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Sir James Bevan Edwards (1834–1922)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

Sir James Bevan Edwards (1834-1922), soldier, was born on 5 November 1834 in England, son of Samuel Price Edwards of Donegal. He was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and was commissioned in the Royal Engineers in December 1852. He served with distinction in the Crimea, in the Indian mutiny and with General Gordon's 'Ever-Victorious Army' in China. In 1885 he commanded the Royal Engineers in the Suakin operations and then became commandant of the School of Military Engineering at Chatham. Promoted major-general in 1888, he went next year to Hong Kong as commander of British troops in China.

Following a recommendation of the Colonial Conference of 1887 Edwards was chosen by the British government to inspect the forces of the Australian colonies and to advise on their organization. He arrived at Brisbane in July 1889, inspected fortifications and troops in each colony and reported to the colonial governments in October. In recommendations published in the leading newspapers, he showed that the colonial forces lacked not only cohesion but the organization, training and equipment to fit them for defence of the continent. On questions common to the whole of Australia he proposed an organization which would enable the colonies to combine for mutual defence; he recommended uniform organization and armament, a common Defence Act, a military college to train officers and a uniform gauge for railways. Above all he emphasized the crucial importance of his first and main proposal. 'Looking to the state of affairs in Europe, and to the fact that it is the unforeseen which happens in war, the defence forces should at once be placed on a proper footing; but this is, however, quite impossible without a federation of the forces of the different colonies'.

Radicals accused Edwards of being 'a political tout' obsessed with the invasion of Australia, but the timing of his practical plans enabled Sir Henry Parkes to take the strong initiative which led to the National Australasian Convention of 1891 'empowered to consider and report upon an adequate scheme for a Federal Constitution'. Six months before Edwards arrived Parkes had talked Federation with Alfred Deakin in Melbourne and in July 1889 had an abortive exchange of letters with the Victorian premier on the same theme. Edwards later claimed, in an address to the Royal Colonial Institute on 10 March 1891, that Parkes 'saw at once that combined action for purposes of defence was impossible without a Federal Government to direct and control it. He therefore became the champion of the great question of Colonial Federation'.

After leaving Australia Edwards carried out a similar mission in New Zealand and returned to Hong Kong. He resigned his command in 1890 and retired in 1893. As a Conservative he represented Hythe in the House of Commons in 1895-99. An ardent advocate of imperial federation he was elected a fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute, joined its council in 1893 and served as chairman in 1909-15. He had been promoted lieutenant-general in 1891 and became colonel-commandant of the Royal Engineers in 1903. He was described as a far-sighted and progressive officer, fearless in his acceptance of responsibility. Known for his kindly and cheerful nature, he had a great capacity for work and for getting others to work loyally with him. His appointment as C.B. in 1877 was followed by a K.C.M.G. in 1891 and K.C.B. in 1912. He died in London on 8 July 1922.

Edwards was married first in 1868 to Alice (d.1899), daughter of Ralph Brocklebank; second, in 1901 to Nina (d.1916), daughter of John Balfour and widow of Sir R. Dalrymple-Horn-Elphinstone; and third, in 1918 to Amy Ann Courtnay, daughter of J. N. Harding.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • B. R. Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900 (Lond, 1913)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin, vol 1 (Melb, 1965)
  • E. Salmon, ‘Lieutenant-General Sir J. Bevan Edwards’, United Empire, vol 13, no 8, Aug 1922, pp 508-11
  • F.E.G.S., ‘Lieut.-General Sir James Bevan Edwards’, Royal Engineers Journal, 37 (1923)
  • Age (Melbourne), 15, 23, 24, 26 Oct 1889
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15, 17, 24, 25 Oct 1889
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 Oct 1889
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24, 29 Oct 1889.

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Edwards, Sir James Bevan (1834–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 25 April 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

Life Summary [details]


5 November, 1834


8 July, 1922 (aged 87)
London, Middlesex, England

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