Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bowser, Sir John (1856–1936)

by Margaret Vines

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

Sir John Bowser (1856-1936), politician and journalist, was born on 2 September 1856 at Islington, London, son of John Henry Bowser, Indian Army veteran, and his wife Marian, née Hunter. The family migrated to Victoria when John was 3 and settled at Bacchus Marsh, where he attended the local school. He gained his first experience of printing and journalism at 14, working for the Bacchus Marsh Express under Christopher Crisp. He had moved to printers McCarron, Bird & Co. of Melbourne, heading their poster section, when eye trouble necessitated a sea voyage to Scotland; there he worked for his uncle on the Dumfries and Galloway Standard. His sight improved; he studied journalism and English literature, and gained his first political experience as a shorthand writer for the commission into the condition of the Skye crofters.

About 1880 Bowser returned to Victoria and settled at Wangaratta. In 1884 he became editor and part-owner, with George Maxwell, of the Wangaratta Chronicle. He travelled extensively in the district and established himself in community life; he later pioneered the local rifle and tennis clubs and the library committee, and acquired a small farm on the Ovens River.

In 1894 a meeting of residents at Milawa convinced him it was his duty to represent them in parliament. On 20 November he won the Wangaratta and Rutherglen seat in the Legislative Assembly by only thirteen votes, and his enthusiastic supporters celebrated by pulling his carriage through the streets; he held the seat more comfortably thereafter. In parliament Bowser associated himself with the Kyabram movement and the rural groups which demanded economical government and balanced budgets. He had represented the Citizens' Reform League in the 1902 election, and supported (Sir) William Irvine's ministry as a 'country liberal' to these ends. In 1908 he was a leader of the 'country' faction of twenty-six members, and held the public instruction portfolio briefly in Sir Thomas Bent's cabinet from October to January 1909. Late in 1916 he founded a new parliamentary group, the Economy Party, as a response to the Peacock government's accumulating deficits; during 1917 his group forced three supplementary budget statements, all reductions in expenditure. Contemporaries, such as the Nationalist J. Hume Cook, defined it as 'essentially a country party'. When Peacock raised railway freights and fares later in 1917, Bowser's party challenged him in parliament, failing to defeat him by only two votes; in the election in November they campaigned as the 'Liberals' and defeated Peacock, who resigned.

Bowser then became premier, chief secretary and minister of labour. He was the rare politician who had never sought office for himself and had hoped his party would chose (Sir) John Mackey as premier; he later made no effort to retain the leadership. His ministry won the support of the Victorian Farmers' Union, and held office from 29 November 1917 to 21 March 1918. It was defeated unexpectedly on the issue of railway estimates by a combination of the Labor Party and the sixteen-strong 'corner' group of Nationalists led by Peacock and (Sir) Harry Lawson. A coalition was then formed between the Economy Party and the Nationalists, under Lawson; Bowser became, until 27 June 1919, chief secretary and minister of public health. He resigned after a dispute with Lawson over the sharing of cabinet posts between the parties.

In June 1920 Bowser joined the V.F.U. with some of his associates, and in that party he was influential at a time when it held the balance of power in parliament. On 30 April 1924 he was elected Speaker, on the combined votes of Labor and the V.F.U. When the Prendergast Labor government held office later that year, he occasionally used his casting vote to save it. His most difficult task came in 1926, in the standing orders debate, when Labor members walked out in protest at his rulings. Within his own party he was working to heal the breach with the breakaway Country Progressives of A. A. Dunstan, which was fully achieved only in 1930.

Bowser was knighted in January 1927. He did not seek re-election as Speaker when his term ended in May and retired from politics in 1929. His services to his electorate included his work for the establishment of Wangaratta High and Technical schools. He had become sole owner of the Wangaratta Chronicle in 1905, and only relinquished full control, due to ill health, in the eighteen months before his death. He was a founder, and for many years president, of the Country Press Co-operative Co. Ltd.

Noted for 'an absurd shyness' with women, Bowser had married late, on 11 October 1914, Frances Rogers, aged 51, who died in 1934. He died of cancer at his home on 10 June 1936 and was buried in Wangaratta cemetery with Presbyterian rites. His estate was valued for probate at £10,490. Contemporary assessments of him referred to his courtesy, sensitivity, kindliness, sense of fair play, and lack of self-interest, rare in a political figure.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Whittaker, Wangaratta (Wangaratta, 1963)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Oct–29 Nov 1917, 11-12 June 1936
  • Punch (Melbourne), 29 Nov 1917, 6 Feb 1919
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 2 Oct 1926
  • Wangaratta Chronicle, 13, 17 June 1936
  • C. P. Kiernan, Political Parties in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, 1901-1904 (M.A. thesis, University Melbourne, 1954)
  • Hume Cook papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Margaret Vines, 'Bowser, Sir John (1856–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bowser-sir-john-5316/text8977, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 April 2014.

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

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