Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ovens, John (1788–1825)

by E. W. Dunlop

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Ovens (1788-1825), soldier and engineer, was born at St Catherine, County Fermanagh, Ireland. Although educated for the church, he entered the army in 1808 as an ensign in the 73rd Regiment, went with it to New South Wales as a lieutenant in 1810, and was appointed engineer in general charge of public works. In October 1811 he returned to England on leave and transferred soon afterwards to the 74th Regiment, then serving in Spain under Brigadier-General (Sir) Thomas Brisbane. He fought at Pampeluna, Orthes and Vittoria, where he was dangerously wounded on 21 June 1813. During the Peninsular war he became aide-de-camp to Brisbane and was promoted captain in 1819.

When Brisbane was appointed governor of New South Wales in 1821 he brought Ovens with him as aide-de-camp and made him acting chief engineer. Ovens now had general supervision of convict gangs. He improved the efficiency of the convicts employed on public works, supervised 'clearing gangs' with much success, and ultimately had fifty gangs preparing 'extensive tracts of land into a state for cultivation by the settler'. He also accompanied Captain Currie on an expedition to the upper Murrumbidgee and Monaro district in 1823, and helped John Oxley to survey Twofold Bay in October 1825.

'No public officer here', wrote Brisbane, 'has rendered me the same essential service, the Colony such general benefit, or imposed upon the Mother Country such a heavy debt of gratitude'. The governor made Ovens his private secretary when he was not finding Frederick Goulburn co-operative, and in 1824 in recognition of his services he secured his promotion to major in the 57th Regiment and obtained for him a grant of land at Longbottom (Concord). Ovens, who had been in poor health for some time, planned to retire to this estate, but died on 7 December 1825, six days after Brisbane's governorship ended.

By his request he was buried in the same grave as his friend Ellis Bent in the George Street burying ground. Later the bodies were reinterred, first at Garden Island, and finally at St Thomas's, North Sydney. The long inscription on the tombstone provides important biographical detail. Ovens's name was given to a river in Victoria and a mountain near Bathurst. Several writers have confused Major Ovens with Lieutenant John Ovens, also in the 57th Regiment at that time. Georgina Ovens was the wife of the lieutenant, and not of the major, who divided his estate among his brothers and sister.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11-15
  • Sydney Gazette, 13 Dec 1825
  • Truth (Sydney), 4 July 1909
  • Army Lists, 1821-1825.

Citation details

E. W. Dunlop, 'Ovens, John (1788–1825)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ovens-john-2529/text3429, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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