Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Dowse (1809–1885)

by S. G. Gunthorpe

This article was published:

Thomas Dowse (1809-1885), merchant and town clerk, was born at Hackney, London, son of William Dowse and his wife Catherine, née Barron. An errand boy at 15, he was accused of theft, tried at Middlesex on 16 September 1824, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was sent to New South Wales in the Florentia which arrived in January 1828. At St John's, Parramatta, in 19 November 1832 he married Ann Kelly; of their seven children, Thomas George and William survived infancy.

In 1836 Dowse was granted a ticket-of-leave and a conditional pardon in 1839. Though not a prominent colonist, he had much knowledge of Sydney's commerce and shipping. When the Moreton Bay District was opened for free settlement he decided to go there to see what opportunity awaited 'a man with a wife and young family to push his fortunes'. He had no capital, but he was in good health and not afraid of hard work.

On 9 July 1842 in the Falcon he landed at night; cold, hungry and weary he thought Brisbane 'the abode of damn'd Spirits, so unmistakably miserable did all the surroundings appear', but he soon found friends from Sydney who made him welcome. Noticing the need of a ferry across the river, he bought a skiff which by 1843 had earned three times its value. By 1846 he was established as an auctioneer and commission agent, and also had the agency for the Sydney Morning Herald. At his premises in Queen Street he sold almost anything from shirts, frock coats, cutlery, looking-glasses and books to livestock. His auction mart also became a centre for discussion of social reform, for perhaps no one then had a greater horror of the degrading convict system or worked harder to end it.

In 1849 Dowse bought land near the Old Queen's Wharf, North Quay, but the sub-collector of customs, W. A. Duncan, did not recommend it as a sufferance wharf as he had hoped. On behalf of his friends Coley, Harris and others who were also adversely affected, Dowse pursued the question officially in 1850 but Duncan's decision was maintained. Control by distant officials added to the agitation for separation of Moreton Bay from New South Wales, and Dowse played a leading part in the movement which raised great hostility between the squatters who controlled politics, and the free settlers in Brisbane. On 8 January 1851 two simultaneous meetings were held, one by the squatters to advocate separation and exiles, and another at Dowse's auction mart for 'petitioning the Queen to grant separation and to protest against the introduction of exiles'. Dowse's meeting was the larger and included many of Dr John Dunmore Lang's immigrants. Eventually, through the combined efforts of Lang, James Swan, Dowse and others, separation was granted in 1859.

An incident at what is now Shorncliffe nearly cost Dowse and his two sons their lives in 1853. While preparing to build a cottage there, the party was attacked by Aboriginals. Dowse received a severe head wound and a son was speared in the leg but they managed to escape. A widower at 47, in Brisbane in 1856 he married Sarah Ann Fairfax; they had three sons and two daughters. Because of his work for separation and contributions to the press under the pseudonym of Old Tom, he was appointed with Walter Hill, director of the Botanic Gardens, to arrange the Queensland exhibit at the London Exhibition in 1862. In this task they were successful and received a public testimonial in 1864. When the first town clerk of Brisbane, W. M. Boyce, retired, Dowse was elected in January 1862. Although his friend, T. P. Pugh, was in parliament frequent disagreements between the government and Brisbane City Council delayed important public works. Dowse retired from office in 1869 but continued in business until he died aged 75 at his home, Hillside, Milton, on 9 November 1885.

Select Bibliography

  • Custom's Dept, Moreton Bay correspondence, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1851, vol 2
  • Moreton Bay Courier, 17 May 1864, 24, 31 July 1869
  • Queenslander, 7 Aug 1909
  • Recollections of Old Times, New South Wales and Queensland, 1827-78 (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

S. G. Gunthorpe, 'Dowse, Thomas (1809–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 14 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

Thomas Dowse, 1868

Thomas Dowse, 1868

Brisbane City Council Library, 19895

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


9 November, 1885 (aged ~ 76)
Milton, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: life