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Owen, Albert John (Harrison) (1890–1966)

by Peter Fitzpatrick

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Albert John (Harrison) Owen (1890-1966), journalist and playwright, was born on 24 June 1890 at Geelong, Victoria, son of Albert Thomas Owen, pharmacist, and his wife Elizabeth Ann Harrison, née Swindells. He was educated at private schools. On 27 May 1915 he married Esther (Ettie) Annie, sister of Edward and Will Dyson and a dress-designer. Owen was a prolific contributor of poems and articles to the Bulletin in 1912-19 and on the basis of that work the editor-in-chief of the Melbourne Herald J. E. Davidson appointed him to the staff as drama critic and author of the 'Peerybingle Papers', a regular mixture of light verse and prose. Soon afterwards he took over its 'Under the Clocks' column.

Although Owen spent most of his life as a working journalist for popular dailies, both the breadth and nature of his literary activities suggest the term 'man of letters'. His non-journalistic writings all testify to the skill of his craft. In 1919 he published a straightforward but very effective thriller, The Mount Marunga Mystery, which was filmed in 1921 as The Blue Mountains Mystery. The mostly satirical, occasional verse for the Bulletin and his pamphlet of six poems, Tommyrot Rhymes for Children and Grown-ups who Ought to Know Better (1923), combine touches of local vernacular with mock-portentousness to produce an effect of lively banter. Even his more overtly political pieces in the Bulletin, though their temper is vigorously democratic, have a geniality about them which springs from an appreciation of the absurdities of conservatism. With Vance Palmer, Louis Esson and E. J. Brady, Owen in 1915 founded the Australian Authors' and Writers' Guild, an 'earnest group of literary trade unionists', which sought to limit the influx of syndicated stories and articles from overseas. By 1919, when Owen departed for England, it had shrivelled.

In London as a freelance journalist, Harrison Owen contributed to a wide range of newspapers and periodicals; in 1921-32 he worked as a leader-writer for the Daily Sketch and also produced a weekly feature for John Bull until 1940. In this period he was active as a dramatist. The first of his three plays to be performed in London, The Gentleman in Waiting (1925), had a mixed response—reviews ranged from 'witty' and 'diverting' to 'prolix' and 'banal', with a general consensus that the piece was over-literary. But the second, The Happy Husband, staged in 1927, with Charles Laughton and Madge Titheradge, proved a popular success and played subsequently in New York, Paris and Vienna. In 1931 it was filmed as Uneasy Virtue. Doctor Pygmalion (1932), with Ronald Squire and Gladys Cooper, continued in the same vein; productions in Melbourne, Sydney and Amsterdam followed its London season. In 1940 Owen published The Playwright's Craft.

After his return to Melbourne in 1940, Owen's regular reviews for the Herald reflected both his passion for the theatre and his intimate knowledge of its workings. He became a leader-writer for the Sun News-Pictorial and wrote a Saturday column, 'Merely my Prejudice'. At first a witty, anecdotal reflection on human foibles, it came increasingly to express his delight in the uses and abuses of the English language and the depth and diversity of his literary interests. The name of the column, with its nice mixture of diffidence and self-assertion, anticipated the tone, and reflected the writer. Nettie Palmer had written in 1928: 'There was always a curious modesty about Harrison Owen … “I'm just a young man from Geelong”, he used to say'. He retired in 1955, although he published in the Herald in 1957 a series of articles, 'Down memory lane'. Predeceased by his wife, and childless, Owen died of cerebro-vascular disease at East St Kilda on 30 May 1966 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Palmer, Fourteen Years (Melb, 1948)
  • L. Rees, The Making of Australian Drama (Syd, 1973)
  • D. R. Walker, Dream and Disillusion (Canb, 1976)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1, 3 Mar 1966
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 2, 4 Apr 1966.

Citation details

Peter Fitzpatrick, 'Owen, Albert John (Harrison) (1890–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/owen-albert-john-harrison-7935/text13751, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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