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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bowman, James (1784–1846)

by Nancy Gray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

James Bowman (1784-1846), surgeon and pastoralist, was the son of Edward and Ann Bowman of Carlisle, Cumberland, England. He entered the navy as an assistant surgeon in 1806, next year was promoted surgeon but in 1814 was reduced to half-pay. In consequence of the recommendation of William Redfern that naval surgeons be appointed to convict transports, Bowman sailed to New South Wales as surgeon and agent of the transport Mary Anne, arriving on 19 January 1816. Disappointed in his expectations of a colonial appointment he returned to England, strongly recommended by Governor Lachlan Macquarie for his 'assiduous and humane attention' to the convicts and for his 'mild, gentleman-like manners and accomplishments'.

In 1817, when surgeon of the transport Lord Eldon, Bowman first met John Macarthur, then returning to New South Wales after long exile. Two years later, having been appointed to succeed D'Arcy Wentworth as principal surgeon, he came out in the John Barry, in company with John Thomas Bigge, and took up his duties in September. He made many immediate improvements at Sydney Hospital. Wards, nursing staff, the general dietary scheme and the system of rationing convict patients were all reorganized. A mortuary and dissecting-room were added and arrangements made for adequate supplies of instruments. Bigge commented favourably on his 'zealous exertions'; Macarthur said he had 'performed miracles'. His arrogant attitude towards Wentworth and Redfern was clearly due to the influence of Bigge, whose 'intimate and humble friend and protégé' he became, but 'at Government House he was an object of aversion which they take little pains to conceal'. Macquarie, on the eve of his departure, listed Bowman as one of whom his successor should beware, but made no complaint of his medical practice, and Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane found no cause to quarrel with him. With the appointment in 1823 of Dr James Mitchell, Sydney Hospital entered a period of sound administration and competent practice.

In 1828 Bowman became inspector of colonial hospitals, but after (Sir) George Arthur and Sir Richard Bourke had both complained of laxity in supervision, in 1836 hospital administration was placed under military control and Bowman's services were no longer required. By this time his professional duties were the least of his concerns, for in 1823 he had married Mary, the second daughter of John and Elizabeth Macarthur, whose dowry included 2000 merino sheep and more than 200 head of cattle. His request for land commensurate with his fortune was granted in 1824 and with additional purchases his estate, Ravensworth, between Singleton and Muswellbrook, exceeded 12,000 acres (4856 ha).

As a member of the local committee of the Australian Agricultural Co., appointed in 1824, Bowman at first profited, as did his wife's relatives, by the sale of stock to the company. Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes described these activities as 'fraud committed with impunity by the better orders of society'. When the mismanagement of the company's concerns became a public scandal, Bowman was deputed, as 'the docile instrument of his father-in-law's policy', to dismiss the agent, Robert Dawson, and to appoint Macarthur to manage its affairs. Edward Parry, sent out by the London directors in 1829 to assume complete control, understandably 'found the Company's affairs embarrassed with no common difficulties'.

For the next ten years Bowman remained in Sydney, taking little part in public affairs, save briefly as a local director of the Bank of Australasia. He applied for, but was refused, a town allotment, so John Verge built Lyndhurst for him on purchased land adjoining Wentworth Park. When his official salary ceased in 1838, two years after his services were dispensed with, he retired with his family to Ravensworth, but received once more his naval half-pay. Drought and depression, combined with ill-advised expenditure and inexperience, led inevitably to heavy financial losses. After Bowman's sudden death from apoplexy on 23 August 1846 his invalid widow and five children welcomed the generous and necessary assistance of William Macarthur.

Early in their acquaintance, John Macarthur described Bowman as 'a respectable prudent man'. He was also a competent and humane surgeon and an efficient administrator. Ambition, and the influence of Macarthur, led him from this field of sound achievement into activities which were beyond his ability to understand or control and which, in the end, profited him nothing.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 9-16, 18, 19, series 4, vol 1
  • M. H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie (Syd, 1952)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • E. H. Stokes, The Jubilee Book of the Sydney Hospital Clinical School (Syd, 1960)
  • W. G. Verge, John Verge (Syd, 1962)
  • J. F. Campbell, ‘The First Decade of the Australian Agricultural Company, 1824 to 1834’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 9, part 3, 1923, pp 113-60
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Nancy Gray, 'Bowman, James (1784–1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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