Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Cowlishaw (1834–1929)

by Sally O'Neill and Nan Phillips

This article was published:

James Cowlishaw (1834-1929), architect, newspaper proprietor, director and politician, was born on 19 December 1834 at Sydney, the eldest son of Thomas Cowlishaw, architect, and his wife Maria, née Evans. Educated at St James's Grammar School, Sydney, he was apprenticed to a chemist but soon left to become the clerk of a Sydney auctioneer, whose offer of a partnership he declined. He worked in a scheme to supply Sydney with water, prospected at the Turon goldfields, joined the Treasurer's Department in Melbourne and then returned to Sydney to study architecture under Edmund Blacket.

About 1860 Cowlishaw went to Brisbane where he soon found lucrative outlets for his profession and became involved in the management of several businesses. He designed a few private homes but was mostly concerned with building the Commercial Bank of Sydney in Queen Street, Brisbane, the warehouse for Alexander Stewart & Sons, the Boys' Grammar School and other large edifices. He acquired a large interest in the Queensland Trustees Ltd, and was a founder of the Brisbane Gas Co. in 1864, its first auditor in 1869-73 and then a director, retiring temporarily in September 1875 to design and superintend the building of the company's new premises. In succession to Lewis Bernays he was chairman from March 1879 to 1920. When strikes in 1912 threatened Brisbane's gas supply Cowlishaw led several deputations to the premier and his policy helped to avert immediate trouble.

Cowlishaw was a director of the Brisbane Courier until Gresley Lukin and others bought it in 1873. He became managing director of the Brisbane Telegraph in 1878 and chairman of the Telegraph Newspaper Co. from December 1879 to May 1885. His brother George was managing director from 1893 to 1913. James was vice-chairman from November 1917 to August 1920.

Cowlishaw was probably best known as a member of the Legislative Council where he was a nominee in 1878-1922. Although rarely heard in debates he paid great attention to the drafting of bills and generally reserved his remarks for the committee stage. In the 1920s he was described as 'the last of the old Conservative Party'; he was implacably hostile to Federation, the Labor Party and 'anything that savoured of socialism'.

A firm Methodist, he was a practical supporter of his local church for many years. He gave unobtrusively to charity and was a member of the Advisory Committee of the Hospital for Sick Children, of which his wife was president for many years. He was a justice of the peace and sat on the bench of the Brisbane Police Court. He also helped to start Brisbane's first cricket club. In his last years he lived at his home, Montpellier, Bowen Hills, Brisbane, which he had completed to his own design in the 1860s. He died there on 25 July 1929 of heart failure, survived by three daughters and three sons. His wife Charlotte, née Owen, whom he had married at West Maitland about 1860, predeceased him. He was buried in the Toowong cemetery and left an estate worth £161,563.

A patriarchal figure, 'erect, stately and full bearded', Cowlishaw was modest and quiet. His work was characterized by method, thoroughness and determination to leave nothing to chance.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of Queensland, vol 2 (Syd, 1888)
  • C. Lack, ‘A Century of Brisbane Journalism’, Journal (Historical Society of Queensland) vol 4, no 4, Dec 1951, pp 471-93
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 25 July 1929
  • Brisbane Courier, 26 July 1929
  • Queenslander, 1 Aug 1929, 27 Feb 1930
  • manuscript catalogue under Cowlishaw (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Sally O'Neill and Nan Phillips, 'Cowlishaw, James (1834–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 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]


19 December, 1834
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


25 July, 1929 (aged 94)
Bowen Hills, Brisbane, Queensland, 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.