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Major Francis Downes (1834–1923)

by Warren Perry

This article was published:

Major Francis Downes (1834-1923), by unknown photographer, 1890

Major Francis Downes (1834-1923), by unknown photographer, 1890

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 10226

Major Francis Downes (1834-1923), army officer, was born on 10 February 1834 at Dedham, Essex, England, the younger son of William Downes and his wife Ann, née Davey. He was educated at the Dedham Grammar School and entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in February 1848. He was appointed to the Royal Artillery as a second lieutenant in December 1852 and became lieutenant in February 1854 while on duty in Canada. He served in the Crimean war in 1854-56, became a captain in November 1859 and major in July 1872 when he was an instructor at the School of Gunnery in England. In 1877 he returned to regimental duties as a battery commander but soon accepted appointment as commandant of the military forces of South Australia for five years. In October Downes was promoted lieutenant-colonel and arrived in Adelaide. He set about his duties with energy and efficiency, and soon achieved some success in executing the government's military policy. In 1879 he offered to take 300 South Australian militia to serve in the Zulu war.

In February 1881 the New South Wales government appointed Downes a member of a royal commission to report on all aspects of the organization and administration of its military forces. In that year he became a local and temporary colonel in the British Army and a year later was placed on half-pay. Later he elected to be placed on the retired list because he believed that if he resumed duty in the British Army his prospects of promotion would be poor; he also wished to accept the South Australian government's invitation to stay longer because, he said, 'I was much interested in my work and felt there was much more to be done before a new hand took the wheel'. He was placed on the retired list of the British Army in October 1884 with the honorary rank of major-general. He resigned his command in South Australia in March 1885 and in April became the first permanent head of the Victorian Department of Defence. Although he had intended to live in New Zealand, he was persuaded by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Sargood to accept this civil appointment. In May he was appointed C.M.G. However, Downes was not happy as a civil servant because he was not accustomed to the continuous stream of paper work: 'it did not suit my out-of-doors nature'. To the regret of the Gillies ministry he resigned in March 1888. He returned to South Australia where in April he was reappointed commandant. The success of his earlier command enabled him to win the support of the government and the public. He made local arrangements for General (Sir) James Edwards's inspection of the colony's military forces in August 1889 and in 1890-91 served on an intercolonial committee of military commandants who inspected areas suitable for fixed defences at King George Sound, in Tasmania, at Thursday Island and Port Darwin and submitted its reports to the Australian governments through the Victorian minister for defence.

Downes had a riding accident on duty in November 1891 and resigned his command on 23 March 1893. With his family he left Adelaide for Victoria where he lived in Geelong and later in Brighton. Soon after the outbreak of the South African war in October 1899 he was invited by the premier Sir George Turner to succeed Major-General Sir Charles Holled Smith as military commandant in Victoria. Downes's appointment in November was temporary pending federation of the Australian colonies, but he organized and equipped five contingents for active service in South Africa. On 1 March 1901 the ministerial control of the six State military forces passed to the new Federal government. On 29 January 1902 Major-General Sir Edward Hutton, the first commander of the federal military forces, arrived in Melbourne and assumed command. In March 1902 Downes relinquished his Victorian command and was placed on the retired list of the Australian Military Forces with the rank of major-general. This time he had put away his sword for ever. He continued to live in Melbourne in retirement, devoting much time to charitable work, until he died on 15 October 1923 at his daughter's home in Middle Brighton. He was buried with military honours in the Church of England portion of the Brighton cemetery. His wife Helen Maria, née Chamberlain, whom he had married at Catton, Norwich, on 9 June 1858, had died on 21 January 1903 aged 62. They had one daughter and four sons, of whom Rupert (1885-1945) became major-general and director-general of medical services of the Australian Military Forces.

Because of his integrity, professional competence and moderation in the exercise of powers Downes was a good example to the officers and men he commanded and a valued and trusted servant of the Australian governments he served. His official life was not free of conflicts and disappointments, but despite his toughening and tempering in the furnace of experience he remained a kindly and charitable man.

Select Bibliography

  • Government Gazette (South Australia), 1877-85, 1888-93
  • Government Gazette (Victoria), 1885-88, 1899-1901
  • Government Gazette (Commonwealth), 1901-02
  • correspondence … on employment of Major-General M. F. Downes, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1890 (129)
  • W. Perry, ‘Major General M. F. Downes: A Biographical Sketch of a Colonial Commandant’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 41, nos 3-4, Aug-Nov 1970, pp 424-70
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1877-1902, 16 Oct 1923
  • autobiographical notes (copy, State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Warren Perry, 'Downes, Major Francis (1834–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 17 July 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

Major Francis Downes (1834-1923), by unknown photographer, 1890

Major Francis Downes (1834-1923), by unknown photographer, 1890

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 10226

Life Summary [details]


10 February, 1834
Dedham, Essex, England


15 October, 1923 (aged 89)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

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