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Bowden, George James (1888–1962)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

George James Bowden (1888-1962), farmer, soldier and politician, was born on 17 March 1888 at Moyhu, Victoria, son of William Henry Bowden, farmer, and his wife Catherine Christina, née McCalman, both native-born. George was educated at state schools at Whitfield and Benalla, and later worked as a commission agent in Melbourne. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 6 March 1915, he served with the 24th Battalion and was promoted captain on 16 January 1918. He was wounded at Gallipoli, and gassed and wounded on the Western Front. For his daring reconnaissance before the battle for Mont St Quentin, France, in September 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross.

On demobilization in July 1919, Bowden commenced farming at Koo-wee-rup, West Gippsland. He joined the United Country Party in 1923 and was a member (1928-38, president 1930-31) of the Cranbourne Shire Council. As a Country Party candidate, he unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Mornington in 1935 and 1937. He became prominent in Country Party affairs in a period when the party dominated Victorian politics and experienced dramatic internal dissension. The expulsion of (Sir) John McEwen for joining the Lyons-Page Federal coalition government in 1937 precipitated a splinter Liberal Country Party and created a serious rift between the Victorian branch and the Federal Country Party. Simultaneously, Premier (Sir) Albert Dunstan was engaged in a bitter dispute with party power-broker Albert Hocking over the executive's attempts to direct the State parliamentary party.

A Hocking supporter and a vigorous opponent of the Liberal Country Party, Bowden served as vice-president of the U.C.P. in 1938-39 and president in 1940. He was re-elected president in 1941 and 1942, and, though opposed by three candidates, narrowly won the final ballot for president in 1943. Victorian Country Party unity and harmonious relations with the Federal organization were restored that year, but Bowden played a relatively minor role in the negotiations because of his military commitments. Having been mobilized in October 1939, he was appointed temporary lieutenant colonel on 13 March 1942 and commanded the 9th Garrison Battalion, Australian Military Forces, from that month until October 1943. He was transferred to the Reserve of Officers in December.

Gippsland was a Liberal Country Party stronghold, with the House of Representatives seat being held by a long-time McEwen supporter, Thomas Paterson, whom Bowden had unsuccessfully challenged at the 1940 election. With the party split mended, Paterson retired from parliament and campaigned for Bowden in Gippsland in 1943. Bowden just managed to overcome the Labor landslide to win the seat on preferences; his military record did not prevent his being heavily out-polled by the Labor candidate W. T. G. Williams in the servicemen's vote. Holding Gippsland until his retirement in December 1961, Bowden re-established it as a safe Country Party seat. His parliamentary career was solid rather than spectacular: he never attained cabinet rank, but was chairman of committees in 1959-61. Gough Whitlam stated that he 'kept a good committee' and recalled that Bowden's impartiality waned only once when, carried away by a colleague's rhetoric, he interjected from the chair: 'Hear, hear!' Bowden quickly regained his composure and rebuked himself by calling: 'Order!'

Noted for his keen sense of humour, he was well liked by his parliamentary colleagues. Six feet (183 cm) tall and erect, he retained his soldierly bearing and was always in demand as an Anzac Day speaker. Bowden never married. When his health deteriorated due to his war wounds, his sister cared for him at his Murrumbeena home. He died on 8 June 1962 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery; his estate was sworn for probate at £23,542.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France During the Allied Offensive, 1918 (Brisb, 1983)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 7 Aug 1962, p 8
  • Victorian Country Party Annual Conference Report, 1940, 1943
  • Countryman (Melbourne), 12 Apr, 20 Sept 1940, 23 July, 13, 27 Aug 1943, 21 June 1962
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Mar 1961, 9 June 1962.

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Bowden, George James (1888–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bowden-george-james-9551/text16823, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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