Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir John Cowan (1866–1953)

by Maryanne McGill

This article was published:

John Cowan (1866-1953), by unknown photographer, c1935

John Cowan (1866-1953), by unknown photographer, c1935

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4538

Sir John Cowan (1866-1953), grazier and politician, was born on 6 December 1866 at Port Gawler, South Australia, third son of Thomas Cowan, farmer and politician, and his wife Mary Jane, née Armstrong. His grandfather John Cowan had arrived in Adelaide from Belfast, Ireland, on the Epaminondas in 1852 and pioneered the public transport system between North Adelaide and the city. After education at Whinham College, North Adelaide, Cowan managed one of his father's Milang properties. In 1881 he bought Glen Lossie station near Murray Bridge and lived there until his death. On 10 February 1892 at Murray Bridge he married Elizabeth Johnston Jones; they had three daughters and two sons.

He became a member of the Mobilong District Council in 1892 and chaired it in 1896-1912. Very active in local community affairs, particularly education, Cowan took an early interest in irrigation: he urged the construction of locks and weirs on the River Murray and at Goolwa and arranged a deputation to the premier to induce the government to reclaim the lower Murray swamps. He entered the Legislative Council in 1910 as a member for the Southern region. His father had been the member for Yatala in the House of Assembly in 1875-78 and his uncle, James Cowan, was the member for the same district in 1890, the year of his death. Sir John's son John Lancelot was to be a member of the Legislative Council in 1949-59. During World War I Cowan was active in the enlistment campaign. In 1923-24 he was minister of agriculture, town planning, and assistant minister of repatriation for the last five months of Barwell's government; in 1927-30 he was minister of agriculture, immigration, repatriation and irrigation in Butler's cabinet. He sat on the 1911-13 royal commission on education which recommended increased finance for the University of Adelaide, the empowering of the university to grant bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering, and considerable changes to the State's education system.

Cowan's main contribution to legislation was in the area of drainage of the South-East and afforestation: he urged the purchase of new milling plant to develop the economy of that region's forests. He introduced the first dairy legislation in the State in 1927, resulting in the Dairy Industry Act, 1928, and claimed to have been the first person in Australia to suggest adjustment of farmers' debts. He also piloted through the council the important 1928 legislation to ensure organized marketing in the dried-fruit industry. He was government whip for twenty years, and when he retired in 1944 had the longest continuous service of any member in both Houses. That year he was knighted.

A Freemason, Cowan's other interests included hunting, tennis and bowls. At 85 he remained alert, riding a hack daily around his property. Survived by his wife (d.1958) and children, he died on 8 March 1953 at Murray Bridge and, after a Presbyterian service, was buried in the local cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £37,246.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1909)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 Apr 1927, 13 Mar 1936, 1 Jan 1944, 25 Apr 1947, 23 Jan 1950.

Citation details

Maryanne McGill, 'Cowan, Sir John (1866–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Cowan (1866-1953), by unknown photographer, c1935

John Cowan (1866-1953), by unknown photographer, c1935

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4538

Life Summary [details]


6 December, 1866
Port Gawler, South Australia, Australia


8 March, 1953 (aged 86)
Murray Bridge, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.