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Owen, Sir William (1834–1912)

by Martha Rutledge

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

This is a shared entry with Langer Meade Owen

Sir William Owen (1834-1912) and Sir Langer Meade Loftus Owen (1862-1935), judges, were father and son. William was born on 4 November 1834 at Marlfield, Gorey, Wexford, Ireland, fourth son of Colonel Robert Owen, 72nd Highlanders, and his wife Charlotte, née McCarthy. He was educated at Cheltenham College, Gloucestershire, England, in 1848-52 and at Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1857), where he won a silver medal for ethics and logics, and a prize for English verse. After eight terms at Lincoln's Inn, London, in 1859 he was called to the Irish Bar from King's Inns. In Dublin on 6 March 1860 he married Elizabeth Charlotte, daughter of Dr Langer Carey. They migrated to Sydney and he was admitted to the colonial Bar on 7 September that year.

Although Owen developed a comprehensive grasp of the law in all its branches, he became eminent in Equity. He was a commissioner of the Court of Claims in 1861-87. Persuaded by (Sir) Charles Cowper, he became under-secretary of the Colonial Secretary's Department on 16 June 1865, resigning early next year. Owen first suggested reforms in Equity procedure in 1868. In 1870, assisted by Sir Alfred Stephen and Sir William Manning, he drew up a bill, for the law reform commission, which was twice unsuccessfully introduced. Owen's evidence helped to convince the 1880 Legislative Assembly select committee that the Equity jurisdiction was 'dilatory, expensive, ruinous to suitors and not in accord with the judicial progress of the age'. The Equity Act of 1880 was based on his draft.

In 1882 Owen took silk. By June next year he was acknowledged one of the leaders of the common law Bar after winning damages of £450 for the plaintiff in Anderson v. Fairfax, against distinguished opposing counsel led by W. B. Dalley. The Sydney Morning Herald had exposed George Anderson's Artisans' and Agricultural College at Middle Harbour as a 'kind of Dotheboy's Hall' and pleaded 'public benefit'.

On 18 October 1887 Owen was appointed to the Supreme Court bench as chief judge in Equity. Dignified, patient, and with 'a heroic capacity for keeping his temper', he had a satirical humour and 'a rare faculty of discarding the superfluous and unimportant issues'; his judgments were 'regarded as classics'. In November 1896 he transferred to the common law jurisdiction and was also deputy-judge commissary in the Vice-Admiralty Court. In 1901 the Catholic Press commended him for the 'masterly manner' in which he handled the second trial in the notorious Coningham divorce case.

Completely eschewing politics, Owen was 'a shrewd observer of men and things'. In 1892 he chaired the royal commission which cleared E. M. G. Eddy, chief commissioner of railways, of charges of maladministration. As sole royal commissioner, he rejected allegations that J. H. Young, secretary for public works, had abused the powers of his office during an 1898 by-election. In 1905-07 Owen was sole royal commissioner on the administration of the Lands Department. He endured veiled insults, until legislation was enacted to compel the attendance of witnesses, the production of documents and the punishment of contempt. He then threshed out 'one of the most extraordinary entanglements of iniquity that has ever been investigated'. Proceedings were delayed while criminal charges were brought against W. P. Crick, ex-secretary for lands, and W. N. Willis. The Australian Town and Country Journal commented: 'That nobody got into gaol over the matter was certainly not the fault of Judge Owen'. He was knighted in 1906 and in February 1908 retired.

His wife and elder son had been drowned on 11 January 1866 when the London foundered in the Bay of Biscay. On 3 July 1875 at Hunters Hill Owen married Florence Levick, but she died next year. In private life, he was very fond of 'pottering' in his picturesque garden at Ellesmere, Hunters Hill. He was of medium height and well built, clean-shaven, with regular features and wide-set eyes. He belonged to the Australian Club and in 1867-84 had been a member of the Board of Visitors to Lunatic Asylums. He died intestate at Hunters Hill on 22 November 1912 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery.

Owen's second son Langer was born on 27 August 1862 at Redfern. He was educated under W. J. Stephens at the New School, Darlinghurst, and in England at Charterhouse (1877-81), where he captained the cricket team. At New College, Oxford (B.A., 1886), he was captain of the university's Association Football eleven, a member of the Oxford Union Society and president of Vincent's Club. Entering Lincoln's Inn, he read with (Justice) Ingle Joyce and was called to the Bar on 13 June 1888. He married Mary Louisa Dames Longworth on 5 September at Athlone, Westmeath, Ireland.

Returning to Sydney, he was admitted to the colonial Bar on 30 March 1889. Suave and courteous, never resorting to bullying tactics, Langer Owen, like his father, practised mainly in Equity and bankruptcy. In 1896 he was a founder and council-member of the Bar Association of New South Wales; he took silk in February 1906.

On the outbreak of World War I the family rallied to the war effort: Mrs Owen was a vice-president of the foundation committee of the State division of the British Red Cross Society and worked ceaselessly for sick and wounded soldiers until her death on 30 November 1917. Their daughter Gladys was joint honorary secretary of the Red Cross in 1914-27 and their son served with the Australian Imperial Force from 1915. Owen relinquished his practice and spent a year as censor in charge of the Pacific cable office. In July 1915 he organized, and thereafter directed until April 1919, the Red Cross Information Bureau, conducted and financed by lawyers to deal with inquiries from relations about wounded and missing men, prisoners-of-war and men killed in action. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1918: 'his tact, gentleness, and tender consideration had brought much help, comfort, and consolation'.

In 1919 Owen was an acting judge of the Supreme Court, and again from June 1922 until made permanent in October; he was chief judge in matrimonial causes from 5 December 1923. At St John's Church, Toorak, Melbourne, on 25 August 1925 he married Hilda Margaret Chapman, granddaughter of Henry Samuel Chapman.

Holding strong views on public morality, Owen was president of the Bribery and Secret Commissions Prevention League. After his retirement in August 1932 he offered his services gratuitously to the Commonwealth and in September was appointed royal commissioner on performing rights. He was knighted in 1934. A handsome man with a handle-bar moustache, Owen was a member of the Australian Club. He died of cancer at his Bellevue Hill home on 25 January 1935 and was cremated; his estate was valued for probate at over £60,000. His wife and two daughters and a son of his first marriage survived him. His son Sir William Francis Langer (1899-1972) was a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and of the High Court of Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • J. M. Bennett, A History of the Bar of New South Wales (Syd, 1970)
  • W. Blacket, May it Please Your Honour (Syd, 1927)
  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • J. M. Bennett, A History of the Supreme Court of New South Wales (Syd, 1974)
  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (Melb, 1981)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1879-80, 3, p 58
  • Review of Reviews of Australasia, 10, Aug-Dec 1894, p 318
  • Red Cross Record (New South Wales), 8 Jan 1918, p 23, 1 Mar 1935, p 3
  • Australian Law Journal, 35, 28 Sept 1961, p 225
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8, 20, 21 June 1883, 23 Nov 1912, 13 June 1918, 9 Mar, 24 Apr 1919, 1 June, 13 Oct 1922, 25 Aug 1932, 1 Jan 1934, 26, 28 Jan 1935
  • Catholic Press, 23 Feb, 13 Apr 1901, 18 May 1905
  • Town and Country Journal, 12 Feb 1908
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Apr 1972
  • J. G. Latham papers (National Library of Australia)
  • newsclippings (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Owen, Sir William (1834–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 March 2018.

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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