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Edward Dowling (1843–1912)

by W. G. McMinn

This article was published:

Edward Dowling (1843-1912), by unknown photographer

Edward Dowling (1843-1912), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 16186

Edward Dowling (1843-1912), public servant and Federationist, was born on 16 June 1843 in Sydney, son of Edward Dowling, painter, and his wife Jane, née Ruttle. After elementary education, in 1853 he entered the office of a Sydney merchant, transferring on 4 August 1856 to the Government Printing Office where he worked as office boy and compositor. From November 1872 he was reviser and from March 1882 accountant, compiling several statistical and descriptive publications.

Dowling was an early advocate of education for working-men: in 1861 he became honorary secretary of Sydney's first 'mutual improvement' group, which was associated with the Pitt Street Congregational Church. A vice-president of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1869-83, he was mainly responsible for starting science classes there. In 1873 he moved for the establishment of a working-men's college and was chairman of its committee until 1883. He impressed the delegates with a paper on technical education at the first Inter-Colonial Trades' Union Congress, Sydney, in 1879. When the Board of Technical Education was set up in 1883 he became its full-time secretary and did most of the executive work involved in establishing the Sydney Technical College and its early branches. In 1887 Dowling's health broke down. While convalescing he visited England to inspect technical colleges; on his return he recommended starting day-time courses. He also tried to persuade the government to establish a technical university. When in 1889 the board was abolished and technical education made the direct responsibility of a cabinet minister, Dowling was allowed to retire from the public service on grounds of ill health.

At the time of his retirement Dowling was secretary of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Natives' Association; he now became a leader in its campaign for the Federation of the colonies. In January 1890 as a New South Wales delegate he attended the association's conference in Melbourne, and was then sent to North America to inquire into the working of federal institutions in the United States of America and Canada. He published Australia and America in 1892: A Contrast (1893) and in 1896 a pamphlet, Federation.

When (Sir) Edmund Barton launched the Central Federation League in Sydney in June 1893 Dowling became joint secretary-treasurer with A. P. Canaway. After Canaway's resignation over policy differences in 1897 he became sole honorary secretary, and was secretary of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales until it was dissolved in 1909. Despite his indifferent health he seldom missed a meeting and was an energetic and competent executive officer. In 1899 he was largely responsible for the financial management of the United Federal Executive, organized by Barton to mount a massive campaign for 'yes' in the referendum in New South Wales. The rules of the Australasian Federation League provided that it defend 'the Federal Union of Australia' after its attainment: Dowling took a particular interest in resisting attempts to have the Federal capital provisions of the Constitution abrogated.

From 1910 Dowling's principal interests were his membership of the Aborigines Protection Board and his occasional sittings on the Burwood bench of magistrates. He was, in the best sense of the term, a self-made man, one who by practising his belief in the virtues of self-help and study raised himself into the ranks of the middle classes without losing contact with his working-class origins. As the kind of man who makes a vocation of working for good causes, he was a lifelong supporter of such bodies as the Young Men's Christian Association and the Bands of Hope. He was a teetotaller. He helped to establish several Congregational churches and the (Royal) Australian Historical Society. In none of the bodies for which he worked was he the most prominent leader: in all of them he was a hard-working, unobtrusive executive.

Dowling died of heart disease at his Mosman home on 16 October 1912 and was buried in the Methodist section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife Hannah, née Luton, a mantlemaker, whom he had married in Sydney with Congregational forms on 25 January 1868, and by two sons and three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Oct 1912
  • Australasian Federation League, Commonwealth, Oct 1894
  • Australasian Federation League (Dowling) papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

W. G. McMinn, 'Dowling, Edward (1843–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 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

Edward Dowling (1843-1912), by unknown photographer

Edward Dowling (1843-1912), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 16186

Life Summary [details]


16 June, 1843
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


16 October, 1912 (aged 69)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.