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James Henderson Howe (1839–1920)

by Rob Van Den Hoorn

This article was published:

James Henderson Howe (1839-1920), by unknown photographer

James Henderson Howe (1839-1920), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-18

James Henderson Howe (1839-1920), farmer and politician, was born on 4 March 1839 at Forfar, Angus, Scotland, son of James H. Howe and his wife Elizabeth, née Inverwick. He was educated at Mr Burns's School, Forfar, and at 13 apprenticed to a merchant. He was a good horseman. At 17 he migrated to South Australia and, joining the mounted police, was stationed at numerous country centres; his colleagues included (Sir) Jenkin Coles and Adam Lindsay Gordon.

On 2 June 1864 at Angaston he married Harriette Keynes. About the same time he settled at Gawler where he became a publican and member of the Gawler Municipal Council, and worked to promote the eight-hour day system. In 1876 Howe joined an extensive move into the mid-northern grain and sheep lands, and opened up a property, Mambray Park in the Baroota district, where he bred Clydesdale horses. He helped to form the Farmers' Mutual Association, ostensibly a non-political body, but one which quickly began to sponsor its own parliamentary candidates. In 1881 he successfully stood as F.M.A. candidate for Stanley in the House of Assembly. With his practical knowledge of country business, farming and grazing, he was an effective representative of farming interests. In 1884, when his electoral district was divided, he won the northern seat of Gladstone, retaining it until 1896 when he was defeated by a Labor man.

Howe was a member of the 1883-84 royal commission on railways and was a cabinet minister four times: as commissioner of crown lands and immigration (1885-87) under Downer, of public works (1889-90) under Cockburn, of crown lands and immigration (May-July 1890) under Cockburn again, and of crown lands (1892-93) under Downer again. A capable administrator with a genial disposition, he quickly won repute for hard work and reliability. He was conservative on most matters, but had a genuine concern for the plight of the poor. In industrial relations he stressed the role of education in bridging the gap between labour and capital.

The part Howe played as a delegate to the 1897-98 Australasian Federal Convention ensured his inclusion among the fathers of the Australian Constitution. The 1891 convention had not included old age and invalid pensions in the Federal powers, and Howe twice raised the issue at the 1898 session in Melbourne. He based his uncharacteristically eloquent case on the humanism of Charles Booth, Joseph Chamberlain and John Morley and the experiences of the Bismarckian Empire. Although Australians on the whole, he argued, were a thrifty people, many had seen their life-savings disappear during the recent depression and consequently faced pauperism in old age. His persuasive argument that because Australia's population was migratory the matter could not properly be left to the individual States helped to reverse a negative vote and bring about a sweeping victory.

Howe was elected to the Legislative Council in 1897 and retired as 'father of the house' in 1918. A tall and heavy man, he enjoyed robust health until his death at St Peters on 5 February 1920. Predeceased by his wife, he was survived by two sons and four daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Federal Convention … Melbourne … 1898, Official Record of the Debates (Melb, 1898)
  • E. H. Coombe (ed), History of Gawler 1837 to 1908 (Adel, 1910)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, H. Brookes ed (Melb, 1944)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Melb, 1972)
  • R. Norris, The Emergent Commonwealth (Melb, 1975)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 14 Feb 1920, 27 July 1889
  • Australian Worker, 27 Feb 1920
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 Feb 1920.

Citation details

Rob Van Den Hoorn, 'Howe, James Henderson (1839–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Henderson Howe (1839-1920), by unknown photographer

James Henderson Howe (1839-1920), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-18

Life Summary [details]


4 March, 1839
Forfar, Forfarshire, Scotland


5 February, 1920 (aged 80)
St Peters, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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