emperor, extended to calling his large house ‘St Helena’, after the island of Napoleon’s last exile. The estate was valued at £106,000, with an annual income of £15,000.
In 1896 he had begun living with Ada McGrath, their first child Ezra was born three weeks before their marriage in April 1897. They had a difficult relationship; their daughter Joan was born in 1907.
Norton’s stormy marriage and divorce proceedings were reported in his newspaper Truth. 11 days of witness testimony was published verbatim outlining behavior which lead to the judge describing Norton as ‘the very refinement of brutal cruelty’ and an ‘habitual drunkard of the worst type’.
Despite his reputation for drunkenness and cruelty to his wife Norton was a complex character who was considered both a scoundrel and a philanthropist. He gifted his home to the State government to be used as a convalescent home for soldiers during World War I as well as secretly giving money to many other causes. His funeral drew a large crowd and Truth published pages of tributes.
His will completely excluded his wife and his son, Ezra, in favour of his daughter, Joan, the only child Norton recognised as his own.
Ada and Ezra were among the first applicants under the new Act. The extraordinary nature of Norton himself and the notoriety of his conduct towards his wife was a reason why the Act was backdated – however it was not the only reason.
Ada was fortunate that she had political connections, her husband’s estate had not yet been distributed and that the will had already proceeded through most stages of probate.
In November 1916, the Court awarded Ada the sum of £1,308 and a weekly payment of £25 and Ezra the sum of £3 a week for his maintenance and education; In 1920 Ada was awarded one third of the estate.
In January 1941, Ezra Norton launched the Daily Mirror and, in October 1958, he replaced the Sydney Truth with the Sunday Mirror.