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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Owens, John Downes (1809–1866)

by Allan Johnston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

John Downes Owens (1809-1866), by unknown engraver

John Downes Owens (1809-1866), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IMP24/12/66/385

John Downes Owens (1809-1866), medical practitioner and goldfields leader, was born in Shropshire, England, son of John Owens, surgeon, and his wife Martha, née Downes. He studied medicine and claimed membership in the Royal College of Surgeons in 1839 and a doctorate of medicine in 1840. In 1850 he sailed as surgeon in an immigrant ship for Sydney and Adelaide and after a short stay went to South America and then to California where he visited the goldfields. He returned to Sydney in the Queen of Sheba on 1 January 1852 and went to Melbourne and then Bendigo where as one of the first doctors he had a lucrative practice. In 1853 he practised in the Ovens District for a few months and, indignant over the shooting of a miner by a policeman, began to involve himself in miners' issues. The miners rallied round him and elected him their representative at the inquiry but it was never held.

At Melbourne in 1853 Owens presided at a meeting of the Colonial Reform Association on the land question and joined the deputation to La Trobe asking that squatters be given no privileges detrimental to the interests of the community. In Bendigo, where he again took up practice, he was a leader in the agitation for a reduction in the miners' licence fee, arguing that it be completely abolished. He was a spokesman for the miners in an interview with La Trobe from which he returned to Bendigo with government messages of conciliation. In January 1854 when the Bendigo miners were seeking representation in the legislature Owens and James Egan Wall were their delegates to the Legislative Council, where they asked to be heard on the new constitution bill.

In May Owens moved to Brighton where he bought land but a depression in values soon caused him financial loss and he went to Mount Blackwood where he had a successful practice. He contributed to the Age until December when he announced his plan to publish his own weekly journal. In December 1855 Hotham was at last persuaded to nominate him to the Legislative Council to represent the diggers. In March 1856 he retired from the council and patented a gold-washing machine which was found too uneconomical to run.

Owens was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the Loddon District from November 1856 to August 1859 and in August 1861 won a seat for Mandurang, holding it until he resigned in 1863, 'too consistent and high minded' to succeed in politics. He served on eight select committees, including that in 1858 on the Lunatic Asylum at Yarra Bend in which he was greatly interested. In that year during debates on the medical practitioners bill he asked many questions and moved that unqualified medical practitioners who had been practising since 1849 should be allowed to continue to do so. He was appointed acting health officer at Queenscliff in 1864, briefly resident surgeon at Pentridge gaol in 1865 and next year secretary of the royal commission on the Wine and Spirits Statute.

Owens died at Windsor on 26 November 1866 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. His cousins E. and W. Anderson were chief mourners. Described by his obituarists as 'a persevering advocate of popular rights' and 'too honest for his material advancement' they claimed that he was not sufficiently recognized for his services to the colony.

A painting by Theodore K. King, showing Owens returning thanks on his first election, is in the Bendigo Art Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Victoria Government Gazette, 14 Feb 1865
  • Australian Medical Journal, Dec 1866
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Jan 1852
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 May, 8, 20, 28 Dec 1854, 27 Nov 1866
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 Dec 1854
  • Illustrated Melbourne Post, 24 Dec 1866
  • Illustrated Australian News, 27 Dec 1866
  • G. R. Quaife, The Nature of Political Conflict in Victoria 1856-57 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964).

Citation details

Allan Johnston, 'Owens, John Downes (1809–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 27 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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