The Hon. Howard Nathan QC - Ulumbarra Foundation
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The Hon. Howard Nathan QC

The Hon. Howard Nathan QC

The arts-loving Honorable Howard Nathan has long nursed a soft spot for all things penal. In his Bendigo home hangs a framed print recording the convict origins of his ancestors. At his farm in Mia Mia stands a 3m steel statue of a naked Ned Kelly. And, although for decades it was his task, as he puts it, to supply the state’s gaols with “customers”, the retired judge could never quite shake the notion that both the prisoners and the prisons might be put to a more productive use.

So when the opportunity arose to contribute to the conversion of Bendigo’s draughty Sandhurst Gaol into a magnificent theatre, Nathan gave not only very generously, but also with a rich sense of irony. “I can’t think of a better way to spend the judicial pension than to donate it back to the people of Victoria,” he said of his $300,000 gift, adding he was “especially glad they removed most of the graffiti from the cell walls, particularly the illustrations and comments about me”.

Howard Nathan has had a long and flamboyant career, both in and outside of legal circles.

“I’m the progeny of several lineages of very good thieves, who were transported out of urban London to New South Wales. That was the best thing that could ever have happened to them because, being Jewish, they couldn’t own land in England but here, after doing your time, you got it given to you. Some of my ancestors are still on the properties that they were granted back in the late 1840s on the Eden Monaro high plains.”

In the 70s, Nathan bought a farm at Campbells Creek, near Castlemaine, having got to know the area as a young barrister.

After retiring in 1997 from the Supreme Court, he spent a decade as a fly-in, fly-out judge in the Caribbean, where he became known as Hurricane Howard for his endeavours to clean up the corrosive legal systems of the Bahamas, Barbados and Belize. But Central Victoria invariably lured him back from his exploits. In the meantime the gaol had been decommissioned and the city council appeared to be taking a visionary approach to developing its arts precinct.

“I was knocked sideways by the Ulumbarra project. It has lifted the spirit of Bendigo. And now with the Ulumbarra Foundation we are on to the next exciting stage of boosting our performing arts right across central Victoria. The Foundation provides the vehicle for exploring new artistic endeavours…. it brings heart and soul to the place!”

While the theatre’s beautiful foyer has been named in Nathan’s honour, he has donated a similar-sized amount to the Bendigo Art Gallery and also funds regional scholarships for disadvantaged high school students to finish their education. Meanwhile he plans to continue staging an annual concert at the “Mia Mia Opera House”, aka the Mechanics Institute, and has kicked off fundraising for the Ulumbarra Foundation with a generous donation.

Nathan notes philanthropy is partly a Jewish obligation, but really, he says with a chuckle, religion has little to do with it: “My moral imperative in life is to die destitute.”