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James Sheen Dowling (1819–1902)

by A. R. Dowling

This article was published:

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James Dowling, by Freeman & Co, n.d.

James Dowling, by Freeman & Co, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 23604983

James Sheen Dowling (1819-1902), judge, was born on 2 December 1819 in London, the younger son of Sir James Dowling and his wife Maria, née Sheen. He arrived with his parents in the Hooghly in February 1828 at Sydney where his father took up an appointment as puisne judge of the Supreme Court. He was educated under John Dunmore Lang, Joseph Docker and William Cape and transferred to the Sydney College when it opened in 1835. Cape formed a high opinion of his abilities and it was decided that he should study law in England. He became seriously ill in 1836 and was advised to take a long sea voyage to restore his health. Francis Forbes was then leaving for England and Dowling accompanied him. He arrived in London later that year and entered King's College (LL.B., 1841). He was admitted to the Middle Temple and called to the Bar in November 1843. He practised at the English Bar, gaining experience in pleading and conveyancing, and reported for his uncle Alfred Septimus Dowling for the weekly Legal Observer and Solicitor's Journal.

Dowling's projected return to New South Wales was hastened by news of his father's death. He took passage, again in the Hooghly, and arrived at Sydney in September 1845. Next month he was admitted to the colonial Bar, and immediately went into practice. He must have established a good reputation, for a year later he was appointed attorney-general for the proposed new colony, 'North Australia'. But the promotion was short lived; after three months at Port Curtis the project was abandoned. Sorely disappointed, as he had entertained hopes of further promotion there, he resumed his Sydney practice. In 1851 he was appointed police magistrate of Sydney and performed his duties creditably, particularly during the golden years. He was appointed crown prosecutor for the colony in 1857 but next year the office was abolished by the District Courts Act. Dowling was the junior of the first three judges to be appointed under this Act at a salary of £1000. He took the western district based at Bathurst, where he went to live in 1859. He returned to Sydney in 1861 after his appointment, at the same time as Alfred Cheeke, as a judge of the metropolitan and coast districts, and chairman of Quarter Sessions in the Cumberland and coast districts. He became the senior District Court judge in 1865 on Cheeke's elevation to the Supreme Court bench.

Towards the end of 1888 Dowling's health began to fail and in February 1889 he resigned. He was persuaded, however, to remain and take leave to recover. He visited England, but on his return realized that he could not continue; his resignation in July was accepted and he received a pension of £750. Thereafter he lived quietly in Sydney where he recorded his reminiscences, now in the Mitchell Library. Apart from his own experiences, the volume includes descriptions of Sydney in his schooldays and sketches of contemporary legal figures. Though he claimed no literary merit for the work, it is a fund of information and a worthy contribution to the written history of New South Wales. Mild and kindly, his public activities were largely confined to his profession. Throughout his thirty years on the District Court bench, he dispensed justice with good sense and compassion, and his decisions were seldom, if ever, reversed. He was a noted wit and his court was reputed the most popular in the colony. Though he acted many times as a Supreme Court judge, he was interested neither in politics nor in accepting a 'political judgeship', and it was probably for this reason that he was never promoted to the superior court.

In 1849 at Sydney Dowling married Katherine Marion, third daughter of James Laidley; she predeceased him. He died at his home, Brougham, Woollahra, on 4 May 1902, survived by five sons and two daughters. The eldest son, James Arthur, was a solicitor and for twelve years president of the Board of Trustees, Public Library of New South Wales.

A portrait by Tom Roberts is held by his family.

Select Bibliography

  • ‘Men of Eminence in New South Wales. His Honor Judge Dowling’, Sydney Quarterly Magazine, Sept 1886, pp 511-17
  • Dowling papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

A. R. Dowling, 'Dowling, James Sheen (1819–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Dowling, by Freeman & Co, n.d.

James Dowling, by Freeman & Co, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 23604983

Life Summary [details]


2 December, 1819
London, Middlesex, England


4 May, 1902 (aged 82)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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