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Owen, Percy Thomas (1864–1936)

by Ronald McNicoll

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

This is a shared entry with Robert Haylock Owen

Robert Haylock Owen (1862-1927), army officer, and Percy Thomas Owen (1864-1936), military and civil engineer, were born on 7 January 1862 and 16 September 1864 at Wollongong, New South Wales, sons of Percy Owen, solicitor, and his wife Eleanor Martha, née Haylock, and grandsons of Robert Owen. They were educated at Sydney Grammar School.

In 1881 Robert joined the New South Wales Volunteer Artillery as a lieutenant and in 1885, as a member of the New South Wales contingent, took part in the campaign in the Sudan. On 28 April 1886, in England, he was commissioned in the Prince of Wales Volunteers, joining the 2nd Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, then stationed in Natal. He also served in the Straits Settlements and Gibraltar and was promoted captain in 1894. On 7 February 1890, in London, he had married Hilda Grace Rowell.

In 1900 Robert Owen became chief staff officer of the New Zealand Local Forces. He recruited, equipped and dispatched New Zealand contingents to the South African War. Promoted major in October 1902, he retired from the British Regular Army at the end of that year, but continued to serve in the New Zealand Militia as lieutenant-colonel.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 Owen was living in retirement near Wollongong. He was chosen by Colonel H. N. MacLaurin, commander of the 1st Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force, to command the 3rd Battalion. Owen, aged 52, considered he was too old—but he accepted. His men referred to him as 'Dad Owen'. He led the battalion throughout its training in Australia and Egypt, at the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915, and during the fighting that followed; he briefly commanded the brigade in May. Wounded on 22 June, he was invalided home and discharged from the A.I.F. in May 1916. He had been appointed C.M.G. and mentioned in dispatches. Charles Bean characterized him as 'a father to his men, a commander with the most gentle consideration'—also, 'gallant but anxious'. In fact, Owen was noted for calling down supporting artillery fire more often than was usual, though there is evidence that, on 15 May 1915, naval gunfire which he called for and directed, saved a difficult situation. There is no doubt that even by 1915 standards he was too old to be a battalion commander.

In February 1917 Owen was temporarily appointed director of military training and in May became chief instructor of the Officers' Training School, Duntroon. In April 1918 he was appointed an honorary commissioner under the Repatriation Act. He was posted to the reserve of officers in 1921 and went to live near Bristol, England, with his wife and daughter. He died of cerebro-vascular disease at Barnstaple, Devon, on 5 April 1927. His son, Lieutenant P. I. H. Owen, had been killed in action in Flanders in 1917.

Percy Owen, after matriculating at the University of Sydney in 1881, served a pupilage at Mort's Dock & Engineering Co.'s works in 1884-88, studying both mechanical and civil engineering. A period in partnership with a licensed surveyor followed. In 1884-86 he had served as an officer in the New South Wales Volunteer Artillery. He rejoined in February 1889, when appointed resident engineer for military works in the southern division of New South Wales. Next year he was promoted assistant engineer, taking charge of defence works under construction at Wollongong. In 1893 he was acting staff officer to the commanding engineer. In 1894 he was in England attending training courses conducted by the Royal Engineers. During his absence he was transferred to the New South Wales Engineers and appointed staff officer for engineer services and adjutant of the corps. He was promoted captain and transferred to the Headquarters staff in 1895. On 15 August 1899 he received a temporary majority in recognition of his efficiency while responsible for all defence works in New South Wales. He had been admitted as an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London. Owen had married Florence Hilda Flood at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, on 10 February 1897.

Late in 1899 Owen was chosen as a special service officer in the South African War. He sailed in January, and served briefly as staff officer to Major General (Sir) Edward Hutton. In April he became staff officer, Royal Engineers, at Kimberley; here he fell sick, was invalided to England and in September resumed his former appointment in Sydney. In 1901 he unsuccessfully resisted the dismantling of the military works branch in New South Wales, a necessary consequence of Federation. Military works were taken over by the Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs. In November 1902 Owen was transferred to the newly formed Army Headquarters in Melbourne as assistant adjutant general (Engineer Services), becoming a local lieutenant-colonel in July.

The Department of Home Affairs, unable to cope with the management of works needed by the new Commonwealth departments, asked the Department of Defence in 1903 for the services of its senior works officer as inspector general of works. Owen took up the appointment in March 1904, transferring to the reserve of officers, and being retained from 1906 as honorary consulting military engineer to the Department of Defence. The public works branch which Owen headed—as director general from 1907—controlled nearly all Commonwealth architectural and engineering work.

Owen's connexion with the Federal capital began early when, with Charles Scrivener, he investigated possible sites. Canberra having been selected, he prepared essential engineering works. In 1912 he was an influential member of the departmental board which reviewed the winning design for the city submitted by Walter Burley Griffin and three other designs, and which found fault with all four and put forward its own solution. After the board failed to reach agreement with Griffin it was virtually dissolved by a new minister, and Griffin was appointed part-time director of design and construction. This was a slight to Owen and his associates, who considered that some features of Griffin's plan were extravagant or unsound from an engineering viewpoint.

Percy Owen was ineligible for the A.I.F. by reason of age, seniority, and specialization. On 13 August 1914 he became temporary military representative in the Naval Transport Branch and as such was closely concerned with the movement of the A.I.F. abroad. In 1915 he helped to develop a scheme for government arsenals, visiting India; and in October was appointed consulting military engineer to the Council of Defence and a member of the War Railway Council with the rank of colonel in the reserve of officers. His duties with the works branch of the Department of Home Affairs—from 1917 a separate Commonwealth department—continued, as did his differences with Griffin. Owen's stand was supported by one minister, William Archibald, but rejected by his successor Louis O'Malley. The royal commission of 1916 headed by Wilfred Blacket found in favour of Griffin and criticized Archibald and Owen and his officers. Blacket had refused to accept some of Owen's evidence, characterizing him as 'excitable', but the commissioner's findings were later discredited.

Owen was a member of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee appointed early in 1921, which reported favourably on the Canberra works. He moved his headquarters to Canberra in 1922 and became increasingly involved with the local works which in 1924 the government decided to place under a commission. Despite his ability, seniority and long connexion with Canberra, he was not appointed a commissioner. His exclusion was a severe blow, somewhat softened by appointment as the commission's chief engineer from 1 January 1925; he relinquished his position as director general of works. He continued his study of the Queanbeyan and Molonglo rivers, necessary for the design of the Canberra lakes, and supervised construction of Parliament House. His secretary Charles Daley considered that 'despite his differences of opinion with Griffin, Owen faithfully honoured the Government's intention to revert to Griffin's design' of the capital. In 1925 he was promoted from O.B.E. (1920) to C.B.E. A member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, from 1927, he was councillor in 1928-29 and 1933-36. After retirement in March 1929 he lived at Wollongong. He divorced his wife in June 1928 and on 3 April 1929 married Sylvia Honour May Hoad in Sydney. Survived by his wife, he died, childless, at Wollongong on 16 June 1936, and was cremated.

Percy Owen had strongly held views but bore no grudge against opponents. He was esteemed for unfailing courtesy and fair-mindedness. His monument could well be Lake Burley Griffin, which conforms more to his ideas than to Griffin's.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1911, 2, p 269, 1912, 2, p 357, 1914-17, 2, p 1110, 1920-21, 3, p 2027
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 June 1933
  • Institute of Engineers, Australia, Journal, 9, 1937
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1936
  • Canberra Times, 12 Apr 1964.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Owen, Percy Thomas (1864–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/owen-percy-thomas-8498/text13811, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 September 2014.

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

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