Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sowden, Sir William John (1858–1943)

by Carl Bridge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

William John Sowden (1858-1943), by Hammer & Co., c1914

William John Sowden (1858-1943), by Hammer & Co., c1914

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 47715

Sir William John Sowden (1858-1943), journalist and newspaper editor, was born on 26 April 1858 at Forest Creek, Castlemaine, Victoria, son of Thomas Sowden, miner, and his wife Mary Ann, née Hocking, both from Cornwall. Moving to Kapunda, South Australia, they had returned to Castlemaine by 1867. William attended bush schools and was a pupil-teacher before becoming a printer's devil on the Castlemaine Representative and the Mount Alexander Mail. In 1874 the family shifted to Moonta, South Australia, where William worked as a reporter on the Yorke's Peninsula Advertiser and later was associate editor of the Port Adelaide News.

In 1881 he joined the major daily, the South Australian Register. Next year he accompanied a parliamentary party to the Northern Territory; his colourful reports, syndicated in the Argus (Melbourne) and the Sydney Morning Herald, were published as The Northern Territory as It Is (1882). The Register's leading parliamentary reporter, Sowden wrote a satirical column, 'Echoes from the Smoking Room' by 'A Scribbler', which became an institution in 1882-92: he once described a speech by J. H. Howe as based on a 'design conceived by the Lord of Misrule for use in Puzzledom'.

Promoted chief leader-writer and associate editor in 1892, Sowden was acting editor in 1897 and editor from 1899 to 1922. In this capacity he exerted strong influence on public opinion. On 28 April 1886 at Richmond, Melbourne, he had married Letitia Grace Adams (d.1928) with Baptist forms; they were to have two sons.

Politically Sowden was a Liberal, a free trader and an 'avowed anti-Socialist'; while never joining any party, he was consistently anti-Labor. He supported Federation, the South African War, compulsory military training, conscription, state-rights, the unreformed Legislative Council and the formation of the Liberal Union in 1910. Truth's description of Sowden's Register as 'the official organ of the Tory party' was barely an exaggeration.

In 1887 he had helped to found a local branch of the Australian Natives' Association; he attended its first intercolonial convention, in Melbourne, which passed pro-Federation resolutions. His pamphlet, Australia: A Native's Standpoint (Ballarat, 1893), 20,000 copies of which were distributed in Victoria to assist the Federal cause, argued for Australian-born governors and promoted things Australian. Sowden suggested that 'Three Cooees' should replace 'Three Cheers'. He was South Australian president of the Australian Wattle Day League and chairman of the Violet Memory Day League.

During the South African War he raised two A.N.A. rifle companies and his Register war fund collected one-quarter of a million shillings (£12,500). He was president of the Adelaide branch of the Royal Society of St George and for five years acted as chief scout of the Boy Scouts Association of South Australia. In 1915, with Mrs Seager, he founded the Cheer-Up Society for soldiers; first State president of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, he was knighted in 1918. In that year he visited the Western Front with the Australian press delegation and wrote The Roving Editors (1919).

Sowden was a Freemason, first president of the Discharged Prisoners' Aid Association and a sponsor of Christmas Dinners for the Poor of Adelaide's West End. In 1907 he joined the Adelaide Club. He was president of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia board from 1908. In 1926 his interference provoked the resignation of the gallery's curator Henri Van Raalte: in the resulting fracas Sowden also resigned. He immediately became president of the Institutes Association of South Australia (1926-37), and of the Australian Library Association (1928-32).

Stocky, ruddy and pugnacious, 'Willie J.' sported a wispy beard in the 1890s and later a clipped military moustache. He smoked, but was a teetotaller. He liked the limelight and his outspokenness made him many enemies, among them Sir Samuel Way. A lively speaker, Sowden gave public lectures, illustrated with lantern slides and curios collected on his five world trips; he published six travel books. Although he had averaged a sixteen-hour day at the Register, he found time for bowling and photography, was a keen field naturalist who encouraged forest conservation, and owned a library of 15,000 volumes.

On 2 April 1929 Sowden married, with Presbyterian forms, Margaret Ella Suttie of Mosman, Sydney; they lived at Victor Harbor, South Australia. Survived by his wife, and by a son, he died there on 10 October 1943. After an Anglican service, his ashes were buried in the local cemetery. Sowden's estate was sworn for probate at £75,817.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Martin (ed), Essays in Australian Federation (Melb, 1969)
  • South Australian Institutes Journal, 30 Nov 1937, 30 Nov 1943, 30 Sept 1944
  • Register (Adelaide), 7 Sept 1886, 3 June 1918
  • Truth (Adelaide), 4 Dec 1916, 8 June 1918
  • Mail (Adelaide), 9 Nov 1912, 2 Sept 1922
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 11 Oct 1943
  • S. J. Way letter-books, PRG 30/5/9, 2, 30/5/16, 257, 424 (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Carl Bridge, 'Sowden, Sir William John (1858–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sowden-sir-william-john-8593/text15005, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

William John Sowden (1858-1943), by Hammer & Co., c1914

William John Sowden (1858-1943), by Hammer & Co., c1914

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 47715