Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Cowie (1809–1892)

by Ian Wynd

This article was published:

James Cowie (1809-1892), saddler, was born on 9 January 1809 in Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland, son of James Cowie, brewer. He was educated by a private tutor before being apprenticed to a saddler and harness-maker in London. He arrived at Port Phillip in December 1840 in the Midlothian but soon went to Van Diemen's Land. A few months there convinced him that the Port Phillip District offered greater opportunities and he returned on 8 July 1841. He began business in North Corio (Geelong) as a saddler and harness-maker. From this humble beginning he expanded into other fields. In 1848 he owned a general store managed by his brother William at Elephant Bridge (Darlington), where he issued in 5s. and 10s. denominations his own paper currency which was regarded in the district as equal to any banknote. He also opened a shipping agency and is reputed to have been prominent in introducing the first steamers to the Geelong trade. He was an early visitor to the goldfields, placed the first steam engine on the Ballarat field and may have become a gold-buyer. By 11 October 1853 he had amassed enough fortune to retire. However, he did not relinquish all his business activities, for in 1854 he was a director of the Geelong and Western District Fire and Marine Insurance Co. He owned several properties in the Geelong district including Merchiston Hall, which he built in 1856 and which today is a National Trust class A building. After the death of his wife Eliza, née Leyton, in 1871 he sold most of his properties in 1872-81 and moved to Fitzroy.

Cowie was associated with most local activities. He took an active part in establishing local government in Geelong and in 1849 was one of those who put up £4000 security so that the first works of the Geelong Corporation could be carried out. In 1850 he was elected to the first council, and on 9 November 1852 he became the third mayor; while mayor he served on a committee formed to establish a Geelong chamber of commerce. In 1853 he became a member of the provisional committee of the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Co.; when the new cut was made in the sandbar in Corio Bay he piloted the Mauritius, first ship through the opening.

In 1852 Cowie became a justice of the peace for Geelong and in 1875 for the central bailiwick, where he was chairman of the bench at Emerald Hill (South Melbourne). Later he was a member of the bench at Fitzroy. His parliamentary career began in August 1853 when he was elected for Geelong to the Legislative Council. Next year he resigned and visited Britain; on the return voyage he was shipwrecked in the Schomberg off Cape Otway in December 1855. In 1856 he was elected to the new council as member for the South-Western Province. In 1857 he published A Bill for Regulating the Construction of Buildings & Party Walls, and for the Prevention of Mischiefs in the Town of Geelong. In 1858 he failed to gain re-election when opposed to George Coppin, but in 1859 he was again in parliament, this time representing Geelong East in the Legislative Assembly until 1860. Not very active in debate, Cowie opposed state aid to religion but favoured land reform, protection, secret ballot, the establishment of a state bank and mint, the National school system, and, even in those early days, was an advocate of Federation. He died at Glenmore, St George's Road, Elsternwick, on 14 November 1892, and was buried in the Eastern cemetery at Geelong beside his wife and five of his seven children.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia. Victorian series, 2nd ed (Melb, 1882)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • W. R. Brownhill, The History of Geelong and Corio Bay (Melb, 1955)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vol 5 (Lond, 1963)
  • P. L. Brown, ‘A note on Merchiston Hall’, Investigator (Geelong), vol 2, no 2, 1967
  • Geelong Advertiser, 10, 17 July, 14 Aug 1841, 6, 9, 10, 18, 24 June, 11 Oct 1853, 29 Dec 1855, 25, 27 Aug 1859, 17 Jan 1871, 16 Nov 1892
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15, 16 Nov 1892.

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Citation details

Ian Wynd, 'Cowie, James (1809–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 January, 1809
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland


14 November, 1892 (aged 83)
Elsternwick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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