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Owen, Robert (1799–1878)

by H. T. E. Holt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Robert Owen (1799-1878), by unknown photographer

Robert Owen (1799-1878), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 08238

Robert Owen (1799-1878), solicitor, landholder, politician and judge, was born on 8 September 1799 at Tynemouth, England, second son of Robert Owen, sea captain, and his wife Sarah, née Hall. In 1813 his mother paid £110 as duty when Robert was articled as a clerk to William Webster, solicitor. On 20 April 1820 he was admitted an attorney in England where he practised. He married Jessie Thriepland, daughter of Lord Moncrieff (legal) of Fingask Castle, Perth; they had two sons and a daughter. About 1840 he decided to seek his fortune in Australia, bought a small schooner and, with his two sons, the elder aged only 13, sailed to Melbourne, where he remained for some months before moving to Sydney. Admitted a solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 5 June 1841, he later became a partner in the legal firm of Carr, Roger & Owen, Sydney. In 1842 he was elected to the first Sydney City Council for Bourke Ward and was chosen one of the first six aldermen.

Owen became a large landholder in the Illawarra district where he bought Hyam's store, owned houses from Wollongong to Jamberoo, leased coal and mineral lands, and invested in collieries. In 1848 with John Pring he held Mangoplar, a large sheep station on the Murrumbidgee, until the partnership was dissolved in 1850 and his interest transferred to Pring. He also held in his own name two other properties in the Murrumbidgee District, Cuppacumbalong and Lanyon (Bindoo or Bindar) of 16,000 acres (6475 ha) each in the 1850s. A keen yachtsman and member of the Anniversary Regatta committee, he won the first-class yachts' race in 1848 with Sylph. In 1850 he also dissolved his legal partnership and sold his library of 1500 volumes before visiting England. After 1854 he lived at the Australian Club when in Sydney.

In 1858 Owen was elected to the Legislative Assembly for East Camden. He was active in debates. In February 1859 his votes on resolutions on the reconstruction of ministerial departments were challenged on the ground that when voting he had already accepted appointment as a District Court judge. A select committee reported that the offer had been a month earlier and condemned his action as unconstitutional, but its report was not adopted by the House. The press however castigated Owen. On 1 March 1859 he became the first and only solicitor appointed a District Court judge and chairman of Quarter Sessions. While a judge he successfully advocated the use of Illawarra coal on government railways, personally travelling on a locomotive making the test.

Owen resigned from the bench on 30 June 1861 and lived in Wollongong. In 1868 he visited England and on his return was appointed on 8 December to the Legislative Council as government representative with a seat in John Robertson's ministry. In January 1870 Robertson made Owen's inability to conduct the government's affairs the excuse to ask Governor Belmore to appoint more councillors. Belmore reported that 'Owen's appointment last year was unfortunate, and that he is hardly equal to his position'. In August he resigned his office but retained his seat in the council until he died. He was also a trustee of the Free Public Library from March 1870 to November 1878.

Kind and courteous on the bench, Owen deeply regretted that he had never practised at the Bar. He died on 25 November at 88 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by a son of his first wife and by his second wife Mary Catherine, née Hogan, whom he married according to Catholic rites on 1 February 1854 at Wollongong, and by their two sons and three daughters. His goods were sworn for probate at £15,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 22
  • New South Wales Government Gazette, 1 Mar 1859
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Mar, 5, 6, 7, 29 Apr 1859, 13 Mar 1875, 30 Nov 1878
  • Illawarra Mercury, 22 June 1915
  • roll of barristers, X25 (State Records New South Wales)
  • articles of clerkship, CP 5/168/76 (National Archives of the United Kingdom)
  • CO 201/548/288, 557/44.

Citation details

H. T. E. Holt, 'Owen, Robert (1799–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/owen-robert-4351/text7067, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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