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Sir Alfred Sandlings Cowley (1848–1926)

by Kay Saunders

This article was published:

Alfred Cowley, n.d.

Alfred Cowley, n.d.

State Library of Queensland

Sir Alfred Sandlings Cowley (1848-1926), sugar-planter, politician and company director, was born on 24 April 1848 at Fairford, Gloucester, England, son of Isaac Cowley, stonemason and Baptist preacher, and his wife Charlotte, née Coppin. His father went as a lay missionary to Natal where Alfred was apprenticed, specializing in the installation of sugar machinery. He became a sugar and coffee planter. After migrating to New South Wales in 1871 he managed a sugar mill on the Macleay River, then worked on a plantation near Maryborough, Queensland. In 1875 he started a small sugar farm on the Herbert River, but his capital was inadequate for a newly settled district, and when the venture failed he visited Natal. He married Marie Campbell at Pietermaritzburg on 24 July 1880; they had three sons and two daughters. She was the aunt of the South African poet Roy Campbell and his sister Ethel, who was called 'the angel of Durban' by Australian soldiers in World War I.

Returning to Queensland, in 1881 Cowley became manager of a plantation at Ingham owned by the Hamleigh Sugar Co. Ltd of Melbourne, which also owned Macknade on the Herbert River. In 1888 he was appointed as a royal commissioner to investigate the depression in the sugar industry. He and Henry King both recommended the continued employment of black labour but William Groom, in a minority report, advocated the abolition of non-European labour and criticized the experimental central mill system.

On 12 May 1888 Cowley was elected member for Herbert. An ardent separationist who quoted statistics prolifically, he supported Sir Thomas McIlwraith and, despite his parliamentary inexperience, became secretary for public lands and secretary for agriculture in 1890-93. As Speaker from May 1893 until 15 February 1899 he was considered tactless. Sir Robert Philp, whom he had once supported, complained that 'he spoke to me as I would not speak to a dog'. Appointed a commissioner to inquire into the liquor industry in 1900, he stood unsuccessfully for the Senate next year. His acceptance of the Speakership again from September 1903 to April 1907, which facilitated creation of the Morgan-Kidston combination, was a piece of opportunism fuelled by a grudge. He was knighted in 1904. Defeated for Herbert in 1907 by William Lennon, Cowley failed to win Burrum in 1908, and retired from politics. During World War I he was an ardent recruiter and conscriptionist. He was chairman of the Queensland Patriotic Fund.

Cowley was the last chairman of the Bank of Queensland, chaired the local boards of the National Bank of Australia and the Australian Mutual Provident Society and was a trustee of the Royal National Association. In 1920 he accompanied Philp and J. A. Walsh to London in a successful attempt to thwart E. G. Theodore's loan-raising plans. He died on 1 December 1926 at his Brisbane home and was buried after a Presbyterian service in Toowong cemetery. His estate, valued for probate at £8047, was left to his widow.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • Brisbane Courier, 11 Aug 1890, 18, 19 Sept 1903
  • 2 Dec 1926
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 2 Dec 1926.

Citation details

Kay Saunders, 'Cowley, Sir Alfred Sandlings (1848–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 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

Alfred Cowley, n.d.

Alfred Cowley, n.d.

State Library of Queensland

Life Summary [details]


24 April, 1848
Fairford, Gloucestershire, England


1 December, 1926 (aged 78)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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