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Bowden, Eric Kendall (1871–1931)

by John McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Eric Kendall Bowden (1871-1931), solicitor and politician, was born on 30 September 1871 at Parramatta, New South Wales, second son of John Ebenezer Bowden, solicitor, and his wife Sarah Anne, née Smith. His great-grandfather was Thomas Bowden and the family had lived at Parramatta for four generations. After education at Newington College and Sydney High School, he entered articles with his father and qualified as a solicitor in 1894. At Ashfield Wesleyan Church on 2 February 1898 he married Reinetta May Murphy. In 1904-07 he was an alderman in Granville. In December 1906 he won the seat of Nepean in the Federal parliament. Defeated in 1910, he returned to practise in partnership with his father until he was re-elected for Nepean, as a Nationalist, in 1919; in 1922 he won Parramatta which had absorbed Nepean.

In 1923-25 Bowden was minister for defence in the first Bruce-Page government. The appointment caused surprise. He had not been a leading speaker in parliament; he had been described as 'an urbane gentleman with an atrocious memory'; and his main interests had been the Federal capital site and the financial aspects of federalism. On defence matters his concerns had been the governor-general's powers to call out the citizen forces; the rights of parents, on religious grounds, to prevent their children receiving military training; and suitable areas for army manoeuvres. But his appointment came at an important time in the development of Australia's armed forces. In June 1923 he introduced legislation to establish the Royal Australian Air Force. After the Labor Opposition had argued that incorporating the Imperial code of discipline was un-Australian, Bowden withdrew the bill in August and introduced another. There was still doubt about discipline and the Opposition forced an amendment before the bill passed. In June 1924 Bruce introduced the government's five-year defence programme, in the defence equipment bill, which provided for the creation of a cruiser and submarine force. Again Bowden was unimpressive in debate.

He was, however, alive to the threat from Japan and the weakness of British sea power, and in November 1923 he had argued that Australia should spend up to £25 million a year to counter possible Japanese intentions. But there is no evidence of his urging a larger defence vote on the Treasury. He admitted that Australia was not ready to meet an emergency, but funds for the Royal Military and Royal Australian Naval colleges were reduced to a minimum; though he felt that Australia might have to be defended by air power he was content to see the air force receive the lowest share of the three services. When he resigned his portfolio in January 1925 it was said that he had been for long in poor health.

In 1926-27 Bowden was a member (sometime chairman) of the joint select committee on electoral law, and in 1927-29 sat on the royal commission on the constitution. He lost his seat in the 1929 election. His last years were shadowed with financial difficulties. He died suddenly of chronic respiratory disease on 13 February 1931, survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters. He had been a Methodist lay preacher and was buried in the Methodist cemetery, Rookwood.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Wharton (ed), The Jubilee History of Parramatta (Parramatta, 1911)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1906-10, 1919-29
  • Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook, 5 (1901-26)
  • Australian National Review, 19 Feb 1923
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14, 16 Feb 1931, 31 May 1932
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 19 Dec 1931
  • bankruptcy papers 491/31 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

John McCarthy, 'Bowden, Eric Kendall (1871–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bowden-eric-kendall-5309/text8965, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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