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Vivian Gordon Bowden (1884–1942)

by Darryl Bennet

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Vivian Bowden, 1937

Vivian Bowden, 1937

Dept of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Vivian Gordon Bowden (1884-1942), trade commissioner and diplomat, was born on 28 May 1884 at Stanmore, Sydney, second son of Vivian Rothwell Bowden, a native-born storekeeper, and his wife Mary Ann (Marian) Harrison, née Cazaly, from England. Vivian senior founded the merchant house of Bowden Bros & Co. Ltd. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and in England at Bedford Grammar School, Gordon went to Europe to study the silk industry, worked as a silk inspector at Canton, China, and in 1908 joined a branch of the family firm in Japan.

Back in England, Bowden was commissioned in the British Army Service Corps on 4 February 1915; for his work in France he was mentioned in dispatches. In January 1917 he transferred to the Royal Engineers. On 3 July that year he married Dorothy Dennis at the Chapel Royal, Savoy, London. He served on the Western Front and was promoted temporary major in May 1918. Demobilized on 21 March 1919, he returned to the East and in 1921 became managing director of A. Cameron & Co. (China) Ltd, Shanghai. Bowden was prominent in the affairs of the expatriate community and kept on friendly terms with the locals. In 1935 he was made Australian government trade commissioner in China, one of the first in the new service. 'Cultured, practical' and effective, he was appointed C.B.E. in 1941. As 'Vivian Gordon', he had published two novels, The Skipper and Rumfy (London, 1929, 1930), which were serialized in Blackwood's Magazine.

In 1941 the Australian government closed its Shanghai office and appointed Bowden official representative in Singapore. He arrived on 30 September and began duty, reporting to the minister for external affairs (H. V. Evatt from 7 October) and his department. The Japanese invaded Malaya on 8 December. A member of the Far Eastern War Council from that month, Bowden observed the enemy's rapid advance, recognized early that defences—particularly air power—were inadequate, and assisted the government to challenge British 'official optimism' that Malaya could be held. On 23 December he cabled that, without reinforcements of 'large numbers of the latest fighter aircraft', Singapore would fall. Prime Minister John Curtin immediately expressed concern to his counterpart (Sir) Winston Churchill; a 'handful of Hurricanes' arrived in January 1942.

Realizing that capitulation was imminent, on 9 February Bowden asked the department for permission to leave the island. He was told that he should stay: 'Otherwise we shall be deprived of independent information and effect on morale would be bad'. If necessary, he was to seek diplomatic immunity and await a possible future exchange of officials with Japan. By 14 February (the day before the British surrendered) there was no point in remaining. He transmitted his last message, advising the department that he and his staff intended to depart. They sailed next morning in a motor launch, the Mary Rose.

On 17 February 1942 Japanese patrol boats intercepted the vessel and escorted her to Banka Island, Netherlands East Indies. The prisoners were held in a cinema-hall at Muntok where Bowden informed his captors in their own language of his diplomatic status and remonstrated with guards who attempted to remove his personal possessions. Soldiers beat him and took him outside. A local resident saw 'an elderly white-haired gentleman' forced to dig a shallow grave and stand at its edge before being shot. Bowden was survived by his wife, two daughters and son Ivor who was Australian ambassador to Iran (1974-78) and Pakistan (1984-87).

Select Bibliography

  • L. Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (Canb, 1957)
  • W. J. Hudson and H. J. W. Stokes (eds), Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vols 5, 6 (Canb, 1982, 1983)
  • W. J. Hudson and W. Way (eds), Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol 8 (Canb, 1989)
  • A. R. Taysom, History of the Australian Trade Commissioner Service, vol 3 (typescript, 1983, National Library of Australia)
  • A1066, item H45/580/6/4 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Darryl Bennet, 'Bowden, Vivian Gordon (1884–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Vivian Bowden, 1937

Vivian Bowden, 1937

Dept of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gordon, Vivian

28 May, 1884
Stanmore, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


17 February, 1942 (aged 57)
Banka Island, Indonesia

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